The Sufficiency of the Cross

1 Corinthians 2:1-13

Paul notes (2:1-5) that he did not seek to make Christ known through clever words or conventional wisdom.  He might have attempted to proclaim the mystery of God through lofty and highfalutin language, but instead he proclaimed only Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Not only that, Paul remembers that he came to the Corinthians in physical weakness and may not have been the most effective public speaker.  He notes that his proclamation of the gospel was not made with “plausible words of wisdom” that would appeal to the intellectuals of the Corinthian community, but was instead based on a demonstration of the Spirit of God.  Paul argues that the reason he did this was that he didn’t want the Corinthians’ faith to rest on human wisdom (which, as he has already explained, has been made foolish through the Cross), but rather on the power of God.

In the next section (2:6-13), Paul backpedals a bit, saying that those who proclaim the gospel do indeed speak wisdom, but it is not the wisdom of human beings.  No, it is God’s wisdom, which was decreed long ago and has only been revealed through the arrival of Jesus Christ.  Paul notes that the rulers of this age, who are quite wise by human standards, could not have understood God’s wisdom, because otherwise they would not have crucified Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls “the Lord of glory.”  Rather, it is those who have received the Spirit, those who are spiritual, who understand the wisdom of God.  The Spirit of God searches “even the depths of God,” and helps those who are spiritual to understand the gifts that God has bestowed upon them.  At this point in Paul’s argument, the Corinthians may have breathed a sigh of relief.  Paul had been telling them that the wisdom of this world had been made foolish, and they were probably worried that Paul believed that their wisdom was worthless.  But the Corinthians felt that they were the most spiritually mature people who had ever lived.  Not only had they received the gospel, they had turned the gospel into sophisticated spiritual knowledge.  So when Paul writes that God’s wisdom is taught by the Spirit to those who are spiritual, the Corinthians must have patted themselves on the back, knowing that Paul was finally speaking their language.

“It was not for our understanding, but for our will, that Christ came.” –George MacDonald

Paul has an uncanny ability to make preachers uncomfortable.  When we preach, most of us prepare by wrestling with the text appointed for the day, combing through commentaries for interesting contextual tidbits, and laboriously crafting effective ways to illustrate the text.  In other words, I think that most preachers would argue that a sermon can only be effective when it is well-crafted, perhaps when it contains “lofty words or wisdom.” The Curate’s Study at the Church of the Heavenly Rest is currently in the midst of a series about Christian apologists, who essentially use “plausible words of wisdom” to make a case for Christianity.  Somewhat surprisingly, however, Paul claims that his initial proclamation of the gospel contained neither lofty words nor plausible arguments.  I say this is surprising because he says this as he is in the process of laying out an argument for his gospel to the Corinthians.  In any case, Paul argues that in his initial proclamation of the gospel, he only made known Christ and him crucified.

What are we to make of this?  Is Paul disparaging knowledge entirely?  Is he suggesting that any effort to preach a reasonable gospel is inherently flawed?  I don’t think so.  If we look at the body of Paul’s work in the New Testament, much of it is concerned with arguing that the gospel is reasonable.  In Romans 1:16, Paul asserts, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” and then proceeds to unfold an argument for why he is not ashamed of it.  I think that Paul’s insistence that he did not preach the gospel with lofty words is a response to the Corinthian attitude towards knowledge.  The Corinthians overvalued knowledge to the point that they seemed to regard it as a part of their salvation, as if what they knew contributed to the redemption they had received through God in Christ.  Paul’s objection, in other words, is that the Cross is sufficient; the Cross is the means by which the world is being reconciled to God.  While knowledge has its place, it cannot be put on the same level as what God has done through Jesus Christ.

George MacDonald’s quotation illustrates Paul’s point well.  While knowledge does have a place in the Christian faith, we cannot reason our way to salvation.  Part of our call as Christians is to conform our will to that of Christ, to keep the Cross at the very center of our lives.  We begin that process when we are baptized into Christ’s death and we continue that process every time we participate in Holy Communion.  As we continue this Lenten pilgrimage, I invite you take an opportunity to consider how you are conforming your will to God’s.  Think about how you might continue to keep the Cross of Christ central in your life.

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The Foolishness of God

1 Corinthians 1:20-31

In the next section (1:20-25), Paul goes on to ask about those whom the world values for their knowledge and their cleverness with words.  “Where is the one who is wise?  The scribe?  The debater of this age?”  They haven’t come any closer to understanding the mysteries of the world through their intelligence!  In God’s estimation, the wisdom of the world is foolish, because the wisdom of the world failed to bring people closer to knowing God.  And since people got no closer to knowing God through the world’s wisdom, God decided to use the inherently foolish Christian proclamation to bring about salvation.  Paul explains that we foolishly proclaim Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”  We might ask, what exactly is foolish about the Christian proclamation of Christ crucified?  Keep in mind that since Christ was the manifestation of God’s presence on earth, the proclamation of Christ crucified is actually the proclamation that God has been crucified.  For Jews and Gentiles (meaning everyone, since everyone in the first-century world was either a Jew or a Gentile), this is a fundamentally absurd assertion.  How on earth could God be crucified?  Paul answers this quandary later in the letter, but for now it is important to realize that Paul’s fundamental assumption is that God has changed the very nature of the world through the Cross of Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, Paul insists that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Why on earth would God do this?  After reminding the Corinthians that very few of them were wise by their own human standards, he notes that God chose what is weak in the world in order to shame those who are strong.  God’s goal is not simply to cause embarrassment for the “strong”; rather, Paul suggests that God has shamed the strong in order to put everyone on an equal playing field.  God does not want anyone to have cause for boasting, and so God chose what was foolish and weak in this world in order to make sure that those who are “strong” in this world realize that their strength is nothing compared with the power of God.  Since God is the source of everyone’s life in Christ, the only way a person can legitimately boast is by boasting in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

