What we have this morning is a complicated Scripture that comes to us from a complicated community. I love wading into the troubled waters of First and Second Corinthians, because what we find there is one side of a series of letters that went back and forth between the Apostle Paul and the Corinthians, as they tried to apply what they have come to believe in Jesus Christ to real life. And that real life wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t hardly ever peaceful. But it was real – real life. And they were trying to figure it out together.
Maybe the best way to approach this complicated Scripture from a complicated community is to just say this up front: The Corinthians are a mess. But they were trying. We have the Apostle Paul’s side of these letters. He has helped them start a community together, but then he’s moved on to the next city. And they write to him with all the problems that are arising. What we have in the Bible are Paul’s responses, and they’re a nice catalog of what’s gone wrong.
The Corinthians have divided into factions – apparently according to who baptized whom. “I was baptized by Paul.” “I was baptized by Peter.” “I was baptized by Apollos.” And then those factions are competing with each other for power in the community. There is so much disagreement that they are filing lawsuits against each other, rather than trying to work things out face to face. Their family and community relationships are all out of whack. When they try to figure out how to live together, each of them is thinking only of what suits them best, what they are most comfortable with, rather than considering the needs of others who might be different – whose needs might be different.
These breaks in community even show up at the communion table. For the Corinthians, the Lord’s Supper would have been a big community meal, with the sacramental part included in it. But the thing is, those who are a little better off arrive at the start of the meal, and eat all the food. So when those who have to work for a living arrive – at the end of more than a full day’s work – there’s nothing left. As one writer says, “some feast, while others go hungry.” Paul says, I don’t know what you think you are doing, but that’s not the Last Supper. That’s not Christ’s table.
And so, at the very start of this letter to the Corinthians, in this morning’s Scripture, Paul takes all this head on – and says “What you’re doing – what you think is wisdom – isn’t wisdom at all.” “You see,” he writes, “what you’re doing is following ‘the wisdom of the world,’ not the wisdom we now experience in Christ.” Remember, wisdom is ways of living that lead to more life. But here, Paul says, you’re just following the ways of the world – ways of separation and division; ways of power – of power-over, where the vulnerable continue to be exploited; ways where a few feast, and the rest go hungry.
The so-called “wisdom of the world” isn’t really wisdom at all. What they are doing doesn’t lead to more life – or any life – it just follows the power patterns in the world.
We have so-called wisdom like that in our world. Think of sayings like:
o “Might makes right.”
o “Walk softly, but carry a big stick.”
o “To the winner belong the spoils.”
So-called wisdom that lifts up brute force; and power-over; and those whom the systems favor, over those whom they harm. Those sayings may not be incorrect in describing how power-over works in the world. But they don’t carry wisdom – they don’t lead to more life. They just re-enforce the life-stealing, death-dealing ways of the world. They prop up the systems of oppression in the world – where some feast, and most everyone else goes hungry.
That’s not wisdom. “Remember,” Paul says, “we find the wisdom of God in Jesus Christ – the wisdom and the power of God – all the ways that lead to life – in Christ.”
The wisdom of God turns the wisdom of the world on its head.
The Apostle Paul uses this language we probably find jarring: “God has chosen the weak to shame the strong; God has chosen the things that are not to shame the things that are.” I don’t use the word “shame” a lot because of the way that word has been used to harm people like me. So, maybe think of it as “calling to account.” God has chosen the vulnerable and those who don’t have much to call to account those who are comfortable and have more than enough.
The Wisdom of God turns the wisdom of the world on its head.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time at Golden Gate Village – Marin County’s largest public housing complex. Wednesday, I took a tour hosted by the residents, and we’ve started planning the panel discussion that the Golden Gate Village residents will host on October 13 (and that we will co-host with them, and with the Marin Interfaith Council, Congregation Rodef Shalom and others).
