March 7, 2021
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Our second reading today comes from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. And this is one of those passage that often gets lifted out of context and interpreted badly… warped through an “us vs. them” mindset. A mindset, I might add, that considering the larger themes in 1 Corinthians… a community that was fragmenting and fighting among themselves over who was more Christian… or more right… or more favored… a mindset that totally misses the point… or… I guess if you think about from a certain perspective… proves the points Paul makes in the letter. Not in a good way. Connected to that is the “anti-intellectual” interpretive spin that gets attached to this particular passage that talks about foolishness and wisdom. To that I would say… do you not know Paul at all? Does anyone really think that Paul… Paul… the writer of Romans… the deep thinking, well-educated Paul… that Paul would really make an argument in favor of an anti-intellectual faith?
Anyway... let’s finally hear what Paul has to say to us today from the first chapter of 1 Corinthians starting with verse 18. Continue listening for God’s Word as it speaks to you.
READ 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
I want to start today with perhaps a different question about our first reading from John’s gospel… Jesus going into the Temple and driving out the sellers of the animals meant for sacrifices and turning over the tables of the money changers. This is a well-known scene that fires up the imagination and the emotions. I admit to feeling a certain satisfaction that comes with Jesus’ disruption of business as usual in the Temple. Maybe it’s a feeling of the right people finally getting their comeuppance. The outsider striking a blow for what’s right. I think there’s always something about scenes like that… whether they are in movies or books or whatever… that is always satisfying. I mean, if you’re like me you probably imagine these sellers and moneychangers as opportunists… making a profit where they ought to be more reverent. It’s just so easy to cast the service they provide as just another empty action of consumerism. And admittedly I think that characterization is an unfair generality.
Still… the question I want to ask is more about the why of the situation in the Temple… why are these sellers and moneychangers there in the first place? Why does the Temple tend to become a marketplace over time? And I’m not so much interested in the historical reasons today. It makes sense that they are there because they help to support the style and practices of Temple worship as it was at the time. It’s much easier for the visitor to the Temple to buy their sacrifice there rather than having to always bring that animal to be sacrificed with them from home. Sacrifices have to be bought from someone from somewhere, right? Not everyone has the appropriate sacrifice already in their possession. When it comes to the money changers, I don’t know of the top of my head the ins and outs of their purpose, but I’m sure there was a logical reason for them to be there as well. Now sure some of the moneychangers… some of the sellers of the animals for sacrifice… sure, some of them probably cared more about the money that was being made rather than perhaps the service they were providing in helping people connect to God through the practices of their faith. This is their livelihood. We can’t begrudge people making a living.
But again… that’s not the question I want to ask… that’s not the why I’m really wondering about today. Let me see if I can get this thought out in a different way.
I’ve been watching different videos on YouTube lately from different Christians who would describe themselves as Evangelicals. For me, it’s a way to try to understand a different perspective than my own. And the evangelical world… as represented through the makers of these different videos… is in a bit of turmoil these days. Partly because of politics and the continuing fallout from the election. Some of these videos are dealing with self-proclaimed prophets who were sure the election was going to go one way because that was the will of God… and when it didn’t they tried to double down and reset their prophecies and as those new prophecies also failed to come true… there has been backlash and accusations of their being false prophets. Power shifted quickly under their feet and these self-proclaimed prophets have been left unbalanced. So right now there are lots of accusations and defenses happening in that corner of the evangelical world. Lots of distancing and trying to disassociate from these folks and others like them who embraced to hard the lure of political power and dominance. In another corner, there have apparently been proven accusations of impropriety by Ravi Zacharias… a popular evangelical apologist who recently died. He has become another in a long line of popular evangelical leaders who have fallen because of personal indiscretions. Before him was the popular pastor to some celebrities, Carl Lentz, who was part of the very successful Hillsong ministry. It’s been a fairly rapid one to punch. And this keeps happening again and again in the evangelical world. In one podcast, called the Holy Post, the members of the podcast were trying to process a lot of this and one of them started talking about the “Evangelical Industrial Complex”… building off of Eisenhower’s popular warning about the “Military Industrial Complex”. His name is Skye Jethani and I want to give him credit especially if this is an original thought because I found this to be an interesting piece of self-criticism. This insight that in the evangelical world they tend to judge leaders and promote leaders based on their consumer driven success. So if your mega-church is successful in terms of money and people and property… then you must have the hand of God upon you. If your mega-church is successful and your book sales are impressive and your speaking fees at evangelical conferences are sky high… the hand of God is upon you. Maybe… the critical insight continued… maybe this isn’t the best way to crown the leaders of the evangelical movement… based on those who were most successful in the evangelical industrial complex... maybe this was why their successful leaders kept letting them down as the trappings of fame and personal fortune… the trap of feeding the machine that turned the profit didn’t always promote the best people or the best messages to the top. What sells well was most important. Maybe that’s the wrong focus.
