• Steven Marsh

Hope–Power, Status, and Hierarchy: a Reflection on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Hope assists us in dealing with conflict and disunity. As Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”[1] Somewhat of a divisive statement, until one investigates its meaning. The unifying message of the gospel, that all have been called and are loved by God, does not cause division. Then what does? Human self-interest does.

The cross created a level and egalitarian playing field for humanity. But sin, which the cross conquered, still has sway in motivating human to engage self-interest, which is often preoccupied with power, status, and hierarchy. Recall the story of “The Stonecutter.”

There was a stonecutter who lived in a small village, earned a modest income, and      lived a simple life. But he often dreamed of having a more glamorous job and living in a city, which would lead to contentment…He also wondered if having the power and glory of the king of his land would provide him meaning and significance. So, his dream was granted and he moved to a big city, because he was the king. And when he perused his kingdom and the effect of the sun on the people and how the heat impacted both people and land, the king wished he had the power of the sun and so he became the sun. He sent bright rays to the earth. He saw humans hide under sun screens. Even vegetation was dependent on him for growth. But then a cloud blocked his impact and he wished to be a cloud. And the heavens again granted his wish. And now he protected people from the negative impact of the sun’s rays and brought rain to the parched ground. Once again, he was enamored with his power until a rock remained unmoved by his power. And yes, he wished to become a rock. And that wish too was granted. As a rock, he was motionless, yet powerful. No one or nothing could move him. Until a man approached him with a bag. And the man pulled out of the bag a hammer and a chisel and began to chip away at the rock. He realized that the man was more powerful than the rock and desired to be a stonecutter. His wish was granted one last time. Once again, he lived the modest life in a simple village, making a living with a hammer and chisel. The man had found contentment.[2]

Self-interest is the anti-gospel. Arrogance cultivates separation. Elitism fosters division. And when the church behaves in such a way, the gospel is used to divide as opposed to unite. Timothy F. Sedgwick, the Clinton S. Quin Professor of Christian Ethics at Virginia Theological Seminary, writes, “Paul’s call for ‘no divisions among you’ shows the purpose of God’s work in Christ, reconciling the world and bringing peace. This is the gospel…”[3] Hope in the cross vanquishes the misuse of power, status, and hierarchy. For it is God’s power, status, and lordship, not human’s, which unites and heals division.

Did you know that in 1993 there were 405,000 places of Christian worship in the United States?[4] In 2010, according to the Hartford Institute For Religion Research, there are 350,000 places of Christian worship. The decline in number is not the point. The sheer number is and the message of division. We are united in Jesus, but are separated in application of the gospel message. Some churches are defined by ethnicity and others by interpretations of the Bible. The cynic and skeptic look on and want nothing to do with God.

The text in 1 Corinthians makes three points for our consideration in pursuing the cross as the unifying message of God’s love for all people. First, the cross displays God reconciling the world. The cross represents new life, a life characterized by unity.  Second, unity is learned, but applied when lived. Jesus, one with the Father and the Spirit, unites us with him through faith. But, affirming our union with Christ intellectually is one thing, and another thing when lived, that is being the best Jesus others encounter. And third, unity is a way of life that is rooted in the cross. In other words, sacrifice ensures the relinquishment of power, status, and hierarchy for the sake of others. Again, Sedgwick writes, “Only as we see a way of life, only as the story of Christ is told as an invitation to new life, only as Christian faith is spiritual wisdom and not pseudoscience, will the power of the gospel be heard.”[5]

God’s acting in Jesus makes the hope of salvation real in that it breaks down power, status, and hierarchy. Hope, believing that God will do what God has promised, demands we live in the present. As Martin Thielen writes, “Contented people focus on living in the present moment.”[6] Power, status, and hierarchy undermine hope. Hope that is undermined leads to division, not unity. The Bible teaches that hope breaks down the human tendency to seek power, status, and hierarchy, because hope is focused on what God has promised in Jesus that humanity will be restored and reconciled to God. Living in the present celebrates what Jesus has done for us. Thus, what power we don’t have, status we wish we had, or where we are placed in hierarchical structures diminishes in importance. Contentment unites us in God’s mind and purpose to reconcile all things and people in Jesus to God.

[1]1 Corinthians 1:18

[2]“The Stonecutter” was adapted from its telling in Martin Thielen, Searching For Happiness (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 56-57.

[3]Timothy F. Sedgwick in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 278.

[4]Taken from Joanne O’Brien and Martin Palmer, The State of Religion Atlas (Simon and Schuster, 1993) as found on www.preachingtoday.com.

[5]Timothy F. Sedgwick in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume, 282.

[6]Martin Thielen, Searching For Happiness, 56.

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