Mark Twain said “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplish things, and people who claim to have accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”
In Corinth, the members of the church believed that there were two types of people in the world. And, similarly to Mark Twain, they thought that these two types were those who had accomplished things, and those who hadn't. They then applied this to the church – those who belonged to Paul were accomplished; the others were not. Or those who belonged to Apollos were something, while everyone else was nothing.
But in our passage Paul challenges these divisions. He says that there are indeed two types of people in the world, but they are not the types which the Corinthians thought. People can either be in the world or they can be in Christ. And in setting out these two options, he shows the Corinthian Christians that they are in danger of mixing the two up.
So what are the characteristics of those in the world? In their own eyes, they are wise, they are powerful, they are strong. They know how to debate, how to write, how to argue. They are the educated elite, either by birth or by education. And they would prove their superiority by gathering disciples around them, who hung on their every word and denigrated others who might challenge the supremacy of their own teacher.
And in such an environment, what was the response of the church in Corinth? Well, as has already been said, they were in danger of succumbing to this vision of life. They had divided up into their little groups – one around Paul, one around Apollos, one around Peter. They argued among themselves over which leader was better, which had done the most baptisms, which was the more eloquent speaker. And of course, they managed to discern such things because of their wisdom, their noble birth, their strength. In short, the church in Corinth, started by Paul only a couple of years beforehand, had made itself invisible, merging with the surrounding culture.
But before we judge them too harshly, what was the underlying problem? Why had they so quickly sunk back to their pre-Christian lives? It seems that the people around them simply laughed at their new faith. What kind of stupidity was it to claim that a man had been raised from the dead? Everyone knows that kind of thing did not happen. And he isn't even here now to tell you! He has to send some other messengers (who, by the way, are nowhere near as skilful as our own speakers) and even they don't stay around for long. What kind of fool listens to such rubbish?
Perhaps the Corinthians started their slide with good intentions. They wanted to engage with the culture. They wanted to speak to people in a way they would understand. But time and again they met with mockery – however you say it, resurrection from the dead is stupid. And so they moved a little further. Maybe the fault was Paul's. After all, he wasn't that good a speaker. Perhaps someone with greater gifts would make an impact. Perhaps we need that new evangelist, the one everyone is talking about. Perhaps we need a new style, a new approach. Maybe that will make the difference. And so, slowly but surely, they moved from being the church to being the culture. They went from being in Christ, to being in the world.
So what are the marks of being in Christ? What had the Corinthians lost that Paul believed was so vital for their identity? The foundation of it all was their calling. In verse 26 Paul pleads with them to “consider their calling”. Think about where you came from. Think about what you were before you knew Christ. You were weak, you were foolish, you were not of noble birth. BUT GOD CHOSE YOU. In fact, Paul goes further. God's very plan and intention was to choose such weak nothings in order to demonstrate his own wisdom. The message of Christ crucified, we learn in verse 24, is transformed to those who are called. Both Jews and Gentiles mock it for its apparent foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power and wisdom of God.
Paul goes along with the world's assessment of the Corinthians. You are foolish, he says. You are weak. In fact, you are nothing – you are low and despised. But you are chosen by God for precisely those reasons. So if, Corinthians, you try to make yourselves wise and strong and loved and something, you will take away the very foundations of your election. God has a purpose for the church and it rests on there being nothing intrinsic to it which can be boasted about. Instead, it relies on the people being in Christ. Christ is the wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption of the church. Christ is the one who builds the church. Christ is the one who gives growth and maturity.
What do we depend on? When we look at the church and when we look at the world, which do we want to change? The church or the world? When we seek for power, wisdom, strength, where do we turn? To Christ or to the world?
Consider your calling. This might be more difficult for us. After all, we are in Corinth. We are in a place of learning, one of the world's leading education centres. We are surrounded by books, by professors, by PhDs, by degrees. And we are benefiting from much of what the world has to offer us in this regard. But are we tempted by it? Do we put our trust in our exam results, in our reading, in our intelligence?
John Wesley and George Whitefield were also Oxford-educated. They also had good upbringings. They also got ordained. Whitefield began to preach in the open air and encouraged Wesley to do the same. This is the account of how Wesley eventually came to do so:
Hearing of John Wesley's difficulties, Whitefield invited him to join him in Bristol in field preaching. At first John was reluctant, as he had been brought up to believe that the only appropriate place to preach the gospel was in church. But, being the pragmatist he was, John, as he put it, submitted to become more vile and lifted his voice in the open air to a crowd of coal miners in Bristol on the 31st March, 1739.
What will we do? Paul gives immense freedom here – the message we have is already foolishness to the world. Wesley realised that a foolish message does not require an appropriate environment. Will we submit to become more vile for the sake of Christ?