“The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object.”

“Pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.” — C.S. Lewis

Throughout Paul’s letters, he is very careful to warn against boasting.  Boasting, in Paul’s view, is a fundamentally idolatrous activity; those who boast put themselves in God’s place and fail to acknowledge that they are dependent on God for their life and salvation.  C.S. Lewis also observes the destructiveness of boasting and its parent, Pride.  I think that most of us can theoretically agree with Paul and C.S. Lewis that boasting is problematic and that being prideful is a self-destructive enterprise.  And yet, Pride is rampant in our culture today.  We live in a society that is obsessed with credentials.  This is most obvious in the world of academia, where people are not qualified to teach unless they have an alphabet soup of degrees after their name.  Our preoccupation with credentials, however, appears elsewhere.  Over the past several decades, an anti-intellectual movement has gained prominence in this country, one that insists that anyone who has been educated at a college or university is not qualified to speak on behalf of the “common people.”  In this case, one is given “credentials” precisely because one does not have credentials.  We are even credential-obsessed within the Christian community: the leaders of the Church are “the Reverend, the Very Reverend, the Right Reverend, the Most Reverend,” and the list goes on.  We cannot get around the fact that credentials matter to us as human beings.

In some ways, this is unavoidable.  If we are to have an ordered society, we need to have some form of leadership organization.  Yet we also must remember that our life does not depend on our worldly acheivements, but rather on God’s work salvation in Jesus Christ.  God used the Cross, an instrument of shameful death, to bring about our redemption through Jesus Christ.  By using what is weak and shameful and foolish in this world, God put each of us on the same level.  None of us is more worthy of God’s love and favor than anyone else, no matter how many degrees we have, or how plain-spoken we are, or how “Reverend” the Church imagines us to be.  Through the foolishness of the Cross, we are not dependent on our own efforts, but rather on God’s redemptive action.  Our credentials, our worldly accomplishments are not reason to boast or be prideful, because they are nothing in comparison to the fact that we have received our very existence, our very life from God.

The Power of the Cross

1 Corinthians 1:1-19

When we read Paul’s letters in church, we tend to gloss over the first few verses.  After all, reading the first few verses of a Pauline letter can feel a bit like reading the address on an envelope.  But the greeting section of Paul’s letters (1:1-3) can often give us clues about Paul’s purpose in writing the letter.  In 1 Corinthians, for instance, Paul proclaims that he is a “called apostle of Christ Jesus,” one who has a commission from God to proclaim the gospel.  It is only in 1 Corinthians and the letter to the Romans that Paul takes the opportunity to mention that he is a “called apostle.”  In other words, Paul is highlighting the fact that he did not invent the gospel that he preaches, nor did he simply decide to become an apostle; his commission comes directly from God.  In the next verse, Paul highlights the fact that the Corinthians are called to be saints together with everyone who calls upon the Lord Jesus Christ.  Paul stresses that the Corinthians should identify with everyone who has received the gospel.  In these first few verses, therefore, Paul articulates that his apostleship is from God and emphasizes the unity of the Christian community.

The next few verses (1:4-9) are the thanksgiving paragraph, and are a typical part of a Pauline letter.  It is easy to skim through these verses, but they serve a very important purpose.  Paul generally uses the thanksgiving paragraph to set the agenda for the letter.  In the case of 1 Corinthians, Paul begins his letter by giving thanks that members of the community have been “enriched” in “speech and knowledge of every kind” so that the Corinthians “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” as they wait for the coming of Christ.  It’s important to know that there were members of the Corinthian community who believed that they had exceptional spiritual knowledge, and so they would have nodded approvingly when Paul mentioned that they were full of spiritual gifts.  Yet, by mentioning it in this thanksgiving paragraph, Paul indicates that he wants to address the question of spiritual knowledge and gifts in this letter.  We can, in other words, assume that there is a problem that needs to be resolved.

