Broken Body Language
1 Cor 1:10-18; Matt 4:12-23
by Isaac Villegas
January 26, 2014
The verses we heard from I Corinthians are bad news for preachers. We’re told that all the work that goes into crafting a clever sermon — the revising, the editing, the memorizing, the public speaking exercises — all of it is a waste of time. The apostle Paul makes it plain: “Christ sent me to proclaim the gospel,” he writes, “not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” For Paul, eloquent speech is a waste, wasted rhetoric, wasted word craft. Better to preach the gospel, to proclaim the good news, without cleverness, without the tricks of the trade. Make it plain. Keep it simple. Boring is better— no story telling, no sermon illustrations, no gestures, no fluff, just the gospel in monotone.[i]
Apparently there’s a lot of fluffy preaching going on in the congregation at Corinth. Those are the rumors that reach Paul while he’s in Ephesus, a 180-mile boat ride from Corinth. Paul started the congregation in Corinth, but he heard God’s call to go elsewhere, yet he still cares about the people he left behind, he still thinks about them, prays for them, and writes letters to guide them as they grow, as they struggle. Soon after he leaves Corinth, someone else comes along: more entertaining and better looking than Paul, with words like syrup, sugary sweet — an eloquent wordsmith, who knew how to inflect his words, how to sing them, from memory. His name is Apollos.
We can see that he’s probably a bigger problem than Paul’s letting on by the way Paul repeats his name in the letter to Corinth. As any psychotherapist will let you know: pay attention to the repetitions, because they let know that something more is going on, a repression, an anxiety. Paul names Apollos in our passage, quoting someone else from the Corinthian congregation: “Some say, ‘I belong to Apollos” (1:12). Then again in chapter 3: “For one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos’ ” (3:4). In the next chapter, chapter 4, Paul comes back to him again: “I have applied all this to Apollos and myself for your benefit” (4:6). Each time, Paul mentions Apollos in passing, without saying much. We can tell that Paul is worried about him, but Paul doesn’t tell us why exactly.[ii]
The book of Acts fills out our portrait of Apollos. In Acts, chapter 18, we hear about this new preacher on the Christian scene. He’s not a bad person. He means well. But, bless his heart, he’s just mistaken about a lot. Nonetheless, he gathers a crowd when he speaks because he’s a gifted speaker, silver-tongued — “an eloquent man,” it says in Acts, “well-versed in the scriptures.” “Apollos spoke with burning enthusiasm,” it says. He can stir up the crowds. He knows all the right moves. He has perfect timing and a commanding voice. The people can’t help but listen. They can’t help but be drawn to him, with such a captivating style of delivery, his alluring words.
But not all is at it seems. Here’s what it say in Acts 18, verse 26: “Apollos began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more adequately.”
What’s important is the truth, speaking the truth about God, not eloquence. That’s what Paul reminds the church in Corinth, especially with Apollos taking his turn in their pulpit. To proclaim the word of God, the truth of God, has nothing to do with clever preaching, nothing to do with someone’s commanding presence.
Instead, Paul says, there’s an inarticulateness to the gospel, which makes our words foolish, which makes us stumble with our words, our tongues stutter. Because, according to Paul, the gospel is the foolishness of Christ: “we preach Christ crucified.” Fancy speeches empties the power of the gospel. “Christ sent me to proclaim the gospel,” Paul says, “not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
Paul knows something about the church; he knows something about us. He knows that we are easily persuaded by eloquence, by a good performance. This was the sort of thing that happened everyday on the street corners in Corinth. Gifted orators would battle it out to see who could gather the largest crowds. For entertainment, we watch basketball, we go to shows; the citizens of Corinth would go hear speeches. And this culture of entertainment was making its way into the church. Worship as performance. Preaching as rhetorical delight.
The Corinthian congregation was suffering from rhetorical success, from oratory sophistication — with people like Apollos in the pulpit, who knew how to speak, but didn’t exactly speak truth. Preachers with mixed-up messages artfully delivered.
Paul offers a different message, another kind of language, full of mystery: the cross of Christ, the power of God made foolish, made weak. Not the power of fierce confidence, the power of a loud voice, not the power of eloquence — but power in weakness and vulnerability, in Christ crucified by worldly power. God speaks, God acts, through a broken body — the body of Christ broken for you, for us.
We hear God, we see God, we feel God, in the language of a broken body. And we learn the language from Jesus. When we follow Jesus, we find ourselves learning God’s language, we find ourselves within the gospel, within the good news God offers to the world.
This is the invitation we hear in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus invites Simon and Andrew, James and John, to follow him: “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fish for people.” We learn the gospel by doing it, by speaking it, as we follow the lead of Jesus who shows us how to move our bodies, how to shape our lives. That’s what Jesus means when he calls people to repent: “Repent,” Jesus says, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17).
