Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
TEXTS: 1 Corinthians 2:1-13 and Matthew 5:13-18
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
As you’re probably aware if you’ve given the Bible even a cursory glance, the church in Corinth was founded by none other than the apostle Paul. This little Christian congregation—located in the largest city in ancient Greece—was dear to Paul’s heart, because it was a church he himself had planted.
If you have ever wondered about Paul’s evangelistic style—or his strategy for bringing people to Jesus … listen to what he says here: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom” (1 Cor. 2:1).
Did you catch that? When Paul brought the gospel of Christ to the Corinthians, he proclaimed it as a “mystery.”
“My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,” he says, “but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).
Amazingly, it’s Paul who’s writing this! Yeah. Paul the apostle. If you’ve waded through the dense prose in any of the 13 New Testament books ascribed to him, you know he is not renowned for his easy-to-understand sentences. Paul of Tarsus was the first Christian theologian—and, arguably, the greatest. A man of profound intellect, Paul is as thought-provoking and challenging—and confusing—today as he was 2,000 years ago. And this First Letter to the Corinthians is no less complex than anything else that he wrote.
Yet, here—as Paul engages in a bit of nostalgia, recalling the content of his earliest preaching in Corinth—he says he did not resort to fancy language, or even to plausible argument! No. Instead, he says his speech and his proclamation gave “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
That could mean a lot of things, I guess. Some figure that Paul means that his arrival in Corinth was accompanied by impressive signs and wonders. But, you know—since Paul says this demonstration of the Spirit and of power was given through his speech and his proclamation—it sounds to me like what he actually did was relate his personal experience. Certainly, he had witnessed the movement of the Spirit in his own life.
I’m sure you remember the story about Paul (see Acts 9:1-20).
When he was still known as Saul of Tarsus, he was a relentless persecutor of the church. However—while he was leading a posse to Damascus to arrest Christians—he had an extraordinary, life-changing encounter with the risen Christ. The Book of Acts tells us that a brilliant light from heaven flashed around him. He was so startled that he fell off his horse. Or maybe it was the horse that was startled, and threw him off.
Anyway, he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul … why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
When Saul picked himself up from the ground, he was completely blind, as if he had been staring at the sun, and his retinas were burnt out. He stayed that way for three days, until a disciple of Jesus named Ananias came and healed his blindness through the laying on of hands. Then Saul, the bitter enemy of Christ, became Paul the messenger of Christ … and the rest, as they say, is history.
So this guy had quite a story to tell. And—to those who believed him—his was a most compelling story. But we know that not everyone believed. Some dismissed him as a charlatan. Some—like the Roman procurator Festus (Acts 26:24)—thought that Paul was, literally, out of his mind.
And—let’s face it—those reactions are easy to understand, are they not? I mean, it’s not the sort of thing you hear every day. Even if you don’t think Paul was a con artist—even if you think he sincerely believed his own story … even if you don’t think he was crazy … you could be forgiven for having some doubts.
The thing is: spiritual encounters—supernatural experiences—are, by definition, highly subjective. To the individual who has them, they are absolutely real. To the experiencer, these are not dreams or hallucinations, but undeniable reality. Trouble is, they are almost always impossible to adequately describe using human language. But of course, human language is the only tool we have to describe them.
Another case in point is Paul’s account in Second Corinthians, chapter 12, where he describes an incident 14 years previous, where he was “caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (2 Cor. 12:4).
Most Bible commentators agree with John Wesley, who argued that what Paul says “no mortal is permitted to repeat” is in point of fact impossible to repeat, because human language cannot express it. This must have been almost intolerably frustrating for Paul, who was a master of the written word. But I think that what the apostle experienced is something that’s common to everyone who’s had a direct, personal encounter with the divine. Ultimately, there are no words to describe what happened. And yet, such compelling stories are …
Well, it’s hard to keep your mouth shut about them, because they are transformative. At one and the same time, they are glorious and disturbing … sublime and ridiculous!
Bill Wilson—one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous—had such an experience in the Charles B. Towns Hospital in Manhattan.
