And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
--1 Corinthians 2:1-5
We live at the end of a very long period of focused concentration throughout Christendom on the written word. This shouldn’t surprise us. The church always follows culture, though we would wish it were otherwise. The over-emphasis on the written Word of God began with the invention of the printing press in 1439. From there, the fascination with the printed word became so complete that it would be easy to suggest that the Reformation was really about placing the Scriptures in the hands of the common man.
The problem with placing the Scriptures at the center of Christian worship is, of course, that it tends toward idolatry. In most Catholic churches built prior to 1600, the altar is the central focal point of public worship, and the moment in the Mass known as the “fraction” – where the priest raises the host high above his head and breaks it in half is the high point of the event. In most Protestant churches built after 1600, often the pulpit is placed front-and-center, signifying the supremacy of the preached Word, or you will find an open Bible placed on the communion table where the elements of the Eucharist used to be.
Ironically, the letters of Paul, the Apostle have become so outsized in our generation that teaching on them, at least in American churches, has obscured the preaching of Christ himself. We end up as Paulists – interpreting Paul interpreting Jesus – instead of being Christians in our own right. I say Ironically, because here in 1 Corinthians 2, Paul is quite clear that persuasive words will never usher a person into the Kingdom of God. The best argument in the world, the most logical and best laid out “gospel presentation” will always fall flat, unless…
“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Back in the 1960s there was an annoying TV series on CBS called “Gomer Pyle, USMC.” It was in the same vein as Peter Seller’s great movie, Being There. The conceit of the show was that here was a complete simpleton, Gomer Pyle, a former auto mechanic from Mayberry, NC, who joins the US Marines and somehow, week to week, outsmarts all the brass, and especially his drill sergeant. How he outsmarts them is with the purity of his character. Because there is no guile in Gomer, because he would never say or do anything dishonest or unethical, he ends up on the right side every time, even though he has the IQ of Forrest Gump.
Paul, a man with every degree you could get in the First Century, seems to have gone to Corinth and checked his intellect at the door in order that he could be a living example of Jesus to these people. He wasn’t going to try to argue with them, though he could be quite persuasive in a place like Athens. He realized that what the Corinthians needed wasn’t a treatise on doctrine. They needed Jesus himself. So Paul decided that the right answer to every question was Jesus. “I’ll tell you how he lived and how he died. That’s about it.”
When you spend time with people and decide that, even though you could deliver a great sermon what you’re going to do is live humbly among them, the effect on you is that you begin to see demonstration after demonstration of God’s power. And that can be the most frightening experience. The idea that the best way you can know God is by living the way Jesus did and letting him work through you without a neatly worked out set of plans and gospel tracts is pretty intimidating.
And yet, the demonstration of the Spirit and of power is exactly what God wants us to give him the freedom to accomplish. Only then will we make disciples for Jesus and not find ourselves presiding over a personality cult based on our great preaching gift. Only then will “your faith rest on the power of God” and not the wisdom of men.