Monday, January 31, 2011

On Unity, Leadership, and the Gospel

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul says that he still can not address the Corinthians as spiritual people.  Instead, he says they are fleshly, mere infants in Christ.  By saying that the Corinthians are fleshly and not spiritual, Paul is not saying that the Corinthians aren't Christians.  After all, he describes them as being in Christ and in the previous chapter he said that they have the mind of Christ.  Paul acknowledges the Corinthians as the body of Christ.  He knows that they received the Spirit.  In saying that he can not speak to them as spiritual, neither is Paul saying that the Corinthians aren't religious enough.  He is not saying that the Corinthians need to focus more on their "spirituality" as opposed to their every day physical needs.  Instead, Paul is driving home the same point that he has been making throughout the letter up to this point:  the Corinthians have the Spirit of God among them but they don't yet fully understand what that means for their behavior.

As we've seen in the previous passages in 1 Corinthians, the problem in Corinth is not a lack of zeal for the Spirit or spiritual things.  Paul almost certainly uses the term spiritual here to describe what the Corinthians are not precisely because that is how they saw themselves; as deeply spiritual.  So when Paul says that the Corinthians are not spiritual but fleshly, it is not so much a comment about the quantity of the Corinthians spirituality as its quality.  Paul is not saying that they are unconcerned with "spiritual" things but that they are approaching the Spirit in the wrong way.  They are seeking to use the Spirit for their own advancement just like they would use any other tool or philosophy in life.  Paul is telling them that even though the Spirit of God is among them they are still acting like the world acts by striving to exalt themselves. Their spirituality is fleshly, that is, immature.

Paul says that the evidence of this fleshly, immature spirituality are the divisions and strife that exist among the Corinthians.  If the Corinthians had a mature understanding of the wisdom of God revealed in the cross of Christ, they would realize that a genuine spirituality would mean submitting to each other in unity and common mission.  Instead, they are allowing themselves to be fragmented by attaching themselves to different leaders.  In all likelihood, the Corinthians were doing this because they saw those leaders as more "spiritual" and more "wise" than Paul so they thought they could advance further in the faith.  This in turn causes Paul to address what it means to be a Christian leader.

For Paul, to be a Christian leader is actually to be a servant.  He says in v.5 "What then is Apollos? What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed".  Whatever authority Paul or Apollos have, they are ultimately still nothing more than servants of God.  As servants, they are each given different roles within God's mission. Paul says that he planted the church and Apollos watered it but it always ultimately God who causes the growth.  Only God can grow and mature his people.  That is not a human task. Paul says "neither the one who plants or the one who waters is anything but only God who gives the growth."  Therefore, Christian leadership is not a matter of exalting oneself.  It is not a matter of gathering as many followers as you can.  It is not even a matter of growing your church since that is something only God can do.  The task of Christian leadership is nothing other than submitting oneself to God as a servant, ready to do whatever work God calls us to in his field.

Of course, this is really more than Paul's view of leadership.  It flows from his view of the Christian life as an imitation of the pattern that he sees in Jesus; that paradigm which is summed up so well in Philippians 2:5-11.  Christ, who is God and had every reason to exalt himself, instead chose to humble himself taking the lowest of low positions, even death on a cross.  "Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth to the glory of God the Father."  Paul believes this is what all Christians are called to; this humbling of oneself.  This is very thing Paul has been referring to as the wisdom of God.

Of course, this is such a difficult pattern for us to incorporate into our lives because it runs contrary to everything we know.  Everything in our world from the corporate ladder to school to the military to sports to social gatherings to kid's karate classes is about "moving up", advancing, being the best we can be, being of higher rank, getting ahead of others around us.  This is simply the way the world works.  How high can you ascend in the pecking order?

