The Foolishness of the Cross

29 03 2007

It’s April fools day and I thought I’d speak to you this morning about foolishness. We’ve all played the fool from time to time haven’t we? Playing practical jokes on our friends, misleading them, or surprising them in humorous ways. Well, I certainly have.

But there is a stupider side to foolishness isn’t there? An embarrassing side, which I’m sure we have all had our fair share of.

I can remember waiting in the cold for several hours for a young lady I’d agreed to meet unfortunately she’d left before me and wasn’t coming but instead of waiting half an hour and going my own way I waited four hours before finally catching the train home. In hindsight, I guess that was a pretty foolish thing to do. 

But, I know I’m not the only one to act in a foolish way, in Hans Christen Anderson’s fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: A great emperor is fooled into wearing nothing as he is told that only “the worthy and intelligent” are able to see the fine robes he is wearing. Being too embarrassed to admit that he cannot see the clothes himself the emperor parades through the streets until a young boy whispers ‘the emperor’s got no clothes on’.

I’m sure you’ve heard that famous story or perhaps you can think of an equivalent story.

In the Bible foolishness is treated in a number of ways: In the Old Testament the fool is a person who denies the existence of God or who acts without moral restraint. Fools are described as being ignorant of the truth, deceitful liars, slanderers, and lazy. In the New Testament fools are those who fail to heed the warnings, they ignore Jesus words. Hence, the story of the wise and the foolish builders; the foolish builder is compared to the person who ignores Jesus’ teaching.

However, in our verses today Paul writes about the foolishness of preaching the cross and picks out three groups (the Jews, the Greeks, and the Christian community) he argues that the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of great people and that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of great people.

1.      Paul argues that the cross is nothing but weakness to the Jews, for they demanded signs but they saw the messiah hung upon a cross. Our first reading this morning told of Jesus triumphant procession into Jerusalem; expectations must have been high the Jews must have felt that Jesus had come to overthrow their Gentile rulers but their expectations were dashed upon the rocks of reality.

It is interesting to note all the excitement surrounding Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas. In this story, Judas is portrayed as being a faithful follower of Jesus. Speculating about Judas’ motives for betraying Jesus it suggests that Judas is acting upon Jesus command. However, the orthodox interpretation raises a more interesting possibility. Judas betrayed Jesus not simply for thirty pieces of silver but to engineer a showdown between Jesus and the civil authorities.

In Jesus day, people were awaiting the coming of a king who would overthrow the Roman Empire and Judas Iscariot was no different. In fact, Judas was probably a zealot, committed to overthrowing the Roman Empire. Judas’ surname Iscariot may be a form ‘Sicarii’ meaning ‘dagger-man’. However, when Judas realised that his plan had failed and Jesus had been nailed to the cross he was overcome with remorse and the gospels tell us that Judas took his own life.

But, “what does all this stuff about Judas have to do with the weakness of the cross?” you may be asking. Well, if the Jews and Judas expected Jesus to triumph over the Roman Empire the cross must have seemed like an abomination!

Today, there are those for whom the way of cross and self-sacrifice seems awful. For example, there are conservative bible-believing Christians who have been utterly behind the war in Iraq. I suspect that some of these Christians much like the Jews of Jesus’ day would feel more comfortable with a conquering hero than the crucified Lord. And although they would hardly admit it the suffering of the cross is a rebuke to their imperialistic Christianity.

Likewise, there are those who consider Christianity to be a religion of weakness and who reject the gospel on the grounds that Christ’s patience, unconditional love, free grace, and humility are weaknesses in a world that praises the ambitious, socially successful, powerful and admired icons of pop culture.

In all of this, with Paul, I affirm, “the weakness of God is stronger than human strength”.

So we know why the cross was a stumbling block to the Jews, but what about the Greeks? Why does Paul suggest that suggest that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks?

2.      It is easy to see that faced with the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the teaching of illiterate fishermen must have seemed little more than foolishness. Indeed Aristotle, whose statue stands today in the great City of Thessalonica, was the tutor of Alexander the Great. Compared with him, the wisdom of an itinerant teacher from Israel, a vassal state within the Roman Empire, must have seemed ridiculous.

But there is a further problem, whilst Jesus held little esteem when compared to the Greek philosophers, the Old Testament prophecies and scriptures held even less interest for the Greeks. In fact, the entire Jewish faith with its forms of reasoning, ideas, symbols, and witticisms was like a foreign language to the Greeks. Hence, when Paul is speaking in Athens people dismiss him as preaching foreign gods.

