February 2, 2014 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31
Rev. Catherine Purves
Everyone wants to be wise, no one wants to be foolish, and everyone wants to have power. This Scripture passage from 1 Corinthians is counter-intuitive in the extreme. It is saying the exact opposite of what we want to hear. In fact, it is downright insulting to just about everyone. The Jews are criticized for demanding signs. The Greeks are condemned for seeking wisdom. And the Christians are demeaned for being foolish, weak, low and despised in the world, and for not being of noble birth. This is a very odd style of evangelism. It makes you wonder how Paul ever converted anyone. It does, perhaps, shed new light on why he was often attacked, beaten, run out of town, and arrested, however.
Obviously, Paul did not make a practice of telling people what they wanted to hear. He did not tailor his proclamation of the gospel to make it more palatable, more comforting, or more uplifting. He didn’t praise his audiences, although he did make an effort to know and understand the people he was talking to, and he did want to convert them. Paul knew that the Jews came with certain expectations and beliefs. He knew that the Gentiles had a very different point of view and religious experience. He knew each of the young churches he wrote to and their particular challenges and strengths. So why is he, in this passage, running roughshod over everyone and apparently ignoring the fact that his words are offensive and virtually nonsensical? Wisdom and foolishness and power are all turned on their heads. Why?
One thing that Paul seems to be trying to get across to the Corinthians is the fact that Christianity is a hard sell. It is not something that automatically makes sense to people. If you have ever tried to explain what you believe to someone who is disinclined to share your faith, you know that this is the case. People want what they want. If your ideas don’t mesh with their worldview, forget it. You have no common language. You don’t share the same values. You may not even think or reason in the same way. Paul is telling the Christians in Corinth that the way of Christ is profoundly different from the ways of the world. He is basically telling them that they should be prepared to be misunderstood and to have their beliefs rejected by those who are either worldly or just differently wired in terms of their belief systems. This is not a happy message to receive, but it is an honest one.
Paul’s answer to this dilemma is not to compromise or water down his gospel. Instead he doubles down in this passage, accentuating the awkwardness of the Christian faith, demonstrating how very counter-intuitive the cross is and how God’s wise and saving ways confound the world. How then can we convert the world? The answer is: we can’t, but God will. The power of God works in these strange and subversive ways: through weakness, in the message of the cross, and by the secret work of the Holy Spirit who opens up closed minds, revealing to them a truth that surprises and transforms, in spite of the (so-called) wisdom of the world and the powers that the world recognizes and worships.
But here is the hard part, and Paul doesn’t soft-pedal it. This is really the reason that he wrote this perplexing passage in the first place. We cannot use the wisdom of the world to defeat the wisdom of the world. We cannot get all high and mighty or throw around power or influence or money in order to show the world the truth about Christ. When the church has identified with the world by embedding itself in a particular culture, this has not resulted in the conversion of the world. It has, instead, changed and compromised the church.
Consider the church in Nazi Germany, or in Apartheid South Africa. These were instances when the ‘wisdom’ of the world coopted and corrupted the church. Scripture was used, or rather misused, to justify the unjust use of power and oppression. But this is not just something that happened to other people in other countries. Look at the church in the pre-Civil War south (or north, for that matter). It too employed the wisdom of the world, of culture, of economics, of human reason to justify enslavement and racism. Or what about the church that proclaims a prosperity gospel, assuming that wealth and power and influence and growth are blessings bestowed by God on the worthy. This dangerous tendency to compromise the gospel is evident even in small ways, as when the church willingly prays at civic events, but diplomatically agrees not to mention the name of Jesus. Sadly, the history of the church is full of examples like this. Worldly wisdom, worldly power, worldly ways are not the ways of God in Christ. God does not use those ways, or a church that adopts those ways, in order to change or convert the world. This is the hard truth that Paul wants the Corinthians and us to understand.
But God does use the weak, the small, and the lowly. God does use the cross and the proclamation of the cross, and the power of the Holy Spirit to change people and churches and nations. Jesus does call his church from the world and its ways in order to send his church into the world to proclaim that the world has been saved in him. And Christ uses us to do that. This is perhaps the most surprising thing of all, when we consider who we are, how few resources we have, and how insecure and powerless we feel in a world that demands signs and desires wisdom. To say that we are not of noble birth is an understatement. But, as odd as it seems, this is the way that God has chosen to reveal the truth of the gospel.
But how does that actually work? It works, I think, because the less we bring to the table in terms of power and worldly wisdom, impressive credentials and influence, money and resources, the more God provides. It works because when we surrender our lives to Christ, the Holy Spirit begins to work in our lives. It works because the gospel really does have the power to change everything. Christ crucified is now Christ resurrected and Christ ascended to reign as Lord. That fact is what turns all worldly wisdom and worldly power on its head. The wisdom and the power that the world recognizes and claims are not real. God’s power and God’s wisdom are real. As Paul wrote, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
You know this, because you know the power of prayer. You know this because you know that faith produces hope even in the most dire of circumstances. You know this because, in some ways, you have seen sin defeated in your own life. We know this because eventually the church did take a stand against Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa. We know this because our church, the PC(USA), continues to try to speak out about the evils of racism, inequality, and injustice. We know this because when the church compromises the gospel it does not bear fruit that will last, but when the church relies on God and the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit lives are changed and God’s power accomplishes modern miracles.
But why would God choose to operate in this clandestine and strangely counter-cultural way, using ordinary people like us, people without power or influence or wisdom? Paul tells us. It is so that we and the world will realize that it is God at work and not us. It is so that no one will boast, so that the ugly and destructive sin of pride will not get a foothold in our lives, and so that others will have to recognize that all this must be a work of the Holy Spirit, because, obviously, we couldn’t accomplish all that God is doing on our own.
Now, we are about to celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism. This is where we can see this theology of Paul acted out in the life of the church. As Presbyterians, we baptize the small, the weak, the child. We do not wait until a youth has obtained wisdom, or strength, or a will of his own. We don’t postpone this Sacrament of incorporation into Christ and into his church until an adequate statement of faith can be affirmed. We act now while Rhys is still a babe in arms, recognizing that it is the act of God that matters in his life. We celebrate and anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit in Rhys’ life. We expect God to act through him, as God acts through us, not because we are wise or powerful or determined, but because the gospel has a power of its own, and the Holy Spirit is a transforming force that will change the world just as God has changed us in Christ.
And so, we do celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism. Each time we lift up a tiny and vulnerable child of God, naming and claiming that child as belonging to Christ, we see the power and wisdom of God unleashed in surprising and unexpected ways. Certainly, these are the ways of God, and not the ways of the world. And to that, Paul would say, Thanks be to God!