Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 29, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Commentary
Drinking from the proverbial fire hose, that’s what these verses from 1 Corinthians are like. In verse after verse Paul scales ever higher theological heights and ever grander rhetorical flourishes as he stares, mouth agape, at the mysteries of God that all coalesce around the cross of Jesus Christ. Few passages in Scripture so swiftly capture the weird logic, the majestic reversal that just is the Gospel of Christ Jesus and its message on how it is that the universe gets saved.
No one saw this coming. The world has its standards. The world knows what is strong and what is weak, what is effective and what is ineffectual. The world has defined intelligence and wisdom and can identify them when it sees them. The world has likewise defined stupidity and foolishness and can spy those things pretty readily too. History teaches us who comes out on top. It’s a dog eat dog world. Only the strong make it to the top. Had Paul known of Mr. Darwin, he would have pointed to the “survival of the fittest” that defines all progress on planet earth. These are things the world knows well.
It reminds me of a couple of scenes from the Godfather movies where the ways of the world become clear. As the old don of the family, Vito Corleone (Marlin Brando) is preparing to hand over the reins of power to youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), he advises Michael always be careful, smart, hard-thinking. “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be careless” the old man says. “Women and children can be careless but not men.” In the second film Michael refers to his older brother, Fredo, who got passed over and whom Michael can never trust with anything important. “Fredo has a good heart but he’s weak and he’s stupid and this is life and death.”
Our is a world of intelligence, wisdom, guts, and courage. Might makes right and nice guys finish last. It’s like some of the rapid-fire lines from George Carlin’s classic “Modern Man” routine: Push the envelope, manage risks, be a high flyer, get ahead of the curve. Don’t snooze or you’ll lose, keep the pedal to the metal, have a power lunch and take a power trip. Or as even some popular preachers tell us, “Nobody plans to fail but some fail to plan. Tough times never last but tough people do. High achievers spot rich opportunities swiftly, make big decisions quickly and move into action immediately. Follow these principles and you can make your dreams come true” (Robert Schuller).
Well, no, Paul says. This is the way the world works, true enough. And if you are scrappy and brave and are willing to claw your way to the top of the ladder—no matter how many little people you have to step over along the way—you can and you will achieve success as defined by the wisdom of the age and the savvy of the most intelligent among us. This is very simply how to get things done.
But not with God. Not with the way of salvation. No, here God upends it all. We are not saved by power but by weakness. We are not saved by worldly wisdom but by apparent folly. We do not enter the pathway to eternal life through the portals of Wall Street but by heading down a blind alleyway that appears to be a dead end. To riff on Frederick Buechner, this is the Gospel as Fairly Tale where everything is different than it at first appears. It’s the frog who is the prince waiting to be kissed, the blind beggar who is the most powerful man in the world, the ugly duckling waiting to blossom into the most resplendent of swans.
To understand this, Paul writes, you must—now to riff on Yoda—“unlearn what you have learned.” Forget graduate studies in business or law. Forget the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” or Andrew Carnegie’s best tips on how to win friends and influence people. God is going to take you back to school and its curriculum is decidedly unworldly, other-worldly, foolish, weak, ineffective. It’s graduate studies in the unlikely, a Ph.D. in the simplicities of Kindergarten. It’s a parallel universe in which the weak are strong and the foolish are wise and dead end cul-de-sacs lead somehow to shining streets of gold in a kingdom without end.
