Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity - 1 Cor 1:18-25


Trinity 5

                                                                                      1 Cor 1:18-25



“The term ‘confirmation’ immediately requires definition, since it is polyvalent and this fact has resulted in much confusion when the different referents of the term are ignored.”  That is how the fourth paragraph begins in the paper that I delivered at this past week at the Lutheran conference in Nebraska.

Now I would never speak in this way in a sermon.  Instead, this is the kind of language that one uses in academic writing.  In its own way it is code that signals to others that the writer is an educated person who is going to interact with material in a way that meets with certain expectations about how scholarly work is done.

          A very similar phenomenon occurred in the Greco-Roman world, except here it was a matter of how a person spoke.  Rhetoric stood at the heart of the ancient educational system. There were certain conventions about how a person constructed and ordered an argument. There were certain figures of speech and ways of arranging words that signaled to others that the speaker was an educated individual who was speaking according to the expectations of how things should be done.

          That was not how St. Paul spoke.  He simply didn’t have the training to do the kinds of things that were expected in the Greco-Roman world of an educated person. It was not how he wrote, and here we need to understand that in the ancient world a letter was a form of oral communication.  It was considered to be the presence of a person speaking. This was true because reading was done out loud in the ancient world, even if you were by yourself.  It was all the more true because Paul’s letters were written to groups, and were read aloud to them.

          The apostle made no excuses for this.  He freely admitted it.  In fact, just before our text, he has said that this was a good thing. Paul stated that Christ sent him to preach the Gospel, “and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” 

The apostle wasn’t there to dress up the cross in appealing rhetoric or words that made it seem wise. Instead, he says in our text, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 

Paul says the message about cross is folly to those who are perishing.  In our text he refers to the “folly of what we preach.”  And then in well known words he adds, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”

It wasn’t hard to understand why the cross seemed like folly – why is seemed moronic, for the Greek word used here is the source of that English word.  “Christ crucified” referred to a Jewish man who had been executed as a criminal. But he hadn’t just been executed – he had been crucified.  In the Greco-Roman world, the cross was the ultimate demonstration of weakness and humiliation. 

The Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, but they elevated the practice to a whole new level. Crucifixion was the perfect means by which to terrify and suppress others.  Here was a way of killing a person that inflicted tremendous pain and suffering that could last for days. And it was a public death of suffering that could be viewed by all who passed by.  It was indeed the ultimate demonstration of weakness and humiliation as the individual – usually crucified naked – was placed on display for all to witness.  That usually continued even after death, for in normal Roman practice the bodies were left on the cross to be eaten by birds.

Paul and the apostles proclaimed that Jesus, who had been crucified, was the Christ and Lord of all.  The apostle says that the Jews demanded signs.  They wanted a Christ who would perform mighty acts that conquered the enemies of God’s people.  The Greeks wanted wisdom.  They wanted something that satisfied human reason.

But instead, the Church proclaimed Christ crucified. This was a stumbling block to the Jews.  For them, the Christ was by definition powerful and victorious. Anyone who was killed by the Romans could not be the Christ. What is more the Old Testament taught that anyone who was hung on a tree was cursed by God. As for the Greeks, could there be anything more foolish – more stupid - than applying the title “Lord” to someone who had been crucified?  You know who was called “Lord”? - the Roman emperor who was the most powerful man in the Mediterranean world. It was his governor who had crucified Jesus. There could be no doubt about who was really Lord.

Yet in our text Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’”  The apostle says that God in his wisdom has turned everything upside down.  The cross is not folly.  Instead, it is the power of God.  Christ crucified may be a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Greeks, yet then he adds, “but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

The problem at the heart of all of this is sin. Because of sin we are turned in on ourselves and away from God.  Because of sin we have lost the image of God and are not able to understand him.  In fact, we don’t want to understand him because we are too busy creating false gods. As Paul says in the next chapter, “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

And so God acted in his Son, Jesus Christ, to deal with sin in a way that short circuits all human wisdom. Paul says in our text, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

God acted in Christ crucified.  Paul says in chapter fifteen “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”  He unpacks what this means in 2 Corinthians when he says that through Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.  He, the holy God, did that through the suffering and death of Christ.  Paul goes on to explain, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ took our sin – in God’s eyes he became sin – and received the judgement we deserved.

Christ was crucified. Due to the timing of his death, his body was not left on the cross.  Rather than offend Jewish customs, the Romans allowed his body to be taken down from the cross and be buried. And what happened next demonstrated that the cross is the power and wisdom of God.

The earliest Christian confession was, “Jesus is Lord.”  They confessed this because on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead.  The cross looked like weakness and defeat. The proclamation of Christ crucified sounded like foolishness.  But in the resurrection God demonstrated that Christ has won the victory for us by obtaining forgiveness and defeating death.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we now understand that the cross is God’s wisdom and power at work.  The reason we understand this is because God’s Spirit has called us to faith.  Note that Paul says in our text, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  As we have been learning in Bible class, this means that from eternity God has elected you – he has determined to save you in Christ and bring you to faith. It is entirely God’s doing.  Paul says of God at the end of this chapter, “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Living as Chrisitians today, the cross is such a familiar symbol that we don’t really grasp what it meant in the first century world. The apostles went forth and proclaimed that a crucified Jew was the Christ and Lord of all.  On the surface, it was the dumbest message that you could possibly come up with. It was moronic – and Paul freely admits this in our text when he calls it “the folly of what we preach.” 

So why did Paul and the apostles go forth to suffer and die in order to proclaim this “foolishness.” They did because they had encountered the risen Lord Jesus in unmistakable ways.  Paul says in chapter fifteen of this letter, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

          Through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism and the Word you have been called to faith.  You have come to understand that Christ crucified is not foolishness, but instead it is the power of God and the wisdom of God for our salvation. In this you have forgiveness and the assurance that death has been defeated.

          Yet this knowledge has far broader implications.  As we live in this fallen world, we encounter tragedies and occasions of suffering and hardship.  These are times when it seems that to speak of God’s love and care for us is foolishness.  Yet we have seen that the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was God’s powerful action to save us.  It was, even if it didn’t look like it. We know this because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.

          This fact becomes the lens through which we look at all things in life.  We have the comfort of knowing that suffering and hardship are not the absence of God.  We can trust that this is true because of what we have seen him do in Christ crucified. We can trust that this is true because Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead.  God has called us to faith in Christ, and so we are able to walk in faith trusting in God’s continuing love and care. We understand that word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.







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