Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Matthew 5:9).
Ask any sane person in this insane, conflict-laden age, “Which do you prefer, peace or conflict?” and you will most certainly hear the answer, “Peace, of course.” Ask any rioter in Portland or DC, any denier or defender of the presidential election results, any double-masker and bare-faced party-goer what they want from their stand, peace or discord, and all will answer, “Peace.” And in church, ask any who emphasize personal salvation over social justice and vice-versa, ask those who can and those who cannot abide a fellowship that includes LGBTQ people, ask conservers of the status quo and those restless for change, whether they want conflict or peace, and all will answer peace.
The Apostle Paul hammered out the theological ideas that shaped and provoked Christian thought for two thousand years and counting in letters to native churches he planted, all embroiled in one conflict or another over what makes for peace. And none raised a ruckus more than the church in Corinth. The Corinthians feuded over whether to serve meat from livestock sacrificed at pagan shrines, whether human bodies have any part in the salvation of souls and, in turn, whether to deny our bodies in celibacy or unleash them in orgies, whether those with the gift of tongues deserve a special, elite status, and of course, over and over, the question of who is in charge. That last question often came down to whether to trust Paul’s authority, and with that controversy, Paul began his First Letter to the Corinthians.
“Chloe’s people,” her family or business associates or close friends, reported to Paul identity politics brewing in the young church among those who identified as their leader Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Christ unmediated by any human authority. All of them most assuredly believed that their chosen authority provided the sole assurance of unity in a hostile world, of readiness for eternity when Christ returns, of the peace for which everyone longs. But Paul saw the root motive.
Paul knew, as our news media and political spin doctors know, that along with our conscious desire for peace, we fixate on conflict like the positive magnetic pole to the negative, like male to female, like cat to catnip. We cannot conceive our life journey without memories and anticipations of conflict marking our spiritual territory and passages like three rivers and seven hills. The news media and political spin doctors use their insight into our conflict fixation to keep us anxiously coming back for more in vain hope for relief. But Paul used that insight for love.
What root motive underlies our paradoxical desire for peace and fixation on conflict? The root motive is unassailable security. We dream of a settled existence free of any threats to disturb our peace. That requires slam dunk power that no other power can defeat. Reason serves that purpose with air-tight argumentation for one’s claims that nobody can counterargue. Myths that ally a nation with the patronage of a warrior god serve that purpose. Identity as chosen ones who hold the truth undergirds a sense of security against all comers, a feeling of pristine peace.
Who are the comers, the enemies, against whom we must defend? Well, of course, other people with their interests, their root motives of unassailable security. The more they differ from us, the less they look like us, talk like us, play like us, believe like us, interpret like us, hope like us, and so forth, the more threatening because we cannot find enough common ground to trust that they will do unto us as they would do unto themselves. At the same time, those most like us raise threats because they may want just what we want and have similar resources to compete with us. Yet, the worst enemy lies within, the frightened inner self that cares most about us or just me, that cannot believe we have enough intelligence, faith, and worldly power to guarantee security and so drives us for more, more, more competitive power.
Paul knew that the drive for unassailable security lay at the heart of the squabble in Corinth between those who trusted his authority and those who did not. Had he addressed it by asserting his superior intelligence (and it was) and his miraculous experience of God (and it was), he would have embroiled himself in the same futile, sinful game the Corinthians played and we play in our anxious striving for unassailable security. He would have fought on the same futile terms for the same unachievable end. Not transcending the problem at all, he would have had nothing new and helpful to say, no good news at all.
So with “the mind of Christ….
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” Paul, “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross
“ (Philippians 2:5-8). Knowing that ego drives the very fixation on conflict he sought to quell, Paul’s obedience unto a death like Jesus’s death meant laying his ego aside. That freed him to offer a truth no combatant can understand, the truth of the cross, the truth that the weakness of God overcomes human strength and that the foolishness of God overwhelms human wisdom.