To repent is to shift your body, your life, into the way of Jesus: to change your mind, to change your language, the way you speak, to speak in another tongue, to change your patterns of movement, where you go, what you do when you encounter other people, as we learn the movements of Jesus’ body, a movement that leads to crucifixion, where we see what God’s love looks like, the love that set the life of Jesus in motion, the love that enlivened his body. At the cross, we see what God’s language looks like, we hear what God’s language sounds like: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The foolishness of Christ is a word of forgiveness, spoken from a weak body, powerless, a dying body, someone who would rather be killed than to kill, who would rather die than pound his enemies into submission, who would rather let them crucify him than turn them into victims. The gospel we proclaim is spoken in weakness, spoken in the language of a crucified body.
“We proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul says.
“Father, forgive them,” Jesus says.
We follow Jesus, not because we hate our lives, not because we have a death-wish, but because the forgiveness and love Jesus offers is good news, because forgiveness and love make life possible — to feel the power of God flow through you as you forgive loved ones, as you forgive enemies; to feel God flow into you when someone speaks forgiveness into your lives, releasing you from being a person you no longer want to be; to feel the power of God flow through your love for one another, as your love gives someone another reason to live, love that enlivens us, love that awakens us, love that gives us hope, that makes life worth living.
God is the God of life, a power of life in a world of death, which I haven’t heard as clearly, as powerfully, as I heard Friday night, at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, where I heard Andrea Gibson read her poems, poems full of the struggle to live, the beauty of life.
She ended the night with a poem called, “The Nutritionist,” where she called upon the friendships that have kept her alive: “Friend, if the only thing we have to gain in staying is each other, my god that’s plenty, my god that’s enough, my god that is so much, each of us at each other’s backs whispering over and over and over, Live, Live, Live.”[iii]
That’s what God says; that’s what God wants, life with us, and for us to let God’s life flow through ours, through our love, through our forgiveness, in our words and deeds — for all that we do, for all that speak, to say, live, live, live; for us to surround one another in the body of Christ, where we are taken into God’s life, where our bodies resound with God’s word, each of us at each other’s backs whispering over and over and over, live.
I hear Andrea Gibson when I read Paul name us as each other’s sisters and brothers, and call us to be undivided, united in Christ, always for one another, speaking the good news of the God of life. We do this not with practiced and perfected speeches, with eloquent words, but with our lives, eloquent lives. Not with power, but in our weakness, the weakness of love.
When we gather in a few moments for Communion, we remind each other what this good news sounds like, what it looks like, what it feels like, as we receive the bread of life, the cup of life, from the hand of another.
We are broken, we have been wounded, but in the hands of our sisters and brothers we find hope, bread and hands as reminders that God lives, that God lives in us, which sounds like foolishness sometimes, given our world, given our lives, but that’s how you know it’s the good news, because it sounds foolish, because it sounds impossible:[iv] that in Jesus God died on the cross, and on the third day Jesus returned from the dead, to invite us to live eternal life, to live in it now, to offer the world, to offer each other, a love that lasts, a love that goes on, beyond death; resurrected love, a love that sustains us, a love that is God.
This is the life we receive during Communion. We open our hands, and with our hands we open our hearts and our lives, we welcome God’s life into ours, and we welcome each other into God’s life.
[i] Paul’s position is ironic, given that he is using popular rhetorical techniques in his letter. “In fact, in both his disparagement of rhetoric and his claim to be only a layman, Paul stands in a great tradition of rhetorical disavowals of rhetorical activity.” Dale B. Martin, The Corinthian Body (Yale University Press, 1995), p. 49.
[ii] Gordon Fee’s commentary is helpful in understanding the problematic figure of Apollos for Paul: “It is not so much that Apollos himself advocated understanding the gospel in terms of wisdom—although this cannot be ruled out, given his origins in Alexandria, the home of his contemporary, the Jewish Platonist Philo—but that the Corinthians themselves had become enamored with sophia and saw Apollos as best fitting their new understanding. This would be especially so if their love of wisdom included a fascination for the values of the Greek philosophical, rhetorical tradition.” Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Eerdmans, 1987), p. 57.
[iii] Andrea Gibson, “The Nutritionist,” at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, on January 24, 2014. Here’s a video of her performance of the poem at another venue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jKBKW7_9ZoI
[iv] This is my way of saying what Tertullian said in the second century: credo quia absurdum. “It is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” “The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is wholly credible, because it is unsuitable. And, buried, he rose again: it is certain, because impossible.” (De Carne Christi, V, 4.)