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1 Corinthians: The Church the World Needs: The Power of Weakness
1 Corinthians 1:26 - 2:5
October 3, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of our church, we focus on the importance of humbling ourselves before the Lord and letting God use us in unexpected ways. This sermon discusses how God’s power is made stronger in our weakness, and we also discuss Central’s plans for the future as we seek to help build stronger churches throughout the city and in our world.
View Sermon Transcript
Happy 200th Central! We’re here today not only to mark the 200th anniversary of Central’s founding, but also to celebrate the dramatic work of renewal that God has wrought in our midst over the last 15 years or so. If you’re joining us for the first time, what you need to know is that in 1818, there was a young man named William Patton, 20 years old, who graduated from Middlebury College and enrolled as a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. The Second Great Awakening was now underway. Patton was anxious to jump into the work, so he dropped out of seminary after two years and moved to New York City because he wanted to start a church. The more things change, the more they stay the same. This church, like all good church plants, apparently started out in a school. Patton rented a school room on Mulberry Street, at his own expense, and began preaching to a small handful of people. After one year, a new church was ready to be born. On January 8, 1821, Patton and his wife invited a few friends into their home on Elm Street and officially founded Central Presbyterian Church after praying together. Then one month later, it was officially incorporated as a religious body in the state of New York. The church grew quickly. One year later, the church was ready to build its first building on Broome Street, which opened in 1822.
We’ve learned a lot about William Patton over the years. We know that he was obviously an energizing young pastor. He was a committed abolitionist. He wrote several works on revival. We even found one of his old sermons from 1826, in which he preached on the strategic importance of the conversion of cities—cities like New York. During the 13 years that he served as the senior pastor of Central, 859 people eventually joined the church, and 564 of those 859 people joined the church upon profession of faith, which means those 564 people were not just church swapping, but they became Christians through the church’s ministry. That is what you call a movement of the Spirit.
We have this incredible legacy. Yet, despite Central’s storied history, it went through a period of substantial decline during the back half of the 20th century as a result of significant theological drift, poor leadership, and financial mismanagement. By the early 2000s, the church had dwindled down in size to next to nothing. There was no viable congregation, no permanent pastor, no future. The gospel of Jesus Christ was not proclaimed from this pulpit, and the building itself was literally falling apart. At times it seemed as if the church was tottering on the brink of collapse. At one point, they thought they might need to shut its doors because the church could not even pay the electric bill. That was all before the miracle took place.
I’m a Presbyterian, so I don’t use the word miracle lightly, but if you knew the whole story, you would agree that the fact that we are here at all is nothing short of a miracle of God’s grace and power. Our story just goes to show what happens to a church when it forgets why it exists. This is precisely what happened 2,000 years ago, in the Greek city of Corinth. The Apostle Paul traveled to Corinth around the year 50 AD, and without question, it was the largest, most impressive city that the Apostle Paul had yet encountered. Undoubtedly, the city overwhelmed him. Corinth was the original Sin City. Whatever happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth. You could think of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as his first letter to Las Vegas. Yet, despite its reputation, and to the Apostle Paul’s own surprise, large numbers of people in Corinth received his message. They became Christians. They put their faith in Jesus, and that is how the church in Corinth was born. Not unlike our own story.
After Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, he sailed across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus and that is when the trouble started. While he was in Ephesus, Paul receives news from Corinth that the church is now falling apart. People have split into factions. They’re developing these cults of personality. They’re abusing their spiritual gifts. They’re doing whatever they want because they figure, well, we’re free in Christ, who cares? We’ve got license to do anything we desire. As a result of all of this, despite its strong beginning, the church had lost its way. It forgot why it existed, and it was in danger of going under.
The Apostle Paul dashes off a letter from Ephesus to Corinth—this letter, which we now know as the first letter to the Corinthians. He writes this letter in order to help turn the church around. The way in which he does so is by reminding the Corinthians, first and foremost, who they are. He reminds them of who they are. Here’s what I love about this letter. This letter clearly shows us that if God can turn around a failing church, like the church in Corinth in Paul’s day, then he can do it again. He can do it again in our own day, but not in the way that you might think.
