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The Cross Is Not for Wisdom

St. Paul says the cross is foolishness for unbelievers, but for us believers, the cross is . . . wisdom? No, it's something better.

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Last Sunday, we began a series of epistle readings from 1 Corinthians. These will continue for another four weeks after today, right up until the start of Lent. So hopefully the Apostle’s words will sink in at some point if they don’t today!

Now, 1 Corinthians has some of the best known and most eloquent writing in the New Testament. St. Paul may not have been, by his own testimony, a very good preacher, but his letters have given us some memorable words. Later, we get the famous “love chapter”—1 Corinthians 13—which hopefully hasn’t lost its force from being overused at weddings. We also get in chapter 15 some of Paul’s most profound meditation on Christ’s resurrection and what it means for us.

So that’s where the letter is going. I mention that to say what is clear from most readings of 1 Corinthians: Paul really loves this church community. In chapter 9 Paul calls the Corinthians the “seal” of his “apostleship in the Lord.” And that is why these people seem to provoke some of his most passionate, provocative, and beautiful writing.

Today’s selection begins at verse 10, not far from the beginning. It is really the first substantial part of the letter after the greeting. So even though it is not the high point of the letter, or the main theme, it is the first thing on Paul’s mind, the thing that he thinks needs to be addressed first.

He writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”

It is a subject of some debate as to what exactly the Corinthians were divided about. Obviously, in this passage, Paul suggests that there are different parties—that of Paul, that of Apollos, that of Cephas. Paul then mentions performing baptisms, and so one source of division might have been those who made a big deal about who baptized them. Other scholars think the parties were based on real theological or ethical disagreements between Paul and Apollos—or on imagined disagreements exaggerated by their followers.

Then, as if in summary, Paul gives us this extraordinary verse: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” If we continue just a little past the end of the lectionary selection, the apostle continues, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

History tells us that Corinth was full of philosophers. It’s hard to imagine a place where people discuss metaphysics in the fish market, but I suspect that, if that has ever happened, it happened in Corinth. The Corinthians prized their wisdom, their philosophy. And so Paul gives them this amazing statement: the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.

That is strange enough, and maybe even right. Sure, the Corinthian tells himself—the cross does seem like foolishness to someone who doesn’t understand it. But for those of us who do accept it, what is it? What is the opposite of foolishness? Wisdom, right? The cross is wisdom to those who are being saved, yes?

But no. Paul gives us a surprise: the cross is, to those of us who are being saved, the power of God.

What does it mean for the cross to be the power of God, and why is it that Paul thinks wisdom might empty the cross of its power or its meaning?

Here is where, actually, we can understand something about the divisions among the Corinthians. Philosophers love to divide themselves up into different groups.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in theology and philosophy departments over the years, and it’s amazing how quickly people divide themselves up into different “schools.” You’re a philosopher? Oh, are you analytic or Continental? Are you an Aristotelian or a Platonist? Are you a Thomist or a Scotist? I could go on and on, and you can see the point. The more committed we become to these little groups, the less understandable we become to the rest of the world.

I wonder if part of the issue was that the Corinthians were dividing themselves up like philosophers. Notice that Paul doesn’t say that there was violent disagreement. The followers of Cephas and Apollos weren’t killing one another, I think; they just identified themselves as part of a school that was better than all the others. But here’s the thing that Paul wants to say: the message of the cross, the gospel of the kingdom, the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not just a new philosophical school. It is not a new method of thought, a new political theory, a new set of ethical principles. It is not, in other words, a new wisdom. It is, rather, power.

Well surely, we think, none of that is really our problem. We are not philosophers concerned with minute disagreements. We know what it means to keep the main thing the main thing.

But if you’re anything like me, you have to think a little more deeply.

Back in my Anglican days, we sometimes joked about the “alphabet soup” of Anglican jurisdictions. Even today if I met someone calling himself Anglican, I’d probably want to follow up with a set of questions: are you TEC, ACNA, or some other combination of letters? Are you in communion with Canterbury or with Nigeria, or with both?

