While we often romanticize the early church, the proof from 1 Corinthians is that the church was as messed up in the first century as it is today. And like the Corinthian church, we also struggle with what Paul calls the “foolishness” of the cross. This sermon explores how and why that’s true.
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-31
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 file.]
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
I am “grumpy old man” in a middle-aged man’s body. My family is like, “Yes you are!”
But I know I am. Because unlike most people I talked to about it, I didn’t want 21-year-old golfing sensation Jordan Spieth to win the Masters last Sunday. I wanted, well… one of the old guys, second-place finisher Phil Mickelson to win. Mickelson was born the same year I was! Heck, even when Tiger Woods was in his prime, before scandal and injury put an end to his dominance as the world’s best golfer, I would root for anyone but Tiger. Why? Because I didn’t want some young whippersnapper to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record for majors victories. What can I say? I’m a grumpy old man. Someone said that Jordan Spieth might be the man to do it, and I’m like, “No-o-o-o!”
So last Sunday I was rooting for the old guy. Mickelson is my guy. Many people were rooting for the new guy. Spieth is their guy.
In the church in Corinth, there was something kind of similar going on between different pastors in the church. You see, Paul had started the church at Corinth. He preached and taught them the gospel of Jesus Christ to begin with. He had lived and ministered alongside them for a year and a half. After he left, though, another leader came to the church, Apollos. And the Book of Acts tells us that Apollos was very gifted, forceful, charismatic preacher and teacher. And what happened in Corinth was the same thing that happens, well… in a lot Methodist churches and other churches when there’s a pastoral change: One faction couldn’t stand the guy who just left and fall in love with the new guy. Another faction loved the guy who just left, and aren’t very receptive to the new guy’s leadership. Fortunately, in most churches, the vast majority of people keep an open mind.
Still, in Corinth, factions had developed: “Paul is my guy!” some said. “Apollos is my guy!” others said. So a rivalry developed, not between Paul and Apollos, who got along just fine, but between followers of Paul and followers of Apollos.
Another faction knew about the apostle Peter, and they said he was their guy. Still another faction said, “We follow Jesus.” There’s nothing wrong with following Jesus, but I’m guessing that they were saying it in a smug, self-righteous way: “We’re the ones who are really faithful Christians, because we follow Jesus.” Can’t you just hear them? These are the reports that are coming back to Paul, who was then in Ephesus, about what was going on at the church he started in Corinth.
The point is, the church was badly divided. They were fighting with one another. They were gossiping. They were judging one another. They were feeling superior to one another. They were sinning. In the weeks ahead you’ll hear about many other ways the church was divided. And so Paul writes the theme verse of 1 Corinthians in verse 10: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” And Paul spoke these words because they were having a hard time getting along!
Think about that: These are first-generation Christians. This is one of the earliest churches. As Tom Wright put it:
It’s a sobering thought that the church faced such division in its very earliest years. People sometimes talk as if first-generation Christianity enjoyed a pure, untroubled honeymoon period, after which things became more difficult; but there’s no evidence for this in the New Testament. Right from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but struggling to hold together in a single family those who had obeyed its summons.
I find that oddly comforting as a pastor, because I do feel like a large part of my job is trying to keep people united. This scripture tells us that it wasn’t any easier back then than it is today.
But our church, like all churches, have much in common with the church at Corinth. More than anything, these Corinthians were tempted to compromise their faith with their surrounding pagan culture. They were tempted to water-down the gospel. They were tempted to change the gospel in order to make it more like the culture at large. Does that sound familiar?
