The Perfect Text For Super Bowl Sunday
Today is a uniquely American holiday. It's what we Americans love best: football and champions. This year the Church Year calendar has cooperated and given us the perfect text. The perfect one, that is, to expose our wretchedness and our only hope of righteousness.
This text from I Corinthians 1 is offensive to the world and our own sinful flesh. In the world number 1's rule, don't they? Who goes around shouting we're number two? Do you know what the correct answer is to who came in second at last year's Super Bowl? Who cares? Can anyone tell me who was the first runner up at last year's Miss America pageant? Who took second place at the Daytona 500? Who is the second strongest person in the world? America is in love with winners not losers, and any place other than first place is a losing place.
Another theme you will hear today if you watch the interviews with players is that you've got to believe in yourself. America is in love with believing in yourself. Watch Disney movies, and you will virtually always hear this: You've got to believe in yourself; the answer is inside of yourself. The power is inside of you.
Americans love number ones and love to believe in themselves. Can you see then why this text is so very offensive? Whom does it specifically say God called, God chose? Not number 1's, unless you think number 1's are foolish, weak and despised. There it is in black and white: God didn't chose the first, the best, the strongest, the wisest, the fastest, but the lowly things of this world. God chooses the Dallas Cowboys of the world not the St. Louis Rams. God chooses the Ryan Leifs of the world not the Kurt Warners.
Actually, the text says, "God chose the things that are not." God chose the nothings of this world. How offensive that is to the world and our flesh. If we want to really hurt someone, we say, "You mean nothing to me." If we want to really criticize what someone has done we say, "That's nothing." When we're really down and out in our mid-life, mid-twenties, or late seventies crises we say to ourselves, "I've accomplished nothing." Yet God says nothing is what He chooses.
You can easily see why this text is offensive to the world and sinful flesh, but this text is offensive in the church too. Some in the church tone down what God clearly says in this text. They say, "Yes, God chooses what is nothing but then He makes us something." This is where the translation in our bulletin comes from, "Think of what you WERE when you WERE called." You were at one time not wise by human standards, not influential, and not of noble birth, but then God got a hold of you!
Of the newer translations, the only one I found that didn't put a "were" where there should be an "are" is the Beck Bible. It translates, " Not many of you are wise as the world judges, not many in positions of power, not many born of noble parents." When the Beck Bible was revised by conservative Lutherans in the late 80's, they kept the present tense "are," but when the project was taken over by others, they put in "were." Even some in the church can't deal with the thought that we are foolish, weak, despised and nothing.
The church has been infected by the wisdom of the world. You see this in the Collect for today as well. We prayed there, "Almighty God, because you know that we are set among so many and great dangers that by reason of the weakness of our fallen nature we cannot always stand upright, grant us your strength and protection." That's not what this Collect originally said. When it was written in the 600's it said, "We cannot at any time stand upright." That's how it appears in Luther's Collects as well. The problem is not that we can't ALWAYS stand upright. No, the problem is that "we cannot at any time stand upright." So who changed it? Who made this tip of the hat to the power of fallen sinners? Who didn't want to make Christians appear as weak and lowly as they really are? Queen Elizabeth of the Anglican Church; she added the "always" in 1558.
I don't know whether I should say this next part. It hits a little too close to home. It is not just that some in the church have problems with this text, I do. I run up against this text when dealing with my kids. Don't I want them to believe in themselves? Do I want them walking around like Pig Pen of the Peanuts cartoon with a persistent negative image of themselves? Doesn't all the world, and I do mean ALL, tell me that low self esteem will kill them? This is my conundrum: If I teach them to believe in themselves and I have raised them as Christians, then I am teaching them to believe in what is foolish, weak, despised and nothing. I am teaching my kids to believe in nothing if I teach them to believe in themselves IF I believe that God chooses what is nothing in this world.
Even this is not the end of the trouble this text gives me. It troubles me not just in kid raising but in my own life. I forever trip over this part: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." I never boast in the Lord, I mean never. I boast in me, what I think, what I do, what I've accomplished. Even in my daydreaming, it always comes down to ME and ME winning. It comes down to me being acclaimed by the world as wise; me being influential; me being noble. O to be sure God helps me do all this, but it's always me up there on stage accepting the accolades.
