Scripture Readings (NRSV): 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Quite often, we hear the word ‘multicultural’ to describe society today. It’s a word which reflects the reality that Scotland is home to people of many different faiths and belief systems. In fact, it’s the reality for most of the world. People do not simply stay where they are born, for humans seem to have a necessity to travel, to move around.

Perhaps we are more aware of it nowadays, but it has long been the case that even the Highlands has long been home to people of different cultural and religious identities. When the King of Scotland created a castle in Inverness 1,000 years ago, it was to counter the influence of Scandinavians, for this region was a borderland between Scotland and Norway. We still have place names which reflect our regions Viking heritage- such as Dingwall, a place where the Vikings held a sort of local assembly, a Thing. For a long time, Inverness was an English speaking town in a Gaelic region, where Sassenach and Gaelic culture had to rub along with each other.

And this was always a harbour town, so there would always have been seafarers, merchants and travellers on our streets. Like many places, we have become used to meeting people from many different parts of the world, and their children, too, have continued to make their home here. We all know people who were born in, or whose families came from, nations such as China, India or Pakistan, and, of course, from other European nations. Multiculturalism is a reality of life in our city, in our nation, and it will not just be abolished by the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Whatever lies ahead, we must strive to ensure that everyone, whatever their background, race, nationality or religion, continue to feel welcome in our city.

We read today of Jesus going up a mountain and sitting down to teach a vast crowd of people. That would have been a multicultural crowd, for Galilee back then, as it is down, was a melting pot. In that crowd there would have been Jews and Samaritans. There would be Romans, soldiers and officials of the occupying power. There would have been people from the non-Jewish regions nearby, such as Tyre[1], where Greek culture or tribal religions were prevalent. And perhaps there were travellers from further afield, from Egypt and Africa, or today’s Turkey (then known as Asian Minor). Christianity is not a faith which belongs to one nation or race- it arose from multicultural beginnings.

We have just read part of a letter which Paul wrote to the Christian community in Corinth. Corinth was a multicultural port city. It had been founded as a Roman colony in Greece. So it was a city of many languages, nationalities, and religions. It was home to sailors, merchants, slaves, soldiers, government officials and many others from around the Mediterranean Sea. It was a long way from home for Paul, a Jew from Syria, who travelled there and founded the church in the city. And the new church reflected the diversity of local population- rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, and no doubt many other ways that people could identify themselves.

Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians, not because they were diverse, but because were divided. They were not divided along lines of nationality or culture. Instead, they had split into different factions, disagreeing over various issues, with the factions often named after different church leaders (including Paul). In exasperation, he even asked them, ‘Was Paul crucified for you?’[2] to remind them that their unity was to be found in their common faith in Jesus Christ. He urged them to look beyond their divisions, beyond the human leaders they so respected, and to look to Christ. And especially, as he does in the passage today, to Christ’s crucifixion.

Perhaps it’s strange to be thinking about Good Friday already, when it’s just after Christmas. This is still, after all, the season of Epiphany, which is about how God in Christ has revealed himself to the nations. But when Paul wants to point beyond the factions in the church, or even beyond the diversities of religion, nationality, faith or race, Paul points to Christ on the cross. Paul will not bend his message so that it supports one or other of the factions in the Corinthian church. He boldly states:

we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Attributed to Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–1586)
and Possibly
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553):
Martin Luther preaching: Reformation altarpiece, Stadt- und Pfarrkirche St. Marien zu Wittenberg, Predella (1547 consecrated)

In a way, this isn’t a very wise thing to day. For one of the divisions in the Corinthian church was between Christians who were Jewish, and those who had come into the church from other faiths- Gentiles. Yet Paul says that his message of Christ crucified will upset both Jews and Gentiles. It doesn’t seem a very sensible way of commending the Gospel in this multicultural city.

But Paul was telling it as it was. A criminal put to death like Jesus was believed by Jews to be cursed. And a teacher whose life ended so ignominiously and obscurely had little attraction for Gentiles, especially upper-class educated and sophisticated Greeks or Romans. But Paul goes on to say,

to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

There is nothing more helpless and weak than a man nailed to a cross. It is foolish to expect people to be attracted by such a sight, to pay attention to a teacher whose life ends in such a shameful way. But in this passage, Paul plays with opposites. Strength is contrasted with and weakness, foolishness with wisdom.

