Paul the idealist.

It sounds like arrogance. Paul’s life-changing experience has given him confidence in the power of God, and such certainty in his convictions, that it is difficult to accept. He knows something others don’t know – and many cannot know – It is a perfectly circular argument he seems to make: Only spiritual people can receive the Spirit of God, but only the Spirit of God can make you a spiritual person. It sounds like arrogance; like Paul has described an exclusive club with a membership of one…but that’s not what this is.

Let’s remember that he is writing to a community he loves – a people who have heard the gospel and believed – and who are now finding ways to distort what they have learned. Paul believes that the gospel is enough. Once you have heard and believed, you should be changed – that’s how it worked for him – but he has discovered that not everyone is like him. Right or wrong, you have to admire his hopefulness. Paul seems genuinely surprised that the Gospel of Christ has not eliminated jealousy and quarreling among the Corinthian believers. He is an idealist of the highest order, and that is his most endearing and his most frustrating trait.

Where would we be without people like Paul? People who imagine things as they might be, and attempt to live as though this vision was now reality. Idealists can give us hope, and they keep us striving for something new or better. Without this sort of brave thinking – without high expectations bluntly stated, what would our society look like? Innovation comes at the hands of such single-minded folk; peace deals are brokered; bridges are built. The business world depends on idealists – scientific discoveries are their forte – these are people who are not afraid to take risks because they can’t imagine that they will fail (though when they do fail, it is spectacular). And now we come to the heart of the matter – and the focus of this early part of 1 Corinthians.

Paul the idealist senses the failure of the gospel to change the lives of these people, and he cannot imagine failure. He speaks of the process of the change (I spoke first to you as infants- unspiritual); each of the workers (Paul, Apollos, Cephas) did what they could to see that the word was planted and tended, but remember it is God at work giving growth (would you deny/ignore the power of God to change you? – the question he seems to be asking) ultimately, he reveals the secret of his high expectations: don’t you know that you Corinthians are God’s temple, and that God’s spirit has come to dwell in you (TOO?) For all of his bluster – for all that he sounds superior and arrogant, he really believes that the gospel is a life-changing, mind-altering work of God and he lives, acts, talks and writes according to that conviction.

Where would we be if we had a little of that spirit in us?

If the world needs idealists, the church needs them more. We have been invited into the ongoing project of the Gospel – an ancient promise that is made new for every generation – and we must accept Paul’s crazy logic if we are to understand the power of Christ crucified and risen: the logic that says we can only be spiritual if we have God’s Spirit, and we will only have God’s Spirit if we are spiritual. Foolishness, he says; a stumbling block, he calls it – but only to those who don’t (or can’t) share this vision of a kingdom built on grace and peace and founded in the glory of God.

The church, bound up in its struggles, has forgotten that the only reason Christian opinion mattered in the world is because we believed that it mattered! We need to follow Paul’s example; to point to the power of God at work in us and call it what it is – a miracle. In a world full of practical people, this still seems like crazy talk – idealists are often dismissed as dreamers; part of the lunatic fringe – but to those who catch the vision; to those who long for a different world, a better life, a sign of hope; to those people longing for the freedom only Christ can offer, the gospel is a dream worth pursuing – it is life and hope and joy – and it is the story that shapes our witness and our mission.

Arrogance? No. Confidence? Absolutely. Idealism? Why not. Let the world be changed because of our convictions. Let the kingdom come because of our hope for something better. Let God be glorified, in this and in all things. Amen


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