I Cor. 1: 26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Where I Corinthians begins, with the cross of Jesus Christ, it ends. The last controversy in Corinth that Paul addresses, in chapter 15, has to do with the resurrection, and whether or not God brings the dead back to life in real bodies. They should already know the answer to that question, because he starts out by saying, “I remind you of what I preached to you before….that Christ died for our sins.”
So as I explore some more of Paul’s deep thoughts about the cross and what it says for Christian community, I don’t want to come to Easter and the end of Lent with anyone not hearing the same thing: that Jesus Christ died for our sins, on the cross. I don’t want anyone coming through Lent to Easter wondering, “How can my sins ever be forgiven?” or “What can I do to atone for my own sins? Or “How can I know that God would ever forgive me or accept me?” The cross stands as God’s answer with an exclamation mark, to all such questions, declaring that the mercy and compassion and acceptance of God know no bounds or limits, and can overcome any sin, shame, guilt or gulf between people.
There’s no evil so big that the goodness displayed on the cross cannot overcome it. There’s no guilt deeper or taller than the mercy displayed there when Jesus prayed for his executioners and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There’s nothing we can do to detract from, or add to, his work there, who died for his enemies, and those who abandoned or betrayed him, rather than avenging himself on them. We can only accept it, or not. The last thing that I, as your pastor, want is to stand before the Great White throne of God and hear him ask me, “You preached every Sunday, but did anyone ever hear from you the same good news that gave you such relief when I laid hold of you?”
And that implies something else: A Jewish rabbi was once asked, “Why is it that so few people find God?” His answer: “Because so few people are looking low enough.” That could have been the rabbi Saul, when he wrote in today’s passage, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are… …so that no one may boast before him.”
Here we come to another implication of the cross, something else it says about the church, about Christian life and relationships, once we understand its leveling word of forgiveness: before the cross of Christ, no one is in a position to boast. At least not about themselves. Before Christ and the cross, all human clamor, claims and comparisons must go silent. In chapter I, Paul has two related kinds of boasting in mind: one has to do with social class and status; the other he mentioned earlier in this passage, when people divided themselves up and said, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Which implies that Paul and me are better than Apollos and them. Or vice versa. Such boasting about social class and “Who’s my preacher?” are probably connected and related.
First, about dividing and boasting about preachers and teachers: Oratory, teaching, preaching and public speaking skills were to First Century Greeks what basketball or football skills are to our society today, especially for the educated and upper classes who could attend schools of oratory. “How about them Vikings?” you might hear around the water cooler on a Monday morning. On a Monday morning in ancient Corinth, the talk might have been more like, “How about that Apollos and his sermon yesterday?” Funny how people could get all worked up about how well someone spoke, all the while forgetting what it was that they said.
The first time we meet Apollos is in Acts Chapter 18, after Paul had left Corinth, after he had then lived and worked three years in Ephesus. Then there came to the church in Ephesus a Jewish Christian from Alexandria, an Egyptian university town, one Apollos, who we read was very well educated, and very polished, persuasive and skilled in the art of public speaking. After helping the Christians of Ephesus a while, Apollos went on to help the Christians across the sea, in Corinth. Thank God for Apollos.
Because there’s no evidence that Apollos and Paul were personally at odds. Paul refers to him respectfully in chapter 3 of this letter and says, “We both are God’s servants by whom you were led to believe. Each one of us does the work which the Lord gave him to do; I planted the seed; Apollos watered it, but God gave the growth.”
So if neither Paul nor Apollos were stirring up trouble against each other, then there are two likely reasons why their fans were at loggerheads: again, class and status; the other is because of that stubborn tendency in human nature to clamor, claim and compare, in effect, to find something to compare ourselves over, and to start boasting about it. It may be helpful when comparing cars; it may be fun when talking smack about our favorite sports teams. But in the kingdom of God, its like introducing wolves into a sheep pen.
Interesting: Paul does not say, “Stop boasting,” or “Don’t boast.” Rather, he says, “Let anyone who boasts boast in the Lord.” With that Paul displays an amazing understanding of human psychology. He seems to understand that as humans we’re going to look for some sort of hook on which to hang our sense of worth and value. And we’re going to want to express it and extol it. Its incurable. We might do it over a clique in school, or a social class, or a celebrity, a sports star, a sports team, or a politician and his or her party, or our nation and its military might, maybe even our denominations, churches and preachers. When we do, we’re giving these things and people the power to make us happy or sad, to feel like winners or losers, by how well they do in competition with other cliques, classes, countries or celebrities. As though we were succeeding or failing through them. As though our worth and identity were based on their’s. As though we were even living vicariously through them. That’s why we see a lot of grumpy faces in this town on Monday mornings…………… during the NFL play-off season.
So instead of saying, “Don’t boast!” Paul says, in effect, “Hitch your hopes, your value, your honor on the Lord, even, on the Lord who went downward, into dishonor, on the cross, against all the normal human striving for honors and upward mobility. Let him be for you what you tried to make of Apollos and me” (or of the Vikings, the Twins, Jennifer Aniston or your country); let him do for you what Apollos and I (and the Timber Wolves and your social class) can never do for you, namely, give you an unfailing and unshakable sense of worth, value and meaning. There’s nothing more powerful and striking anyone can do to affirm our worth and give us honor than what Christ did by dying for us, in dishonor, on the cross. That’s what we express and extol in worship.
