I Corinthians 2: 1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
In my preaching and teaching from I Corinthians, I’m skipping ahead to chapter 2, because in its opening verses we learn something about Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian Christians. And because it contains a mystery, which is this: We read the letters and stories of Paul the Apostle and think of him as being confident, bold, sometimes even brash. With a job description like his, he had to be. So, why did he begin his missionary effort in Corinth, as he described it, “in weakness and fear, with much trembling?” And if first impressions are everything, as we often say, then how did a church get started if he came across to the Corinthians with so much “weakness and fear, and with much trembling?” Paul and the Corinthian Christians could agree that he had not put his best foot forward when coming to them. And yet Corinth was where the most fruitful results happened in his team’s ministry in Greece, so much so that he and his friends stayed there a year and a half, we read in Acts 17. How did that happen?
To make sense of that, we’ll have to back up a bit. The story begins with Paul and his fellow missionaries and friends, Silas, Timothy and maybe Luke, somewhere in eastern Turkey, trying to gain an audience, to preach the gospel, and start churches. But over and over, we read in Acts 16, they were strangely thwarted. They didn’t feel God opening up doors for them. Then Paul had a dream in which he saw a man from Greece, a day or two’s journey across the Aegean Sea, beckoning them to “come help us over here.”
From Turkey they booked passage east, and once in Greece, the doors opened up to evangelize and plant churches, beginning in Philippi. From there they worked their way through several cities toward a city so important, so strategic, that it was the cultural, political and religious capital of Greece: Athens, the city of philosophers, scholars, great art and literature. Get a positive hearing in Athens, win a few key people, plant a church there, and the rest of Greece would be low hanging fruit, ripe for the picking, wouldn’t you think?
After preaching in a synagogue and in some other public venues, Paul got an invitation that must have taken his breath away: to speak before the philosophers on the Aereopagus, a public forum on a hilltop shrine, named after Aries, the Greek God of War. His audience would be the highest, most senior leaders and teachers of the various schools of Greek philosophy and religion.
Paul seems to have appreciated and respected that. He appreciated his audience too and spoke to them in the most respectful way. He began with where they were at. He spoke of how, while walking about among all the shrines, temples and statues of all their many gods and goddesses, he saw a shrine to the unknown God. Tour guides can take us to that very spot today; archaeologists know exactly where it was. This “unknown God” was credited with even stopping a plague in the centuries before Paul.
Paul said, “I will proclaim that unknown God to you…. he made the world and everything in….but he does not live in temples built by hand…he himself gives all people life and breath and everything else….from one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth;…God did this so that people would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” Paul even quoted one of their best-known poets to say, “’For in him we live and move and have our being….and ‘We are his offspring.’ …In the past God overlooked our ignorance [of him], but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” At that point, some of them sneered, while others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” In other words, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”
End of sermon, end of story in Athens. A few in the city believed, including one man from among the philosophers there. But if Paul had hoped to capture the strategic heights of Greek society, Greek thought and Greek culture, well, as Paul told the Corinthian Christians, he even seems to have come away from Athens shaken, weakened, disturbed and disappointed. Perhaps, disappointed with himself.
Which has left many people wondering why, especially if Paul did such a good job of talking with the philosophers on their terms, in their language. I think it had to do with the cross. Or the lack thereof. The closest Paul got to telling the Athenian wise men about Jesus was only by touching on his resurrection from the dead. He never even got around to naming Jesus or explaining how and why he died in the first place. He went straight to the resurrection, which certainly was God the Father’s undeniable stamp of approval on Jesus and his ministry. But resurrection was obviously not something those philosophers respected or cared much about. Perhaps some of them belonged to one of those schools of philosophy that saw matter and the body as inferior and even evil, from which you wanted to escape, not to live in forever. Or maybe they already had all they wanted in this life.
Besides, if Paul had gotten around to saying how it was that Jesus needed to be resurrected to begin with, those philosophers may have trundled him out of there all the more quickly and forcefully. A crucified leader, teacher, savior and deity? Did you say, Crucified? As in whipped, stripped bare and nailed to a wooden stake, under the sun, to be jeered at, mocked, and to die slowly and shamefully of shock, thirst and asphyxiation? If an Athenian citizen or philosopher got out of hand and was sentenced to death, it would be quickly, and with dignity befitting his status, like Socrates taking poison. But the cross was for slaves, the poor, prisoners, pirates, the rabble, traitors and others foolish enough to challenge their masters, their overlords and their lowly place in society. Twenty centuries later, they’d call that a lynching. Its hard enough to ask us to believe that the unknown God whom you claim to represent would allow his spokesman to undergo such humiliation in every sense of the word, socially, politically and physically. Ask us to trust and identify with someone who was crucified, that’s like asking us to identify with the rabble, the slaves, the poor, the bandits, brigands and rebels, even if this man was innocent and did nothing of their sort. The cross implies that, while we were going about the daily duty of keeping law and order in the empire, we murdered God! Why, to identify with a crucified God is to call into question the whole basis of Imperial Rome, even our very loyalty to it, and our citizenship in it.
Not only does the cross confront us with the brutal reality of human sacrifice in every culture, the very helplessness of the man nailed up to it implies our own helplessness. You mean our Judge had to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves? You mean to say that there is a debt of sin so big that we cannot pay it, but that someone else paid it for us? What does that say for all our efforts to figure everything out by ourselves? Or to be good and righteous and wise by our own wisdom and efforts?
