I want to speak to you today about our epistle reading, from 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, and I want to begin by acknowledging how difficult it can be for us to read a letter like this and think ourselves back into the situation of the people who first heard it. Let me quickly name some of the differences between them and us.
First, we aren’t the first Christians in Edmonton. Christian churches have been active in this area for at least a hundred and fifty years, and many of us come from families that have been Christian for much longer than that. But this was not true of the people who first heard 1 Corinthians. They were the first Christians in Corinth.
Sometime in the late forties A.D. a short, unimpressive-looking wandering preacher named Paul arrived in one of the busiest and most prosperous cities of the ancient world, the city of Corinth, capital of the Roman province of Achaia. In Paul’s day it was a multicultural city, more Roman than Greek, with a good number of rich people and tens of thousands of slaves, and more gods than you can even begin to imagine.
When Paul arrived in Corinth he soon met a Jewish couple who were in the same business as him: tent-making. Their names were Aquilla and Priscilla, and they had recently arrived from Rome. It’s not clear whether they were already Christian when Paul met them, but if not, they became Christian very quickly. Paul moved in with them and they became business partners, and in his spare time, Paul went to the Jewish synagogue and tried to convince people there that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. They put up with him for a while, but eventually they’d had enough, and he left them and moved his activities next door, to the house of a man named Titius Justus. He was probably one of Paul’s first converts in Corinth, and so was a Jew called Crispus, a member of the synagogue. Things took off from there, and before long there were probably several thriving house-churches in the city of Corinth.
So, with the possible exception of Aquilla and Priscilla, these first Corinthian churchgoers were all brand new Christians. They could remember a day when they had never heard of Jesus, they could remember when Paul first preached the Gospel to them, and they could remember their decision to become Christians. Their baptism was an adult, believer’s baptism. Their conversion was a darkness to light, ‘was blind but now I see’ kind of experience. That’s the first difference between them and us.
Second, their church life was very different from ours. Our church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. We meet in a very nice building set aside for the worship and life of our congregation. We have an administrative framework, a full-time, paid parish priest, a governance structure, and centuries of traditions. We have written Bibles we can hold in our hands and a defined theological tradition to help us interpret them. We come together to worship using a liturgy with roots that go back almost two thousand years.
The Corinthians had none of that. Their churches had no paid professional leaders. They met in people’s homes and had no written order of service. They had no Bibles to read from, unless some of the Jewish members had been able to copy out by hand a few of the most important passages from what we call the Old Testament. If there were Bible readings, they were probably delivered from memory, and the New Testament didn’t even exist yet, so stories of Jesus were like gold dust, and if you knew a few of them, you were always busy sharing them! As far as we can tell their communion service was more like a pot luck supper, and some people were actually getting drunk at it! There was no international church structure that defined Christian doctrine, and not much of a process to discuss issues when they came up.
Third, their Christian experience was far more vivid and egalitarian than ours. In 1 Corinthians we read that when they came together, their services were more like a free-for-all. I imagine them sitting in the round, facing each other in their small house churches. When they were praying, it was normal for someone in the group to receive a message from God to pass on to the people, which would be done, and people would listen and weigh what was said. Sometimes a member would suddenly break out in an unknown language—‘speaking in tongues’, it was called—and when they were finished, someone else would speak in Greek (everyone’s common language), the Holy Spirit giving them the interpretation. Different people exercised gifts of healing and miracles, or received revelations from God about things they couldn’t have known by their own natural abilities. It was all very exciting and supernatural; there was nothing boring or predictable about it.
We know from the book of Acts that Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half, and then he moved on to share the Gospel in other communities, taking Priscilla and Aquilla with him as far as Ephesus. We presume that when he left, he had appointed teams of elders to lead the house churches, but they weren’t priests or ministers the way we understand them; at best, they were a cross between lay readers and vestry members. We can imagine what powerful figures Paul and Priscilla and Aquilla had been when they were living there, and how much the people missed them after they left. And after a while, troubles began.
Apollos was a powerful, charismatic preacher who encountered Priscilla and Aquilla in Ephesus. John the Baptist had set him on the way to faith, but he hadn’t yet been baptized as a Christian. Priscilla and Aquilla helped put him on the right track, and before long he was full of enthusiasm to share the Gospel in Corinth, so off he went. Paul, by his own confession, wasn’t much of an orator, but Apollos was amazing, and he held the crowds spellbound. Some people started making comparisons in their mind. “Wow—Paul wasn’t really anything to write home about compared to this guy!” So he began to attract quite a following in Corinth.
And there was another party too. We know from the New Testament that some of the more traditional Jewish Christians weren’t very happy with Paul. He was telling the Gentiles that it wasn’t necessary for them to be circumcised and keep the Jewish laws; all they needed was to believe in Jesus, be baptized, and walk the way of love as Jesus had commanded. This made no sense to the Jewish Christians: God had promised to send the Messiah to Israel, so in order to benefit from the Messiah, you had to be Jewish! So Gentiles who wanted to become Christian had to be circumcised (if they were male) and take on the whole Law of Moses.
Paul was constantly trying to fight off the verbal attacks of these people, and we can make a very good guess as to what the strongest one was. “Well, you know, Paul did a very good job in his own way, but he’s not a real apostle! He didn’t actually follow Jesus around Galilee and listen to him preach, so it’s not surprising that he got a few things wrong, is it? And now we need to set you straight about those things.” We don’t know for sure whether Peter was ever involved in those disputes, but we do know that those Jewish Christians claimed his authority. “Peter was the one Jesus actually appointed as our leader, you know, not Paul!”
