> a sermon preached at Rundle Memorial United Church, Banff AB
I have a particularly strong, positive emotional connection with some scriptures. When I see them coming up in the Sunday Lectionary, I can feel my response, a lightness combined with positive anticipation. Most often, it’s scriptures that are, by nature, quite emotional: the parable of the prodigal son, or the parable of the good Samaritan, for example.
Curiously, I have that same kind of connection with today’s reading from 1st Corinthians, in which the Apostle Paul contrasts human and religious wisdom with the Holy realities expressed through the cross of Christ. Written more like a legal argument or a university lecture, than like a poem or story that one wants to revisit time and again, there is nonetheless something about the deep truth of this that speaks to my heart, and has the potential to say much to us in the Church.
It appears that the intersecting circles of Paul’s worldview were not all that different from the way thought and opinion function in our time and place – at least for those of us with religious beliefs. Paul had one foot in academic knowledge, the “Greek” approach to borrow his language, and one foot in his religious heritage as a Jew.
In the “Greek” approach, one of the really common ways to feel superior to others, was to claim one’s own position as ideal and knowledgeable, and to dismiss one’s opponents as foolish, dim, ignorant, ill-informed. Clearly, that dismissiveness has been going on for a long time, as Paul wrote this 2000 years ago, but I cannot think of a time in my life when it has been more evident than the past six years.
Willow Defebaugh, editor of the Atmos Climate & Culture magazine, cites a classic illustration as she writes “imagine a pond. Now, imagine someone throwing a pebble into that pond. What happens? Concentric circles—ripples—begin to radiate from that original point of action. Each ripple is a small wave consisting of a crest and trough, which the logical mind of binary thinking views as opposites: ‘the highest and lowest points, each essentially meaningless without the other.’ What emerges is a metaphor for how we perceive the entire universe, in oppositions: with life came death, with day came night, and so on”.
“This is how I have come to view events in the cultural ‘pond’ we all inhabit. Something happens, and almost immediately, opposing viewpoints emerge. Thanks to social media—which is programmed to elicit this exact phenomenon, thereby increasing engagement—these waves of opposition become massive….The result is pockets of extremism welling in every online corner, and a society that we perceive as being more divided than ever. And the more we perceive ourselves as divided, the more divided we become as individuals and as a society.”
She goes on to describe the formation of the United States, as “a unified entity which was born out of a binary (the American Revolution for independence from Great Britain), only to eventually give way to its own duality in the form of a two-party system. The problem isn’t that we live in a country containing both conservatives and liberals; the problem is that we’re still reeling from a president who sowed a division so stark that people no longer wish to compromise and reach across partisan divides, without which politics can’t exist.”
And while Willow is describing her experience in the USA, it’s all too clear that the same kind of binary, oppositional system is holding sway in Canada as well, especially in Alberta.
That’s what Paul was speaking of, as well. Those people who regarded themselves as wise, educated, and cultured, looked at the early Church and the story of Jesus of Nazareth, the Saviour who had been crucified, and dismissed the whole thing as nonsense, the kind of thing that only a deluded fool would believe.
In addition to his background in Greek philosophy, Paul was Jewish, and well-acquainted with the scholarly Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees who were also dismissive of those who saw in Jesus an expression of the will and way of God – especially those in Corinth, where so many of the Jesus followers were from marginalized groups. In his commentary on 1st Corinthians, Simon Kistemaker wrote, “from a Jewish point of view, [crucifixion was proof that] God had cursed the crucified person forever. Even a mere reference to such a person was offensive to a religiously sensitive Jew. Indeed, calling a crucified man the Christ, that is, the Messiah, was the height of spiritual insensitivity.”
A stumbling-block, indeed. It was hard enough to get past the blasphemy of the Jesus-followers in suggesting that anyone outside of perhaps a divinely ordained King or High Priest is in any way an embodiment of God, but to suggest that one who had been crucified, was God incarnate in the way that these people were saying?
Believers within pretty much all religious systems can fall into some form of spiritual arrogance, in which formal membership in that religion and only that religion – by birth, by practice, by ceremony, by statement of belief – gives one an exclusive inside track with God. These Jesus-followers, called “Christ-ians” as a derogatory term, couldn’t have been more deluded from the standpoint of Paul’s Jewish upbringing. In our day, the amount of mudslinging both ways between different branches of Christianity is an appalling example.
So we have here Paul’s description of the way that Christ Crucified is problematic no matter which foot he is standing on: “and since Jews request signs and Greeks look for wisdom, we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Gentiles foolishness.”
