1 Corinthians 1:26-31

Quiz: Who?

  1. Ellen DeGeneres
  2. Darren Fletcher
  3. Owen Hargreaves
  4. Carol Vorderman
  5. Aleksandr (Meerkat)
  6. Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams)
  7. Bryan Adams
  8. Ron Weasley
  9. Brian
  10. Newcastle supporters
  11. Music behind it all: Fiction - the Concretes


In preparing for this sermon, I read:
And I watched:

Normally, I'd also read the NIV exhaustive concordance, but didn't on this occasion. So no etymology this sermon, therefore.


This passage, which concludes chapter 1, invites us to look back on who or what we were before we were called to faith. There's a curious phrase in verse 28 that I'll have a look at shortly, as well as a turn of phrase Paul uses repeatedly (the example here is in verse 30) but it's Paul's central theme: we were not significant before we were called, that I want to look at mostly.

But first, a story: in 1984 I went to a talk by J John in Nottingham. I'd heard him before, I'd even heard him before he'd changed his name and he was a promising young evangelist. On this occasion he started by getting us to stand up and shout "fame - I'm gonna live forever" (yes, you can tell it was 1984). After he'd made us do this several times he interrupted and said "no you're not", which was a bit harsh as I'd only been saying it because he told me to, not because I believed it (which begs a different sermon on how much we believe of what we say, but I'll shelve that one for now). It stuck in my mind as probably the worst opening to a talk I'd ever heard. It's also the only bit of what he had to say that I can remember. So, here's hoping you'll remember more than this introduction…

Verse 28

So first, let's look at v.28: "He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are". We're used to Paul's assertion that God chose the lowly - it's a major part of this passage. We're used to the idea that Jesus called humble fishermen. It's the bit "the things that are not" that caught my eye. What did God call that does not exist? The Good News renders it as "what the world looks down on, and despises, and thinks is nothing", which is a nice rendering, but (from reading all those other translations) I don't think gets at the nub of it. Young's literal puts it as "the things that are not" and so I think that's what we'll have to go with. So what did God call that does not exist? Well, if you turn back a few chapters, and keep turning, you'll arrive at Genesis 1. As Ellen DeGeneres put it: "In the beginning there was nothing. God said, 'Let there be light!' And there was light. There was still nothing, but you could see it a whole lot better." God called forth everything from nothing. He created everything for His plan. He created everything, from nothing, for His glory. Everything that came from nothing did so because He wanted it to and that shames the wisdom of the wise. But I think there's a bit more, too. Something a bit more personal for us.

Darren Fletcher is a footballer who plays for Manchester United and Scotland. A few seasons ago, he was as unpopular as unpopular could be. Roy Keene castigated him on Man U's own TV channel (not known for being critical of their own players). The fans booed him. But Sir Alex Fergusson kept picking him, kept playing him. He's now one of the best midfielders in the country. It is widely reckoned that one of the reasons Man U lost the Champions League final last year was that Darren Fletcher was not on the pitch, but was sitting in the stands serving a ban for a ridiculous refereeing decision. What a change in opinion.

Owen Hargreaves was, until a season or two ago, the only footballer ever to play for England without having lived in the UK. Sven Goran Erickson saw him play and kept picking him and the fans (who didn't get to see him play every week, as he played in the Bundesliga) couldn't understand it. They whinged on phone-ins, they blogged against him, they even groaned when he came on as a substitute. And then, in 2006, he won both England Player of the Year, and England Player of the World Cup in official FA polls, the first to win both in the same year. After the game against Greece the blogs and letter pages all said pretty much the same thing "Owen Hargreaves - I owe you an apology". Finally, the fans saw what Erickson had seen.

Fergusson and Erickson saw something in Fletcher and Hargreaves that no-one else could. Something hidden. Something that, as far as the football fans were concerned, didn't exist. They stuck with the players, they nurtured and coached, and brought forth that which was hidden, so all could see. God sees what is hidden in us, what the world claims does not exist and calls it forth. So we can play our part, for His glory.

Turn of phrase

The turn of phrase I referred to is in verse 30: "It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus". "In Christ Jesus" is the specific phrase. What does this mean? Morris suggests that "it indicates that the believer stands in the closest possible relationship to (their) Lord. Christ is the very atmosphere in which (the believer) lives." But that (as Morris himself notes) is an incomplete view: you can't take such a mechanical view of it, for Christ is a person. The phrase therefore describes personal attachment to a personal saviour as well as a corporate aspect (as described by E. Best in a book I've not read, but Morris has) to mean that to be "in Christ" is to be closely related to those others that are also "in Christ", i.e. to be part of the body of Christ. "In Christ" is therefore personal, and corporate and carries rather more meaning than I'd certainly thought about before.

The main point

So, two asides down and now onto the main point. The Greeks were obsessed with wisdom and the pursuit of it. Our culture is obsessed by celebrity, and the pursuit of it. Why should I take a loan from this company just because Carol Vorderman (who's clever as well as famous) says so? Why should I take out my car insurance from this company because Paul Merton says so (especially when a cute Meerkat called Aleksandr says otherwise)? We have hit the all-time low of celebrities being famous just for being famous. It's almost as though something is worthless unless someone we've heard of says it's worth something after all. But God's not like that. "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth." (v.26). Note that it's "not many" and not "none". There's an important mathematical concept in there, but I'll save that one for another day (you may all breathe a sigh of relief). Some therefore were wise, influential and of noble birth. Paul wasn't beyond invoking his own status when he needed to (Acts 16 and 22, for example). Some were wise, influential and of noble birth - but not many. And it's into the majority that most of us fit (a tautology I know, but worth expounding anyway). Tom Wright recounts the story of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang who, when he retired sighed "Having been somebody, I shall now be nobody". So this attitude of "unheralded is worthless" is not exactly new.