In 2 Corinthians Paul too boasts. The Corinthian false teachers goaded him into it. Those false teachers boast of precisely the kind of things I daydream about. What they've accomplished for Jesus. How does Paul respond? He boasts of being whipped, shipwrecked, sleepless, hungry, thirsty and weak. Finally, Paul comes to his crowning boast. The crowning thing for a Roman man to be able to boast about was that he was first one over a city wall in a battle. Do you know what Paul boasts of? Having to flee for his life out of the City of Damascus by hiding in a basket and being let down through a widow in the city wall. St. Paul boasts in his flesh only of losing, humiliation and suffering. This Paul boasts of winning, pride, and overcoming.
This text offends me no less than it does the world and some in the church, but while this text offends my flesh, my world and some in the church, it defends the saints. You see, my friends in Christ, some day no matter our accomplishments in this life, no matter our victories, and our number 1's, we are going to end up feeling foolish, weak, despised and nothing. Some tragedy, some disaster, some disease will show us our foolishness, our weakness, and we are going to feel despised and as nothing. No boasting of mine will be effective against that. No believing in myself will help because believing in what I've come to know is nothing is not comforting or helpful.
This text is protecting us against that day. Paul opens by telling us literally, to "look at the call of us." To know what Paul is referring to you have to go back to the opening two verses of this letter. He says there that he, Paul, called an apostle of Christ Jesus, is writing to the Church of God in Corinth being sanctified in Christ Jesus, CALLED saints." Paul doesn't say, as it is often translated, that they were "called to be saints" which immediately would throw them back on themselves and what they do or don't do that is un-saintlike. No, Paul in our text turns us back to the fact that Christ Jesus called us saints.
Imagine that. Christ called me saint who am not wise by human standards, not influential, not noble. Christ called me a saint even though I'm foolish, weak, despised, and nothing. Yea, Christ called me a saint even though I'm a sinner. Christ called me holy even though I'm unholy. Christ called me alive even though I'm dead. Christ called me not guilty even though I am.
Go back to that call people of God. Go back to what God says you are not to what you think you are, feel you are, or even look like you are. Think of the joy of this when you find yourself flat on your back having to suffer the indignities of modern medicine. You will have tubes going in and out of you. You will have someone caring for your bodily needs as you once did for children. O the humiliation of it all. How weak you will feel, how despised you will feel, how foolish you will feel, how like nothing you will feel. But wait a minute: Christ calls me a saint. I am holy, righteous, forgiven and alive eternally. All that is happening to my flesh doesn't change what Christ Jesus has said about me.
It works the same way if grievous sin is what brings you to feel weak, despised, foolish and nothing. How can you ever face those you've sinned against? How can you ever face yourself in the mirror? But wait; Christ calls me saint. God called Jesus sinner, so He might call me saint. What God calls something that is what it is. When God called Christ not just sinner, but sin itself on the cross, that is what He was. Therefore, Christ suffered, was tortured, was damned right then and there in place of us. On the other hand, He calls sinful you saint. Therefore you're forgiven, loved, and saved. It is not your feelings, your guilt, or your conscience that counts; it is God's word, and God's Word calls you saint.
And this call of God is not out of us. The bulletin says, "It is because of Him (i.e. God) that you are in Christ Jesus." Literally, and I might add, more graphically the Greek says, "Out of God you are in Christ Jesus." It is not your piety that got you baptized. It is not your holy life that got you forgiven. It is not your good works or religious zeal that got you the status of saint. It was not your decision, choice, or even faith. It is out of God that you are in Christ Jesus. You are not going to feel very pious some day. You won't feel very holy or zealous. You are going to be sure your good works are way too few and that your faith is way too weak. That's when you need to recall that you are not in Christ Jesus out of anything you've done but solely out of God. What comes from God is firm and certain.
This text is meant to defend our sainthood. It boldly tells us that the answer to our problems, our fears, our sins is not inside of us. And you know that, don't you? You look inside and what do you see? Sin, doubt, more fear, more problems, no help. And what should we expect if we are foolish, weak, despised and nothing? But outside of us is another story. There we have the activity of God. His calling, His choosing, His Christ. And what does Paul say Christ is to us? Our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Look as you may and these things will never be inside of you. But look there at that font, at this Word, and on that altar and there you will see Christ in Water, Words, Bread and Wine. Where Christ is there is your righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Don't be surprised that you can't find these things in yourself. You're not suppose to. God has kept them safe outside of you in Christ.
Yes, America loves number 1's and champions, but God loves Christ and those baptized into Him, absolved by Him, or fed by Him. Have you been baptized? Have you been absolved? Have you been fed? Then rest assured you are loved by God regardless of how foolish, weak, or despised you are in the eyes of others or yourself. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany IV (2-3-02) I Corinthians 1:26-31