When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
You can always count on St. Paul to go for the rhetorical flourish. Despite all those protestations we just heard about how un-lofty and artless his words are, he has such an instinct for verbal drama. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Nothing, whatsoever, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. As we continue reading along in 1st Corinthians, Paul is really talking here about his initial approach to the residents of Corinth, but reading that sentence in chapter 2 could make you think this is either going to be a very short letter, or a very repetitive one. After all, he claims he’s only got one topic.
When you get to know this letter, you discover that it has far more than one topic. As I said 2 weeks ago, we are in early stages in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians at this point, though we’ll be reading nearly the whole thing as part of our Lenten program, and you’ll see that in fact it’s 16 chapters long and covers all sorts of topics, some of them quite pragmatic. Paul writes about conflict within a parish. He writes about the importance of collaborative servant leadership. There’s a section on lawsuits and a section on marriage. There’s some complex stuff dealing with the religious pluralism in Corinth.
So when Paul announces up front, with a fair amount of passion, that all he wants to offer, all he is going to focus on is Jesus Christ and him crucified, what we’re seeing is once again what we looked at 2 weeks ago, what time management experts might call one of those big rocks that has to get in the jar first. Paul’s going to talk eventually about the day to day challenges of Christian life and the mundane business of church. He’ll get to all that, to the sand and the pebbles that also have to fill up in the jar. But not without making sure the most important things get in there first. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Some of you have heard me talk about the fact that in my early 20s, well before I was ordained, I worked as the program director at a homeless shelter. During that time I went through an odd phase where that verse seemed to turn up everywhere I went. 1 Corinthians 2:2. You know, my main preoccupations at the time were pragmatic things like getting estimates for new cots, and making out the staff schedule for the week, and finding people to replace our lunch volunteers who couldn’t come anymore. But everywhere I turned I seemed to find this verse. It would be in the daily office… I’d see the words done in calligraphy on someone’s wall… a book I was reading would quote it – I’m sure any of you who read Scripture outside church have had that kind of experience.
One Sunday I visited a different Episcopal church than the one I was regularly attending, and because I knew where we were in the lectionary, I remember actually thinking in the car on the way, “at least I won’t have to deal with this 1 Corinthians 2:2 stuff.” Well, unlike us that parish did its announcements before the service, and the rector got up and, no kidding, said, “A reminder that as part of our church-wide Christian formation focus this year, we have special permission from our bishop to depart from the lectionary, and all our liturgies and small groups this week are looking at First Corinthians chapter 2.” I probably don’t need to tell you what verse the sermon was on?
Now maybe I just really need things brought home to me over and over, but I am still, even today, grateful for God having done that to me, because it made that verse a kind of touchstone for me. We tend to assume that compared to Paul, we have so much else to think about, us contemporary churchgoers. Really complex issues like conflicts and leadership problems and lawsuits and marriage and religious pluralism. Gosh, just the same list of things this letter touches on – although Paul had to deal with them in between getting thrown in jail and beaten with rods.
But when Paul writes churches about those things, things that can so preoccupy us and take up so much energy, he continually brings them, and us, back to what it’s all about. The truths that Paul has for this Corinthian parish and our Champaign parish – the things that again I was calling the big rocks that have to go into the jar first – basic, deep truths about who Jesus is and what he did on the Cross, and how the Holy Spirit works in people, and how profound God’s love actually is, all those truths are spread throughout the letter, anchoring his practical answers to their practical questions about all the various kinds of messes they’ve gotten into.
I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified, not because this is the church and we’re supposed to doff our hat to something spiritual before we go tackle the real business at vestry meeting, but because only Jesus Christ and him crucified has the power to make our life as a church effective enough to be worth investing all this time and energy in. Grounding our life in Jesus Christ and him crucified doesn’t always necessarily change what we do. But it inevitably changes something far more important: why, and how.
Why: not because it’s a nice idea or because we’ve always done it that way or because it seems like it could help or some influential parishioners might prefer it. Not that. Then why do we do what we do if we’ve grounded our life in Jesus Christ and him crucified? Why? We do it because the Cross and Resurrection are already at work changing the world. Because the power God unleashed there is exponentially more effective than our own power. And because God’s strategy is to keep changing the world in part via using people like you and me who are willing to take the risk of buying into following Jesus Christ and him crucified. In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us, “You are the light of the world.” We think of Jesus being the light of the world, but here he says it about US. Because once we open ourselves to him, he is the light of the world in us. Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen: all that power is in us and works through us to implement what God already made possible.
That’s the why. How? Not by our own programmatic techniques, not according to our own preferences, not by methods that make easy sense to the world, not under our own steam. Not that. Then how do we do what we do if we’ve grounded our life in Jesus Christ and him crucified? How? In ways that rely on the grace and mercy found only in the cross; in ways that communicate our trust that God is trustworthy and takes initiative; in ways that look to Christ’s self-offering, and not to what we can offer on our own, for validation.
In Isaiah today, the prophet tells us that if we begin to live this way, we will be called “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” I’ve always loved that line. “The repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Wouldn’t that be a great thing for people to be saying about Emmanuel? For the members of our community advisory committee with Partners for Sacred Places to be saying? “Oh yeah, I know that church. That’s the church that is restoring the life of our streets and making them livable. That’s the church that’s repairing breaches between human beings. They have made this city so much better. What would we do without them?”
But even if people do say that about you and me, we can never forget that it’s really Jesus Christ, and him crucified, that restores (through us). It’s really Jesus Christ, and him crucified, that repairs (through us). It’s really Jesus Christ, and him crucified, that is the light of the world (through us). It’s really Jesus Christ, and him crucified and risen, that is both the why and the how of everything Emmanuel does. And Jesus is already at work in our church and our city and our hearts, just waiting for you and me to join in and help him give all that love and power away.