Between 1933 and 1934, Wilson was admitted to Towns Hospital four times—always for treatment of his alcoholism. On his fourth and last stay he showed signs of delirium tremens and was treated with the “Belladonna Cure.” While undergoing this treatment, he had a powerful spiritual awakening and—after that—he never drank alcohol again. In his 1957 book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Of Age, Wilson describes his experience like this:
All at once I found myself crying out, “If there is a God, let Him show himself! I am ready to do anything, anything!” Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up in an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man. Slowly the ecstasy subsided. I lay there on the bed, but now for a time I was in another world, a new world of consciousness. All about me there was a wonderful feeling of Presence, and I thought to myself, “So this is the God of the preachers!” A great peace stole over me and I thought, “No matter how wrong things seem to be, they are still all right. Things are all right with God and His world.” (Wilson, p. 63)
Predictably—and understandably—many have dismissed Wilson’s account, arguing that what he experienced was most likely the result either of alcohol withdrawal, or the belladonna treatment, or both. Others, though, point out that hallucinations rarely—if ever—produce the sorts of lasting behavioural and psychological changes that followed upon Wilson’s vision in that hospital room.
For his part, Bill Wilson remained for the rest of his life convinced that what happened to him was entirely real, even though he acknowledged that his best attempts to describe it were entirely inadequate.
I wonder whether the apostle Paul—hearing Bill Wilson’s story—might nod his head in agreement. And I wonder whether Bill Wilson—who certainly knew his way around the Bible—nodded his head in agreement when he read what Paul wrote about communicating God’s mystery “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
After all, both men were permanently changed by their divine encounters. Wilson, as I said, never drank again—and he went on to help develop a recovery program that has, in its turn, saved the lives of countless others. Saul of Tarsus—who set out for Damascus “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1)—became Paul of Tarsus, the disciple par excellence. Their testimonies are convincing. At least, I find them so, precisely because of the radical transformation wrought in these men.
See, here’s the thing: what cannot be explained in words can in fact be demonstrated. When Paul spoke about communicating the mystery of God “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” I think this must have been at least a part of what he meant.
To those who knew Saul the persecutor—or who learned that bit of Paul’s personal history—his transformation spoke louder and more clearly than his finest words could ever do. Comparing who Paul was—to who he became … Well, that made the case. Now willing to die for the gospel he once tried to suppress, Paul the apostle was a living, breathing demonstration of Christ’s redemptive power.
And comparing who Bill Wilson was to who he became … Well, for hopeless alcoholics who had all but given up on themselves, his transformation made the case for A.A. As with Paul the apostle, Bill Wilson’s words carried weight because of what his reformed life demonstrated. He was, indeed, “a new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17, KJV).
Here’s one more important point: Paul told the Corinthians that he came to them “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” and not with plausible arguments and words of human wisdom. He also told them why: “so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”
Words of human wisdom can try to explain the mystery of God. But they can’t actually do it. They can’t even come close. Words cannot convey the reality of God. Only the power of God—demonstrated in a human life—can do that. I can preach to you about the redeeming work of Christ and God’s eagerness to forgive sinners … but if I harbour grudges and refuse to forgive … my words will lose most of their impact.
By the same token, someone like Mother Teresa of Calcutta does not need to say very much; her life of compassionate service demonstrated the Spirit’s power more effectively than could the most skillfully-crafted sermon. And the power of God shown forth in her life inspired more faith than clever words and plausible arguments could ever do.
Yes … the power of God shown forth in her life … the power of God demonstrated in a human life … made obviously and undeniably real in a human life … Does that remind you of anything?
How about: “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” …? (John 1:14)
Who God is and what God is actually like, or what the kingdom of heaven is actually like … these things are impossible to describe using human language. Let’s face it, even Jesus had difficulty getting people to understand his words. He kept going on about prodigal sons and forgiving fathers, about faith being like a mustard seed, and camels passing through the eyes of needles, and about God’s people being like “salt” and “light” upon the earth. Yet his closest disciples never seemed able to grasp his meaning. They never seemed to get it. That is, until, finally, they got him!
Who God is, and what God is like … these things cannot be explained logically. Yet, to the believer, it is all made perfectly clear in the person called Jesus of Nazareth. It is made clearer and clearer to each one of us as we progress along the path of discipleship. As we mature and grow in faith, our picture of God becomes more complete—comes into ever-sharper focus. Or at least, it becomes ever-less-fuzzy.
But then (and frustratingly so) our ability to describe that picture to others does not seem to get very much easier!
Maybe that’s because—this side of eternity—no matter how far we progress in our understanding of God, there’s just so much more for us to discover. As Paul said—apparently, quoting Isaiah: “… no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
You know what? I think I’m going to take Paul’s word for it.