Third Sunday before Lent 2020

Brian Reader

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him — these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2: 1-16

Today is the Third Sunday before Lent. It is also the start of the period called Shrovetide that begins on this day and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins.

Of the three long readings, I have selected Paul’s epistle for closer study. Why? Because I have found Paul’s writing sometimes quite difficult to understand. Why is this? Unlike the other disciples, Paul was never a follower of Jesus during his life time, in fact just the reverse. Those close disciples of Jesus could easily speak to the people of Judea and the surrounding area about Jesus, and remind them of the miracles, and the things Jesus had said and done when he was amongst them. Paul, unlike most of the other disciples was well educated, and his role as the ‘Export Manager for the Gospel’ was to tell people in foreign lands about Jesus, of whom they had no previous knowledge.

Imagine going to a family or school reunion where you would find it fairly easy to discuss things widely known and accepted by you all. Imagine now going away on holiday where you would find it much more difficult to discuss the similar things with a group of strangers unless you gave them a lot more information first. This is the problem facing Paul. He is talking to Jews who were practicing their religion away from their homeland in a sophisticated pagan city. In this letter Paul talks a lot about wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Life is full of mystery. The deepest mysteries of human life – love, death, joy, and beauty, have for centauries been believed to point to the deepest mystery of them all, the mystery of God. Pagans believed that by going through particular initiation rites and disciplines they could get to the heart of the mystery, and would discover things that would change their lives completely. Now most Jews believed that the one true God had already invited them to share his own life and purpose, so they didn’t follow this route. But they, too, experienced the mystery as they tried to understand the truth about how and why God had made the world, and in particular what his purpose was for them and for the future. This is where Paul comes in. He picked up this Jewish tradition and declared that God’s past, present and future had at last been unveiled in and through Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was the clue to all the secrets of God. One of the reasons, in fact, why the mystery of the gospel is a mystery, is because nobody in Corinth or in the rest of the world, would ever think of looking for the secret to life, the universe, God, beauty, love and death in a place of execution outside a rebellious city called Jerusalem.

But there was power in this ‘good news’, and the appropriate response to this gospel was ‘faith’. This is central to Paul’s vision of what being a Christian is all about, and it is brought about by the power of the spirit at work in and through the gospel.

God really does have wisdom in store, deep and rich and many-sided; but it’s only for those who can and will appreciate it, those who are sufficiently grown-up in their spiritual understanding. The wisdom Paul has in mind doesn’t belong to ‘this age’ at all. It belongs to the ‘age to come’; and speaking of it to those who aren’t already part of this new ‘age to come’ is like speaking of a sunrise to blind person. Only those who have believed in the rising of the son of God can even begin to understand what this wisdom is. How do we know? Because God gave us his spirit at Pentecost. This is another major theme of the letter. Paul relishes the fact that the spirit who is poured out upon believers, brings them to faith and opens their hearts and minds to the wisdom of this ‘age to come’, is God’s own spirit. Paul declares, that this spirit is given to all God’s people in the Messiah.

This is an astonishing claim. It clearly doesn’t mean that Christians automatically know everything about God, or why would Paul bother to write letters? It means that they have open access to ‘the mind of the Christ’. But to explore this they must themselves be ‘mature’. They must themselves be ‘spiritual’. Bishop Tom Wright says that this tight-packed and challenging passage has many lessons for us, but perhaps the most important is for Christians who have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, two truths. The first is that there is a wealth of knowledge and life enhancing understanding waiting for us to explore. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs and a rule-book for life, such as anyone could master in a weekend. It is as many-sided as the world itself, full of beauty and mystery and power, yet as terrifying and wonderful as God himself. There is always much, much more to learn, to relish, and to delight in. The second is that the Christian message from the very beginning challenged the world of power, including social and political power, with the message of God’s superior kingdom unveiled in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to imagine that he is talking simply about a religious experience that won’t have anything to do with the real life of politics and government. No. Christian teaching effects every part of our lives.

At the end of the Epistle reading for two weeks ago, Paul wrote “For the message of the cross is foolish to those who are perishing but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God”. What did he mean? Paul here is contrasting ‘the wisdom of the world’ with ‘the wisdom of God’. His basic claim is that the message about the Messiah and his cross carries a power of quite a different sort to the power of clever speech, and newsworthy oratory. The point is that when Paul came into a pagan city that prided itself on its intellectual and cultural life, and stood up to speak about Jesus of Nazareth, he was faced with a problem.

Jesus had been crucified by the Romans but raised from the dead by God, and he was now the Lord of the world, summoning people to faithful obedience. Paul knew what people would think. This was, and is, the craziest message anybody could imagine. It was news of an executed criminal from a despised race. And the Jewish people themselves wouldn’t enjoy hearing it either. No Jew of the time was expecting a Messiah who would be executed by Rome; a Messiah ought to be defeating the pagans, not being killed by them! To tell the story of Jesus and his cross, was just inviting people to mock. But the story had to be told truthfully. Simply telling the story released a power of quite a different sort from any power that human speech could have: God’s power, beside which all human power looks weak; and God’s wisdom, against which all human learning looks like folly. Paul says it the other way round, to make the point with stunning rhetorical effect: God’s folly is wiser than humans, and God’s weakness is stronger than humans!

The Christian good news is all about God dying on a rubbish-heap at the wrong end of the Roman Empire. It’s all about God babbling nonsense to a room full of philosophers. It’s all about the true God confronting the world of posturing, power and prestige, and overthrowing it in order to set up his own kingdom, a kingdom in which the weak and the foolish find themselves just as welcome as the strong and the wise. Think back to Jesus himself, and the people he befriended, and ask yourself whether Paul is not being utterly loyal to his master.

The gospel, the Good News, is the royal announcement that Jesus is Lord, because God has raised him from the dead. It is ‘God’s power for salvation to those who believe’. When this announcement is made, people discover – to their astonishment – that things do change. Lives change. Human hearts change. Situations change. And new communities come into being, consisting of people grasped by the message, believing it’s true despite everything, falling in love with the God they find to be alive in this Jesus, and giving to Jesus their supreme loyalty.

That is the evidence Paul has in mind. ‘To us who are being saved, it is God’s power.’ That is just as true now as it was in Paul’s day. However, in exactly the same way today, many people still defend their own power and prestige, and love of money, by declaring that the Christian message is all folly. I can do no better than end by reading part of our collect prayer –

Give your people grace so to love what you command, and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.