The Cross Is the Thing

SERMON FROM FEB 6, 2011

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

The author Stephen King once said, “I’m not a vampire type, when somebody shows me the cross… but organized religion gives me the creeps” [Citizen, February 2008, p. 15].  Can you imagine the irony there?  Don’t get me wrong, I think Stephen King is a gifted story teller.  But I can’t imagine anything more disturbing or creepy than his book and film Pet Cemetery, and yet he says, organized religion gives me the creeps.  Today we are talking about how to have a strong faith, deep faith, without giving people the creeps.

Stephen King notwithstanding, we Christians, we church people haven’t always enjoyed the best reputation with people in this world.  To this day, among some people, among some segments of society, Christians and church people are primarily perceived as judgmental, hypocritical, mean spirited, and well – sometimes, creepy people.  Some of us have been known to go off on unhealthy tangents and distort things in ugly ways, some people simply perceive a faith whose primary symbol is an instrument of torture and who talk about ingesting their leader’s body and blood is just really well, weird and creepy.

And frankly the early Corinthian church probably was doing its part to sully the reputation of the Christian church by forming themselves into mean spirited factions around particular teachers who prided themselves on the eloquence of their wisdom.  We might call this mean spirited divisiveness the Corinthian error, and in coming weeks we will be looking at Paul’s solutions to this error, which will give us insight the following topics How to be Christian without being hypocritical and How to be Christian without being bigoted.  But today we’re looking at this important topic, how to go deeper into Christian faith without giving people the creeps.  How do we have faith with a non-divisive, open-hearted spirit?

I want to suggest two considerations from 1 Corinthians 2.  First, relating to verses 1-5, focus on the message not the messenger.   Since 1845 when the Asbury Methodist congregation first moved to this location, there have been 48 pastors in charge appointed to this church.  I’m the 48th pastor in 166 years.   Focus on the message not the messenger.  You know, its amazing over more than 2000 years Jesus’ message has actually survived intact the imperfections and the some times creepiness of its messengers.   Paul said (verse 3), “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”  Focus on the message not the messenger.   Folks, Christ and his message of cross and resurrection and new life and is the wisdom of God and it is powerful beyond our understanding.  The real measure of any Christian messenger is NOT having people walk away saying isn’t it amazing what a great teacher or preacher or leader we have, but rather – isn’t it amazing what a great God we have.  When the messenger trumps that message – that’s when religion can get kind of creepy.

How do we have a strong faith without giving people the creeps, focus on the message not the messenger.  Second consideration from verses 6-13: Seek the Spirit of wisdom, not wisdom per se.  Seek the Holy Spirit of wisdom, not wisdom per se.  Seek God the Holy Spirit who gives wisdom, not human wisdom for wisdom’s sake.  You see Paul is setting up a contrast here between God’s wisdom which is made known in the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the human wisdom of the Corinthians which for them and many of us still, is centered on eloquence in an elite, showy way, and self congratulation.   The contrast is between what he calls spiritual and unspiritual.  For him that means a mode of existence where we yield to the Spirit of God who was active in the death and resurrection of Jesus and remains with us still – for him that’s what it means to be spiritual – or are we going to live a “wisdom” life where humanity is the measure of all things, we run our own show, and we are responsible only ultimately to ourselves.  It’s what one author today calls the myth or folly of the sovereign self.

Do you remember the book and movie the Bonfire of the Vanities, where the Tom Hanks character was a parody of the successful in control young modern man?  He drove his fancy car and made lots of money on wall street and he felt on top of the world and he even sometimes daydreamed and called himself a Master of the Universe like the children action figure toys, and one day all of his control, all of his self assured power gets mockingly shown for the farce it is when he accidently hits a pedestrian In a ‘bad’ neighborhood on a weekend night.  You see, wisdom can be the amazing thing God did in the sacrificial love and resurrection power of Jesus and the transformation of everything he is still accomplishing or wisdom can be this practical pursuit of some sort of practical edge that will help me get what I really want.  Ever hear anybody say: I’m spiritual not religious.  Maybe you’ve said that yourself.  Yes organized religion that goes off on unhealthy tangents can get kind of scary.  But a search for a spirituality or wisdom that is simply focused on empowering me to get what I want – that’s shallow, and when you get to end of life and find that all you’ve been devoted to is the myth or folly of the sovereign self – that’s really scary.  Seek the Spirit of the Lord to discern what God wants, not the wisdom to get what you want.

