A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Epiphany 5 ~ 1 Corinthians 2:1–16
1 Corinthians 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.
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 gathered today, but I wouldn’t generally 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 are checking us out on YouTube, or those who don’t have a clue what it is we do here but they somehow know it isn’t for them.
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 calling [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 and connection to share our life-transforming message of God’s holy, mysterious, loving presence in our lives. But we cannot start with our usual 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 probably suspicious about organized religion because of all the terrible examples they see portrayed in the media – for them 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 yes, they definitely have one!). The spirit in us needs to shine forth through our changed lives. If someone can see a transformation in you, or see that you live different than the norm, somehow, and it’s benefitting you, then they might be intrigued. (And if they can’t see it they’ll think you’re selling something.)
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 the holy mystery we’ve named 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. It’s a Spirit thing.
But if you start a conversation 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.”
And so Paul came preaching spirit, not wisdom. It’s a Spirit 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 mere 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.
Look, you can’t just read a book about painting and be a painter. You can’t just look at a flower and be a gardener. You can’t just 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 ‘thing’ have deeper understanding and enjoyment.
So too with Spiritual things. Musicians know music, more deeply. Artists know art, more deeply. And spiritual people know Spirit. Like attracts like.
I’ve been using that word a lot today, and we all know the word, but what does ‘spirit’ really mean? One dictionary definition says that spirit means the animating or vital principle in humans and animals. What is it that animates us? The Latin word spiritus comes from the word spirare which means to breathe. Biologically, breathing is what animates us. Stop breathing and we stop being animated. But spiritus is more than biology. In Greek it’s pneuma; in Hebrew it’s ruach – as in Genesis 1 as the ruach, the Spirit of God hovers over the deeps during the story of creation. It’s God’s animating and vital principle for all of creation. Capital S Spirit (or Holy Spirit) means God’s holy, animating breath/essence, it means life – and it’s in all of us.
Surely such a thing isn’t limited to a person who goes to church. It’s a fundamental part of every living thing. Everyone at their deepest, 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. 1 Corinthians 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.”
So then, to be ‘spiritual’ is to be engaged in exploring, and deepening, and embodying, and animating that ‘spirit’.
It boggles my mind that some non-churched ‘spiritual’ people out there look at church and think we have nothing to offer them? All they perceive in us is moralism or dogma, neither of which sound very appetizing to me – and neither of which have anything to do with my understanding of the Christian life. So we have a massive disconnect here.
I’ve argued before that while some folks declare they are spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) that I like to call myself spiritual-AND-religious. But somehow, in the popular consciousness, religiosity is thought to be ‘not spiritual’.
To avoid this perception problem many spiritual-minded church people gravitate to the language of mysticism. Instantly, the perception changes. A mystic sounds way more spiritual than a Christian! And to go even further some of us describe ourselves as contemplatives. Contemplatives are spiritual people who invest much time developing their ‘prayer life’ (which I put in air quotes because it means so much more than just saying prayers). All Christians pray – but not all Christians are contemplatives. We’re all born with muscles, but only some of us go to a gym and lift weights! Doesn’t mean we all don’t have muscles, but that we may not ‘exercise’ them, putting in the hours building them up! Contemplatives ‘pump’ prayer!
Aside from us all becoming contemplatives (which, in my mind wouldn’t be a bad thing at all!), if this Christianity thing is all about being spiritual, well, how do we become more spiritual? If it’s a Spirit thing and not a head thing, how do we open ourselves to kindle the spiritual pilot light within?
And on top of that, how do we do it without being judgy, or excluding those who are ‘not’ (yet) spiritual in the same ways we are?
Or, put it this way: If it takes one to know one, how do you become ‘one’?
The latter part of this reading is problematic, but I don’t think Paul is saying that only Christians can understand spiritual stuff. I think he’s just saying that because mature followers have tuned-in to God’s presence through the teaching of Jesus, and the experience of the Holy Spirit, because we’ve ‘pumped’ prayer, 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 hope.
He is absolutely not saying that others can’t understand spirit. He’s saying that if a person is really “unspiritual” (meaning that they squelch or deny their inherent spiritual nature) – 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. They’re using the wrong organ!
But for everyone else, and that’s just about everybody there is, they already are spiritual in their own way. Do we have anything to offer them? Absolutely! But the ways we’ve tended to say it over the years (centuries) has been increasingly turning seekers off.
Maybe we could learn to say things 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!”
It’s a Spirit thing! Spirit reaches spirit. You don’t have to know how to explain God.
You pay me for that.
You don’t have to have lofty words and brilliant ideas.
You pay me for that!
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. Let your Spirit speak to their Spirit, and God will emerge.
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 all ever deeper into God’s harmony and beauty.
This is what we’re supposed to be all about. This is our mission, our calling.
May the spirit in you meet, greet, honour, and glow with the spirit in everyone you meet.
That’s what Paul thought would transform those wayward Corinthians.
I think that’s how we transform the world. That would be an awesome Spirit thing!