The Scandal of the Cross: A sermon for 4 Epiphany, 2023

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.

Knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and Him Crucified: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul these past few weeks. Our second reading throughout the Season of Epiphany comes from I Corinthians, a letter I have found fascinating since my first undergraduate course in Paul more than thirty-five years ago. I was also engaged with Paul because of the recent screening and conversation at UW of the Film “The Polite Bribe.” I’m not sure why, but in January, I also began reading N.T. Wright’s new 2-volume work on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Let me confess right now, this is the first scholarly work of Wright’s that I’ve read. I’ve avoided him because of his reputation for being on the conservative side of Pauline scholarship, and because as Bishop of Durham, he contributed to the difficult relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Still, I had read some early reviews and thought it might be worth taking a look at. I’m glad I did. Continue reading

Knowledge puffs up–Lectionary reflections for 4 Epiphany, Year B

This week’s readings are here.

Someone asked me after service yesterday if I had ever preached on the text from I Corinthians that was read yesterday (last week’s readings). In fact, three years ago, my sermon focused on the urgency of the good news as evidenced in both the gospel and in I Corinthians 7. But my questioner wasn’t interested in that part of the sentence: “The appointed time has grown short”–he was interested in the second part of that sentence, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none…”

No, I’ve never preached on that particular text, but in fact this whole passage is strong evidence for the difficulty of applying what Paul has to say about the Christian life–ethics and morality–to the lives of twenty-first century Christians. He assumes that the parousia, Jesus’ return, is imminent. It might happen any day now. That fact changed everything for him. Earlier in chapter 7, Paul says some things that are quite difficult for us to hear, about slavery and marriage, but all of it should be read in light of the imminent second coming. Because Jesus is coming back soon, nothing else really matters, and there’s no reason to make big changes in one’s life, like getting married. Now, few of us believe that Jesus is coming back soon, so we should probably not take what Paul has to say about slavery or marriage in this passage very seriously.

On the other hand, there are certain principles that can guide one’s ethical decision-making in light of Paul. And in this week’s reading from I Corinthians 8, we see one of those principles in action. In a way, it’s helpful that he is discussing an issue that is far from our ordinary experience–eating food that’s been offered to idols.

The issue here is that it was customary for meat left over from pagan sacrifices to be used for celebratory meals, and for most people in the Hellenistic world, such meals, sponsored by wealthy patrons, might be their only regular access to meat. The question the Corinthians had asked Paul was whether, given their new faith in Jesus Christ, and the assurance that their was only one God (and thus the pagan sacrifices were of no avail and meaningless), they could continue to participate in those feasts. It had caused division, because some of those in the Corinthian community were not quite sure whether pagan gods existed and had power, and perceived participation in such meals as evil.

Paul’s answer is instructive: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It’s quite clear from reading I Corinthians that one of the central problems in this community is the issue of how far one can take the “freedom in Christ” that is gained through faith and baptism. Free from law, ie, Jewish Torah? Paul agrees. Free from laws (ie, civil or natural law)? Paul’s not so sure. And what about one’s responsibility to the community, the body of Christ? “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (I Cor. 8:9). So Paul concludes this discussion by saying, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (I Cor. 8:13).

This seems pretty straightforward. One’s own actions and freedom should be tempered by concern for the tender consciences of others. Indeed, this argument is used in contemporary conflicts to argue against certain changes. It can easily become a block to the ongoing discernment of God’s will, but I think there’s some validity in paying close attention to it. What builds up the body of Christ? What undermines it? How do we go about discerning how we should live as individuals and as congregations in the twenty-first century? One clear answer to that from a Pauline, indeed a Christian perspective, is that we are not isolated moral agents, individuals who can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Ultimately, if we claim allegiance to Jesus Christ, such decisions must be made in light of their impact on those with whom we share Eucharistic fellowship.

 

An embarrassment of riches

There are times when the lectionary seems not to provide anything on which to preach; none of the readings have any meat, or seem to speak to the current situation. Other times, I can imagine numerous sermons, all of them quite different, emerging from the readings. Sometimes, there are profound connections among the texts. The latter was true in the Book of Common Prayer lectionary, which selected texts from the Hebrew Bible based on their connection with the Gospel.

The lessons for the Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year C offer an embarrassment of riches. Here are the texts. The text from Nehemia tells the story of Ezra reading the book of the Law to the assembled congregation in Jerusalem. It is set after the exile, and most scholars see this as evidence that the Torah (the Pentateuch) was compiled in exile in Babylon and brought back to Jerusalem after the exile ended.

The lesson from I Corinthians continues Paul’s discussion from chapter 12 of the body of Christ and that marvelous imagery of “we are all members of one body.” It’s important to note that he doesn’t assert that Jesus Christ is the head and we are the members. Rather, we are all members of the same body, none of us having priority. But he goes further. When discussing order in community, Paul asserts that it is gifts of the spirit that need to be ordered, not offices in the church. The editors leave out the end of verse 31: “but let me show you a better way.” That is Paul’s transition to chapter 13, in which he extols love as the greatest of all gifts, binding the community together across its diversity of gifts.

The gospel is Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. I know that will be the focus of my sermon, but the question is how, and if , I will be able to weave the other texts into this. We’ll see. Check back on Sunday.

These are marvelous texts for the beginning of a new year, and the (relative) beginning of a new ministry. They challenge us to think about our mission, our call, and our responsibility.