by Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are continuing with our sermon series, The Wisdom of God. Remember what we learned last week. First, this is a letter. We are actually reading someone else’s mail from 2000 years ago. This was an actual person, who was writing to a group of people that he knew personally and cared for, people who he introduced to faith in Jesus Christ. They had sent him a list of questions, and he was responding to them. He had also heard from some people that we’ll learn about shortly who told him some additional things that were going on in the community. But, since this is a letter, like when you’re overhearing a phone call, we only get one side of the conversation. We can tell a lot from what we hear, but that’s something to keep in mind.
Second, we learned that the Corinthians were thinking very highly of themselves. Many of them thought that they had it all figured out, but they didn’t agree on what it should look like. (Of course, we don’t have that problem in the church today, right?) We also learned that the Apostle Paul was not above using satire and other forms of humor to get their attention, referring to them in straight English as “you holy holy ones.”
Perhaps, most importantly, we learned that being a saint isn’t a destination of personal perfection (for the Corinthians or for us), but rather it is a call from God to go on a journey to be made holy. We have all been called on this journey to be saints, to be made holy.
This week we are continuing with this letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians. This week, I’m not going to ask you to find the Scripture in your Bibles (though you may certainly look at it there). In the pews you will find … copies of this week’s part of the letter, and I will ask you to look at it with me, remembering that we are looking at a letter from the past. Keep it handy because I will be reading part and then coming back to it periodically. (1 Corinthians 1:10-31)
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas ”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)
Possibly, Paul is injecting some more humor here. However, this is one of the places that it sounds most like a contemporary letter to me, recollecting the few whom he baptized, and then correcting himself. Finally admitting, “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.” One of the reasons that these letters in the Bible don’t seem like the letters that would have been written in the last couple hundred years even is that it was an enormous undertaking to write a letter.
First, you had to hire a secretary. The whole process could be a couple of days labor. To write a letter? Yes. You had to buy the papyrus rolls and other supplies. They cost a bit more than a $.17 spiral notebooks you can buy during the back to school sales. There would be drafts of the letters and notes. A copy would be retained. Maybe several additional copies were made to send to multiple groups. You couldn’t go to a copy machine and print out a couple of extras. Each one would have to be handwritten. The grand total cost in today’s money would be around $2200 … for a letter. A long letter like 1 Corinthians might cost even more. That doesn’t even include the cost of travel for someone to hand deliver it. Makes $.47 for a stamp seem like quite a bargain.
One thing is for sure. If you were going to go through all the trouble of writing a letter, you would choose your words very carefully. That’s one of the reasons that we look at all the NT writings so closely and analyze every word. Each word was precious, both literally and figuratively. This is part of the reason that this tangent of whom Paul did or did not baptize, is so interesting. Baptism was very important to Paul, baptism in the name of Jesus. He wasn’t so interested in who was baptizing, but into whom they were being baptized. He goes on …
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
What is the gospel? What is the good news? That the God that made the world has rescued it from corruption and decay through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died in our place, but the new creation began when he rose on the third day, offering all of us new life through him. God has invited all the peoples of the world to look at Jesus and find in him and through him the way in which that new world, that new creation, has come to pass. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here.” We can be a part of that. Each one of us is invited to be rescued in this way. Paul in his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean made this same appeal, everywhere he went.
Acts 17 tells us that Paul was in Athens just before arriving in Corinth for the first time. There he did speak with wisdom and eloquence. They invited him to speak at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, where the philosophers of the day would discuss the latest thoughts and ideas. They listened to him, and some found him interesting and invited him to come back. A few believed Paul, but mostly they were curious in the same way that they were about all new ideas. Paul left and did not come back. Next, he went on to Corinth.
The thing to understand about Corinth is that as far as the intellectual life of the city was concerned, it wasn’t that different from Athens. It prided itself on its intellectual life. There would be visiting philosophers and sages. People would come out to listen to them, like we might go to a concert or a play. They were used to sophisticated people coming to town and dazzling them with their knowledge and wisdom.
It’s as if Paul left Athens and arrived in Corinth to say, I’m not going to try competing with those philosophers again. I can’t try to trick people with rhetorical tactics. The power of the Cross can speak for itself. Paul continues in his letter.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” (Isaiah 29:14)
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since // in the wisdom of God // the world // through its wisdom // did not know him, God was pleased // through the foolishness of what was preached // to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
Have you ever seen kids’ notebooks from maybe the sixth grade on up? So many of them have doodles. Maybe you’ve done them yourself? They might be full of hearts and the name of a person they like. I remember seeing drawings that might be very detailed comic books, what they call “graphic novels” now, a specialize art form.
