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07.25.21 The Gospel in Paul’s Churches 1 Cor 1.18-2.5 Sermon Summary

by on July 26, 2021

Sometimes we read the Bible and we think, “There’s something going on here, but I don’t know what.” That’s when we turn to specialists trained in reading ancient texts. Specialists explore arcane details and literary devices. They compare historical references and allusions. They look for theological patterns that may help us understand a passage of scripture like Paul’s dense conversation in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.

This passage has something going on. It lays out several opposites and contrasts:  Wise and foolish; strong and weak; divine and human. Paul contrasts God’s foolishness to human wisdom, and God’s weakness Paul compares to human strength. 

This isn’t by accident. It is designed. Paul is using a stylistic argument called a chiasmus. It gets its name from the Greek letter Chi which is shaped like an X. It’s the first letter in the word “Christ,” which is why we abbreviate Christmas with Xmas.

A chiasmus crisscrosses words like opposites and contrasts. It takes an idea and twists it, reversing word order, making contrasts, making it look like an X in the imaginatioin. 

For example: Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” We design our buildings with careful controls, but for generations afterwards, buildings control us. Think about the implications of that for a church sanctuary . . .

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is riddled with chiasmi. You can find them if you look. Locating them helps us understand the point Paul is trying to make. I want to get to the point through the question, What was Paul’s understanding of the Gospel? In this passage we have three moves constructed as chiasmi.

First: God has made a choice. God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong. Why? Because God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom. And, Paul says, God’s weakness is greater than human strength. This is a great contrast between divine and human, between God’s values and ours.

Next, Paul says, God has revealed this choice with the crucifixion of Christ. This is the second move. The crucifixion of Christ reveals God’s choice. Some people want signs or miracles. Others want wisdom, impressive arguments, and productive results. 

So you might hear someone say, or think yourself, “This person sounds very impressive. She is articulate! He is so passionate! And they use such big words! What she’s saying must be true.”

Or, “Gosh this is a huge building. The parking lot is always full and the people are well dressed. Surely this place must be blessed!”

That’s the backstory in Corinth. Since Paul founded the church a few years earlier, the congregations have begun to criticize him for not being very impressive and his message for not being very substantive in comparison to others’.

Paul responds that instead of relying on eloquence and miracles, he simply preached “Christ crucified.” He acknowledges this is a stumbling block to sign-seekers and foolishness to wisdom-seekers. 

Paul preached that an uncredentialed Jewish Rabbi who was opposed by religious leaders and the politically powerful was nonetheless beloved of the poor and simple. He was the hope of the oppressed, the marginalized, and those in vulnerable communities. 

So maybe Jesus isn’t JUST A Rabbi, just a teacher. He is a prophet who speaks the truth. He is a priest who makes God present to us and us to God. Maybe he’s a new king, a deliverer and redeemer. And if so, maybe he could be the Messiah [“Christ”], the very embodiment of God’s promises fulfilled!

But if so, how could Paul preach “Christ crucified”?! That’s weakness, not strength. It’s foolishness, not wisdom. It’s human, not divine. But that’s what Paul preached: Christ crucified. It is the revelation of God’s choice: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor 1:28)

This brings us to the third move. God calls, and we respond. Jesus calls us to follow him, to follow in this way, in this counter wisdom, to trust in this counter strength. And those who respond, Paul writes, discover that God is the source of their life, and that in Christ is our redemption.

So what is the Gospel in Paul’s churches? Our salvation comes through Christ crucified. This is God’s choice. Why? So that no one can boast. It is God’s doing. In other words, it is a gift. It is grace.

Let us not hope to boast in signs and wonders, in displays of power and prestige, or in demonstrable productivity. Let us not hope to boast in intelligent and articulate arguments, or in reason and prudence. 

These would be our choices. But the Gospel is about God’s choices. And God has chosen Christ crucified, the weak to shame the strong, what is foolish to shame the wise.

And to all who believe and respond, God chooses to give divine life, power, and wisdom, to make us holy, and to redeem our lives.

If this is Paul’s Gospel in Corinth, should we not consider it our own cities?

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