I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul these past few weeks. Our second reading throughout the Season of Epiphany comes from I Corinthians, a letter I have found fascinating since my first undergraduate course in Paul more than thirty-five years ago. I was also engaged with Paul because of the recent screening and conversation at UW of the Film “The Polite Bribe.” I’m not sure why, but in January, I also began reading N.T. Wright’s new 2-volume work on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Let me confess right now, this is the first scholarly work of Wright’s that I’ve read. I’ve avoided him because of his reputation for being on the conservative side of Pauline scholarship, and because as Bishop of Durham, he contributed to the difficult relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Still, I had read some early reviews and thought it might be worth taking a look at. I’m glad I did.
So, I’ve got Paul on the brain right now which means that I’m going to preach about him today. If you’re dying for a sermon on today’s gospel passage, I encourage you to go to my blog at look up my sermon from three years ago. If that doesn’t suffice, I encourage you to join me on Wednesdays in Lent for a bible study on the gospel of Matthew—we’ll begin with chapter 4 and I doubt we’ll get much further than chapter 7. In other words, our Lenten focus will be the Sermon on the Mount. So back to Paul, and to I Corinthians.
I’ve given you all of chapter 1 this morning, which I’ll be referring back to through the course of my sermon today. Had we read the lessons for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany last week instead of the Presentation in the Temple, we would have heard all of chapter 1 on the Sundays after Epiphany. A quick glance at chapter 1 shows that Paul is developing themes and imagery he had used in the first chapter.
While the gospels may present difficulties for the modern reader or listener, I think Paul’s letters are even more problematic and not just because of Paul’s complex personality or the topics he discusses. We hear them read in church, or read them on our own, and we rarely think about the original context in which they were written and read. In the first place, they are letters, one side of a conversation Paul is having with communities he already knows. We rarely hear from the other side—there are times when Paul seems to be quoting from a letter he’s received, and times, as in chapter 1, when he tells us what he’s heard “Chloe’s people.” As letters, they were written with an audience in mind; they were written in response to a particular set of questions or problems, and for us to read them is a little bit like eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation.
The other important thing to note is that Paul is not writing to a “church” to an established community with clear identity and boundaries (not to mention a building of its own). At one point Wright describes what the community in Corinth might have been like—a dozen or so people meeting in someone’s house, and over on the other side of town, a half-dozen or so meeting in another house. That any of them, Paul or those to whom he was writing, could have imagined us reading this letter two thousand years later. Inconceivable!
One more point that is important when trying to understand Paul’s letters. His questions and concerns are not necessarily ours. For example, how many of you have ever worried whether it’s ok to eat food that’s been offered to idols? Well, Paul spends about three chapters in I Corinthians on that very question. Looking for answers in Paul to our questions is often misleading and occasionally flat out wrong.
But, and this is a very important but, no matter the insignificance of the original audience, Paul’s letters have shaped Christianity for good and ill, for two thousand years. Paul’s language, imagery, and ideas are the vocabulary for Christian theological reflection and for many Christians over the centuries have defined or named our experience of Jesus Christ, the church, ourselves and God. I can’t unpack all of that in a single sermon (Wright’s magnum opus on Paul is over 1600 pages). What I can do in the few minutes remaining this morning is tease out a few of the key ideas of this passage and try to connect them with our own lives, experience, and contexts.
I want to repeat the beginning section of today’s reading, 2:1-5
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
I would like to point out a couple of connections between this section and chapter 1. First, in his famous discussion of folly and wisdom, Paul contrasts the folly of the cross with the wisdom of the world. Here, he denies using “lofty words or wisdom.” We might question whether his grammar and syntax lacked wisdom, or strength. Certainly Paul was a brilliant rhetor. This section reveals both his gift for language and skills he has honed throughout his life. So there’s a certain irony here, and it’s likely that Paul himself is well aware of the irony of his words.
But behind the rhetoric lays an important truth: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is the heart of Paul’s preaching and proclamation; the heart of the gospel he shared in Asia Minor and in Greece. It’s hard for us to recapture the radical nature of that gospel. We see crosses everywhere; we are familiar, perhaps too familiar with the image of Jesus suffering on the cross. But in Paul’s day, it was, as he says in chapter 1, “a stumbling block (literally, a scandal) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The idea of crucified God was simply nonsense to Greeks; the idea of a crucified Messiah was nonsense to Jews of Paul’s day.
It’s nonsense in our own day, too; even though our scriptures, devotional materials, our hymns and imagery are all full of a suffering Christ. For all its ubiquity, however, its meaning often eludes us as it eludes a larger Christian culture that like secular culture honors power, wealth, and celebrity.
When Paul writes that he preaches Christ and him crucified, he is claiming first that we see God most clearly in Jesus Christ, God’s Son. More than that, for Paul we begin to understand the nature of God when we contemplate Jesus Christ’s death. It is on the cross, Paul says, that the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is most evident. It is on the cross, when Jesus Christ is impotent and suffering, that we see God’s power and wisdom.
This central paradox is crucial to understanding Paul and crucial for understanding the message of the cross. In II Corinthians, Paul uses similar language, calling the cross “power made perfect in weakness.”
So far Paul. What does this mean for us in the twenty-first century? What does preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified mean, what’s the good news in “power made perfect in weakness?”
The simple answer is quite simple, obvious. Our faith is not measured by success, by power, wealth, celebrity. Indeed, if we hope to have authentic encounters with Jesus Christ, such encounters will more likely come when we are at our weakest, in times of our greatest need. The weakness, suffering, and vulnerability of Jesus Christ on the cross affirms that the God we love and worship is a God who knows and has experienced suffering and struggles like our own. In the midst of our deepest struggles, our darkest nights, when we ask, “where is God?” The cross answers, “here—in this hospital room, in the midst of this tragedy.”
There is something absurd about all this. It is scandal and folly, not just to Jews and Gentiles, but to contemporary Americans as well. Paul challenges us to gaze into the center of this absurdity and to discern in it the cross of Christ.