Sunday February 5, 2017
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Daniels
I Corinthians 2:1-16
Jesus Christ, and Him Crucified
One of the most surprising phenomena of the late twentieth-century, on into the present day, must be the resilience of religion and spirituality. This is against the expectations of most modern sociologists and students of history. To choose just one example: the sociologist Peter Berger in the 1960s and 70s predicted that secularization was the inevitable result of modernity and that a completely secularized world—at least a secularized Western world—was in the making. He has since changed that view. It was not a theory he invented, though. Max Weber described the fading away of religion as the ongoing “disenchantment of the world” in 1917; Nietzsche said something similar in the 1800s; and many of the Enlightenment thinkers operated under similar assumptions in the 1700s.
This has not come to pass exactly as was expected. But they were right in that howpeople experience spirituality and religion has changed form, somewhat significantly. (Again, at least in the West.) Rather than primarily being formalized in ecclesiastical structures and particular traditions, spirituality is practiced more as an eclectic and subjective experience, and it manifests itself in many different ways.
I myself have nothing but kind words to say about anyone who is trying to make sense of a confusing and dangerous world and is doing so by exploring and utilizing the resources of religion and spirituality. (Better that than some other things, I figure.) The unexpected resilience of spirituality reflects an ongoing human need for a connection to what is more than just the material, more than just the everyday.
Nonetheless, the Christian must have a somewhat ambivalent relationship to all of this eclecticism and subjectivism. It is not an ambivalence that stems from a concern for the institutional preservation of the Church, of course. Nor from a desire to maintain social relevance or cultural capital. No, the source of Christian ambivalence can be entirely summed up in one line written by Saint Paul, which we heard in today’s epistle reading, the letter to the Corinthians.
Paul was writing to the Corinthians because he had founded their church in years past, and now they were struggling, due to a number of divisions emerging in the community. They were divided over spiritual practices, over some remaining traces of paganism, divided because of ethical disagreements. Some members of the community elevated themselves over other members, sometimes because of wealth, other times because one group would claim to be more spiritually advanced than the rest. Some would say they knew more about this new religion than others did; some of them may have had mystical visions and used that as proof of their advanced state.
There were many different reasons but they had one thing in common: they all drove Paul crazy. So in the epistle he reminds them that when he came to them in the first place, he did not come with an advanced spirituality, or special knowledge, or religious expertise. He did not come to them as a guru seeking initiates; he did not have any secrets to tell them about enlightenment or how to avoid suffering. He came offering one thing and one thing only. He writes, “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
One thing: Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
And thus the Christian ambivalence toward many contemporary quests for spiritual illumination. Spirituality and religion may have shown themselves more resilient than the Enlightenment thinkers had imagined but, to put it kind of bluntly, it is not only that Christianity is not very spiritual; Christianity is not really very religious—not if we use the modern senses of these terms as individual persons dealing exclusively with things “above,” so to speak, or unphysical, or unembodied. Not if we think of our relationship with God as in any way unrelated to the things of the world, in all of their beauty, yes, and in all of their ugliness as well. The Christian, whether in Corinth, or Rome, or New York, cannot think of religion as an escape from the world.
That is illustrated most clearly in the fact that at the very center of Christian scriptures, traditions, and its millennia of practices—right in the very place where any self-respecting spirituality or religion would locate enlightenment, or mysticism, or secret knowledge—for the Christian, right at the center there hangs a dead man: Jesus Christ, a criminal, crucified. It is inelegant, to say the least; not mystical at all; very physical, all too physical. There is no sense of escape in that.
Behold the man: Jesus Christ crucified. When Paul wrote that he “knew nothing else among you” except that, that was not entirely true, on its face. It is obvious that Paul knew all kinds of things. Paul himself had had a mystical vision, according to the book of Acts. His knowledge was enormous. Of the traditions of the Hebrews he was an expert; of the Jewish scriptures he was an astonishingly good scholar. But he knew nothing else that was essential; he knew nothing else that he needed to pass on to the Corinthians. Nothing else except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
If that sounds odd to us, and maybe a little bit lame and boring—that that is what the sum of spirituality and religion consists of for Paul—we have that reaction in common with the Corinthians. You can almost hear them saying, “Yes, but we have improved on just that. Christ crucified is basic and unsophisticated. We are more advanced now. We have discovered new levels of spiritual maturity and new sources of knowledge, and you need to keep up with the times.”
But, again, that is not the Christian faith. For Christians, there is spiritual maturity, but it consists of going deeper into Christ’s death and resurrection; there is spiritual wisdom, but it is the knowledge of God’s love for us demonstrated in the crucifixion. Christian spirituality is about encounter with the crucified and risen Christ; Christian religiosity is about the worship of God in Christ and living out that worship every day, objectively, in the real world of history and other people.
The testimony of scripture and tradition is that in Christ God entered into that real world of darkness and confusion that we ourselves experience and takes it onto himself. He does not ignore it, or show us how to ignore it, much less how to avoid it. No, God took on every struggle and pain; he suffered them; and he enabled their redemption. Christ’s resurrection is proof that none of that darkness and confusion will have the final say in the lives of those who love him. The resurrection shows us that death itself will be destroyed; the destruction of the last enemy, on the last day.
This is the world-altering significance of Christ crucified. Unlike private religiosity, the real-world murder of the innocent Christ at a specific time and place undermines the real-world authority of any particular political system, any specific social structure, any cultural or economic principle that claims ultimate authority. It is the event that reveals the powers and principalities in their sinfulness, and so destined ultimately for defeat.
This is good news for everyone, and that is why “Christ crucified” is the rallying cry of every Christian, in every place, at every time. Christ crucified is what binds us together, and not just for our benefit, but for the benefit of all people. In a fallen world the followers of Christ can model what an alternative kind of common life looks like, what a community looks like, when it knows one essential thing, Christ crucified. When Christ crucified is its point of unity, it will be a community that resists division, a community that resists the tribalism that is so common in the rest of the culture—and, as the Corinthians show us, has always been common.
Instead, Jesus’ followers should make it so that people look at Christian communities and say, “What a strange group of people! All of these different kinds of people, unlike each other in every conceivable way, who do not agree on anything—nothing except that they are sinners in need of the redemption that comes from Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Nothing else.
The Church already has a word for this: catholic. It means “universal,” and at its best it can draw everyone together at the foot of the cross—sinners and saints alike, a strange combination of people, who know nothing else except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Everything else is secondary and derivative, and for the Christian, first things must come first. Like Paul, we must know one thing that is essential. Not “the wisdom of men, but … the power of God,” a power made perfect in weakness, brought to its fulfillment on the cross. In this death and resurrection all Christians can find unity, and hope, and life, together.
Jesus Christ, and him crucified.