You remember it – “If I speak with the tongues of humans and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Lots of people like to read this passage at weddings, but Paul was actually not writing about romantic love, as that context would suggest, but rather, about the love between believers in the community of the Church.
Paul’s letter is also well known and much beloved for his discussion of spiritual gifts, and his likening the community of believers to the body, which has many members, all with different roles to play, but all equally important.
This morning we have heard another passage that is especially pertinent for us in Lent, as we prepare to face Jesus’ death on the cross in Holy Week. Today’s reading is a theological gem, acknowledging the fundamental paradox and mystery of the cross.
But let’s start with the bigger picture. Paul spent about a year and a half in Corinth during his second missionary journey, somewhere between 50 and 52 CE.
Corinth was a large, international metropolis, probably not too much different from any urban environment today. It was a place of diverse religious and cultural ideas and practices, and its population represented a wide spectrum of social and economic backgrounds.
During his time in Corinth, Paul was instrumental in nurturing and growing the small Christian community there, and he developed deep ties with its members.
When he departed to travel on to Ephesus, Paul remained in touch with his friends in the Corinthian church, including through the letters that the Church preserved, one of which we listened to today.
Paul had learned that the Corinthians had fallen into bad habits – they were making bad choices, as parents and teachers say today. This is not surprising, given the larger context of being situated in a city where a wide variety of ideas and practices were continually vying for adherents.
Members of the church were visiting prostitutes and eating food given to idols at local temples. Worse than this was the bickering. Disputes over proper moral practice, as well as clashes between those in the church loyal to Paul and those who favored Apollos had splintered the congregation. Community members were suing one another.
Paul’s thinking is that the elitism and class hierarchies of the larger society had snuck into the dynamics of the Corinthian church: the “haves” were refusing to wait on or welcome the “have-nots”, even at the Lord’s Supper.
In response to all of this bad news from Corinth, Paul reminded his friends of the foolishness of the cross.
The supposed “wisdom” and knowledge of the world and its value systems has been overturned by God in Jesus’ surrender to the world’s power on the cross, Paul tells his friends.
It’s no surprise that the wisdom of the cross may have been – and, for goodness’ sake, still is – a hard claim to entirely get on board with.
In his homily last week, Bill Hattendorf reminded us of the role and realities of crucifixion in the world of the Roman Empire. As he pointed out, crucifixion was not only a cheap and common means of execution, but also served as a political deterrent to those who would challenge the authority of the state. Crucifixion was ugly and debasing, which is why Jesus’ disciples repeatedly rejected his teaching that he would die and that his followers must “take up their cross and follow.”
No wonder the world beyond the Christian fellowship in Corinth did not see wisdom in the cross. The worship of a god who had been crucified was mocked in non-Christian society.
The earliest-know (presumed) depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion is a graffito – a single image of graffiti – that was found scratched into a plaster wall near Palantine Hill in Rome, in a building that was used as a dormitory for imperial page boys.
Dating from somewhere between the 1st and early 3rd century, it has an image of a figure on a cross: the figure is human but has the head of a donkey or mule. Standing next to it, looking on with a hand raised, is another human figure. The caption reads “Alexemenos worships his God.” Apparently, an early example of middle-school bullying.
(A worthwhile postscript to this story, however, is the fact that in a nearby room in the Palantine Palace is another graffito that reads “Alexemenos is faithful.” It would be nice to think that this one was Alexemenos’ own self-affirmation.)
It is to this theme of others’ contempt for what Christians’ faith in God’s saving love that Paul re-directed the quarrelling church members in Corinth. The world saw belief in the power of the cross to be foolishness, Paul knew.
The assumptions of the world and its wisdom are not the wisdom of God, he reminds them. The privilege systems of the world that have found reflection in the life of their church community are not the life to which God was calling them.
It is the cross in all of its apparent weakness where God’s love enters the world in its fullest expression, and where God’s love transforms the world.
In his commentary on this passage, Presbyterian Pastor Adam Hearlson observes that in his missionary work Paul was teaching that the crucifixion and Christ’s resurrection had ushered in an entirely new age, and that the assumptions and identities which had been thought to be “innate and immutable” in the old age must now be re-evaluated and re-valued.*
Hearlson reflects how very hard it is to revalue identities that we have assimilated as deeply truthful and essential. To illustrate this in a way we will recognize, he offers an analogy that I found to be incredibly striking.
“As whiteness has slowly (sloooooooowly) lost some of its privileges, resistance and anger have risen among those who feel the value of whiteness changing.”*
Observing and understanding this phenomenon in our own context can perhaps help us to understand the back-sliding that was going on among the Corinthians.
And so, what about for us? We can listen to Paul and invite his words to the Corinthians to speak to us.
How fully are we willing to believe and commit to the power of the foolishness of the cross?
How often do we fight to overcome what the larger society tells us is weakness, and instead adopt what the world’s wisdom says is strength?
Where do we, like the Corinthians, work to maintain the structures and hierarchies that, in fact, divide us?
As we continue traveling the road to Jerusalem this Lent, may the Spirit give us her wisdom, open our eyes to see, and fill our hearts with the grace to change.
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