But Paul tells us that this is the root of the Corinthians' problems.  They lack unity because they strive after "more spiritual" leaders and they strive after those leaders because they misunderstand the role of Christian leadership within the Church and they misunderstand the role of leaders because they misunderstand the real meaning of spirituality in the Christian life.  The root of all the problems Paul will address in this letter is that the Corinthians have failed to recognize that the gospel of the crucified messiah which they believed calls upon them to be a people of humility, sacrifice, service, and submission, a people whose wisdom is not of the world but is ordered and shaped by the cross of Christ.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Proclamation in the Spirit

In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul continues with much the same point that he had begun in the second half of chapter one. There, Paul reminded the Corinthians that God's wisdom was not human wisdom.  While the world's wisdom consists of wealth, power, and influence, God wisdom consists of righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.  This wisdom has been revealed specifically is the scandal and foolishness of a crucified messiah, namely Jesus.  However, Paul also says in chapter one that it is revealed in the Corinthians themselves; that is, many of them were weak, lowly, and despised when God called them but God's Spirit worked them in spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, their lowliness.

Paul continues this argument in chapter 2 by saying that his own preaching fits precisely this same bill.  Paul did not come to the Corinthians preaching with high and mighty flashes of rhetoric or with worldly wisdom.  It wasn't because Paul was an especially skilled speaker that the Corinthians believed.  Instead, he spoke in weakness and in fear and in trembling.  It wasn't that Paul offered persuasive arguments that the Corinthians couldn't logically refute.  Instead, Paul says that he resolved to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and him crucified and that it was because of demonstrations of the Spirit and power that the Corinthians believed.

This word that is translated as demonstration (ἀποδείξει) is a term that Paul borrows from the art of rhetoric.    It means something like a convincing proof that follows logically from the premises that have been argued.  Paul's use of this word here then is full of irony.  Rhetoric, the study of speech and persuasion, was a highly regarded body of knowledge in the Greco Roman culture of Paul's day.  It seems pretty obvious from what Paul has said in this letter that it was highly regarded among the Corinthians as well.  But Paul says rhetoric, persuasive words of human wisdom, are precisely how the gospel did NOT come to the Corinthians.  But the gospel did come with its own convincing evidence; not flashy speeches or well respected philosophies but with powerful acts of God's Holy Spirit which transformed the Corinthians and confirmed the truth of Paul's preaching among them.  

In v.6 and the following, Paul goes on to fine tune and summarize the point that he has been making all along; the gospel is indeed wisdom but not according to the worlds standards.  Paul says that if the wisdom of humanity was compatible with the wisdom of God, then the rulers of the world would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  If they had known God's wisdom, then they would have recognized Jesus as that wisdom and not put him to death.  Paul then says that this is just as it is written  "what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, what no human mind has conceived, the things that God prepared for those who love him".  It is widely debated as to what exactly Paul is quoting here since there is no Old Testament reference which matches these words exactly.  It could be a conglomeration of Old Testament texts or a reference to some writing now lost to us.  However it is worth noting that it closely parallels the idea of Isaiah 64:4 which is an appropriate context for the point Paul is making.  Isaiah 64 is a call for God to "rend the heavens and come down" and thereby set the world right according to God's righteousness.  This is, of course, precisely what Paul believes God has done in Jesus.  God has come down to earth, setting the world right by the righteousness of God; only God is doing it in a way that no eye has seen and no ear has heard, in a way that no human being could have possibly thought up, by God becoming human, a crucified human.  

Paul says that God himself has revealed all of this to us by his Spirit.  And this is a decisive point in Paul's argument; that we can not learn these things on our own.  The mystery of God's wisdom is not something that we can just figure out, it is not something we can logically deduce.  If we could, it would be just like every other form of wisdom and the Corinthians would be right to approach it that way.  Instead, Paul says, God's Spirit must reveal it to us.  After all, who can possibly know the mind of God?  Paul says by analogy we can't even know the thoughts of another human being unless they reveal them to us.  How much more with the infinite and immeasurable God?  We can't possibly come to recognize the crucified messiah as the manifestation of God's wisdom unless God's Spirit reveals it to us as such.

