I love history, and I also enjoy science fiction. At first blush, one may think these two are incompatible; the former based on recorded evidence, the latter on flights of fantasy. However, one cannot deny that in many instances, yesterday’s science fiction becomes today’s reality. Think of the flip cell phones introduced in the 1990s that look like the 1960s Star Trek communicators. Digging further back, think of the smartwatches we now have and the detective Dick Tracy’s phone/radio watch in the 1940s. This is perhaps the reason time travel is an enduring and repeated theme in the creative mind of the science fiction writer, from H.G. Well’s social commentary framed in his 1895 book “The Time Machine” to the much more banal 1985 movie “Back to the Future” and its endless Hollywood sequels. We desire to know where we came from, and desire to know what will become of us.
Speaking of time travel, let us suspend disbelief for a moment and ask: What would it be like for the people of ancient Greco-Roman Corinth if they were to be transported through some fantastic cosmic worm-hole or Star-Trek time warp to New York, to Toronto, to Metro Vancouver — today?
Let me ask a more focused question: What would it be like for Christians in first-century Corinth if they were to be teleported to our Christian communities today, our churches, even here at the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Vancouver? Would they recognise us as one with them in the family of Christ?
Our Epistle reading this morning is from a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians sometime in the early 50s AD.
Corinth at the time was a wealthy city, positioned at the intersection of an important east-west trade route and a politically strategic north-south axis. It controlled a narrow isthmus upon which a main artery connected Asia and Rome.
The Corinthians were prosperous and self-sufficient even if there were many among them who were also desperately poor and vulnerable. Its culture was Roman, the superpower at the time, and yet it was highly cosmopolitan, inhabited by people of many ethnicities, and nationalities. They came with dreams of a better life, socially and financially. It was said of ancient Corinth that profit came easily to those prepared to work hard, and cut-throat competition ensured that only the committed survived. The city was also a social and cultural hub. From the time of the Roman emperor Tiberius pre-37 AD, music and poetry competitions and athletic contests were held every four years. Corinth in those days was the place to be. Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
If the Corinthians from those days were to be magically teleported in time travel to our major cities today, they will certainly recognize the rapid-paced high volume commerce, the tourist trade, the quadrennial Olympics, the sometimes ostentatious display of prosperity, and the starry-eyed immigrants seeking a better life. For those of you in my age demographic, you will understand when I say that they might have liked Liza Minelli or Frank Sinatra crooning or crowing about human endeavour: “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere; I want to be a part of it: New York, er, Co-rinth – Co-rinthia!”
Would they also see familiarity in the social climbing of the nouveau-riche? Those who study first-century Corinthia describe its society as one that suffered from a widespread “self-made-person-escapes-humble-origins” syndrome. Public boasting and self-promotion became an art form. A local official had an inscription in the old marketplace that said: “Gnaeus Babbius Philinus, aedile, and pontifex, had this monument erected at his own expense, and he approved it in his official capacity as a magistrate.”
Public recognition was gained via contests in declamation, oratory, speeches, in rhetoric. Public recognition was more important than facts. The focus was the speaker, the casualty was the truth. This sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
The time-traveling Corinthians might also recognize even here in Vancouver the broken, those who dreamt of amassing fortunes but failed, those who simply gave up and became the underclass, the rejected, the outcast — the vagrants, the homeless: whom people, as they commute hurriedly back and forth from home and office, studiously avoid looking in the eye. The ancient Corinthians pushed these nobodies out into the unwanted and miserable heap of the rejected, the marginalized, the inconsequential, the vulnerable, and the powerless.
This was the social paradigm of ancient Corinth: an obsession with gaining a reputation at any cost; rampant self-promotion to gain influence; success through manipulation of networks of power; an emphasis on autonomy and rights.
Why does ancient Corinth sound so 21st century?
The fledgling Christian community in Corinth was not exempt from the rat race culture they were in. As a result of it, they began to splinter, each faction claiming for themselves as their standard-bearer, the one they thought was the most valuable public commodity by virtue of oratorical skills and reputation: “I am with Paul; I am with Apollos; I am with Cephas; I am with Christ.”