Here’s the question I want you to consider. What is God’s strategy for strengthening a struggling church? What is God’s strategy for strengthening a struggling church? The answer is weakness. It’s not what you might think, but here in his letter to the Corinthians, we see that God’s strategy is to offer a weak message that is delivered through a weak person to a weak audience. You might think to yourself, well, that doesn’t sound very promising. Just wait. Watch and see what happens.
Let me invite you to open up a Bible or you can follow along in our program. I’ll be reading from 1 Corinthians 1:26-2:5:
26For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
This is God’s word. It’s trustworthy, and it’s true, and it’s given to us in love.
A Weak Message
It's hard to imagine what it must have first been like for Paul to travel to the Greek city of Corinth, and then to start telling people about Jesus. As we've seen, people from a Jewish background were looking for power. They were longing for a messiah, but they were hoping for a political messiah—someone who would drive the Romans out of Palestine and make Israel a great nation again. If people from a Jewish background were looking for power, people from a Greek background were looking for wisdom. They were longing for wisdom to answer life's questions. Wisdom for them meant smart, erudite, philosophical arguments, but here's Paul strolling into the city of Corinth. He starts telling them about how God has become a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, but then this man went off and got himself killed by the Romans. Think about that. That does not sound powerful or wise. That sounds pathetic and stupid. Yet, that is the message that Paul proclaims. That is the message that the Corinthian Christians first received. That's how they put their faith in Jesus. That's how they became Christians. That is how the church in Corinth was born, but now the church is in danger of going off the rails. So Paul seeks to recenter the church on Jesus Christ, and he does so by reminding them that when he came to them in the first place, he did not try to dazzle them with rhetoric, but instead he says in chapter two, verse two, “For I decided to know nothing.” “I decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
We may be so familiar with the Christian message—the message of the cross—that we may fail to realize how shocking and how offensive of a message this would have been in the ancient world. Crucifixions happened all the time. People were very familiar with them, but they never talked about them because a crucifixion was considered to be so disgusting, so degrading, that you would never talk about a crucifixion in polite company. It would be like talking about the intimate details of torture at an elegant dinner party. This is just not something that you would do. Yet Paul says that this was the focal point of his message. “I decided to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” He talked about how the Romans took Jesus, they beat him to a pulp, and then they hung him up on a tree. Imagine what it must have been like for those first listeners. Imagine how shocked they must have been. Imagine the questions that must have swirled through their minds. Are you honestly telling us, Paul, that you are basing your whole entire life upon a man who has executed like a common criminal in ignominy and shame? Treated like less than a dog, killed on top of a garbage heap at the wrong end of the Empire? You're basing your whole life on that and you expect us to believe that this man, this person is actually God, and you want us to worship him? Are you out of your mind?
One of the first depictions of the early Christian movement that we have in art is actually a form of graffiti scribbled on a wall. In this image, we see a man with the head of a donkey hanging on a cross. The mocking caption underneath the image reads, “Alex worships his God.” The thought that God would die on a cross, like a slave, was completely insane. Yet, Paul says this was his message. It would have sounded not powerful and wise, but incredibly pathetic and stupid.
A Weak Speaker
Not only was Paul's message weak, but he tells us that it was delivered by a weak speaker. It would be one thing if this message was kind of embarrassing, but Paul made up for it by wowing the crowds with his soaring presentation that was sophisticated and polished. But by his own admission, Paul tells us that he had gained a reputation for being a rather terrible public speaker. He was a terrible public speaker. He tells us in this very passage, that when he entered this intimidating city of Corinth, he came in weakness and in fear, with much trembling. We all know it's awkward to listen to someone speaking publicly when they're not very good at it. We feel a little embarrassed for them. We might root for them, but it's uncomfortable. Paul tells us that when he told the Corinthians about Jesus and his cross, he was just a bundle of nerves. He was shaky. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence. That's not the kind of self assured leaders that we typically look for today.
