The Power of God

The Power of God

Now, you need to understand that it wasn’t that Paul didn’t know about or believe in the Resurrection. He certainly did. The whole 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians is the first written account of the Resurrection. “Death” he says “is swallowed up in Victory” and “God be praised, he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Now that sounds like the Power of God to me. But instead of that, Paul opens up 1st Corinthians with an unrelenting focus on the message of the cross.



1st Corinthians 1:1- 4:5

What captured my attention in trying to prepare for today were the first few chapters of 1st Corinthians.


It’s thought that Paul began his ministry in Corinth late in the year 50 and about 18 months later he left to continue his evangelization of Asia. 1st Corinthians was written and dispatched from Ephesus around the year 56. I found it sobering to realize that this letter was circulated before the Gospel of Mark was written and a quarter century before the writing of the Gospel of Matthew. When Paul writes of Christ Jesus, its helpful to remember that what he had to rely on was his encounter on the road to Damascus with the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus and the stories other people had shared with him of the life and ministry of Jesus.  


Paul first focuses on the word call – he uses it in several different ways. He says that he was called by the will of God to be an Apostle. Then he address the Meeting of Christians in Corinth, those he says were sanctified in Christ Jesus and says of them that they too have been called – to be saints – along with everyone every place who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. He makes a powerful claim, one that we all to often miss – he says we have been enriched in Christ to the extent that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift. Our temptation is to look at ourselves, as individuals and as a meeting and decide that we just don’t have everything we need to be the church in the world. We don’t have the resources, we don’t have the expertise, we don’t have the leadership, we don’t have the energy – and Paul, in challenging the church in Corinth challenges us to be the church in Spokane.


He tells them that what is holding them back is the fact that they have become divided over things that are truly inconsequential – whether or not to baptize, whose religious theories are more right, whose personalities draw the greater following. And out of that comes the most important bit of Paul’s teaching. First he says that he wasn’t sent to baptize but the proclaim the gospel. And here is the line that captured my attention: “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.”


What do you think of as the most eloquent proclamation and example of the Power of God? For me, it is the message of the resurrection of Jesus. We worship on first day, not the Sabbath, or seventh day, because it was on the first day of the week that the women found the tomb empty. Christ arisen – that’s the call and the claim. “He Is Risen!” we proclaim to which others reply “He is risen indeed!” And what moment could be a greater example of the Power of God?


Now, you need to understand that it wasn’t that Paul didn’t know about or believe in the Resurrection. He certainly did. The whole 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians is the first written account of the Resurrection. “Death” he says “is swallowed up in Victory” and “God be praised, he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Now that sounds like the Power of God to me. But instead of that, Paul opens up 1st Corinthians with an unrelenting focus on the message of the cross.


To his fellow Jews in Corinth Paul proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ but more than that, he proclaimed Christ crucified. This doctrine of a crucified Messiah infuriated the Jews and Paul was invited out of the synagogue. Though he gained something of a following, he relocated his work to near the home of a Roman citizen that was secure from the assaults of the Jews. Paul was fiercely hated by his fellow Jewish ex-patriots.


Among this first Christian society on Greek soil Paul has to deal with the characteristic qualities of Greek intellectualism and that of a rather crude and shallow form. As you read the whole letter you learn how even the gifts of the Spirit were abused and how there were excesses in the common meal of the community and the questionable conduct of some of the women in church gatherings. He challenges the pretensions and wisdom of skeptical hellenism. The influence of the moral atmosphere of Corinth also made maintaining the ideals of a Christ centered life difficult in the extreme. And to them he preached the same message: Jesus is the Christ, but it was Christ crucified that he proclaimed.


1st Corinthians chronicles how his encountering the corrosive effect of the Greek culture on the life of the Christian community. The danger that Paul feared the most was that the presentation of the message of the cross of Christ would become shrouded in the robes of Greek philosophy. He proclaimed afresh the Gospel of a crucified Christ. And the word of the cross made the Gospel seem foolish in the eyes of the Greek lover of wisdom and weak to the Jews who believed in signs.


