On these recent Ordinary Sundays of the Church’s year, our second reading is taken from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians. Corinth was an ancient Greek city with 90,000 inhabitants in 400 BC. The Romans demolished it in 146 BC and built a new city in its place in 44 BC, making it the provincial capital of Greece.
It was to this Romanised Corinth that St. Paul proclaimed the Gospel in about 40-50 AD. It was a city which prospered from trade and commerce and shared in that great traditional contribution of the Greeks to the world: philosophy. It was also morally corrupt especially in the area of sexual morality. Despite all this, Paul was successful in converting some Corinthians to Christ and in establishing a Church community there.
But Paul only stayed there 18 months. After he left, rivals of his, called “arch-apostles”, tried to take control. They ingratiated themselves to the Corinthians by having a lax approach to morals and by philosophizing. They claimed to have some kind of super-knowledge of the things of God. When Paul heard of this, he wrote four letters to the Corinthians, of which only two survive.
Today’s excerpt from the first letter gives us a taste of Paul’s zeal for the Lord. He did not come to Corinth, he says, with a lot of high-sounding oratory or philosophy. His interest was not in discussions, debates and arguments. No, he says, I came simply to tell you what God had guaranteed. He came with a message, not a panel discussion. And his message was that God had guaranteed victory over death in Jesus, the Crucified Christ. His only knowledge was about this Jesus.
Jesus means, as we know from the Gospel, “God saves.” Christ means the anointed one, anointed not with oil but with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is given to Jesus to fulfil his mission as Messiah: to save us from our sins. Once he does that by his crucifixion and death, he is proclaimed as Lord, the risen One, equal to the Father and the Spirit. Paul proclaims, then, the work of the Trinity in and through Jesus of Nazareth, and that work guarantees salvation for all who believe in Jesus.
This means that the response Paul is looking for from the Corinthians is not a debate about Jesus, or about his Cross and resurrection. Jesus is not a problem to be solved. Eternal life is not the outcome of a discussion. Resurrection is not a religious theory. Christianity is not a thought system, an ideology or a view of the world. The core of Christianity is not a concept or a formula, but the person of Jesus Christ the Lord, suffered, died and risen for our salvation.
The response that this guaranteed message of good news demands is faith. Again, though, we must be careful not to reduce faith to an intellectual thing, a thing only of the mind. Faith is a radical and confident trust in the One who has revealed himself by what he has done more than by what he has said. Christian faith is the surrender of our deepest soul and being, with confident trust, with trusting trust, in Jesus Christ the Lord who has revealed himself to us and for us more by what he has done than by what he has said. What he has said, in fact, only has any power because of what he has done. And what he has done manifests Who He Is. He Is the I AM of God. He has revealed who God Is in his death and resurrection. He Is a God of love, a God who gives his life for and to his beloved, that is, for us.
How do we find the wherewithal to believe in this way? How can our tiny minds and hearts possibly have the strength and courage to say “I believe in Jesus Christ the Lord”?
If someone comes to your door to give you the message that the ferries are off today because of the bad weather, you will thank them for the information and move on to whatever’s next. If someone phones and says, “there’s a cheque for £500 waiting for you in the bank”, you will respond with gladness and probably head straightaway for the bank. If someone sends you a text message, telling you that you are the most beautiful person in the world, you will either dismiss it as a joke or be filled with warm feelings of appreciation.
How you react to a message depends in large part on what the message itself communicates to you. In the case of the message of St. Paul “I guarantee you that God has saved you from sin and death because of what Jesus Christ the Lord has done for you”, the message itself communicates to our deepest souls the power of the Holy Spirit. If we accept that power, then that power will itself empower us to respond in the act of faith. It will expand our tiny hearts to the measure of God’s own heart. If we do not accept it, then our response is disbelief. That message is not information for the mind but reformation of the heart, the soul, the deepest being of the one who hears it. Later, indeed, we will use our minds to understand its import more fully and deeply (we call that theology), but we cannot really do that in the proper way unless we have first believed with our hearts. Theology is as good or as bad as the faith that underpins it.
The Danish philosopher (back to philosophy!) Kierkegaard wrote that it is not enough that Christian doctrine be true: it must be perceived by a person as of vital and decisive significance to the meaning and conduct of his or her life. That perception is only possible in the power of the Spirit. Only the Spirit can give that deeper and fuller light which allows the truth held in the mind to flood over into the whole depth and breadth of the human spirit. Kierkegaard echoes St. Paul. Philosophy and oratory and, now, even theology will do nothing for our salvation unless we take in the message of salvation with the deepest core of our being.
Today, the faith of many has become weak and lukewarm. For others, it has returned to being a discussion or an intellectual option. Someone will say perhaps, “but the resurrection does not fit with science” or “how can it be logical that God becomes flesh and the innocent dies?” These questions can be intellectually stimulating and interesting, but they cannot at all compare with the act of personal faith in Jesus Christ the Lord. Once we have and profess that faith, our discussions and debates will be imbued with a profound love and wisdom and joy because we are trying to plumb the depths of the One we love. But without that deep faith, our arguments are sterile and cold and empty. They will quickly become cynical, sceptical and end in the loss of any faith we had.
I invite you to join me this coming week in praying to the Father that he may renew and strengthen the power of the Spirit in us so that our faith in Jesus, the Crucified Christ, may be fortified and overflow into our words, deeds and lives. Then we will be the ones who go to others with the message of what God has guaranteed. Let us resolve to say with Paul: the only knowledge I claim to have is about Jesus, and about Jesus as the Crucified Christ. May his Holy Cross and his Holy Spirit mark deeply our very being and bring us the joy of salvation.