In the years before I went to seminary, I was an early childhood educator; in my years teaching Pre-K, one of my favorite parts of that vocation was telling stories. I loved seeing kids react with the same joy, wonder, and amazement at a story that they knew backward and forward. In telling stories, I think I most loved, being boisterous and dramatic and changing small elements of the story of the Three Little Pigs or throwing in some extra details to the Goldilocks narrative. The attention of the children in these stories was not in the content, but in the dramatic retelling and experience of the story. In our epistle passage today, Paul, rather than leaning on his compelling story-telling, tells the church at Corinth that the power of what he has come to say comes not from a beautiful preaching style or in lofty words, but centers on Jesus Christ, and him crucified. What is powerful about this is not an eloquent delivery of wisdom of the age, but of God’s wisdom, revealed to us by the Spirit. It is this same Spirit that knows God and is the same one that helps us understand all the gifts which have been bestowed on us by God.
I love this passage from St. Paul; I love this passage from St. Paul because it is so empowering. I’m not sure what your experience with Paul’s letters have been, but I’ve had to do some work to redeem Paul. Having grown up in a fundamentalist tradition, Paul’s words were very often quoted at me, never to me, and were far from empowering, as a particular interpretation demanded the silence of women. Nevertheless, I have come to love St. Paul and his writings. The Pauline epistles are anything but simple; they are as complex and powerful as the people in the churches to whom he was writing.
The church at Corinth had notable issues; reading through 1 Corinthians makes the abundance of issues that this church struggles with plainly obvious. Even just on the surface, there was a lack of respect for each other, chaos in worship, and serious relationship struggles, and it was into this world that Paul begins this letter. Paul names that he lacks the bravado with which his secular contemporaries make proclamation, but holds fast to the fact that that matters very little in knowing the crucified Christ. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” Paul says. A lot of words and thoughts have been projected onto our religious landscape in the name of Paul, but here Paul names that he comes alone knowing nothing but Jesus and him crucified. Because for Paul, the crucified Christ is the lens through which he sees everything, and the Corinthians aren’t trying to eliminate the cross, but, more dangerously, to neutralize it, to sanitize it, to make it less of a powerful force in their lives.
In my life of faith, the cross has very often played an important role, and I thought I had a fairly good handle on what it meant to know Jesus Christ, and him crucified, until I read James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It wasn’t until I read of Cone’s comparison between the cross that shapes our faith and the device of mass torture and murder that has shaped our racial climate that I began to understand what the cross could mean. It wasn’t until I read of the horrors of something that was largely bypassed in my many years of education in the south that I realized what it meant to live a cruciform life. God is known to us when our lives are dictated by the cross, and the one who overcame it and death; it is the crucified and resurrected Messiah that shapes all that we do.
For St. Paul, as he is talking to this church, with all its myriad of issues and worries, the thing that is of sole and lone importance is not who is in control or who gets to speak or who has to be silent, but it the crucified Christ; everything—everything—has to be understood in light of the cross. And the power of the cross comes not from knowing that Christ will overcome that death and torture, or even all the ways in which millions of people will be motivated to faith by that cross event, but the power of the cross is that it is the historical location of love. To live a life shaped by the cross is to live a life dictated by love.
When Paul refers to the cross in a polemical arguments as he does here in our epistle passage, what he is intending and referring to isn’t just the cross, but it is seeing, it is knowing, it is transformation. The cross for Paul requires that we see each other, that we know what it means to choose love, and that we transform into something that is shaped first and foremost by love. In the cross, God’s love is revealed, and in that revealing proves that it can suffer, and in that suffering it can renew. It can renew even when we are feeling lost and confused; it can renew even when relationships are at their breaking point and it can renew when the future is unclear.
As St. Paul instructs the church at Corinth, we ought to be of one mind; we ought to be of one mind that centers on our faith in the cross, our faith in the location of love. When we act of one mind that is dictated by the love demonstrated on the cross, we are able to live our lives with imagination in action and in a shared vision. We are able to imagine the impossible, and have faith that when are about a life ruled and shaped by the cross and the love that endured it, then we are able to live fully into the promises made at our baptism.
In our lives, we are set out to do the good, challenging work of following in the path of the one who was crucified and resurrected; we are tasked to love with a love that suffered and sets about renewing all things. Our jobs as people of faith in a time and world where so much is in transition and chaos is to be a steady source of light. We may not know many things, but when we know the crucified Christ alone, then we know that love is at the center of everything we do and who we are.
A sermon delivered on February 9, 2020 to the people of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Murray, KY for Epiphany 5A on 1 Corinthians 2: 1-16.