Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ordinary 5A -- February 9, 2014

No Earthly Sense

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1 Corinthians 2:1-12

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

6Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”— 10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.           

There once was a preacher named Clarence Jordan, who was invited to participate in a revival service at a Baptist church in segregated South Carolina in the 1950’s.  And Clarence couldn’t believe what he saw when he walked into the Baptist church one sultry summer evening.  What he saw were black people.  And white people.  And they were not in separate sections, but were sitting right together, next to each other, all around the sanctuary.  In the 1950’s!  In South Carolina!  Well, Clarence was astonished and when the revival service was over, he couldn’t wait to have a conversation with the old redneck, hillbilly preacher who was the pastor of this congregation.

Clarence said to the old pastor, “You’ve got an unusual situation here.  Black and white people worshiping together at your church.  That is unusual down here in South Carolina.  It’s unusual anywhere.  Tell me how you got that way.”

Well, the old hillbilly pastor smiled and said, “Well this church was down to a handful when the last preacher died.  It was such a small congregation; they couldn’t get a new preacher no how.  They went on for a couple of months without anybody to give any sermons, so one Sunday I said to the head of the deacons that if they couldn’t get a preacher, I’d be willing to preach.  So he let me!  When I got in the pulpit, I just opened the Bible and put my finger down.  It landed on that verse where Paul tells us that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female.  And so I preached about how Jesus makes us one and how once we’re in Christ, there should be no racial divisions between us.  When the service was over, the deacons took me in the backroom and they told me that they didn’t want to hear that kind of preaching no more.”

Clarence looked at the preacher and asked, “What did you do then?”

The old preacher answered, “I FIRED them deacons.”

“How come they didn’t fire you?” asked Clarence.

“Well, they couldn’t fire me since they never hired me,” the old preacher responded. 

Good point.

He went on to say, “Once I found out what bothered them people, I just preached the same message every Sunday.  It didn’t take much time before I had that church preached down to four!”  The hillbilly preacher said this in a way that suggested he was happy, maybe even proud of this negative church growth.

But the church survived and even began to grow, with the same hillbilly preacher in the pulpit.    The church was filled with exactly what Clarence saw that night – black and white people worshiping together.

Later that night, Clarence talked to a member of the church -- a young English professor from the University of South Carolina – and he was astonished to discover that the professor drove 70 miles to attend the old hillbilly preacher’s church every single Sunday.  Clarence asked him, “Why do you go to that church?  You’re a student of the English language, and that old preacher can’t utter a sentence without making a grammatical error.  Why would you travel all this distance just to hear him?”

The English professor stood up straight and said, sternly, “Sir!  I go to that church because that man preaches the gospel!”[1]

I thought of that story while I was thinking about this text today from 1Corinthians.  Because the apostle Paul was not a very polished preacher. In fact, we know from Acts that Paul sort of stunk when it came to debating philosophers or other educated people.  By the time he got to Corinth, Paul had given up on engaging in philosophical debates because he knew he couldn’t win.   In fact, Paul tells us he wasn’t trying to impress anyone with his wisdom or polished sermons.  Paul decided to just preach the gospel without worrying about appearing foolish or not sufficiently intellectual.  

What Paul preached was as simple and as complicated as this:  “… Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  Jesus Christ and him crucified.  Paul recognized that “Jesus Christ and him crucified” IS the heart of the gospel story.  Jesus Christ and him crucified is THE story of God’s intervention into this age through the fully human Jesus Christ to bring the kingdom of God near.  “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is THE story of God’s incredible love made real to us by Jesus throughout his ministry, a love which culminated in Christ taking on the worst the world could do to him to free everyone from fear and death.  Jesus suffered not only for the virtuous, or even philosophical white people.  Christ went to the cross for everyone.  Even for the rulers of the age who put him there, not knowing what they were doing.

That kind of preaching made Paul as popular as that old hillbilly preacher. Which is to say, not very popular at all.  Don’t get me wrong.  Paul was a good apostle.  Paul was a great pastor.  In reading his letters, you can feel how deeply Paul loved the communities he gathered in cities like Corinth.  Paul advised them and prayed for them but the truth of the matter is that Paul BOTHERED a lot of people.   Paul made people mad.   Paul’s insistence on preaching a crucified Messiah alienated many, many people because it just didn’t make sense.  Not to the Jewish members of the community who wanted a powerful Messiah.  It made no sense to the Greek mind, who expected the Messiah to be reasonable.  Nothing about Jesus Christ and him crucified made sense at all to many Corinthians.  Nothing about a crucified Christ fit into the ususal categories of power, success and intelligence. 

You look at the cross and what do you see if you are a rational, reasonable person?  You see a loser.  You see a man hanging naked in the hot sun, executed by a superior imperial force.  Everything about Christ crucified challenged the conventional wisdom of Paul time and the gospel continues to challenge our notions of what winning and losing looks like. 

I thought about Paul when I watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics on Friday night.  During the parade of nations, I was struck by how many times the commentators said, “Well, that athlete from Malta or Napal isn’t going to win a medal, but look how happy they are to just be here!”   As if the athletes from places like Zimbabwe and Tonga were to be pitied because they did not have the longest shot at winning anything. 

