Beginning next week, my Thursday morning Bible study will focus its attention on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. Most scholars believe Paul founded the church in Corinth around 50C.E. on one of his missionary journeys. According to the Acts of the Apostles (18: 1-18), he stayed there around 18 months before heading to Syria. The letter we know as Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians was probably written around 53-55C.E.
In most of his letters Paul is responding to various problems that have arisen in the life of that community, and inevitably the problems are related to the community forgetting the heart of the Gospel message. Paul has received a report that the Christians in Corinth are aligning themselves with different leaders: “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 1.12).” Such divisions are grounded in competitive boasting. I am wiser than you. I am more spiritual than you. I am closer to God than you. It is no different today. Infected with the spirit of the market-driven culture, most churches are “competing” for customers. Therefore, they try to prove that they are the best church available, which suggests that the other options aren’t quite up to snuff.
In response to these divisions, Paul doesn’t make a bland to appeal to working together, but drops on their pretentiousness the ultimate symbol of failure—the cross. Essentially he says this: “Before you get on your high horse, remember that we are following someone whose life embodied utter foolishness. Remember that it is that crucified and broken body that makes us one body. If you focus your attention on the cross, you might discover the humility that will connect you to others rather than drive you apart.
I find it very comforting that the Christians in Corinth got off track so soon. It is a reminder to me that the Gospel message—Christ crucified—is not easily grasped. It is not easily grasped because like the Corinthians we hear this message in a culture grounded in another message. Every day we are encouraged to be ambitious, look after our own self-interests, and compete. In such a culture, the “message of the cross” is utter foolishness. Our culture’s message is grounded in strength. The Gospel message is grounded in weakness. No wonder we don’t get it.
Then and now a church grounded in the humility of Christ would provide a world that is “perishing”(1.18) a life-giving alternative. It takes a lot of energy spending your whole day competing and trying to prove something to others. What about spending a day assuming that others may have something to teach you? What about spending a day acknowledging that your own church community and faith tradition get off track on a regular basis, and that will always be the case? What about spending a day remembering that the central symbol of our faith is a symbol of failure?