February 9, 2020: “In Paul’s Footsteps, Part 1”

by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens

I just returned from almost a month in India and while I am there, I adopt several customs and attitudes that are different from the way of I live in America. One of them is the way I think about my feet and the shoes I wear. (explain.)

 Shoes are not only an attractive fashion accessory, but they tell you about the person who wears them. I wear shoes that are comfortable, you may wear shoes that make you feel pretty or powerful. But essentially, shoes help us get to where we want to go. For those who use walkers or wheelchairs, these are tools to help us get to where we want to go. And unless we “walk a mile in the shoes of another” or “use someone else’s wheelchair” we cannot imagine the struggles, the challenges and the joys they find in life. 

Today we begin a two-week journey in the footsteps of Paul, the missionary and evangelist, arguably the most important figure in Christianity. But instead of looking at Paul through a microscope – plucking him up, out of his time and out of his culture – and examining him from a distance. Instead we will try to walk in his shoes for a while, to see what he sees and to try to imagine the world he encountered as he introduced Jesus the Christ to an audience who’d never heard of him, his teaching, his miracles or the salvation he offered. 

So, let’s take our first steps: Who was Paul? 

Paul was a devout Jew who had already reached the highest levels of his ancestral religion (Philippians 3.4, 5; II Corinthians 11:21, 22). After the death of Jesus, by his own admission, he was persecuting those following this new way of understanding Judaism, those who belonged to The Way (as the Christian movement was known in it’s beginning). He was known as Saul, until his conversion on the Road to Damascus in which he encountered a Resurrected Jesus and was forever changed. 

He worked hard to become a righteous man; he studied the Law and achieved great success, but something was missing from his life. As far as the righteousness which was in the Law was concerned he was blameless, he said in Philippians 3:6. 

“But the harder he strove the further he became from God. “No human being”, he said, “will be justified in God’s sight by works of the Law” (Romans 3:20; Galatians 3:11). “A man is not justified by works of the Law” (Galatians 2:16). Paul knew, because Paul had tried it.” (1)

What is the place of the Law – the teachings of the Torah from our ancestors, the tales of Abraham and Moses, the legends and history and stories from our past, the foundation upon which our faith lies? And what is the place of the logic and philosophy of our Greek contemporaries? How do we “marry” these two seeming disparate elements – Greek philosophy and Jewish history? This was a pressing issue for the religious communities of the day, including the new Christian community in Corinth, that Paul addressed in his letters.

Our scripture today is from the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 2, verses 1-5,  and 11-13:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

So Paul begins with a disclaimer: I am not that good. I’m not a great preacher (imagine if your first sermon with a new pastor began this way… Look I am really not that good, I don’t know much and I am a bad speaker…) He says, I do not come to you being a learned man, immersed in Thought and Logic and Philosophy; I am not a scholar… but I am preaching Christ. And Christ crucified.

What does this mean: 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

For those of you who are familiar with Catholic tradition, you will notice a difference in the Protestant symbol of Christ. Something is missing: The Catholic church uses a crucifix – a cross with the body of Christ (or in Latin, Corpus Christi). In Catholic tradition, it is important to remember that it is Jesus on the cross that we should remember – Jesus’ sacrifice, Jesus’ death, Jesus’ body and blood we should remember  during worship and the empty cross is just that: empty.

But sometime in our history, our Protestant forefathers and foremothers decided that the empty cross was not just a method of execution for our Lord, but the empty cross was a witness to Christ’s resurrection. Instead of preaching Christ crucified, we preach Christ resurrected. In this way, we echo the words of the angels at the empty tomb when they told the women on Easter morning: “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.” (Matthew 28:5) 

So, do we preach Christ crucified? Sometimes. But we also preach Christ resurrected. We also preach Christ alive, living with us, beside us, walking life’s journey by our side. We preach Christ teaching, healing, preaching, doing, working, fishing and making disciples. We have the benefit of hundreds and thousands of years of history and theology, so that we can choose which aspect of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we choose to preach. 

But Paul had a very different experience. For Paul, who had been forgiven so much, whose life had turned from “sinner to saint,” from persecuting to nurturing new believers, from doomed to saved: the crucifixion represented the great love of God: that God would love us so much so as to give up his son, for the likes of Paul: that Jesus loved us SO much that he would give himself to save humanity! And this was Paul’s main message to the people in Corinth: No matter how learned you are, no matter how knowledgeable: it is folly. It is nothing but mind-games, compared to the power of Christ on the Cross.

As author William Barclay notes, “Paul has heard some in Corinth boast of their superior knowledge and of their exclusive access to its spiritual source (1:11-12; 3:18; 4:8; 6:12; 8:1, etc.). He has watched as they lifted their words of wisdom, expressed not least in doctrinal disputes, above all other concerns of the community (1:10; 5:1ff.; 6:1-20; 11:17-22; etc.); he hears in their rhetoric the claim to have attained through gnosis (knowledge) a sort of “instant eschatology” whereby they are already resurrected, already free of the bondage and responsibility of bodily life (8:1; 15:12-19, 35). He is certain that in their spiritual and intellectual enthusiasm, they have devalued the cross of Christ (2:1-5).” (2)

He says in verse 11:

11For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. 12Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. 

We have been given many gifts – given by God – and we recognize those gifts by looking at ourselves – looking within ourselves  -with the eyes of God. How are we to notice and recognize the gifts that come from God – Paul asks – if we only look with the eyes of the world. 

The growing church in Corinth needed a reminder about what is most vital to the spiritual lives, and Paul reminded them: knowledge is fine, but the power of Christ trumps all. As we enter into this journey with Paul – as we listen to him articulate what it is to be God’s salt and God’s light in this world – May we see with the eyes of God the gifts we have been given to be used in the building of the Kingdom. And let us preach Christ  – Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ alive – in all we do and all we say. Now and forever. Amen.

1. “Apocalyptic Transformation in Paul’s Discourse on the Cross” by  Alexandra R. Brown,  Word and World, Volume XVI, Number 4, Fall 1996

2. “Many Witnesses, One Lord” by William Barclay found on http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=1112&C=1171