And Paul says, in so many words, “Sorry, guys, you can’t do that!” Why? Because, he says, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Of course you’re not going to fit in with your culture! Of course you’re not going to be “respectable”! Of course you’re not going to be cool in the eyes of the world! Because the world, please remember, is broken. The world is lost in sin. The world, left to its own devices, is bound for hell! We should expect that this gospel of Jesus Christ—the very heart of which says that the Messiah, God’s Son, died a shameful death on the cross to reconcile us to God—will never measure up to the world’s standards! So what? Get used to it! “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
My point is, like these Corinthians, we often have a hard time with the “foolishness of the cross.” Nowhere is this more evident today than in the debate over sexuality that has engulfed our United Methodist Church and which threatens to tear our denomination apart. It’s already happened in every other mainline Protestant denomination—the Presbyterians, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, and others. They’ve all caved on the doctrine that says that God intends for physical intimacy to be shared only between one man and one woman in lifelong, monogamous marriage, which by definition is between a man and woman. We’re the last mainline denomination that still believes that, at least officially. I pray that we don’t change.
Five years ago, when I was ordained, I told God, my bishop, and the church that I believed in this doctrine, among others—and it’s not like God’s Word has changed. If our denomination changes its doctrine on this, I don’t know where that leaves me. Because I can’t endorse or condone or—God forbid—perform a wedding for a same-sex couple. Can’t do it. I’ll never believe that God honors and celebrates a relationship that both Old and New Testaments compare to adultery and incest and condemn as sin in the strongest possible terms. Some of my clergy colleagues wish I wasn’t vocal on the subject; that I didn’t write about it or talk about it as much as I do, but how can this not be deeply personal for me? Among other things, my vocation, my livelihood, not to mention my integrity is on the line.
But even as I say this, you see, I risk falling victim to the kind of spiritual pride that Paul refers to in today’s scripture: “I follow Jesus—unlike all these other pastors.” No… They follow Jesus, too: we just sincerely disagree. I watched a sermon recently by a “gay-affirming” pastor in Alabama who began his sermon on the subject by saying that he knows so many of his parishioners, so many fellow United Methodists, disagree with his new position on sexuality, but he hopes it’s an issue over which they can “agree to disagree.” And then, literally, by the end of the sermon, he’s comparing people like me and so many others who support our church’s traditional doctrine to white people in Alabama in the ’50 and ’60s who supported segregated water fountains and lunch counters. Oh my goodness, not long ago, he and I both told annual conferences that we believed in our traditional doctrine—did one of us have our fingers crossed?
But like these Corinthians, I feel the temptation to spiritual pride over this issue. The question is, would I be so forthright, so outspoken, so passionate, if I were serving a church in midtown Atlanta, or in Decatur, or in Buckhead? I hope so. But I recognize that it would be more difficult.
Because, while I don’t doubt that most of my clergy colleagues sincerely disagree with our church doctrine now, I also recognize that this doctrine couldn’t be more countercultural right now—more at odds with where are as a culture, and as a country. The pressure to conform and to compromise couldn’t be greater.
What’s at stake in this fight over sexuality is a question that the Corinthians also faced: Do we really trust that God knows what he’s talking about in his Word? Do we believe that he knows best? Are we willing to trust and obey him even when it’s difficult? Even when doing so puts us at odds with our culture? Even when we can’t make sense of it?
Consider this: if we’re parents, and our young children ask us why we want them to do something or not do something, we sometimes say, perhaps in a fit of exasperation, words that rolled off of my mom’s lips very easily: “Because I said so.” This isn’t necessarily a bad answer At one level, we know that ultimately our children should just trust us that we know what’s best; at another level, we know that it often would do no good to explain why—because our children are too young, too immature, to understand the reasons. How would this not be even more true in our relationship with God? Unlike God, we are finite and fallible people. We know far less, relative to what our heavenly Father knows, than a young child knows relative to what his human parents know.
Yet how often do we act as if we know better than God! One message in today’s scripture is that we need to let God be God and trust that he knows what’s best for us. We often want to say, “God, I don’t want to tell you how to run the universe, but… You should do it like this.” That’s why, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and we say those words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” what we’re really saying is, “You’re in charge here. I’m going to let you be God. I’m going to let you run the universe today. And I’m going to trust that whatever happens to me, you’re in control, not me, and I can trust you. I’m going to surrender my will to you.”
