Sunday, 9 February 2020

Knowing Christ, and him crucified: 3rd Sunday before Lent

Audio version here

1 Cor 2.1-16, Matthew 5.13-20

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” says Paul to the Corinthian Christians, “ I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1 Cor 2.2

The church in Corinth was just a small group of people who were trying to follow the way of Jesus, meeting together in one another’s homes, breaking bread together, trying to puzzle out how they should live out the message of God’s love . Paul had brought them that message, staying for eighteen months in Corinth, living with a couple called Priscilla and Aquila, who were tent-makers like him. But then he’d moved on to other places where they needed to hear about God’s love.

And in his wake, another travelling preacher had turned up. And that was where the problems had started. We hear a bit about this new kid on the block in the Acts of the Apostles (18.24). His name was Apollos, and Acts tells us that he was “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” and that he was “a native of Alexandria”, That last bit might not mean much to us, but it would have said a lot to the people of his time.

Alexandria, an Egyptian city, was one of the great centres of learning in the ancient world. It housed one of the most magnificent libraries of its time, and it was stuffed to the gills with very clever people, philosophers from every nation and culture talking about the things that philosophers talk about - life, the universe and everything - debating fiercely, determined to win their intellectual arguments.

Apollos had grown up in the ancient equivalent of Eton and Oxbridge. It’s still the case that that sort of privileged background can give people a sense of self-confidence and destiny which makes them charismatic and attractive leaders. They believe in themselves, so others believe in them too – which is great if they do know what they’re talking about, but very dangerous when they don’t.

The Book of Acts suggest that Apollos was one of those “golden boys”, a natural leader who assumed everyone would hang on his every word, but who found out the hard way that he wasn’t as right as he thought he was. In fact, the tent-makers, Priscilla and Aquila have to set him straight on some fairly basic bits of the Christian story.  Apollos almost certainly meant well, but if it never occurs to you that you might be wrong, if you’ve never had to cope with failure, if you’ve never come to terms with your own fallibility, then you can be very dangerous indeed. 

Paul wrote this letter to the church in Corinth because he had heard that bitter divisions had arisen. In chapter 1Paul tackles the problem head-on.  “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul, or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas, “ – [that’s Peter, the head of the church in Jerusalem] or “ I belong to Christ”. ‘How can this be, asks Paul? “ Has Christ been divided? “ Later on he tells them. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth, so neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth”.

That’s the background to the words we heard today, and it’s important to hear them with that context in our minds.  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. [Like that clever Alexandrian Apollos, we are meant to understand] .I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul was was a clever man too; he could do “lofty words and wisdom” as well as Apollos if he wanted to. He’d been brought up in Tarsus in what is now Southern Turkey,  another city with a tradition of learning. He’d been “well-schooled in the scriptures” like Apollos. He’d been a Pharisee who studied the Hebrew Bible with care. But the confidence he’d once had in his own cleverness had been thoroughly knocked out of him one day as he travelled along the road to Damascus, on a mission to persecute the followers of Jesus. He’d been convinced that they were dangerous heretics. They insisted that Jesus was the Messiah,but how could that be? If Jesus was the Messiah, why had God let him be executed, and on a cross too, a death deliberately designed to shame the one who suffered it? Surely God wouldn’t have allowed this to happen to his chosen one. Paul – then known by his Hebrew name of Saul - had campaigned viciously against Jesus’ followers. His determination to root them out had cost many Christians their freedom, maybe even their lives.

But as he travelled towards Damascus, he was thrown to the ground by a bright light, and face down in the dust, he heard the voice of Jesus, apparently speaking to him from the right hand of God, enthroned in heaven. Everything Paul thought he knew crumbled to pieces. All that certainty was gone in a moment!  And now what? Blinded by the light, Paul was led into Damascus, and he sat there, with no idea what to do next. He couldn’t go back to his old life, as the chief persecutor of Jesus’ followers, but surely they wouldn’t want to welcome him as one of them, would they? That  was far too much to ask. But, amazingly, miraculously, the Christian community did accept him. Ananias,  surely one of the bravest men in Scripture, was told by God to go and pray for him, and Ananias went – to this man who he ought to have run a mile from.

And Paul soon found himself surrounded by the love of the Christian community in Damascus, healed by their love, turned around by their love. It’s no wonder that he talks about love so often, and so movingly, in his letters. Love that is patient and kind, that keeps no score of wrongs, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. Those familiar words from 1 Corinthians 13 aren’t about romance, however often they are read at weddings. They’re about the people who dug deep into themselves to forgive this man who’d  had  people like them – maybe even their own friends and families - arrested, persecuted and even killed perhaps.

Paul was a clever man, like Apollos. He knew his way around the Hebrew Bible, and Greek philosophy, like Apollos. But he also knew that the most important lesson he had ever learned had been the one which came to him when he was flat on his face in the dust on the Damascus road. For us too, it’s often only when we have been thrown down from our high horses, when we’ve  lost everything, when we’re broken and spent, that we find what we most need to know, that God loves us when we feel that there is nothing loveable about us, when we are disgraced, ruined, bereft, just like that unlikely Messiah, who hung on a cross, seeming like a complete failure to those who saw him, a man whose mission had come to nothing. When Paul talks about knowing “only Jesus Christ, and him crucified”, he is proclaiming that the Messiah we need isn’t one who can win every argument hands-down and blast his opponents to smithereens, like an Alexandrian philosopher. It is one who has faced the humiliation, the failure, the many different forms of death which come to us as we go through life. That kind of Messiah liberates us to be who we are, not who we think we ought to be, to stop pretending and hiding, because we realise that it is the people we are that God loves.

And that brings me to the Gospel reading.  It is easy to read this passage as being about evangelism, as an exhortation to get out there in the world and be salt and light to others, brightening up their lives, bringing flavour to them. But that can just make us feel guilty and pressured. Are we salty enough? Are we shiny enough?

And I’m not sure that this is really what Jesus is saying at all. He doesn’t say “you ought to be the salt of the earth”.  He says “you are the salt of the earth”. He doesn’t say “you should be the light of the world”. He says, “you are the light of the world.”. Salt can’t help but be salty;  if it isn’t salty, it isn’t salt. Light can’t help but shine – if you don’t want it to illuminate things, the only thing you can do is put a bucket over it, which, as Jesus points out, is just daft. I don’t think Jesus is really talking about  evangelism here at all. I think he is talking about authenticity, trusting that God will be at work in us if we are being the people he has made us to be, whether we are succeeding or failing, in good times or in bad.

This passage follows straight on from what we call the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…  Blessed are a whole lot of other people, says Jesus,  who are going through hard times and whose lives are falling apart, as Paul’s did. Why? Because these are the times when we usually discover most deeply the love of Christ, the comfort of Christ, the presence of Christ, “and him crucified” ; Christ who is with us when everything else we trusted in has been taken away, Christ who calls us simply to be who we are, and know that, as we are, we are blessings to the world, because we are made in the image of God, who is the source of all blessings.

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