Richard R. Crocker
Wisdom and the Resurrection
Easter, April 8, 2012
Rollins Chapel, Dartmouth College
I Corinthians 1:18-25 (26-31)
I am attempting, in this sermon, to address both the theme of our term’s services, which is wisdom, and the occasion, which is Easter Sunday. Wisdom and the Resurrection, I’ve called it. And it certainly is not a stretch to connect these two subjects, especially when we look at these powerful verses from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “For 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.”(v. 23)
There can be no stronger statement: what the world counts as wisdom has been shown in Christ to be foolish, and what the world counts foolish has been shown in Christ to be the very wisdom of God.
Now there are several things to explore about this passage. First, for those of you who were here last Sunday and heard Kurt expound upon a similar theme, using other verses from this same epistle, you will remember that Kurt confessed dislike for Paul’s contrast. He does not want to give up on worldly wisdom, and he is suspicious of any who disdain worldly wisdom in a too eager embrace of religious foolishness – foolishness which does not turn out to be the wisdom of God but is simply foolishness. And, heaven knows, there is enough simple foolishness in the world – foolishness that is not simply entertaining, but foolishness that has very harmful consequences. So, if we want a test to distinguish wisdom from foolishness, perhaps we should look at the consequences of our beliefs.
What once passed for wisdom in the world is now revealed as racism, or sexism. What once seemed wise in political policy has led us into foolish wars. Many beliefs propounded as wise have been revealed as foolish. But, one might ask, has anyone ever come to harm by believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Now, I know that the resurrection, which Christians celebrate today, is seen by some as foolish. People die and that’s it, many say. Or we recede in some semi-spiritual way into the elements of earth where our constituent elements eventually contribute to new life. Such are the beliefs that are considered wise by many people today. But, in my own experience as a person who has conducted many funerals, some of them for quite secular people, I know that the human heart rebels when a loved one dies, and there is no hope beyond the grave. There is something wired into us that is ready to receive the wisdom of resurrection, as mysterious as that may be, rather than to settle for the wisdom of stoicism or nihilism. Now, I readily confess that there are many foolish Christians, who ignorantly or willfully adhere to many distortions of Christian thought. But I ask again: is there anyone who is harmed by belief in the resurrection of Christ? Well, of course Marx thought so. And Freud thought so. And Christopher Hitchens thought so. They thought that belief in life beyond death led people to false hopes and foolish illusions. But I ask: have the materialist hopes of Marx or the psychological cures of Freud provided a better hope? Do they really satisfy the yearning of the human heart? I have yet to hear Marx or Freud or Hitchens read at a graveside.
We could also ask, of course, what good comes from a belief in Christ’s resurrection? And the answer to that question is obvious: it gives us faith to live, hope and endure – whatever may come.
But let’s step back a moment and realize that I have somewhat misrepresented Paul’s argument. Paul does not say that the resurrection is foolishness to the Greeks. And certainly the resurrection would not have been foolishness to the Jews, for it was they who first brought forward this hope. Rather he says that the cross is foolishness to the Greeks. And a stumbling block to the Jews. It is the cross which is foolishness to many, but is to us the supreme wisdom of God. The cross. How, people asked then and people ask now, can Jesus’ execution on the cross signify anything but disgrace, defeat, desolation? How can it possibly represent wisdom? However we Christians may disagree in our answers to that question, we all agree that it does indeed represent the wisdom of God. And it is not hard for us to believe: Jesus’s death somehow shows God’s union with us in death, so that death is no longer to be feared as final destruction. When we say that Christ died for us, we mean – or at least many of us mean – that he died for our benefit, to show us that even this ignominious execution could not defeat God’s love for us. And so we hold onto that old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame, as the emblem for us of God’s transcendent, unfailing love. That for us is not foolishness, or a stumbling block, but the wisdom of God.
At a college like Dartmouth, even though it was founded to proclaim the cross as the wisdom of God, we often settle for the wisdom of the world as somehow truer, safer, more reliable. And by the wisdom of the world, I do not mean the kind of knowledge that scientific inquiry provides. Knowledge is know-how. Wisdom is an attitude that guides what we do with our know how. So, by worldly wisdom, I mean a certain skeptical attitude that is a defense against the disappointment of faith. I have known students in my career as a college chaplain at Bates and at Dartmouth who have felt called to ministry, sometimes much to the consternation of their families. A couple have even decided to join religious orders, where they take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Can you imagine three vows more contrary to the wisdom of our age? To embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience – add to that a vow of abstinence from alcohol and you have a perfect storm - the absolute summation of what most collegians would see as foolish. Can you imagine parents sending their children to Dartmouth to embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience? What foolishness! But what is the opposite of poverty, chastity, and obedience? Why, wealth, sexual libertinism, and unrestrained freedom. Is that wisdom? Really? Or foolishness?
Today we poor foolish Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ – the one who was executed, for us. We find in his death, not despair, but hope – hope not just for us, but for the world. For in him we believe that God has acted to affirm that even our human foolishness cannot destroy his wisdom. Death is not the last word. Cruelty and injustice will not triumph. For that, we say Alleluia. Thanks be to God.