Recently I was invited to preach at worship during our master’s intensive at United. The theme for the week was Wisdom.
Do not envy the wicked,
nor desire to be with them;
2for their minds devise violence,
and their lips talk of mischief. 3By wisdom a house is built,
and by understanding it is established;
4by knowledge the rooms are filled
with all precious and pleasant riches.
5Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones,
and those who have knowledge than those who have strength;
6for by wise guidance you can wage your war,
and in abundance of counselors there is victory.
7Wisdom is too high for fools;
in the gate they do not open their mouths. 8Whoever plans to do evil
will be called a mischief-maker.
9The devising of folly is sin,
and the scoffer is an abomination to all. 10If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength being small;
11if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death,
those who go staggering to the slaughter;
12if you say, “Look, we did not know this”—
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it?
And will he not repay all according to their deeds? 13My child, eat honey, for it is good,
and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
14Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
if you find it, you will find a future,
and your hope will not be cut off.
”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
1 Cor 2:6-13
6Yet 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. 7But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But, 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”— 10these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11For 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. 12Now 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. 13And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.
In his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, Richard John Neuhaus writes, “Some while ago I was on the same lecture platform with a famous television evangelist from California who is noted for accenting the positive and upbeat in the Christian message. According to this evangelist, it is as with Coca-Cola: Everything goes better with Jesus. He had built a huge new church called, let us say, New Life Cathedral, and he explained that during the course of the building there was debate about whether the cathedral should feature a cross. It was thought that the cross might prompt negative thoughts, maybe even thoughts about suffering and death. “Finally I said that of course there will be a cross,” the famous evangelist said. “After all, the cross is the symbol of Christianity and we are a Christian church. But I can guarantee you,” he declared with a triumphant smile, “there is nothing downbeat about the cross at New Life Cathedral” (p. 17).
When Paul went into Corinth, he came teaching the message about the cross. And he admits that this is not the most appealing message at first blush. Some people, whether Jew or Gentile, will simply find the message unpalatable, unbelievable, or absurd. But that is the message he preaches because that is the message God has given him. As he tells us in Galatians, 1”If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ. 11For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:10-12).
But then the preachers from New Life Cathedral came into Corinth. They sounded good. They looked good. They had great credentials. They had great hair. These are people who had been trained in rhetoric–the art of persuasion. Rhetoric involved formal training, usually only available to the wealthy. Men would debate one another in contests of rhetoric, demonstrating their mastery of techniques of argument, style of delivery, and methods of persuasion. One could gain a great deal of honor as a skilled orator. And here they come into Corinth, bringing with them the air of respectability at which Christians have grasped time and again.
I mean, come on… we want people to like us. We want to be relevant. We want to be appealing. We want journalists and intellectuals and movie stars to think we’re alright. We’re going to get on Twitter and talk about how those other kinds of Christians are bad but that we’re actually pretty cool. We want the acceptance of the world.
That’s why John Wesley said of the people called Methodists that he was not afraid that we would ever cease to exist, but that we would have the form of religion, without the power. He was worried that we would become too comfortable, that we would take the gospel for granted, that we would exchange the wisdom of God for human wisdom, and thus lose the evangelistic fervor that animated the Wesleyan revival.
His fears were well founded.
Paul draws a distinction between the wisdom of his age and the wisdom that comes from God. All kinds of things are called “wisdom,” but that doesn’t mean they reflect the wisdom of God. In fact, what passes for wisdom may be the very opposite of the wisdom of God. The reason for this, Paul tells us, is that you cannot truly know the wisdom of God except by the Spirit of God. God has revealed the divine will through the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit will teach us things that we could never learn on our own.
In other words, you can only receive the wisdom of God by divine revelation.
Therefore you can be smart, but not wise.
You can be wise in the ways of the world, but not wise in the ways of God.
You can be a great public speaker, even one who stands up in front of a congregation on Sunday morning, and never know the wisdom of God.
You and I can think we’re preachers of the gospel and be nothing more than professional talkers.
The people sitting in the pews of our churches need spiritual nourishment. Imagine that you could look around the sanctuary and see signs over people’s heads telling us about the pain and struggles that they were bringing with them. You know the kind of things you’d see. You’d see signs that would say things like: “Divorce,” “Contemplating Suicide,” “Having an affair,” “Facing home foreclosure,” “Cancer,” “Dealing with Addiction,” “Depression.” No, not everyone is dealing with these kinds of things every Sunday, but every Sunday some people are. And if you’re going to speak into a group of people facing those kinds of issues, you’d better know something of the wisdom of God, because it will take the wisdom of God to face down the demons that people carry with them.
Only by the Spirit can you learn the things of the Spirit. You receive the wisdom of God by prayer, the study of scripture, sacred friendships, contemplation and meditation, works of mercy and piety. And that is why some of the brightest, best educated people in the world don’t know the most fundamental truth of human existence: that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love for us. There are many kinds of wisdom, but the wisdom of God comes to us by the power and work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus tells us, he is the true vine, and we are the branches. Jesus uses lots of metaphors in the Gospel of John to talk about himself, and often they have to do with his being the source of life. He says,
I am the bread of life.
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
I am the resurrection and the life.
Jesus says that he can give us living water that will give us eternal life.
And here, when he says, “I am the vine,” it’s just another way of saying the same thing. A branch can’t survive, much less bear fruit, when it has been cut off from the vine. And, Jesus says, neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in him.
Christ is the source of our nourishment. Christ gives us true life. God will prune us to make us grow all the more when we stay connected to the true vine.
There are of course many imposters claiming to be the true vine. If we abide with them, they say, you can really have true life. You can really start to enjoy yourself. You can experience life to its fullest. The counterfeit vine could be money, or the things money can buy. It could be power. It could be sex. But counterfeit vines produce counterfeit life. We may thrive on attention, on recognition, on the adrenaline rush of being up in front of a crowd. We may crave affirmation. We may want to show the world that we are better than everyone always said we could be. We may crave control. We may rely upon distractions of various sorts–tv, the internet, drugs and alcohol, pornography, to generate thin and meaningless forms of momentary counterfeit happiness. But none of these ever gives true life, and none can ever replace the wisdom that comes from God.
In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “If the things of this world delight you, praise God for them but turn your love away from them and give it to their maker…. The good things which you love are all from God, but they are good and sweet only as long as they are used to do his will. They will rightly turn bitter if God is spurned and the things that come from him are wrongly loved. Why do you still choose to travel by this hard and arduous path? There is no rest to be found where you seek it. In the land of death you try to find a happy life: it is not there. How can life be happy where there is no life at all?” (4.12).
How can we be happy if we cut ourselves off from the true vine who gives us wisdom and life?
The theological education that you receive at United shouldn’t just make you smarter. It should make you wiser. I know that there are a lot of terms and concepts and dates and places to learn, because you cannot learn about our faith without learning about the significant landmarks along the way, but as you enter more deeply into reflection on the Bible, on Christian doctrine, on the work of ministry, on the saints who have gone before us in the faith, ask yourself this question: What kind of person am I becoming?
I’m getting to be a better speaker, but does my life reflect the content of the gospel?
I’m learning a lot about theology, but has the God about whom I’m learning continued to change my life?
I’m learning about the fathers and mothers of the church, but does my life reflect the integrity, holiness, and love that I see in so many of them?
I’m learning tools for ministry, but whose ministry? New Life Cathedral? The orators in Corinth? The Church of What’s-Happening-Now? Is it a ministry of twenty-first century American values with Christian window dressing?
Or is it a ministry of the one who went to the cross, whom God raised from the dead?