1 Corinthians 2:1-16
So, why would I want to be a Christian, anyway?
Well, because God loved you enough to send Jesus to be your savior.
Yeah, to save me from what?
From your sin.
Who are you calling a sinner?
You. We’re all sinners.
Well, that’s depressing. And how did Jesus save us from our sin?
He died on a cross for us.
Eww. What’s wrong with you people?
Well, because he did that, we get to go to heaven when we die.
Yeah, well what about NOW?
Sound familiar? Somehow, the wonderfulness of the cross only sounds good to those who are already part of the fold, and even heaven can sound like a consolation prize to those who want everything NOW. And the problem of explaining what the gospel is, and why you should want it, is not a new one. Even St. Paul talked about it.
People have a hard time at first wrapping their heads around what Christianity is, so they keep trying to make it something else that will satisfy their sense of the good, the true, or the beautiful; in other words, they keep trying to make it a philosophy instead of a religion. Intellectuals (and politicians) will typically tell you that what Christ REALLY had in mind was some advanced ethic or new world order, while ordinary folk will try to reduce the Christian lifestyle to something simple and comprehensible, like Not Being Selfish. And there’s truth in both of those approaches, but they both miss the point in rather large ways, which is why Paul avoided getting off on tangents when he was starting his churches – particularly among the Greeks, who could chase rabbits with the best of them.
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 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 in power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Still, there’s something in us which wants reasons and applications and facts; when told that all we need is faith we feel like we’ve been told to make a meal out of all appetizers. And so we keep haring off after “wisdom” – after philosophy -- because something in us is more comfortable with KNOWING than BELIEVING.
I once did a workshop on philosophy and religion for some high school kids, and what I told them is that human beings are natural philosophers. Philosophy is like the operating system for your computer: it’s how your brain tells you what makes sense. And everybody has a philosophy, just like every computer has an operating system; without it, you couldn’t think coherently. Some people have high-functioning philosophies, and some have clunky ones with lots of junk code embedded in them, but still, without some kind of wisdom to live by, you can’t know what you know, or attempt to set goals and achieve them. So everybody has a philosophy – an operational set of values – a collection of principles to guide one’s actions and to make sense of the world.
Now, I’ve spent a considerable time in the upper reaches of Academia, and I’ve waded through some awful big books written by very smart people. Not all of them are as deep as they make out. Some achieve their "wisdom" mainly by vocabulary and syntax; that is, they write in such a convoluted, dense style that you can read the same paragraph six times and not be able to construe the meaning. But that isn't "wisdom," just poor writing skills. Be that as it may, I’ve noticed that most well-educated people are usually practicing Gnostics.
The original Gnostics were the 1st through 2nd Century folks who were heirs of the Greek philosophers from back in the Day who tried to re-interpret Christianity so that it would make sense according to the best thoughts of the best thinkers. They were very uncomfortable with the idea of Faith; oh, it would do well enough for a starting point, they said, especially for those who had a limited ability for rational thought. But the really advanced people (meaning, themselves) could dispense with Faith and be saved directly, by ENLIGHTENMENT!
The Gnostics were always looking to understand God and the Universe, and when they felt they had finally found the grand underlying principle of things, they had this enormous sense of satisfaction – like finding the last word to finish the crossword puzzle. And this very satisfying experience was, to them, the essence of being saved; not, be it noted, of repenting and being born again, and all that – but of finally “getting it.” You had to be really clever to reach such a stage; so, of course, they believed that those who were saved by UNDERSTANDING were spiritually superior to those who had to be saved by FAITH.
Well, I’ve met people like this, but even those who would be horrified by what the Gnostics did to Christian doctrine often act in a Gnostic sort of way. You see, whenever we start out on a new pursuit – a hobby, a profession, or a religion – there’s a lot to learn. And for a while, the rate of acquisition of the rules, and the definitions, and the rituals, and the stories, and everything can give you quite a rush. When you first start to follow Christ seriously, it seems like there’s something exciting to learn every day!
But learning new stuff is not the same thing as becoming a better person, and the temptation is always to assume that because I understand so much more than I did before I started following Christ, that I must please him more than those who show less interest or who don’t see what I see. And that – while common – is a very foolish assumption to make, but it’s a mistake that smart people make all the time.