With his letter Paul invaded this world of the Corinthian rat race with the scandalous stance of self-effacing humility and lowliness: the symbol of the reviled criminal, the symbol of humiliation, the symbol of powerlessness, the symbol of marginalization and rejection, perceived as an affront by the beautiful people, discarded as foolishness by the intelligentsia — the cross of Christ.
Listen to this translation that studiously seeks to reproduce for us the use of the words of the era in the grammatical tenses in which Paul set them:
“For the proclamation of the cross is, for their part, folly to those who are on their way to ruin, but, for our part, the power of God to us who are on the way to salvation.”From Anthony Thiselton (2011), 1 Corinthians, Eerdmans Publishing
Paul was alarmed, having received the disturbing news, that the Christian community was beginning to assimilate into the mainstream. They were buying into the ways of the viciously competitive winner-take-all Corinthian society. They were becoming just like everyone else according to the viciously competitive rat race culture in that great metropolis.
Paul reminded them that it was, and always is and will be, the proclamation of the cross that called them to Christ and placed them on the path that really matters — towards the kingdom of God. Paradoxically, it is this same proclamation of the cross that was rejected as foolishness by those who strove to build their lives upon their self-made reputations. It was and always is and will be the proclamation of the cross that lifts the marginalized and rejected, the vulnerable and the seemingly powerless from what the world sees as the gutter, onto a loftier plane of being, of existence, of human dignity, of human worth, of peace – that far surpasses that which self-promotion can ever do. Paradoxically, it is this same proclamation of the cross that scandalized the social fabric that was the rat race of the Corinthians that had set them on the path to ruin.
The present participle in this passage in the original language is theologically significant: Why “those who are being saved” or “on the way to salvation” instead of simply “saved” in the simple completed past?
We can extract at least two reasons for this. First, we must remember that Paul in all his letters never denied the completed work of Christ on the cross. However, the present participle in the original language emphasizes the effectiveness of this completed work now and forever. The other reason hits harder. Simply put, we are not in heaven yet — in truth, the church is to be a foretaste of the kingdom of God. Bonhoeffer wrote this:
“If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a false god who corresponds to me, is agreeable to me… But if it is God who says where He will be… that place is the cross of Christ.”Dietrich Bonhoeffer “Letters and Papers from Prison” – from a letter written 16 July 1944
Common wisdom would say this: “If we ever say to ourselves we have arrived, we would be in the wrong place.”
The proclamation of the cross is the power of God. The power of God is effective, it is now, it works and it sets people on the path to the realized kingdom of God. It upends and destroys the social paradigm that ancient Corinth so stubbornly tried to construct for itself, that which our own world paradigm today still does.
The proclamation of the cross sets up an economy where the misfits in the world’s social paradigm become the blessed in God’s paradigm. In the end, God’s paradigm is only paradoxical to those who have bought into the lie that the way to completeness is to strive for the fleeting accolades of the fickle. Today’s star athlete is tomorrow’s washed-out has-been. Today’s intellectual will be set aside for tomorrow’s new philosophy.
The proclamation of the cross defines what it means to be a Christ-follower: it is the one who like Christ lives for the other no matter the personal cost. The proclamation of the cross is God’s paradigm of self-giving for the sake of the other. This is the way to the realized kingdom of God.
What would happen if even in a thought experiment the ancient Corinthians were to be teleported to Vancouver, to Toronto, to New York, to the big city centres of the world? What would they see if they were to visit our Christian communities, our churches, and our congregations? Would they see the people of God assimilating into the patterns of those who scorn the proclamation of the cross? Or would they see the people of God today keeping faith in the proclamation of the cross?
In this season of Lent, may we be mindful of how the proclamation of the cross lifts us up from the mundane, the ordinary — from the rat race of our very own Corinth, and places us on the path to salvation, a path that leads to fullness of joy and peace, a path that leads to reconciliation, to justice for all, God’s path, God’s paradigm, God’s kingdom.
Christ on the cross – where mercy and justice meet – the most profound of any paradox. It is the lowest of the lowest in the world’s estimation, and yet the highest of the highest in the universal kingdom of God, that every knee should bow and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
To Jesus Christ, who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood and made us to be a kingdom, priests of his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.
Sermon given on the Third Sunday in Lent