So that’s what’s going on in our reading for today. Some messengers had come to Paul to tell him the Christian community in Corinth was splitting up into opposing groups. “Apollos is the best!” “No, no—we’re loyal to Paul!” “No—Peter is the original leader, so we’ll follow him!” And perhaps worst of all, a fourth group was saying, “None of you lot are real Christians—we’re the only ones who really follow Christ!”
Now, on this point, we might find it easy to identify with our ancient Corinthian sisters and brothers! Because of course, since the earliest time, we Christians have found it very hard to stay united around Jesus. Apollos and Peter and Paul are long dead, but others since their time have been influential leaders, and those leaders have attracted their loyal followers. Presbyterians and Reformed Christians around the world look to John Calvin. Lutherans look to Martin Luther. Mennonites look to Menno Simons. Twentieth century evangelicals might have looked to Billy Graham. Very few Anglicans are actually great admirers of Henry VIII, but we do like Thomas Cranmer, who wrote the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549!
Today we see how some TV evangelists are strong preachers with great communication skills and all the wonders of modern technology to help them reach their audience. Modern Corinthians might say, “I follow Joel Osteen!” or “I follow Paula White!” or “I follow Kay Arthur!” But let’s not get too smug about this; it’s not only evangelicals and Pentecostals who get easily wowed by strong leadership. I watch the way people treat the Pope sometimes, with crowds of hundreds of thousands flocking to meet him as if he was Jesus Christ himself. And, even closer to home, I have sometimes been told that I’m a real follower of C.S. Lewis!
What’s wrong with all this? What’s wrong is, first, that it distracts people from following Jesus, and second, that it emphasizes human strength rather than human weakness.
In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul makes a radical statement: God’s power is made perfect in weakness. And the Christian gospel glories in weaknesses. In the passage just after our reading for today, Paul says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.22-24). Let’s stop for a minute to notice the shocking nature of that statement. ‘Christ’ is the Greek word for ‘Messiah’. The Messiah was supposed to be a king who God was going to send to defeat Israel’s enemies and set them free. ‘Christ crucified’? What a nonsensical statement! ‘We proclaim the king who was defeated by the Romans’? How is that good news? How can that help us?
But we know that Christ crucified is the heart of the Gospel. This is the power of God—that when he came among us in Jesus and we rejected him and killed him, he didn’t destroy us in rage but forgave us in love. This is what the Cross tells us. The Cross shows us how truly sinful we are: when pure love incarnate came among us, we rejected him and killed him. But it also shows us how full of grace and love God is: when we rejected him, he did not reject us. His love was never defeated. His love was victorious. And if we were missing the point, the resurrection underlined it gloriously for us.
So ‘Christ crucified’ would be an embarrassment to Jews and to Gentiles, but Paul refused to be embarrassed by it; he made it the centre of his message. And he made sure the Corinthians knew that they were called to walk in the way of the Cross too. Let me close by reminding you what that means for us today.
First, walking in the way of the Cross means that love is always the centre of what we do. Not flashy communication techniques. Not powerful speakers or great preachers. Not the world’s most impressive church building. No: a love that is so stubborn that it refuses to give up, even though it’s rejected over and over again. That’s God’s love for us: a love you don’t have to earn or deserve, that comes to you as a free gift from God, because God is love. But it also comes to us with a challenge: love as you have been loved. Leaders aren’t meant to impress us; they’re meant to love us, and lead us in love and service to one another.
Second, walking in the way of the Cross means suffering is inevitable. Powerful people didn’t like Jesus, so they crucified him. Powerful people always have the most to lose from a gospel that tells them they are not god; only God is God! If we follow Jesus consistently, he’s going to challenge our allegiance to wealth and power, and challenge others through us, and we can expect to suffer for that.
But we can also expect to suffer because of love itself. If we give ourselves in love to others, there will be a price to pay. It’s so much easier to do what we want all the time and let others look after themselves. To enter into a relationship with someone is to open yourself up to pain, because when they suffer, you suffer with them. That’s what Jesus did when he became one of us and eventually died our death. And now he tells us to take up our Cross and follow him. What did we think that meant, if it’s not suffering?
So walking in the way of the Cross means love is at the centre, and suffering is inevitable. But finally, walking in the way of the Cross means looking to the Resurrection. If Jesus had been crucified and stayed dead, no one would have taken any notice, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. But when his followers began to see him alive again, and began to get it through their heads that God had raised him from the dead, that changed everything! God had vindicated everything Jesus had said and done. He was the Messiah, he was the Son of God, he had given his life a ransom for many—and now he was exalted to God’s right hand as Lord of all. So there was no need to fear. What’s the worst our enemies can do to us? Kill us! Well, they killed Jesus, didn’t they? And look what happened to him! And one day, we’re promised that it will happen to us, too!
Paul says, ‘The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know that it is the very power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.18 NLT) Far more powerful than the preaching of Apollos or the signs and wonders done by charismatic preachers. Far more powerful than all the Greek philosophers in all their wisdom. Far more powerful than any politician or celebrity or CEO or self-help guru. In the Cross of Christ, the indestructible love of God meets all our human failure and despair, and gives us fresh hope and new life. So let’s glory in the Cross of Christ, and not be ashamed to make it the centre of our message and the centre of our lives. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.