I remember when I was a little boy, one of the ways my mates and I would jockey for position and status on the playground at Wilson Park Primary School was to boast. Not about ourselves, but about our dads. It was all physical, stuff like 'my dad's bigger than your dad'. Does anybody else remember doing stuff like this? I mean, why should it have mattered so much? 'My dad can bash your dad up – any day of the week.' 'Oh yeah? Well, my dad could bash your dad up with one hand tied behind his back!' What bothered me deep down was, I wasn't at all sure that mine could. I'd seen the great big calloused hands of some of those coal miner dads. 'Well, my dad could bash up your dad with one finger'. 'My dad could bash up your dad in his sleep'.
Playgrounds are merciless places, aren't they? You need to invoke supernatural protection just to survive, let alone to stay on top. If you need status in a hurry, you inflate the claims of the strongest thing you're associated with. 'Well my footy team could bash your footy team any day of the week!'
There's only one trouble with this sort of logic, isn't there? It's actually really hard to keep winning this way – there's always someone stronger comes along, someone with more status, more power. You're only on top five minutes before you get the tap on the shoulder.
So is this what St Paul is doing in his letter to the Church in Corinth? 'God's brainier than you even when he isn't even thinking, even God's foolishness is wiser than your most lucid moments'? Think of a number, big as you like, then multiply it by ten. Sorry, you lose, God's even wiser, stronger, bigger than that? Or, is St Paul saying something a bit more subtle?
You see, like my mates and me on the playground at Wilson Park, the Church that St Paul founded in Corinth were a competitive lot, divided along the lines of wealth and social class and claims of spiritual "advancement". If you ever wanted a model of a dysfunctional parish family, this is it! It wasn't just the members of the fledgling church community though, in the ancient world it seems the whole of Corinth had a bit of a reputation. A cosmopolitan little city, perched in a picturesque location on a peninsular between two oceans, Corinth was a centre of wealth and worldly sophistication – for some. One mosaic picture that has come down to us from that time shows a young couple proudly showing off their greatest status symbol – a writing tablet and stylus – much like yuppies these days might pose for a photo holding their iPad. Corinth had a reputation for flashy ostentation and an even more troubling reputation for the way in which its wealthy citizens abused those who were less wealthy. Paul's ongoing problems with his argumentative congregation in Corinth seem to confirm this unflattering picture.
In many ways, though, we are really fortunate the Corinthian Church was so embarrassing, because it forced St Paul into confronting one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians in any century – the credibility gap that exists between the values of the world we live in and the kingdom values that Jesus offers us. The credibility gap between the politics and power-games that characterise the actual relationships between factions and individuals in the Church, and the standard of self-giving love that should be the benchmark of our life together. Personally, I can't read Paul's letters to the Corinthian Christians without cringing a bit, because it's like looking into a mirror and seeing our own Church. You know I'm not talking about St Michaels Cannington here, I'm talking about the wider Church of which we're a part – but we need to examine our own life as a parish community also, because that's the basis – the way in which individuals work and pray and grow together in love in a parish family is the foundation on which the whole Church of God is built. Are we completely focussed on our own individual issues and our own status, or do we have a shared vision of God's kingdom here in Cannington?
And in his letter to the Corinthians St Paul confronts head-on the things that divide them, using a favourite ancient debating method, pushing the argument to its absurd conclusion, pulling apart the opposite extremes until we are forced to see what lies in the middle. The basic issue, as it probably always is, is status, power, who gets to call the shots? Elsewhere, St Paul takes on the issue of money, the tendency for people everywhere to act as though having more money entitles you to more influence – but here the basic issue is wisdom. Wisdom versus foolishness.
Now wisdom is actually a buzz word for the Corinthians, and in fact for the whole of the ancient Greek-speaking world. The word itself, wisdom or in Greek, Sophia, comes from the intellectual fashion of the time, the philosophy of the Stoics and the Platonists. Wisdom was what connected the human world to the divine world, wisdom was what enabled human beings to see the true meaning of things. And wisdom was primarily revealed in the skill of rhetoric, the skill of the debater. Now on one level this is just like saying the Corinthians were really impressed by cleverness, and the cleverest among them thought they should be running the show – on another level the issue of wisdom for the Corinthians is like us being really impressed by a Microsoft systems engineer or a financial expert from Westpac. Wisdom was the cutting edge intellectual technology of the day, and the Corinthians were really impressed by it. They were impressed by technique, and they were impressed by those who claimed to have special or hidden knowledge. Paul's basic point is that believing the right doctrine about God is not the same thing as being in the right relationship with God, which is a relationship of trust and dependence. For churches today who insist on members signing up to a series of ideas and beliefs about God, about the right way to read the Bible or the right belief about the end times, or who insist on talking in tongues as evidence of spiritual maturity, or for churches like ours that tear themselves apart with arguments between conservative and liberal theologians, this is really important. This preoccupation with human knowing, Paul claims, twists Christian living out of shape. God himself cuts the ground from under our feet, and he does it with the foolishness, and the absurd weakness, of the cross.
You see, the cross is embarrassing. Our Bible translation calls it a 'stumbling block' to Jews who expected the one anointed by God to be gloriously successful, and the Greek word that this translates is skandalon. It's a scandal. The very idea that the twisted and ugly shape of a human being tortured to death could represent human salvation. The Corinthian Christians know what Paul is talking about. This wouldn't have been the easiest part of the Christian faith to sell to the sophisticated metropolitan inhabitants of their world! To them it's just foolishness. It's God choosing to come to us not in strength but in weakness, not the sort of divine weakness that's still strong enough to bash us up with one finger, but the sort of divine weakness that is vulnerable enough to suffer when we reject it, the sort of divine weakness that allows itself to get pushed aside and crucified. Over and over. God's power is not the sort of power that human beings preoccupied with status and competition readily understand –God's power which is made perfect in human weakness and vulnerability is relational power - the power to transform human lives by love broken and poured out for all. God's wisdom is the wisdom of understanding that only by risking ourselves to one another in vulnerability and trust can we be healed and whole.
So what does this mean for us, this Lent? Like the Corinthians, we live in a world that isn't cruciform – the structures and values of our world are shaped not by the cross but by the desire for status and privilege, by competition for position and resources. Our relationships are unconsciously fashioned by the need to protect our own interests. We find the wisdom of God and the power of God confronting because we recognise in it the challenge to give up some of our assumptions about our own wisdom, our own claims to have our lives and our religion worked out. We find it confronting because we recognise correctly that self-sacrificing love means giving up on being defensive, giving up on being right. The cross means putting all our eggs in one basket, taking the risk of trusting God and one another with the future.
Rather a lot to give up for Lent.