A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 5, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: I Corinthians 2:1-16
Poor St. Paul. It’s not quite Lent, but our readings from Corinthians have been giving us a taste of what is to come. The church in Corinth was a troubled church. They had all kinds of divisions, all kinds of rough places, and I imagine all kinds of difficult personalities. They have divided into cliques, political parties almost–team Paul, team Peter, team Apollos, team Christ. They don’t share Holy Communion together, but only with their particular clique. They are polarized, refusing to come to fellowship if those people are going to be there.
St. Paul is writing them to sort things out. In the New Testament we have first and second Corinthians, but scholars believe these two letters could be several letters in actuality, pasted together, as many as seven. I get the sense that this congregation kept St. Paul busy, calling after him when they devolved into pettiness and chaos, expecting him to swoop in and solve every disagreement. This is why I say: Poor St. Paul.
Now, please hear what I am about to say with charity and closely. This situation should probably sound familiar. It is not that this particular church is like that. In fact, I have found you to be the very opposite: kind, loving, charitable, willing to come to Communion with people who are very different from you, not prone to cliques and divisions. No, this should sound familiar because it is the condition of the human soul, and thus representative of something we should acknowledge within us. Conflict and disagreement are normal, and they are not necessarily bad things. But we humans have a way of devolving into nastiness, of forming cliques and parties, of separating ourselves from the communion of others because we are better, we are right, we are superior. I’m guilty, and so are you.
Today, Paul is continuing his admonition of this congregation in turmoil, this very human congregation, like us. And he is reminding them of the core of his message, what he proclaimed when he first arrived in Corinth. He writes, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Christ and him crucified, that is the heart of Paul’s message; it is the heart of the Christian message; it is the foundation on which everything stands, the literal focal point of our congregation as we pray facing east, facing the cross behind the altar. St. Paul, in addressing the conflict in Corinth, suspects, rightly, that they have lost their focus on the Crucified One.
The truth is, the cross is a very strange thing to focus on. We wear it around our necks today, bejewel it with precious materials, use it in marketing campaigns for all sorts of things. But the cross for the early church was a tool of execution, of brutal oppression and tyranny, a reminder of the power of Rome to take everything dear without remedy or recourse. We believe the oldest artistic depiction of the crucifixion comes from the second century. It’s graffiti, sprawled on a Roman prison wall. A man with a donkey head hangs nailed to a cross. A person dressed as a slave kneels next to it. The artist has crudely and mockingly written, “Alexamenos worships his god.” It’s not a compliment. It reveals the cross was seen by non-Christians of the time as a ‘nonsense pointing nowhere’, foolishness, worthy of mockery and humiliation. The early church knew that; Paul himself knew that, so he writes to the Corinthians last week, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The cross is the power of God because it is the fullest revelation of who God is. The cross is the definitive proof that God loves us, as well as of what kind of God we’re talking about. On the cross, we see God in the flesh, love in the flesh, peace in the flesh. On the cross, Christ–God, love, peace himself–freely gives himself in obedience to the Father for us, so that we might be restored to fullness of relationship with God, accomplishing what we could never do. And in doing so, he fully reveals the very nature and character of God–of a God who is love all the way through, whose power is seen in vulnerability, whose grace is freely given without regard for cost because that’s just who God is at his nature and God cannot deny himself. Because of God’s action on the cross, you and I are brought into that love, that peace, that life.
Christ and Christ crucified, Paul says. It’s the foundation. It’s the core. It’s why we can sit here and hear God’s word with grace. It’s why we can be nourished by his Body and Blood. What the world sees, what that Roman graffiti artist saw long ago, as ‘a nonsense pointing nowhere’–well, it’s actually the power and wisdom of God pointing to the deepest recesses of the human soul and rescuing us from the power of sin and death. It’s the truest revelation of the Divine Nature, of who our God is: love all the way through.
But knowing Christ and Christ crucified is about more than that even. It is also about seeing ourselves, the particulars of our lives, in Christ’s sufferings; understanding our trials, and even our Corinthian-like community tufts and fractures, to be a participation in his suffering and death. Our despair, our anguish, our questioning, our frustration: it’s all there at the cross. Just as Christ’s passion is a full participation in our human condition, so, too, is our pain a participation in the very passion of Christ.
This is what we mean when we say we walk the way of the cross. By the cross and our walking of that way, we are united, even in pain and death, to our Lord. Further, we know that the way of the cross is the real way of life, and we know that it always comes with the promise of resurrection. But the cross, the inescapable cross that stands even in the middle of our own lives, must come first, crucifying our stubborn way and our Corinthian temptation to fellowship on our own terms, so that the way of life, the way of God’s life and love, the true way to true communion and fellowship, might be born within us, within our hearts and within our family of faith.
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