Winning and medal counts are what the Olympics are all about, right?  The Olympics are about winners like American athlete Shawn White who said he only marched in the parade of nations because he had done so the last two times he won gold medals in snowboarding and he didn’t want to jinx himself out of another win.

But is winning what we are supposed to be about? When we think of Jesus Christ crucified, the word “winning” just doesn’t fit. In the eyes of the world, in that moment when Jesus was dying on a cross, those around him, even his most ardent followers, would not have called him a winner. Yes, I know Jesus conquered death, but he surely doesn’t fit the model of winning with which our world seems so infatuated. Jesus continually taught that the last will be first and the first will be last, that the meek shall inherit the earth.  Doesn’t sound like a gold medal strategy to me. 
If we use the Olympic analogy, Jesus seems more like the Jamaican bobsled team -- a little bit ridiculous and rather incompetent.  How could the crucified Christ ever be considered a winner?
But that is the gospel that Paul preaches to the Corinthians.  Christ crucified, Christ weak and vulnerable, the very image of self-emptying love.  Preached without lofty words and wisdom.  And Paul’s preaching makes no earthly sense.  The gospel challenges every assumption about power and what it means to win.  It is the kind of gospel that stands on the side of the Jamaican bobsledders of this world, not the Shawn Whites with their multi-million dollar clothing line at Target and American Express commercials.
When people feel uncomfortable and challenged by the gospel of Christ crucified, what do they do?  Well, sometimes they just get up and leave like the hillbilly pastor’s congregation in South Carolina.  Or, they do what the Corinthians did.   They argue among themselves about what the rules for membership ought to be and who ought to be excluded, with different groups claiming a higher knowledge or a deeper insight.  Which is exactly what Paul is addressing in these letters to Corinth.

And Paul insists, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is the interpretive lens for how he sees – well – everything.  Everything! The crucified Christ is the lens through which Paul views the Corinthian community.  Everything he knows – from the meaning of the Jewish scriptures to the wisdom of the community’s best thinkers to the status of various individuals in the community.  Paul views every part of his ministry through the lens of Jesus Christ crucified. 

It’s the kind of lens that can do strange things to your vision.  Paul says that when you look through the lens of the crucified Christ, you see things that are not at all apparent to other people.  You see the need for reconciliation that no other eye has seen.  You hear the possibility for forgiveness no ear has heard.  You experience the kind of deep love no heart has conceived.  You see the blessedness of the weak and lost and broken of the world.  It is a way of understanding the world that comes only as a gift of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit upon whom Paul depends upon to help him slog though his mission and ministry, and all the joy and misery it brought him.

One of the things I always have to remind myself when I get impatient with Paul – and I often do get impatient with Paul – is that be did not ask for this aggravation.  He never set out to be an apostle.  In fact, you might say that God pretty much dragged Paul kicking and screaming into the job of starting all these new churches and traveling all over the Roman Empire at a time when being a Christian was a really hard and dangerous thing to be.

And I sometimes wonder what God was thinking because Paul seems like the worst possible choice for the job.  He was tactless and prone to losing his temper.  And he was constantly arguing or in trouble with somebody.  He was thrown in jail on a regular basis.  And all of this happened to Paul because just wouldn’t see both sides of a situation.  He couldn’t appreciate multiple points of view.  Paul had only one point of view…that of Jesus Christ and him crucified.  All the other definitions and distinctions – Jew/Greek, strong/weak, wise/foolish – none of them worked in this new post-resurrection creation.  Those historic and reliable distinctions and traditions and categories no longer existed for Paul.  “Everything old has passed away, see everything has become new.”  (2 Corinthians 5:7).  

It is also somewhat comforting for me to realize that Paul himself felt utterly inadequate for the task God forced upon him.  He was unpolished and impolite, but the message Paul preached got through.  And because Paul was so acutely aware of his own shortcomings, he knew that it had to be God’s Spirit and God’s power that moved through him.  It was entirely clear to Paul that the life of faith is a response to God’s power -- not the result of some fancy theological or philosophical footwork.  Paul could look the lens of Jesus and see God’s spirit, working below the surface where things get kind of murky until God finally gets around to giving us a clue about what’s going on underneath, in the depths of God.   Paul knew all about seeing through a glass darkly, but it didn’t stop him from peering through the lens of Jesus, and point his congregation in Corinth toward wisdom deeper than the world’s wisdom and a truth more powerful than the world’s power.

And I hate that.  I do.  Because it means I can’t rely on my theological education to answer the hard questions about what God is up to in my life or in your life or in the life of this congregation.  Don’t get me wrong.  That education and training is important.  The gospel isn’t irrational or anti-intellectual.  It just operates on a different level.  The gospel has its own wisdom beyond our wisdom. Which means we cannot expect that the Spirit will give us answers that feel comfortable or reasonable and or even natural.  In fact, the Spirit’s poking and prodding can often keep us up at night or feeling a little sick to our stomach as we step with fear and trembling into a place that is entirely new and unexpected. 

All we can do is keep holding up that lens – for ourselves, for each another – so we can see who Jesus is and what Jesus did and what Jesus is still doing through the power of the Spirit.   And we can trust that the Spirit will in the fullness of time will drag us –  sometimes kicking and screaming like Paul -- into all truth. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Tony Compolo, Let Me Tell You A Story. Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000. 117-119.