Wisdom for the age (1 Corinthians)

Britain is broken, according to its Prime Minister. And after the riots that engulfed parts of London and elsewhere this week, he looks to be petty much right. For all its knowledge and power, my divided country feels in desperate need of some wisdom.

The church at Corinth was divided. According to Chapter 4, there were different sects within the church that followed different men, much as people of that time would follow a local ‘sophist’ – a supposed wise-man. Under the patronage of a rich person, a sophist would stick around a city for a while and teach their wisdom to whomever their host would call. It seems that Apollos, Paul, Cephas (Peter) and Christ were viewed this way.

So Paul’s letter is written in part to set them straight. Not only to tell them that Christ is more than just another name on a list of wise-men. But also to challenge the divisive nature of these petty factions, and of that wisdom itself.

The climax of the letter, in chapter 13, is a spell-binding moment of eloquence as Paul lifts up love as the ‘greatest’ of all things. The list of problems Paul addresses at Corinth – the sheer number of different ways the church had found to fall out – seems to push him to write something extra-special. Love can heal deep wounds, re-make shattered lives, and forge unity even from the wreckage of broken hearts.

Like most of Paul’s letters, there’s a whole range of topics covered in a relatively short space. And unlike the Old Testament where we tend to skim over or just ignore large chunks, the minutiae of Paul’s words have been picked over repeatedly. We could talk about marriage ethics in 1 Corinthians, or rules for worship; church discipline, or how to approach food sacrificed to idols. But amid all the hopping from one area of Corinthian church life to another the theme of unity and love binds Paul’s message into a sharply focussed challenge.

There are a lot of other ways to read 1 Corinthians. In particular there’s some important stuff about the resurrection and how we think about ‘physical’ and ‘spiritual’ (see chapter 15). The Corinthians misplaced belief that resurrection was a purely spiritual experience bolstered their focus on the ecstatic experiences of ‘worship’ and reduced their concern with the merely ‘carnal’ concerns of day-to-day life. Paul not only has to challenge their ideas about resurrection but throughout the letter has to challenge the destructive idea that real, physical life has no connection to real, physical, ethical consequences. The Corinthians need to sort their doctrine of resurrection out, because they need to sort their life out!

But the message of 1 Corinthians that gets to me the most is in Paul’s opening chapters. ‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong’ (1:27). Greek culture had fallen in love with ‘wisdom’; any kind of new teaching was a titillating treasure-trove of knowledge to be plumbed. But ‘the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power,’ says Paul (4:20). In other words, we’ll prove the value of the gospel by its power to change lives.

So as we declare the gospel of Christ crucified to the ‘rulers of this age’ do we speak the ‘wisdom of this age’, or ‘the wisdom of God’? (2:6-7) In Paul’s day, these rulers were the Roman Empire; in our day, they are perhaps subtler but ubiquitous powers that dominate our lives. The ‘market’, that god to whom kings and presidents bow, has been blamed for the financial crisis, just as his emissary, ‘consumerism’, has been blamed for Britain’s poisonous riots. Are these feted forces endowed with wisdom? Or is there a deeper wisdom still?

The story of a revolutionary leader who was executed at the hands of a brutal regime is hardly the wisdom you’d expect to transform the hard hearts of a people divided by disagreements and a lack of love. And yet it is a story that challenges the glory of domination, of straightforward success. Instead it holds out a different kind of power; the power of sacrifice, the strength of patient love.

And in the end, there are just three things. And the greatest of them is love.