We know that Paul possessed a massive intellect, but he also suffered from all kinds of physical problems and was often subjected to strong feelings of near despair and despondency because of the many trials that he faced in life. We also know, according to a second century tradition, that Paul was small, ugly and unattractive with a bald head and bowed legs. Apparently Paul was not much to look at or to listen to. Later, the Corinthians will complain about Paul. Turn to 2 Corinthians 10:10, they say of Paul, well, he can write a strong letter, but his physical appearance is nothing to look at. It's weak and unimpressive. Then they say his speech is contemptible. That's a strong word. Your public speaking ability is contemptible. That doesn't just mean bad. That means let's get the rotten tomatoes and throw them at him, let's drag him off the stage with our boos. That's how bad he was, but it doesn't matter. While his physical presence was weak and unimpressive, and his speech was contemptible, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:1, that he came not proclaiming the testimony of God with lofty speech, or with clever words. In other words, it wasn't a performance. He wasn't trying to tickle the ears of his listeners. Instead, he made a deliberate choice to speak in a plain and unaffected way in order to let the words of his message speak for themselves.
A Weak Audience
Paul is a weak speaker, who delivers a weak message, but then he tells us that it was received by a weak audience. He begins the section in v.26, by addressing the Christians in Corinth, as "brothers" or as "brothers and sisters," or maybe even a better translation might be "my dear Christian family." Then he says, “consider your calling.” Consider your calling, which for Paul is another way of speaking of their conversion. Speak about when God first called you into relationship with himself. Not many of you were intellectuals. Not many of you held positions of influence. Not many of you were people of high status, and yet God called you! God called you of all people into his royal family. He made you his sons and his daughters, which just goes to show that God reverses all of our expectations about what and who he values. God chooses nobodies and makes them somebodies in order to bring to nothing those who think that they are something. Not many of you were intellectuals. Not many of you were in positions of influence. Not many of you are people of high status. How does that come across here in New York? You might be thinking, well, this is New York City, and what if you are an intellectual? What if you are a person of influence? What if you are a person of status?
Let me tell you a story about a woman named Selena Hastings, who was of noble birth. She was the Countess of Huntingdon in England. She was a Christian, who lived during the 18th century. She was friends with John Wesley and George Whitefield. She committed herself to the work of the gospel during the first great awakening. She made it her mission to try to bring the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified to people in the upper class in England during that time. At one point, Selena hasting said, "I thank God for the letter M in the word many," because notice what Paul says. Paul does not write that any of you were wise, or powerful or noble, but not many. There were a few exceptions to the rule. We know that that’s the case. We know that Crispus, for example, was the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth, and he became a Christian. We know that Paul's friends, Aquila and Priscilla, ran a business that was so successful that their travels took them all over the Mediterranean world. We know from Paul's letter to the Romans, which he wrote from the city of Corinth, that Erastus was the city treasurer, and that a man named Gaius was so wealthy, that he could show hospitality to the entire church. There's plenty of exceptions to the rule. God doesn't show favoritism. God doesn't show favoritism for or against the wealthy and the wise, but on the whole, not many, not many, were especially prominent. Why is that? Well, it's because of how the gospel works.
The gospel reverses all of our expectations about what is truly valuable, and as a result of that the gospel forms a community that is unlike any other social group, and unlike any other religion in the world. Religion by and large says, the good are in and the bad are out, which basically reduces religion to moral performance. Secular groups, by contrast, would say the accepting are in, and the intolerant are out, which really means that we'll be accepting and open minded as long as you accept that there's only one way to be open-minded. The gospels are altogether different because what the gospel says is that the humble are in and the proud are out. The only way to enter into the kingdom of God is to recognize that you need a savior, and part of the reason why it's so hard for the wise, and the powerful, and the influential to enter into the kingdom is because they don't think they need a savior. They think that they already have everything they require for a good life. But you see, if you really hear the message of the gospel, you recognize that the only thing standing between you and Jesus is your pride. That's the only thing standing in the way. That's why the gospel tells us the humble are in but the proud are out.
