The power of paradox     

3RD Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20.1-17

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1.18-25

John 2.13-22

Sunday 3 March 2024    ©Suzanne Grimmett

The thing about paradox, is that it doesn’t get resolved.

The thing about paradox is that we get to sit in the tension between opposites, letting that tension challenge our certainties and lead us towards the precious gift of humility. It is hard, after all, to have a sure sense of superiority in how right one is, when the deepest answers are paradoxical.

The life of Christian faith requires us to hold much in tension. If your religion eases you over this discomfort towards doctrines of assured certainties, I would suggest you break out and pursue your questions elsewhere- particularly if those certainties align with the rhetoric of the wealthy or powerful.

In what I think is a glorious reading from St Paul in 1st Corinthians, we begin with the great point of discomfort in Christianity;

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.

The cross is foolishness, but also the wisdom and power of God. Do you notice Paul’s use of the phrase “being saved”? It is language many do not like because of associations with tele-evangelists or pie in the sky theology, but it is at the heart of the Gospel. The language of “being saved” might be more clearly heard as a homecoming of love and acceptance, the courage to step away from all that oppresses and controls us or the clarity to see our own destructive or self-limiting patterns so that we may live into the person we were created to be.  Notice too, that we are not talking about having “been saved” but that we are “being saved”. This is a way, not a destination.

It is a way that involves necessary self-examination if we are not to fall into relying only on moments of grace we have known in the past. Our last great spiritual breakthrough can become a barrier if it means we miss the new thing the Spirit is doing. Places of comfort and assurance in our lives of faith can sometimes become too comfortable. Lent is of course, the great season for self-examination. The way the readings we have today unsettle our certainties can be a doorway to helpful discomfort if we allow it.

St Paul writes eloquently, but the evidence we have is that he may not have been a compelling speaker. He may have fallen out of favour with the wealthy and educated Corinthian elites and this could be part of his proclamation of the power found in the foolishness of the message of Christ crucified. It would be easy for us to side with Paul, criticising those who are captivated by wealth, or fame or influence as missing the true power of the cross.


We in the Anglican Church have inherited a tradition that of course sits very comfortably amongst the middle and upper classes in Australia. There is a correlation between religion, ruling powers and class that we should find incongruent and deeply troubling. In Australia, there was an historical alignment between church and colonising power, with Anglican clergy present in governing bodies and the judicial system. I grew up in the Methodist church, which historically grew from Anglican working class revivals. As a child of the working class myself, I often felt the tension of Christian faith somehow being aligned with a desire for the kind of self-improvement that would lead to being socially upwardly mobile.  It is terribly easy for the radical gospel of salvation to become about social respectability. The seduction of compromises with wealth and influence can readily be justified in the name of God.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians challenge us every time we find ourselves impressed by status or seduced by power. When we pursue the famous, the wealthy, the beautiful or the popular, we are reminded that Jesus on the cross is ugly, unpopular and poor. When we rely on our own skills, abilities and knowledge, we are brought face to face with a Christ whose silence is far more powerful at transforming the world than any of our most well-crafted words. Indeed, in many translations we hear Paul describing the foolishness of preaching- something which every preacher is uncomfortably aware of whenever they open their mouth in a pulpit. There is always the lurking recognition that to simply stand here in silence would be a far better way of pointing to the holy presence of God. That our words are inadequate and will frequently fail to hit the mark is true, but I suspect if I tried ten minutes of silence every week, that would not be considered helpful!  The paradox here lies in the responsibility we each have to share from who we are and what we know, lovingly giving it our very best with everything we have, while knowing at the same time it is not all down to us. We have nothing, anyway, that is truly ours, but rather all our life reveals what we have been given. We cannot think that we have definitive answers nor that our wisdom could or should explain away the foolishness of the cross. Jesus, the Christ of God hanging on a cross, will always unravel our pride and subvert our most eloquent theological explanations. Gazing at the cross can bring all of our education and eloquence to silence.

Just as we might feel ourselves aligned with St Paul in convincing the Corinthians about how they have it wrong, we might also approach the Gospel reading firmly on Jesus’ side as he wields the whip to drive out those who have made of the temple a marketplace, overturning the tables of those selling animals for sacrifice. We might imagine those temple authorities should have known better than to allow the creep of trade and money-making pursuits into the place of prayer. They would, after all, have been steeped in the word and the law, devoting their lives to service of God’s people. But how easy is it to accommodate practices that provide financial help for that service, or provide more convenient ways for temple activities to go forward?

If you feel any sense of discomfort at the moment, you may have guessed where I am heading. Often institutional religion today can find itself in a similar position, and the Church of history is littered with examples of where it became profitable or expedient to develop practices that had nothing to do with Christ and served the powers or political agendas of the time more than it worshipped God.

But here we are faced yet again with paradox. It could be said that the prophetic ministry of Jesus which calls us to move and to change is in tension with the worldly organisation and resistance to change of the institutional church. However, I have seen far too often new Christian movements which proclaim themselves as free of the confining bounds of the institution but which invariably either cannot sustain themselves to have any lasting impact, or else end up corrupted by the same powers they were seeking to resist. There is in institutional religion the strength and accumulated wisdom to carry down the ages the beauty and power of the good news. The only way that this can happen without the church simply becoming another vehicle for the prevailing powers of the age is to allow and empower the prophetic voice. In every age, the church has embraced those, often known as “doctors of the church” who speak from within it yet challenge it to reform.  The church of the crucified and risen one will always need to navigate the tension between the stability and longevity of the institution and the voice of its prophetic witness. The church itself is a paradox of being a disestablishing establishment…a de-institutionalising institution. Sometimes we as members of the church need to walk in both obedience and rebellion, but always with the humility that acknowledges that we need the wisdom and shared understanding of one another, even as we seek to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Paradox is everywhere in the spiritual life, and in some ways we with western logical minds find it harder than other cultures to recognise that it is through these apparent contradictions that we can know the truth. As we meditate on the foolishness of the cross, may we find the wisdom to see ourselves clearly and recognise the greed and self-interest that so frequently keeps us from the love that will set us free. As we release our self-assurance and need to be right, may we accept the truth that God’s foolishness is wiser than any human wisdom. And as we turn again to Christ on this our Lenten pilgrimage, may we know the joy of falling into the extravagant mercy of God, caught up in the grace of the crucified and risen one whose weakness is stronger than our greatest strength.