He stated it in the terms of the times: “
Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but 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” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
The “stumbling block to the Jews” refers to the oxymoron of a crucified Messiah. If the glory of God is so devastating in beauty and heat that God mercifully declined to let Moses see the divine face and good men fell dead if they touched the Holy of Holies, if God parts the waters, stills the sun, and lifts Elijah into heaven in a chariot of fire, no greybeard religious council or cynical secular guard will humiliate and execute God’s anointed one.
Moreover, the legal code of Deuteronomy includes this injunction: “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). From the Jewish perspective — as from any common sense religious perspective — no one so defiled and cursed as that can belong among the chosen people, much less be their Messiah.
Yet, Paul is saying that precisely through that weakest of weaknesses, from that furthest point from unassailable security, God’s power emerged in Christ, saving Israel and the world.
Then there is the wisdom of the world, represented ideally in the Greek philosophy of the Hellenizing Romans. The brilliance of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all pointed to social order along rational lines that no reasonable person could dispute. Those who did, would reasonably face the sword, or if necessary to frighten occupied onlookers into submission, the cross. Hence, the celebrated
Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, a security the unassailability of which rested on the threat of violence, the traumatic memory of men nailed exposed and dying a slow, excruciating death for disturbing the peace. Thus, Jesus died, but as the death of the Messiah exposed the unreasonableness of the high reason of the Hellenists, and as his resurrection revealed a power and a hope for peace far happier and more durable than the Roman Peace, then the cross ultimately shamed, not Jesus, but Caesar.
Yet, the conquest of human strength by divine weakness and of human wisdom by divine foolishness did not stop with Jews and Greeks. Paul had to awaken the church to this reality too. The Corinthians debated the strength and wisdom of competing leadership candidates, forgetting that their Savior changed that game when he saved them. Still we measure our lives in terms of “doing well” financially with our wits and advancing socially with charisma and marketing savvy. And we fight political and cultural cold and hot wars, forgetting that the struggle for unassailable security ended two thousand years ago on Calvary.
We are not here to win those futile battles, Paul says, the cross itself says. We are here to bear witness to the love of One who provided us with the only real security through the weakness and foolishness of God, not through the strength and wisdom of the world. So fixated are we to the struggle for unassailable security by our might and wits, that Paul spoke ceaselessly of dying with Christ, which means relinquishing our security to Christ as our fixation on conflict dies with him on the cross.
But with our minds hijacked daily by the draw of conflict and worry and scheming for advantage, needing to die day-by-day, moment-by-moment to this relentless addiction, where can we wretched fools begin? Paul gave himself as an example: Faced with denial of his authority because his eloquence did not compete well with that of Apollos, he made himself a parable of divine weakness and folly overcoming the strength and wisdom of our striving. In a flourish of rhetorical irony, Paul claimed his flaw as an advantage: “For Christ (sent me)….to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1:17).
In other words, God called Paul and us to glorify God, not call attention to ourselves. And just as God exercised ultimate saving power through a humiliated man, just as God conveyed the gospel in Corinth through a mediocre orator, so God, through grace, makes divine strength perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9), and sends the treasure of good news and true peace through earthen vessels like you and me (2 Cor 4:7 RSV). As he introduced this theme at the outset of his Corinthian correspondence, Paul said this paradox does not only apply to the crucified Messiah and the flawed preacher, but to every church member in Corinth and to you and me. He wrote:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But 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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1:26-31).
So rather than writing ourselves off as hopelessly lost and useless to God because we know our powerlessness over our addictive fight for unassailable security, we may examine ourselves and seek out our weakness, see ourselves in it as Christ would with compassion and respect, and pray for God to use it as a vessel for a gift to give others.
So in this Lenten season, search yourselves. Face your limitations, moral and spiritual. Confess your sins. Do not grovel. Do not hide from God in shame over your nakedness. Christ is your judge, and Christ already redeemed you. So contemplate your weakness in expectation that the Holy Spirit will reveal to you the strength of God, the gift to the world that God gives through you. You will find it not through your resume but through your vulnerability.
When Paul contemplated the thorn in his flesh and petitioned Christ to remove it, Christ answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Thus, Christ speaks to you and me. Listen to him. Know that your are loved and kept safely with Christ.