[Years ago, I stopped attending community Good Friday services even though as a pastor, I was expected to be present. I simply could no longer listen to sermons and meditations which were based on a view of the cross which I found barbaric, heretical, and seriously flawed. (It’s called Penal Substitutionary Atonement.) I believe there are other ways of viewing the death of Jesus which are helpful, more biblical, and less self-serving. The following is a meditation on Good Friday which I hope reflects a more authentic perspective grounded in God’s love for all the world as well as Jesus’ charge to us to “take up our cross daily and follow him.” On my blog under the heading of “The Death of Jesus” can be found five sermons on the different ways the church has understood atonement over the last two thousand years.]
Last year Easter was on April 12. This year (2021) it will be on April 4. Have you ever wondered why the date for Easter skips around from year to year? Well, here’s the answer. For the Western Church, Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox (or the first day of spring) in the Northern Hemisphere. The reasons for this go back to the Jewish date for Passover, the decision of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, and the connection between Easter and spring ceremonies in many European cultures. All of this means that Easter, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday might occur anytime between March 22 and April 25.
Now, there is a point to all this babble. I did not waste valuable time to help prepare you for Trivial Pursuit. If Easter can occur between March 22 and April 25, then you realize that it is also possible for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday to occur on April 1 (April Fools’ Day). Kenneth Leech, an Anglican priest whose writings I much admire, comments on the coincidence of Maundy Thursday or Good Friday and April Fools’ Day in his book We Preach Christ Crucified. And he does so in dialogue with the first chapter of I Corinthians. His thoughts stimulated my thinking, and so on this Good Friday as we focus on the death of our Lord, I want to meditate on “the foolishness of the cross.”
In our passage, Paul says the cross appears foolish and weak to the world. And the very fact that the Lord’s Anointed/the Messiah/the Son of God should die on a cross is absolute rubbish to conventional wisdom. Let’s remind ourselves of the shame of the cross. It was considered the most degrading and dehumanizing form of punishment devised in the ancient world. Crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for the lower classes, particularly for slaves, violent criminals, and rebels. Jesus himself was crucified as a rebel—as a rival to the great Tiberias Caesar.
Crucifixion was the manner of execution chosen by the Romans because it prolonged the torture and agony of the victims in a most savage way. And because crucifixions were public events, the indignity and suffering witnessed by any passersby were to serve as deterrents to revolt. Frequently, bodies were left on crosses as rotting corpses for the vultures and wild animals to devour. Even the courtesy of a burial was often denied.
Yet the claim of the Christian faith is that upon such an instrument of unspeakable torture and death, the Son of God died. Upon such a cross, the love-directed journey of God into human brokenness found its ultimate expression. That incarnation which began in Bethlehem reached its climax on a Roman gallows on Calvary. From crib to cross, God dwelt among us as a poor Jew from the insignificant village of Nazareth. And to the world, such an outrageous claim was utter nonsense.
But Paul says that for those who will allow themselves to see as God sees and to love as God loves, the foolishness of the cross is in fact the salvation of the world. It’s all a matter of perspective. And those who choose to see as God sees and to love as God loves will appear as foolish to the world as the cross. That’s why in I Corinthians 4:10, Paul writes, “We are fools for the sake of Christ.”
Throughout the history of the church, there have been those who have offered themselves as fools for Christ. However, as Leech reminds us, it is only in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, particularly in the Russian culture, that the status of the holy fool is recognized liturgically and that folly for Christ’s sake is seen as an integral part of spirituality. The first saint to be recognized as a holy fool was St. Simeon Salos, a Palestinian monk who died at the end of the 6th century CE. He threw nuts at the candles during the liturgy and ate sausages on Good Friday. St. Andrew the Fool walked naked through the streets of Constantinople and behaved as a beggar. The holy fools reappeared in 13th and 14th century Russia. The most famous was St. Basil the Blessed who lived during the 16th century, made Tsar Ivan the Terrible eat raw meat (!), consorted with prostitutes, threw stones at the houses of respectable people, and stole from dishonest traders. He too ate sausages on Good Friday and walked naked through the streets of Moscow. These holy fools were often nomads and pilgrims, always figures of the absurd. They appeared especially during times of complacency in the church and society. Essentially, the holy fools kept alive the scandal of the naked, accursed savior who was nailed to a cross.
In the Western church, the Cistercians maintained the tradition of folly for Christ’s sake, calling Christians to a “holy madness.” St. Francis of Assisi was called to be “God’s little fool” as he turned the medieval world upside down. The religious tradition of Ireland is filled with accounts of wild and strange men who were possessed of deep perception and insight. And on Good Friday, 1994 (coincidentally, also April Fools’ Day), Catholic priest Carl Kabat, dressed as a clown, hammered on a Minuteman III missile in North Dakota, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison.
