Epiphany as a Verb: “The Case for Stumbling Preachers and Shy Disciples”
1 Corinthians 2: 1-16 & Isaiah 58: 1-12 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ February 2, 2020
There were no words to be found when the sports world lost basketball legend Kobe Bryant in a fatal helicopter accident earlier this week on Sunday. Having played for 20 years on the LA Lakers, and winning the championship five times, the sports world admired him and he was revered simply as “Kobe”. Retiring in 2016, he did not want to be a team owner or General Manger. His focus shifted to that of being a stay at home Dad whose joy and fulfillment would next be found in coaching his daughter Gianna’s team and being with his family. On Sunday, a tragic helicopter crash took 9 lives. Kobe Bryant and his teenage daughter Gianna being among them. As we watched tearful coaches and teammates, there were no words to be found. There were tears; there were people searching for words; there was even silence as the shot clock timed out 24 seconds honouring Kobe’s number. Yet, no one seemed to have the words. No one quite knew what to say. How could we possibly have the words at times such as this? We all stumbled for words.
This challenge of finding language in such deep and meaningful situations is exactly what Paul touches on as we continue to host this letter throughout the season of Epiphany as we shift to the second chapter and now focus on the gaining of spiritual maturity through the God’s presence of wisdom. There is an immediate challenge, both then and now. For, the world values eloquence and articulation, yet in matters of deep, mature faith, Paul teaches that there is a lot more at play than mere words. I recall the one time that this dynamic touched me professionally. It was in the mid-90’s and I was preparing to lead worship as a student minister and the worst possible thing possible happened to a nervous student pastor...one of my professors walked into the church and sat at the back. As if it was stressful enough to lead worship, there was one of my esteemed professors sitting in the back row. I looked out and saw her and I was terrified! How could I lead worship? How could I preach? I came over and said hello to her. But inside, I didn’t have the words to express how nervous her presence made me. I was a stumbling preacher, terrified at the task at hand.
I suspect that we all have experienced similar feelings. We have been at a loss for words…we have all been at a loss for expressing ourselves…we have not been able to offer our true selves in the moment ~ we have stumbled and remained shy. I sometimes wonder, for us in the church, if this is a dynamic at play when it comes to our approach towards evangelism, being the church, and sharing of the gospel with others. How many of us have knocked on doors and invited strangers to church? How many of us have given a Bible or other spiritual gift to a friend as a gift? How many of us have invited a friend to Bible study? Or to worship? Or to any of our church’s programs? When I first started in ministry, I had a dream of the congregations I served being filled with people who would do such things. But, over time, I have increasingly come to realize that true evangelism, the true nature of sharing of one’s faith, is a lot more complicated than knocking on a door with a Bible and leaflet and confidently having all the answers. And this morning’s text guides us in our living of the faith, as we consider the nature of spiritual maturity, of spiritual living, and of spiritual serving.
To be clear about the intention of this section, scholars suggest that it should be read as pure irony. Paul is being attacked by many rival communities of faith, articulate preachers. And Paul is needing to defend the nature of his community and assure them that they are on the right path. If you were to read ahead into the second letter to the Corinthians, you get an idea of how bad it was. Paul quotes some of his critics “for they say ‘ [my] letters are weighty and strong, but [my] bodily presence is weak and [my] speech contemptible’”. The flashy orators and the competing communities were attacking Paul and his faithful community who sought to follow ~ not a dazzling leader ~ but instead followed a crucified and risen Christ. Can you imagine how challenging that must have been? Their leader had been publicly humiliated, crucified, and they were somehow to await his return, and to be faithful while they did so. Meanwhile, others around him were speaking eloquently in profound ways, competing for their loyalty.
Enter Paul’s call for stumbling preachers and shy disciples. Paul reminds them that he did not preach with a dazzling rhetoric or intricate wisdom, as his rivals did. He writes: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified”. The Corinthian faith had never begun, nor would it be continued by any refined discourse. Their faith came about through God’s saving event: Christ crucified…the display of God’s power over the powers of evil; Christ crucified…the demonstration of sacrifice and suffering for others; Christ crucified. Paul offers a remedy for human boasting; he offers something better. For those who think they ought to be valued for their rhetoric and eloquence in an age which values these traits, he argues that what we should boast in is the coming of the Spirit of wisdom through Christ.
Paul, here, is reminding them of a long-standing theology of the existence of God’s wisdom. This, of course, goes all the way back to their Jewish roots. Paul will introduce a new way to view this wisdom; he will view it as being found in Jesus. Looking back to some of the wisdom books, there are teachings of the coming of maturity and being made perfect with the coming of God’s wisdom (see Wisdom 9:6). Wisdom is that arrival of the spirit so that seekers might come to more deeply know the mind of God (Wisdom 9:17). This arrival will no longer distant and esoteric; this wisdom will not be found through the voice of others; this spiritual wisdom will come to us all through our faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus brings the spirit of wisdom to each of us; our following of his Way; our suffering and sacrifice in living his way. Through these means, we will grow in spiritual maturity…in faith…and in wisdom.
When we locate the source of wisdom directly in our faith in Jesus, everything shifts. It is not about the opulent temple that proves the power of God; it is not about the eloquent preacher, or the angelic choir, or how many doors we have knocked upon. When we locate our faith directly in Jesus, it becomes about our personal relationship with Jesus and how that unique relationship offers us spiritual wisdom and prompts us to act. I think…it is a call for stumbling preachers and shy disciples to simply ‘be’ as Jesus intended them to be. In my experience as a young student minister, I later realized that God would give me the words that I needed. In our world’s attempts to grasp the words of comfort following Kobe Bryant tragedy, we learn that God’s comfort comes through the Spirit not in the ‘right’ words. It is OK to be stumbling preachers and shy disciples as long as use the gifts that we are given. There is a call for a note of caution here. This is not a call for silent preachers or lazy disciples. We are all uniquely called and equipped to offer ministry in Jesus’ name! We are all tasked uniquely to live our faith. We are might be shy disciples or stumbling preachers, but we still are called to live our calling, nevertheless.
What I love about this section of Paul’s letter is that it removes the natural tendency existent in our consumerist society in looking to the ‘expert’. There is a deep danger in looking to the minister as the expert and the only one who performs ‘real’ ministry. The Holy Spirit is at work in all of us through our various gifts and callings. Jesus’ church needs each and every one of us in order for His light to shine brightly! I (hope) that I have something special to contribute to the ministry of this church; and…I also know that every one of you possess special gifts as well! God’s Spirit has sown seeds of faith in each and every part of the body of Christ; You have received a seed of that spirit, and you are an essential part of Jesus’ rag-tag band of disciples in order to make it complete!
In a recent book by theologian Maggie Ross entitled Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity (2007), she reminds the church that the heart of Christianity is the self-emptying, (what the church calls) kenotic humility of God expressed in Jesus the Christ. Jesus’ suffering, his sacrifice is the nature of what Paul means by proclaiming “Christ crucified”. If we were to emulate the world’s understanding of power and dominance, we cease to be the church. We merely mimic the power and politics to which we have grown so accustomed. Yet, when we find our voice to be God’s people, and become a community that brings healing and new life to the world, it is then ~ and only then ~ when we will be ‘the church of Jesus Christ’ that shines his light into the world.
So…let us be shy disciples and stumbling preachers. Let us allow Christ’s wisdom to bless our lives and inform who we are. And let us allow Christ’s light to shine through the beautiful chosen ones that we are.