Wisdom & Foolishness
Sermon published by Pastor Joel Pukallus
Bible reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Christ crucified is God’s power and wisdom
Christians are a hilarious bunch in the pages of world history. Some people get upset if you mock them or their beliefs, but Christians have this habit of taking what the rest of the world thinks is absurd and running with it, glorying in it even!
The name Christian was originally an insult hurled at believers by the Pagans, and they went. Yep, that’s us! And we proclaim it boldly now!
Paul said that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
And it is true. What a crazy, upside down message we proclaim. And it always caused ridicule, and it always caused persecution, and it always demanded that we decide how we are going to deal with it, and whether we are more worried about what people think, or pleasing God himself. And if we think it means that we can just fit seamlessly in, we are kidding ourselves. It isn’t so hard in our culture, but if that is the main goal of our lives, to fit in, then what use is our faith anyway? There are thousands around the world dying every day because they proclaim the foolishness of the cross as wiser than human wisdom. And this is not a new phenomenon.
I want to talk to you about a piece of graffiti, scratched into the wall of a dormitory in about 200 A.D., probably by an Imperial Pageboy on the Palatine Hill in Rome. This building was excavated in about 1857 near the Circus Maximus.
It shows the body of a crucified man on a cross, with the head of a donkey. It is not clear why, but the Romans accused the Jews and later Christians of worshipping the head of a donkey. Perhaps just to add more mockery, as a donkey was always associated with stupidity and stubbornness.
On the left a young man is seen, raising one hand as if in prayer. The words are scratched underneath “Alexamenos worships his God” Probably dating from around 100 years after Paul wrote this Epistle about the foolishness of the cross, and the stumbling block, we see what is widely regarded as the earliest known graffiti alluding to Christianity, as this is seen to be a parody of Jesus.
For the Romans and Greeks whose Gods were powerful and noble and warlike, it would seem to be the heights of stupidity for a God to let himself be stripped naked and crucified on a cross publicly. Who could follow a God like that?
Jesus has ushered in a new “end of times” age. In fact the church has seen itself as being in the end times since Jesus ascension back into heaven. In this new kingdom, this new way of living, the way that things have always been is reversed.
The way that life has broken into the old broken world, is by a tool of death and destruction. The cross takes on a new significance. And we are not ashamed of it, as the pagan world thought that we should have been.
When Paul speaks of a stumbling block, he uses the word “scandalon”. A scandal. Does this give you some idea of the strength of the offense of the cross to the ancient world?
And what has always been the Christian response? I love it!
As the Romans began insulting Christians with these claims of Donkey worship, the Christians began to claim the tradition (As it was only a tradition, not found anywhere in the bible) that Mary and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to Egypt ON A DONKEY. In the middle ages the church celebrated the feast of the donkey and they wrote hymns venerating the donkey. The absurdity of the donkey became a Christian symbol of salvation. We owned it!
The church used it to show that the old world order was well and truly flipped upside down.
The joke of the crucified man with the head of a donkey, and the cruelty of poking fun at Alexamenos for his faith as being absurd and foolish backfired over the years.
Think about our initiation ceremony: with secret societies having elaborate and intricate and exciting initiation rituals, we do something that looks too simple, that isn’t very exciting when we see it at face value. Baptism isn’t much of an initiation in a human sense. But that is just the point, isn’t it, it is an ancient practice where God does all the work, it is the signing of a contract that is 2 millenia old, a crying baby and a little water is not very inspiring, UNLESS you see it in terms of the adoption into this new Kingdom, the inclusion in this new world eschatological end-times kingdom of God.
Now I need to make this point here, and make it very strongly. It is the message of the cross, not the Christians who bear it, that is to be a stumbling block. I have always said that it is one of my greatest fears that I might either knowingly or unknowingly put a barrier in the path of anyone who is on their way to Jesus.
If we cannot present and proclaim the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and salvation won through his death and resurrection, without judging, belittling, criticising or generally offending those whom God has placed in our Path to hear it, then please, do not present it at all. More people are turned off Christianity by un-christlike Christians than ever are by the message of the Gospel.
Oh, and a final thought about the Alexamenos graffiti. In an adjacent roomto that etching there is a little more graffiti, scratched into the plaster by another hand. I would like to believe it is written autobiographically, in the hand of the one to whom it refers. We will never know, but I choose to believe that. It would be a great if it could be written about us and still be read 2000 years later. It simply reads: Alexamenos is faithful.
As the hymn writer says: In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o'er the wrecks of time; all the light of sacred story. gathers round its head sublime.
Paul was right: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
Thanks be to God.