The Source of Who We Are

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

The video of this service can be watched here. The sermon begins at the 39' mark.

Last week we heard about the cross—most specifically, the foolishness of the cross. The cross means nothing but good things to us. It is a positive image, and our memories of it are almost all good. But to people in the Roman Empire, the cross was an overwhelmingly negative image. It was an instrument of torture and death. People didn’t see them in churches or as sentimental pieces of jewelry. They saw hideous crosses along the roads leading out of cities, and on them hung dead and dying criminals and enemies of the Roman state. In the eyes of the world, nothing could possibly have been more foolish than to worship a crucified Savior. But that’s exactly what Christians did. So to make sense of this, God’s foolishness must indeed be wiser than human wisdom.

This morning’s scripture reading is a continuation of what we heard last week. And Paul continues this discussion in kind of an odd way. God’s foolishness is not just in choosing the cross as a symbol of victory, but also in the people God chose. That’s right, Paul reminds the Corinthians that just as the cross had an image problem in the eyes of the world, so did they. Not many of them were wise, they weren’t exactly powerful, and they were, quite frankly, common.

But what’s really challenging—at least to us—is how the mechanics of this relationship worked. In our minds, I think most of us think that we choose to believe in God, that we heard about Jesus and chose to put our trust in him. But that’s not a relationship that Paul describes. Nor do I think Paul would recognize Christianity as working quite that way.

Paul begins today’s passage by talking about calling. And I want to unpack that word, because it helps define who we are. The word translated as calling in Greek is κλησις, and if you put a prefix in front of that word that means out, you get εκκλησία—and that’s the Greek word for church. English is a Germanic language, and Germanic languages do their own thing in this area. But if you spoke Spanish or French (both Romance languages), you’d immediately recognize that your word for church was derived from this Greek word. But you probably still wouldn’t realize that the word church meant called out.

But Paul recognized this and the Corinthians would have, too. They weren’t the ones who chose to be part of this organization that believed in a crucified Savior. They were the ones who’d been called out from among others, chosen by God to be Christ’s people in the world. And to the world, the Christian God seemed to be foolish for choosing the cross as a means of salvation, and the Christian God also seemed foolish for choosing such unremarkable people to be part of the church.

So Paul’s point is this: God chose worldly foolishness to demonstrate divine wisdom, and that’s why God chose not only the cross but even the Corinthians. And so, since the Corinthians aren’t the ones who did the choosing, nor are they all that great anyway, they have nothing to brag about. And so that’s why the first chapter of 1 Corinthians ends the way it does:

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

I should note that the Greek doesn’t actually use the word source here. In fact, this translation—the NRSV—has an updated edition which says that God is why you are in Christ Jesus. Either way, the point Paul is making is that we are not self-made. We are who we are because of God. God is our reason for being, and our faith in Christ is not something we came up with ourselves.

And that’s a message we need to hear. In our culture, we value independence. And to be called a “self-made man” is a high compliment, indeed. But for those of us who believe, the Bible will always be there to remind us that we were created by God, that we were bought for a price, and that even our faith is a gift.

And deep down, we know this. Though we strive for self-sufficiency, there’s a part of us that wants to be part of something bigger, that wants to belong to something that doesn’t depend on us. One of the ways we see this is in the popularity of genealogy and even of DNA testing.

I think I told you once about my own interest in this—an interest that wasn’t rewarded with anything, well, interesting. As far as DNA goes, my ancestors appear to have come almost exclusively from the British Isles. But even more disappointing is the fact that I can’t find any connection to anybody named Greening. Thank goodness my DNA does connect me with plenty of people on my dad’s side of the family. But once you go back a couple of generations, there appears to be nothing to connect me to the family name I’ve borne my whole life long and which I thought gave me my identity.

The 87th Psalm is here to remind me of what really matters, however. We often think of religion as something that creates an us vs. them situation. And it’s easy to find passages in the Bible that support that. But the larger story of the Bible—the flow of the grand narrative—creates a different picture. It shows us a God who was revealed to one particular people, and through them has been made known to all the world. It shows us a God who invites everyone into God’s presence, and who wants to make people from every nation a part of the family.

And that’s what we see here in this psalm. It might seem odd at first—the only thing familiar about it seems to be that one line which helps give one of our hymns its name: Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God. But if we look at the psalm more deeply, we discover that it’s a celebration of God’s infinite love for all people and our equality in God’s eyes.

That’s because Psalm 87 declares not only that people of all nations are at home in the city of God, but that, as far as God is concerned, there is no difference between them and those born to that privilege. Indeed, through the power of God’s grace, everyone has a right to say they were born to it.

There are two messages for us in this. The first one is a challenge. If we are in Christ, we cannot strive for independence. Nor can we claim to be self-made. God is the source of who we are and God is the reason why we are who we are. We are called—not because of our wisdom or power or nobility, but simply because God loves us. We are evidence of the reality that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

The second message follows on this one, but it’s one of assurance. It’s the same message we hear repeated whenever we’re invited to the Lord’s Table—only more so. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you’re welcome here. But not only welcome, you belong here. You’re more than just visitors to God’s house: no longer strangers and aliens, you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. 2

Despite all our foolishness and weakness—or maybe because of it—God calls us and makes of us something new. Let us share God’s foolishness with one another, and with a world languishing in its own wisdom.
—©2023 Sam Greening

1. Let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord. (Jer. 9:24)
2. Ephesians 2:19