Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

In this week’s reading, Paul continues to explore the paradox of the gospel message.

February 6, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

In this week’s reading, Paul continues to explore the paradox of the gospel message.

As he describes the gospel message, his own ministry, and the wisdom of God, Paul surprises the Corinthians, and us, by the way in which each helps interpret the other.

Paul’s Message and Paul’s Ministry
Verses 1-2 recall Paul’s tactic when arriving at Corinth: he was proclaiming the mystery of God, but not “in lofty words or wisdom.” Why didn’t Paul use lofty words or wisdom? Because (verse 2) he chose instead to know only Christ crucified.

Paul is not reveling in the idea that he only had one thing to say. Instead, to a church rallying to the glories of worldly wisdom, Paul wants to show that the message of the cross demands a particular kind of ministry–a cruciform (cross-shaped) ministry.

Paul’s strategy is not unusual to us. We often will talk about how a particular person is a “hypocrite” for failing to live up to the standards of the Christian message. But the measure by which Paul takes stock of his ministry cuts against everything that we too often take for granted.

When Paul says he was with them in weakness, fear, and trembling, he is drawing their attention to the type of ministry that accurately embodies the cross of Christ. If the cross is the message, then ministering with integrity means that the messenger will look weak and despised in the eyes of the world–only to have the power of the Spirit of God break through to compel the listeners.

This is the dynamic of the gospel story: power in and out of weakness. It points to the God who brings new life by means of a crucified messiah (1 Corinthians 2:4-5).

God’s Mysterious Wisdom
As Paul continues to reconstruct the Corinthians’ notion of “wisdom,” he seems to imply that he has more to disclose than merely “the word of the cross” (2:6). And yet, he continues to insist that the cross shows us that following the world’s wisdom is not a path that ends up at the wisdom of God. Even the mysterious, hidden wisdom of God is cruciform.

In fact, throughout 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 Paul places God’s wisdom and the world’s wisdom in sharpest antithesis. The special wisdom to which Paul claims access (a) is God’s wisdom, that (b) leads God’s people to glory, and (c) is knowable only by the Spirit. This stands in stark contrast (a) to the world’s and the world’s leaders’ wisdom, that (b) is the product of people doomed for destruction, and (c) lacks the sight to apprehend the saving wisdom of God.

The cross is at the center of this dichotomy. The rulers of this age put their worldly “wisdom” on display when they crucified “the Lord of glory” (2:8).

There is some debate about who Paul intends by “the rulers of this age”: is this a reference to the spiritual forces that rule over the earth, to the earthly leaders themselves, the power of the systems that exceed the doings of any set of individuals, or some combination of these?

Though the rule of which Paul speaks is exercised through human agents, it is also clear throughout the passage that something larger is in view. Behind these human agents stand other cosmic forces and a world-system that is larger and more powerful than the individuals who enact its understanding of “wisdom”.

Paul sets the disputes in Corinth on a cosmic stage: to side with those who advocate worldly wisdom is to side not with the God who saves by means of the cross but, instead, with those who blindly warred against God’s wisdom by crucifying the Lord of glory (2:8).

Paul offers a scriptural proof for his claim that God’s wisdom is hidden from normal human perception (2:9). But the source of the citation is not clear. The first-century church father Clement of Rome links it back to what would be a lost Greek version of Isa 64:4. Somewhat later, Origin of Alexandria tells us the source is the no-longer extant Apocalypse of Elijah. The most we can say for sure is that the images of closed eyes and untold ears are present in Isaiah 64, Isaiah 6, and elsewhere, and that Paul sees them coming to fulfillment in the death of Jesus as God’s great act of salvation.

Here’s Hope: The Spirit of God
If human wisdom is manifest most plainly in the wisdom of the rulers of this age who put Jesus to death, how is a human ever going to be capable of knowing the wisdom of God? In the final section of today’s reading Paul insists that it is only by receiving the Spirit that one can know the things of God (2:10-16). Because God has given the Spirit, those who receive the Spirit can know the mysterious wisdom of God.

Paul probably has his eye on the competition that has erupted on the ground at Corinth, where Apollos’ high level of attainment in the world’s standards of wisdom has led to the formation of a group that identifies as his followers. Undermining the value of this group’s claim to superior learning, Paul maintains that the Spirit whom believers receive is none other than the Spirit of God with God’s cruciform wisdom–it is not the Spirit of the world with its Christ-crucifying “wisdom” (2:12).

And so one more time we see that the story we tell about the cross of Christ becomes the measure by which the stories of our own communities are judged. Do we hope to draw people to our communities based on our ability to achieve, in step with the corporate, educational, and political systems that set up our own cultures’ assessments of power?
Or, are we participating in the upside down economy of the cross, an economy that can only be known and understood and believed and lived by the power of God’s Holy Spirit?