I love being right. Almost as much as I love winning and getting my way. Because if I’m “right” and I lose then at least I can stew in my indignation at the “foolishness” of the people who “won.”
We live in a society that glories in winning and being right. The world tells us that we can only be happy or even safe, if we’re winners, not losers—if we beat other people or parties or nations and do whatever it takes to build the world—the country—even the church that we want.
But obsession with winning—with security or strength or just the self-satisfaction of knowing we’re right and they’re wrong—is an addiction to a drug that takes more than it gives. Winning may feel good for a moment. But it can’t give us the communion and community that God has created us for. In the end, our insistence on getting our way will always lead back to division, factions, and broken relationships.
Look at the fruit of this mindset in the world: On the world stage, we wage wars so pervasive that we forget what peace feels like. In our national discourse, we get mired in pointless political stalemates that drag on for days. In our local community, we let status and anxiety over resources drag us into gossip, murmuring and bitter division. Fixation on winning and getting our way destroys the unity, love, and vulnerable trust that God wants to flourish in our midst.
And that’s a problem. It’s a problem for us, just like it was for the Corinthian church that Paul is chastising in today’s New Testament reading.
“I’m with Paul!”
“I’m with Cephas!”
“I’m with Apollos!”
The Corinthian Christians that Paul loves so dearly have divided themselves into factions. What they were squabbling over isn’t really the point here for Paul. The point is that the Corinthians’ obsession with being right—with being the best—is totally out of step with the Gospel Paul proclaimed. It has distorted their witness to Christ.
“Has Christ been divided?”
You can imagine the frustrated words Paul might have edited out: “What on EARTH is WRONG with you people?! You are the Body of Christ, and THIS is how you act?! This isn’t the Jesus I told you about!” Paul isn’t worked up because he’s uncomfortable with conflict or because it would be easier if the Corinthians just got along. He’s worked up because by fixating on pointless division and fighting, the Corinthians are turning away from the very path of the Gospel.
Against the backdrop of a world obsessed with winning, the Jesus Paul proclaims—the Jesus we follow—represents a radically different set of values. On the Cross, Jesus gives us a new way of being that is dramatically different from what the world has to offer. It’s a way that invites us to lay ourselves down instead of digging in our heels just to be “right.” It’s a way that lets go of security and strength, instead of clinging to our plan to watch out for ourselves. Instead of clobbering his enemies with all that he’s got, or planting whispers and gossip to get what he wants, on the Cross, Jesus simply offers himself up.
That is the Jesus that Paul proclaims—the Jesus he wants the Corinthians to follow. And to a world obsessed with security, status, and winning the path of this Jesus seems like utter foolishness. It’s silly—ridiculous—absurd.
It seems silly to drop your arguments and weapons and just let yourself be weak. It’s ridiculous to lay aside striving for status and just let yourself be unimportant. It’s absurd to drop your nets like the disciples in our Gospel and go “fish for people.” People! At least you can eat fish! This Gospel path—the Way of Love—that Jesus calls us onto is ridiculous if we—like the Corinthians—are dead-set on seizing control, being secure, and getting our way.
Paul knows that. He knows how ridiculous it feels to let go of winning. (I mean, honestly, if a man who dragged his opponents off to prison doesn’t understand the urge to win, then I don’t know who does.) Paul has been where we are—balking at following Jesus down a path that feels foolish in the sight of the world. He gets it.
But Paul rebukes the Corinthians and chastises us, because ultimately that foolishness is the point. That foolishness is where the baffling power of the Cross becomes clear. That foolishness is where we taste the new life of Resurrection. It’s in the continual process of imitating Christ—of saying “no” to the wisdom of the world and “yes” to the way of the Cross—of laying down our factions and our nets full of fish to face the world with empty hands ready to receive the grace of communion and trust. It is in that continual process of repenting—turning back—that the power of God to liberate and renew us appears.
Christians throughout time, from the Corinthians’ day to ours, have faced a choice every day of their lives. We can embrace the way that Chris puts before us, emptying ourselves like Jesus at the foot of the Cross—that foolish sign of God’s paradoxical power to save. Or we can say “Thanks but no thanks” and follow the world by clinging to division and reveling in winning (or at least reveling in being smug or self-righteous when we “lose”).
It might be appealing to say “no” to a path that looks absurd through the lens we inherit from the ways of the world. But if we turn away from the Way of the Cross—if we turn away from emptying ourselves like Christ—then we empty the Cross of its power to transform us. If we set our hearts on being on top, we divide Christ into pieces and throw away the kind of relationship God calls us into.
Turning back to follow Christ’s way is unsettling. That’s why—like the Corinthians—I often don’t want to do it. If I choose the way of the Cross it certainly looks like I’m setting aside security and choosing a path that’s sure to make me a loser.
But that’s the beautiful and maddening thing about the Gospel. Jesus shows us—and Paul reaffirms: in the end that “yes” to the way of the Cross—that “yes” to setting aside division and the need to get my way—is where the light of new life breaks into the darkness so that, with empty hands, we can receive the gift of being truly united—knit together—in the Body of Christ.
The way of division might seem like the path to winning—the path getting what we think we need. But the way of the Cross is path to true freedom, where the rod of oppression, division, and violence is broken, and we can taste the love and trust that God has in store for us.
So…we face a choice:
Which way will we choose?