Foolishness of the Cross:
Giving Ourselves in Love
Some things are so counterintuitive that you can only really believe them after you’ve experienced them; you can only really trust them once you’ve made it to the other side. People were asked the question: what is the most counterintuitive thing you’ve learned? (Source) These are some of the responses:
In a list of the most counterintuitive things, the apostle Paul would put the gospel at the very top. In today’s reading from his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul calls the message of the cross “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”—it doesn’t make sense to either group. To believe that God would be revealed to us in a crucified political prisoner in first century Palestine is, frankly, a bit much to ask of anyone. It’s absolutely counterintuitive. It’s not eloquent wisdom by Greek standards, and it’s not messianic grandeur by Jewish standards. But for those who believe the message of the cross, Paul says, it is the power and the wisdom of God. No matter how counterintuitive it may be by cultural measures, those who trust it find it to be their salvation.
So why would Paul put this discussion about the foolishness of the cross at the beginning of his letter to the church in Corinth? Well, the church in Corinth is divided along several lines—allegiance to the teachings of different missionaries, who has the greatest spiritual gifts, socioeconomic status (with the economically advantaged members disregarding those members who struggle with poverty), and the possession of knowledge. Basically, the church in Corinth is fraught with elitism of all types—theological, spiritual, socioeconomic, and intellectual. Paul is pretty brilliant here, because nothing pulls the rug out from under elitism like using the cross as the lens through which we view the world, as the model for what it means to live in love, as the revelation of who God is. We don’t find God by believing certain things alone, or by being the best preacher or teacher or prophet, or in great wealth, or in great knowledge and intellectual prowess. We find God – we find life – in service, in relationship, in giving ourselves to one another in love just as Christ did.
I want to say a few words about that statement: We find God – we find life – in giving ourselves to one another in love. It’s important to say what that does NOT mean, as well as what it does mean. We live in a world where seventy percent of women worldwide will experience physical abuse by a partner during their lifetime. In the US, one in four women and one in seven men are victims of severe violence by a partner during their lifetime. Ten million children are exposed to domestic violence every year, leaving them with scars that may last a lifetime. At times the message of the cross has been wrongly used by pastors to tell women (and maybe men, too) that they need to stay in such relationships. But the giving of ourselves to one another in love has nothing to do with abusive relationships, or even with doing good deeds until we’re exhausted and stressed and at the end of our rope.
Instead, to live the gospel in our relationships is to give of ourselves freely, in a way that is life-giving. It’s to see each and every person as equally valuable in God’s eyes. It’s to see the risen Christ in each person we meet not because we bring it to them, but because it is always already there. It’s to realize that God doesn’t love us more, or less, because of what we have, what we know, where we live, who we are, what gifts we brings to the table, or what we believe. It is to understand that when we give of ourselves, we find ourselves, and we find God, too. That’s what it means to live the gospel in our relationships with one another.
To be honest, I completely understand how the members of the Corinthian church lost their way and ended up so divided, needing to place themselves and others in some kind of hierarchy that represents worth and achievement, wealth and fame. If we’re absolutely truthful, many of us might confess that to proclaim the abundant, self-giving love of God is one thing, but to actually trust it enough to live it out in our own lives just seems foolish. Where would one start? And where would one draw the line? To merely smile at a person walking down the street seems inconsequential, and to sell everything you own and give it away seems a little over the top.
And even if we knew how to go about living the gospel, how can we really trust that in giving of ourselves we will find God, that we’ll find true and abundant life, that we will find our true selves? How can we really trust deep down that love is the most powerful thing in our world? It’s counter to so much that our culture tells us; it’s foolishness, if not in thought then definitely in action. So how do we learn to trust the foolishness of the cross? How do we find that kind of faith?
Well, one thing about faith is that it is relational; it doesn’t happen in a vacuum but is born out of a relationship with God. A life of faith happens moment by moment, choice by choice, in the ordinary things that are right in front of us. It takes a long series of “foolish decisions” to develop a strong faith—choosing the gospel over the “get ahead” world we live in time and time again. No one becomes Mother Teresa overnight. Even Mother Teresa is attributed with saying, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” But out of a lifetime full of small things done with great love can come a radical trust; as we practice trust over and over again, our faith grows.
Still, there will be moments when we wonder if the foolishness of the cross is really all that life-giving. We may not be able to make sense out of the circumstances we’re in, and we certainly won’t always be deemed successful by the world’s standard. But maybe here we find another aspect of faith. Maybe faith is also about keeping some space open to see things differently in the future; it is to hope that once we have made it through whatever we are experiencing, that we will look back and recognize that God’s love and grace was all around us even when we couldn’t see it. Part of a life of faith is the expectation—the hope—that what seems foolish now will one day make sense to us. That’s the disciples’ own experience of the gospel. In today’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” It made absolutely no sense—until later, John tells us, after the resurrection when the disciples remembered what Jesus had said. Can we try to leave room for this same experience in our own lives?
And faith that lets us live with one another in love is also nurtured in our worship. Week after week we kneel, we bow, we recite the creed, we read scripture, we stand next to people whose lives are as messed up as our own and yet who know how to love, and we find ourselves fed by the broken body of Christ. Somewhere along the line we start to trust in the power of self-giving love, our lives hopefully beginning to take on the shape of our worship. We start to look for ways forward, for choices, that might have previously seemed counterintuitive—and we find them hidden under layers of what we thought we knew about life, success, God, and love.
I think it takes all these things for our faith to grow, and more. It takes pure grace, too. Until maybe one day we wake up and find that the self-giving love we thought was so counterintuitive and hard to trust is actually the deepest and most natural impulse we have.