Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
It seems that especially since the explosion of the online social media age, we have acquainted ourselves with every form of human foolishness imaginable. There is foolishness that is silly, mistaken, misguided, confused, or just lapse in judgment. And then there is foolishness that is conniving, scheming, devious, and manipulative. We are shameless in sharing the former on our social media platforms, and we are shameless in our willingness to thoughtlessly fall prey to or even perpetrate the latter. It’s not that we have discovered new forms of foolishness—there is nothing new under the sun—but we are all more exposed to all of it.
Following are four themes developed last week for possible sermon series.
Called to be saints together
In the current political environment, when churches and families have been impacted over disagreements about the pandemic, when we have been disoriented and are sometimes unsure of whom to trust, when fatigue has overtaken leaders we used to count on, when many have to think about how to reconstitute church, when we realize there is no going back but only forward into a future that is unknown, we need now perhaps more than ever in any of our lives to be united, in agreement, of one mind. The last thing the church needs is quarreling and divisiveness.
Paul unmistakably links loyalty to various teachers and preachers to foolishness. Misplaced loyalty leads to death. Paul unmistakably links pride in one’s own innate attributes to foolishness. Self-pride leads to death. Paul links earthly power and human wisdom to weakness and foolishness. These lead to death. These all lead to death not as punishment but because they blind us to the wisdom and goodness of God, and to the power of the cross.
The rhetorical questions, “where is the wise one, where is the scribe, where is the debater?” do not incline one to enthusiastically raise a hand and say, “here am I!” The questions do not seek to identify the wise one, scribe, or debater so much as to suggest these capacities are worth little to begin with when it comes to the kingdom of God. Further, those who are still looking for a sign that the Messiah has come, and those who want a cogent argument for that sign will be disappointed because that is not the way God chose to save the world. Whether silliness, innocence, deviousness or scheming, the power of the cross exposes the foolishness of human wisdom and reveals our need to be united at the foot of the cross. Our divisions must be heart-breaking foolishness to God.
Together we lack no spiritual gift
After speaking rhetorically and metaphorically about how we seek to justify ourselves, Paul turns to the experience of the Corinthian Christians themselves. Not only is their preferred “wise one” not so wise, but they themselves were mostly born of low estate, and that is just the point. Paul has been preaching about how together the Corinthian Christians have the gifts to do the work of God until Christ returns.
We are not inclined to think it is the unwise, the lowly, the common person, the weak, the despised, the uneducated through whom God works God’s power and wisdom. Yet after telling us that God has given every gift needed to do the ministry of Jesus until the return of Christ, here Paul is nearly explicit in saying it is to these, the lowly, the weak, that God has chosen to work. Pride of gift gets in the way of the exercise of gift. And pride in the gifts of others often excuses us from exercising our own.
It’s not about you . . .
Which one of us does not value or pursue wisdom, financial security, respect, accomplishment? Which one of us does not want enough control over our environment to create a more secure future for our children, families, churches, or communities? The power reversals in this passage, the logic of the gospel, are more intellectually accessible than they are emotionally satisfying. Only spiritually when one gets a taste of the wisdom and power of God through Christ is one able to let go of self-focus and self-satisfaction. The willingness not to be right, the generosity to suspend judgment, the ability to listen carefully to one with whom we disagree, the open-minded curiosity to wonder how another came to believe what they do—these are all characteristics of knowing it is not about us. The foolishness of the cross reduces all human pretense to control and all boasting in human accomplishment to nothing. It’s not about you.
God is faithful
God’s faithfulness is manifest through the foolishness of the cross. We are not embarrassed by the cross itself as early Christians might have been. The scandal of the cross has largely worn off on us. But neither should the cross be a point of pride. A reading of The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone will make one think twice about proudly wearing a cross because of the despicable things that have been done in the name of Christ and specifically the connection of the Christian cross to the lynching of African Americans.1
Paul is not suggesting, however, that we boast in the cross. He suggests that if we must boast, we boast in the Lord, quoting Jeremiah who lifts up the voice of God, saying, “I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight.” It is this God whom we declare, proclaim, “boast.”
God is the source of life, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. The God who chose what is despised in the world to bring to nothing things that are is the God who is faithful and called us into God’s fellowship through Jesus Christ. God will do what God promises to do.
- James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Orbis Books, 2011.
January 29, 2023