There are a lot of good reasons to Jesus … NOT! (A sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

Sisters and brothers, think about your own calling. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is nonsense in the world to make the wise feel ashamed. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:26-27) … and who do we think we’re kidding!

Not many of you were wise by human standards?” I don’t think so! Our church includes some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being associated with.  OK, not many of ‘noble birth’ perhaps, but there is no shortage of academics and philosophers and the like in our community who are entirely accomplished by the standards of this world such that one can’t read out St Paul’s words in church without a certain sense of irony!

Now I know that some of you are thinking, ‘Dave, you’ve been hanging around with too many boxers. We just appear to be a bunch of academics in comparison.’ But let me assure you that plenty of those academics are boxers!

I don’t think St Paul meant it to be ironic.

I remember Kierkegaard reflecting though in a similar fashion when he heard His Grace, the Right Reverend Archbishop of Copenhagen read out this passage, decked out in all his finery and surrounded by his attendants in the Cathedral: “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong”. Kierkegaard said ‘I looked around and nobody else was laughing!’  They didn’t seem to get the joke!

I don’t think St Paul meant it as a joke, but it does make me wonder how many of my fellow clergy (in the Sydney Anglican fold in particular) are going to read out this passage this morning – we who pastor flocks with an inordinately high percentage of parishioners with university degrees in them – and are going to try to do so with a straight face!

‘Not many of you wise, not many powerful, not many of noble birth…’  As I say, I don’t think St Paul intended to be ironic.  And yet there is a deeper irony in this passage, in the verses that immediately precede these ones, and I think in this case it is deliberate.

Before we go any further though can someone give me a simple definition of ‘irony’?  I ask because it was only pointed out to me recently that in Alanis Morrisette’s famous song, “Isn’t it Ironic”, none of the examples she gives are actually examples of irony, which made me realise that I was actually confused about the whole concept!

‘Like R-a-a-a-in on your wedding Day’ is not an example of irony. It’s just a bit of bad luck. So what is irony?  It’s when the real meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning.

So when St Paul says, “not many of you were wise” was he being ironic or did he mean it literally?  I assume he literally meant it (which is of course the final proof that St Paul was not a Sydney Anglican).  But what about in this passage:

“For the message about the cross is nonsense to those who are being destroyed, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. … Where is the wise person? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? God has turned the wisdom of the world into nonsense, hasn’t he? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know God, God decided through the nonsense of our preaching to save those who believe. Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews and nonsense to gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:18-23)

Was Paul being ironic here? Did he really believe that his preaching was nonsense?

Well … I don’t think St Paul really thought of his own preaching as literally being nonsense, but one thing that he evidently did clearly grasp was that, for the vast majority of people that he dealt with, the Gospel message that he preached held absolutely no appeal whatsoever! And that realisation puts St Paul at odds not only with Sydney Anglicanism but with almost every expression of the church since his time!

It’s all about marketing – how you pitch your product (in our case, ‘the Gospel’).

I know that there are some people in our church who know quite a lot about marketing – people who work in the advertising business – and I actually know a fair bit about advertising myself!

One of the benefits of having a foot in the online world is that you get plenty of access to online marketing resources, and I myself have ploughed my way through more online marketing courses than I care to remember, and I have indeed worked out the key to successful marketing, which is actually very simple: it’s just a question of giving people what they want (or at least giving them what they think they want)!

As one marketing expert said to me many years ago, “It’s just a matter of tuning into WIIFM, which is an acronym for ‘what’s in it for me!’”

‘What’s in it for me?’ – that’s what people want to know! Whether you’re a salesman or an advertiser or a marketer or a preacher, that’s what people want to know: ‘What’s in it for me?’  And if you want to be successful in selling your product you’d better know what your audience want and be ready to supply them with it, for it’s all about self-interest!

Some advertisers are more subtle about this than others, of course. The most blatant group, I think, tend to be the radio stations.  ‘Just tell us what you want and we’ll play it!’  It doesn’t matter what it is, just tell us!  Whatever you want to hear, that’s what we want to play. We are ready to do whatever you want us to do!’ We are WIIFM!

And I guess that all makes sense. The radio stations play what we want to hear because if they don’t, we don’t listen, and if we don’t listen then advertisers won’t pay to have their messages heard on the station and that station will close!  So for as long as money and survival are the forces that drive the industry, things aren’t likely to change, and maybe that’s how it works with churches too?

Do you want an easy-listening organ-music service? We’ve got it!  Are you looking for a younger crowd with more energetic music? We’ve got that too! Are the sermons too long or too short or too boring or too challenging? We’ll tone them down (or speed them up or slow them down or spice them up). You just keep paying and we’ll keep adapting!

