Winners are Grinners?

The Gospel of Jesus and Christian Celebration in 1 Corinthians 1

The Gospel of Jesus and Christian Celebration in 1 Corinthians 1

The glitter has settled on the 2018 Commonwealth Games, here in Australia’s own home of humility, the Gold Coast, and all we have now are fast-fading memories of close contests and come-from-behind victories in the pool, on the track and in the velodrome. Judged by the wisdom of the leather lounge, there seems no greater adrenaline rush than victory over one’s rivals in an athletic contest.

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The vicarious thrill of such contests is so universal that Paul can appeal to a foot race to illustrate dedication to the task of Christian life and service in 1 Cor. 9:24-26. Yet the thrill of outperforming our fellow runners is not a motive Paul wants to encourage. What is, behind the fanfare, something of an ego trip is not compatible with the spiritual ideals Paul has long imbibed from Old Testament Scripture. Paradoxically, the Christian life is a race that leaves no room for boasting.

The Corinthian Context

The opening chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians suggests that boasting had not yet been eliminated from the culture of the church there. The Corinthian Christians were tending to fragment into competing fan clubs who followed their respective apostolic heroes, Paul, Peter and Apollos, like Twitter devotees, while a super-spiritual class declared themselves to be purely on Christ’s side (1 Cor. 1:10-12). They were also enamored with contemporary methods of clever thinking, or philosophy, and clever speech, or rhetoric. Instead of bringing the latest trends of thinking and speech to the bar of Christ, these trends risked becoming criteria against which gospel preaching like Paul’s was evaluated.

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The ‘Erastus Stone’, possibly naming the same Corinthian official who aided Paul (Acts 19:22; Rom. 16:24; 2 Tim. 4:20) (Credit: Rduncan, Wikimedia Commons)

Paul would have none of this. He declares that he deliberately left behind special rhetorical techniques and higher learning when he declared the gospel to the Corinthians, lest these human priorities obscure the nature of the gospel message (1:17; 2:1-5). It disturbed him that status based on wisdom-related merits was re-emerging as an attraction within the church body. This could only turn Christians into competitors against one another and make a few into winners while leaving the rest in the shade, all the while distorting the basis of membership in the kingdom.

Paul’s Rebuke of Elitism in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Paul sets out to burst the Corinthians’ artificial little bubble in 1 Cor. 1:18-31. He reminds them that neither the gospel of Christ itself nor the common-sense medium of preaching attempt to satisfy prevailing standards of wisdom. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,” quotes Paul from Isaiah 29:14. As God’s new day of redemption dawns, this message of Jesus will be God’s way of trashing the world’s expectations of wisdom.

For the message of a crucified Saviour will signify all the wrong things to Jewish onlookers who ‘seek signs’: the cross seems a sign of defeat and divine disendorsement, no, divine damnation, a fitting retribution for the blasphemy of messianic pretensions. To the wisdom-prizing Greek, the God who becomes incarnate and dies in disgrace moves in exactly the opposite direction to the ideal of detachment from the world and the body and ultimate spiritual union with the One. It is the called of God alone who can see any sense in the announcement about Christ.

This is why the Corinthians may look around at church time and see “not many wise, not many noble, not many powerful.” If it’s trophies they have in mind, Paul says that these believers are trophies of what sad, silly people God seems keen to save. They, and we, are not the cream of the crop that God has head-hunted from the global population. They are the bruised reeds and dimly-burning wicks that God likes to salvage (Matt. 12:20), the ‘foolish things’ with which God undermines human pretensions (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Paul has another Old Testament text in mind here, Jer. 9:23-24:

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD…

The outcome is that the only boasting, the only celebration that is valid, is celebration of the good gift of God that is Jesus.

The Right Kind of Boasting

Paul treats the Christian life as a race and urges us to strive to do our best, implying that not all of us will perform equally. But it was not such striving that qualified us for entry in the race. There was no minimum qualifying time. Entry into the kingdom was akin to Victoria’s oddly famous handicap race, the Stawell Gift. Every advantage going into this race is evened out, and the runners might theoretically finish in a dead heat. Participation in Jesus is a kind of dead-heat entry: every prior advantage of wealth, birth, status and natural ability is negated, for none have any value in establishing spiritual merit with God.

Therefore, competitiveness is inappropriate and irrelevant. The boasting that makes sense here is not an egotistical pose for the cameras, but a simple joy in the redeeming goodness of God in Christ. This is not boasting as we understand it, because we didn’t achieve it. It’s celebration. It’s the bold audacity of faith.

So then, no more boasting… All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future– all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God (1 Cor. 3:21-23).

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