The other reason why the Corinthian Christians were at loggerheads, had to do with social class and status. When Paul first worked among the Corinthians, he says he didn’t approach them with fancy flights of eloquence and open and shut cases of elegant logic. Those who responded to his simple, startling and straightforward message about “Christ and him crucified” were, for the most part, poor, slaves, and the semi-educated. “Not many among you were considered wise, powerful or of high social standing,” he said. Like the kinds of people who ended up on crosses whenever they forgot their place.
When Apollos showed up in Corinth, with his gifts of education and eloquence, could it be that he appealed to a different class, the upper, wealthier, more highly educated, more socially-respected and influential crowd? Even those of noble birth? If so, great. Nothing wrong with them coming into the church: the ground is level at the foot of the cross. But later in this letter we find evidence of tension between social classes in the church. We’ll read that some come to love feasts with lots of food and pork out, while others come empty-handed and leave with empty stomachs. Some get invited to feasts in the temples of idols, and some do not. Some could engage the legal system to start a lawsuit against their brother or sister, who were only at their mercy.
Not that they were always being rude and predatory. Maybe they were just clueless. Its harder for people with power and wealth to know how that power and wealth are affecting others; they are often barely aware of it. Those without such power and wealth are often aware quite aware. And it’s one reason why the life and work of the poor and powerless can be so complicated and nerve-wracking. The Evil One may have used those class distinctions to create tension between those different groups, who then said, “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.” Those could be divisions of class, as well as divisions around who’s the better speaker and teacher.
What they need, and so do we from time to time, are reminders of how God works in the world. Just as God used a tool that looks like great weakness and foolishness to the world—the cross—so too does God most often use people who look to the world like agents of foolishness and weakness: the poor, the un-influential, those without the credentials, the lowest in class, status and power. “The foolish things of the world” which God has chosen “to shame the wise,” and “the weak things of the world” whom God has chosen “to shame the strong,” are often people.
That’s what the tool on the altar is about: a visual, physical symbol about the seemingly weak and foolish things and people that God uses in the world, so that the honor and power are his, not ours. Whether its a homeless and crucified Christ, or Gideon in the Old Testament, leading 300 men against the entire Midianite army, armed with nothing more than torches and clay pots. Not that God loves the poor and lowly more than the middle class or the rich and famous. Not that the poor and lowly are better people than the middle or upper class—remember, the effect is supposed to be that no one can boast. Rather, as that rabbi said, they are looking low enough to find God, because they’re already low enough.
Which leads to a startling idea–the vision of something never before seen or done in human society: a class-free, status-equal human community. It’s God’s dream, its called “the kingdom of God,” and his demonstration plot for this class-free, status-equal community is called, “the church.”
We may say, “But even the church has never accomplished that!” And that would be true, sad to say. Go to some big, beautiful European cathedrals and they’re inspiring, all right. Until you see the special, tall, doors through which the nobility entered and worshiped on horseback, to keep watch over their serfs, and to remind them of who’s in charge. What Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said about race is even truer for class: that the Sunday morning worship service is the most segregated hour in America’s week.
Now, about Emmanuel Mennonite Church, we have as great a diversity of class and wealth as you’ll find in most American churches, especially for our size. And those with wealth to share have been as generous as any you’ll find anywhere else. Visitors have remarked on how friendly and welcoming this church is. But I know what the struggle is like inside when a visitor appears to have great needs, or shows signs of the physical or mental health problems that can keep poor people poor. I know it can be scary. Until, that is, we remember that we’re all just hanging on and keeping it together, one day at a time, by the grace of God and the skin of our teeth. Whenever we’re tempted to draw back in fear from the poorest, weakest and neediest, maybe its because they remind us of who and how we really are.
But then again, we haven’t gotten too many of such visitors. In part, I think its because the poor and those of high needs and lower social status are much more alert to cues and signs of wealth, power and status, than are those who have wealth, power and status. As often as not, the poor may protect themselves from shame and discomfort by shying away from middle and upper class people. It takes a while to earn trust, for people to learn and word to get out just who are the people who won’t look down on you even though you haven’t got the formal education that they have, or the grammar, or the clothing, housing or income. Or even, that these people are willing to listen to you and learn from you, because they value the education we got on the streets, and in the school of hard knocks. They understand what Paul says about God choosing the weak to confound the mighty, and the foolish (in the eyes of the world) to confound the wise, because they know, deep down, that they are them. Maybe they’ve even experienced the warm welcome and the sacrificial hospitality of the poor. It may be their last meal of the week or their one meal of the day that they’re offering you; they’ll miss it worse than you; but it would hurt them worse if you refuse it.
Do such relationships sound impossible? They can and do happen. And here at Emmanuel Mennonite Church in the Phillips Neighborhood of Minneapolis is as good a place as any. For God has not given up his kingdom dream of a class- free and status-equal counter-cultural community, and the cross reminds us of it. All people stand before God with no more than what Jesus took to the cross, after the soldiers gambled for his clothes, which is even less than what the typical homeless person carries from the streets to the shelter where he sleeps at night. We might as well get used to that before that day of reckoning arrives. But on the other side of the cross, in the New Jerusalem, God’s people will be equally honored, rich and esteemed. We might get as well get used to that too.
Now that is something worth boasting about.