Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 29, 2023
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Commentary
A number of years ago The Christian Century invited theologians, pastors and other Christian leaders to attempt to succinctly summarize the gospel. It asked them to proclaim its good news in just seven words, and then expand on their summary in a few sentences.
The November 29, 2011 edition of the Century published some of those summaries. Martin E. Marty said, “God, through Christ, welcomes you anyhow.” Beverly Roberts Gaventa wrote, “In Christ, God’s yes defeats our no.” Ellen Charry reminded us that “The wall of hostility has come down.” My personal favorite was M. Craig Barnes’, “We live by grace.”
It might be a helpful exercise for this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s preachers to try to summarize the gospel in seven words. In preparation for the proclamation of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, preachers might even ask our hearers to submit their own summary via email or some form of social media.
However, one might argue that in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Paul offers an even more succinct summary of the gospel than The Christian Century’s contributors did. It’s, after all, not seven words long, but two. Paul’s succinct summary of the gospel is verse 27’s, “But God …” (alla … Theos).
“But God …” is, in fact, a kind of refrain throughout this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. That’s, however, not particularly surprising. After all, in his book, Paul for Everyone: First Corinthians (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003) N.T. Wright calls “’but God’ … some of Paul’s favorite words. [God] often describes a human situation or problem and then takes delight in showing that God has stepped in and done something to change it drastically.”
In verse 22 Paul basically says, Jews demand signs and Greeks wisdom, but God proclaims through God’s people Christ crucified. Paul says in The Message’s paraphrase of verse 26, “Take a good look, friends at what you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families.” Few of their contemporaries, in other words, viewed the Corinthians who later became Christians as their city’s “movers and shakers.”
But God (alla … Theos), the apostle continues in verse 27, chose people whom others considered “foolish” to shame people whom their contemporaries considered to be wise. People didn’t pay much attention to many of the Corinthian Christians or their perspectives. But God chose those whom others viewed as “weak” people to shame people who they assumed were strong.
Not many of Corinth’s Christians were born into prominent families. But God chose those people whom others considered “lowly,” or “despised” or not even as existing to “nullify” those who thought highly of themselves. Quite simply, in The Message’s words, God “chose those ‘nobodies to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’.”
Paul’s repeated use of the phrase, “But God …” shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Scriptures. It is, after all, in one sense, a concise summary of God’s ways in and with the world ever since our parents turned away from God and towards the evil one.
Adam and Eve rebelled against God, God’s plans and purposes. But God promised to crush the head of the one who led them away from God. Every inclination of Adam and Eve’s descendants was only evil all the time. But God saved Noah’s family through which God in one sense started all over again. Abram and Sarai were unable to bear children. But God acted in such a way that they now have more descendants than we could count in a lifetime of counting.
Israel largely turned her back on God. But God acted in Christ to be the true Israel through whom God graciously saved God’s people. The authorities collaborated to execute Jesus like a common criminal. But God raised him to life and the heavenly realm. Even a lifetime spent with Jesus wasn’t enough to convince his disciples to become his apostles. But God sent the Spirit to transform them into Christians who proclaimed the good news throughout their known world.
Christians continue to in some ways make a colossal mess of the creation that God once called good. But God is not just making all things new. God will also someday restore that creation to the purposes for which God originally made it. “But God …” is, in fact, a succinct summary of God and the Scriptures’ answer to humanity’s rebellion against God.
Paul continues in that vein throughout the rest of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. After insisting that God responded to human rebellion by choosing ‘nobodies to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies,’ the apostle continues in verse 30, God sent Christ Jesus to become “wisdom from God” (sophia hemin apo Theou).
The word “wisdom” there, of course, echoes verses 26 and 27’s use of the word “wise” to describe what the Corinthians were not. It also echoes the “wisdom” for which Paul says the Greeks look (22). Yet while Paul talks about the “wisdom of God” in verse 24, the idea of Christ Jesus as God’s “wisdom” may not have been any more readily understandable to Paul’s contemporaries than it is to 21st century Christians. After all, the apostle goes on to define God’s wisdom as our “righteousness, holiness and redemption” (30).
God’s ways in the world seem like “foolishness” to those who ignore God’s call. After all, humanity naturally views wisdom as an avenue to controlling the world. It can’t understand how any divine being would work through crucifixion to rescue humanity. Nor can the world conceive of how God would work through people whom it sees as foolish to do any lasting good. Yet in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Paul insists that God works wonders through a cross that’s a sign of human powerlessness, and declares as acceptable to God people whom others deem to be foolish.
Christians sometimes act as if following Jesus is the most natural and logical thing in the whole world. We easily assume that people who turn their backs on God and God’s ways are foolish. Paul reminds God’s dearly beloved children that there’s nothing natural or particularly logical about believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Such faith is only and always a gracious gift from God.
Following Jesus Christ may seem to most of our contemporaries to be complete foolishness. However, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 insists that it’s actually the wisest course of action that anyone can undertake.
N.T. Wright (ibid) tells what he calls the “true but sad story of Cosmo Gordon Long.” He served as the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928 to 1942. In Long’s day there was no mandatory retirement age for archbishops. But when he reached his late seventies, he recognized his growing physical frailty. So Long decided to leave office.
Yet in what Wright calls a “revealing remark to a colleague,” Long displayed an attitude that Wright says one would hope an archbishop has outgrown. Long told his colleague, “Having been Somebody, I shall now be Nobody.” That, in some ways, reflects the wisdom of the world over which Satan continues to hold so much power. But such a lament is not evidence of wisdom about God’s ways in our world. The claim that any adopted child of God could ever be a nobody is complete foolishness.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!