Yr A ~ Epiphany 5 ~ 1 Corinthians 2:1–16
Let’s get right to it! 1 Cor 2:1-2 Paul says, “Dear brothers and sisters, when I first came to you I didn’t use lofty words and brilliant ideas to tell you God’s message. For I decided to concentrate only on Jesus Christ and…the cross.”
There’s nothing wrong with lofty words and brilliant ideas. We need lofty words and brilliant ideas in church – they make the mind dance, they light up the intellect, they inspire. What Paul is saying here is that when he first came to them he didn’t start with the lofty words and brilliant ideas to communicate God’s message. He started with Jesus and the cross. And that means he started with his own personal experience of Jesus (who he never physically met but certainly knew spiritually) and his own story of dying to how he was (a persecutor) in order to be reborn in faith (a proclaimer).
Your story of how you used to be, how you experienced something spiritual (either in a flash or slowly over time), and how it helped you see the world differently, feel differently, act differently, and be more grounded and in harmony with God – that story, your story, is THE most powerful and helpful way you can love people. Your personal experience of Spirit oozes out of you and communicates with people on deep, deep levels – if you let it.
But if you start with doctrines, theologies, arguments, philosophies, and fancy scholarly biblical exegesis you will see eyes glaze over (like yours just did when I said scholarly biblical exegesis) and you’ll have missed an opportunity to share God’s presence and love. Paul says, “I’ll save the lofty words and brilliant ideas for a little later, when you’re moving along more in your faith life. For now, let me tell you how Spirit feels for me.”
We’ve inherited a church tradition that loves lofty words and brilliant ideas, and it’s worked for us for a long time. It works when you can assume that just about everybody in the seats has a pretty solid faith foundation – knows the basics, knows the stories, and has an understanding of why we do and say things the way we do. That may describe many of you here, but I wouldn’t make that assumption anymore. And I definitely wouldn’t make that assumption for people who are finding their way into our churches for the first few tentative times, or those who don’t have a clue what it is we do here but they somehow know it isn’t for them.
We all know too well that church does not have the same cultural dominance that it had several decades ago. I actually think that’s a good thing, because it has pushed us to really think hard about what it is we’re really supposed to be about and nudges us toward finding ways to share God’s message with ears that have never really heard it.
And that means that we absolutely can’t function the way we did in years past. We have been designed to speak to insiders, but the world has shifted, and now we’re being called to speak to outsiders and pour our lives into them and pray that they might see the joy and peace in our lives and be drawn into God’s love too. That is a beautiful mission [whisper – “it’s called evangelism”], and it seems pretty new to us, even though that was exactly the mission that the earliest followers of Jesus had – and the mission that Paul gave his life to.
So we have to retool. We have to rewire. We have to find new modes of communication to share our life-transforming message of God’s holy, mysterious, loving presence in our lives. We cannot start with lofty words and brilliant ideas. That’s ok if you’re preaching to the choir – in fact, it’s necessary then because more mature followers need lofty words and brilliant ideas.
But for a person who’s on the outside and doesn’t know much about us and is suspicious about organized religion we need to communicate differently. We need to have spirit talk to spirit – the spirit in us needs to meet, greet, honour, and glow with the spirit in them.
And so Paul came preaching spirit, not wisdom. It’s a soul thing, not a brain thing. The logical, rational human mind is the wrong organ for engaging the spirit. (Remember from last week, faith is trans-rational, beyond reason.) Minds can’t really hear spirit, only spirit can hear Spirit. As they say, it takes one to know one! And once spirit connects with Spirit, spirit grows more Spirit! And the more Spirit grows in you the more Spirit you see, and hear, and smell, and know. Let me give you some examples.
Artists see paintings differently. I see a spectacular masterwork of art and I say “Pwetty!” – an artist looks at that piece and is moved on all sorts of different levels talking about line, and composition, and colour, and technique, and materials. I love it, and I’m moved by it, but I don’t see the same depth. I haven’t developed that “organ” in my body that “knows” art that deeply.
Same with gardening and flowers. I love to look at flowers. I’m drawn to their beauty. But I don’t know the names of anything. I don’t know what makes them grow (other than sunshine and rain). I don’t know how to care for them. I just know that they look and smell “Pwetty!” I haven’t developed the gardening “organ” in my body.
I have developed the music “organ” though. I’ve studied. I’ve practiced. I’ve put in the mega-hours. I’ve listened. I’ve composed. I’ve performed. I’ve immersed myself in it for a lifetime. I hear music deeply, like the artist sees art. My musical ears “know” music.
Now apply all that to your faith life – your spirituality. Paul said “2:13 And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit.”
In other words, you can’t read a book about painting and be a painter. You can’t look at a flower and be a gardener. You can’t turn on the radio and poof you’re a musician. It isn’t human-book-learnin’ wisdom that gets you there. And it isn’t by listening to some guy talk about it! You have to immerse yourself in it to get it.