It should come as no surprise that it is possible to draw a comparison between the situation that has arisen today and the context the apostle was writing into. We like the Greeks have our contemporary philosophers; people like Richard Dawkins, who chant the mantra “faith is the absence of reason”.  And despite our best efforts to argue: 

a.       with the explorer William Adams that “faith is the continuation of reason”

b.      or with the theologian St Augustine that “faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe” All our attempts fall on deaf ears because to Richard Dawkins these ideas are completely alien to his pattern of thinking.

And so like Paul we also end up affirming that, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom”.

3.      Finally, we come to the message of the apostle to the Christian community in Corinth.

“Brothers and Sisters think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many of you were influential; not many of you were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

In this Paul is reminding us that the God who has chosen to display His infinite wisdom in the form of foolishness and weakness has chosen us and called us in our foolishness and weakness to shame the wise and the strong. Pastor John Piper puts it like this: “the infinitely wise way of salvation in the death of Christ is rooted in an infinitely wise way of choosing sinners before the cross, and an infinitely wise way of calling sinners after the cross.” And why has God done it in this way? So, that “the one who boasts may boast only in the Lord”. In other words, everything that is involved in our salvation: the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ; our calling, response, and sanctification has been brought about so that we might not boast in ourselves but praise our Father in Heaven!

Well, I began this morning by talking about the emperors new clothes and the reception he was given as he was paraded through the streets, today we celebrate another emperor who was paraded through the streets, beaten, abused, taunted, tortured, murdered and the challenge is do you see the wisdom of the cross?

my sermon for Palm Sunday – some changes have been made- this is the more radical version)


In Defense of the Gospel of Peace: an evangelical anti-war view

22 03 2007

‘In Defense of the Gospel of Peace: An Evangelical Anti-War View’  – And it is about time too. We’ve hand the name of conservative evangelicalism dragged through the mud by preachers of hate and violence. We’ve almost sacrificed every shred of credibility we have. All because we conformed to the political norm, we capitulated to an ideology, rather than seeking to remain faithful to Scripture.

Peace March, London

23 02 2007

I was reading the news reports of the protest against gun crime, held yesterday in the Capital, when I came across this quote by twenty-three year old Adrian Harrison:

‘I wanted to be in the presence of believers’

It’s such a powerful phrase, but why does he want to be amongst the faithful, what does it mean for him to be with the believers, and how will faith make a difference on the streets? I don’t have all the answers, but I know that Adrian Harrison isn’t the only one turning to the community of salvation and to God for help.

Heavenly Father,
I do not understand the social pressures or the culture of gang violence faced by those in southeast London, but I know that you understand all things. In the midst of this area be with those caught up in gang warfare, those in gangs, those intimidated by gangs, and those who become victims of these gangs.
In the name of the Prince of Peace,

On Giving One’s Life

28 10 2006

A homily for Remembrance Sunday

In contemporary society, the notion of sacrifice is unpopular to have a cause to live and die for brings to mind fundamentalists, extremists, and terrorists. Our understanding of sacrifice is tainted by these dangerous individuals who seem to have such reckless disregard for life, even their own lives.

So instead of offering up our lives, we seek to preserve them, pickling ourselves with beauty products, visiting the altar-less temples of health spas, and when that fails to save us many undergo the surgeon’s knife. In this world of immortal youth, death is chased from view; confined to high walled cemeteries where the bereaved, those for whom death is no longer an anathema, go to remember. Still for the world outside those places of remembrance, death is the elephant in the room, the final taboo.

Then we have a day like today, a moment in which the rules are suspended; where the sacrifice and death are bought out from behind high walls and paraded through the streets. It is today that we remember the courage of those who gave their lives for our future, and paid the ultimate price for our freedom. And for some of us we look back on a time we cannot remember, a time when people believed in a cause, in black and white, in right and wrong.

Still for us outside these moments of remembrance, causes, and the sacrifices made on behalf of them, are dangerous shadowy rumours whispered in private meetings at the dead of night. Instead, we safe people seek comfort and convenience, far be it from us to sacrifice our security for the cause of another, let alone our lives.

