I’ve been thinking a lot about St. Paul this week. Wednesday, January 25, was the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul often has a bad reputation among contemporary progressive Christians. He can be quite nasty; he seems very sure of himself, and he wrote, or others wrote in his name, things about the role of women that strike modern sensibilities as offensive.
Still, the occasion gave me the opportunity to reflect on his conversion or call, and the different ways he in his own writings, and Luke in the Book of Acts, have slightly different takes on it. In my homily at our monthly Eucharist at Capital Lakes, I talked about how Paul is in some ways much like us—a flawed person who was transformed by God’s grace and called by God to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
I almost always focus on the gospel reading in my sermons—it’s not only accepted practice but in some ways expected. And perhaps I should have chosen to preach on today’s gospel reading the first verses of Matthew 5, the beginning of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. These verses are known as the Beatitudes. But the other two readings are equally compelling. First there are the words from the prophet Micah that climax eloquently with:
“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Then the Beatitudes, which in the Gospel of Matthew are the first public words uttered by Jesus:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth
And so on. Words that have comforted and challenged Christians throughout the millennia, and comfort and challenge us today. If I have time this morning, I will come back to them and connect what Jesus is saying here with what I will be saying about Paul over the next few minutes.
But to Paul, and to 1 Corinthians. We heard the first verses of the letter last week and we’ll have more readings from it over the next few weeks, so it’s worth saying about about the letter as a whole. The first thing to keep in mind is that it was a letter. It was written by Paul to a community that he had founded some years earlier and it reflects that relationship. He has been in contact with members of that community. Apparently he received a letter from them and also a visit from some “Chloe’s people” he calls them.
Like any other letter, it is written for a particular purpose and to a particular audience—not to us. We are, in a sense, eavesdroppers on that conversation. The questions that are asked are not necessarily questions that concern us—whether it’s ok to eat food that’s been offered to Hellenistic deities, for example. Nonetheless, these letters tell us a great deal about Paul, about the communities he began and those with whom he corresponded. We also learn a great deal about early Christianity. As such, and because they were written only a couple of decades after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, they are worth reading to gain an understanding of how this new religious movement was developing and what motivated people to join it.
The relationship between Paul and the early Christian community in Corinth was not an easy one. II Corinthians reveals the intensity of the conflict between Paul and some members of the community, and the extent of the pain he felt from their criticisms. But I’ll leave all that aside. I want to focus in on today’s reading.
Paul makes one of the great rhetorical and theological flourishes in the Christian tradition as he rebuffs his opponents: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” When we hear Paul contrasting the “folly” of the cross with the Greeks’ desire for wisdom, our temptation is to read those words in light of our own conflicts between faith and reason. But that’s not the case. For the Greeks, the search for wisdom was a religious quest, a quest for a certain kind of religious knowledge that was acquired only through great effort or personal revelation.
What Paul is trying to articulate is that the wisdom of the cross, or to use his language, the folly of the cross, is accessible to all. At the same time, it subverts all categories of comprehension and expectation. For Paul, the cross—where we see Jesus Christ dying—where we see God at God’s weakest, is precisely the place where God’s saving power is revealed. That is the central paradox of the gospel for Paul. He uses it to undercut all efforts to connect status or power in the community with one’ own abilities, efforts, or experience.
There may be nothing more difficult to understand than this key notion of Paul’s. It runs counter to everything we know or expect. As humans, our very conception of God is tied to God’s power and knowledge. God is that being to whom we appeal for help when we are powerless, weak, and in need. We project on God all of our hopes. We turn Jesus Christ into the superhero who will rescue us when we are in danger.
But Paul says something quite different. For Paul, God is at God’s most powerful, we see Jesus Christ most clearly, when we see him dying on the cross. There we confront and experience God’s love and more importantly, God’s sharing in our humanity and pain. That’s the foolishness of the cross. But that’s also the power of the cross. That’s the power of the incarnation—God with us. Jesus Christ is not the superhero who rescues us, Jesus Christ is the one who is with us when we suffer. Jesus Christ, God is with all those who suffer.
It is there, on the cross, that we see God. It is there, on the cross, that we see God’s reign breaking in upon the world. Jesus proclaims this truth when he announces that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, when he announces that all of them are blessed. They share in God’s reign. They experience God’s reign.
Of course, none of that may be obvious. Those who mourn are grieving; the poor in spirit are suffering. Yet when we accept Jesus’ call to follow him and become fishers of people, we share with him in proclaiming the Good News that God’s reign has come near. We share with him the responsibility of bringing healing and wholeness to a broken world and to broken people. When they experience that healing, they begin to see and experience God’s grace and power in their lives. They begin to experience the power of the cross and the reality that God’s reign is near. Thanks be to God.