"The Foolishness of the Message"

January 14, 1996 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

"For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Cor. 1:18)

Jeff was my college roommate. He was also the best man at my wedding, a role I played at his. We followed some similar paths in life: both entering the ministry; both serving in a church before going on for more schooling; both then entering the same Seminary.

Jeff struggled a great deal with his call - before, during, and after Seminary. Like many of my friends in ministry, he no longer pastors a church. Instead, he went on for further training and is now a counselor outside the church. I believe he's found his calling, where his best gifts are used.

Anyway, I can still vividly remember his senior sermon at Seminary. Every student was invited to preach at a chapel service during their final year of study. It was a "rite of passage" for many of us, standing before our peers and professors and proclaiming the gospel. For me, it was one of the most stressful sermons I ever prepared to preach. It definitely was for my friend Jeff.

In an act that was as puzzling as it was understandable, Jeff illustrated the foolishness of the cross in a most dramatic way. I don't think he was preaching on this scripture from 1 Corinthians. He may not have been talking about the seeming foolishness of God, but that is what I recall. Apparently, the night before it he had one of those "dark nights of the soul" of which John of the Cross wrote over 400 years ago. The words Jeff had prepared to preach seemed to him very inadequate, a reflection which is a regular experience for anyone who dares to proclaim the gospel. Few of us really feel competant for the task - which is as it should be. It is not our wisdom, our power that is important. Am I right?

During his sermon in chapel on that day, Jeff related his struggle from the night before. Then he took his sermon manuscript, crumpled it up, and went over to the baptismal pool. Dunking that ball of paper in the water, he baptized it. Then he walked to the back of the sanctuary and threw it with great force into the balcony. I can still remember the booming sound of it hitting the wall, followed by an embarrassing silence. To be honest, I can't recall what else he said. Many of us inwardly vowed we would not make such fools of ourselves when it was out turn. It was a rotten sermon. His act was not just gospel, for (in a way) he was throwing his years of education into the balconey with a bit of rage - an emotion all of us who had travelled that long and stressful path well understood.

But, you know, of all the senior sermons I heard during those 3 years, that's the only one I remember. Even now it haunts me. Especially when it's late on Saturday night and my sermon for the next day just is not pulling together. After all, how can one adequately convey the gospel? How often I have crumpled it up and baptized it, though never before a congregation. The booming sound of the wet ball hitting the wall might wake us all up. But, I'm afraid it would be a terribly foolish act. I might even have to start searching for another pastorate the next day.

Speaking of foolish acts, this breaking of bread and drinking from Christ's cup fits into this category - if you look at it in a certain way. The early believers had alot of explaining to do to their neighbors concerning this meal. It wasn't just bread and wine. There was discussion of a broken body and shed blood. Imagine our reaction, today, to certain practices by religious cults who sacrifice animals and drink their blood. Very strange behavior, we say. And yet, that's what nonbelievers said long ago when they heard of this Christian ritual. The rumor mill even questioned whether the followers of this Jesus were not sacrificing infants kidnapped from others. Unfortuanately, as Christianity became more accepted over the centuries, Christians began applying these rumors to the Jews. Anti-semitism, though, is not God's kind of foolishness. Do you agree?

Back to the bread and cup, it is a rather foolish act. I mean, first of all, you can hardly call it a meal as far as the stomach is concerned. If anything, it leaves you hungry for more. And yet we sometimes say it's the "Lord's Supper." Through a child's eyes, that seems a little silly. We call it other strange things, like "Communion," or the "Eucharist." Both are foreign words, one from Latin, the other Greek. The latter literally means "giving thanks," and really is referring to the prayer before this meal which isn't a "supper" in the usual sense of the word. "Communion" is more familiar to us, though it is not as common is our speech as, say, "communication," a derivative from the same Latin root. We all "participate together" in this meal, which is what the word literally means. It indicates we don't passively receive this food from God. In a way we participate in Christ's death as we eat and drink. We are involved. We are not observers, but partakers (another word we seldom use outside this "upper room").

From a particular vantage point, it all does seem terribly foolish. Add to that the fact that Christians differ on the exact meaning of this meal. For some, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. For others, the crucified Christ is right alongside those "elements" (another word we use in relation to this meal that we rarely use in the same way elsewhere). Some Christians find Christ present in the "remembering" as we eat and drink. Still others see the church, as the professed "body of Christ" somehow in this act. While our Brethren tradition emphasizes the last two meanings I mentioned, I would venture to say that all the above may be present in this room, in various minds and hearts.

Communion may be one of the most central acts of the Christian church, whether we call it a sacrament or an ordinance. Even so, when you think about it, it is a foolish act. And yet, of such foolishness is our walk in Christ made. "The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense." (1 Cor. 1:18, Eugene Peterson translation) But the struggle always is: how does one convey this message? Often, only a foolish act will do, like baptism - dunking who we are under God's flood, not to make our efforts that much better, not to justify ourselves, but to participate in God's promise, God's Grace, God's Power, to step out in faith in following Jesus - itself a seeming foolishness.

Think about it. Where's the earthly wisdom in being poor in spirit, in mourning, in meekness, in hungering and thirsting for righteousness, in mercy, in purity of heart, in peacemaking, in persecution. And yet, Jesus said, "Blessed are you when..." It's sheer foolishness, friends. No, correct that, it's God's foolishness. It's the way God works.

Listen to Peterson's translation of 1 Cor. 1:26-31. "Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of 'the brightest and the best' among you, not many influencial, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these 'nobodies' to expose the hollow pretentions of the 'somebodies'? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have - right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start - comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That's why we have the saying, 'If you're going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.'"

I've told the following story before, but let me blow this "trumpet" again for God, because it speaks to me of the way God works. Over 15 years ago, I was a counselor at a camp for mentally handicapped children. One of my kids, Kevin, was autistic - that is, he didn't overtly communicate with anyone. His face was like a blank slate. Nobody could know what was going on inside his head. One night, he left the cabin and didn't return. We figured maybe he got lost on the way back from the bathroom.

The next morning, after a group prayer, we started an organized search. Overhearing another child speak of seeing Kevin go past his window, I continued that path from the bathroom. Through briars, across a stream, and into the woods, I followed that line until I came to a field of boulders. In it's middle was a bush, under which I thought I saw something. There was Kevin, a little scared but unhurt. Though he covered a half-mile of rugged terrain in bare feet and no shirt, there was not a single scratch on him.

Kevin couldn't talk about his experience. Yet as I carried him back to the lodge, I learned from him a little about how God loves and cares for us. You see, in God's eyes, Kevin was not a 'nobody.' In fact, foolish as it sounds, this autistic child blew God's trumpet, louder and clearer than I'd ever heard. How? When it comes down to it, I can't really say. Just like, when it comes down to it, my sermons always seem so inadequate, though somehow somebody hears God speak. Just like, when it comes down to it, as we participate in this foolishness we call "Communion," we are drawn into the presence of Christ. Well, as the apostle Paul put it long ago, and as believers down thru the centuries have agreed in their own ways: "We are fools for the sake of Christ." (1 Cor. 4:10) Is this your song?

1996Peter L. Haynes

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