Wisdom and the cross

Epiphany 5

1 Corinthians 2:1-13

Marian Free 

In the name of God, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom. Amen.

 If someone were to ask me which of Paul’s letters was my favourite, I think I would say the first letter to the Corinthians for no other reason than it reveals Paul’s profound insight into and interpretation of the cross. The community almost certainly Gentiles so it is not surprising that, as the letter indicates, they were a little confused as to the details of this new faith. It has to be remembered that at that time, there were no Christian scriptures. New converts were entirely dependent on the teaching of itinerant preachers who did not stay long enough in the community to ensure that all possible problems had been dealt with and all questions answered. Even though Paul had spent quite some time among the Corinthians, it seems that confusion reigned once he had left the city.

Paul writes this (possibly his second)[1] letter to Corinth in response to some concerns which had been reported by Chloe’s people[2] and also in response to a letter that the community had written to him[3]. Chloe’s concerns relate to divisions and competition in the community and immoral and un-Christian behaviour. Paul’s deals with issues such as members striving to outdo each other with regard to spiritual gifts, sub-groups following different leaders, a man living with his father’s wife and believers taking one-another to court. The letter also deals with more specific issues, many of which relate to relationships and sex: how to behave towards one’s spouse (whether to have sex or not, whether one should divorce a non-believing partner) and to marry or not to marry.

Even though Paul is addressing these very specific issues, he does so in a way that is theologically insightful and which interprets the cross of Christ is such a way that he can apply it to the community life of the believers in Corinth and to his own ministry.

The Corinthians, as I have said, were a divided community who had not fully grasped Paul’s message of the gospel. Perhaps based on the religions from which they had come, they placed wisdom as the high point of their faith and competed for the distinction of being the wisest or most knowledgeable in the community. It is clear that knowledge or wisdom is at issue. More than once Paul challenges their supposed wisdom with the question: “Do you not know?” (Obviously they do not!)

In order to demonstrate that the Corinthians wisdom is only narrow and partial, Paul points out the absurd contradiction of a crucified man proving to be God’s chosen one. As he says, any self-respecting Jew would have nothing to do with such a person – let alone elevate him to the status of God’s anointed.  On the other hand Greeks would think that to have faith in such a man would be utter foolishness.  To be fair, if we were to strip away sentimentality, dogma and creed, we too would think that a crucified Saviour was both gruesome and ridiculous (and impossible to sell). God, in Christ, has done something absolutely ludicrous. This, Paul claims, this is exactly the point. Christians believe that a man who was condemned to death as a criminal was the one sent by God. God’s action begs the question: Why on earth or in heaven would God chose such a person, or allow such an awful fate to befall the one whom he sent? He provides the answer using the words of Isaiah “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (29:14)

According to Paul, God’s purpose in presenting us with a crucified Saviour was precisely to confound and unsettle us, to create some sort of cognitive dissonance that would force us to rely, not on ourselves, but on God, to shake us out of our complacency and to open our eyes to a completely different way of seeing, so that instead of being limited and bound by our own intelligence and by the constraints of the human imagination, we might be freed to see and hear what God is actually doing and saying. This, the cross demonstrates, is often the exact reverse of what we expect God to say and do.

In today’s text, Paul extends his argument about the cross to his proclamation of the gospel.  Paul made no attempt to claim power or knowledge for himself as did other preachers. He did not pretend to be anything he was not but allowed the Corinthians to see his weaknesses and imperfections. Paul has no need to compete, to demonstrate that he is wiser, stronger or more knowledgeable than anyone else. He is content to be weak and inarticulate because he knows that this enables him to be used by God and to be receptive to the Spirit. What is more those who come to faith know that they have not been swayed by the power of Paul’s presence and the force of his argument, but by the power of God working through him. Their faith lies where it belongs, in God and not in Paul.

The contradiction of the cross turns everything upside down. In so doing the cross exposes the flaws in what we might have thought we knew and the limitations of human knowledge and understanding – about worldly values, wisdom and strength. Through the cross God makes us aware that our knowledge, however good, is always incomplete and imperfect. The only true wisdom is that of God and the only way to achieve that wisdom is through recognizing the vast gulf between ourselves and the creator of all – who saw fit not to stun us with a triumphant king or a military victory, but a vulnerable, friendless man who died one of the most shocking deaths of all.

The purpose of the cross is to challenge the arrogance and self-conceit that allows us to believe that we know all there is to know about God. A crucified Saviour confronts our need for certainty and our dependence on doctrine, ritual and yes, even scripture and to open us to the power of God working in us and through us.


[1] 1 Corinthians 5:9

[2] 1 Corinthians 1:11

[3] “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7:1, cf 7:25, 8:1).

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