Sunday, February 9, 2014

5th Sunday after Epiphany

"And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”

In the Epistle lesson this morning, we get a first-hand description of Paul's missionary visit to the Church in Corinth, a city in modern day Greece. The first thing that needs to be said about this visit is that Paul was in fact on a mission. He writes, "when I came to you. . . I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Paul was not a tour of the Roman Empire with the hope of perhaps sharing the message of Jesus with a few friends and associates. He is driven to preach and proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the salvation found in him. Obviously Paul had been touched in a powerful and life-altering way. He had something that had to be shared. Frequently, you hear people who have embraced sobriety in a twelve step program speak of the program with a kind of urgency and conviction that I imagine Paul and the Apostles to have possessed. You see, encountering salvation whether from alcoholism and death or from sin and death gives one a sense of urgency to spread the message of this salvation. It seems to me that in the American Church, we are characterized more by being lukewarm in our devotion than having a sense of mission to share the good news of our Lord Jesus. Might I suggest that this lack of urgency is a result of our collective lack of conviction in the truth of our faith. We do not actually believe that which we say we believe because we would live and act in very different ways. The way to address this religious apathy is not to work ourselves up into a religious frenzy and go start preaching on the street corners, but to open ourselves up more fully to the love and grace of God. It might start simply by asking God to give you a greater knowledge of that grace and love. It is those who know themselves to be loved, who know that they have been delivered from the bondage of serving self and sin, who know that they have been healed from the demon of self-destruction, these are the ones who have a sense of purpose and mission, the ones who will be salt and light to the world.

When Paul came to the Corinthian Church, he did not preach the gospel to them with beautiful and elegant words. He writes, "my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom." There is an important point here. Just using beautiful and persuasive words will not convert the heart, or in other words, you can not argue someone into the faith. Many of us sense this and have decide not to talk about religion with our extended families because we learned how fruitless religious arguments can be. It is perfectly fine to give a thoughtful defense of our faith, to talk about, for example, how the world and biological life contains a great deal of order that points to a Being that orders the universe. Yet having said this, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that argument alone will convert the heart. Paul rightly divined that it is not elegance or wise discourse, but the Spirit working through him and in the hearts of his hearers that ultimately awakens people to faith. So, if you are going to have a conversation about Christianity with a non-Christian or an atheist, simply state your faith and the reasons for it, then heed this sound advice, "be the last to speak, the first to grow silent."

By contrasting the wisdom of this world with the wisdom of God, Paul is not saying that the Christian proclamation is irrational, or that we ought not to use our minds when it comes to matters of faith. Rather, Paul says there is a "wisdom of this age, and of the rulers of this age." Such wisdom cannot comprehend the account of our redemption in Jesus Christ. In the Greek and Roman world, there were four cardinal virtues expounded and celebrated by philosophers and statesmen: wisdom, temperance, prudence and courage. The early Church fathers embraced these virtues as harmonious with Christian morals, but they also added the virtue of humility. The Greeks and Romans did not count humility as a virtue. But of course, the Christian story places humility at the center by relating how the eternal Son of the Father took human flesh to himself. As Paul writes elsewhere, the Son of God did not count equality with God something to be grasped. He did not elect to be born as a rich man from a noble or prosperous family. Rather, he was born in a stable to a modest working family and was reared in the outback of Jewish religious and social life. In Greek mythology, the children of the gods were men of renown, inventors, warriors and kings. Jesus was carpenter turned itinerant preacher. For Christians, the Greek account of virtue needed to be supplemented with the addition of the virtue of humility, because of the model that Jesus of Nazareth provided. Humility is a different kind of wisdom than the wisdom of the world. It is a wisdom hidden in God and manifested principally in our Lord Jesus.

But there is another aspect of this wisdom not of this world, and it concerns the type of love characteristic of God and again modeled in our Lord Jesus. God's love is a persevering love; it is the type of love that loves until it hurts. Jesus loves his disciples and will not let their folly drive him away. Jesus loves even those who crucify him, praying while being crucified for their forgiveness. It is a persevering love. It is also a love that you could be called gratuitous. The world gives verbal allegiance to unconditional love, but it practices a love of convenience: I love you as long as you love me and do not hurt me. As long as lover and beloved are turned to each other and seeking for each other's good, all is well, but as soon as that attention wavers, the beloved's affection does too. With such a conception of love, it is easy to understand the prevalence of divorce in our society. God's love for humanity is altogether different. God's love is a decision of his unchangeable will. He chooses to love, and of course, since God is above passions and emotions, this love does not and can not waver. For this reason, love is in the very fabric of creation because from the beginning God has chosen to love humans and elected them to share in his grace and glory. It means further that God loves even when humanity has its back turned on him. From the perspective of the world, there is a kind of folly in this gratuitous love. If a young man continually offered himself to a young woman only repeatedly to be spurned and scorned, we would laugh at him or least try to talk some sense into him. The wisdom of this world cannot account for such love, the foolish love of God for us wayward sheep. The ultimate manifestation of this foolish love is in our Lord Jesus, who "came unto his own, and his own received him not." It is this persevering love that calls us still and which we commemorate every time we gather to share in the mystery of his Body and Blood. In Holy Communion, we tell again the old, old story of this persevering love.

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