1 Corinthians 1.18-25
One day this summer, I got up early one morning to run on a nearby trail—the McKenzie River Trail. It is more famous as a mountain biking trail, enough that at least one national magazine proclaimed it as the “nation’s best.” On the first part of the trail, it continued to follow the road, the McKenzie Highway, and would peek back and forth. The trail wobbled back and forth between the McKenzie River and the McKenzie Highway. I would off and on see the road or hear the traffic. There were even a few sections that would bend back to go for a hundred yards just a few feet from the road. On those sections, there would be these weird moments. I would see a driver of a car driving by and we would exchange these looks. Both of us would have this look on their face of “why on earth are you over there? MY path is clearly the better one!” The drivers would look at me like I was a little crazy for running on this trail when the road seemed a pretty obvious method of transportation. And I would look at them like they were missing the point of being in nature in the first place. These moments would last just a few seconds, and then the car would zoom on and I would veer back toward the river, and quieter environs, and all would be right with the world again.
This seems like this passage in Paul is describing a similar experience. Here is Paul, describing two path. On one road, the terminus is death. “Those who are perishing.” The tense that he uses is present perfect. The English teachers and those who remember your grammar lessons know that this suggests that they are currently, willfully traveling on this road, but that they are travelling toward death. Meanwhile, there is a second path, with a very different terminus: salvation. He refers to “those who are being saved.” Likewise, those on this second path are willfully travelling it, glad to be on it. But like the McKenzie, journeyers on each of these paths think that the other one is absolutely crazy. They have lost their minds. The “death travelers” think that they are the wisest, most brilliant people on the planet, and that those on the other path are clearly the epitome of foolishness. Meanwhile, from the other trail, Paul looks at them as completely off base. For Paul, there is a way of travelling, a way of living, that accepts Christ’s leadership first and foremost as a matter of identity and direction, and in this chapter and all of his writing, it is clear that he thinks it is the ONLY way worth living.
There are two roads, says Paul, and two kinds of wisdom. This passage has been used in unfortunate ways to defend an anti-intellectualism or rejection of all wisdom, and all knowledge. That’s not what Paul is doing here. The Greek word for “wisdom” of the world is the same as the word for “wisdom” of God. Wisdom is not the problem here. What is the problem is the way that wisdom is used for a status symbol. When we wear wisdom like a badge of honor, that’s where we start to go down the wrong path. That’s what the Corinthians were doing, Paul invites us to see God’s wisdom, follow God’s path, to the life of salvation.
Not only is he working to get more people on his road of Christ-following, but he is working to enlarge that road. He goes on to talk about Greeks and Jews and how they fit into his two-road comparison. For most of the people reading this book, that is the contrast that really matters. The divisions between Greek and Jew were cultural and deep. The Jews thought that the Greeks were heretics and the Jews thought that the Greeks were foolish. But Paul takes that cultural distinction and turns it on its head.
See what he does here? He says that that OTHER road, the “death road” is populated by BOTH Greeks and Jews. That on the death road, the “wisdom of the world” road, there are Greeks who think that Jesus was a joke and a powerless fool AND there are Jews on the same road who think that Jesus was the enemy of God and preached blasphemy. The culture says that there are two kinds of people—Greek and Jew—and Paul says that either one is equally able to follow the wrong road.
Of course, there are a thousand different ways to make current day comparisons. Politics is the easiest, right? We live in a world who loves to divide by conservative and progressive. Just like the cultural divisions of Greek and Jew, the world says “pick a side.” And in the church, we do just what the world tells us. “I’m a conservative Christian.” “I’m a progressive Christian.” But I imagine that Paul would say that the road to death is filled with BOTH conservatives and progressives. I can hear Paul saying “be careful” to those who wear that modifier as a badge. “Be careful,” he might say, to those who put the cultural label of “progressive” or “conservative” before the name of Christ. Of course, that isn’t saying that we should not think about such issues or that we should be ignorant politics. But when we make the modifier, the cultural definition of wisdom, the know-it-all progressivism or conservatism of the pundits, more important than the name of Christ. Than the identity of Christ. That’s when the tail begins to wag the dog. And that’s when we lose our way.
