The wisdom of the cross

Epiphany 4, 2011

1 Corinthians 1:10-31 (Matthew 5:1-12)

Marian Free

In the name of God who is never as we expect but who constantly surprises and challenges us.  Amen.

Many people say that they find Paul’s letters difficult to understand. I am not one of them. It is my firm conviction Paul enriches and enlivens our understanding of the gospel and that without Paul’s contribution to the understanding of the gospel, our faith would flounder on the legalism Jesus tried to confront.  Though Paul doesn’t write a theological textbook, he takes the story and teaching of Jesus and without doing it any injustice interprets it in such a way that we more clearly understand the free gift of God’s grace, the power of the Spirit and the gospel of freedom. The Apostle Paul is one of the most impressive and formative characters of the formation of the Christian faith. Not only do his letters give us a window into the emerging church, but the writings attributed to him combined with the information about him in the book of Acts make up one third of the New Testament.

Paul came to faith through an experience of the risen Christ to which he refers in Galatians. This experience leaves him firmly convinced that Christ has revealed the gospel directly to him. As a result of this experience, Paul not only behaves with the passion of a convert, but he believes that the gospel revealed to him is the only true gospel. For this reason, Paul uses every method at his command to convince his congregations of the truth gospel as it had been revealed to him and he struggled vigorously to win them back when others confused or influenced them.

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing what Paul actually taught his congregations. His letters were written, not to expound particular theological ideas, but to address specific situations in the communities which he had founded. When he wrote to the Galatians, it is because he was furious that they had turned away from the gospel of freedom, to be bound again by the law. His letter to Rome was written as a letter of introduction and also to clarify misconceptions that the Roman community might have had about his teaching. Some scholars think it is possibly to read back through the conflict to discover what Paul originally taught, but this must in part, be based on guesswork and speculation. The letters have to be read with some care. It is important to distinguish between Paul’s voice and what he might be quoting back to the members of his communities. We also have to be aware that Paul is not above using sarcasm and that he uses rhetorical techniques to great effect.

The letter to the Corinthians was written to address a community in crisis. Paul knows of the crisis from two sources. He has received a report from Chloe’s people and the Corinthians have written to Paul in order to clarify a number of issues which are causing concern. The former have to do with divisions within the community and the latter with issues related to the body – sex and marriage, food laws and the resurrection. In Paul’s absence the Corinthians have become a divided (even stratified) community. They were divided by their loyalty to  different teachers, they took one another to court, they discriminated against those who are poor and competed with each other on the basis of their spiritual gifts. On top of this they were arrogant and self assured. According to their own definition they considered themselves to be wise, to be spiritually rich – even perfect.

It is clear from the letter, that the Corinthians completely misunderstood what Paul’s had taught. They have interpreted the freedom of the gospel as an invitation to immorality, rather than freedom to be led by the Spirit (which does not lead to immorality. They believed that having been justified by faith, they did not need to fear a future judgement and that being spiritual they did not have to be concerned with the actions of the body. Paul reminded them firmly that their body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that they would be made accountable in the future for their behaviour in the present.

In the first chapter, Paul confronts the arrogance and self-assurance of the Corinthians by reminding them that the crucified Christ is at the centre of the gospel that he preached. He reminds them that Christ himself did not seek power or glory but accepted the shame and humiliation of the cross. Even though the idea of a crucified Lord was to the world a notion that was utterly unbelievable and unacceptable – a scandal for the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks – this was the gospel that Paul taught in Corinth.  Paul was clear in his own mind that the very weakness of the cross was what gave it its power.

As an illustration of the power that is found in weakness, Paul reminds the Corinthians of how he brought the gospel to them. By his own admission, Paul was not a powerful speaker, nor was his physical presence commanding or authoritative. He himself did not exhibit the eloquent wisdom which the Corinthians now highly prized. Paul claims that because he was weak, the Corinthians could be assured that it was not Paul, but the gospel itself which convinced them. Because Paul was weak God was able to speak through him. It Because Paul had completely submitted his will to that of God, Christ could be known through him. Because Paul had figuratively allowed his own needs for self-agrandisement and recognition to be crucified with Christ the Spirit could work through Paul to convince the Corinthians of the truth of the gospel. Paul’s weakness and lack of eloquence are ample proof that it was not his presence or speech which convinced the Corinthians but the message of the gospel being proclaimed through him.

Paul did not meet the earthly Jesus. This meant that all that he knew of Jesus’ teaching came directly from the risen Christ or through the teaching of others. Today’s gospel demonstrates that despite coming late to faith Paul clearly understood the kernel of the gospel Jesus’ preached. Paul comprehended that Jesus’ life and teaching challenged the conventional understanding of the world, confronted the status quo and turned upside down the accepted view of reality. If poverty and grief are blessings in the new order, then those who believe are forced to reconsider everything they think they know or understand. More importantly, they are compelled to realize that their own understanding is so limited, and so restricted that they have no grounds for boasting.

The cross throws into sharp relief the false values and expectations of the world. It shatters our arrogance and self assurance by demonstrating that God is utterly beyond our comprehension. The cross is so shocking, so beyond anything we could imagine that we are forced to acknowledge with Paul that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” and in turn to recognise our own limitations.

“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.” Let us nail to the cross our false pride, our independence and selfishness and knowing that when we are weak we are strong and when we are foolish we are wise, because it is only when we acknowledge our weakness and our foolishness that we allow the Spirit of God to work in and through us.




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