In the next section (1:10-19), Paul goes on to exhort the Corinthians not to have any divisions in their community.  He explains the reason for this exhortation: some of Chloe’s people (Chloe is probably one of Paul’s co-workers), reported that there were quarrels within the Corinthian community.  Apparently, members of that church had organized themselves according to which apostle had brought them the gospel.  There were groups, or “apostolic parties” that said things like “We belong to Paul,” or “We belong to Apollos.”  It might be helpful to think of these as political parties; we might imagine a group of Corinthians holding up a sign that says, “Local 3737 Supports Apollos.”  Paul points out the ridiculousness of organizing the Christian community into parties.  If Christ has not been divided, why on earth would we divide the Christian community?  Paul explains that Christ did not send him to baptize but rather to proclaim the gospel.  And then, he makes an important point.  Paul claims that he did not proclaim the gospel with eloquent wisdom, because then the cross of Christ would have been emptied of its power.  We’re left asking, “what power is he talking about?”  Paul’s enigmatic answer is that to those who are perishing, the cross is foolishness (insanity is also a good translation), but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.  He then quotes Isaiah 29:14, a verse from the Hebrew Scriptures that seems to indicate that God is turning the wisdom of the world on its head.

“Division has done more to hide Christ from the view of men than all the infidelity that has ever been spoken.” –George MacDonald

In George MacDonald’s succinct and eloquent summary of Paul’s point, he points to a reality that we often forget in the Church.  We are often so preoccupied with discerning the “correct” interpretation of Scripture or acheiving the “right” theological perspective or honoring God with the most “appropriate” liturgical expression that we lose sight of the central mystery of our faith.  Paul argues that the center of our life as a community should be the cross of Jesus Christ.  We (and the Corinthians) tend to get bogged down arguing for the “correctness” of our theological or political position.  We tend to focus on what we “know” to be true.  And we may very well be technically “correct” when we argue for our theological positions.  Our attempts to be “right” may be very faithful.  Paul, however, suggests that instead of focusing on being right, we should focus on the fact of the Cross and how that has impacted our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

During Lent, it is easy to adopt a “lone ranger” mentality.  It is easy to say, “This is my Lenten discipline; this is how I am going to honor God during this season of fasting and penitence.”  The problem with this attitude, however, is that it prevents us from focusing on the other members of the Christian community, the other people whose lives have been changed by the cross of Christ.  What Paul and George MacDonald remind us is that during our journey to the Cross during Lent, we cannot just be inwardly focused.  We must walk this Lenten pilgrimage with our Christian community.  We must keep in mind that we have been joined to a family of believers for whom Christ died.  We must remember the power and the centrality of the Cross.

The First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1:9-15

Our gospel reading for today comes from the beginning of Mark’s gospel.  One of the striking things about Mark’s gospel is how quickly everything happens.  While Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness stretches over several chapters, Mark covers this material in a few short sentences.  Mark’s focus on immediacy is telling; Mark is less interested in the details of the stories about Jesus and more interested in the substance of Jesus’ ministry.  And for Mark, the substance of Jesus’ ministry is his proclamation of the kingdom of God.

When Jesus emerges from the wilderness, he proclaims that the “kingdom of God has come near.”  The word that the New Revised Standard Version translates as “has come near” can also be rendered “is at hand.”  In other words, the kingdom of God, according to Mark’s Jesus, is right around the corner.  God is just about to break into the world and transform it.  This is, by no means, a benign or routine event.  It is a life-changing, earth-shattering experience.  We get a clue about the violent drama implicit in the arrival of God’s kingdom when we read that the heavens are “torn apart” when the Spirit descends on Jesus.

The Spirit is an elusive, yet dynamic force in Mark’s gospel.  While it only appears in a handful places, it plays a very important and powerful role.  It is only in Mark’s gospel that the Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness.  Jesus, in other words, does not enter the wilderness of his own accord.  Jesus does not enter the wilderness for the purposes of self-actualization or even to cleanse himself of impurity.  Rather, Jesus enters the wilderness to fulfill his mission.  For Mark, Jesus’ temptation is a critical component of his proclamation of God’s kingdom.

In the same way, let us think of Lent not as an opportunity to cleanse ourselves from impurity, but rather as an opportunity to proclaim that God’s kingdom has come near.

A Lenten Invitation

Welcome!  I’m so pleased that you’ve taken a moment out of your day to look at this blog.  As we prepare for the celebration of the Resurrection during this season of Lent, I hope that you’ll include this blog in your spiritual preparations. 

If you’ve spent any time with the New Testament, you’ve probably noticed how prominent the writings of Saint Paul are in that body of texts.  Writings attributed to Paul make up more than half of the New Testament, and so Paul has had a profound effect on the shaping of Christian doctrine.  In fact, almost every great Christian writer has had to wrestle with Paul or his ideas at some point in their careers.

During Lent this year, the Church of the Heavenly Rest is sponsoring a program called “The Inklings of Abilene,” where we explore the writings of some great British Christians, including George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis.  In that spirit, this blog will explore how some of these writers wrestled Saint Paul and his ideas.  Every day (Monday through Saturday), we will offer a brief commentary on a passage from First Corinthians and reflect briefly on the passage, including a quotation from one of these “Inklings.”  On Sundays, we will reflect on the gospel lesson appointed for the day.

I invite you to use this blog as an opportunity to pause in the midst of your busy life and make room for God to enter.  I pray that you and your family may be blessed during this Lenten season.

Faithfully,

David+ (Father DRom)