The power of the cross.

1 Corinthians is a letter that sees Paul wander from the depth of his disappointment to the pinnacle of his piety – Spiritual gifts and human failings – this is a vivid snapshot of the state of the early church through the lens of one of the giants of the Christian faith. Paul is personally responsible for the content of nearly half of the New Testament, and is the subject of much of the book of Acts – yes, it’s about Jesus, but it is Jesus as described by the activities of Paul; faith articulated by Paul – he is an important figure of faith (and doubt) – he shapes much of our theology…but he is a difficult character to understand.

He offers interesting, (and to modern ears, derogatory) advice on the role of women in the church, but acknowledges female companions and sponsors (and even leaders!) in his letters. He is a single man who helped define marital relationships. He is the “Hebrew of Hebrews” – perfect in observation and zealous in application of the code of behaviour defined by Mosaic law – who takes as his mission/call the proclamation of the gospel to the gentiles; indeed he becomes (in his own words) “…all things to all people…”1 for the sake of the gospel. Paul is a puzzle, but he does offer us a way to encounter the gospel at a distance (from the person of Jesus). That was Paul’s mission, after all – to acquaint people outside the story – outside the Jewish faith – with the open invitation of Jesus.

We can’t do without Paul’s brutal honesty. We could use some of Paul’s boundless enthusiasm. He is willing to move quickly from giving thanks for their faithfulness to chastising his “friends” for their foolishness. Paul – whatever else you think of his approach, or his rhetoric – Paul keeps us honest.

First Corinthians opens with a problem in the church. Some claim to follow Paul; others Apollo; still others Cephas (Peter). Some even claim to follow Christ. There are pockets of power developing in the Corinthian ‘church’, and Paul means to put an end to that sort of foolishness…[unfortunately, he doesn’t do it – divisions = power problems to this day] Paul reminds them of the real power in this new relationship that Christ has offered the world.

Divisions around personalities are not yet so uncommon. The history (and the present mode) of church behaviour, denominational squabbling and so on offer plenty of evidence that the problem Paul sought to correct in Corinth is still a problem. Some say “I follow Luther”; others “I follow the Bishop of Rome”; still others follow “the movement of the Spirit as THEY understand it”; and then, there are Presbyterians – who follow the leading of the Spirit, but only when the Spirit speaks in committee, and then only if there is room in the budget.

Paul speaks to all of us as he slaps his forehead in frustration and points to the Cross.

It is quite a dramatic opening.

Paul, the seasoned public speaker, declares that wisdom and eloquence are nothing compared to the power of God found at the cross. He speaks to the heart of a hundred generations of preachers when he says that the words we use must not divert attention to the real wisdom and absolute power revealed in the crucifixion – our boasting in the abundance of life and love and acceptance we have found in Christ is useless without first admitting the truth about power that confronts us at the cross of Christ. It is hard to write anything – harder still to preach – if somehow the power has been vested in a person, or a denominational body, or a doctrine of the church. You can write about persons, or denominations or doctrines, but you will not be preaching the gospel. Not Paul, nor Apollos, not even Christ offers comfort without pointing to the real power of God

Paul brings attention (in all his writing) to the power of God to create and re-create; the power to heal and reveal – and realizes that if God has power to repair or remake what is broken, it is only because God first had the power to make it all – and with that comes the power to make it all go away (to destroy) Much is made of this power in the Christian religion – it is the darker side of the street; the place we don’t want to go, for if God can destroy, (and would do so in response to our faithless bumbling through the millenia) then we are left to wonder, WHY ARE WE STILL HERE ?

Well, Paul argues that it is because of the power of the cross. An artifact that stood for senseless destruction has become the icon of salvation – only because God has the power to shame the strong with weakness, and reduce the powerful with humility. For Paul, crucifixion is everything – the death of Jesus, in such horrible fashion, gives purpose to everything that follows; our preaching, our service, our sacraments – all take their power from the power of God revealed in the cross of Christ. Since God has redeemed so senseless an act as crucifixion; surely such power is sufficient to save us.

This gospel is the foundation of all of Paul’s work – It was the power that drew him from persecution of the church to proclamation in the first place – and that same power is at work whenever we gather at the font, or the table. The church depends on the power of God, revealed at the cross, for our future – reminded by Paul that it is “…by grace we are saved, through faith – and this is not our own doing, but the gift of God2…; And that is good news indeed. Thanks be to God, for this gift of power and grace that meets us in the cross of Christ. Amen.

11 Cor 9: 22 (NRSV)

2Ephesians 2: 8

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