The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 112:1-9, Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 5 2017
One of the biggest movie hits of the late 1970's was about a killer shark called 'Jaws'. In an effort to capitalize on it's success numerous follow ups were made including a lavish production in 1977 called 'The Deep'. The Deep was about a young couple who discovered a World War II wreck, called Goliath, that not only has a valuable cargo, but lays over a Spanish galleon with an even more valuable cargo upon it.
Not surprisingly other people, of dubious character, find out and are out to get their hands on the available wealth, and what with the presence of mutated sea creatures, the action becomes deadly. The posters advertising the movie contained the phrase “Is anything worth the terror of the Deep?”
In our bible reading today we heard Paul speaking of ' “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” – the things God has prepared for those who love Him... The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God ' (1 Corinthians 2:9)
There is however no terror involved in the deep things of God. On the contrary, the deep wisdom of God is pictured as a treasure to be highly desired, and available to all those whose lives are being recreated by the action of God's Holy Spirit.
The only terror expressed in our passage comes through Paul himself, who explains to the Corinthians “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling”
We sometimes picture Paul as a fearless, bold, extrovert of a guy; on a mission from God and afraid of nothing. Yet here he pictures himself as a stumbling and not-very-gifted speaker. As Christians, one of our duties before God is to share our faith with others. But often, even the thought of speaking about we believe, paralyzes us. We feel insecure, we feel inadequate. We are worried about doing more harm than good.
Maybe then we can take comfort from the fact that even Paul felt ill-equipped for the task God had laid upon him. He claims to have no power, other than that which the Spirit of God blessed him with, to present the gospel message. “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” (1 Cor 2:1)
In the last chapter he spoke about the 'foolishness' of the gospel and how it's power didn't lie in words or dazzling philosophical insight, but was something that people would witness as they observed the church in Corinth practicing love and hospitality towards each other, crossing boundaries of culture and tradition, breaking down centuries old practices of exclusion and privilege and seeking to be One in Christ. That went against the spirit of the age. Still does.
He rejoices that the good news of God's love is delivered through cracked and damaged vessels. That's how he felt he was. Later in his letter he writes “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2Co. 4:7)
'Jars of Clay'. We, who are nobody special, just fallible and frail humanity like everybody else, are commissioned by God to be the good news for others. Those whom God calls, God also equips with the blessing and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We are called to do God's work, in God's way and in God's power. That way, glory goes to God and our service becomes an act of worship.
But how do we do that? “Is anything worth the terrors of the Deep?” How do we find the sterngth and courage to go deep?
It is interesting to note that Paul never describes people who put their faith in Jesus as being 'Christians'. In the Book of Acts we do read that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26). But most scholars suggest that the term was used in a derogatory way and not meant as a compliment. Rather like calling them 'Jesus Freaks' or 'little christs.”
Only later in church history did the word become associated not just with individuals but a phrase that carried sociological, cultural, and political, as well as religious meaning. Only later did the word have worldly status and become a positive.
For Paul a disciple of Jesus is a 'spiritual' person. But he makes a distinction between being spiritual, in some vague sense of the word, and a person whose life is being molded and shaped by the action of God's Holy Spirit. In verse 12 he writes “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.”
Paul found his strength, not in any vague notion of spirituality, but in his Hloy Spirit relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
There were many in the Corinthian community to whom Paul wrote, who could rightly describe themselves as 'spiritual'. Corinth was one of the broadest minded, eclectic cities in the whole Roman Empire. If Corinth had a theme tune it could have been “Anything goes” - and that applied to their religious life as well as their cultural life.
So Paul is quite specific in stating that what he had in mind was not any vague notion of 'spirituality'; “What we have received is not the spirit of the world”, but a spiritual nature formed by a persons relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and in tandem with the work of the Holy Spirit. When Paul speaks of 'Going Deep' he does not visualize the process as some individual quest for meaning, but tells us in verse 10 that 'The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.'
