Lessons: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12: 37-38, 42-50
Where is the debater of this age? I can give you a partial answer to that question. I met a lot of them last weekend when I was invited to judge at a high school speech and debate competition held at the University of Oregon. As a former high school and college debater myself, I was pleasantly surprised by these high schoolers. Many were solid in their reasoning and passionate in their argumentation and advocacy. They effectively tried to embody the various components of Aristotle's three-fold typology of persuasive rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos.
Oratory was very popular in the ancient Roman and Greek world. Although certainly much older, classical oratory really took off in 5th and 4th century Greece and continued through the time of Jesus and beyond, at least for a few hundred more years. Demosthenes and Cicero were certainly some of the most famous, but oratory was an activity that everyone in the educated classes studied. It was as fundamental as the 3 Rs - reading, writing, and arithmetic - are today. Oratory was a hugely popular activity. People regularly went and listened to speeches and debates on all kinds of topics. And this was the world in which Paul engaged in ministry.
Paul, situated in this world, asked "Where is the debater of this age?" This was not a literal question whose answer would have been that they are found in every public square and building. No, this was a rhetorical question whose purpose is to almost dismiss his opponents, to mock them. Now, I have nothing against speech and debate. I enjoyed it. I still do. And I learned so many valuable skills from it. And Paul really doesn’t have any problem with debate either. He is being rather cheeky in his point, since he is a remarkably good debater himself and is setting up a solid argument that has stood up well through the ages.
But debate is ultimately about success and winning. You want to convince everyone - or at least the judges - that you are right; that your opponent is wrong. This was as true then as it is now. There are winners and losers. To win, to convince people, as Aristotle taught and as every orator would have learned in the first century when they read his work, you use some combination of your own ethos (your presence, your expertise, your position) and the pathos of your audience (their fears, their worries, their anxieties) and your logos (the carefully structured logic of your words). Ethos, pathos, and logos.
But Paul wants to remind his readers, this relatively young Christian community in Corinth, that what really matters is not the logos of our arguments, but the Logos of God. In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Logos became flesh. Paul points to the true Logos. Not the debater’s logos, not Aristotle's logos, but the true and ultimate Logos, the incarnate Logos, the incarnate Word: Jesus Christ.
And the image of the logos that Paul wants to start his argument with – remember, this passage is from the first chapter and Paul is setting the groundwork for what will come - is the Logos hanging there on the cross. "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God."
This is counter to everything that the debater - of Paul's age, of our age, of every age - cares about. Losing instead of winning; failure instead of success. The cross: that shameful tool of execution of the Roman State, designed to publicly humiliate the victim to make a point to the whole body politic. The cross: the equivalent of the electric chair or the needle of lethal injection or the gun of the firing squad or the hangman's noose or the lynching tree. The cross, this horrendous thing, is the foundation of true wisdom, of true knowledge, of true discernment, of true boasting. The cross is the foundation of Paul's argument that is going to take him into his audacious claims as the letter continues about what it means to be a baptized member of Christ's body - when he will claim that even the weakest, lowliest member is not only necessary, but often the most valuable - and his audacious claims about the primacy of love over every other gift that God could possibly give us. Paul is laying the groundwork for his argument about what life in Christ is really about.
Winning, success, power: these all pull at us constantly. They are seductive. We are all tempted to "love human glory more than the glory that comes from God" as we hear John say in our Gospel of some of the Pharisees who encountered Jesus. And yet, as Paul reminds us, winning, success, and power are nothing compared to God. The foolishness of God is greater than our wisdom; the weakness of God greater than our strength. Winning, success, and power are all useless in the light of the cross.
It's foolishness. It really is. Paul knows it. He says it. It's foolish. It is foolish to set the cross before the values of the world. But, it’s a similar foolishness to the foolishness of calling the old and barren Sarah and Abraham to be ancestors of great nations. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the murderer and poor public speaker Moses to lead a movement of liberation. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the foreigner Ruth to be the grandmother of David and calling the greatest sinner David to be the greatest king. It’s a similar foolishness to calling the much too young Jeremiah and the impure Isaiah and the contrarian Jonah to be God’s prophets. It’s foolishness. It’s foolishness for the Messiah to go to the cross, to be slaughtered like a lamb. It’s all foolishness. But it is the foolish wisdom of God.
And this is the foolish wisdom that we proclaim as ordained ministers: as deacons, as priests, as bishops. The foolishness of the cross we proclaim in both word and example. We sometimes carry unnecessary anxiety that our job is to convince others to follow Christ. (Though, if we are honest with ourselves, the anxiety is often to convince others to join our churches, to pack our pews, to increase our budgets, to succeed in worldly terms, basking in human glory).
But Paul is reminding us that our task is actually just to foolishly proclaim the cross. To keep sharing the story of the incarnate Logos, the incarnate Word, and not to stress about our own logos, our own words. To keep building up the Body of Christ in the light of the cross, valuing every single member, even the lowliest, especially the lowliest. To keep prioritizing love above all else. That is our task. That is our task today, as we renew our ordination vows before our Bishop. That is our task this week as we walk with our congregations and Jesus though Holy Week. That is our task always as we engage in the ministry to which God has called us. Amen.