(This is an edited version of the sermon preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge on Sunday January 31st.)
How would the world save the world? Or, to put the question another way, how does the non-Christian culture around us think about the salvation of the world, when it does think about it?
There would seem to be two particular schemes of salvation the world tends to come up with and we can see these in contemporary films.
There’s the superhero model, a person like Superman, Spiderman or Batman who has supernatural powers to all intents and purposes and uses his special powers to sort out the bad guys.
Then there is the superleader model – he or she motivates a movement of people through the power of their personality and centrally their powerful communication to bring about democratic change, to overcome a perceived injustice and bring about change for the better and we see this in films about Gandhi or Nelson Mandela or the Suffragettes.
Do we honestly think the world without the inspiration of the New Testament would ever come up with the idea of a man dying in weakness and in humiliating shame nailed to a Roman cross to save the world? Surely the world would never dream of that as a way of saving the world.
We’ve seen so far in our series in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians how the Christian church in this wealthy city-port in southern Greece was a rather worldly church. There was too much of the non-Christian culture around them in the church at Corinth and not enough of the Word of God or, more specifically, not enough of the divine message of the saving death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.
‘For,’ Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1v18 – ‘for’ explaining what he has just said in v17, namely that the Lord Jesus Christ had sent him to preach the gospel, God’s good news, ‘not with words of human wisdom’, i.e. impressive, powerful speechifying and oratory, ‘lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power’: ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’ (NIV).
Can we see what Paul is doing there for this rather worldly church family?
They were far too obsessed with the power of impressive orators, powerful communicators, to move crowds and bring about political and social change. The Greek culture around them was dazzled by powerful, impressive speakers to move democratic movements of people and change the world.
Paul says he deliberately avoided impressive human oratory so as not to dilute, water down, the saving message of the cross of Christ.
How would a focus on impressive communication in preaching the gospel water down the message of the cross? How would words of human wisdom empty the cross of Christ of its power?
Surely in this way: a philosopher like Karl Marx, for example, comes up with an idea for changing the world – Marxism. Political activists like Lenin or Mao sell it through making speeches – people are persuaded and form armies and Marxism gains power. Who came up with the idea? A man. Who’s selling it? People. Who’s being persuaded by it? People. Who’s imposing it through military force? People. It’s a man-made scheme for changing the world and it’s promoted by human persuasion and human power – in the case of Marxism, by terror, the Gulags.
People are doing it whereas in the cross of Christ God did it. God saved the world through the death of his Son Jesus Christ on the cross. He made there a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer puts it so biblically. God saved the world from the divine judgement the world deserves for the terrible things the world does and he did it through the cross. Would the world ever come up with that scheme of salvation? No way, because the world is too proud and godless and sinful.
If Paul had pandered to the world’s desire for impressive, powerful communication in his proclamation of the Christian message, then that would have taken away from the fact that the Christian message, and centrally the saving message of the cross, is God’s idea and not ours. All we did was mess up. Paul wanted the focus to be on what God has done in and through his Son the Lord Jesus Christ to save people.
Do we see why Paul avoided worldly wisdom like the plague? He wanted to get people’s focus off themselves and onto God.
Paul is helping these worldly Christians to see the difference between the world and the people God is saving. What is the essential difference? The world doesn’t grasp the central importance of the cross; Christians do or should do.