Did Paul know that such ridicule and rejection might be likely responses to the very words, “cross” and “crucified?” And if so, is that why he mentioned the resurrection first, before he got to the cross? Even though they come in reverse order? We’ll never know. But the next stop, after his mixed results in Athens, was Corinth. And there, as he told the Corinthian Christians, “I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God,” like he had in Athens, to his audience of philosophers. Instead, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ… and him crucified.” No more good news/bad news routine, with the good news first, to soften the blow of the bad news. No diplomatic niceties to soften the appearance of anything confrontational, offensive, disturbing, scandalous or even potentially treasonous. Let’s cut to the chase and tell it like it is. The creator and savior and lover of the world was crucified by the world. Even by the very world that those philosophers represented, justified and upheld.
No wonder Paul could say, in verse 3, “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.” Why the fear and trembling? Was it because Paul was still working out what had happened in Athens, and the powerful and painful lesson he might have learned on the Hill of Aries? Or could it also be because Corinth was a Roman colony, the closest thing to Rome itself that you would find on the Greek peninsula? As loyal Roman subjects, they might also find the story of a crucified savior an affront, something that implicated them for all of the powers, pride and privileges they derived from Roman law and order. You might get a cold shoulder in Athens, but in a Roman colony, you could get a real cross, not just a verbal one. Similar things nearly happened other times Paul preached. In fact, members of the Corinthian synagogue tried to get the Roman officials to imprison Paul for his preaching.
But in Corinth, Paul obviously framed the message so that no one came away ignorant of the cross. And it worked. It helped that Paul found something of a church already there, in the form of Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish Christian couple from Rome. It helped that the rest of his team, Silas, Timothy and maybe Luke, showed up later to help and lend moral support. So when the gospel went public, beyond the Jewish community in Corinth, the results of the bold, provocative preaching of the cross kept Paul’s missionary team busy much longer than in any other Greek city, for a year and a half, we read. Corinth, not Athens, became the nerve center of the church in Greece. And it remained so for many hundreds of years to follow. Go figure.
Paul credits this startling, counter-intuitive result to the Holy Spirit, and not to any wise or persuasive words on his part. That’s why you see the Spirit represented on the altar today in the form of a dove. Whenever we reach the end of our rope, the end of our own powers of persuasion and control, let’s take off our shoes, because we’re on holy ground, the sacred place where God’s Spirit does what we cannot do. The vehicle, the entry point, for the power of the Holy Spirit, was, and still is, the bold and provocative message of the cross: that on the cross, through the Crucified One, God did for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
I reminded us last week of how scales fell from Paul’s eyes several days after his blinding encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus,, and his sight was restored. Could it be that, on the road from Athens to Corinth, Paul had another experience of scales falling from his eyes, one not so forceful nor dramatic as the first, not so much a conversion as a course correction? But still sobering and soul-shaking, nonetheless? If so, that would certainly match my experience, and probably that of every Christian: that our conversion to Christ is the beginning of a commitment to a life of ongoing conversion, where we keep coming back, at deeper and deeper levels, to where it all started, back to the cross, there to let go and let die another false hope, another illusion, another false identity. And though I was not there with Paul on the road to Corinth, I wonder if, had the Lord Jesus appeared to him the way he had on the Damascus Road, he might not have said something like this:
“Its good, Paul, that you showed respect to those philosophers in Athens and made the effort to speak their language, in more ways than one. I’m pleased that you recognized and affirmed what they had of God, and that you used those things we have in common as your starting point. But let me ask you this, my beloved brother, Paul: How much did you have riding on their respect and appreciation for you? Was it so important to you that you and your message impress and entice them that you downplayed the cross, and all that it implies? Did you forget that the cross, and the question mark it implies over and against all worldly wisdom, titles and powers, just cannot help but be offensive to all who are seeking to justify themselves, to all who trust in their own goodness, rightness and wisdom? Did you forget that the cross cannot help but be an offense, a stumbling block and a dividing line? Did you forget that, when confronted by the cross, people must necessarily divide themselves according to whether they are trying to please God or to please the world, according to whether they are seeking to justify Christ to society, or to make society more just to Christ, according to whether they wish to be remade in my image, or to remake me into their image? My servant must seek to honor all people, as you did in Athens, and to offend no one. But my servant must not shrink from any truth that others might find offensive.”
This is not only true in regards to evangelism. It also applies to the life of the church. Several years later, when Paul learned about conflicts and competition among the various factions and house churches of Corinth, the place to send their attention, to straighten them out, was back to square one, where their relationship began, to the cross, precisely because of the leveling effect of its scandal and humiliation. And that before the cross had become prettified, and pasteurized, and rendered meaningless by its domestication to the powers that be, before the Emperor Constantine, in the 4th Century, had his soldiers paint it on their shields before going into battle, before Crusaders and Conquistadors much later followed it into battle to subjugate Muslims and Mayan Indians, long before we today began getting glossy, colorful newspaper ads hawking diamond-studded, gold-plated crosses for Christmas or Valentines’ Day. When the last of the fabrics on our altar cross have fallen, you’ll see nothing so triumphant nor sanitized.
(move to the cross)
No, to get these Corinthian Christians to stop competing and mistreating each other, Paul felt it necessary, in the first two chapters of his letter, to turn their attention back to where it all began, back to the rude and rugged cross, in the face of which all boasts and comparisons must go silent, at the foot of which all ground is level, and where the wealthy philosopher king of Athens is rendered just as silent as the unlettered slave of Corinth, so that together they might tremble in holy fear just, as Paul had. A vision of the cross, he hoped, would cure them of the very scales that may have begun to cloud his own vision at Athens: even the tiniest need to be respected, appreciated or justified by society, any tendency to justify our faithfulness to God by its results in the world, any temptation to repackage the Crucified One into something others will accept without having to repent and convert. In this season of Lent, can we let go of all that….(pull off next layer)
..and embrace instead the awesome love that did for us on that cross what we could never do for ourselves? Better weakness, fear and trembling before the Cross and The Crucified One, than to fear and tremble before the world and its judgments.