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Reading Someone Else’s Mail 4: Covert Operation

February 10, 2014

“Reading Someone Else’s Mail 4: Covert Operation” 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 © 2.9.14 Ordinary 5A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The sci-fi TV show “Agents of SHIELD” is a spin-off of some Marvel comic books and movies based on them. SHIELD is a secretive bureaucratic organization with enormous resources, engaged in battle variously against alien artifacts, techno- and cyber-terrorists, and corporate villains seeking world domination or at least obscene profit. The agents in the title are a small team of men and women who travel the world in a huge hot-rodded military cargo plane, getting into all sorts of scrapes and jams every week.

On the surface, “SHIELD” is just another action-adventure yarn, a good diversion on a Tuesday night. But like most series from producer Joss Whedon, there is more going on. I think the underlying theme of the show is knowledge. There is the usual spy talk about clearance and classification, with Level 8 being the top, with access to everything. So there’s a hierarchy; not every agent is privy to all the secrets of the organization. But “SHIELD” also deals with our desire to know ourselves and about ourselves. A hacker named Skye is searching for the truth about her origins; other agents, including the head of the team, are trying to keep the painful truth from her. Another, Coulson, was killed during an alien attack, but was revived; he wants to know what really happened to him during his recovery. Two nerdy scientists named Fitz and Simmons fill the air with thick jargon and can perform miracles with machines and medicine, but they lack social skills. And they are all trying to locate and stop a bad guy known only as “the Clairvoyant.”

Reading Paul, we wonder if the Church is also a hierarchical organization with secrets only a few can know. God seems to be carrying on a gigantic covert operation, a black op, with knowledge about what’s really going on granted to only a select few known as “the spiritual” and “the mature,” the equivalent of SHIELD’s Level 8 clearance. Paul speaks of “hidden wisdom,” a “secret plan only now made known,” a “mystery” kept from the rulers of this age. Are there some who comprehend and know deep secrets about God’s purposes, while the rest of us are left in the dark, clueless and ignorant?

Luther once said about another text that he “beat importunately” on Paul to get at his meaning. I imagine we would like to pummel the apostle a little here. Doesn’t he contradict himself? How can he condemn divisions in one chapter, then turn right around and use language that is inherently divisive, that sets one group over and above another? Who are these “mature” folk he likes so much?

We can say pretty quickly whom Paul would exclude from the select group, the in-crowd, and that is anybody who boasts about belonging to it! Those of you of my generation and older may recall how George Wallace used to talk about “pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals” back in the ‘60s. I was never sure why intellectuals were “pointed-headed,” but it’s a memorable phrase that describes people who parade their knowledge and adopt a superior attitude. We might say Paul had to deal with his own “pointy-headed” group, people who were sure they had a corner on God. But, as the saying goes, they didn’t know squat.

Sisters and brothers, be on the lookout for and studiously avoid people who claim they talked with God this morning and got the latest scoop on his plans for your salvation or know what’s best for you or the country and therefore should make all moral choices for you by legislation, intimidation, and humiliation. Beware of holier-than-thou folk who believe that division for the sake of doctrinal purity or loyalty to tradition is pleasing to God. Certainty is attractive in our chaotic, confusing world. Division when we disagree is easier than living with diversity of opinion. But how much harm has been done by men and women who were sure they knew what God wanted? How much is being done in our day?

Frank Schaeffer, son of Religious Right founder Francis Schaeffer, has written about the rise of evangelicalism in the 20th century, which he labels as merely rebranded fundamentalism. The leaders of this movement set up a false dichotomy between science and religion, faith and facts, with hurtful results. “The fine print of conversion to a hot literal faith included a directive not to trust facts…but to look for special information which was visible only to the faithful. This way of thinking led inadvertently to an us-or-them view, revealing those with whom you disagree to be not just wrong, but lost, or even willfully evil” (see note 1).

