We return our focus to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Paul continues to develop his theology of the cross, accessing the depth of wisdom literature we find in scripture and providing a comparison of the wisdom of the world to the wisdom of God.
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1: 13-18
We continue our deep dive into Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. This is the third week of looking at this piece of scripture and we continue from where we left off last week. In the reading today Paul begins to explore and flesh out the theology of the cross that he has been developing.
He’s received reports from other members of the church about some of the behaviours that are occurring. The arguments about baptisms and spiritual gifts. Other teachers have arrived since Paul left and their teaching is swaying the church. Paul’s letter attempts to lead them back towards understanding who they are at the root of things. Paul even downplays his own importance, instead pointing the congregation to Christ and the cross. In doing so Paul begins to talk about wisdom and foolishness.
Following from last week, we begin to see the link that Paul is making by attaching our loyalty to different teachers or preachers as foolishness. Paul argues that this misplaced loyalty leads to a spiritual death. It is only in Jesus that we are to place our trust.
Wisdom and foolishness are biblical themes. We find them most strongly written about in the Old Testament books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Here Paul dips into that tradition to help guide the church in Corinth. Just like the church in Corinth, we too are not immune to the lure of foolishness. There are many who might prey on our gullibility.
As Nancy Lammers Gross puts it, “It seems that especially since the explosion of the online social media age, we have acquainted ourselves with every form of human foolishness imaginable. There is foolishness that is silly, mistaken, misguided, confused, or just lapse in judgment. And then there is foolishness that is conniving, scheming, devious, and manipulative. We are shameless in sharing the former on our social media platforms, and we are shameless in our willingness to thoughtlessly fall prey to or even perpetrate the latter. It’s not that we have discovered new forms of foolishness—there is nothing new under the sun—but we are all more exposed to all of it.” (Nancy Lammers Gross – Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 – Working Preacher from Luther Seminary)
Paul pushes the question of wisdom. He asks the church in Corinth about who is wise, who is the scribe, and who is the debater. These questions are meant to focus our attention towards the wisdom of God. Paul is writing to what we would refer to in the biblical sense a Gentile audience. The Greek people and culture put a lot of value in wisdom and if you’ve ever studied Greek history from this time period you are familiar with names like Plato and Socrates. Paul is also aware of this tradition, what he shrewdly discerns is it is the debating and trust in human wisdom which is holding the community back from fully knowing who God is and exploring that relationship. Paul argues that the highest form of wisdom is found in an understanding of Jesus Christ through the power of the cross.
Paul doesn’t suggest that we boast about the cross or Christ’s death. Rather, that we boast about God in whom we find perfect wisdom, strength, and love. Paul reframes the argument and begins to develop a theology of the cross. He writes that God uses what we consider weak to show strength and what we consider foolish to demonstrate wisdom. Why else could the cross be such a world shattering event? How else could Christ’s death have deeper meaning, but that God is using these events to create something new in the world. And so Paul writes, “…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Paul looks at the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and constructs new meaning around these events. He seeks to take the focus away from the self, move it onto God and what we can do with and through God. Paul is breaking down the walls that the church has constructed about their understanding of Jesus and introducing a level of uncertainty which requires a step of faith.
In his devotional this week Richard Rohr talks about the life of Jesus and the dual role that Jesus held as priest and prophet. He writes, “In that, he [Jesus] is a classic prophet, one of those who does not merely expose the denied shadow of Israel, but instead attacks the real problem, which is the ego and arrogance of Israel and people misusing power … Jesus is not too interested in moral purity because he knows that any preoccupation with repressing the shadow does not lead us into personal transformation, empathy, compassion, or patience, but invariably into denial or disguise, repression or hypocrisy. Isn’t that rather evident? Immature religion creates a high degree of cognitively rigid people or very hateful and attacking people—and often both. It is almost the public image of Christianity today, yet God’s goal is exactly the opposite.” (Richard Rohr – Center for Action and Contemplation)
Paul is seeking to do something similar in Corinth. To break down the rigid understanding of religion which is beginning to cause harm to some in the community. He is asking the church in Corinth to develop their faith, to grow and to transform into the mature individuals God has called them to be. To find wisdom not in themselves, but in Christ who is the very wisdom of God.
This ties into the theme we find from the three readings we had this morning:
- O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lordrequire of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Let the one who boasts, boast in God.
It isn’t about us, it’s about what we do in and for our relationship with God. We are not and never should be the focus. It’s about God. What we do, we do for God, with God, and in the strength of God.
I read an article this week that was shared with me. It was an interview with the Rev. William Barber, the former pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina and who is now part of the faculty at Yale Divinity School. In the article he talks about health challenges he’s faced recently as an immune-compromised individual. Barber says, “During covid, as I kept meeting people, I sat down one day and I said, Lord, why am I still here? I’m not better than these people. I know I’ve been around covid. My doctor said to me if I caught covid I probably would not fare well.
“As I was musing one day, it dawned on me. That’s the wrong question. The question is never, why are you still alive? Why are you still breathing? The question is what are you going to do with the breath you have?” (Pastor William Barber says Christian nationalism is ‘a form of heresy’ | CNN)
What are we to do with the breath we have?
Paul would have us seek the wisdom of God as founds in Christ. And then to boast, not in ourselves but in God and all that God has done. Amen.
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St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
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