So Paul talks of being taught by the Spirit. It’s experiential. It’s about putting in the hours “on your knees” – so to speak. And once that door is opened, once that journey is underway, once that mode of being and way of sensing, savouring, sharing, and sustaining God’s presence is part of you then you’ll understand verse 13 – “we are taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
And here’s the best thing! On a certain level everyone is spiritual. Everyone! Everyone is musical too – we all enjoy listening to it, and maybe dancing to it, and maybe singing or playing some. We all have an appreciation for beauty too – in art, in nature, in people. It’s part of being human. It’s not that only musicians enjoy music, or only gardeners like flowers – it’s that those who immerse in the art have deeper understanding and enjoyment.
So too with Spiritual things. Musicians know music. Artists know art. And spiritual people know Spirit. Like attracts like. 2:12 then 9 “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God… (For) no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love God!”
Do you know why some people think religion and faith stuff is stupid? It’s because they’re using the wrong organ! They’re using their mastery in one realm of knowledge to try to understand a different realm. They look at church from the outside and instead of saying “Pwetty!” they say “Stupid.” Spiritual minds aren’t dumb; they’re just wired into a different kind of wisdom. God’s wisdom! Their spiritual eyes and spiritual ears and spiritual minds have more than a glimpse of what God has prepared. Everyone is spiritual, but not everyone has a spiritual mind!
Lots of people proudly claim they are spiritual but not religious. We happen to be both! The religious part is just a way to be in community and be intentional about our spirituality. It’s not church that people reject but the sense of having to be dogmatic, or irrational, or told how and what to think – which is absolutely NOT what we do here. But everyone at their deep core level is spiritual. They may not be spiritual in the same way as us, or use the same words as us, but spirit can reach spirit. In fact, spirit is the only thing that can reach spirit.
That’s what Paul is saying. 2:13 “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
We are taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual – which is everybody! – well, everybody who’ll listen.
And then Paul continues, and this is challenging to us.
“Those who are unspiritual (and by that he meant ‘not with us’) do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them. (But) God’s Spirit and our spirits (are) in open communion. Spiritually alive, we have access to everything God’s Spirit is doing, and can’t be judged by unspiritual critics. Isaiah’s question, “Is there anyone around who knows God’s Spirit, anyone who knows what God is doing?” (Yes there is! We do, for) we have spiritual minds – we have the mind of Christ.”
[1 Cor 2:14-16 mixing NRSV and MSG]
We need to be careful here. I don’t think Paul is saying that only Christians can understand spiritual stuff. I think he’s just saying that because we’ve tuned-in to God’s presence through the teaching of Jesus and the experience of the Holy Spirit that we have what he called the ‘mind of Christ’. We know how to speak Christian. We get the dialect, and with it comes an additional depth of spiritual understanding, I think.
He is absolutely not saying that others can’t understand spirit. He’s saying that if a person is “unspiritual” – if they rely only on human wisdom, on science, and technology, and rationality, and facts and figures, and whatnot, that this kind of person will never get it. And he’s right. It’s the wrong organ!
But what he doesn’t say, and what I wish he did say, and what I am going to say, is that just because “they” don’t speak our dialect doesn’t mean they aren’t spiritual. Again, everyone is spiritual. Our problem is that we’ve always insisted that people either learn our dialect or too bad for them.
When what we should have been saying, and what we’re learning how to say, is something like, “Wow, I’m so glad that you call yourself a spiritual person. Me too! I’d love to hear about what that’s like for you. Because I’ve discovered a really great way to nourish my own spirit – I do it through church, and prayer, and noticing God’s presence everywhere I go and in everyone I meet – in people like you. Let’s talk more!”
Friends, if we can’t learn to see ourselves in conversations like that then we may as well put a lock on the door and call it a day, ‘cause it’ll be over.
Spirit reaches spirit. You don’t have to know how to explain God. You don’t have to have lofty words and brilliant ideas. In fact, if your goal is to love someone by helping them awaken to God’s presence and be drawn into a life-enhancing relationship with the Holy Spirit, those lofty words will probably get in the way. You don’t even need to think through what you might say all that deeply. “We speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths.” Let your Spirit speak to their Spirit, and God will emerge.
So let’s review. 1 Cor 2:13 “We are taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
And who’s spiritual again? Everybody!
And what are we supposed to say to them? Spiritual things.
And how do we learn those spiritual things? The Spirit teaches us.
And that communion of our spirit and THE Spirit is transforming our human mind into a spiritual mind – the mind of Christ – the kind of mind that can hear and know and grow in God’s wisdom.
“Dear brothers and sisters, when I first came to you I didn’t use lofty words and brilliant ideas to tell you God’s message. For I decided to concentrate only on Jesus Christ and…the cross.” [1 Cor 2:1-2]
My spirit talking to your spirit
– my sense of Jesus’ presence in my life inviting you into that awareness and joy
– my ongoing journey of dying to what was and being reborn into God’s shalom calling you to a wondrous and transformative journey of your own
Spirit reaching Spirit – and God’s Spirit drawing us ever deeper into God’s harmony and beauty.
This is what we’re supposed to be all about. This is our mission.
May the spirit in you meet, greet, honour, and glow with the spirit in everyone you meet.