I Corinthians 2: 6We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”— 10but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.
The waves and the rising tide carried two starfish into the same little tidal pool, about the size of a bathtub, just a few meters from the edge of the sea. There they stayed after the tide went out. Their little pea-sized brains were big enough to notice the presence of the other starfish, even big enough to calculate that there were not enough clams and crabs in this tide pool to feed them both, and that, when food ran out, one would likely attack and eat the other. So they immediately went on a preemptive attack against the other and were soon locked in mortal combat. Had their brains been any bigger, they might also have understood that the tide which swept them into that pool would soon return and give them a chance to return to the big blue ocean, in which there were food and space aplenty for both of them, and then some.
That, to me, is a picture of what Paul calls “the wisdom of this age, or the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing,” in verse 6. Its the conventional wisdom at the heart of order, status, power, wealth and security in every human society, a way of thinking and acting based on fear: the fear of showing weakness, the fear of scarcity, the fear that there is not enough to go around, not enough by way of love, of honor, dignity, power, security, sustenance, or human worth to share. Therefore, we must fight for our share, even at the expense of other people, like those starfish fighting over their limited little tide pool. One reason there’s a mirror on the altar today is because the cross mirrors back to us this fear-driven tendency to fight over things we think are scarce, when they are not. Like love, dignity and power. That fear drove the religious leaders to hand Jesus over to the Romans, lest he take away from their authority. That fear also drove the Romans to crucify him, because there could only be one king: Caesar. Every time we see the cross, we remember how fearfully the world reacted to its creator, best friend and savior.
That fear also drove the conflicts that Paul was addressing in this letter. We discovered in the previous chapter how the Corinthian Christians were fighting over social class and who was the best teacher and preacher, as some claimed, “I am of Paul,” or I am of Apollos.” Whether in the world or the church, chaos, conflict and competition happen while the kingdom of God is at hand and the tide of God’s grace is rising in the world, with a promise of more than enough for everyone. How ironic.
But “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the mind of anyone,” Paul wrote, “what God has prepared for those who love him.” There’s no need to fight over the infinite supply of God’s gifts and graces. There’s always enough, and it grows with the sharing. The tide is coming in, not just in the world to come, but even now, in the church. Even in the world, as Ghandi said: “There’s enough for everyone’s need, just not enough for everyone’s greed.” That’s the second way in which the Cross serves today as a mirror. Its a mirror into the very nature of God. On it we see the depths to which God will go, the price that God is willing to pay, and the passion that motivates God to give and to guarantee his unlimited and eternal supply of covenant faithful love to us.
But it takes, as Paul says, some maturity to understand that, to even want it, and to trust in God’s abundance. The vast scale of God’s abundance and generosity is not readily available to the un-spiritual, unconverted eye. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so much by way of war, poverty or oppression going on in the world. “We do,” Paul says, “speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” That message of wisdom, as we have seen in the previous chapter, is the message of the cross. The stark, stunning, and confrontational cross.
And that’s the third way in which the cross acts as a mirror today: it mirrors to us something about true Christian, spiritual maturity. If the cross comes across to us as only so much disgrace, dishonor and foolishness to be avoided and downplayed, as just a tragedy of weakness and defeat, then we’re still captive to the wisdom, so-called, of this world, and of the rulers of this world. But the more we see in the cross the nature of God, the triumph of God, and the pattern for our lives, the more it can be said that God’s Spirit has revealed to us this heavenly wisdom, and the more we have received it, and the more mature we therefore are.
This maturity is not what we often think it is. Nor is it what Paul’s Corinthian audience probably thought that spiritual maturity was. There’s even a sense in which Paul here is talking to his friends tongue-in-cheek, using their own words, but with different meanings, words like “wisdom,” “secrets” or “mysteries” “secret wisdom” and “mature,” which can even be translated as “perfect.” These are the Corinthian’s own words that he’s reinterpreting back to them. We know that because we’ll see these words often enough in this letter to realize that they are the evidence of another clique in Corinth: what I call “the magical, mystical enthusiasts.”
We’ll run across more evidence of these “magical, mystical enthusiasts” as we proceed through I Corinthians. Later on in I Corinthians we’ll hear Paul taking them to task and calling them out for things like dominating the worship services by speaking in tongues with no one to interpret, or giving prophecies with no chance to discern their truth, or not. It doesn’t edify anyone else, but it makes the speaker feel important and impressive. Worship then becomes show and tell: to show off before others and tell them how much more spiritual one is than they are. That is how one can be spiritually gifted and yet be spiritually immature.
Enthusiasm in all things Christian is good. May God grant us all the gifts of His Spirit. May we be endowed with power to recognize and confront the powers of Satan over people and communities. May we too be given what the enthusiasts sought and boasted about: wisdom, insight, maturity and power. But every gift has a shadow side. Every gift comes with a temptation to misuse it. The shadow side of spiritual power is spiritual pride. How easily we forget that the honor for any spiritual gift goes to the giver, to God. How easy it is to forget that God’s spiritual gifts are given to unite people, not to divide them, to create community, not chaos and competition.
