Lesson 11: U Turn? (I Corinthians 1-4)

Before offering counsel about the chaotic situation in their church, Paul reminds the Corinthians that Christianity looks at things much differently than the rest of their world.  “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…. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demandsigns and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength… I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (I Corinthians 1: 18-25, 2: 2)

In his comments under Lesson 10 Bob, in his usual astute manner, portrays this as “an attack on wisdom and the wise”. It is hard to perceive how vehement this attack is, because reading emotions in written text is always difficult. I am inclined to see his remarks as simply an acknowledgement that conventional wisdom in the first century is not adequate to answer the troubling question being asked, “How can you people proclaim an executed criminal the Jewish messiah?” Remember “Christ” is simply the Greek term for the Hebrew “messiah”.

Although scholars think there were probably collections of Jesus’ saying circulating at the time and although the Gospel writers 20 years later reported many of this radical rabbi’s teachings and healings, Paul hardly mentions these at all. His Gospel focuses entirely on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. He insists that the troubling question nails the fundamental issue. Christianity begins and ends with the Cross. We hear his argument echoed in Mark 8 when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ; Jesus responds the Christ will suffer; Peter objects, “No Way”; Jesus scolds, “Get behind me, Satan”; and then declares. “If you want to follow me, you must take up your own cross.”

The Cross becomes the critical issue of the Gospel. It is the foundation that redefines everything else. When Paul proclaims the Cross is an act of love, he is also declaring that the conventional understandings of wisdom and power of his time are no longer adequate. Let’s examine how the Cross turns everything up side down.

1. The Cross redefines God’s Christ or Messiah. Almost all the Old Testament prophecies pictured the messiah as a victorious king who with his wisdom and power  overcomes Israel’s enemies. The Cross presents the messiah as a lover who gives himself for his people. He empties himself of his divine power in order to save humanity (Philippians 2: 5-8). Paul offers no involved atonement theory to explain how this works. He simply presents various narratives describing this as a loving act of the Christ.

In order to support this kind of thinking, the early church had to find some Old Testament prophecies that were compatible with the definition. They turned primarily to the Suffering Servant
in Isaiah 52 and 53 and the vilified servant in Psalm 110, where faithfulness and love are praised rather than power and rational thought.

2. The Cross redefines God. Paul also speaks of the Cross as God’s loving act. Because Jesus represents God, God makes himself known in cross. That enables Paul to proclaim that Jesus is not only the Christ but also the Lord, the name Israelites used for God.

The popular Old Testament understanding was that God is a king who demands faithfulness and obedience from his people.  The Cross reveals God as a loving father, Abba, who is faithful to his children even though they are not faithful to him, who loves them even when they do not love him.

Paul describes this difference well in Romans 5: 6-11. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, Though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.* For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life”.

3. The Cross redefines what it is to be human. When we redefine God, we also redefine humanity, which is made in   the Image of God.  Paul describes the Christian life as an imitation of Jesus. The message of the cross is that we are willing to give ourselves for others, just as Jesus gave himself for us.

So Paul can speak of being “crucified with Christ” in Galatians 2: 19-20 and Romans 6: 3-11, meaning that baptism produces a new creation, a new person. ”It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. So he can commend himself by maintaining, “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body”, referring to the whipping he received from following Jesus (Galatians 6:17).  From the perspective of the world’s wisdom that makes Jesus’ followers “fools”.

4. The Cross redefines the world. Paul says “*”the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” in Galatians 6: 14.  The Cross subverts the status quo of this world.  It turns the world upside down.

It does this by ending the old Age of Sin and beginning the new Age of the Spirit. The world is no longer decaying but now is being renewed. Humans, delivered from sin and death, are enabled to begin doing God’s will.  And that brings us back to our original passage in which Paul says the Cross redefines wisdom and power as known in the first century world.

5. The Cross redefines wisdom and power. It claims God’s wisdom and power reside in loving actions. That means first the source of the world’s problems is not ignorance or power but lack of will. And second that the solution will not come from the mind or physical power but the heart. Paul speaks of the spirit being given to the heart from which it affects the mind and the body. In other words, Greek wisdom and Jewish signs of power, what we in modern days see as miracles, will not solve humanity’s problems. That comes from doing God’s will, faith acting in love. As Paul maintains in Romans 12, we should not conform to the world, but be transformed so we can 2discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Paul’s argument is directed primarily to his contemporary world where both Greek and Jewish thought regarded love as weakness. The love message does not sound so radical in ours where Christianity has influenced Western civilization However; we all know no matter how good it sounds, we still have difficulty living it. Newspaper reports on divorce rates and international wars remind us we have a long, long way to go. I think we all probably hope with Myron that love can help us find more than enlightened self interest in dealing with each other in this very dangerous world.

Our churches help by making sure crosses are prominent in our churches. We follow them in our processions, wear them around our necks, place them on our walls, mark them on our foreheads when we baptize, and sign them when we bless.  They remind us as Christians we profess the message of the Cross; we are willing to give ourselves for others, just as Jesus gave himself for us.

In the rest of I Corinthians Paul offers guidance for resolving the troubling moral and worship problems the church faced. They are beauties! In Lesson 12, which that will be published on Friday, we’ll look at how he relates love to the moral problems mentioned in chapters 5 -10. I am sure I’ll be referring to I Corinthians 13 as well.

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