Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
This article appeared in the Christian Century March 10, 1982, p. 261. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The first Christians were thought to be drunk with new wine, and Festus thought Paul’s defense of the faith merited a court-ordered psychiatric examination. By the world’s standards of what works, and who is greatest, and what is practical, the Christian faith can look foolish indeed.
But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles [I Cor. 1:23]
One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense. I speak of the Christian faith so casually and effortlessly that I begin to think, “Fine thing, this Christianity. Makes good sense.” And then I find myself believing all sorts of things in church that I wouldn’t let anyone put over on me in the real world. That which people would choke on in everyday speech, they will swallow if it’s in a sermon. That’s a blessing for those of us who get paid to preach Christ crucified.
And so Kierkegaard could say, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd,” and again, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”
It’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. “Blessed are the meek. . . .” “Thou shalt not kill.” “Love your enemies.” “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor.” Be honest now. Blessed are the meek? Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are the merciful; they shall get it done to them a second time. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; they shall be called fanatics.
Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination is a comedy about a poor soul who attempts to put the Beatitudes into practice. The results of his piety are predictably disastrous. He causes a run on the bank by refusing to accept the interest on his savings account because he does not believe in usury. Other customers, overhearing his argument with the teller, suspect that something is amiss at the bank and begin demanding their money. The implication is that adherence to the Beatitudes results either in comedy or tragedy, depending upon your sense of irony.
As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed — tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one’s point of view.
As Erasmus noted, foolishness is the eternal human plight. What sensible person would wish the pain of childbirth if she sensibly thought of all the dirty diapers, the risks and inconveniences of childrearing? If it weren’t for the foolishness of our forebears, we wouldn’t be here. Then there is the foolishness of lawyers who learn the law so as to break it more skillfully, or of preachers who follow the Suffering Servant while wearing silk and gold robes.
Is the world more like Sunday morning or Monday morning? The first Christians were thought to be drunk with new wine, and Festus thought Paul’s defense of the faith merited a court-ordered psychiatric examination. By the world’s standards of what works, and who is greatest, and what is practical, the Christian faith can look foolish indeed.
A nation that spends billions on sophisticated military hardware and computerized weapons only to be rendered impotent by a mob of poor, screaming Islamic students ought to appreciate the irony of how powerless the powerful can be. Our scientists make medical progress and invent the X-ray, only to find it to be a major cause of cancer. Our advanced technology moves us to the brink of a new Dark Age. It is shocking. how unwise people of wisdom can be.
In this third week of Lent, as the church makes its way with its Lord to the cross, we pause. We stop for a moment to catch our breath and ponder the irony of it all. As the world snickers at the church, we pause with Paul to mock the world.
Along with the world, we expected to see a savior coming to take charge on our terms. Then the parade comes, and we find that we are standing in the wrong place to get a good view. Here comes the carpenter’s son, bouncing on the back of a donkey — not coming for breakfast with Ron and Nancy, or dinner with Congress, or consultations at 475 Riverside Drive. The smart ones, the ones who are well adjusted to the status quo, the ones in the know, neither see nor know — so the story goes. Here is a messiah who does not make sense.
Only the very young, the very old, the women and the simpletons see him. They are standing in the right place to get a proper view. Along with the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, the prisoners and the poor old crazed men like Paul, these “fools” see things as they really are.
As for us smart ones, we know better. We know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are, and act sensibly, we shall be in the know. It all depends on how you look at it.