Fortunately, God's mystery does not remain a mystery.  God does reveal it to us by his Spirit.  Paul ends this section of his argument by saying "but we have the mind of Christ".  Paul's point in this passage is not that the Corinthians are ignorant of the mystery of God but only that they did not come to know it by their own ability.  The Corinthians do indeed have the mind of Christ but this is only the case because of what God's Spirit has done among them.

The Church would do well to remember this.  The Word is not something given to us to do with as we please.  Nor is our faith something of which we can logically convince those around us.  We could not and would not ourselves have come to know God through the mystery of the crucified messiah were it not for the revealing work of God's Spirit among us.  As a result, all of our proclamation, all of our words and actions as the Church mean precisely nothing if God does not make them his own words and actions by the power of His Holy Spirit.  Our preaching, our reading of scripture, our worship, our evangelism, our discipleship, all of our practices must be done within the power of the Holy Spirit or they are mere babbling about nothing.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Foolish Wisdom

I mentioned last week that it seems likely from reading Paul's correspondence with the Corinthian Church that they (or at least a group within the Church at Corinth) thought pretty highly of themselves and their own spirituality.  It seems that at least part of the reason for this was because the Corinthians were approaching the gospel as a form of sophia, that is, wisdom.  The gospel is, of course, God's wisdom but not in the way the Corinthians were considering it.  Instead, they were approaching it as a form of worldly wisdom, a system of truth, a philosophy.  As a result, they saw it as a teaching they could master for their own advancement.  For them, Jesus was just another self-help guru.  In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Paul confronts that thinking head on.  He goes so far as to call the gospel which he preaches foolishness and a scandal.

Paul says that Jews ask for signs which is precisely what we see in the gospels.  The religious leaders are constantly asking Jesus to validate his authority as messiah by performing some kind of sign or miracle.  They believed that the messiah would be a mighty leader who would be able to expel the dirty Romans from Israel. But instead it was the Romans who killed Jesus.  Therefore, the idea of proclaiming that this Jesus who was crucified was the messiah is nothing short of a scandal.

Paul says that Greeks seek wisdom.  One of the trademarks of Greek culture was its philosophers and its constant search for wisdom.  And a basic tenet of Greek philosophy was that God could not suffer, that God could not even change.  This is because God, by definition, was perfect, and if he changed then, by definition, he would have to become something other than perfect.  Therefore, the idea of God becoming a human being, and even more so, the idea of God dying was an absurdly foolish idea to any Greek philosopher or seeker of wisdom.

In contrast these ideas about God, Paul says "But we preached Christ crucified!"  As modern day Christians, we also often forget how scandalous this proclamation is.  We have come to see the cross as a religious symbol.  It adorns our jewelry and our sanctuaries as a symbol of hope because we have come to associate it with the resurrection and the power of God to give us new life and save us from the power of sin (assuming, of course, that we haven't further reduced it to a mere trinket among other symbols of sentimentality).  As a result, we forget that this was a state sanctioned instrument of torture, cruelty, and death.  This is the electric chair.  This is the gas chamber.  Crucifixion was the death reserved for criminals but not just any criminals.  It was for those convicted of rebelling against the rule of the Roman Empire.  We have a word for those people today: terrorists.  Jesus was convicted and sentenced to death on a cross as a terrorist, an enemy of the state, a threat to Roman superiority.

Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us) "Remember, this is the gospel in which you believed.  And you think that is something that you can pursue as worldly wisdom, as a philosophy on how to get ahead in life, as a self-help manual?  How absurd!"  Paul says "We preach Christ crucified!  A crucified messiah!  Have you forgotten that?  Have you forgotten how absurd the gospel you believed appears according to worldly standards of wisdom?  No worldly system of wisdom believes in a crucified messiah!"  

