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Let Us Be Trustworthy Servants, 1 Corinthians 1:4-18; 2:1-5 with 3:5-9; 3:21-4:2

by on November 19, 2013

Opening Worship, Moderators Conference, November 8, 2013

Tom Trinidad

In the pluralism of our day, unprecedented in its scope, the scandal of the Messiah is particularly conspicuous. That God would choose one person out of one nation to be the means of grace and redemption for all creation raises our multicultural yellow flags. This was not what made Paul’s preaching scandalous, however. Let us pray.

God our Creator and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, send your Spirit upon these words, that the testimony we have read, the interpretation we hear, and the seal we receive, may strengthen us for a faithful response. In Christ’s name. Amen.

That Paul would preach Christ is not a scandal. The Jews had been preaching this particular scandal their entire existence. In the words of Zechariah the priest father of John the Baptist, “The dawn from on high will break upon those who dwell in darkness, and God will fulfill the promises made to our ancestors.” In the words of Mary the pauper mother of Jesus, “God has helped his servant Israel in accordance with the promises to our ancestors, and all generations will call me blessed.”

So it wasn’t the proclamation of Christ alone that earned Paul’s proclamation the label “scandalous.” The scandal was the proclamation of Christ crucified. Saul wasn’t scandalized on the road to Damascus by being addressed by a glorified Lord and Messiah. That would have been expected. It was rather that this glorified Lord and Messiah was the crucified Jesus, the one whose obedience to God’s redeeming will arose out of impoverished obscurity, took the form of a slave, and culminated in the most cursed death imaginable.

The crucified Christ addressed Saul on that road, and on every road ever since Paul proclaimed this Christ crucified. That is the scandal. It is a scandal that God’s deliverance is accomplished through such a withered branch. It is a scandal that God’s word is spoken with such dereliction. It is a scandal that God’s redemption of creation occurs through such a weak and suffering body.

The church today, the Body of Christ, is weak and suffering. Not every congregation shows this yet, but it is true. Creating new denominations is not going to change it. Changing polity isn’t either.

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians presents a curious picture of an early church. Enthusiastic worship that manifested many gifts of the Spirit, but not the greatest gift of love. Exuberant celebrations of baptism and eucharist, but overlooking the ethic of hospitality that these rites commemorate.

In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul laments that the power of the cross can be emptied of its power by these kinds of contradictions. In the crucified Christ, God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong. When we intermingle the power of the cross with the power of the world, the cross loses power.

The cross is emptied of its power by human wisdom—theology that claims to know more about God than is possible, leadership practices that emulate business, worship that is confused with culture. But the greatest hindrance to the power of God, that which underlies every other drain on the Gospel, is a triumphalist Christology which precludes any eschatological hope. Or more simply put: Christ the winner, no hope for dinner.

In my presentations at the Glory to God Presbyterian Hymnal celebrations I advocate for more frequent and joyful celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. One of the most common objections we face regarding frequent communion is that communion isn’t joyful. Rehearsing the crucifixion of Christ on a weekly basis—who wants to do that?

No one wants to do that, and who can blame them? But I wonder if the problem isn’t with the sacrament, but with the sermon. If our sermons more faithfully proclaimed Christ crucified, then the sacrament wouldn’t have to bear that burden. Then the sacrament could be what it apparently was in the biblical church, a joyful celebration of the presence of the resurrected Christ in the gathered assembly, revealed to us in the breaking of the bread.

Who do we say Christ is? This is important, because what we say about Christ is what our churches will believe, and it will determine how they behave. If Christ is only triumphant in the sermon and only crucified in the sacrament, what are we saying? Could it be that we’re saying that Christ was present in his suffering, but now is only absent in ours? Where is the hope in that? What kind of behaviors does such a belief produce?

We have become disestablished as our culture shifts from a religious one supportive of Christianity to a secular one in which Christianity is one option among many. We experience this as dying, and we appear, by cultural standards and according to human wisdom, to be dying.

In such a time as this, we need to know that Christ is present with us in our sufferings. Only in fellowship with Christ, can we grow into our new identity as the church on the edge of empire, which is actually our original identity as the Bible testifies to the faith of communities who were always on the edge of empire.

But I wonder if in our sermons, a triumphalist Christology has crept in, robbing our celebration of the Lord’s Supper of joy, and leeching the power of God from our churches?

  1. I see triumphalist Christology in churches that rely on celebrity pastors like Apollos, Cephas, or Paul.
  2. I see the crucified Christ in churches relying on the Spirit to enrich its members for service.
  3. I see triumphalist Christology in the church which mourns the passing of Christendom.
  4. I see the crucified Christ emerging in the church that embraces its freedom from empire.
  5. I see triumphalist Christology in the church that is anxious about its declining numbers.
  6. I see the crucified Christ in the church that gets about the business of peace, justice, and righteousness.
  7. I see triumphalist Christology in the church that separates itself over the interpretation of Scripture.
  8. I see the crucified Christ in the church that is of one mind and thought about its Lord.
  9. I see triumphalist Christology in churches that deny access to the Lord’s Table, both in whom may be served, and who may do the serving.
  10. I see the crucified Christ in churches that frequently, hospitably, and hopefully proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.

The Christ we proclaim in sermon is presented to us in sacrament. Triumphalist Christology in the sermon allows no room for Christ’s presence in sacrament. But proclaiming Christ crucified in sermon places God in solidarity within us through the sacrament, and this is grace, and peace, and joy, and strength.

In this letter, Paul calls the proclamation of Christ crucified the “mystery of God.” It is the power of salvation for those who believe. To others it is foolishness. But Paul knows that salvation comes through weakness, and that it appears foolish, and that in the words of Psalm 31, mourning will turn into dancing as we give thanks to God.

In chapters to come Paul will ask, “What is Cephas, Apollos, and Paul? Only stewards of God’s Word, only those who plant and water a seed.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9; 3:21-4:2) Let us be trustworthy stewards, proclaiming Christ crucified, and giving thanks for his presence with us, so that we may bear our crosses in faith, and follow him. Amen.

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