The Death of Conventional Wisdom
“The Death of Conventional Wisdom”
February 13, 2022
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Sixth Sunday of Epiphany
Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at
one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
What makes a for a good underdog? Statistics suggest inferiority; history suggests a pattern of losses; and when compared to a stronger alternative, underdogs appear and act weaker. What also makes for a good underdog? The outlandish possibility that, against all the odds they could still overturn conventional wisdom and come away with a surprising victory. With Super Bowl 56 on the radar today, these are relevant questions. When I don’t know the teams playing (which in football is usually), I find out who’s the underdog and I root for them. Turns out, both teams this year are something of an underdog. That’s why the Super Bowl 56 line-up is so surprising. Both teams were the underdogs in their matchups and surprised everyone by making their way into the big game as number 4 seeds. It’s neat to have that happen and I might even watch it.
We’re drawing toward the end of our winter series on togetherness in the midst of
isolation. I wish this meant that we were also drawing toward the end of winter. But it is encouraging to think about the pandemic-related isolation beginning to ease as our numbers go down. So! In one of our last weeks of community-building sermons, we’re going to focus on the most central belief that holds us together as a community, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that remarkable and mysterious series of events has to do with conventional wisdom and underdogs.
It’s important for a community to be on the same page about its most basic beliefs. That’s why Paul begins the passage we just heard to the Corinthians with the phrase: “Now I should remind you…” It’s hard to hear this and not think it was said with a little bit of a finger wag. Now I should remind you…. It seems the Corinthian community for many of the reasons we’ve already talked about had gotten off focus and needed to get back to their roots. What is it they believed at their core and why? Paul spends the rest of the passage giving the basic core belief of the faith. That Christ died for our sins, that he was buried and that after three days he rose again. This is not just a myth, lots of people still living at that moment, Paul says, witnessed it and even Paul himself had the risen Jesus appear to him. Paul is saying, hey! the resurrection of Christ is real, guys. Trust me!
So let’s talk about this and let me just start by putting this out there: I understand the resurrection of Christ about as well as I understand the rules of curling. Which is to say, not at all. I mean, seriously? Have you watched curling? The sport is a total
mystery. I like to watch it, but the scoring goes right over my head. Same is true for
the Resurrection of Christ. How someone could be brought back to life after being
dead for three days goes right over my head. I like that it happened, but the nuts and bolts of how God worked that out are beyond me. It’s still the core part of why I’m here, though. Why? Because even though I can’t understand the how, I’m beginning to get the why. And the more I understand about the why, the more I want to know. Why was Christ resurrected? Why is this the primary tenet of our faith as Christians? Why must we continue to share this amazing story? The answer to all of these questions has everything to do with conventional wisdom, what it is and why Jesus’ resurrection dismantled it.
So, sidebar: What is conventional wisdom?
Conventional wisdom tells us how to live based on what’s deemed acceptable or
normal in our given culture. It’s culture’s most taken-for-granted understandings about the way things are. It’s the tradition and worldview we all learn as we grow up. It’s the operating concept behind that’s the way we do things that way because that’s the way they’ve always been done. We know all about conventional wisdom because it’s woven into almost everything we do and hear. In our culture conventional wisdom has a lot to do with rewards and punishment. Sayings like “you reap what you sow” or “if you work hard you’ll succeed” are ingrained in our culture as unsaid standards. If you don’t work hard, or if you break the rules or if you fail in some way, then you get what you deserve. Conventional wisdom isn’t reality, though. It’s a worldview that has been woven in our consciousness. It places categories and standards on top of ordinary life.
Race, gender, socio-economic status, national boundaries, sports team affiliation, etc. are all categories we put each other into based on the culture we’ve learned. And what’s more, there is often an accompanying hierarchy that goes along with the categories. One race might think its superior to another race; some countries are first world, others are third world; gender defines certain ways you’re supposed to behave in the world. In other words, conventional wisdom tells us what we are worth based on the way things always have been in our culture’s tradition.
