9th February 2020
1 Corinthians 2: 1-12
When I came to you, brothers and sisters,[a] I did not come proclaiming the mystery[b] of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,[c] but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
6 Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. 7 But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’--
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12 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.
Paul’s words in our reading from 1 Corinthians touch on profound matters. He is trying to express truths which have defined his life, but which go beyond words.
“I decided to know nothing amongst you” he says “except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Nothing. No knowledge, no human wisdom, he goes on to say, express his meaning. Only the person of Christ.
Paul comes in weakness and in fear and trembling. Whilst the Greek word for fear sometimes means holy awe, in this combination it is more visceral. Fear and trembling is what Yahweh’s enemies feel in the book of Exodus when he acts against them. It is that anxiety we get when we experience something which our mind cannot compute. I wonder perhaps if here Paul’s thinking is shaped by his momentous experience of Christ on the Damascus Road.
Fear and trembling was the title chosen by Soren Kierkegaard for his short but dense meditation on the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. Kierkegaard draws us into a powerful imagining of the story, of the journey, with its long, foreboding silences. He brings us to that feeling of horror at the crime Abraham seems about to commit.
How could God instruct Abraham to murder his son, intend this barbarous act? Kierkegaard encourages us to declare that this could not possibly be, to interpret the story as a working out of a historical turning away from human sacrifice.
But then he stops. Can we say what God can and cannot do? Do we know the mind of God? Or do we instead create for ourselves a lesser God, defined by our human understanding? This is perhaps why he chooses these words from Paul as the title of his book. We know nothing. Our approach to God can never be a meeting of minds.
And yet God is revealed. Paul goes on to say, “no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 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.”
So we have an understanding, but it is an understanding not of the human mind, but of the spirit of God.
All this week, I keep coming back to a simple expression of St John of the Cross: “God can be loved, but not thought.”
God cannot be grasped by the mind. We can only know God through love.
That is not to say that we abandon the intellect. As someone said to me last week, in a way it’s like being bilingual. We use the intellectual language, its disciplined thinking, in science and study, in the accounts office, the courtroom. But not with God.
Paul was not one of those church leaders who applied the certainties of human thinking to matters of faith and life, appropriating the authority of God when he spoke on social and ethical issues. And we should be wary of those in our own day who do. For Paul, God is approached with fear and trembling, revealed by his spirit, a spirit of love, which is the spirit of the universal Christ.
And so in Paul’s experience, human thinking and the spirit of God are set apart. Both are part of the human condition, but when we rest in the spirit of God, we come to understand that this is our true identity.
This resting in the spirit of God is what many call contemplation. All humanity feels the need of it, and yet we are captivated by the thinking mind. As Thomas Merton observes:
“Those who…resist the fruitful silence of their own being by continual noise. Even when their tongues are still, their minds chatter without end…How tragic it is that they who have nothing to express are continually expressing themselves like nervous gunners, firing burst after burst of ammunition into the dark, where there is no enemy”
The spirit of God, unconditional love and acceptance, inner peace, true being, mindfulness. Different words for something which is not so much beyond words, but before, underneath…
Is this perhaps what Jesus is expressing in visual imagery in our gospel reading, the salt, the light, the intangible which is the true, inner life of the whole?
So it is my prayer for us all, and for myself foremost, that in this time of worship and prayer, and in this Eucharist, we may rest in that spirit of God which is our true being, and be accepted, renewed and refreshed in it, and carry that inner sense with us, a quiet foundation of selfhood, in the business of our daily lives.
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Richard Young (Rector)