“Is anything worth the terror of the deep?” declared the movie poster. In the movie 'The Deep' in order to plumb the depths and reach the treasure, those who desire the prize have to work at it, to put on their diving suits and search for it. Paul is in no doubt the gospel is worth diving for. In verse 7 he speaks of the gospel as 'A mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began' . At the end of verse 9 he talks of the things “God has prepared for those who love Him”.
His whole emphasis is that there are things about life, about ourselves, about each other, about God, that we have yet to discover. That we cannot afford to stay as we are but need to go deeper and deeper and deeper in our discovery of the love of God.
If there was anything to be feared, it was staying as we are. He cautions us that if we fail to go deeper, we will stagnate, we will fail to appreciate just how greatly God loves us, we will become disconnected from each other and from our church communities and even from God,
Just as a diver has to reach different levels in order to discover what they are looking for, Paul envisages spiritual life as a quest, and a journey of discovery that involves all of our senses.
In verse 9 Paul speaks of the deep things of God being perceived by our sight, “What no eye has seen', by our listening 'what no ear has heard' and by our thinking 'What no human mind has conceived.'
So here is what Paul invites us to.
We are invited to a deeper vision. We know that we see ourselves in certain ways. But we also know that another persons perception of our lives can be entirely different. Paul takes it one step further and tells us that God's perception of our life is something different again.
If only we could envision God's perspective on our relationships, on our problems, on our finances, on our worries, on our temptations, on our struggles as a nation and as individuals, on our hopes and dreams.... well things would look different. Bear in mind that God looks at us as people whom He loved enough to send His Son Jesus Christ to die on a Cross for. That God’s love is so powerful that Christ was raised from the dead. How we need to see that resurrection perspective over and above our narrow visions of what can and can't be!
We are invited to listen. Through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah 28:23 God addressed the people: “Listen and hear my voice; pay attention and hear what I say.” In John 10:27 Jesus, the Good Shepherd, describes His relationship to His people in this way; “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
But how do we hear God? Matthew's gospel suggests we hear God's call when we witness the plight of the hungry and homeless, the naked and the prisoner and decide to take action. That's what separated the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:32)
We hear God when we approach Scripture in an attitude of prayer and humbly seeking God's guidance. The Holy Spirit is with us to interpret the written words in a way that they become the Word of God to us.
We hear God in worship as we open ourselves up to the music and the hymns and the words and the giving and the fellowship. We hear God when we actively engage in listening!
We are invited to understand 'What no human mind has conceived.' When we have an uncomplicated trust in God we witness unexplainable things happening in and around and through our lives. I can't put that into words. I can't explain it. But I do understand that God's love is so much greater than we dare imagine. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “What no eye has seen,what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” the things God has prepared for those who love Him”.
This passage has taken us a few places this morning.
Firstly, that we have no need to fear that we are not good enough, or clever enough, or ideally suited to share with others the treasure of the gospel. God promises that such is the work of the Holy Spirit. “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
Secondly, that we are invited to dig deep into our heritage of faith. We are prompted to dive deep and discover hidden treasures within the love of God. Though being aware and involved in the struggles of others, though scripture and prayer, through opening our hearts in worship
Finally, let us recall that for Paul a disciple of Jesus was somebody, not spiritual in any vague sense of the word, but one who was being changed and inspired and renewed by the action of God's Holy Spirit.
Today there's football game. First time I ever attempted to play football was with some of the youth in Fayetteville, WV. I was standing there and one of them shouted “Go Deep, Go Deep” I had no idea what they were talking about. They explained that if went deep, I could catch the ball and maybe get it over the line before somebody pulverized me. “Is anything worth the terror of the deep?”
With the help of the Holy Spirit may we travel deeper and deeper and deeper into an understanding of the love of God as a treasure that changes everything. Here around a table laid with bread and wine is a great place to do that! And to God's name be the glory. Amen.