But Paul says that this word of the cross which is foolishness to those who are perishing is the power of God to those of us who believe. God's foolishness is wiser than men's wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than men's strength.  Paul says that the Corinthians themselves are evidence of this.  Paul reminds them that when God called them to be his Church not many of the Corinthians were wise, powerful, or well born.  In fact, Paul says, this is how God works all the time.  God is constantly choosing the weak, the lowly, the things that are not in order to shame the wise, the powerful, and the things that are.  God doesn't choose the powerful and wise to display his power and wisdom.  God chooses the weak and lowly so that then it will be evident that it is God who has done the powerful work and not us.  Only a truly powerful and wise God could display his power and wisdom in the weakness and foolishness of a crucified messiah.

Therefore, Paul admonishes the Corinthians to stop their boasting.  There is no room for boasting in a truly Christ-centered spirituality because it is God who has done the work.  We have not saved ourselves.  We have not mastered a new form of sophia.  Instead, Paul urges the Corinthians to understand that Jesus Christ, that crucified messiah that is so shameful, scandalous, and foolish in the eyes of the world, has become wisdom to them.  Jesus is God's wisdom revealed to us.

It is easy to see the end of verse 30 as simply a list of four things that Christ has become to us; wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.  However, in Paul's Greek, it seems more likely that he intends the last three to fill out the content of the first: "Christ, who has become to us the wisdom of God, which is righteousness, sanctification, and redemption."  God's wisdom as revealed to us in Jesus is God's covenant faithfulness (righteousness) which sets those who believe free from sin (redemption) so that we might live holy lives to God (sanctification).  Of course, this comes as no surprise because this is precisely what God has been about throughout the story of scripture; redeeming the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, making a covenant with them at Sinai so that they could be set apart and learn to be in right relationship with God and each other, living lives of holiness to God.  It is that God who was revealed at the Exodus and at Mt Sinai who is also revealed in Jesus and who has set us apart by his Holy Spirit.   It is that God of deliverance and covenant who in His wisdom has extended deliverance and covenant to us by way of the foolish idea of a crucified messiah.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Is Christ Divided?

Paul's first appeal in 1 Corinthians is concerning the discord that he has heard about in the church at Corinth.  Paul says that some in Corinth are saying that they are "of Paul" while others are saying that they are "of Apollos" or "of Peter".  We can guess from the rest of the content of the letter that these divisions are connected to the spiritual arrogance of the Corinthians.  (Consider the divisions Paul addresses concerning the Lord's Supper and spiritual gifts later in the letter).   It seems likely that they are each claiming the leader they see as being the most spiritual.  The really spiritual, of course, say that they are "of Christ".

Paul will address these themes as they touch other problems throughout the letter but he begins here by asking the Corinthians three questions that are meant to remind them that they have been bound together in Christ.  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified on your behalf?  Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?  Each question reinforces the others.  Christ is not something that can be divided up among a few believers.  Instead, it was Christ who crucified on behalf of all the Corinthians.  Therefore, all the Corinthians have been baptized into Christ.  That is to say that Christ is not something to which any of them can lay claim over and against the others.  Instead, their lives, their identities are defined by their baptism into Christ and this is an identity that all the Corinthians share.

Of course, the Church today still divides itself and thus divides Christ in this way as well.  We say we are "of Luther" or "of Calvin" or "of Wesley" while others claim to be the only ones who are truly "of Christ".  Then there are all the other labels that threaten to divide us as well: black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, educated, old, young, and every other label the world gives us or we give ourselves.  Paul reminds us that in Christ there is more that unites us than divides us.  That doesn't meant that we all have to become the same but it does mean that as the Church we must demonstrate a unity of love with one another even in the midst of our diversity.

It is telling that Paul begins this passage on unity by addressing the Corinthians as brothers.  This simple address in its own subtle way is also a reminder to the Corinthians of their common bond together.  They are brothers because they have the same Father.  It is this Father who has bound the Corinthians together by the crucifixion of his Son and the empowering of his Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What Makes a Church

Based on 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, the church at Corinth sounds like an ideal church.   Just listen to the way Paul describes this church.  Paul says they were:

  • sanctified in Christ Jesus (v.2)
  • enriched in every way in Christ Jesus in all speech and knowledge (v.4)
  • not lacking in any spiritual gift (v.7)
  • awaiting the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ (v.7)
  • guiltless in the day of the Lord (v.8)
  • called into the fellowship of the Son (v.9)
This church is holy, wise, spiritually gifted, patient, guiltless, and enjoying good Christian fellowship together.  What more could anyone ask for in a church?  

