“The Rulers of the Age” / 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 / 5 February 2017
You go, Apostle Paul! Listen to Paul, socking it to the politicians of his day, indeed the politicians of every day. “The rulers of the age,” he says, “are doomed to perish. The rulers of the age crucified Jesus. The rulers of the age don’t understand spiritual things; such things are foolishness to them. The rulers of the age are unspiritual, for they dwell on all the wrong kinds of power. But our foolish power is Christ, and him crucified. We have the mind of Christ.” I sense a great comfort in that phrase, don’t you? “We have the mind of Christ,” presumably an untroubled mind, an unafraid mind, a mind willing to endure sorrow and pain, for it sees a bigger spiritual perspective. Maybe we do have the mind of Christ, if we live for goodness and not for power. Maybe we do have the mind of Christ if, even amid all the troubles of a greedy, violent world, we manage to love and serve both God and neighbor. It kind of makes you feel a sort of compassion for those who lack a larger spiritual perspective to live by. Life would be scary and hard if all you knew to live for was power and gain.
Some people never grasp the things of the spirit—or the spirit of things—and ours is not to despise them but to love them, as annoying and harmful as they can sometimes be. Back in the 90s, it was an unwritten rule that college students had to spend a summer in Europe and then come back with affected mannerisms and all the answers to questions nobody is asking. We all came home from our summer pilgrimages to Europe and spelled the word “gray” with an “e” for a few self-important years. While I was over there, in 1990, I mostly traveled alone, but at one point I fell in with a small group of Americans who were doing street evangelism: skits, puppet shows, gospel songs. I wasn’t exactly sympathetic to the cause, but they were Americans, and I’d been robbed early in my trip, and these guys even paid me to do some interpretation work for them. And so, to my enormous embarrassment, I spent two weeks with them, interpreting the words of their street preachers into French, though I must admit that I sometimes softened and improved upon what they were saying. These street preachers got the letter of the law quite clearly, the idea that there’s new life in Jesus. But the spirit of it all escaped them. There was passion and zeal and certainty, but so little…love.
One of these fellows was actually a very nice guy—until he opened his mouth to preach. He was quiet, and thoughtful, and good-humored. I liked him one-on-one. He was training with some Pentecostal group to become a missionary to a French-speaking country in Africa. And he really did try very hard to learn French there in France, but had no aptitude whatsoever for languages. But he did a strange thing. We were staying in that big stretch of ugly cities along the Belgian border, where the Arab population is so large. Each morning, we walked from the little storefront church, where we were sleeping, out to the center of town, where these guys put on their skits and sermons. It might have been about a mile’s walk, which took most of us twenty minutes. But this guy always arrived an hour late. He started out walking with us, but whenever the light at a crosswalk turned from green to red, he stood there and waited for it to turn green again. It didn’t matter that there was no traffic coming. It didn’t matter that the French have crossing signals at even the tiniest of intersections. When asked why he didn’t just cross the street if there were no cars coming, he explained that the Bible instructs us to “obey the laws of the land,” and he’s just doing as he’s told.
He didn’t get the spirit of law, which is simply meant to protect people. He didn’t get the spirit of traffic lights, whose sole purpose is to keep people from getting hit by a car, a purpose made moot by the absence of cars. To him, we others were all guilty of some minor crime each time we crossed the street without waiting for the light to change. Some folks really just do not get the spirit of things, just as some seemingly religious people do not get the things of the spirit.
Would you lie to save a life? My guess is that you would. In fact, my guess is that you would tell a gentle lie not just to save a life but merely to save somebody’s feelings. Would you steal a loaf of bread to feed your family, like Jean Valjean, if you knew that the person you were stealing it from had more than enough? The great German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Now the question is getting a little harder, isn’t it? Would you kill one murderous man in order to save the lives of countless innocent others? It’s possible to live life event-to-event without really grasping some bigger philosophical framework. There are those, and they are many, who fail to see a larger moral perspective to life; all they see is all the little stuff that arises day by day, and they do their best to negotiate it according to their lights. They follow the rules, not stopping to wonder about the intentions behind them. They go chasing after money, for it seems like a nice thing to have. They hunger for power, because if you’re powerful then maybe, just maybe, you can stave off death and be remembered after you’re gone. They have no bigger vision of life to guide them. They follow after a thing that Paul is calling “the wisdom of this age,” which says, “Get the other guy before he gets you; accumulate all you can of wealth and influence; God helps those who help themselves.” But we, we have the mind of Christ.