The crucified Christ seems a foolish figure to many, but for those who have faith, it somehow, ridiculously makes sense – it’s God’s wisdom. The crucified Christ seems weak, but ‘to us who are being saved it is the power of God’. For Paul, the weakness of Christ crucified shows the strength of God; and the folly of Christ’s dying on the cross points to wisdom of God, deeper than any human wisdom.

In his lifetime, Christ had also pointed out how God contradicts human expectations. In the beatitudes, which we read today, Christ tells us that the kingdom of heaven belongs not to those who are confident in their faith, but who know that they are poor in spirit. For those who mourn- mourn a personal tragedy, or mourn at world that’s in such a mess- there is the promise of comfort from no less than God. The humble, overlooked, unable to speak up for themselves, will inherit the earth. The merciful will themselves receive mercy. And those whom God calls his children are not the ones who will ride off into battle for him, but those who work for peace. Those persecuted for following the peaceful way of Christ will inherit God’s kingdom. What hope there is in these words, for people who feel hopeless! What strength there is in these words, for those of us feel weak and powerless!

Christianity had appeal across all our human divides- across nationality or race, but also across social and economic divides. The first Christian meetings in a place like Corinth were often held in the big houses of the well-off. But the believers included ordinary working people, and even slaves. So Paul reminds the Corinthians, ‘not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth’. Well, that just about fits most Scottish Christians today. Few of us are rich and powerful- and yet

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world.

This is why those who are weak, those who mourn, the meek and the poor so often see in the crucified Christ a reflection of themselves. In the cross of Christ, God identifies with the low, the foolish and despised of the world.

But in their struggles, the Christians of Corinth became divided among themselves. Part of the trouble was that some boasted that they were the better Christians. But Paul tells them, that ‘no one might boast in the presence of God’. It is by Christ alone, he says, that we are given ‘righteousness and sanctification and redemption’, that is, that we are put are put right with God’. It is not by belonging to a particular denomination, or a faction in the church, or by following a particular church leader that we are set free to be the people of God. Nor is it because of our prior religious or cultural background, or because one race or nationality is better than another. “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”, says Paul. Christ crucified is our only boast.

And as he reminded the Corinthians that they were not powerful people, in the eyes of the world, so he reminds them that the Gospel did not start off seemingly powerful.

One of the few privileges we still have as a church is folk like Dot and I can go into schools and talk about issues of faith, in assemblies and RE lessons. Nowadays we don’t assume that many of the children have a church connection or a Christian background. And in many ways, that frees us up to be able to tell them the story anew. I tell them about Jesus of Nazareth, who must seem a strange figure to them- born in a stable, telling ordinary people that God loves them, preaching his upside down story about how the meek will inherit the earth, getting into fights he couldn’t win against the arrogant and powerful, so that he ends up dying like a criminal.

But the tales of Jesus are all I have for them, and for you. We preachers have nothing to boast of, except Jesus, the crucified teacher of Nazareth. And if that doesn’t seem like much, well, says Paul,

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.

For there’s power in those simple stories, and wisdom beyond any human wisdom in the tale of the Christ who chooses to die on a cross.

To many people today, faith in the Christ crucified seems like a faith for fools. Just as in Paul’s day, powerful people were scornful, seemingly confident in their own strength and wisdom. Maybe that was why it was so hard for the Christians of Corinth to stay united. They were under a lot of pressure, for there was a state religion- everyone was supposed to worship the Emperor, and that was what was supposed to bring unity. And to that multicultural city, in its diversity, in its divisions between rich and poor, to a city of refugees and slaves and merchants and soldiers and sailors and prostitutes and thieves and tradesmen and housewives and children- Paul writes, and reminds the Christians in that city, that the Christ who seems weak is their power, and his foolishness is their wisdom.

For after the cross came the empty tomb. When the old Roman religion was forgotten, Christ still reigned. Here is the true ground of hope for our diverse, and often divided, cities, towns, villages and nations: the fool on the cross, Christ crucified, is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the New Revised Standard version of the Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2020 Peter W Nimmo

Notes

[1] see Mark 7.24f

[2] 1 Corinthians 1.13