The Foolishness of God

Our Epistle reading today was so short, that when I have taken my text out of it, there is very little left—yet it goes to the heart of the Gospel message. St. Paul’s proclamation is of “Christ crucified”, and he says:

“Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

The Book of Acts gives us a picture of what St. Paul’s missionary journeys were like. Usually, he would come first to the Jewish synagogue in a new town, and be welcomed and asked to preach, an interesting new man with an intriguing message—that the long awaited Messiah who was to deliver the Jewish people from their oppression had now come to his people. His welcome changed to outrage, however, when the message was given that the Christ who came was not a conquering hero, set to right all the wrongs of the past with his sword, but a suffering servant, betrayed by his own people, dying out of love, not only for the Jews, but the Gentile world as well. The crucified Christ, to the Jews, was a stumbling block. He wasn’t the sort of deliverer that they wanted or expected.

Usually, after that, Paul went to the Gentiles—often to Greeks who had become interested in the Jewish religion, but were not full members of the synagogue. He would teach in a secular building—a school or lecture hall. But, as we read in the history of a sermon he gave in Athens, he had his problems there. He could draw on the many similarities between Jewish teachings about God and Greek philosophy, but when he came to the idea of a God who had a purpose in history, who called people to service, and showed his power in miracles, and in particular in the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead, many dismissed him as a ‘quack’ and lost all interest. They had their own idea of what God could and could not do: the idea that events could happen outside such boundaries was unacceptable foolishness.

It reminds me of one of my favourite stories, of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer who shortly after World War II sailed on a primitive raft across the Pacific. In the middle of the night, while he was asleep, one of the other crew members on the watch hooked a coelacanth—a primitive fish from the Jurassic era, that scientists had believed extinct for sixty million years. He excitedly woke up Heyerdahl, to show him this incredible find. Heyerdahl opened up one eye, looked at the fish, and muttered “Impossible! Creatures like that don’t exist.”—and went to sleep again. In the same way, modern, ‘scientific’, man will so often tune the miraculous out of the Gospel story—we have panels of theologians marking Christ’s words in red, or pink or grey, doubting the resurrection, the miracles, the Virgin birth, or what have you. These things seem to them too strange to be believed, and so, Greek style, are dismissed as foolishness.

What, then, is left if we reject the limited picture of God enjoyed by Jew and Greek? It is St. Paul’s gospel of Christ crucified and risen again from the dead. It is of a Creator God with so intense a love for his creation that, in spite of all its failures and rebellion, he loves it to the point of death itself. It is of a God who quite literally is ‘madly in love’—the kind of zeal that we see in the Gospel for today when we read of Christ’s concern for the purity and holiness of the Temple. It is of a Jesus, the Christ, who expressed this nature of God in his life of obedience, teaching, caring and suffering. It is of a call to Christ’s followers both to accept this incredibly tolerant love, and to pass it on both to God and to the rest of God’s world.

The point is this: God’s nature is a matter of fact, even though there may be all sorts of theories about it. If our theories are wrong, then we are simply wasting our efforts and our breath on foolishness. What God is like is as much a question of fact as what Mount Everest is like. To follow the analogy further, the Jew is like someone who sets out to climb the mountain, but half way up it gets so steep and threatening, that he stops there, and announces to the world that he has reached the top. The Greek is like a person who, finding the actual mountain too difficult and dangerous to climb, goes and climbs some different mountain altogether, and after climbing it, says he has reached the top of Mount Everest. The top of the true spiritual mountain, the concept of a God who in passionate love gives his all for the good of his world, is not reached in either case.

To illustrate what I mean, I have a story for you and a confession. For the past seven years, I have carried around a letter in my briefcase, unanswered. Only in the last two weeks have I summoned up the courage to answer it. The letter was from my daughter Catherine, now deceased, and was a very difficult one for a father to receive. Essentially, it was a reproach, in the form of a poem, to a father who was too busy with important projects to improve the world, that he never had time to share in his daughters’ lives, and simply be a father to them. It pointed out that the very highest title of God, our heavenly Father, was ‘Abba’, or ‘Daddy’.

This whole matter came up recently in my discussions with a friend who was preparing some written material concerning Cathy’s death. She asked if I could, perhaps even at this time, put in writing a response to this message. So I have put pen to paper, and this was my reply:

The ‘Perfect’ Daddy

Gee, what a mess
God has made of the Universe –
And all because he cares
For everyone ahead of his own family!

Busy, Busy, Busy –
Out to Save the World –
Letting humankind get away with murder
Too soft to wipe them all out and start again.

Putting the last to the head of the line –
Paying off workers in full, who come in late –
Forgiving the stewards who plundered his estate –
Feasting the wastrel boy who came home broke –

Worst of all, there was the way he treated his son on the Cross
in all the agony of rejection, shame and death:
Son pleading to his Father “God, why have you dumped me?”
Father giving him nothing for an answer.

It’s the price of caring for others
That we have no time for our own
The cobbler’s children have no shoes –
A cruelty we hardly equate with love.

Oh, my poor lamb! It hurts that I could never answer your letter:
Hurts that you felt so abandoned and lost:
Hurts that you sensed such a distance between us –
Hurts that our Father has forced us both to walk
The way of the Cross.

– Text of a sermon delivered in March 1994