I have had more than a few moments in my life where I have been, by anyone’s standard, a complete failure. Like, just totally missed the mark. Some of these moments are funny now, like the lopsided birdhouse I made in high school shop class, a structure so rickety that no self-respecting robin or blue jay would ever choose to live in it. Or there was the time a friend and I attempted to make a pie from scratch, a process that went so spectacularly off the rails at literally every step that we refer to it now in solemn voices only as “the great cantaloupe debacle of 2014.” And don’t even get me started on my ill-fated summer spent working on my grandparents’ farm…the less said about that the better.
Incidents like these are fairly low stakes, so we can laugh about them now, but I also have my fair share of higher level failures: overdraft fees and past due notices, flunking out of college, relationships not treated with the care they deserved. Failures like these sting a bit more, even now. These experiences formed how I view and operate in the world, for better or for worse.
Moreover, there have also been times when I’ve felt isolated by society’s standards…been made to feel like a failure…based on my economic standing, my ability to access healthcare, even how I’ve performed (or not performed) within society’s definition of masculinity. Failing to live up to these external standards can bring a feeling of deep shame, a gnawing sense that there’s something wrong not only with what I’ve done but with who I am.
These forces and pressures are nothing new, of course: in our text today, the apostle Paul addresses head-on the deep-seated shame of people who’ve been told, over and over again, that they’re not good enough, that forces outside their control define their worth. Paul counters this imposed shame with the wisdom and power of God, which comes in the least likely form imaginable.
But first, some context. In our lesson today, Paul describes the dominant worldviews of his time, Jews and Greeks, and how they evaluate worth. “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” he says. Religious, political, social claims were measured against these benchmarks: something must be a real, tangible sign of God’s might or it must fit within a rational philosophical system. Based on this, a strict hierarchy of social class was established, with almost no room for upward mobility. It is against this system that Paul proclaims Christ crucified as the ultimate expression of God’s power and wisdom. The prevailing social structure cannot understand this; Paul says it is “a stumbling block” and “foolishness.” Another translation says “utter nonsense.” And Paul basically agrees! It’s true that God revealing God’s power and wisdom through the cross makes no sense.
Wellll…that is to say, it makes no sense to those who have never been on the receiving end of societal shame and scorn. Members of the church in Corinth, to whom Paul is writing, knew that shame very well. “Consider your own call,” he reminds them. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” By any human standard, these people were failures. And they had been told they were failures for their entire lives. But now Paul was bringing them a new message: God had chosen them, the foolish, the weak, the low. God had chosen them to subvert and ultimately destroy the hierarchies that had been propped up by empires and economies.
This is God’s grand reversal: Whenever the world sets up oppressive divisions, God will always use the lowest and least in that system to bring it down. The ultimate expression of this is the cross itself. God uses an instrument of state torture, a punishment designed to inflict maximum shame and isolation…God uses that instrument to destroy death itself. Those who proclaim Christ crucified, like those Christians in Corinth or us here today, do so as a bold NO to those forces that would keep us isolated in private shame. God meets the downtrodden and oppressed, and in today’s Gospel text, declares them blessed. Blessed.
These Beatitudes, as they’ve come to be known, proclaim blessing for the poor in spirit, the meek, and those who hunger for justice. But this blessing is not just a spiritual pat on the back or a chip to cash in in the afterlife, but a radical declaration of inclusion. Blessed are those who are persecuted… is another way of saying “Society has placed you outside, on the margins, but God calls you precious, beloved, and part of a community.”
That community, these relationships…this is what’s behind all of this. If all the talk of upheaval and the destruction of human hierarchies sounds intense or scary, take heart…the purpose of this is not chaos, anarchy, or the total dissolution of human civilization, but new, abundant life through Christ. Indeed, at the end of this pretty fiery passage, Paul still invokes God, “the source of your life in Christ Jesus.” For Paul, the foolishness and stumbling block of the cross is nothing short of new life. Life not according to the world’s rules and divisions, but as God intends.
How do we grab hold of this new life offered to us? Well, a good start is gathering here, with all these other folks. Church is a place where we can assemble, without membership dues or income verification…where we can give freely of ourselves, our time, and our possessions, not because we are compelled to do so by rules or structures, but because we have been freed to do so by the liberating message of the gospel.
This new life also comes to us through the sacraments…in the font and at the table. In baptism we are made members of the body of Christ, a deep solidarity with Christians of all times and places, and that communion is re-formed and renewed every week through a meal at this table.
In particular, remembering our baptismal calling can help us from abandoning hope and giving in to shame. Martin Luther, when he felt most isolated and afraid, when the world was moving in on him, was known to repeat quietly to himself, “I am baptized…I am baptized…I am baptized.” This mantra was a spoken act of confidence in God’s saving action, over and against the devil and the forces of this world that rebel against God. Note Luther’s phrasing here: not I was baptized, but I am baptized. Baptismal promises are sustaining and unifying for our entire lives. When all else seems unsettled and anxiety-inducing, clinging to this promise of God, that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever…this promise can be the source of confidence and life abundant.
New life through Christ crucified is also what sends us from this place, back into the world. Once there, we can see with new eyes…we can see the forces that still seek to divide and rank us, and we can see our own complicity in those systems. This is disorienting and sometimes painful, but new life in Christ does not allow us to go back to how it was before. Thankfully, we can come back here every week, to hear a word of grace, receive a meal, and be sent out once again. This rhythm has sustained people of faith for thousands of years, and while it might sound like foolishness, and it might trip us up…for those who hear the call of God, it is newness of life.