Herein is the personal emotional connection I was speaking of, to this scripture. By nature, I need things to “make sense.” Show me an argument with a strong, sequential, linear structure, backed up by rigorous intellectual thought, well, I’m all yours. That speaks to my personal inclinations, and it certainly aligns with my Seminary training. Yet I know in my heart that I need to make room for the Holy, which is not strictly governed by my rules of what “makes sense”, or even my concepts of what is fair, or what is just.
And that part of me that is proudly United Church, proud of the hard-questioning scholarship first experienced in our seminaries and then, through the New Curriculum of the early 1960s, presented to laypeople of all ages, and also proud of the liberal social teachings and social justice stances of my Denomination… well, that part of me needs to be aware that pride and pridefulness are just two small syllables apart from each other. My approach to Jesus Christ is one that emphasizes his connection with the challenges of earthly life, particularly the struggles poor and marginalized, and while I do believe the centrality of this I dare not discount the lived faith of those for whom Christ Jesus is first and foremost their Saviour, the one whose deliverance is focused mostly on the eternal realm.
Perhaps the reason these words from Paul touch me so deeply, is that they set my footings at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, rather than relying on own intellect, or my left-leaning social justice. In the midst of my need for things to make sense, in my need to be politically correct, the reconciling, outreaching figure of God, transcends all of it.
Returning to that article by Willow Defebaugh… having presented the binary approach, of dropping a pebble into a pond and seeing the waves and troughs as things that oppose each other, she writes, “While the logical mind sees the crest and trough of a wave as opposites, the universal mind remembers that it’s all just water…. The nonbinary option seeks [only] to open up space for possibility by transcending the inherent divisiveness of ‘this or that’ thinking”. I want to be up on top of the crest, not down in the trough, I want my way to be the way Jesus would endorse over other ways, and yet… it’s all just water. My connection with the God of the ages, with the Spirit who shows me new ways, with the Christ who reaches beyond divisions in the promise of a new day dawning, is so far beyond my ability to grasp or to limit, as to be humbling in the most hope-filled ways.
Christ crucified created problems for both aspects of Paul’s being. And yet the crucified and risen Christ transcends those same problems. Christ crucified – what happens when God’s all-in commitment to just, inclusive love, runs up against systems that claim to be smarter or more faithful – is what holds us together, and calls us forward and outward even amidst the division of the world and the uncertainty of what Church life is the northern hemisphere and in the Bow Valley is going to look like five or ten or twenty years from now. For each time we encounter the crucified Christ, we also encounter the promise of resurrections.
I started this message by speaking of the emotional connection of this passage, and realize that much of what I’ve said has probably connected more with the head, than the heart. With that, I close with words from the United Church of Canada’s “Song of Faith” (2006), which describes itself as a “verbal picture” of our shared faith at the beginning of the 21st century. May these words of the heart, describing Christ crucified, help us to be both broad and integrated:
Jesus, a Jew, born to a woman in poverty
in a time of social upheaval
and political oppression,…
announced the coming of God’s reign—
a commonwealth not of domination
but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.
He healed the sick and fed the hungry.
He forgave sins and freed those held captive
by all manner of demonic powers.
He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.
He preached and practised unconditional love—
love of God, love of neighbour, love of friend, love of enemy—
and he commanded his followers to love one another
as he had loved them.
Because his witness to love was threatening,
those exercising power sought to silence Jesus.
He suffered abandonment and betrayal,
state-sanctioned torture and execution.
He was crucified.
But death was not the last word.
God raised Jesus from death,
turning sorrow into joy, despair into hope.
We sing of Jesus raised from the dead.
We sing hallelujah.
By becoming flesh in Jesus, God makes all things new.
In Jesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering,
God empowers us to live in love.
In Jesus’ crucifixion,
God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.
In Jesus’ resurrection, God overcomes death.
Nothing separates us from the love of God.
The Risen Christ lives today,
present to us and the source of our hope.
In response to who Jesus was
and to all he did and taught,
to his life, death, and resurrection,
and to his continuing presence with us through the Spirit,
we celebrate him as
the Word made flesh,
the one in whom God and humanity are perfectly joined,
the transformation of our lives,
the Christ. AMEN.
Defebaugh, Willow. https://atmos.earth/carl-jung-enantiodromia-nonbinary-thinking/
Kistemaker, Simon J. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993. pp. 53-65
The United Church of Canada. “A Song of Faith”.
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.