24 January 1999
The Power of God
FIRST READING: 1 Corinthians 1.10-18
GOSPEL: Matthew 4.12-23
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
"The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
Thus St Paul to the Romans in our first reading this morning. And from our Gospel reading:
"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people."
Jesus was "preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people."
It strikes me that both Paul and Jesus have their own sense of what is really important. Let's have a look, briefly, at these passages, and see what they have to say to us today.
2. Paul Evades Argument
Paul, of course, is trying to calm down an argument that had arisen among the Corinthians. They were becoming factionalised; some claiming to follow him, some Apollos, others Simon Peter, and so on. And Paul says, more or less, Don't be so darn silly, what on earth does it matter? What does matter is Jesus. He says, if you're going to be like that about it, then perhaps it's as well he hardly baptised anybody while he was there. "For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel, not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power."
For Paul, what matters is the power of the Cross. He is not going to argue about anything else; he's not going to be clever-clever and score deep theological points; he's not going to say that Apollos or Simon Peter or anybody else, for that matter, doesn't preach the "true" gospel. As he says himself, in I Corinthians 2:
"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. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, 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."
"So that your faith might rest, not on human wisdom but on the power of God."
For Paul, what really matters is God's power. He has, and I expect he knows he has, enormous gifts from God, particularly, I think, the gift of putting into words what actually happened during the crucifixion, and when Jesus was here on earth. He tells us that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself"; this was less than 25 years since Jesus was crucified, and I should think there'd have been an awful lot of people, including Simon Peter and John, still around to say "No, it wasn't like that!" He shapes so much of what we think about God, and about Jesus. Yet he makes it quite clear that he relies on God's power, not his own, when he's writing and speaking about God.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Paul doesn't mean you can't use your brains; funny sort of faith it would be where you didn't use your brains, or where you had to convince your intellect that it wasn't important. But it's not about brains. You don't have to be intelligent to be a Christian. I think it was Corrie ten Boom who befriended some special children; they mightn't have had much intelligence, but they knew God. Paul was a clever man, an intellectual, but he knew that that was unimportant. What mattered was knowing Jesus, and you don't need brains to do that.
Of course, a faith that is intellectually unsatisfying won't last long. I reckon you have to be intellectually satisfied, as well as emotionally, that God is, that Jesus is Lord, that it is worth being a Christian. And I reckon it's possible to be intellectually satisfied. But it's not necessary. And, as Paul knew full well, if you weren't looking at it from the right angle, it did look like a load of nonsense!
3. Jesus Calls the Disciples
Meanwhile, our Gospel reading reminds us that "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people." It seems almost mundane, compared to Paul! But this is the famous passage in which Jesus calls the first disciples. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, abandoning family and business to follow Jesus. I've always felt so sorry for Zebedee, the father of James and John, when his two sons suddenly walked out on him like that! But I dare say Jesus made it all right, don't you?
What I have been wondering is what about those who were not called? There must have been more boats pulled up on the shore, yet it was only those four, as far as we know, whom Jesus called. What about the other fishermen? Did they say "Thanks, but no thanks!" when Jesus asked them to follow him? Or rather less politely tell him to you-know-what off? Or did he not call them? Did he walk past six boats, then find Simon Peter and Andrew, and then walk past another three to James and John? Or what? And what happened to those fishermen who weren't called? Did they become disciples, too, or what?
We don't know, of course. But what we do know was that if Jesus did walk past three or four boats before he found Simon Peter and Andrew, that didn't mean he couldn't use those other fishermen. It didn't mean they were rejected. It just meant that they weren't what he was looking for that day. Another day they would be able to serve him in a different way.
That's true of us, of course. We aren't all called to preach the gospel, or to become "professional" Christians like nuns or ministers or what-have-you. We aren't all called to be stewards or even to be on the Church Council. We are, however, all given a variety of gifts, and are expected to use those gifts in God's service, whether that is something as unglamorous as cleaning the loos, or making coffee, or just chatting to someone after the service is over. We are, we are told, witnesses to Jesus just by virtue of the fact that we are his people, filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus said "You will be my witnesses"; he didn't say "You ought to be", or "You must be."
