1 Corinthians 1:18-31
No matter how streamlined we attempt to live, no matter how much we pare back, no matter how much we avoid the clutter of social media, no matter how superficial our efforts at relationships remain, even a momentary observation reveals the truth that your life and mine is anything but simple. The diversity of our emotions towards our expected everyday environments and unanticipated encounters, big and small. The complexity our day-to-day interactions with a variety of those whom our life intersects, is shared with and even in conflict with. And there is this, the extravagance of the simultaneous and instant relation and communication of cells happening now within you this moment to breath, to see, to process this information; not to mention the same extravagance happening in every corner of this room, this city, this world in every living creature. All revealing a rich, even if flawed, world. It only requires a brief reflection for the suppressed minutia that makes every moment possible within and around you to be released like the contents of a vigorously shaken soda bottle, and for you and I to feel the gravitas of our reality we call today.
Perhaps that is why for as long as we human beings have recorded our thoughts on life we have sought to condense reality. To make things “simple”. Not so much out of ignorance but because our senses are overwhelmed by creation. The problem with condensing though is that it often comes via subtraction, amputation of the gargantuan excess that doesn’t fit in the simplified box. And religion is the most susceptible of all to the reduction of life. Pat answers, trite sayings, credulity and naivety are often the lobs against religious faith. Perhaps ones you or a friend or family member have flung.
Our propensity to simplify it seems is an indication that we are unable to comprehend in any instance the complexity and diversity of the constant waves of all that is life—creation, sin, salvation and the like—as it crashes upon us. Such is the consequence for knowing good and evil I guess. Yet we still want to live and live well in this world, so what then are we to do if we cannot condense life? Make life simple?
We can practice thoughtful brevity. “Brevity is an expression which has more meaning than just what is heard.” It is a concentration rather than a condensing. Brevity requires us to focus, to sharpen our attention and affections even as they are expanded. Where simplicity cuts off, brevity is a way of saying something concisely that contains life altering depth. A phrase that is a concentration of truth, of reality, not a reducing of it. Words that compel us to meditate in practice. Words that can be lived into.
Perhaps you think brevity verses simplification is merely semantics, a silly concept thought up by someone with too much time on his hands, who reads too much, is disconnected from the daily work of the 9-5 grind and “normal” relationships. In other words, if you are honest, you are thinking of a pastor! It’s okay. I am not offend. Not too offend anyway!
Actually though, you’d sort of be right. The person who shows us the necessity of thoughtful brevity in a way that does not reduce reality but captures its fullness in a way that requires us to meditate, dwell on, think over and over in the midst of ordinary living until the way in which we live changes; is none other the apostle Paul. Certainly a pastor, but not like we think of them today. He had no building to manage, no programed ministries to organize, no regular congregational vocation to provide a leisurely existence of theoretical philosophical and theological pursuit. He was a nomad of sorts—at least on regularly on the move in the Spirit and not known to be in one place too terribly long. He was a maker of tents—he understood the value and difficulty of daily work and economics. He was a man who shared life with and sacrificed for those he called his family of faith—no distant theorist.
This Paul writes to those whom he knew were attempting to live out their faith and tempted to reduce that same faith through simplifying by condensing rather than concentrating. And so, he repeats multiple times brief phrases that contain within them depth and weight equal to real life, life as God creates and sustains it. Setting for the first generations after Christ’s life, death and resurrection their; origin, aim, and resoluteness. It is three of these phrases, written with contemplative, thoughtful brevity, that we will let set our origin, aim and resoluteness as we begin 2018 together in Christ as his brothers and sisters, as a faith family called Christ City Church. Phrases that we too are invited to live into.