Within the full communion of the Catholic Church, the divisions aren’t quite so dramatic. At least on the surface, there is this one huge difference: that all those in communion with Peter are in real communion with one another. I say “on the surface” because it doesn’t take too much probing to discover a kind of territoriality within the Catholic Church, whether that’s the old parish that still resents the existence of the new parish on the other side of town, or the lay leader who sees the choir or the finance council or whatever as his own private fiefdom, or the Roman curial official pushing only those men to the episcopate who satisfy the needs and priorities of his own little group’s agenda.

I had a pretty eye-opening experience of this, right after I became Catholic, when a certain university cut short an interview process simply because the religious order running the place discovered that I was destined to become a priest who was not “one of them.” And being in the ordinariate—where, to be clear, we have our own temptations toward exclusivity and groupthink—I’ve seen the ways that a non-standard parochial entity causes reactions ranging from confusion to suspicion to rage. None of that even touches the current war between “rad trads” and “progressives,” with the poor ordinary folks caught in the middle.

This is the mess that we have gotten ourselves into, and I don’t think there’s any easy way out. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t think church unity is a good idea, something that we ought to pursue. The trouble is that our pursuits at unity tend far too easily into one of two extremes. The first is to simply split apart at the slightest disagreement—I grew up in a Baptist community, so I don’t feel bad calling this the Baptist way. Unity isn’t really an issue because those people whom I disagree with aren’t really part of the church anyway. There are Catholics who act like this, worrying about where, within the visible Church, the true, pure, real Church can be found. The answer seems to vary from day to day and from hour to hour, depending on the latest figure on the internet to say something incorrect.

The second way is to separate unity from truth. That is the way that the mainline Protestant churches have operated for many years. I had a Catholic friend who served for several years on the official dialogue between the Episcopal Church and the U.S. Catholic Church. He told me once about the moment where he saw how different the goals were: one of the Episcopal bishops said, “We care about the that of unity more than the what.” In other words, unity is something that you can just declare, sweeping aside any number of deep disagreements. Unfortunately, this approach remains popular among some Catholics, who piously imagine that we can have unity by not talking about anything important.

Both of those ways are wrong, but they are both tempting because they are easy.

The way of the cross is more difficult, but it is nonetheless clear. It requires that we fix our gaze on Christ, our crucified God, and that we show him to others. And when we do, when we preach Christ crucified, whether in word or deed, the Holy Spirit comes with power.

That is what Paul means in verse 17 of today’s reading: I came not to make converts to a philosophical school; I came to preach Christ, that God might be revealed.

It makes sense, then, that in today’s gospel, the Lord calls fishermen to be apostles. Not men of learning or of great wisdom, but men of action and of commitment to spreading the message. The apostolic preaching centers on Christ: Christ born for us, crucified, resurrected.

As you may know, Pope Francis has appointed today as the “Sunday of the Word of God.” Of course the Bible forms a regular part of our worship every day of the year, but the Holy Father thought it fitting that we mark a particular day to celebrate Holy Scripture as the primary vehicle through which we receive the apostolic preaching. In reading the letter by which he established this day, I’m struck by the Holy Father’s sense that a focus on Scripture leads to deeper unity in the Church. We might easily divide ourselves into different schools of interpretation, but, like the liturgy, Scripture belongs to the whole people of God, not simply specialists:

The Bible cannot be just the heritage of some, much less a collection of books for the benefit of a privileged few. It belongs above all to those called to hear its message and to recognize themselves in its words. At times, there can be a tendency to monopolize the sacred text by restricting it to certain circles or to select groups. It cannot be that way. The Bible is the book of the Lord’s people, who, in listening to it, move from dispersion and division towards unity. The word of God unites believers and makes them one people (Aperuit Illis 5).

The only solution to our divisive tendencies is not first to perfect our philosophy or to make sure we hang out with only the right people. It is to seek Christ first, and to answer his call to bring his salvation to the whole world. At the heart of the Church lies not an abstract principle of unity or a set or propositions, but a person. To be sure, we are all called to the hard work of discipleship, which includes all manner of personal, intellectual, and ecclesial forms of effort. But we are stewards of the mysteries, not stage managers. We need the humility and the confidence to let the word of God work on its own.

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