What is God's strategy for strengthening a struggling church? It's not what you would think. It is weakness. God offers a weak message, communicated through weak instruments, and received by a weak audience. Why? Because God's power is made perfect in weakness. God's power is made perfect in weakness. That's why Paul says in v.4-5, that “my speech and my message, were not implausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” Despite the fact that his message would have seemed so pathetic and stupid when it was proclaimed, the people in Corinth experienced the supernatural power of God. There's no other way to explain it. The Spirit of God was unleashed in their midst and unleashed in their lives because of the simple, unadulterated message of Jesus Christ, and him crucified. There is power in the proclamation. Paul says the same thing in the opening chapter in his letter to the Romans. He says that the gospel does not merely contain; it does not merely reveal, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God. It is the power of God unto salvation for all who would believe. It doesn't just contain power; it is power. As crazy as it might sound, and as inarticulately as it might be expressed, when it is announced, the gospel changes things. It changes things. When the simple, unadulterated message of the gospel is proclaimed, people discover their lives are changed. When they receive it for themselves, their relationships are no longer the same. Their whole way of being and acting in the world is transformed. They discover that the truth of the gospel stands out to them. They embrace it, despite everything that they might have previously thought. They find themselves falling in love with a God who has made himself known in Jesus and willing to give their ultimate allegiance to him, no matter what the cost. The only way to explain it is that the message of the gospel is accompanied by the supernatural work of God's Spirit, leaving us with nothing to boast about. It's all God's grace to us from beginning to end, from start to finish. God's power is showcased in human weakness, and therefore the more we humble ourselves, the more likely we are to see it. God's power is made perfect in weakness. That's what happened in Corinth, and I have to tell you that’s also what happened here in this church.
Over the last 15 years, we have seen a dramatic movement of God's Spirit because beginning 15 years ago or so, a small but very committed group of people began attending this church in an attempt to turn the church around by recentering it on this historic gospel message: Christ and him crucified. Remarkably, God blessed their efforts. He blessed their efforts through the initial leadership of Howard and Trisha Edington and then Doug and Virginia Webster. He blessed their efforts through the worship ministry of Seth and Amber Ward. He blessed their efforts through the hospitality ministry of Claudette Chan and Dominic Wong. Doors that should never have opened or closed from a human point of view opened and closed, which made it possible for the church to move forward and to burst back to new life so that now the gospel is sounding forth from this place in ways that none of us would have ever imagined for all the world to see and to hear.
Over the years, many people have asked me, how exactly did this happen? What was the secret? Of course, there's many things that we could say that we have done over that time period. We worked hard, and we prayed even harder. We deliberated, and we strategized. We thought through the issues. We received wise advice from countless experts. But even if you do everything right in terms of execution, there is no renewal without Jesus. If you take your eyes off of Jesus, you're sunk. But if you fix your gaze on Jesus, then that's when things begin to move. From the start of Central's transformation, we have made it our aim to know nothing else, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. That's the only reason why we're here today. That's the only reason why this church is still in existence.
That is why on this momentous occasion as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Central's founding, and as we unveiled last night, we are launching a new initiative, which we have called “Resound Project.” Our vision is to strengthen churches for a changing world. We put together a storybook, which outlines our vision for this project and how you can be involved. We here at Central, we don't claim to have any of the definitive answers, or solutions to the problems that confront the church in our world today, but we do know that the church once more needs to be strengthened. We don't just need larger churches or more churches, we need stronger churches. We need stronger, more resilient churches in order to make a positive difference in our world. Therefore, our leaders sense a keen responsibility to share our experiences, our resources, our relationships, to do what we can with the time that we have to help strengthen other churches in other places for the sake of the broader kingdom of God.