How to go deep in Christian faith without giving people the creeps?  What I’m trying to say here in these two considerations is summed up in what Paul says last.  We have the mind of Christ.  The cross is the thing.  The cross or word of the cross for Paul is shorthand for the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to bring God’s loving transforming power to bear on everything.  Richard Hays, a scholar on NT ethics says that the ethical teaching of the New Testament can always be traced back to cross, the new creation and the community gathered around those realities.   The cross that transforms everything in a positive direction becomes our paradigm, our lens for looking at and dealing with everything.  We have the mind of Christ; the cross is the thing.  Keep swimming back and pushing off of that.

Have you ever heard of the Lake Wobegon effect?  It’s where everybody thinks they are above average.  Psychologists call it “illusory superiority” [“Study: Self-Images Often Erroneously Inflate,” ABC News, 11-09-2005].  The Corinthians thought they had it in their eloquent wisdom and looked down at their noses at other Christians and the world.  They’ve done all kinds of studies about this today though, and one researcher puts it this way, in America today, the average person thinks he is better than the average person.  Now, on the other hand, I read something the other day that Christopher Hitchens wrote.  He is a popular atheist writer and commentator, and yet there is great pathos in what he wrote.  You see, he was diagnosed with cancer last summer, and this is what he shared, “I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.  Allow me to inform you though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison to plant into your arm [his chemotherapy treatment] and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties into your system… you feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water” [“Topic of Cancer,” Vanity Fair, September 2010].  Let me tell you something, people, when you make the cross, new creation and community your paradigm, when you see yourself and approach the world and everything through that prism; you can drop any illusory superiority, and you will never ever be merely a lump of sugar dissolving in water.  You are part of the greatest and most meaningful transformation the world has ever and will ever know.  The cross is the thing.  We have the mind of Christ; the cross is the thing.

Ever have what I call sticky people problems?  You know, you’re dealing with someone about something, and you’re anxiety level is up because you don’t know how it will come out or you might feel like you’re walking on eggshells or a minefield or both.  I had one of those situations come up this week, and I felt the ugghhh rising with me, and then tried to do this, I said, ok I’m going to approach this from the perspective of the cross.  Sacrificial love, resurrection power, a community gathered to share this blessing.  I don’t know how this particular situation will come out in the short run, but I know where it’s headed in eternity.  That perspective empowers me.  The cross transforms everything in a positive direction.

How do we go deeper into our faith without giving people the creeps?  Focus on the message not the messenger.  Seek the Sprit of wisdom not wisdom, Seek the Holy Spirit who gives wisdom, not wisdom for your own sake.  And finally remember we have the mind of Christ, the cross is the thing, always go back and see everything through that lens.

Chris Downey had just started a promising architectural job when he was suddenly diagnosed with a tumor wrapped around his optic nerve; soon thereafter he lost his sight completely.  His limitations caused his company initially to think it needed to let him go on disability, until he found a computer scientist who devised a way to read tactile architectural plans.  Much to everyone’s surprise, he discovered a unique way to “observe” interior spaces.  The company’s vice president puts it, the way he now reads drawings is the way people experience space when they are actually in the room [online: preachingtoday.org].

Like Chris, thru the ever new and transforming lens of cross and resurrection we can see life, and people and wisdom and everything in a whole new way.

And that, my friends, is never creepy, always beautiful.

The cross is the thing.  Will you see life that way?

David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, DE

February 6, 2011

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