She doesn’t have the presidential look. So said Donald Trump about Hilary Clinton, and when challenged, he repeated it. ‘I just don’t think she has the presidential look. And you need the presidential look. You have to get the job done.’ I wonder what he meant? Do we expect leaders to fit a certain mould? Do you have to have a particular appearance or air to be able to get on? What speaking skills and demeanour are necessary to be effective in the world?
The good news in our Corinthians reading is that whoever you are, God can use you. The world may value a particular sort of wisdom, but the Holy Spirit uses those who are open to him. So we place confidence, not in fancy techniques and special skills, but in the Spirit’s power. For it is God’s Spirit who convinces people of the truth about Jesus.
St. Paul had discovered this through experience. He was a real gospel pioneer, explaining and enculturating the Christian faith wherever he went. In AD 51 Paul went to Corinth, a sea port in Greece. Chapter 18 of the book of Acts describes how Paul and his companions stayed in Corinth for 18 months – a long time – because many people came to faith in Jesus.
Soon though it all began to go wrong. The letters to the Corinthians are the most personal and passionate in the New Testament, as Paul tries to win back his former friends. Within just a year or two of his departure, the Corinthian church had divided along class lines, gone downhill ethically, and wandered away from Christ as they experimented with so-called wisdom. Paul, the wandering unmarried missionary who supported himself by making tents, was an embarrassment to these ambitious, sophisticated Corinthians. Paul was so yesterday! Hadn’t they grown out of his homespun approach?
The passage we’re reading today, from 1st Corinthians 2:1-12 is a model of a Christian response to criticism. Paul does not stand on his dignity, instead he focusses on Christ. He does not defend his style, instead in verse 1 he admits: ‘When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.’
This was a deliberate choice, in v.2: ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’
Paul could have adapted his message to make it more philosophical, he could have copied worldly wisdom. Paul could have focussed on the glory and power of Christ and forgotten about the shame of Jesus death. But no, Paul made the conscious decision that his message would be about Jesus the Son of God, and how he saves us through his death on the cross.
Paul did this because, as we heard last week in v. 18 of chapter 1, although the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God. Jesus death on the cross is contrary to the glory, wealth and power of human wisdom, but it is the way that God saves us… As Jesus dies, he atones for the sin of the world. Mercy overcomes judgement, forgiveness triumphs over hate, love is discovered in the midst of suffering. Through his death Jesus sets us free from the power of evil.
Paul knew that we do not find salvation through our own efforts or morality, but through Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf. So Christianity without the cross would not be Christianity at all. Of course, Paul is not anti-intellectual – after all his own writings show great depth of thought. Paul is not saying that it’s wrong to communicate the gospel in the best possible way – for his own letters use all the best rhetorical methods. But is he saying that all these things must be pointing towards Christ crucified – they must shed light on the message rather than obscure it
I think that’s an important message for the church today. To have confidence in the good news, that the power of the message itself will take root in people’s hearts and change lives.
It is not wrong to advertise: to use everything from Facebook to posters. It is not wrong to create glossy videos, have high quality music – whether by choir or worship band. It is not wrong to be warm, to serve decent coffee and sit in comfy chairs. But it would be wrong for churches to rely on those things; it would be wrong if the experience was wonderful but the gospel was not heard; it would be wrong if people went from church to church like customers seeking livelier music and eloquent preaching.
Look at the church in many parts of Africa. If they have buildings they are more like sheds. The pastor is lucky if he’s been educated to secondary school. Yet the churches are full and joyous, for the gospel is proclaimed.
And that is what Paul did. In v.3 he admits that he came to Corinth in much fear and trembling. But as v.4 and 5 say, this was so that their faith might rest not on human wisdom but on a demonstration of God’s power.
What is this power? Does he mean miracles? Was the power of God shown through miraculous healings and raising the dead? Certainly that does happen throughout the book of Acts but interestingly when Paul comes to Corinth in chapter 18 miracles are not mentioned at all.