As I said, though, EVERYBODY has a philosophy, and uneducated people have a wisdom to share, too. In one of P.D. James’s detective novels, the key to solving a particular murder lies in finding a pair of shoes that have disappeared. It turns out that a tramp found the shoes and, needing a pair, took them, since they had apparently been discarded. When the police finally find the tramp, they offer to buy him a new pair of shoes if he will give them the shoes they’ve been looking for.
They are quite surprised by his calculating response. What kind of shoes? he asks. Why should you care – you’re a tramp! they respond. Ah, but there’s more to being a tramp than you might think; whereupon the tramp offers this bit of philosophy. He says,
The rules of the road are few, but inexorable:Now, folks, I’m getting ready to lead a backpacking trip next week, and let me tell you – that’ll get you by.
Wear leather on your feet,
wool or cotton next the skin,
bathe once a week,
and keep your bowels open.
And what you’ll find is that lots of people have a kind of Rule of Thumb that they apply to life (and some of them think that it is the essence of the Christian Life and Experience).
“Always wear clean underwear because you never know when you might be in an accident”
“Honesty is the best policy”
“Never take the last portion on the plate.”
“God will forgive you if you’re sorry.”
“Bad things come in threes.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
“God will never damn a man for allowing himself a little pleasure.” (That last was from King Charles II, a man known for his complicated love life.)
And what does the Gospel say about Wisdom? Well, St Paul says,
Yet among the mature we do impart a wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.Or as Weird Al Yankovic sang, “Everything you know is wrong.”
Yes, there is something in the Gospel that makes sense out of life, which guides us as first principles, which satisfies the inquiring mind. But it’s not found in a book, and you’re not going to reach it by folk wisdom. You have to actually grow closer to God by walking the Christian walk, day after day – sometimes over a long time – to begin to understand the secrets that God has to share. In other words, you can’t know that the journey is going to be worth it until you’ve already committed yourself to the journey. And then you will find that your choice of Jesus Christ will confirm itself along the way.
When we ask Christ into our hearts – when we break down and admit that we’ve been doing a lousy job of running our own lives and that we need him to be in charge of us – when we repent of our sins and ask him to forgive us and share with us his peace – at that beginning point, we cannot know what we will someday know. We are not at that moment what we will someday become. And we fail more often than we succeed, even at the most basic things that Christ said and the Church teaches. We are tempted to say that the real secret of Christianity must be somewhere else, ‘cause we’re not GETTIN’ IT. But the secret wisdom is revealed to those who keep at it; and lo! and behold, one day you find that every time you look around, there is one more confirmation of the rightness of the choice you made – and you say, Why didn’t I see that before?
Righteousness is not respectability – it is being in the right relation to God. Holiness is not merely ethics – it is belonging to God, in every sense of the word. The Gospel is NOT “do right and go to heaven.” The promise of the gospel is not “heaven,” per se: the promise of the gospel is that we will know God; that we will possess God in the act of being possessed by God; and to experience his love – whether in this life or in life beyond this life -- is what we mean by “heaven.” Christ is not a means to an end – Christ IS the end toward which we strive; for in him, we are connected to God, the right way up, and in him is the fulfillment of all our deepest hopes.
I find as I grow older that when I pray, I ask for less, and I thank God more. The other day, I ran out of things to talk to God about, and so I kept telling him, simply, “I love you” and “you are so good to me.” Love is the fundamental principle of our philosophy, but not love as most people understand it. To those who have walked with Christ for a while, love is an action AND an experience AS WELL AS a means of making sense of the world.
But, as it is written,"What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searaches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.
nor the heart of man conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him,"
The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself judged by no one. "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
You cannot understand who God is, or what God wants, or what God can do in your life, through natural human understanding. You must have the mind of Christ to understand these things. Which brings us back to faith: those who put their trust in Christ belong to him, and he belongs to them. When Christ dwells in your heart, his mind begins to inform your mind.
What is prayer, then, but thinking God’s thoughts after him? And what is love, but experiencing – from the inside – the eternal love which is found in the secret nature of God, who is forever the holder and the held, the Trinity in Unity? What is true, but Christ? What is good, but God? And what is beautiful, but every thing that God has made for our delight? And the wisdom that the Spirit reveals to us increases our faith, to trust that in his good time we shall know far greater things than even these, and they shall bring us ever closer to him who has loved us with so great and everlasting a love.