Another way that we struggle with the “foolishness of the cross” is in witnessing and evangelism. Just a few weeks ago, the archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual head of the Church of England, gave a major address on the topic of evangelism. He said, “I want to start by saying just two simple sentences about the church. First, the church exists to worship God in Jesus Christ.
Second, the Church exists to make new disciples of Jesus Christ. Everything else is decoration. Some of it may be very necessary, useful, or wonderful decoration – but it’s decoration…”
And that’s exactly right! Notice Paul says here that there are really two kinds of people in the world: “Those who are being saved” and “those who are perishing.” Do we really believe that? If so, shouldn’t that make our mission to share the gospel with others all the more urgent? Yet, like these Corinthians, we cave in to cultural pressure in this regard, too. Our culture tells us, “You really shouldn’t talk about religion; you shouldn’t talk about your faith. You should mind your own business. Don’t be pushy”—as if sharing the greatest possible news with someone, in a spirit of love, could somehow be inappropriate! So we’re scared; we’re embarrassed; and we remain silent. Meanwhile, people are perishing apart from a life-changing, soul-saving relationship with God. We can’t be O.K. with that.
By the way, when no less an authority than the archbishop of Canterbury was asked to explain the gospel in 30 seconds, he put it like this:
I’d go straight in simple language to John’s gospel, chapter 3, verse 16, and say, ‘There’s a problem with human beings, which is that we don’t know God. In one way or another there’s a barrier between us and God. God has solved the problem, and it’s open to us to take that solution into our lives by opening our lives to his presence. And the Bible says that God so loved the world—because this is about love—that he gave—because it’s him taking the action—his only Son Jesus Christ—he himself—so that all who believe in him—that’s just put the weight of their lives on him—should not perish but have everlasting life. This is about hope. It’s positive. It’s really good news.
All of us can put that simple message in our own words and share it with others!
When I was in Alpharetta, I was an associate pastor in charge of a contemporary worship service. It was hard to do that in Alpharetta, because our church was surrounded by all these megachurches with very large budgets who did contemporary worship better than anyone. One of those churches was Northpoint, Andy Stanley’s church. The point is, I often worried, “How can I measure up to what Andy Stanley’s doing? How can I compete with him? Because if my people don’t like what I do, they’ll just go a couple miles down the road to his church.” I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I was talking to a youth minister at the church about these insecurities and fears—and he said to me: “Brent, you can’t worry about Andy Stanley or anyone else for the matter. You have one job: to preach Christ crucified. If you’re faithful in doing that… well, all these things you worry about will take care of themselves.
My friend was exactly right: this message of Christ crucified is the power of God for us who are being saved. The gospel is enough for me. It’s enough for all of us. Even in the past several weeks, we’ve this, haven’t we? The gospel is the power of God. It has the power to change lives! It has the power to change eternity for those who receive this good news! If we’re faithful in proclaiming and living out the gospel, we’re going to be just fine.
Last week, the actor James Best died. Do you know who he is? He played “Rosco P. Coltrane” on The Dukes of Hazzard, a show that was very important to me when I was in elementary school. I watched it every week. When my wife told me that she heard he’d died, my first thought was, “I thought he’d been dead for years!” So when this happens, I don’t even feel bad that he died because he lived a lot longer than you thought! You know? I’m not the only one who does this, right?
My point is, there was a period of time when James Best was very well known, very famous. He was a celebrity, a powerful and important person—he was a “somebody,” not a nobody, but by the end of his life, you’d never know it… after all that celebrity and fame and money, he lived and died just like most of us—nobodies, at least in the eyes of the world.
These Corinthians, Paul says, were like that. They were “nobodies.” But God changed their status—because through their faith in Christ and his atoning work on the cross, God gave them the same status that his Son Jesus had: these former enemies of God enjoyed peace with God; not only that, he made them his beloved children—enjoying all the same privileges as his Son Jesus; not only that, he gave them an inheritance of eternal life and salvation, which can never be taken away.
If that doesn’t make you a “somebody”—not a somebody for just a few years, but for all eternity.
God wants to do the same for each one of us. Amen?
 N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 8.