Does the power mean the gifts of the Spirit? The supernatural abilities like giving prophecies, speaking in tongues or interpreting them? Certainly the gifts of the Spirit were very important to the Corinthians – so much so that Paul has to tell them that the gifts are not ends in themselves. Instead the gifts receive their power when they are used to serve one another in love.
This is the meaning of power. A changed life brought about by God. The Spirit’s power is shown when someone believes the good news and becomes a changed person. It’s as we become more like Jesus that the Spirit’s power is shown. That’s a real challenge to our priorities. What is it that shows the presence of God in a church? Lives changed to be more like Jesus. It’s not the quality of the experience for an hour one Sunday morning that matters – it’s what you do with it for the rest of the week.
I wonder who the best preacher you’ve ever heard was? I think of a certain chap. I can’t remember any of his sermons – perhaps one or two jokes and illustrations but no more. I certainly can’t think of any one set-piece where I thought ‘that was an amazing talk’. But I do know that for three years at university I was nourished and developed in my faith through the biblical message he gave.
It’s a bit like meals: I suspect there are very few individual meals you can remember, perhaps the odd special occasion. If I were to ask you what you had for lunch last Tuesday you might struggle to answer. But the fact you’re alive means you have been sustained by regular meals – they have nourished you day to day. It is like that with hearing and reading God’s word – regularly receiving nourishment gives us life.
And when we come to God’s word, we must do so with humility. That means asking God to speak to us when we read the Bible. It means praying that when we listen to a sermon we can hear whatever nuggets are there – because there are always some if you listen hard enough! Coming with humility means wanting to encounter God and being open to whatever change he wants to make in our lives.
Without humility we are like the rulers Paul speaks about in verses 6 and 8. Pontius Pilate and the Jewish chief priests did not understand the significance of Jesus, and so they condemned him to death. Yet by this action they fulfilled God’s hidden wisdom which he decreed before all time, they did what was necessary for God’s plan of salvation.
Incidentally verses 6 to 9 are not saying that God has hidden knowledge that he only reveals to a select few. This doesn’t set up a kind of super-religious elite. The secret and hidden wisdom in v7 is the message of the cross – which did not make sense at the time but is now available to all. God’s purpose was mysterious but in Christ he reveals it to all.
To understand God’s word we need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us. This is what verses 10 to 12 mean. Why did the rulers not understand Jesus? Why do many not get it today? Why can a child grasp the gospel whereas some professors cannot? Because in v.10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. We need to be humble and open to the Holy Spirit who alone understands the things of God.
Think of horse whisperers – we had an email the other day from a guy in Singapore who puts a lot of effort into understanding the different moods of horses. Susannah went on a trip to Bristol zoo recently and found out about the body language of gorillas. Apparently when gorillas are happy they relax. And every muscle relaxes. So their faces go all droopy. Which means that if you see a gorilla looking spectacularly fed up, it’s actually really chilled out. At least that’s what the zoo say!
Gorillas though would understand gorillas. And horses horses. Humans intuitively understand one another. Like understands like. That’s what Paul is saying in v.11: ‘for what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within’. And here comes the punchline: ‘So also no-one comprehends what is truly God’s except the spirit of God.’
And amazingly in v.12: ‘We have received the Spirit of God!’ Isn’t that astonishing?! We could not naturally understand the things of God, but he gives us his Spirit so that we can. Because the Holy Spirit is divine, he understands the mind of God. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within Christians, he can lead us into truth.
What a wonderful gift God gives in the Holy Spirit! May we ask for his illumination every time we come to God’s word. May we use the gifts the spirit gives us, all our time and talents, and submit them to the service of Christ crucified. May we seek to be filled regularly with the Spirit and live out our lives in courageous obedience to him. May we pray the Spirit’s blessing on all that we do, and trust in God’s strength, so that others may find a faith which rests not on human wisdom but on the power of God.