Paul never intended to divide the faithful into two camps, thus perpetuating the problems in Corinth. He does divide humanity into those who have the Spirit and those who don’t. Agree with that or not, that’s how he sees it. Anyway, the apostle uses “spiritual” as the equivalent of “Christian,” a word that had not been coined yet when Paul wrote. For him, any believer has, and all believers have, the Spirit. There aren’t some Christians who have the Spirit and others who don’t. Everybody is endowed with the Spirit in baptism, made holy by the Spirit, given gifts for the good of the community, sustained and comforted and enlightened by the Spirit. The Spirit is responsible for creativity and imagination and plumbing the depths of God, revealing him to us.

The paradox of the Spirit’s work in us is that the more that is revealed, the less we know. God is an ocean whose depths we cannot fathom. The old Westminster Confession called God “immense,” meaning he transcends the ordinary means of measurement. He is past comprehension, beyond knowing fully as well as surrounding and capturing. So the one who knows most about God is the one who claims to know least, who refuses to make blanket statements about “God’s will” or “the divine plan.” That person has plumbed the depths of the holy mystery and found that the spiritual sonar doesn’t show a bottom.

Paul Tillich, a great theologian of the last century, in a famous sermon on the morning’s text, said: “The name of [the] infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For it you know that God means depth, you know much about him” (see note 2).

If the enigmatic pronouncements of theologians aren’t your cup of tea, how about this? Jesus once said that God has hidden his wisdom from the wise and revealed it to children. The story of one such little one is chronicled in a slim classic entitled Mr. God, This is Anna. Maybe you read it back in the day. It recounts the prayers of an orphan girl who possesses extraordinary insight into spiritual things. For example, someone once told her that we go to church to understand God more. She disagreed. For her, we worship in order to understand God less.

To understand God less! The little girl was right. We don’t always know what the Lord is up to. There remains a hiddenness about his purposes. It seems to me that the more mature in faith we become, the more we realize that God will never be fully comprehended by any of us. Indeed, John Calvin, one of our theological forbears, once said that even a person “with all his shrewdness is as stupid about understanding by himself the mysteries of God as an ass is incapable of understanding musical harmony.” Mystery will always surround the Sovereign of the universe. That’s what we mean when we say God is “holy.” It is no shame to say of God and what God does or does not do: “I don’t know.”

The one who claims to fathom the things of God no doubt considers himself or herself very religious. But such an attitude betrays an underlying spirit of self-sufficiency, the same root problem that is bringing down the rulers of this age. Ironically, the arrogant religionist who thinks he or she knows it all is in league with the very same pagan spirit that rejects God. If God can be fully understood, then he is no god, and if he is no god, then it may be true that he is as powerless and useless as the skeptics claim.

For Paul, the really mature believer is the one who never takes grace for granted. He is deeply aware of being created by God and daily sustained by the Spirit. She lives solely by grace, with a deep and abiding sense of how desperately she needs God, even or especially in times of strength and affluence. There is always someone beyond ourselves, someone greater than our understanding, someone who does not and will not conform to the limits we want to place on the divine to keep it safe and comfortable and controllable. And that someone is really God, the kind of God who can save us, who keeps coming to us and opening before our very eyes the surprising treasure that eye has never seen nor ear heard nor hearts conceived in our wildest dreams.

Paul will say later that in essence, the real measure of maturity is love. And that means the giving of ourselves completely and totally into the care of this One we worship, opening ourselves to his gaze, becoming vulnerable, letting down our guard. That’s how we get to know God. We can read about him in the Bible. We can learn doctrines and statements and creeds. We can do all kinds of things, good things, important things. But what matters most is the personal experience of the One who loved us first, revealed himself first, made himself vulnerable first in the cross of Jesus Christ.

And in getting to know God, we know ourselves. Isn’t that what we really want? For to be known, truly known, is to be understood and valued and loved. Like those agents on the TV show trying to find out who they are and what happened to them, we want to go below the surface of our lives and discern the meaning of what we do, the importance of what we know, the value even of suffering. That, too, is the work of the Spirit. To help us plunge deep inside ourselves, to that secret hidden depth in our hearts, and plumb its riches, deal with its fears, find its joys and its hopes. The Spirit knows. The Spirit sees. The Spirit reveals. And all where only God and we can see.

Covert operation.

Note 1 “We Have a Dumb Religion Problem—Not a Political Problem,”

Note 2 “The Depth of Existence,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, © 1948 Charles Scribner’s Sons: 57


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