The following is a short homily that I delivered during a class @ Wycliffe College on Wednesday, February 2, 2011. The short paragraph highlighted in asterisks was not in the original sermon but was later added to clarify any concern that people may have had about me given my opening example.
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.
6 Yet 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.
What is it to be wise? I am part of a community of recovering addicts that meets every Tuesday evening. While in many ways we resemble a traditional 12-step program the goal of Spiritual Journey is not sobriety. “Foolishness!” “How can a 12-step program not have sobriety as its end?” Rather, the goal of Spiritual Journey is to connect with God, to know and be known. Sobriety may be a result of this. Now, the point of me raising this here is that the wisdom of Spiritual Journey is quite unlike the prevailing wisdom of our modern Western culture. The wisdom of the 12-steps begins with Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over our addictions-that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Success is impossible in Spiritual Journey if our first utterance is not “I am powerless.” In a culture where power is coveted and respected, where imperfections are blasted with UV rays, injected with Botox or rectified by getting a good education and satisfying career, we proclaim that we are powerless. In a culture where we manage our lives with day timers and iPhone’s, and where busyness is akin to success, we proclaim that our lives are unmanageable. In a culture where dependance is weakness and “you can make it on your own”, we proclaim that we are indeed weak and unable to make it. For 12-steppers this is the beginning of wisdom.
*Now, before you go worrying about me I should let you know that I myself am not actually in recovery from any particular narcotic. While I would argue that everyone is an addict (including myself), I am not part of this community because I myself am struggling with matters of substance abuse but rather because I seek to journey with those who do. I should also note that this is a community of mutual transformation and is for me one of the more formative communities that I am a part of.*
Paul confronts us in the second chapter of 1 Corinthians with the “mystery of God”. Life is full of mystery. At the moment my wife and I are in the midst of our second pregnancy. Within the last few weeks we have seen the ultrasound and listened to the babies little heartbeat. The fact that there is a human being developing in Christina’s womb right now is something I can hardly comprehend. Life’s mysteries – birth, death, love, beauty and more – often point us towards a deeper mystery yet, God. Paul is writing this letter to a community of believers many of whom were Jews, not far from Athens the centre of Greek philosophy and thought. Greeks had very particular ideas about how to access this deep, divine mystery. Jews already understood themselves to have been invited into the life of God so they saw no need to get to the heart of the divine mystery, yet they wrestled with this in other ways.
Jesus, says Paul, is the clue to history. In the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth God’s past, present and future collide and are unveiled. The mystery of God is revealed in Christ crucified, an odd claim to be sure. According to popular human wisdom the gospel, Christ crucified, is utter foolishness, void of wisdom. But this is the wisdom of God: That the power of God is hidden in the foolishness of the cross. In the unjust suffering and death of a poor first-century Palestinian Jew, in the naked body of yet another “failed” Messiah figure hanging on a Roman cross, the One True God of Israel and the nations is hidden. Who would ever think to look for the secret to all things, the mystery of God, hanging on a hill outside Jerusalem? Paul realizes the foolishness – the utter absurdity – of this claim. Near the beginning of the letter he has already said “the message about the cross is foolishness,” (1:18). Paul realizes that their proclamation sounds absurd (1:21) and so he comes not with eloquent words and a charismatic personality, but in weakness, fear and much trembling.
Yet this is powerful. Paul did not have to rely on charisma and talent. He did not have to rely on a rigorous apologetical ministry or a fashionable means of presentation. Inherent to the gospel is the power of God that is able to penetrate our hearts and minds and bring about real transformation. When peoples lives intersect with the gospel something happens. As folks who are being trained for ordained ministry in traditional parishes, or to be involved in development work around the globe, or to go out on a limb with a Fresh Expression of church may we resist the temptation to place our hope in our own gifts, abilities or education. For as talented and educated as we may be we will never be talented or educated enough to present the foolishness of the gospel to the world as wisdom. May we trust rather that the gospel contains within it the power of God to bring about His purposes in and for the world. As a result of this, when we see people come to faith their faith will not rest on us and our abilities and wisdom but on the power of God which raised Christ Jesus from the dead.
The gospel is foolishness to the world, yes, but to the mature, to those with eyes and ears to see and hear, it is wisdom. To be sure, this is not the wisdom of modern Western culture. No, that is a wisdom that would have all-together avoided suffering and death. That is a wisdom that would have come in full force to overthrow the oppressors. No, this is the wisdom of the Triune God and the world doesn’t get it for if they did they would not have “crucified the Lord of glory,” (2:8), says Paul. Left to our own devices our eyes are unable to see, our ears unable to hear, our hearts unable even to conceive the wisdom of God. Left to our own devices we might think that wisdom lies in getting a rigorous theological education or learning how to preach a solid sermon. Left to our own devices we might prefer the path of comfort and security that comes from the privilege of being well-to-do educated folk. Surely, this is a better road than one marked with suffering and oppression. Surely us educated elites and the Bay St. power-brokers are wiser than the poor and oppressed who look for hidden treasure in dumpsters in downtown Toronto, or who huff gasoline and glue on northern reserves, or who struggle to feed their children and live in aging high-rise apartments on the outer suburbs of the downtown core where they once dwelled but became homeless due to gentrification. If God is hidden there in the suffering of Christ then surely He is present with those who suffer now. In our work and ministry we are not only accountable to God but to those who suffer and are oppressed, those who bear the marks of Christ’s suffering this day. But to travel this road in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, this is not wise. There is nothing in it for you or I. There are no pay raises or glamourous award ceremonies, none of that worldly wisdom.
It is only by the Spirit of God that the foolishness of God can appear as wisdom, and it is just that, true wisdom. The Holy Spirit, being fully and beautifully God, reveals to us the deepness of God’s own wisdom: that Christ crucified is the wisdom of God, that Christ raised is the power of God. I remember one day when I was younger my mother discovered my sisters journal. Let’s just say there was some incriminating evidence written in there that my sister had not intended for my mother to behold. There were secrets hidden there. The Holy Spirit is a bit like God’s journal, for it is by the Spirit that we are “let in” on the mystery of God. This very same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead in power is now ours. Having been poured out upon us we are able to understand the “mystery of God”: That hidden in a life of suffering and an agonizing death there is a God who is for us. There is a God who has done for us what we were powerless and unable to do for ourselves. There is a God who made all things from “no thing” and refuses to stay at a distance. This is a God who gets His hands dirty, who ends up on a cross by the hand of His own creatures. This is the God of not only Jews but of Greeks. This is a foolish God. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1:18). There is no distinction, “the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him,” (Rom. 10:12). In Christ we are no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, straight or queer, but we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord and all who call on His name will be saved.