Such phrases will require you and I not merely hear them, but to meditate on them, to contemplate the depth of what is contained in the brevity as we wake up tomorrow and make breakfast for our kids, clock into our office, confront a subordinate, run into our neighbor at the mail box, and pray with our Gospel Community. Only when our contemplation takes place in the middle of life can the power of these words transform our life. Quiet time is good and necessary, yet it is the words resounding off the front of our brain as we experience the complexity and diversity of every-day-living that allows the word of the Lord to not return void. That’s part of their beauty and power. These phrases are concise enough to not take up too much space in our mind, yet once loose they expand to fill their container like those compacted capsules immersed in warm water reveal a massive sponge creature.
The first brief phrase was written to a people in a city of religion and intelligence, a faith family in which “Each person, it seemed, had a different idea of how to interpret or express the Christian faith…” Some looking for miracles to confirm God’s work amongst them, others looking for answers that would allow them to master life. “…It was Paul’s task as their pastor to make sense out of it all, to shape their diversity into unity, to turn their confused complexity into an organic harmony.” How will Paul harmonize? He needs a unifying phrase, a summary that can get everyone on the same page in the midst of complex diversity.
What phrase would you use to summarize why we exist as children of God, what is the footing on which we walk out our faith, the substance, core, nitty-gritty of our life of faith? Our origin?
“God is love”, perhaps? A big idea. Or perhaps a more practical vision, “Love your neighbor as yourself”? Or a grander challenge, “Proclaim Christ in the everyday until he cannot be ignored”? Or even a rebuking invitation, “Repent and believe”?
Paul does not start with any of these phrases. Though they all have their place. No, in the midst of the Corinthian feuds, experiments and expectations of a faithful life, Paul offers up a phrase (repeated some eight times throughout his letters) that would become the motto of the Christian church: “Christ crucified”. God in the flesh, died. This is where faith begins, the soil from which faith grows. The firm ground on which we build a life of faith. As one commentary so aptly notes,
This is akin to proclaiming as good news that the victor has been vanquished, the market has collapsed, or the holiday has been cancelled. It is only our familiarity that dulls the strangeness of Paul’s message for us. In the most general sense, the “Christ” is the king destined to rule. To announce his [humiliating] demise is to brand him an utter failure and would hardly seem to constitute a “gospel.”
Or a pastor’s comment “’Christ crucified’? Who wants that?”! Seriously! Which one of us here desires that the foundation on which we live and move and have our being be the cross? Who wants the direction of his or her life to come from Jesus’ death? Or who aspires to a picture of the Christ’s shameful, dishonoring, excruciating, joyous sacrifice as a faithful life?
Probably not many of us. The same was true of the Corinthian faithful. Read with me 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 as we get a bit of context for this profoundly brief phrase.
Here the Corinthians are, not too dissimilar from you and I, trying to figure how to live by faith or how their faith gives shape to their living. Pastor Paul comes along and says essentially that whatever you think the life of faith is, flip it upside down.
Paul’s observation of the world of his day carries no hint of a moralistic judgmentalism here. It is understandable that Jews should be careful about [naiveté] concerning the fulfillment of the divine promise in an event which superficially seemed to contradict it. It was a “given” of Corinthian life and culture, as well as of much of the Graeco-Roman world, that people sought every means to gain esteem, honor, and success. But this means that these very preoccupations, especially if pursued obsessively, will find a crucified Christ an affront: On one side it was an affront to those who ask for signs, since the disgraceful and humiliating execution of a Jewish teacher by the occupying power hardly seemed to constitute a sign of God’s saving action. On the other side, it was folly, i.e., the very reverse of a “mastery” of life that brings success, honor, and esteem, for the figure whom Paul proclaimed passively accepted the kind of suffering and death which shouted failure, dishonor, and shame. Paul’s logos [proclaimed word] was “speech about a person of the lowest status: a crucified criminal.”
Let’s not move past this too quickly. What demand of God do you make in order for you to follow him in his way? What it is that you seek in order for a life of faith to be worth the perseverance?
Miracles, answered prayers, a grand vision, total transformation, accommodation to your preferences, simplicity, something else? Perhaps mastery, a good life, a successful life, a never boring or laborious life? Religious fulfillment, intellectual fulfillment, material fulfillment?