Most of the ones, I’ve seen though were not that detailed or talented. They might be sketches of all kinds of things. I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I’m sure that I saw a few that might have worked well for an anatomy class. I might wonder whether kids still do them with the widespread use of computers, but I am very thankful for those back-to-school sales when I can get a notebook for $.17.
Of course, it isn’t just notebooks. It might be writing or drawing on the bathroom wall. It could even be mural sized art that is sometimes called graffiti. Of course, we can even admire it when it’s good. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. I don’t know what it is about these kinds of drawings, but it must be hardwired into us because kids were doing it at schools in about the year 200 A.D. There was a boarding school in Rome called The Domus Gelotiana. Archeologists found an image carved into the plaster at the school. It is referred to as the Alexa-menos Graffito, not because they think Alexa-menos carved it, but because he is mocked in it.
That a god could appear in human form? That was not such a big deal. Other gods did that on occasion, but gods don’t get executed by humans. That was either proof that this was no god, or that the god was weak, certainly not one worth worshiping. This image is an example of what that culture thought of a crucified god (even parts of our culture today think that), utter foolishness, something to be mocked, not taken seriously.
Why would the crucifixion of Jesus be a stumbling block or even a path to destruction for Jewish people? In some places it is referred to as a scandal. It goes back to Deuteronomy 21:22-23 (NRSV), “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.” Their Messiah was supposed to be defeating and driving out the oppressors, not being executed by them by effectively being hung on a tree and, as they supposed, under God’s curse.
So, whether talking about the gospel to Jewish people or Greeks, Paul knew that it was an open invitation for people to mock.
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Does this mean that we’re not supposed to use our reason, to use our brains, at all? That we couldn’t possibly understand, so we just have to accept what we have been told? No, Paul’s discourse here and elsewhere proves that if nothing else. He is attempting to made a persuasive argument here. He is actually appealing to the Corinthians’ intellect, even if he may think that they’ve gotten a little too big for their britches.
If God did not want us to use our brains, we would not be encouraged to study the Scriptures, but this is so that we can learn the Wisdom of God and be able to differentiate it from the wisdom of the world.
However, a thing to remember when looking at this letter is that we have an advantage that the Corinthians did not have. We have the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In those we learn from Jesus himself the reasons why belief in him is not folly or at least worth consideration. So, as Paul says …
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
Perhaps, a little more humor here, or perhaps a little prick in their balloon of self-satisfaction. But, also notice that he uses the past tense. “Not many of you were …” wise, influential, noble. They are now changed. They may still be on their journey, but they are no longer the same as when they were originally called. They have gained wisdom, influence, and nobility. And he goes on …
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus mentions all of these groups of people who blessed: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted for righteousness. Again, those are not usually the people we think of as blessed. We think of the rich, the powerful, those surrounded by family and friends, those who are popular, but when Paul is describing the Corinthians, they sound a lot like the kinds of people that Jesus was talking about.
27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,
Why would God do that? To show that it is God and not us. Let me remind you of a story that I told you in the fall about a man name Gideon. He was so afraid of the enemies around him stealing his crops, his food, that he was threshing wheat in a hole instead of out in the open where the wind could blow the chaff away (cf. Judges 6). God chose him to lead an army. He was the least in his family of the weakest clan of a lesser known tribe. Not only that, but God refers to him as a “mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12) No one is surprised when Samson defeats an enemy single handedly because of his strength, but Gideon? If he wins, there is no question that it must be God. As Paul says,
29 so that no one may boast before [God]. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
The wisdom of the world says that a savior has to physically defeat human enemies, establish a new government. Being crucified by that enemy is not exactly a persuasive demonstration of power. Later in this letter, in chapter 15, Paul agrees with that except for one thing … the resurrection of Christ, and he tells them it is not merely some story made up by his mourning friends. There were many many witnesses besides the disciples, more than 500, most of whom were still alive. In other words, they could have traveled to Jerusalem, and he would be able to introduce them.
With the resurrection of Christ, all other arguments go out the window. You want God to defeat enemies, rulers, kings, armies? That’s nothing. You have to realign your concept of power because what God demonstrated through the resurrection of Jesus was the defeat of death itself. There is no bigger enemy than that.
God chose us in our weakness, in our meekness, in our imperfection, and through that in God’s Wisdom, God’s power shines. Through God, we are able to do great things. And as Paul ends this part of the letter …
31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”