Last week we began our journey through the book of 1 Corinthians, this letter from Paul to the members of the church that he had planted in Corinth. We thought about Paul’s absolute focus on Jesus Christ as the foundation of his life, the source of all his thinking, and the root of all that he writes in this letter. We explored the challenge of holiness, Paul’s consistent thankfulness, and the importance of unity.
Towards the end of last week’s passage, as Paul concluded his challenge to the divisions that had apparently arisen in the Corinthian church, he returns to his core message – the centrality of Jesus, in particular his cross and its power. It is this theme that we pick up this evening as Paul expands on his understanding of the cross. As he does so we see how the power, the wisdom, and the choices of God reveal the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God. From the very first the Kingdom of God has been an upside down kingdom. We see a typical example of this in the account that we heard read from Mark’s eye witness account of the good news of Jesus. It occurs fairly early on in his ministry, we’re only in chapter 3, and Jesus is still collecting his core group of disciples. In the last couple of sections we’ve seen him break social taboos by touching a man with leprosy in the course of healing him, and challenging the religious leaders when he healed a paralysed man in order to demonstrate his divine authority to forgive sins. This pattern continues as he adds the next person to his little band of followers.
Levi was a tax collector, most likely a collaborator with the occupying forces, probably using his position of power to extort money from the community. Now if Jesus had called Levi to follow him, and he’d followed, leaving his old life behind that might have been just about acceptable, but that is not what happened. Levi went to follow Jesus and then they both went together to share a meal with all Levi’s friends and colleagues from his old life. What kind of “holy” man does this? What kind of rabbi mixes with the rabble like this? The teachers of the law can’t get their heads round it, they are uncomprehending.
Jesus, however, is clear and consistent. He is here for those who need him and know that they need him. He will go to the sick of body, mind, and spirit, bringing healing and wholeness to the least and the lost. It’s an upside down kingdom where the priority of the king is the welfare of those on the edges and margins.
Paul would have known this story, and the others like it, of Jesus’ actions and priorities. As he writes to the Corinthians he is expanding on the implications of this, and working it out in light of the cross. The cross, you see, is one of the greatest examples of the upside down kingdom. The creator of life, dying. The saviour of all, beyond rescue. The holiest one, bearing all sin. The most glorious one, stripped naked. The ultimate healer, wounded. The high priest, sacrificed. The King, betrayed.
It is utter foolishness. But it is also the power of God for those who are being saved. Through the cross the dead, live. The broken are healed. The captives are freed. There is light in the darkness. There is hope in despair. All because of the cross in which the power of God to defeat sin and death are revealed. It turns everything upside down.
Last week we looked a little bit at the background of this letter, and how Paul had originally ended up in Corinth when he first went there on one of his missionary journeys. We looked in Acts 18 and found out that he had come from Athens. If we go back to Acts, to chapter 17, we find out what had happened in Athens. He arrived there on his own, having left his mission team in Berea. Finding himself at a loose end, he spent some time wandering round Athens, and was distressed by all the idols that he saw. Paul being Paul, he couldn’t let this lie, so he started debating about religious ideas – in the synagogue and in the market places. Athens was famed as a centre of philosophical debate and different schools of philosophy gathered there to put forward their views of the world. Some of them heard Paul and invited him to join them in the debating chamber, the Areopagus. We have a summary of Paul’s speech there, and it’s a text book example of engaging with a culture, and presenting the good news of Jesus, using some of the ideas of the philosophers he was speaking to. When Paul had finished, many of them sneered at him, but a few came to faith. There are different views on how succesful Paul’s approach here was. On the one hand there were conversions. On the other hand, Paul didn’t stay to plant a church, and there is no letter to the church in Athens, either from Paul or Peter, or in the book of Revelation.
I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves too much, but just peeking forward to next week’s reading a little bit, we read this, “I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony of God. for I was resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” However we might judge the “success” of his approach in Athens, it seems to me that Paul decided to take a different approach in Corinth. In Corinth it was going to be all about Jesus and the cross, and if that was foolishness then so be it, because he, perhaps through his experiences in Athens, was clear that God had turned the wisdom and philosophies of the world upside down.
Paul insists that God’s understanding, insight, ways of the thinking, are so far beyond that of ours that even God’s foolishness (if such a thing could be) is wiser than the most profound human wisdom. Not only that, but the weakness of God is the stronger than human strength.
Are you familiar with swingball? There’s a tennis ball attached to piece of string, in turn attached to the top of a pole. The pole is fixed in the ground, and players take it in turn to hit the ball in half circles to and fro. The clever bit is that where the string is fixed to the pole, there’s a spring that the end of the string travels up and down as the ball is hit back and forth. A player wins by getting the end of the string to the top or bottom of the spring. When my kids were little I used to play swingball with them. Now, I have to confess that I have never been very good at letting my kids win games against me. But, I did used to try and even things up a bit by playing left handed. I didn’t usually work. Even my weakness was stronger than their strength. A slightly silly example, perhaps, but you get the idea. Magnify this a thousand times and you’d still be short of the extent to which the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
On the cross Jesus had the divine strength to choose the path of weakness, of making himself vulnerable, of submitting himself to the authorities, of forgiving those who were abusing him. The cross reveals the way in which the power of God and the wisdom of God turn the world upside down.
In light of this, Paul invites his readers to reflect on their own journey. He invites them to remember what they were, and what they are. He reminds them that they weren’t renowned for being particularly wise or powerful. They were just ordinary people. But something changed their lives, turned them upside down. That something was the choice of God. Three times Paul writes, “God chose….” “God chose the foolish…” “God chose the weak…” “God chose the lowly…” He is looping back to where he started –it is pointless for them to boast about who they follow –Paul, Apollos, Peter. They were chosen by God, not because they were particularly important or impressive, but because of the free and gracious love of God, they were saved, not by anything they did, but by the overwhelming and overturning wisdom and power of God, revealed in Jesus. What they are now, counted righteous, holy, redeemed before God is not because of which teacher they follow but because of the work of Jesus. The only thing that they should boast in, in fact the only thing they can boast in, is the Lord. Once again, Paul brings us back to Jesus.
So, what is here for us? It seems to me that there is, as so often, encouragement and challenge. The challenge is for us to look at ourselves with humility. We might be tempted to be proud of our education, our intellect, our self-control, our influence in the world. They count for nothing in the kingdom. I suspect that most of us have heard teaching like this too often to actively look down or despise those on the edges and margins of society. But I’m not sure that I am as active as I could be in following Jesus’ example in actively working to include them and to work out the implications of God’s upside down kingdom. And the encouragement? God has chosen you. God’s weakness is greater than any power we face. God’s foolishness is wiser than the world. We might feel foolish, and might be weak, but as we follow Jesus faithfully and trust his cross, we will see the world turned upside down.