What have you been trained in our culture—both within in and outside the church family—to demand and seek? How does that compare to Christ crucified?
Alright, back to the phrase: Christ crucified. What depth does this phrase contain? What about this phrase captures the very core of our faith? One observer notes,
the gospel…and the proclamation of the cross…are shorthand instances of [brevity] for the whole story of God’s purposes which lead up to the cross and follow it. They are “technical terms or titles which summarize the whole,” and the reader must “fill in” what is implicit.
What do we fill in? Certainly there is profound mystery to ponder here. God became one of us, took on our life in all the complexity and diversity, how does that work? Jesus died and so something is broken, and deeply broken at that, yet his death fixes, redeems, restores, returns, refreshes; how does that work? But there is something more concrete than the intense mysteries that shapes our daily lived faith. Unashamedly, I take this straight from someone wiser and more seasoned then myself. Eugene Peterson, contemplating this summary phrase in the midst of life with his faith family says,
…Christ crucified. Something actually happened. Not an idea to ponder and study, not a power we can manipulate and put to use, but a fact. A historical, time-and-place fact. A person fact: Christ crucified.
This is the anchor. Paul is writing to a mixed but intensely religious community, these Corinthians, who are clamoring for answers and curious about miracles. Not so different from us, really. He brings them back to what anchors their lives: Christ crucified.
The issue is this: that we give our full attention to what God has done among us. He came to us, revealed his love to us, demonstrated his commitment to save us and to restore us to himself. He offered himself as the sacrifice that would give us back our true selves…there is nothing obscure about the fact. Something happened. Jesus was crucified. A real life. A real death. And God in it showing his passionate love for us and working his salvation in us.
If we are going to ask questions, what we need to ask is ‘What has God done?’ and ‘What is he doing?’ Let’s look at what he has done and what he is doing. I want to train your imagination from speculation to participation. God is doing something still. He was in action in my yesterday. Help me see it. He is in action in my life right now. Do I notice?
God does not act impersonally. He does not speak impersonally. So don’t expect miracles and don’t clamor for answers. Pay attention to God in the Word made flesh. Pay attention to Christ crucified, his sacrificial offering for you.
This is our origin, this is where faith begins and gives life. Jesus died for me. It really happened. Our faith begins with an event that took place in a real place, among real people, to a real person. So too does faith today. It is not lived merely in the ideas or emotions of the mind but in the real place called Dallas, among real people called Christ City, neighbor, husband, daughter, mother, friend; via a real person called you. What the Jew’s expected he did the opposite. What the Greeks sought, he reversed. He did something and is doing something, and perhaps the cross is our reminder that what pay attention to in this daily life of faith will look different than we expect too. Something more humble, something more sacrificial, something more personal.
On his way to be crucified, Jesus the Christ says to those closest to him,
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (ESV, John 14:27)
What will bring their life and one another into lived harmony with God our Father and all of creation? Christ crucified. Not what they expected. More often, not what we expect either. A reversal of what we seek and what we demand from and in this life of faith together.
We cannot move past these words of origin: Christ crucified. There is nowhere to go in a life of faith beyond them, without them. What then does that mean for your relationships, for your mission, for your Monday morning?
- What has God done? Christ crucified. What is he doing?...
When we look at the crossed tattooed on our arms, resting on the walls of our homes, hung around our necks, suctioned to our bumpers; maybe, just maybe we will ask for eyes to see him in action right now. And, as we receive his body broken and blood poured out for us imaged in the bread and juice of this table; maybe, just maybe our demands on this life of faith and what we seek from this life of faith might be flipped upside down.
 Anthony C. Thiselton. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text, 173.
 Eugene Peterson. As Kingfishers Catch Fire: a conversation on the ways of God formed by the words of God, 282.
 Simon J. Kistemaker. Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 59.
 Roy E. Ciampa & Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 99.
 Peterson, 284.
 Thiselton, 170.
 Thiselton, 174.
 Peterson, 285-286.