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Sunday 6 February 2011

Christ the Mystery of God

Texts: Isaiah 58.1-9a; Psalm 112.1-10; 1 Corinthians 2.1-16; Matthew 5.13-20

In the middle of the first century Mediterranean world, the story of Jesus was just one story amongst many. There were as many different religious and philosophical options available to people as there are today, perhaps more. If you were in the market for a religious path to follow, there were plenty to choose from. These ranged from the simple devotions of the peasant folk to their household gods, to the more abstractly philosophical schools of the aristocratic classes. But during the period when Paul was writing his letters, the most popular religions were the mystery cults. Though various in shape, colour and form, the mystery cults all had one things in common - an obsession with the gaining of hidden or secret knowledge about the nature of things. Later, in the 2nd, century they would be gathered under the name 'Gnosticism', from the Greek word 'gnosis', which means 'knowledge'.

Gnosticism was very seductive, because it promised to let the initiate in on the biggest secrets of all - the mysteries about who we are, where we came from, and what our destinies are to be. But not all at once. The newcomer to a mystery cult would be granted access to the secrets by degrees. Only by solving the puzzles of lesser stages would one progress to an allegedly ‘higher’ knowledge of the mysteries. There was a strict pecking-order in most of the cults. Progress into the higher echelons depended very much on one's cultural capital - that is, on how impeccably compliant one had been in one’s philosophical education and, perhaps more importantly, upon who one happened to know. The higher initiates patronised those lower down the ladder; and the latter regarded their betters with a mixture of awe and envy.

When Paul writes to the Corinthians he is afraid that his fledging Christian community is turning into a mystery cult centred on Christ. He is afraid that some of the community's members have set themselves up as the higher initiates in a ladder to secret knowledge, and that these people are lording it over the others on the basis of their claims to superior gnosis into the mystery of Christ. Paul's fears are well-founded. But not only for what we today might call ‘ethical’ reasons. Paul is aware that there are two significant theological similarities between his own gospel and the language of the mystery cults, and that these similarities might cause some to miss the difference.

First, Paul is clearly happy to call his gospel a musterion, a mystery (2.1). This is right and proper, he says, because the ways and mind of God are far beyond the capacity of human beings to grasp. There will always be a sense in which the message of God's wisdom will elude us, simply because God's ways and our ways are so very different. God will always have secrets, the depth of which only God's own Spirit can fathom. Second, Paul is also happy to make a distinction between those who are mature in the mystery of Christ and those who are not. Among the less mature, Paul says that he came as one without any pretension of wisdom at all. He simply let the power of the Spirit, manifest in various signs and wonders, do the talking. But amongst the more mature, Paul spoke of wisdom and of the secrets concerning God's glory. And so the gospel of Jesus is similar to the mystery cults in two important respects. There are secrets, and there are those who understand the secrets better than others.

Yet, and this is the crux of Paul’s critique, it is at precisely those points of apparent similarity that the gospel is also very different to the mystery cults. While the secrets of the cults may be grasped through the powers and efforts of human learning and reason, Paul says that the secrets of the gospel are revealed (apocalupsen, 'unveiled') to human beings by the Spirit of God (2.10). We have received the Spirit, says Paul, in order to learn about the things of God from one who knows God intimately. And by that Spirit, he says, we also teach others about God's secrets, not in the categories of purely human reason, but in a language peculiar to the Spirit. The basic point here is this: no Christian can boast of a superior knowledge of God's ways based on the merits of his or her own efforts or intellectual powers. Whatever we are privileged to know has been given us by the gracious gift of God. That is all.

This leads us neatly into the second of Paul's distinctions between the mystery cults and Christian faith. While there is indeed a difference between the mature and the less mature in faith, this has almost nothing to do with the cultural capital so valuable to the initiates of the mystery cults - you know, the social systems by which one may access the right teachers and the most desirable education. For Paul, the mature are those who attend not to the apparent ‘wisdom’ of these merely human discourses, but to the whispers of the Holy Spirit. Later in the letter, Paul says of the Corinthians that they are puffed up with knowledge, but that they lack the LOVE which is the special gift of God's Spirit. Listen . . . . 'Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him' (8.2). The point my friends, is not knowledge, but love. The mature in the faith of Christ are those who love God and are freed by that love to look out for others, not those who are of the impression that they know a lot about God.

Now why am I telling you all this? To make a single point, and it's this. In the eyes of God it is far more important to love than to know. It is far more important to LOVE than to KNOW. That's why you hear me talk so much about the essential relatedness of prayer and social justice. Prayer is allowing yourself to be drawn into the mysterious beauty of God's love, manifest in Israel and in Jesus Christ, there to be forgiven and made new. Here there is a profound looking and listening to what God has already said and done in the history of salvation, and a deep-down surrender to God’s re-patterning of one’s personhood according to this history’s cruciform shape. Out of this experience, then, springs the dream of social justice and of healing, that burning desire to love the present world as God presently loves it, to actively participate in God's ever-new embrace of all who suffer in the world. It is to hear Jesus say 'Freely you have received, freely give' and then to actually get on with the giving!

And so I encourage you brother and sisters, yet once more today, to enter into a more committed journey of prayer. Not the prayer which presumes to know what God wants, and proceeds to tell God what ought to be done in the world. No, I encourage you to come quietly before the Lord. To empty yourself of all desires and all wants save one. The desire to become one with God's own desire. To will what God wills. To become the agent of God's becoming. To burn with a pure flame of love for all who need God's compassion.