When we follow the world into those cultural divisions, when we put those labels on ourselves or others, we run the risk of following the path of death. We follow the progressivism or the conservatism—our cultural identity—away from the path of Christ. The path of unity. We call each other foolish and without an ounce of humility, we stumble along in the way of perishing. Both sides claim that they own the path to perfection, and I imagine Paul walking into our context today and saying that when we insist on cultural identity markers, it makes us like the two people in the front seat arguing over who gets to drive, as the car careens off the edge of the cliff.
But there is a way out. A way to stay on the path toward salvation. The way of imperfection. This seems ridiculous, doesn’t it. Who signs up for imperfection? We hate imperfection. We don’t like our imperfect bodies. We don’t like our imperfect families. We don’t like our imperfect jobs. We don’t like our imperfect churches. We strive for perfection, and the enemy of perfection is imperfection. Not good enough. And so we work to rid ourselves of imperfection wherever we see it.
But Paul says that the way of path of salvation is the way of imperfection. Foolishness. Weakness. Crucifixion. Failure. Death. These are holy ways. For in our weakness, we are made strong. Totally upside down from what we are used to, isn’t it?
In fact, the Greek word that he uses for this ridiculous foolishness is “skandelon,” from which we get our word “scandal.” It is scandalous how foolish this notion is. Who signs up for imperfection?
Those who are being saved.
Those on that path willingly and willfully choose the path of imperfection. Let me explain.
One of the books that I read this summer was Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown is not a Biblical scholar, but a social science researcher who has crunched the numbers and come to basically the same conclusion as Paul: fighting over who gets to be the most perfect ends up with everyone careening off of the cliff together.
Brown has a ton of good stuff in her book, but one paragraph really strikes me as right in line with what Paul is saying here:
Perfectionism is not the same thing as self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused—what will they think?
I could spend a lifetime working that one out…and probably will. I chose to read this book because perfectionism is one of the things that I fight internally. I want to do it the right way. I have this set of Imagined Expectations in my mind that I am always trying to live up to and trying to get others to live up to. It is the “best” way, the “right” way. The way of those who are perishing. For it is in our rightness, in our perfection, that we find we no longer need God. Who needs Christ if we have it wrapped up on our own?
But look for a minute at the last line: what will they think? Isn’t that exactly what Paul is addressing here in the first chapter of Corinthians: stop paying attention to what they think. The Jews or the Greeks or the conservatives or the progressives. Or the kids at school or your parents or your Imagined Voices in Your Head that tell you that you aren’t good enough. Paul screams it off the page: Christ makes you enough. Redeemed: that’s who we are and that’s all that matters.
On my sabbatical this summer, I read several authors who encouraged me to explore imperfection. A couple of them talked about the artistic practice of Wabi Sabi. Artists in this tradition explore the nature of imperfection. Of death. Of impermanence. Of brokenness. They take pictures of dead flowers and rotten fruits. Images that are usually considered not beautiful. Not pretty.
Out of this tradition, I had a couple of books suggest that I make a list of all the “rules” that are supposed to make a photograph “pretty.” The “right” way to do it. And then, they say, go out and break all the rules. Take pictures that break all of the rules…
- Only photograph the living and vibrant
- Don’t put the subject in the middle
- Don’t put the subject on the edge
- Make sure the image is tack sharp
- Don’t let any human elements into your nature photo
- Make sure you look in the viewfinder to know what you are taking a picture of (I’ll admit that is usually a pretty good one…)
- Don’t point the camera right at the sun
It was an interesting experience, breaking all of these rules. Exploring instead of running away from imperfection. And each time I broke a rule, I felt like I was doing something wrong. But then I would start to see that there was beauty even in the brokenness. And I began to get the point of the exercise. It isn’t for us to celebrate brokenness or revel in imperfection. But the point is this:
When we can see the imperfect world as still God’s holy world, then we can see ourselves and our imperfection belonging in God’s story of grace, as well.
The story that includes the broken and the weak and the hurting and the imperfect. Then, our weakness is not a matter of embarrassment or failure. But an opportunity for God to be at work. This week, instead of counting up your failures—or the failures of others in your life—I want you to see yourself as fearfully and wonderfully made. As a part of God’s story of grace. As a critical and crucial part of God’s holy world. I want you to know that somewhere, on God’s mantle, there is a photograph of you. And when someone comes over to God’s house for tea and cookies, God points to that photograph and says, “that one’s mine.” May you know that you are that loved. May you walk the path of that love today.