Foolish Wisdom and Wise Folly – I Corinthians 1.10-3.23
History is ever subject to our idealized recollections. At certain times and from certain perspectives the past seems more ideal than the present. However, I believe this idea of “the good old days” is more a figment of imagination resulting from the rose-colored lenses of myopia and amnesia than it is historical reality.
What is true of historical recollection in general is particularly true regarding the historical recollection of churches. It seems like you always hear someone in church talking about “the good old days” and they often speak about returning to the days and ways of the “new testament church” (as if there was just one “new testament church”).
If only we were a “new testament church” all would be well. Or so the logic goes. The problem is the logic doesn’t “go” very far. It is, to be blunt, faulty logic based on romanticized recollection, because the New Testament reveals that the early churches had as many problems as we do.
Consider the issues Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians. In Corinth, Paul established a faith community that quickly divided into factions after his departure. Each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’ or ‘I belong to Christ’ (1.1). What Paul describes is an adult version of the children’s game “king (or queen) of the mountain” in which members of the congregation is being torn apart by a competition for the most prominent and powerful position.
In addition, Paul addresses community members suing one another (6.1-11), abusing their freedom to the harm of others (6.12-20; 8.1-13), failing to make sure everyone gets fed at communal meals (11.17-22), competing for status and power based on spiritual gifts (12-14) and having disorderly worship gatherings in members argued with one another over how things should be done (14.26-40).
So, who wants to become the “new testament church” at Corinth? Is this the “golden age,” the “good old days” to which we long to return? It sounds pretty similar to a lot of churches today, to be honest. So, perhaps the problem is not that things have gotten worse since the days of the early church, but that things have largely remained the same.
The lectionary reading for this morning the familiar passage of I Corinthians 1.18-25. These verses, like all texts in the Bible, must be interpreted in light of their larger context, which is why we also read chapters 2 and 3. Failure to do so inevitable leads to misunderstanding.
To realize the importance of context, listen as I read verses 18-25 again, and make note of what images or ideas come to your mind when I read without any context.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will put an end to the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will obstruct.’
Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
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. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
As you listened, your mind automatically interpreted these verses without even realizing it—and most of these interpretations likely had nothing to do with the issue of division in the Corinthian church. This happens because each of us brings theological “baggage” with us when we read the Bible. This “baggage” is the sum of all that we’ve heard in sermons, Sunday school lessons, hymns and praise songs, as well as all that we’ve read in books, articles and devotional literature. It is very important to be aware that this “baggage” shapes our understanding of the Bible, otherwise we might assume the meaning of a word or phrase when it might not mean that at all.
Our text for this morning provides a prime example. When we read phrases like “the message of the cross,” “those who are perishing” and those who are “being saved,” our theological “baggage” interprets their meaning for us. Our minds likely move to ideas about heaven and hell and life after death, even though none of this is mentioned here. Probably the last thing on our minds is the division caused by a power struggle, even though this is the issue Paul is addressing. This is our “theological baggage” at work.
Paul is addressing a present conflict in Corinth, not the eternal, post-mortem destiny of the Corinthian believers (at least not directly). Thus, the “perishing” ones are not those going to hell and the “being saved” ones are not those going to heaven after they die—they are “perishing” and “being saved” at this present moment. So who are these people? Verse 18 tells us. The “perishing” ones are those for whom “the message about the cross” is foolishness. The “being saved” ones are those for whom “the message about the cross” is wisdom.
That is simple enough. But what is “the message about the cross”? And from what are some “perishing” and from what are others “being saved”?
In chapter one, verses 23-25 Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified…the power and wisdom of God” and in chapter two, verse 2 he says, “I decided to know nothing among you expect Jesus Christ and him crucified.” So, “the message of the cross” is that Jesus’ crucifixion reveals God’s power and wisdom, but Paul does not say how it reveals divine wisdom. That answer will only come once we’ve answered a few other questions.
First, why do some consider this “message about the cross” foolish and others consider it wise? Second, from what are some ‘perishing’ and from what are others ‘being saved’? Finally, how does all of this address the rivalry in Corinth?