However, it is ironic given our distaste of sacrifice that we end up making the greatest sacrifice of all marginalising the foreigner, oppressing the poor, denying the dispossessed their rights. So, today we remember those who sacrificed their lives for us and we receive God’s challenge to us, inviting us to stake our lives on His altar.

spiritual and political- a moral quandary

4 10 2006

I have a moral quandary- I know these problems don’t get us anywhere but this one is being played out before our eyes. America and Britain invade Iraq, Christians oppose this action, not because we don’t believe that invading Iraq as part of war on terrorism could reduce the threat of terrorism (although it seems clear now that it hasn’t) but because we believe we are called to suffer (and even die) for divine purposes. I can see how the decision not to go to war was obvious but what happens when you have gone to war, do you pull out when your casualties start mounting leaving a vacuum that results in a bloody civil war or do you stay knowing you made the wrong decision in the first place and suffering and dying because of that decision?I am struck by something Hauerwas wrote in Resident Aliens, referring to the issue of abortion he pointed out that the good news of the gospel was not ‘you’re not allowed an abortion so deal with it’ the good news of the gospel is ‘you don’t have to live that way we can show you a different way to live’. Our nations have made a terrible mistake by going into Iraq (in a bid to avoid the suffering of another 11th September) they have unleashed terrible blood shed on that land, but if they pull out (in an attempt to avoid more soldiers dying) there will be a bloody civil war. Our countries made a decision and this choice has changed the lives of millions of Iraqi civilians (for better or for worse) now our countries must take responsibility for their actions.
I hear conservatives talking about closing and banning abortion clinics, but if we are going to force pregnant women to carry through with their child birth then we must take responsibility for caring for them (for bearing them up in the hard times). I think in Iraq if we take the decision to pull our troops out in an effort to reduce our national and personal suffering then we must have a plan for bearing with those who suffer the consequences of our actions. Once again I want to state my support for Christian Peace Teams who are surely leading the way in the effort to solve this quandary.

Perhaps, we may legitimately say that after the decision to go to war was made we have no more to say about this matter? (but is that right- we have be able to live in a fallen world).

Political or Spiritual?

28 09 2006

I wrote this piece for the in faith column of our local Sunday paper for this week. I wonder if you have any comment.

The War against Terror is approaching its sixth year. Following the atrocities or the 9th of September 2001 the response made by George Bush was not long in coming. Invasion of Afghanistan in order to Osma Bin Laden (still free), the Invasion of Iraq to chase Weapons of Mass Destruction (still not found), the heartbreak of terrorist murders in our capital and the more recent action of Israel against “terrorists” and the Lebanese people (not spoken against). The War against Terror has brought more terror, murder, destruction, widows, orphans and death as the cost of the U.S to “protection” of its people. The unequivocal support of our Prime minister, Tony Blair, and the Labour government in meeting terror with terror has caused many to despair over the blinkered use of violence that has caught up the innocents in its enormity.

Before the Labour Party Conference in Manchester last week I joined with the tens of thousands of people who converged on Manchester to show their opposition to the continuing fruitless use of violence to combat terrorism. But I was dismayed to see among the organised groups attending from Islamic, Socialist and Marxist groups, few Christians. I was dismayed because my belief is in the responsibility we own as people of faith to speak out. We are to stand with those who are subject to the oppression and violence of others. Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a common foundation in the faith of the Hebrew prophets. Isaiah said, in the way of the prophet to speak for God, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:15-17 NIV)
While you may think that such protest is unavoidably political, I would argue that to protest is unavoidably spiritual. Our religion must be substantiated by our view of the world and how we treat those who are oppressed by the actions of others.

The most powerful impact of the march against the War for me was when the shouting and drum beating stopped and we held a mass “die in.” In those minutes I reflected on the loss of life of innocents seen as “collateral damage” by the hawks of Washington and Westminster. I thought of my own children and how precious their small lives are to me. I mourned for the loss of life taken by the fear, hatred and violence of people who would better serve their cause by seeking peace through dialogue with their “enemy”. I prayed for a better world free from violence and fear for the widows and orphans made by terrorists of all descriptions. I prayed for a world free from violence and fear for my children to grow up in. If this is political it is also spiritual and necessary to follow the command of Jesus “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44 NIV)

By Martin Hill

Ways of getting across the message

29 08 2006

I went to Greenbelt for the day yesterday (28 Aug). Really good to hear Jim Wallis on a moral response to terrorism. Moved me to write to Mr Blair (again) with a heart broken for those who are treated as “collateral damage” in the war games of the powerful. Blessed are the peacemakers (what did he say? I think he said blessed are the cheesemakers – monty python).

Any way I went to listen to Jonny Baker talking about deconstructing the sermon too! I really like the way that Jonny deals with these sensitive issues sensitively and with humour. I have blogged my response to him ( ) as there wasn’t time for a q and a. Have a look and see what you think. I think that the communication of the gospel by the spoken word among other art forms is essential to the fullest understanding of the message. As someone who preaches (whether he wants to or not) as a congregational minister I have a desire to see the “body” minister in all its creativity and diversity through the Spirit of God. Good theology throughout is the highest requirement.

by Martin Hill