Paul takes their language of “secrets, maturity and wisdom” and uses it to redirect their attention. You want secrets and mysteries? I’ll give you a mystery: “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden, and that God destined for our glory before time began” in verse 6. But there’s nothing secretive about it. It’s God’s work of redemption on the cross. And it’s public knowledge available for the reading and hearing by everyone, not just those with special access to mystical secrets. Its the kind of wisdom that levels the playing ground.
If that’s not secretive enough, Paul quotes the Prophet Isaiah to say, “‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared’ for those who love him–but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” But the Spirit is available to all believers, just in different ways, with different gifts. And those inconceivable, invisible gifts, and our inconceivably wonderful destiny, are again are for everyone who believes, and not just for a gifted few.
Or is it maturity, or perfection, that you claim? Look to the cross for the measure of maturity, Paul is saying. Because a mature Christian character, if it reflects God in any way, will have a cruciform shape to it. There has always been a cross in the heart of God, even before the cross itself. In his gospel, John described Jesus as “the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world.” For sacrificial self-giving love has always been at the heart of God and of God’s nature. Giving himself away for the life of the world is how God fights evil and restores creation.
Its also how Jesus’ disciples are also called to engage the world and each other. Such cruciform love is the true sign of maturity. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love,” Paul told his Roman friends. And “Honor one another above yourselves (Rom. 12:10).” If they’d done that in First Century Corinth, those disciples would be competing, if anything, not to get honors, but to give honors. Such a community would be “cross-shaped” or “cruciform.”
Christ still calls his disciples, as he did 2000 years ago, to “take up your cross and follow me.” In fact, there is no way of getting through this world without some cross, some costs, disappointments and difficulties, especially not for anyone with a vision and a desire for the kingdom of God. The shadow of the cross will fall on every life. Some suffering, sacrifice and sorrow is unavoidable in this world. Not all of our needs can always always be met; not in this life at least. A sure sign of maturity then is that we don’t waste our fears, our sorrows, sacrifices and sufferings, but that we cooperate with God in making something redemptive of them, that we allow God’s Spirit to make of them bridges that unite us with others, when we can both serve and be served by other fellow sufferers and strugglers.
Like two other creatures in that tiny little tidepool were doing, just a few inches away from those two fighting starfish that I mentioned. They were inching away from the scene of battle, just slowly enough not to get noticed. At first you would have thought there was only one creature, and a strange one at that. A kind of multi-colored, wavy, tubular looking oddity that looks like a cross between a mushroom and a mop head, only more colorful: a sea anenome. Usually a sea anenome is rooted to a rock or to coral, and there it spends its life in the same place, waving its poisonous tentacles in the water until a fish or a shrimp gets caught in them, poisoned and paralyzed, and then ingested. But the sea anenome in that embattled tidal pool is actually moving. Look closer and you’ll find that its rooted to a shell. Under that shell is a hermit crab, creeping along, because he very desperately does not want to be found by either of those star fish.
But no starfish would look for him there, because they don’t like sea anenome venom any more than do the killifish and the shrimp in that tide pool. But the hermit crab is in no danger from the sea anenome. The stingers are on top, well above him. And besides, the sea anenome gets new hunting territory as the hermit crab carries him around, in exchange for not killing and eating the crab, even for hiding and protecting him from other predators like the starfish. Protection and a hiding place are what the crab gets in return for carrying the sea anenome around.
Biologists call that kind of relationship “symbiosis,” in Latin, literally, “together life.” Such life together is, to me, a parable in nature about the wisdom of the cross that Paul wants the Corinthians to see, and the gifts and riches that God is giving to the world through His Spirit and the wisdom of the cross. For the Corinthian Christians, their differences in class, outlook, spiritual gifts and ethnic backgrounds were serving as reasons for boasting and competing. But they could be gifts and riches that complement and enrich each other, the way the crab and the sea anenome do. These gifts and riches are for relationships; they even are relationships. Relationships that benefit everyone, but which also require of everyone some sacrifice, humility and cooperation. Even though I’ve said that the world runs on fear-based, scarcity-driven chaos and competition, you still also find examples of this symbiosis in the world, such as in the grocery stores around here that are run by, and cater to, people of both the Somali and the Mexican communities. There may be no pork tamales, but you will find Mexican candies for Christmas, or for the end of Ramadan.
The church of Jesus Christ is called and created by God to give the world glimpses of this wisdom, and of that glory to come, in which “’no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it even entered the mind of mortals,’ what God has prepared for those who love him.” Again, this glory is all about relationships. We see glimpses of it in the Wednesday lunch time inter-denominational prayer gathering of some pastors in this neighborhood that I attend many weeks, if not all. And as one long-term pastor told me, who has served a local church for twenty-plus years, no Christian church or service agency survives very long on its own here.
What’s true between churches is just as true within them. We are on a life-long journey of ever-deepening conversion from worldly wisdom to heavenly wisdom. That worldly wisdom, as the cross shows us, is homicidal and even deicidal. God suffered with us on the Cross of Calvary. But the cross also mirrors to us the self-giving nature of God and his love. And through the cross God has revealed a divine wisdom that leads us to riches, relationships and mature Christian character, that are beyond worldly understanding. As we are called to a lifelong journey of conversion to the wisdom of the cross, so are we called to display it to the world.