Of course it’s not always this blatant and obvious, but I do think that we inevitably develop our evangelistic appeal around the perceived needs of people we are dealing with, which is why I think all the evangelistic campaigns I was involved in as a younger man centred around challenging people on where they thought they were going to be after they were dead!

‘Life after death’ is the point at which WIIFM and religion meet in our culture – or so it is perceived – and most especially amongst us educated types!  We have everything else in life nailed down – a good education, a good job, a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs. We’re not worrying about putting food on the table or fearing imminent death by sword or famine. We’re not being persecuted (not most of us, at any rate) just as most of us are not the victims of racial violence or abuse of any sort.

For most of us there seems to be only one area of life that we don’t have nailed down (so to speak) and it’s that whole region of what happens to us on the other side of death. So that’s where we build our evangelistic platform. That’s how we frame the Gospel message – as an answer to the one religious question that people are still asking!  The danger in doing this of course is that you may end up with a Gospel message that has everything to do with the WIIFM and very little to do with the Gospel itself!

Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews and nonsense to gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

I have the feeling that if St Paul ran a radio station he’d be saying, “OK, we’ve worked out that you guys want to listen to music from the 80’s and 90’s. We’re going to give you the 50’s!  We’re not playing what you want to hear. We’re playing what you need to hear!

Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews and nonsense to gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

It is an extraordinary statement on the part of St Paul, isn’t it, for it suggests two things –firstly, that the Apostle was entirely in touch with his demographic – both the Jewish and the non-Jewish/gentile demographic – and secondly though, that he was entirely uninterested in delivering to his demographic what they were actually looking for!

Yet it’s not as if St Paul’s audience are asking for anything particularly unreasonable!

‘Jews want signs and Greeks want wisdom.’ Of course they do!  Don’t we all?

All of us – Jew and non-Jew alike – want some compelling reason as to why we should take St Paul’s Gospel message seriously. Surely Paul doesn’t expect us to believe his message for no good reason whatsoever!

The Greeks, Paul says, want something that makes sense.  We do too, don’t we?

We want a faith that is rational and intellectually appealing.  The problem Paul had was that many of the intellectuals who listened to him found his message to be primitive, while many of the Jews who listened to him found his Gospel to be downright offensive!

And let’s be honest: not everything in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ does make a lot of sense!

  • The resurrection of the body is not an intellectually appealing concept. That was the most immediate issue that Paul’s Greek audience took exception to, and if you’ve seen any number of dead bodies (or particularly what is left of them after they’ve been cremated) you will appreciate that the idea of all that ash somehow being re-constituted back into the same body does seem a little nonsensical!
  • Our whole belief that there is a better world coming – that the principalities and powers of this world are about to be taken down and that a new world of justice and peace will take its place … well, we don’t see a lot of evidence around us to suggest that that’s where our history is moving!
  • And the whole idea that you gain your life by losing it, and that you should sell your possessions and give your money to the poor, open your home to the homeless and your heart to the heartless … These are just downright offensive!

“Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom”, says St Paul, and we don’t deliver on either front.  “We preach Christ crucified – a stumbling block to Jews and nonsense to gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23)

It does make you wonder, doesn’t it, whether there is anything in the Christian Gospel that recommends itself to the average Jew or Greek (or Australian for that matter)?

I think there is, and it was really brought home to me by Anton’s sister this week.

For any who missed out on the news, we buried a dear brother this week – Anton. And it was a tragedy in so many ways. He was relatively young and he seemed to have so many hopes for the future and the reality of seeing him struck down at such a point in his life is something that has left all of us who knew and loved him a little shocked.

But it was something his sister said to me. She said that he had called her on her birthday, only a couple of weeks before his death, and she had assumed that he was calling her to wish her a happy birthday, but she said that instead he prattled on about the life he had found in the church here, and he told her, apparently, that he had found true love here!

And no greater thing, I think, could be said of this or any church, and these words touched me deeply.

It wasn’t romantic love that he found, of course (in as much as we might have liked to see him find that), let alone sensual love of any kind, but rather that love of Christ – that love that is all about commitment and promise and is a little hard to define, and yet all of us who know Christ know exactly what she was talking about – the sacrificial love of Jesus, that binds us all together in a mysterious unity, and binds us to Anton still!

Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

I don’t think that Paul is suggesting that there’s any advantage to being intellectually challenged.  I think his point is rather that intellectual satisfaction is not the chief commodity that Christ has on offer.

“Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom” but what the Gospel brings you is something that will take you on a different path altogether. What the Gospel offers is true love.

And perhaps that’s the problem? Perhaps not many people are really looking for true love?  I have a feeling though that deep down it is what we are all looking for.

“Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified. He is a stumbling block to Jews and nonsense to gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom.” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24)


First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on March 11, 2012. To read the written version of this sermon click here.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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