4. Coming Full Circle
It's this thing about God's power again. We aren't witnesses to Jesus through our own efforts; we are witnesses to Jesus through God's power residing in us. We've sort of come full circle. I was saying earlier that for St Paul, being a Christian had nothing to do with brains. Paul had good brains, but he said that when he came among the Corinthians, "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified." And you might remember how Luke tells, in the book of Acts, that the Powers-that-were couldn't understand how Peter and John could be preaching the gospel with such power, since they were ordinary, uneducated fishermen. And I gather Peter was noted for having a Galilean accent, which would perhaps have marked him out as a yokel, a country bumpkin.
So God doesn't need us to have brains before we can be used. Paul had brains; Peter and John didn't. Or, they may have had brains, but what they hadn't had was the education to use them. They were Jewish, so they would have had a certain amount of education, all Jewish boys did, but they wouldn't have had the university training that Paul had had. I don't think their universities were quite like ours; Paul was privileged in that he was a Roman citizen by birth, which Peter and John weren't, so he was entitled to rather more in that sort of line than they were.
But Paul didn't let his education get in the way of God's service, in the same way that Peter and John didn't let their lack of education hamper them. All three of them preached the gospel, through God's power, and brought countless thousands - countless millions, if you count those who have become Christians through reading their writings - to Jesus.
Paul, of course, did have, as I've said, a knack of putting the deeper truths of God into words. And God used him to do just that, through his letters. He doesn't make a huge song and dance about it, he just writes things down as he sees them. And quite often, it's almost opportunistic. The letter to the Romans, for instance, got written when Paul's friend Phoebe, a deacon, was going to Rome and Paul wanted to introduce her to the church there, and to guarantee her bona fides. So he took the opportunity to write that wonderful document about the Christian life that we know as the letter to the Romans.
Peter and John wrote letters, too, and we have examples of them in the Bible, but somehow they "feel" quite different from Paul's letters. I am given to understand that if you can read the original Greek, which I can't, they come over quite differently, too, only that wouldn't show in translation, of course. John's letters, in particular, are about God's love in and through us, and he comes across quite differently to Paul, even though Paul, too, writes some wonderful passages about God's love!
Sometimes people have said, well how come Paul doesn't talk about Jesus' work in the Holy Land, and so on; didn't he know about it? I expect he did, but the stories of Jesus' life and teaching that have come down to us in the gospels were probably common knowledge around then. They probably formed part of what was taught to every new convert. Paul certainly talks about the Cross and the Resurrection, and invests them with even more significance than they have in the gospels. But, of course, Paul wasn't called to be a biographer in the way that those who wrote the Gospels were. Paul was called to be a theologian, and that's different!
I suppose I am belabouring the point, rather. Jesus, we are told, went round "preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people." St Paul reminded his readers that "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
It is the good news of the Kingdom, the message of the Cross, that we are called to proclaim. But the fact remains that we are all different, we have different gifts, different skills, different abilities. Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit came, we would be his witnesses, almost without trying. By virtue of the fact that we are Christians, filled with God's Spirit. You have your gifts; I have mine. We all have many gifts, and we are asked to put them at God's disposal, to be used for his glory. But the point is, we don't have to do these things of our own strength, but through the power of God. Whether we are frightfully clever, with several degrees to our name, or whether we left school barely able to read and write, or whether, like most of us, we are somewhere in the middle, God can still use us. He used Simon Peter and co, who were uneducated fishermen; he used the educated and clever St Paul, even if he did have to hit him over the head first to gain his attention!
Hmm - have you noticed that? I hadn't. The clever, urbane Paul was far slower to accept the lordship of Jesus than were the uneducated fishermen. It all goes to show, doesn't it! Amen.
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