You might be wondering, OK. Well great, but what does this have to do with me? Let me share with you an image that I first shared last night at our celebration. If you've been coming here for any length of time, you've probably heard me repeat the saying that the church is not a museum for saints—thank God—but it is a hospital for sinners. That is what the church is supposed to be—a hospital for sinners. Over the last 15 years, that is how Central has operated, but there are different kinds of hospitals. In the early days, Central functioned a little bit more like a field hospital. We were engaged in a conflict. We were trying to turn things around. We didn't have very many people. We had very limited resources, so we did the best we could to bandage up the wounded and then get them back out onto the field so that we could continue marching forward. As time went on, we found the ground underneath our feet. The situation stabilized and therefore, we were able to move out of this chaotic startup phase and become a more mature organization. You could say we moved from being a field hospital to a community hospital. We became a healthier functioning body that could meet the needs of our congregation and the surrounding community. Now as we consider the next stage in our development as a church, I think we need to transform ourselves once more from being a community hospital to a teaching hospital. From the very days we've never seen ourselves as a church that exists merely for itself, but rather for the good of others, and especially for those who do not yet believe. Now, you go to any one of those hospitals for healing, but a teaching hospital is different because a teaching hospital doesn't merely meet the needs of its own community, but also seeks to be a resource to other communities far and wide. It sets its eye not only on the immediate present, but also the future. The goal is to help train future generations.
We believe that our story positions us to serve. We can function as a teaching hospital in ways that we have long envisioned. Though you won't see very many changes at first, give it a little time, we are currently putting down the tracks. It won't be long before this train will pull into the station and Central will be buzzing with kingdom-centered activity, and we all will have an opportunity to be a part of it. But through it all, our singular focus will remain on Jesus Christ and him crucified.
That does beg the question, doesn't it? Why did the Apostle Paul focus so much on the cross? Does that imply that when he was in Corinth, he didn't actually talk about the resurrection? We know that he did, because if you scroll forward to chapter 15 of his letter to the Corinthians, it's all about what he had told them previously about the resurrection. So why this focus, why this emphasis on the cross? He did the same thing when he was in Galatia. He reminds the Galatians later that when he was among them, it was before their very eyes that Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. What does that mean? Jesus wasn't crucified before their eyes in Asia Minor. He was crucified in Palestine, in Jerusalem. So what did Paul mean? He meant that he proclaimed the crucifixion of Jesus so powerfully, so vividly, it was as if they had been there. It was as if they had seen it with their own eyes. It was as if they had seen the crown of thorns digging into Jesus's scalp. It was as if they watch the nails being driven through his arms and legs. It was as if they had seen the spear pierce his side.
Yet, even so, what's the big deal? Crucifixions were a dime a dozen in the ancient world. Thousands of people were crucified. What made this crucifixion different? What made the crucifixion of Jesus different is that though thousands of people might have been crucified, only one man willingly let it happen to him when he had the power to stop it. What made the crucifixion of Jesus special is that it should have been you. It should have been you. Let that sink into your heart and into your imagination. The cross of Christ gives us a cosmic picture of what every sin deserves. Every sin deserves to be destroyed. Jesus was not a helpless victim crushed underneath the wheel of the Roman machine. No, Jesus was not a victim. He's a savior. Jesus willingly went to the cross because he substituted himself for you. He took your place. He was destroyed, so that you might live and he did it all by sheer grace. He didn't do it because you deserved it. No, in fact, you deserve the opposite. It's all a gift from beginning to end, from start to finish. Therefore, we have nothing to boast in. The only thing that we can boast in is in Christ our Lord who was crucified on our behalf, in our place. He did it all out of love. If you have him, if you are in Christ, then you have everything you now need, because Christ becomes for you the wisdom of God. He is your righteousness, your sanctification, your redemption. In other words, he is your past, your present, your future. Jesus is somebody who became a nobody in order to make a nobody like you somebody. If that doesn't make you feel like something then nothing ever will.
Let me pray for us.
Father God, we thank you that we can celebrate this, the 200th anniversary of the founding of Central Presbyterian Church. As we move forward into the next 200 years of gospel ministry in New York and beyond, we pray that the gospel would resound from our lives, from our church, from our building, from our community, from our mission to the world, and that you would allow the gospel to echo and reverberate among communities all over this country so that in some small way, your people, your church, might make a positive difference in our time. We pray that through it all you would give us the grace to make sure that we know nothing, know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. To God alone be the glory. Amen.