Bryan Adams wrote, sang and recorded the song that was Britain's longest-running number one. Loads of people chose it for their weddings, only to be sick of it when the day arrived. It was the theme tune to the film "Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves" and was called "Everything I do".

Every once in a while, I reflect on all the things I do. Once, I went down this line: I'm a decent guitarist, but Dave Stubbs is better. I'm a pretty good programmer, but Sandhya is better. I'm a clever scientist, but Andy Beavis is much cleverer. I'm a good sound engineer, but Geoff Waring is better. I'm a competent chess player, but Steven Tozer-Loft is better (because he keeps beating me). I'm not bad at squash, but I'm yet to beat Nigel Mills. I'm a decent goalkeeper, but I once played in a team composed entirely of people who'd played for other teams as goalkeeper - some for Hull City juniors, one guy for England (at Fussbal), but I played in goal as the others were better outfield players than me (there's a sermon in there about teamwork and the common cause, but I'll save that one too). So not only was I not the best footballer in my team, I wasn't even the best goalkeeper. You get the point, though. Everything I do… somebody I know (not just somebody I've heard of, like Clapton or Kasparov) does it better. Which, for someone as competitive as me, is pretty irking, really.

Whilst I'm wallowing in self-pity, allow me to tell you this story. I was in Ipswich and had just had a nightmare gig. I was poor, very poor. Try as I might I just couldn't get the sound right for the band I'd gone all that way to mix for. I then had to leave them and get on a train back home. I took the seat my ticket indicated and noticed that it was in First Class. So I sat there, convinced I'd get thrown out of it when the ticket collector came round. He came round, took my ticket, smiled and went on his way. I then re-read my ticket, which I'd bought because it was the cheapest one available - it was First Class. So I'd ridden in First Class for the first time in my life and completely failed to enjoy it, partly through worry, partly through having failed. As I sat in the carriage, feeling wretched, I put on my iPod and it played "Fiction" by the Concretes (the music that was playing underneath the quiz) and I heard these words: "You don't seem to grasp your own importance". It hit me as though God himself had sung those words to me - it lifted me no end. No matter how rubbish I felt about myself, no matter how poor others may view my recent performance (and rightly so, in this case), God saw something in me worthwhile that I really couldn't see. To God I am important. And I am not alone.

Just as Fergusson saw something in Fletcher and Erickson saw it in Hargreaves, so God sees something in us that others cannot see. To God we are important. Archbishop Lang didn't stop being important to God when he retired, either. You are important to God, whether you realise it or not. The Harry Potter films have been criticised for failing to show how important Ron Weasley is. But those who've read the books know what those who've only seen the films don't. Those who've read The Book know what those who've only seen Life of Brian don't: how important those of us the world considers unimportant really are. Not many of us are wise by human standards; not many are influential; not many are of noble birth. But we are important to God.

Realising that is a good thing. We are important. Did you know that optimists live longer than pessimists? And of course, the ultimate optimists, those with faith in God, do live the longest - forever (in spite of what J John said). And not through being famous, but through being in Christ.

But to sum up, I'd like to return to my self-pity. Because I didn't finish my thinking where I left it earlier. I may know someone better at everything I do, but there is one thing I am that I am the best at: being Paul Ganney. God called me to be the best Paul Ganney I can be, because He has seen something in me that others (and probably myself) cannot. He has not called me to be the best Nigel Mills, or the best Geoff Waring or the best Steven Tozer-Loft, because he's called others to be them. I may not be the best at anything I do, but it is the blend of my abilities that makes me who I am, makes me different, makes me unique, makes me special and makes me important to God. Many have given thanks to God that there's only one of me, and that is why I'm important to Him. There is only one of me - they didn't break the mould after making me (or before, if you're being cruel), there never was one in the first place. It's the mixture of things, the differences, that makes someone special - just as football is the same script, Shakespeare is the same script, chess is the same script, life is the same script, it's the variations that make it interesting. That's why I listed a load of the stuff I'd read and watched whilst preparing this sermon. They're different to what you watched & read but are a reflection of what makes me me. It's the differences that make us special, not the uniformity. You may recall the classic Life of Brian scene where he says to the crowd "you're all individuals" and they reply in unison: "yes, we're all individuals", which kind of underlines the point.

There's only one of you. You are an individual in the fullest sense. You are called to be the best you that you can be, because God needs you to be that person. He doesn't need you to be the best someone else can be, because He's already got one of those. It's you He's after - you are that important. Do not forget it. Never say you're unimportant or worthless. You were worth Jesus coming to Earth and dying in your place. You're worth that much. He didn't come to die for a faceless mass of humanity, but for individuals - each one special to God. If you were the only one that needed saving, He'd still have come and done it because you are that important. Because He did, you are in Christ. You are important to God. You are. You may not feel you are significant to the world, but you are to Him.

You are important to God - but how important is He to you? It is often said of Newcastle United football supporters that if you cut them, they'd bleed black & white. When they cut Christ, he bled human blood. If they cut you, what would you bleed?

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