29th January 2017
Revd. Cheryl Collins
I had rather a frightening experience a while ago- I was in a class of 9 year olds answering questions about the Bible. Eventually the discussion shifted to more personal topics. Why are you a vicar? They asked.
Well, I said, searching for the best way to convey my calling to them. Imagine you had been given a very special gift, wouldn’t you want to share it with everyone?
No, they said firmly.
Not even if you didn’t lose any of the gift by sharing it?
After that I was a bit stuck.
Yes, the first question our world encourages us to teach our children is ‘What’s in it for me?’ We are at the centre of everything. The world must revolve around our needs, our tastes, our desires and even our fantasies.
Even churches sometimes succumb to the temptation- ‘After the week you’ve had, read one billboard, don’t you deserve the Sunday we’re having!’ A prefect example of the theology of me- when even worship is about my need for comfort and entertainment. This is the wisdom of this world. It is entirely centred on us and it leaves God out altogether.
For such a wisdom, the cross isn’t just folly it’s bad news. We want success, gratification, more, more, more not the news that the death of an obscure Galilean carpenter is God’s final word of wisdom and power. If this is God’s power, then what’s in it for us?
Perhaps these were the kind of questions that the young church in Corinth was wrestling with. Corinth was a sophisticated cosmopolitan city, full of competing ideologies and gods, all anxious to offer the best deal and attract more adherents. The Corinthians enjoyed a smooth talker, someone who stroked their egos by pandering to their belief in their own intelligence, importance and sophistication.
Paul was not that person.
He saw how the overvaluing of human wisdom in Corinth was leading to faction and disharmony even in the church. It was not good news. He set out to remind the Corinthian church of the gospel- the good news of the Cross, foolishness to the wise and weakness to the powerful.
He reminded them of how all the wisdom in the world had still failed to know God, turning even God’s presence in the world as creator into a larger version of ourselves. The wisdom of this world twists everything, so that we are always at the centre and there is no room left for God.
But the cross cannot be twisted. Precisely because of its extraordinary subversion of all our standards of power and wisdom, the cross speaks of God without us getting in the way.
And only faith, not intelligence, not worldly wisdom or sophistication or status or wealth can even begin to understand that this is the power of God at work, and therefore the good news for us.
Paul compares the cross to two tendencies that he sees around him in Corinth- what he calls signs and wisdom.
The demand for signs was the refusal to take God on trust, to demand that God must present his credentials visibly and clearly and show he can meet our needs before we recognise him as Lord.
Wisdom was a reference to Gnosticism- the idea that we can achieve salvation ourselves through the pursuit of esoteric knowledge. On the contrary the cross is not about us speculating our way up to God but about God coming down to us, to the very depths of human existence.
So, what’s in it for us?
Well, nothing if we persist in seeing and judging by the world’s standards. Judging not only God, but ourselves and each other too. Then we will want to stress how successful we are, how rich, beautiful, clever, stylish and accomplished we are. Then we will do anything to hide our weakness, our moments of self-doubt, of emptiness, of fear, of failure. Because nobody loves a loser; no one wants to be nobody, everyone wants to be somebody.
But supposing we were prepared to admit that the human condition is such that all of us have a great big hole in us? We are like those puzzles that we got as children, where the object of the game was to get all the pieces in the right position. To do that you need a hole in the puzzle into which you can move other pieces, but nothing you do in the game will fill up that gap.
Nothing that we do in life will fill up that gap.
But the good news is that God can.
The cross, in all its paradoxical power tells us the truth about God and about ourselves, and offers us freedom from the slavery of pretending that we have no hole and the desperate game of trying to convince ourselves and others of that.
On the cross, Jesus becomes our holiness and righteousness, what we need if you like to fill the gap.
Remember righteousness is about right relationships, right relationships require mutual honesty and vulnerability. Unless we dare to trust God with our vulnerability, to be totally honest with God about who we really are then our relationship with God will never be all it could be. The cross shows us a God who refuses to play the world’s power games, but instead offers us a love so complete and steadfast that we need not fear to expose ourselves to God’s gaze of love.
Through the cross, God made nobodies, the kind of people in the Corinthian church and in our church if we’re honest, into somebodies- God made us into his beloved children, heirs to the promises he gives us in Christ.
Paul tells the Corinthians that the very fact that God created a church where there was no church and created it out of the kind of people who were not invited to the best parties or sat at the top table shows that God is now engaged in overthrowing the world’s standards.
So, a church that lives by the cross is one where the world’s standards are gently put aside. Instead of rushing to prove to each other how clever we are and how there is nothing we need; we are open about our weakness, our failures and our faults. And recognising our common weakness we are filled with compassion and forgiveness for each other. We don’t need to set up hierarchies and power structures because these are only barriers to the power of God working through our weakness. We can admit our ignorance in order that together in prayer we can discern God’s wisdom for our lives and the life of our community.
A church that lives by the cross doesn’t congratulate those who share privilege, possessions and piety but those who, knowing their own lack are open to God’s grace, saving their lives. Blessed are the poor in spirit.
A church that lives by the cross points to God and away from itself- are we that church?