Now we have to admit that the cross is a lousy marketing tool. In Paul’s time crucifixion was a means used by the Roman Empire to constrain disreputable individuals and groups such as rebellious slaves, insurrectionists, pirates and others who dared threaten the divinely sanctioned social order. It was degrading, humiliating torture. And, for the Jews, according to Deuteronomy it was also to be regarded as a sign of divine curse.   Given that reality wouldn’t it be sheer idiocy, not just foolishness, to speculate how the cross could possibly be a means of divine revelation? Paul actually goes much farther. He doesn’t speculate on what God might or might not be doing through the cross. Rather he openly and boldly proclaims the cross as the means that God has chosen to encounter humanity and initiate our salvation.


However impotent to the Jews and absurd to the Corinthian public the preaching of the cross might seem to be, his claim is that the message of the cross of Christ is the power of God which veiled in the guise of weakness and the foolishness due to its lack of sophistication it ensnares the world and exposes its folly and shatters all other powers. The whole world scorns the thought of being saved by a crucified Messiah.


For Paul, what makes the message of the cross such a statement about the Power of God? It demonstrates most clearly, more clearly than does the resurrection, the character of God that Jesus came to reveal. First in the ways Paul develops his notion of the message of the cross being the power of God his view is that had the religious leaders and Roman authorities in Jerusalem, that is the rulers of the world understood the true character and purpose of God, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. The significance of that can’t be underestimated.   God did not have Jesus crucified, such an act was outside God’s character. No deal was struck with Satan to ransom humanity from his reign. The cross first of all reminds us that Jesus was crucified because people didn’t understand the loving character and purposes of God. It causes us to challenge the notions of an angry God needing to be placated – that isn’t the character of God that Jesus came to reveal.


Secondly, the very image of the cross of Christ declares a non-resistance to the powers of the world. Right, it is quite opposite to what humanity has learned about the absolute value of self protection. We live with the idea that we can make ourselves safe and secure from the threats of the world. How many events have been reported in our own community where people have been killed thinking that they were capable to use force or the threat of it to protect their property and their lives? It is futile. Our security will never be in the use of force. Jesus’ refusal to resist is a powerful piece of the story of the injustices of his trial and crucifixion.


Few of us miss the message of compassion and forgiveness for human ignorance that we hear from the mouth of Jesus on the cross. Luke tells us this in his Gospel: “There were two others with him, criminals who were being led away to execution; and when they reached the place called The Skull, they crucified him there, and the criminals with him, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” In preaching the message of the cross that same message is revisited, not for the Jerusalem power elite but for us all. The message of the cross is compassion and forgiveness for human ignorance.  


And again, the image of the cross speaks of self giving, a giving of one’s self away. Jesus did just that. Despite the presumed level of knowledge and the complexity of our concocted theories to attempt to explain away the mystery—it is our ignorance of God that is at the root of our errors. I’m not at all convinced that those early Christians at Corinth were any more painfully slow than are we to realized the character and claims of the God revealed to us by Christ Jesus. Correcting this ignorance is the aim of these first four chapters of 1st Corinthians. Already, from before time itself everything we need to be reconciled with God is available to us. But in our sophistication and dividedness, where we argue ooverour pet theories of how Christ’s spirit is manifested among us and how we are reconciled with God—we lose sight of our being gifted, graced, by God’s initiative. When we think we’ve got it all figured out the vision of the cross reminds us that our salvation isn’t based on our understanding or our exercise of power. With the image of the cross our ways and means through which we think we can get to God are rejected and the best and brightest human efforts to understand, explain and experience God are embarrassed. What appears to us to be either moronic or weak becomes divine revelation, divine power, divine salvation. We do not get to God or find the key to knowing God through our efforts. Rather, God comes to us and establishes the terms of the encounter for faith in the proclamation of the cross.


In the cross God has deliberately chosen to push our thinking to its limits. It is there where God reveals God’s own character. Jesus said that “God so loved the world…” And in that he declares that the very character of God is love.


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