March 4, 2018

Series: March 2018

Category: Lent

Speaker: Rob McClellan

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written,

     “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

          and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.


        One of the more important Christian mystical texts is an anonymous work from the late fourteenth century. It’s called “The Cloud of Unknowing,” and in it the writer says, “Rational creatures…possess two principal faculties, a knowing power and a loving power.  No one can fully comprehend the uncreated God with [his] knowledge; but each one, in a different way, can grasp [him] fully through love.”[1]  Continuing on a theme from last week, this may be good news to those who have intellectual struggles with the faith.  I am not trying to make an anti-intellectual statement, however.  It is good to be a part of a tradition that doesn’t ask us to check our brains at the door.  We have seen what unthinking religion can do.  Rather, what the mystics recognize is how the reality of God transcends the limitations of the mind, and therefore the constructs and creations of the mind, human systems and norms.  We often accept these things as if they are Truth (with a big “T”), while in reality these are to be questioned, guided by an ever-expanding consciousness driven by the open heart.

          “The Cloud of Unknowing.”  As the title of the work suggests, the spiritual path, the path to God, requires not only an acknowledgment of the limits of knowing, but an active unknowing or unlearning of what one has been taught.  I walked into the seminary the other day, as I do regularly to study of have a quiet place to write closer to home.  I kid you not, I was greeted by signs side by side, that read: “What do you want to learn?” and “What do you want to unlearn?”  That’s a seminary asking the right questions.  Learning is not only gaining wisdom, it is also, and maybe first, dispensing with falseness.  Learning a new way means unlearning an old way.

          Paul is adamant about this project.  He implores his followers to unlearn the ways of the world.  “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Cor. 1:20).  Held up against the ways of God, the creating, redeeming, healing and transforming power that flows through the universe, so many of the ways of the world stand in complete contrast.  Who is Christ, but a mirror that reflects the image of God to the world.  Not surprisingly, those who think they benefit from the way things are deem Christ, and his way, foolish.  “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (I Cor. 1:18).  Paul calls them perishing because their victory is temporal, while the ways of Spirit are eternal…“[T]o us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18).  Of course the cross looks foolish to them, because much of the world understands power as “power over”—the power to push around, the power to exploit, the power to intimidate.  Jesus embodies none of those things.  To those who truly get Jesus, though, the cross is not weakness; it is not foolishness; it is the ultimate strength; it is brilliance, for it shows the lengths to which God would go to be with those who suffer in this world.  For Jesus, true power is “power with.”

In every age, God calls us to question whether or not our ways of measuring success, power, or wisdom is true or false. Often to gain true wisdom, true power, and true success one must unlearn what the world has taught us.  This is why the prophet Isaiah doesn’t just espouse peace, he calls the people to stop learning war (Is. 2:4).  This why Jesus even questions the own wisdom when he says time and again, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” (Mt. 5).  This is why Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

          The contrast between the ways of the world and the ways of Spirit are so stark for Jesus that we can see his anguish; we can see his anger.  In our earlier reading, we watch as he flips over the tables of the money changers in the temple (John 2:15).  Some take this passage as a critique of the commercialization of the temple, making it “a marketplace.”  If only Jesus were so moderate!  More likely his critique is far more severe, calling into question the entire system of animal sacrifice.  Under that system, money-changing tables would have been permissible in the temple, places where you could buy animals for sacrifice; indeed they would have been necessary.  Jesus is turning over the whole notion that this is how the community stays in right relationship with God (and I suppose you could say right relationship with animals too).  The old way must be unlearned because it has missed the point or lost the point.

          And so I ask you, what must you unlearn to be truly in sync with God, in unobstructed relationship with Christ?  What have you been taught, or have subtly internalized, that Spirit tells you, that Christ reflects to you, is foolishness?  What do you need to unlearn and what do you think we need to unlearn?  I’d like this not simply to be a rhetorical question.  Take a few moments and jot some things down on your bulletin if it helps, or just sit with the question, “What have we been told, in one form or another, that isn’t true in the eyes of our loving God and therefore what must we unlearn if we are to grow in true wisdom?”  Let’s take few moments for that in quiet…

           I encourage you to bring that question into your prayer life this week.

          If :The Cloud of Unknowing” is true, is wise, then we will know God through loving God, and you cannot love what you have not met.  So, would you like to meet him or her?  She’s waiting for you at this table.  Communion is how we learn how God acts in the face of threat, intimidation, and falseness.  It is how we remember how God loves the world, the world—that’s what Scripture says—and we partake of that love by ritually taking God inside of us, where God’s presence can live and grow.

          What else is communion?  It is a ritual unknowing.  For what did Jesus say?  This isn’t bread, this is my body, which is given for you.  This isn’t a cup of wine.  This is the cup of the new covenant, the new promise, sealed in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins Come to be emptied of the ways of the world and filled with the ways of the one who is eternal.  Amen.

 [1] “The Cloud of Unknowing,” in The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, Ed. Bernard McGinn (New York:  Modern Library, 2006), 263.