Discerning the Deeper Magic of God - A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5A (1 Corinthians 2)

Martin Bernat - The Crucifixion - 15th C. Spain -- San Diego Museum of Art



1 Corinthians 2:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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. 
Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,  
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him”— 
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For 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. 12 Now 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.
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                As we move into chapter two of 1 Corinthians, we find Paul still concerned about what he calls “the wisdom of this age.” He is troubled by the factions and divisions present in the Corinthian church, suggesting that they might have roots in a cultural milieu that prizes the wisdom of this age. Paul wants to focus on the mystery of God, which is very different from this human wisdom that is prized by so many. As we’ve already learned in chapter one, the problem with this form of wisdom is that it resists the power of the cross. To those who have imbibed this form of “wisdom,” the message of the cross is foolishness. Nevertheless, Paul had come to Corinth intending to “know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). He speaks of coming to them with a weakness of words. That is, he didn’t come to them as a rhetorician who converted them by way of his eloquence. He might lack eloquence, but the power of God was present, revealed in the cross. 

We need to remember that Paul addresses this message to a community experiencing ongoing division and factionalism. This is a relatively new congregation that may not have had time to mature in its faith. Paul doesn’t want them to be confused by competing voices, some of which emerged out of the cultural context. He understood the power of words and the power of those who knew how to use words effectively. If Paul thought he could nip this in the bud, he was wrong. We still deal with factionalism and dysfunction in our churches. We still prize eloquence or at least the power wielded by those who know how to use words effectively. Culture and the “wisdom of this age” continue to plague the church of Jesus Christ, hindering its mission by the mixed messages it sends out.  

                While I don’t think Paul is a gnostic, he does believe that there is divine wisdom that is secret and hidden, which God “decreed before the ages.” He wants to reveal this hidden knowledge, this divine mystery, to those who are able to hear it. I find the way The New Living Translation puts it intriguing: the wisdom we speak of is the mystery of God—his plan that was previously hidden, even though he made it for our ultimate glory before the world began.” Although I’m more an Open Theist than a determinist, the idea that there is a divine mystery that is revealed in different times and places seems to make sense. The Gospel of John speaks of the Word (Logos) that was in the beginning and through whom all things came into existence. This Word then became flesh and dwelt among the human community (John 1:1-14). Although Paul didn’t know John’s Gospel, they seem to be on the same wavelength. There is the Word, which is from the beginning, that is revealed in the cross of Jesus. This is the Wisdom (Sophia) of God.

                When I read verse 7, my mind went to the moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, of Aslan’s resurrection. The Witch thought she had power over Aslan (in exchange for the freedom of Edmund) because she knew the Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time.  What she did not know was that there was “Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time.” It was this Deeper Magic that led to the resurrection of Aslan and the defeat of the Witch’s plans (C.S. Lewis, Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe, pp. 178-179). Here Paul speaks of something akin to that Deeper Magic, the mystery of God, which had been hidden, but has now been revealed. Paul suggests that if the rulers of this world had known and understood this divine mystery, they never would have crucified Jesus. However, such things are revealed only by the Spirit to those who have received the Spirit.

                I read this word from Paul in a very secular cultural context. I have in front of me a book titled The Pastor in a Secular Age, which is subtitled Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God. I don’t doubt that the Western world is increasingly secularized. Churches across the Western World find it difficult to draw more than a few people into their services. Cathedrals seem to still be a draw, but those who gather for these services are often pilgrims or tourists (I remember worshiping at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where many in the gathered congregation were taking pictures of the sanctuary—despite rules against doing so. Megachurches seem to thrive, but they tend to put on a show. At the same time, the majority of congregations across the Western world are small and in decline. From what my interfaith friends tell me, their communities also are struggling to draw the younger generations. That seems to be the cultural context in which the church is present today.

Nevertheless, while the Enlightenment led to the disenchantment of the Western world, is this truly a time when the people no longer need God or are they looking elsewhere for spiritual sustenance? There seems to be a growing interest in things that are spiritual. There are signs that many are seeking to return to a more enchanted world. Numerous TV shows are exploring this idea. So, perhaps the difference today is that the path to this spiritual world tends not to be understood in institutional terms.

So, what would Paul think of our situation? What is the wisdom of this age that he would find troubling? How might the mystery of God that he had embraced in the context of the cross of Jesus speak to our world? Might there be a Deeper Magic that can overcome our desire for cultural relevancy and the enticement of eloquence? 

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