I actually went to the Greek for that last phrase, “We have the mind of Christ.” I had a little linguistic hunch. I thought maybe Paul could have been speaking in the imperative here, basically saying, “But let us have the mind of Christ.” I really would have preferred that! “We have the mind of Christ” is just a claim that I’m not sure I want to make about myself. I’d far prefer, “Let us have the mind of Christ” because it makes room for the possibility—the probability—that we do not. But alas, I was wrong. He’s not telling us to have the mind of Christ; he’s saying that we already do have such a mind. And oh, the responsibility that comes with that! For I don’t always feel like I have the mind of Christ, do you? Oh, to have the mind of Christ, to see some bigger picture when the one before us is plenty scary. Oh, to have the cool, unanxious mind of Christ, to look at this world unafraid. I get scared. And I get mad. And I get discouraged about the direction our world and our nation seem to be headed. Does Christ’s mind worry? Does it fret? Does it feel so profoundly outraged? Sure it does. But somehow it manages to see all the troubles of this passing age, and all its power players, within the larger context of the life and love of God. Its spiritual perspective makes even a troubled age livable.
This is one of Paul’s denser texts, where he juggles multiple ideas about power, and wisdom, and the secret things of God—things that are revealed mainly to the powerless, things that the “unspiritual” find foolish. Last week we talked about how the cross is utter foolishness to both the Eastern mind and the Western mind. Paul is continuing on that theme, saying that, “the rulers of the age don’t get spiritual things. You can’t expect them to. The rulers of the age killed Jesus. To them, the things of the spirit are foolishness. But the rulers of the age with all their power-plays and all their grasping…are passing away.” Of course, by Paul’s day, the men who killed Jesus had all been gathered to their ancestors. Paul’s not just talking about his own day. He’s talking about one of this world’s constant and necessary evils: politicians!
Baptist minister Tony Campolo once said, “Mixing politics and religion is like mixing manure and ice cream. It doesn’t hurt the manure…” And while I hope that good religion, responsible, joyful religion is more nutritious than ice cream, you do get the point. I once made the mistake of poking fun at politicians from the pulpit. The chief magistrate over the district court didn’t bat an eye, but his wife gave me such a menacing look that I stopped to think, “Right! Because judges are elected officials!” It would be patently wrong to say that politicians are just bad people. We’ve known many who upheld the greater good above their own self-interests. And yet, Paul’s category is strangely broad here, “the rulers of the age.” Maybe he’s talking about those who seek not to be good, but powerful. Surely this is not all politicians, but the lure of power often attracts certain kinds of people…namely and obviously, the kind who love power, the kind who see power as something to be grasped after. Paul calls these “the rulers of the age,” and they’ve existed in every age. He boldly states that they cannot grasp the bigger perspective, the grander view that life is meant for joy and service.
This is hard for Americans to hear! “God and country,” though not necessarily in that order, is an idea we got from old England. We like to see God and country as intertwined. We expect our politicians to be godly, religious, if not believers and saints, at least churchgoers or members. The only way a godless person could get elected to any position of power in many parts of this country is by paying lip service to faith—almost any faith, except Islam. America has been profoundly shaped by the historic faiths that were brought here from Europe. America has been imbued with theological and moral and social principles that come from the faiths that flourished here from the outset, namely Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism. But America cannot be a Christian nation, for no nation can be that! As much as I love the pomp and pageantry of state churches in England and Sweden, it’s all hooey. No nation is Christian, just as no nation is vegetarian. A nation’s laws can be informed by Christian tradition, but the nations of the earth are necessarily built upon the power of force and military might, to which Paul says, “But we preach Christ, and him crucified.” The rulers of the age don’t get it.
What encouragement is there in Paul’s bleak view of most politicians? Well, it teaches us not to be troubled by those who grasp after power, for they have always been and will always be. It teaches us not to expect such people to be the conscience of our society, for that is a task reserved to those who have the mind of Christ. It reminds us that Christendom is a vast and powerful empire. At times and in places, it produces things of great beauty and acts of true charity. At other times, it crushes the poor and scornfully judges all who fail to worship at its shrines. Christendom is influential, widespread, and sometimes downright toxic. But having the mind of Christ is not the same exact thing as Christendom. And those who have the mind of Christ have never been in the majority, not even here in Christendom.
“But we, we have the mind of Christ.” Do we? Well, which do we seek in this world, and which do we seek for ourselves and our nation, goodness or power? We do have the mind of Christ, though it might be buried deep under all our other allegiances. The mind of Christ, which is foolishness to the rulers of the age, is set on things eternal and not for the passing riches and glories of an impermanent world. The mind of Christ is not surprised or devastated when the rulers of this age fail to get it. The mind of Christ sees the world and all its history from the larger perspective of God’s love: It’s a place where we are our brother’s keeper; it’s a place that belongs not to us but to God, along with all its peoples and living things, a place that in the end is governed by God, and where at last, all creation will be redeemed. Some people cannot grasp the things of the spirit—or the spirit of things—and ours is not to despise them but to love them, as annoying and harmful as they can sometimes be. Love them and perhaps…oppose them. And love them we can, and love them we will. And come what may, we will live our day with peace and joy. For we have the mind of Christ. Amen.