A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (05/02/23): Not with Plausible Words of Wisdom

1 Corinthians 2:1-4(5-12)

Paul Demoralised
Paul looks back to when he arrived in Corinth. When he got there he was disappointed, frustrated, demoralised. He didn’t cut a very impressive figure. Emotionally he was broken. He was self-doubting and fearful. He arrived in Corinth from Athens. In Athens he had engaged Greek culture, Greek thinking, Greek religion at its very heart. He had debated with the philosophers, and he come away disappointed with the very poor results that he had resulted from this engagement. He had argued for Christianity in terms of Greek Philosophy. He had attempted to address the intellectuals on their own ground on their own terms, and he had come away with very slim results.
Once he had reached Corinth, an altogether different place than Athens, he had promised himself one thing: No more trying to engage Greek culture on its own turf! From now own he would stick to one thing. He would preach one message. He wouldn’t argue. He wouldn’t debate. He wouldn’t try to persuade, using the conventional arguments of philosophy. He would simply know and proclaim one thing: Jesus Christ and him Crucified!

The Church Now Demoralised
Perhaps there is some parallel between Paul’s feelings, as he left Athens and travelled to Corinth, and our own experience of the Church and of being Christian now. His emotions are perhaps not altogether unfamiliar to us as we have sought to speak of our faith in the present age. So much of our experience of Church does seem to be one of disappointment and frustration. So many Christians and so many congregations do feel demoralised. We certainly do seem to have difficulty making ourselves heard. We have lost the position our society, that when the church spoke society listened. And as we try to engage that new situation, where we are speaking from the margins, and where we have to compete to make our voice heard, where the church is a small and we would hope missional minority, (The situation of Christians here in the 21st Century is remarkably similar to that of Christians around the Mediterranean in the 1st Century), we don’t seem able to win the argument. No matter what we say or do, no matter how we express our message, no matter how carefully we tailor what we have to say to the current cultural climate, no matter the ways we try to make Christianity fit with contemporary ways of thinking, no matter how carefully we apply hard won insights about society, about culture and about psychology, about the way people are now, we are met with little success! We don’t get far in winning over the cultured despisers of religion. To some Richard Dawkins and his like are to persuasive. To others our wisdom and our mystery are neither wise or mysterious enough and some other path seems more attractive. We don’t get far, certainly no further than Paul did, in the market place of ideas. But we, of course, don’t have the luxury of creating a fresh start for ourselves by walking away from Athens and heading for Corinth. We are stuck with the times that we find ourselves in. But perhaps like Paul we have reached the point when we have to tell ourselves that me must know only one thing amongst the people with whom we live: Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Not Hunkering Down
This of course sounds like the appeal of the frustrated traditionalist or conservative, who longs for a golden age in a past that never actually existed. This does sound rather too much like a back to basics appeal. And if it does it’s wrong. And if it does it shouldn’t! This mustn’t be a reaction to the adverse circumstances we found ourselves in for making Christianity known that makes us pull away from the time and the place we are actually living in. This mustn’t be a kind of hunkering down, clutching onto safe certainties from the past. This mustn’t be a contraction of the richness and breadth of the Good News that Jesus Christ in truth brings. Nor must it be a retreat into mere assertion, as if saying: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” louder and more often would do. Nor should allow us to fail to engage in the world that we live in as it it really is.

Essential to the Message
But Paul has recognised something that is essential to the message, something that is in the message itself. He recognises that the cross must be allowed to convince on its own terms. It cannot be improved on. It cannot be translated into some more sympathetic, or more culturally accessible idea. Paul knows that convincing arguments make only believers in those convincing arguments. And he knows that winning words and attractive personality creates only followers of Paul or whoever else it is that speaks. The very nature of the Gospel message is intended to avoid such a possibility. It is not by accident that it is foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews. The fact is you can’t, indeed you are not meant to be able to, argue convincingly for cross. You can’t make Jesus and him crucified more attractive than a broken man dying a criminals death. And that’s the point!
The closest you get to a convincing argument is to say, like Tertullian did nearly 150 years later: “You wouldn’t make it up!” But Paul understands, perhaps only after the disappointment of Athens, he understands: “This is so your faith may rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Only God reveals God. Only God makes Christians. No matter how clever our ideas, no matter how complete our description of reality through science or philosophy, God in the end hides behind and beyond those ways of knowing. God can only be known in the way God chooses to be know. And God chooses to be known in the deliberately contrary and off-putting sign of the cross. The cross can only be declared. It is not plausible, it cannot be argued for. It is not another piece of information that can be fitted in with all the other pieces of information. Once proclaimed it must be either accepted or rejected. And once accepted it must become the one thing known, the piece of wisdom, that changes the meaning of everything else.

Eloquence against Eloquence
But, Paul, though we would have to say is being at least a little disingenuous. He argues against eloquence very eloquently. He is not averse himself to a carefully constructed phrase and a will pitched argument. And it would not be unreasonable to imagine that he was probably one of the most persuasive preachers that ever lived. To say nothing of his being the first and among the most profound Christian theologians. When he declares himself against arguing and persuading, he is in fact declaring himself in arguing and persuading in conventional, he would call them worldly ways. He knows, and we should know, that the message of the cross has its own power to persuade, it is sustained by its own logic. There will always be a new way of saying it, but it it must always saying the same thing: Jesus Christ and him crucified!
Christ died for us and we can and must live our lives in the light of the new situation his death creates for us. And we should never forget that it is not us or our words that ever persuades, but the cross itself which imposes an unavoidable either or on our hearers. And it is God himself who persuades.

Proclaiming the Gospel
St Francis of Assisi is famously, or is that notoriously, supposed have said: “Proclaim the gospel by all the means that you have, use words if you have to.” The most eloquent sermons are faithful Christian lives, lives lived in the transformative power of the cross. We can go back to Paul himself for an outstanding example of that. For all the brilliance of his words, Paul was persuasive because of the way in which the message he proclaimed had already transformed his life. It mattered less what he said than who God had made him. Nothing has changed in that respect. The gospel is made convincing by people who have chosen to know one thing and one thing only: Jesus Christ and him crucified!
And who have had all the rest of their knowing and their being transformed by that knowledge. Amen.

Not with Plausible Words of Wisdom by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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