This morning I’ll begin with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, then move to Matthew’s gospel to talk about salt and light. Paul opens this section of his letter by saying: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come to you with lofty words and wisdom. I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” We know that Paul knows lots of stuff. He is an expert teacher of the Jewish law. He knows the Greek language and Greek philosophers, like Plato, well enough to discuss Greek philosophy in the public square of Athens. As a Roman citizen he understands Roman religion and politics and culture and law. Paul is full of information and knowledge.
And Paul knows a lot about Jesus too. For a while what he knew was that Jesus was breaking and re-interpreting the Jewish law in which Paul was expert, not Jesus. After his dramatic experience of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he learned and understood a whole lot more about who Jesus was, and what he was doing in his embracing, touching, healing, teaching, in his dying and rising. But out of all of this knowing, Paul says,” I decided to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
I was thinking about all of the things that I am asked here, and wondering what it would be like to respond by saying, “I know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Should we replace the broken toaster in the church kitchen with a toaster oven? Should we have a defibrillator in Bethany Hall in case someone has a heart attack? Should we buy some large print hymnals? Might we use some of the interest earned on our endowments to help pay for roof project? It would be nuts to answer all these questions by saying: “I know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” What I do instead is say: “Ask Elder Rob Sweeney, or see what Pat Hall thinks, or check with Tom Palmer.
But then, I was thinking about some other questions like “can I bring some church toilet paper to Victoria?” Or the person on the phone asking “can someone bring me some food, I’ve run out of food stamps, and can’t drive myself to you?” Or Pat buzzing to ask “can you talk with young man who just came in and is having a really hard time.” Or asking myself when in conflict with someone else, “what should I do now?” What if my response to these kind of inquiries always began with the thought, “I know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified?”
The apostle Paul knows all kinds of stuff. But in his life with the church and the larger society in Corinth where there is an incredible diversity that is creating conflict and division, where the intellectual and social elites are arrogant and competing for status, and the not-formally educated, and economically poor are being shamed and pushed aside, Paul’s knowing is laser focused on this one person—Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Not on all of Jesus’ successes, his fame, his followership, his healing power, his wit and winsome ways.
Looking at the church and the world through the lens of Jesus Christ and him crucified, Paul can see two things clearly. First he can see in Jesus divine love, self-sacrificing love, which submits to death by crucifixion even though Jesus has done nothing but loved too many people with too much love. The cross looks like weakness. It looks like defeat. It looks like letting evil powers have their way with the world. But, in the cross, Paul sees and knows the mysterious, foolish, grace-filled wisdom of God. It is the wisdom that says, “Don’t play the world’s competitive, ego-driven, self-serving games. Do love. Trust that your life is from God and in God and therefore, since God is eternal your life in God is never-ending.”
The second thing that Paul knows in Jesus crucified is that the best of human wisdom can be completely and utterly wrong about what is right. Theologian Michael Welker writes: The crucifixion of Jesus confronts us with the hideous knowledge that religion, law, politics, morality, and public opinion—all these things that are supposed to serve true piety, public order, universal justice, and goodness in human community—all these can …[drive] human beings…into ongoing falsehood, injustice, mercilessness, disintegration, death, and distance from God.”
But there is more. The cross not only exposes the darkness and deceptions that taint human societies, the cross is the place where all of this destructive human folly is taken in by Jesus—he takes in all this darkness—and with his death, he begins to put all this darkness to death, with the light that he is, with the love that he is, he begins to drive out the darkness.
This is what Paul knows. In Jesus’ living, dying, and rising God’s new creation takes root and grows in the old world order. The foolish, world-saving wisdom of God is mixed in with the foolish destructive wisdom of the world. The Spirit of God runs free in the cosmos. The mind of Christ, the consciousness of Christ pervades the universe. And Paul says to the Church in Corinth and the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, you all have received the Spirit of God. You all have received the mind of Christ. He doesn’t say you could, or you might, or you should receive the Spirit and mind of Jesus. He says, you all have received both. And Jesus tells us what these gifts mean, what they are for, what they look like, on the ground, where we live every day.
“You all are the salt of the earth. You all are the light of the world.” He doesn’t say you should be, or you will be, or if you do x, y, and z, you might be salt and light. Jesus declares who we already are. Salt and light. Salt hidden away on the top shelf or sitting inside the saltshaker next to your plate can’t do what it’s meant to do. It has to be shaken out. It has to be mixed into the great stew of human communal existence, and ultimately be consumed to fulfill its purpose. A candle hidden under a bushel basket can’t do what it’s meant to do. A million candles burning in the church cannot bring light to the darkness beyond the doors.
We are immersed in complex realities and buried under mountains of information and knowledge. We are caught up in God’s new order within the old order of things. The wisdom of self-giving, vulnerable, fearless love meets the wisdom of self-preserving, defensive, fear-full desire. And Paul says, don’t think twice about which wisdom you will live from. Through Jesus Christ the cosmos is pervaded by Holy Spirit and a new mind, a new consciousness, which make possible a new way to live. There is a new way to deal with enemies—forgive them. A new way to deal with violence—retaliate with suffering love. A new way to deal with money—share it. A new way to deal with what is corrupt in church and society—build a new order without concern to smash the old—it is already perishing. A new way to deal with strangers, immigrants, and refugees—welcome them with God’s hospitality. A new way to deal with conflicts—in humility, stay connected, examine and open your heart.
This way is not easy. But it is clear. The Spirit of God fills our minds and hearts spirits with this wise foolish love that makes of us together a shining light, and moves us to be poured out and mixed in with the whole messy beautiful mess that is our lives in the world. Individually, we cannot always be shining. We burn out. Individually, we get poured out and have nothing more to give. We need each other. We are together to re-light each others’ little candles. And to pour ourselves into each others’ emptiness.