But then we read the rest of the letter...

Immediately, after Paul describes the Corinthians as being called into the fellowship of the Son he says "I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (v.10).  Paul has heard reports that there is quarreling and divisions among the Christians in Corinth.  Later in chapter six, we find that this disunity is so serious that some in the congregation have actually been taking each other to court.  What happened to the fellowship of the Son?  

Near the end of chapter one and into chapter two, we hear that this church which Paul describes as being enriched in all speech and knowledge is made up of people who actually weren't very wise according to worldly standards, nor very powerful or well respected in society (1:26).  Paul even goes on to describe them using terms like weak and lowly.  

Then, in chapter 3, we find that the ones Paul described as not lacking any spiritual gift, he now can not address as spiritual.  In fact, he says they are mere babes in Christ who are not ready for solid food.  Paul has to keep giving them milk, going over the basics of the faith with them again and again (3:1-2)

In chapter 4, Paul says that those who were waiting so patiently for the revealing of our Lord Jesus are actually boasting as if they have already arrived.  They are acting as if they already have everything for which they hope and have already become rich, acting like kings as if Jesus had already returned and God's new creation had already come.  (4:7-8)

In chapter five, we hear that this church which Paul describes as sanctified and guiltless, is actually sexually immoral.  And Paul says it is a sexual immorality that the common culture doesn't even condone; a man is sleeping with his step-mother!  And what is worse, the Corinthians think this is something to boast about.  They think that they are so spiritual that the normal confines of sexuality do not apply to them (5:1-2).  

So what's the deal?  Why does Paul say all of this stuff about the Corinthian church if none of it seems to be true?  Was Paul simply buttering them up to get their attention?  Was he being sarcastic when he said all of that nice stuff about the Corinthians?  

It is evident from Paul's letters that flattery and sarcasm were certainly both part of his rhetorical arsenal but I think there is something else going on in these opening verses of 1 Corinthians.  Interspersed between these statements are one's about God's grace, God's faithfulness, and God actions.  The first thing for which Paul gives thanks is the "grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus."  It is because of this grace that Paul says the Corinthians were enriched in knowledge and not lacking in any spiritual gift.  Paul says God will sustain the Corinthians in the day of judgment because God is faithful.  

In other words, the Corinthians aren't sanctified because they are exceptionally moral people but because God has set them apart for his holy purpose.  They certainly aren't guiltless because they haven't done anything wrong but because God will sustain them until the day of judgment.  They aren't full of wisdom and spiritual gifts because they are superstar Christians but because God has made them His people.  Paul's opening words in 1 Corinthians aren't about listing a whole bunch of accolades about the Corinthians.  Paul is reminding the Corinthians who they are; the Church, God's people set apart, made holy, and gifted for God's purposes in this world.  Paul is thankful for the Corinthians not because they are doing a great job compared to other churches because they weren't.  Paul is thankful for the Corinthians simply because they are the Church, they are a people among whom God has acted.  And before Paul says anything else, he wants to remind the Corinthians that their identity is found in God and what God has done among them.  

I often think that the greatest challenge the Church faces isn't outreach or discipleship or serving others even though those things can be pretty challenging and sometimes it feels like we do a miserably deficient job at them.  I think the greatest challenge we face is simply remembering who we are, remembering what it means to be the Church.  We constantly want to compare ourselves to other churches and we feel like we aren't really a church unless we have a certain attendance or we are in on the latest trend.  We turn Church into a competition to see who can be the most spiritual, much like the Corinthians did.  But then Paul comes and reminds us that we're not a church because of what we've done but because of what God has done in us.