I have been using some of all this unwanted spare time to look through old slides and transfer them into computer files. What a fascinating task. Among those of Greece I found one of the old town square in Corinth, which I first visited as a student almost 60 years ago! It still has the ruins of the ancient synagogue where the apostle Paul preached; it was quite emotional to stand there.
Paul arrived in around 50AD after a less than effective visit to Athens, and he stayed 18 months, founding a church. Though he was quite a scholar himself, he must have felt that the highly educated population of Athens had been too sceptical and too bound up with their various schools of philosophy to accept his message. In the passage we just heard, at the start of his letter-writing to the Corinthians, this feeling comes to the surface. The Jews won’t accept Jesus as Messiah and the Greeks won’t accept a Messiah at all; neither can worship a crucified God. ‘Where is your wise man now?’ he asks – implying the answer ‘too clever by half to worship your Jesus Christ’. Though Paul could not know Matthew’s nativity story, on this second Sunday after Epiphany we can hear echoes of those wise men who, having worshipped the child Jesus, departed by another road – not just by another route but with a whole new mind-set, much wiser than when they came.
Paul’s letters to the Christians in Corinth are forever reminding them of their basic calling, to follow Christ and live in his all-sufficient love. Salvation is not a matter of knowledge, of passing the entrance exam to heaven! What God has done, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, (as Isaac Watts puts it) ‘demands my soul, my life, my all’. Christianity is not a set of propositions, doctrines or dogma to be treated as an ideology, a system such as Hitler or Lenin tried to enforce, over-riding human instincts of freedom and relationships. On the contrary Christianity is a way of life in every sense, joining the command ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ to the first command ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’. A way of life in every sense. If you want a clear statement of what Christians believe and how they should live you cannot do better than read chapters 13 and 15 of Paul’s first letter to those Corinthians long ago.
But of course it does still seem foolish, as it did back then. To claim, as Paul does, that ‘God foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’ is of course not self-evidently true. To point to Jesus of Nazareth being tortured to death, and to say that this man is revealing God’s nature, is still foolishness to the wise as well as a stumbling block to most other religions, not only Jews. How is this God’s Word made flesh? Is this what God means for us? God with us?
A Christ-like God is essentially with us in the dark, in the pain, in the fear and at the end. Many of the other attributes which people ascribe to God simply do not fit with this Christ-like God. Even Christians fall into the trap sometimes, believing that God will protect them or their loved ones, or fulfil their dreams or deliver prosperity or even send fine weather! These are not the actions of a Christ-like God. If Paul were here he might point out that he had a rough time following this Jesus, that he was betrayed and unjustly tried like his Lord and killed by the Roman emperor Nero in a persecution of Christians which was grossly unfair and corrupt. He might have thought ‘where is God when you need him?’ As we sang a few weeks ago, what child is this? God embodied in a human being whom many, not only Donald Trump, would call a loser.
And yet, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, there are three things which last for ever, faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love, as Jesus Christ was love. Somehow wiser than human wisdom and more powerful than human strength.
When Paul writes that ‘God has made foolish the wisdom of this world’ he does not mean that we should not thank God for the scientific breakthroughs which have brought so much hope in recent decades and most recently have offered us all some light at the end of our current dark tunnel. It is not knowledge that is the problem, but confusing it with wisdom. Science can and must go on telling us more and more about the multiple processes of the world, undoubtedly enriching our human lives and experience with discoveries and adventure. But knowledge is not wisdom. I will repeat the joke: knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad. How we use our knowledge determines whether we are truly wise or not.
Those wise men whose knowledge interpreted the star which eventually led them to Bethlehem and to Jesus were wise enough to realise that to share that knowledge with Herod would be a disaster. For them, life would never be the same again. Nor will it be for any of us.
But fear not. Love may be costly, as Jesus demonstrated; it may even look like losing. Yet it is the only hope for us whether as Christians or simply as human beings. Both in the short-term and looking further ahead we need wisdom which is so much more than scientific knowledge, if the future is to be even tolerable, let alone enjoyable or peaceful. We need love, we need to trust love.
A Christ-like God invites us to bear the cost and wear the crown. As Paul writes: Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.
And to God, creator, saviour, inspirer, be thanks and praise.
Revd Peter Brain