I Corinthians 2.6-8 can help us begin to answer these questions. “Among the mature we speak wisdom, though not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. We speak God’s wisdom that none of the rulers of this age understood; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
“Those who are perishing” find “the message about the cross” foolish because they live according to “a wisdom of this age.” Those who are “being saved” find “the message of the cross” wise because they live according to the wisdom of God. “The message about the cross” is perceived differently depending upon the wisdom by which one chooses to live. This is the answer to our first question.
Our second and third questions must be answered together, because, as we shall see, they are asking the same question. Let’s quickly review the content of this morning’s reading.
In chapter 1, verses 10-17 Paul addresses groups within the faith community competing for power and position based on the teacher or leader with whom they most closely associate.
In chapter 1, verse 18 through chapter 2, verse 16, Paul addresses these destructive rivalries by appealing to “the message about the cross,” which is that Christ was crucified by those living according to the wisdom of this age (that is, human wisdom). As a result, Christ reveals an alternative, divine wisdom that dies to the destructive ways of power and finds new life in the redemptive ways of God.
In chapter 3, the feuding over power and position that results from acting according to human wisdom appears again. Paul calls the Corinthians who are wise in this age (in human wisdom) to become fools so that they may become wise in godly wisdom (3.18-19).
The fact that Paul’s reference to the message about the cross as the wisdom and power of God is framed in the context of divisions over power and position reveals that the message of the cross is offered as an alternative, an antidote to the rivalry and division at Corinth. The feuding at Corinth and the death of Jesus arise from the same source—the wisdom of this age.
Thus, the “being saved” ones are those who follow the wisdom of God as revealed in “the message about the cross” by opting out of the divisive rivalries over power and position. They are saved because they learn to live a new, expansive, selfless life that promotes and encourage the flowering of their humanity.
The “perishing” ones are those who follow the wisdom of this age by participating in the divisive rivalries over power and position. They are perishing because they cling to an old, diminishing, selfish life that prevents and hinder the flowering of their humanity.
“Being saved” and “perishing” are not (primarily) post-mortem categories for Paul. They are present categories determined by whether one strives after power and position or not.
Paul understands salvation as freedom from the “survival of the fittest and fewest” mentality displayed in the Corinthian conflicts and the unjust execution of Jesus, and freedom for the “survival of the whole wide world” mentality displayed in “the message about the cross.”
“Survival of the fittest” is part of evolutionary development and it is really another name for selfishness, because it is the will to power, position and place over and against others. It assumes that abundant life can only come to me at the expense of the abundant life of others.
This impulse is “hard-wired” into the biological make-up of all creatures. What makes us human (or, at least, on the way to being human) is that we have become conscious of it, which makes it sinful, “original sin” you might say. It is “original,” because it is the driving force behind our evolutionary development, a biological “wiring” with which we are all born. It becomes “sin” when we recognize its destructive effects and the sway this impulse holds over our lives.
Paul says that “the message about the cross” by which we are being saved is selflessness. It is the manifestation of divine wisdom that liberates us from the wisdom of this age that is “survival of the fittest.” “The message about the cross” is the antidote to the disease that fractured the community at Corinth and it is the antidote to this disease, this “original sin” that continues to fracture communities across the world.
Those who follow the wisdom of this age as revealed in the Corinthian rivalries may gain the whole world, but they will lose their lives, their selves, their humanity in their pursuit of power and place, because the pursuit leaves fractures and fissures within communities and within individuals—it leaves death and division in its wake.
Those who follow the wisdom of God as revealed in the “message about the cross” may lose the whole world, but they will find lives, their selves, their humanity in the pursuit of selflessness and service to all, because the pursuit leaves healing and hope within communities and within individuals—it leaves new and abundant life in its wake.
And this is good news of Easter: those who “die” to the way of power and place, those who “die” to self in order to follow the way of selfless love and sacrificial service will be raised up to new and abundant life.
This is what we celebrate at Easter—the glad news that those who choose the way of selflessness (those who choose to live their life for the sake of the world, not just for themselves) have chosen the way to the truth and life of God that ultimately rises to new, unparalleled and limitless dimensions of healing and hope that will never end.
This is the good and glad news for which we say, “Thanks be to God!” AMEN.