So… come back to Jesus at the Temple. This Temple that Herod had expanded and increased in its grandeur. The Temple complex was breathtaking in the materials used… in the sights and the sounds and the smells of the place. Everything was designed to appeal to and heighten the senses. Imagine all the financial and human resources that went into making the so-called Temple Industrial Complex work. What is it about that… that… and I don’t even know what the right word is… the spectacle… the smell of success… the feeling of power and importance… what is it about that in all its different forms that keeps attracting us again and again to rebuild it just in different ways.
Now compare it all to the foolishness of the cross. The foolishness of the cross doesn’t sell well. Take up your cross and follow me doesn’t necessarily sell well because it can’t guarantee our desired benefits for ourselves. It’s hard to support the machine with talk about losing your life to save it. Again… that’s what makes Peter’s rebuke ring so true even to today. God forbid it Lord! I think it was back in one of the Holy Post podcasts… I watched too many different things this week so they are a bit jumbled in my mind… but I think it was on an episode of that podcast that this same presenter gave another interesting insight about how evangelicals like the victory of the cross… and they are glad for what Jesus did for them on the cross… but they tend to keep their focus there on the victory Jesus won… rather than pivoting toward the foolishness of taking up your own cross and then following behind. Benefits… yes. Cost… not so much. For Jews demand signs, Greeks desire wisdom, and Evangelicals want victory, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles and unprofitable to the sellers and moneychangers of the religious industrial complex.
Christ crucified is the example Jesus set of staying true to the call of God… of walking by God’s ways… of being obedient to the point of death… even death on a cross. We can mystify and magnify the cross in supernatural ways through overly complex theological formulas… but what put that cross before Jesus was our sin… was our disconnect with God… perpetrated by the very people who maintained the Temple industrial complex which was supposed to connect people with God… which was supposed to reduce sin. When Jesus walks into Jerusalem he walks into enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy. And when these… then we… hear a message of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… and the reaction is to use all our powers of sin and death to kill the message before there is a chance they/we will be overcome by the message of God in Christ. Kill it. Crucify it. Let fear blot out love. When Jesus tells those who will follow him to take up their cross… it isn’t the killing cross… it isn’t the cross of death… it is the cross of the gospel message… a message with no fear… only love. Take up your cross… show how life in God is eternal because nothing… no power of sin and death can take it away… not from the one who stays true to God’s call… walks by God’s ways… is obedient to the point of death… even death on a killing cross.
The wisdom of the world that Paul speaks of… that wisdom is built on the belief and the trust in the powers of death… the works of a perishing flesh. Maybe the best example of that wisdom is in the Temple Industrial Complex. By the time John’s gospel is written… the Temple Industrial Complex is gone. The Temple in all its magnificence and commerce was looted and burned and torn down. And has never risen again in that form. It keeps trying to come back to life… but the different iterations never last because they are built upon the perishing works of the flesh and not the foolishness of the cross. That foolish message keeps living on and gets resurrected to new life over and over again even as all these different iterations of the Temple Industrial Complex fail. Even if these evangelical ministries within the Evangelical Industrial Complex begin with good intentions… they keep putting down their cross along the way to fill their hands with the riches of ego and materialism… and then eventually collapse in on themselves when the rot is discovered. The people leave for the next new thing. The books stop selling. The property gets sold off. The charismatic leader is quickly forgotten on the conference circuit.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… Paul rightly says there is no law against such things. Saints, there is also no power of death that can stand against them because these are qualities of eternal life. Believe the foolishness, every killing cross that is set against God’s grace… will only reveal more the eternal truth of the resurrection that follows the gospel’s cross. Amen