John Saward is a scholar whose work, Perfect Fools, is the authoritative study of folly for Christ’s sake in Eastern and Western Christianity. He argues that the holiness of the fools shows itself most in their solidarity with the outcasts of society. These holy fools are not content with “social work” but identified completely with the wretched of the earth. They saw Christ present in beggars, lepers, prisoners, and particularly in moral and mental outcasts—those whose behavior made them intolerable in conventional society and among the comfortably devout and pious. But, Saward says, the fool also belongs to the tradition of prophecy and points to the madness and evil of a world system organized apart from Christ and, therefore, apart from love and compassion. So, the fool stands in all ages as a scandal and offence to “respectable” and status quo religion. The fool is a constant and disturbing reminder of the Christ who was, in the words of Hebrews 13, “crucified outside the gate” (in other words, outside the holy precincts of Jerusalem).
In commenting on the tradition of the holy fool in the Christian tradition, Kenneth Leech writes: “I believe that in some way we are all called to be fools for Christ’s sake, and that the word of the cross will not make sense apart from this willingness to take the form of a fool. We come always before the cross as fools, as disciples of that messianic fool who entered Jerusalem on an ass and died in apparent failure as an act of supreme folly. Religion goes disastrously astray when it ceases to be a sign of contradiction and becomes the cement for social conformity. The foolishness of God is then replaced by yielding to the values of the world. A church which owes its origins to the cross cannot, if it is to be true to its nature, be the slave of worldly forms and stereotypes. So, we are urged to be transformed, not conformed, an injunction the church seems constantly to be in danger of reading in reverse! The temptation to conformity recurs in every generation in different forms. We are urged to adjust, to come to terms with, the values and assumptions of the world instead of challenging and critiquing them in the name of Jesus.”
On this Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I would leave us with three questions as we reflect on the centrality of the cross in our faith:
- Are we willing to embrace the scandal of the cross? Or shall we play the game of jumping from the supposed triumph of Palm Sunday to the glory of Easter morning without ever confronting the stark reality of Calvary? Or perhaps we prefer to see the cross only in terms of our own individual and private salvation: “Jesus died for me so I can go and be with him in heaven when I die.” It is much easier to surrender to such self-serving piety than it is to focus on the crucified Messiah as the climax of God’s love-directed journey into our world of human brokenness. Are we willing to live as holy fools as we follow the Crucified Son of God?
- As his holy fools, are we ready to express and experience our solidarity with all the marginalized, despised, and rejected of our society? Are we willing to embrace those Jesus identified with in his terrible suffering and disgraceful death? Leech, in his book on spirituality entitled The Eye of the Storm, suggests that Western civilizations may be entering a new dark age. I hope he is wrong, and he hopes he is wrong, but I must confess that the evidence appears to support his fear. We live in a time of savage polarization; a time when victims are blamed; a time when prejudice, intolerance, and mean-spiritedness are becoming commonplace. We live in a time when the poor are not just neglected; they are targeted for suffering and oppression. We live in a time when increasingly fewer and fewer people are willing to stand with the marginalized, the despised, and the rejected in our society. We live in a time when truth is sacrificed on the altars of greed, arrogance, intentional ignorance, ambition, fear, and bigotry. If we, the Body of Christ, cannot identify with the outcasts and disenfranchised of our world, then it is doubtful that we really serve a Crucified Messiah who suffered the shame endured by the most vulnerable of humans.
Perhaps the truest test of the church will not come in its success in evangelism—for what use is evangelism when the cross is ignored? Perhaps the truest test of the church will not come in its participation in the power and glory of society—for what use is power if it is not exercised on behalf of those with whom Jesus has offered his solidarity? Perhaps the truest test of the church will be whether we can reach beyond our hallowed walls and offer ourselves and our resources in concrete ways for the hurting of this world. The hope for the church is to discover its mission, and as the Body of Christ, we have no mission which is not centered in the cross of Jesus.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr once described Christian people as being “creatively maladjusted and transformed nonconformists.” Our task as holy fools for Christ’s sake, creatively maladjusted to the wisdom of the world, is to hold fast to the folly of the crucified one, knowing that it is in his foolishness that the world’s salvation may be found. In a world of greed, violence, and looking out for our own, will we have the courage to be creatively maladjusted? Will we have what it takes to offer a model radically different from the pattern of this world? Will we risk our security and position challenging those powers which suck the life out of the weak and vulnerable?
Perhaps what this world needs most from the church is a community of holy fools who have no more sense than to follow their Crucified Lord.
I Corinthians 1:18-25 (NRSV)
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.