In Christianity, there is a conventional wisdom that says if you have enough faith or if you do enough good works, you’ll be rewarded by God. Conventional wisdom existed in ancient Judaism, too. For thousands of years there was a predominant
understanding that you must follow all the laws of the Torah exactly in order to be pure and holy. …that to be acceptable you must be an upstanding, Jewish person without blemish. Jesus was born into the world of conventional wisdom and with every piece of his life, his teachings and eventually his death and resurrection he deconstructed it. Jesus didn’t need conventional wisdom because he tapped into a different kind of wisdom. The path less traveled. The narrow way. Listen to this passage from a book called “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time” by Marcus Borg:
“Jesus often used the language of paradox and reversal to shatter the
conventional wisdom of his time. Impossible combinations abound in his
teaching. What kind of world is it in which a Samaritan- a heretic and
impure person- can be “good,” indeed be the hero of a story? What kind
of world is it in which a Pharisee- typically viewed as righteous and pure-
can be pronounced unrighteous and an outcast can be accepted? What
kind of world is it in which riding a donkey can be a symbol of a kingship,
in which purity is a matter of the heart and not of external boundaries, in
which the poor are blessed, the first are last and the last first, the humble
exalted and the exalted humbled.”
One day the keepers of conventional wisdom tried to trap Jesus. They asked him
which law in the Torah is most important (secretly knowing to themselves that all the laws were important and that you couldn’t just name one). Jesus answered by saying there were two that were most important: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. If a law didn’t have love as its foundation, then it had no importance.
Jesus looked at a world trapped by rules and prejudices that followed conventional wisdom and he could see that love was not at the heart of it. He knew his ministry had to be about deconstructing the status quo so that a new world, the kingdom of God, could be built in its place.
This did not make Jesus popular among the powers that be. Jesus pushed and
stretched the boundaries of his day so much that ultimately his way of ministering to the margins rocked the boat so hard that those in power found the only option they had was to get rid of this man who claimed to be the Son of God. But even death was a price Jesus was willing to pay. If it meant he had to die, fighting for the least and lost would still have been worth it.
And so they killed him on a cross. Christ died not just for our sins, but because of our sins. The sin of the powerful and greedy who tried to uphold the status quo and
preserve their own dignity, tradition, success and power at the expense of those who sought an alternative wisdom. The absolutely amazing thing is, though, Jesus let himself be killed by this sin because he knew that the sin of greed, power and
selfishness that put him on the cross would not keep him dead for very long. He knew that God’s wisdom was and is still more powerful than conventional wisdom. When the powers that be thought death was a final and permanent state of shutting Jesus up, God’s wisdom intervened and said, Sorry, you thought wrong. The sacrifice Jesus made by giving up his life was not in vain. His message of love prevailing over the status quo of power and prejudice was not lost in his death. It was amplified by his resurrection.
I still don’t understand how someone who is dead can be brought back to life. But I’m also okay with a little mystery in my life if it means that love wins. I need to know that conventional wisdom is not all there is in life. That God’s wisdom can find a way to break through.
Remember what makes for a good underdog? It’s partly the statistics and the history of being more vulnerable than their opponents, but even more so, an underdog is called the underdog because there is an outlandish possibility that, against all the odds, they could still overturn conventional wisdom and come away with a surprising victory.
As Christians we could think of ourselves as the people who are righteous and right and upstanding and possessing the moral high ground while looking down at everyone else around us. Or we could embrace the fact that our movement is founded not on a person who relished power and high ground, but by a person who was always the underdog fighting not for himself but for the people his society and his church kept out.
When Jesus’ legacy of reversing conventional wisdom is the foundation of our faith communities you start to see churches doing brave and risky things in the name of love. Like the story of the church that took out a loan worth almost as much as their building so that they could buy and install solar panels on their roof. Conventional wisdom would say that was an unwise decision. But they knew taking action on behalf of God’s suffering creation was worth a risk. Or the story of the church that turned their fellowship hall into a shelter during the winter months for people who had nowhere warm to go. Conventional wisdom would say it’s not a good idea to have desperate and poor people congregated in your building. But they knew taking action on behalf of people who had nowhere else to turn was worth the risk. Or the story of the church that decided to start a Bible study in the local bar where all the young people were knowing that it would never bring those people into traditional worship, but might bring meaning and wisdom to them where they were. These ideas are a little weird, they’re not what you’d expect, they’re unconventional. They aren’t about church growth or financial success. They are about becoming vulnerable for the sake of Christ’s movement.
At our roots, we are people of the underdogs. Because our leader, our messiah, our
king, our Lord, was himself an underdog and spent his ministry fighting for them, too. Our Savior became vulnerable to prove the point that you don’t have to wield an army or “fit in” into the world’s standards to make a difference and to bring salvation.
As a community rooted in Jesus we too are called to embrace this ethos. To find those who are last and least and to help them flip the script. To be people who throw out the traditions that are not held up by love and to stand up for what we believe, even if it goes against the grain of conventional wisdom. All we need is God’s wisdom.
Stay weird. Be brave. Change the world.
Grace and Peace,