This past week, I’ve heard the history. In World War II, workers were recruited from across the nation to work in the ship-building industry in Marin City – many of those folks Black. At the end of the war, white folks who worked in the war effort could use their GI Bills to buy homes; but in Marin County, and across the country, the practice of redlining kept Black folks from buying homes, from creating family wealth that could be passed on. Some of the folks who came for the ship-building jobs stayed in Marin City, even after those jobs dried up; and in the 1960s, Golden Gate Village was built about the same time as the Civic Center– designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. And a vibrant community grew up there. A historic community in historic buildings. Golden Gate Village is actually on the National Historic Register.
Our county, though, particularly over the last 15 years or so – has let Golden Gate Village fall into disrepair. Just not fixing things. Letting stairwells and bathtubs rust; not tending to rat problems; or mold. Last week, I heard it called “demolition by neglect.” And so there’s a lawsuit at the failure to provide habitable housing – failure to provide a decent, humane place to live – and there’s a big controversy over how to do better.
I’m grateful for the hospitality I experienced these past couple weeks, and for what we learned on our tour this past Wednesday – for the chance to walk around the buildings and the homes. And then, Wednesday, after the tour of Golden Gate Village, I drove back to the church office – through Mill Valley, and Corte Madera, and Larkspur, and Ross, and San Anselmo – I thought of those homes in those neighborhoods – and the home I live in in Terra Linda. At the stark contrast of it all. At the gross disparities that persist in our county, for many reasons, among them American systemic racism.
And this complicated scripture made a little more sense: God has chosen those who have less in the world to call to account those who have more. God has chosen those who are harmed by systems of power-over to call to account those who benefit.
The so-called “wisdom of the world” doesn’t in any way lead to life – but rather props up systems that lead to separation, and power-over, and death. Wisdom isn’t wisdom – it’s not ways of living that lead to more life – if it’s not ways of living that lead to more life for all people. It’s not wisdom if it doesn’t lead to life for those whose backs are up against a wall.
The Apostle Paul says, Remember, remember: Christ, the wisdom of God, the power of God. The Apostle Paul speaks to the Corinthians in their real life –and over the centuries to us in our real life – and says, “Remember, we proclaim Christ crucified, and resurrected – the wisdom and power of God – a stumbling block to the powers of the world.” In Christ, in the cross of Christ, we have seen and experienced a God who enters into the suffering of the world, even unto death – who stands "with those whose backs are up against the wall." In the death and resurrection of Christ, we have seen and experienced a God who brings the whole world into new life.
We proclaim Christ crucified. We proclaim a New Creation – a whole new world breaking forth even now – dismantling the systems of power that oppress – building a world where all can live free. Wisdom is becoming – with our whole selves – a part of that – looking in that mirror and seeing our identity in Christ – all of us made in the image of God, in the image of Christ – and living life as if that is true – for all people – for all creation.
Last week we said wisdom is more a who than a what – we saw that embodied in Woman Wisdom rising up off the page and calling us into life. To that image, the Apostle Paul adds this: Wisdom is embodied in Christ, in Christ we find the ways of life that lead to more life.
But not only that, wisdom is embodied in community. Wisdom is embodied in community that moves its heart from the center to the margins of power. Wisdom is embodied in community that stands with those whose backs are up against a wall – and from there, dismantles what needs to come down, and joins in the work of New Creation – building a world not of power-over, but power-with; a world where everyone is welcome, where everyone has enough, where everyone comes to the feast – where everyone lives free.
We remember and we practice that at this table – even more so on World Communion Sunday:
o We gather at this table in the midst of real life.
o All the pain is there – a body broken, and life poured out.
o Everyone is welcome – around the whole wide world.
o What we find here is a New Creation – the real presence of Christ alive in us – and in all creation – in the whole wide world.
© 2021 Scott Clark
Communion Table image © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com, licensed and used with permission.
 For background on the Corinthian community and letters, see Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. M.E. Boring) (New York: Baker Publishing Group, 2005); J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. x (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), pp. 800-13; Boykin Sanders, “First Corinthians” in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), pp. 280-82.  Schnelle, p.197.
 Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited.