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Paul's message still clashes with culture

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. Dr. Thomas A. Thoeni


Feb. 9, 2020

There was once a man who took his role as patriarch very seriously. So when the family gathered for holiday feasts or birthdays he would always enact the same ritual.

He would reach for the family cup, a fancy ceremonial chalice, and call for silence. In awe, his children would look at him and he would say, “This is the family cup. We drink from it in prosperity and adversity. In this we are a family. But remember always drink from this side, the side closest to you.”  
With this he would pass the cup around and the family would all share its contents.

This happened year after year. And so it seemed quite natural that, when the man lay in his deathbed, he would call for his family to bring the cup.  
And he said the same words, “This is the family cup. We drink from it in prosperity and adversity. In this we are a family.  But remember always drink from this side, the side closest to you.”  

The eldest son watched and listened carefully knowing that this would be the last time they would partake of this ritual. Finally, though, he had to ask a question that had bugged him for many years.  

“Father,” he timidly began, “for years we have drank from this cup. For years you have taught us the importance of this ritual. But please, Father, tell us, why must we drink from the side nearest to us?”

The father looked at his son with a furrowed brow, “Because, dummy, if you drink from the other side you will spill it all over you.” So much for inherited wisdom; sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not.  

But today we hear the word wisdom frequently in the Epistle reading. It seems as if Paul is obsessed with wisdom in this reading. In a way he is. In fact, this reading is from the First Letter to the Corinthians. In the first four chapters of the letter the word wisdom and its cognates appear 26 times. Why this preoccupation with wisdom? Perhaps a bit of background may be in order here.

Corinth was a prosperous Roman city at a strategic shipping juncture. It was not a Middle Eastern city, it was a Greco-Roman city with all its cultural influences. The religion, mores and philosophies were those of Rome and ancient Greece. This included its religious and philosophical ideas about God. 

The average Corinthian was more aware of the Greco-Roman idea of divinity than the Judeo-Christian idea. To them the spiritual world was understood more from the writings Greek philosophers than the Scriptures.  

They believed the spirit and the flesh were at odds with one another. The spirit pure and undefiled. It could not be tainted by the world of the flesh. The gods were distant and yet somewhat ogreish. They needed to be appeased and honored but were not understood to be involved in the dealings of humans. Why would something perfect be interested in getting mucked up with humans and all their foibles?  

In Greek philosophy, logic was preeminent. Anything that could not be explained with rhetoric and reason was worthless.  Popular preachers were more likely philosophers than evangelists.  

So imagine the shock that came with the arrival of a learned, though unassuming, preacher named Paul. Though he wrote well, he had no repute as a public speaker. Paul was apparently short in stature and rather awkward in speaking style. Yet he was bold enough, or as he would say proudly, foolish enough, to preach and to proclaim a radically new understanding of the relationship between God and humans. He preached Jesus Christ crucified.  

Greco-Roman ideals were that the gods and humans were separated and that the gods more or less like it that way. But, according to Paul, God was involved and interactive with humans. In Christ, Paul claimed, God and humans were reconciled. In other words, in Christ a new age was born in which God and humans were reunited. 

We hear these ideas and may consider them good news. But we have the hindsight of 2000 years of tradition, theology and liturgy. Many in Corinth heard Paul preach and thought it was folly, they thought he was insane. But Paul believed that what counted most was not the depth and stability of logic and rhetoric but that God had acted to redeem and embrace humans. A new era had begun.

This was shocking to many but some heard the good news and believed. They formed the church in Corinth. But though they embraced Paul’s teaching, it was so radical and new to them that they struggled for many years to come to grips with it. 

The First Letter to the Corinthians was written about five years or so after Paul had left Corinth. He had preached, pastored and established a church and then moved on to continue his missionary journey. But the Corinthians were young and green in the faith and they were surrounded by voices and traditions that contradicted their new beliefs. Many tensions and struggles and questions arose and Paul was engaged by letter to help them make sense of this new life and faith that was so counter-cultural.  

One of the subjects Paul addressed was that the wisdom of Christ crucified was folly to the world.

But how are we to profit from such a reading today? Don’t we live in a Christian society; one that is influenced and infused by Christian beliefs and norms? Just barely.  

As we look at our culture, as we consider the society in which we live, do we really believe that it is framed by the teachings of our Lord? Do we really prize holiness and righteousness?  Do we really seek to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?  Do we take to heart the words that are emblazoned on our money, “In God we trust?”  Do we even notice the irony of this: That perhaps the most prominent false idol of our day carries with it a confession of faith our society has come to ignore?

Within this strained and strange understanding of God we can hear Paul’s words as liberation. The wisdom of this world, the goals and motivation of our society, are folly.  We pass our days, speeding through our lives, but to what end?  

Do we seek after riches at the expense of spiritual poverty? Have we sought out possessions only to be possessed by them?  In the words of our Lord, have we gained the whole world only to lose our soul?  

Though we may have grasped the faith of Paul, though we may have been able to accept that in Christ crucified God has reconciled the world to himself, have we really entered into this new reality?  We may no longer be shocked at the idea of Christ crucified but are we being formed by him? 
Certainly the good news, this message that the Corinthians struggled with, is nothing new to us. We’ve heard the message countless times before.  
But it is no less radical; and it is no less costly. 

In Christ crucified we see the depths of God’s love, grace and efforts at our redemption. 

The message may not be new but the reality is just as startling. It will cost us everything we have, and everything we are because it calls us to the depths of our being. In Christ we find that we belong to God, not the world. We find that we are creations of God, not our of own wills and determinations. The depth of such a discovery will cost us our very lives, as well it should.

But in this we will find our lives. Jesus said that he came that we may have life and have it abundantly. The abundance of life is finding our lives in God.
In God we will find our home, our passion, our ground of being, our very selves. We will find that we belong to God and we will find our rest.  
Paul has challenged us that we cannot imagine or fathom the depths of God’s being and love for us but we can experience it in our loves and lives with God together. 

Our challenge this day can be heard in the prayer of St Augustine: 
 O God, you made me to find you, 
 now help me to seek you.

© 2020, Tom Thoeni

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