And it is the cross that defines this whole new world. Because it was in the ignominious, shameful, accursed death of God’s own Son that the shining effulgence of all this counter-wisdom burst forth. It was the darkest moment in human history that led to the light. It was the death that led to life. The cross shows us God’s way of doing things like nothing else ever could
Oh, yes, true enough: the whole Bible had all along given hints and whispers of God’s penchant for unlikely heroes and non-starter methods. God starts a new nation with a pair of childless senior citizens. He’s got the whole world to choose from and he picks . . . Abram and Sarai? (Buechner again: “Shall a child be born in the geriatric ward? Shall Medicare pick up the bill?”) Again and again he chooses the younger over the preferred older child: Jacob, not Esau; Joseph, not the other eleven. He rescues his people by tapping a spokesperson who stuttered: Moses, not the better orators in Israel. He gave that nation its greatest king by choosing the runt of the litter, David, the younger and less strapping son even as God kept saying things like “People look at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart.” The prophets said it again and again: it will be a shoot from a stump that is the sprig of hope. It will be the despised one from whom people hide their faces, the uncomely one, the sheep led to the slaughter that would be messianic arrows pointing to the way to redemption.
When that Coming One arrived, it was a goat’s feed trough that was his cradle, poverty-stricken people who would be his earthly parents. A carpenter’s son from the Nowheresville Nazareth would be the one who would spout parables no one could understand and who would say again and again that the greatest treasure, the eternal kingdom, the stuff that will really last that will look like the tiniest seed, the invisible yeast, the widow’s mite. He’d suggest that the meek who will inherit the earth, the weeping ones who would find laughter in the end, the last, least, lost, and lonely who would be God’s favorite kind of people.
Yes, yes, this Jesus person had been saying stuff like that all along but it was only at the end, only when he accomplished all salvation by dying on a cross that it became crystal clear that all along God had been truly serious about the best things coming from the least likely places. It was only when an instrument of cruel execution became somehow the gateway to real and eternal life that we recognized the things of God.
That is also why, as Paul points out, that people like the Corinthians themselves were God’s kind of people. They had not been power brokers in Corinth, not celebrities, not highly touted scholars, not the beautiful people gracing the covers of magazines. No, they had been simple, ordinary folks, looked down on by the world, despised by the power elite for the way they dressed in off-the-rack attire from Penneys, for the crudeness of their vocabulary, for the modesty of their single-story little cracker box houses or their $15 Super Clips haircuts. But guess what, Paul says, that makes you unlikely people a perfect fit for God’s unlikely Gospel of hope that centers on an old rugged cross. That makes you Beatitudes-grade people, superstars in the eyes of God, weaklings and earthen vessels containing all the power there is in God’s good creation.
That makes you Grace People. That makes you welcome targets for the Grace that comes from a bloody cross. It’s all right there in front of you, Paul says: the power of God, the wisdom of God, the salvation of God: it fits faulty and normal folks. Righteousness, holiness, redemption: it is all ours because by faith through grace we have been given the eyes to see deeper into the structure of things than what appears in the news headlines of the day, than what gets the TV’s spotlight, than what passes as today’s latest, greatest set of tips for successful living. We see down to what C.S. Lewis called “the deep magic of the universe” and its awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping reversal of all things we thought we knew.
This is the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as we drink from the 1 Corinthians 1 fire hose. Thanks be to God!
Many thoughtful writers like Neal Plantinga and Frederick Buechner have helped us appreciate the scandal of the cross, the paradox of its somehow becoming a symbol of hope. Being glorified on a cross, Plantinga once noted, is like being enthroned on an electric chair, getting exalted at the end of a hangman’s noose, finding success on the gurney of lethal injection. How odd it would be today if a woman wore a necklace with an electric chair pendant or earrings in the shape of a noose. How did the cross—as terrifying a symbol of death and painful execution as there was in the Roman Empire—become the thing to adorn your body with, to set atop a church steeple, to grace the covers of a million church bulletins?
Some while back I entered one of the most sobering spaces I have ever been in: it was the lethal injection execution chamber in a state penitentiary. And because the criminal being executed lays down on the padded gurney and because he has to have his arms exposed to put in the IV needles through which the fatal cocktail of drugs will flow, the gurney was vaguely cross-shaped. But there is no hope in this room. This is death, the end of the line, the place where you wind up when your every appeal for life has been rejected by the courts and when the governor has turned his back on your clemency request. There is no hope, no life, no glory here. Same as Golgotha. And yet for believers . . .
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