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You asked for a sermon on What About the Paradoxes of the Gospel?

 

2nd Corinthians 6:1-10     Luke 18:9-14

 

For years I’ve been intrigued by the psychology of perception. What do people “hear”? What do they think they hear, that is, as opposed to what was actually said? What do people “see”, claim they see, even swear they see as opposed to what there actually is to be seen?

Laboratory experiments in the psychology of perception fascinate me. One experiment has to do with motion sickness and the perception of motion. A person is blindfolded and seated on a chair, the chair itself mounted on a rim that revolves. As the rim speeds up the blindfolded subject soon becomes dizzy and nauseated. After a few minutes, however, the subject begins to feel better. Soon he feels much better and is glad that the moving rim is slowing down and has even stopped. Now he’s completely relieved of his dizziness and nausea. Actually the rim hasn’t stopped at all. It’s moving as fast as ever. What’s happened is this: after the rim has spun for several minutes the subject’s inner ear has compensated for the motion. The blindfolded subject now feels he’s at rest when in fact he’s never stopped revolving. Little by little his inner ear has made whatever adjustment was necessary to cause a highly abnormal situation to feel perfectly normal.

Everywhere in life there are abnormal situations without number that we’ve learned to compensate for. What at first made us highly uncomfortable is now felt to be normal. Conversely, Christians who uphold what is right and good and true in the midst of the world’s opinion will find themselves feeling most uncomfortable.

Let’s return to the experiment with the blindfolded subject seated on the moving rim. As I said earlier, after several minutes have elapsed the subject feels he’s now at rest and is no longer nauseated. He can’t get off the moving chair, however, until it stops; and it won’t stop unless it first slows down. Therefore the rim is gradually slowed down. As soon as it begins to slow down, however, the subject feels dizzy again, nauseated too; as soon as the rim begins to slow down, the subject complains that it’s speeding up, and that is why he’s newly nauseated! When the rim finally stops, he feels it’s now moving at top speed. Now he’s exceedingly nauseated; nauseated, that is, until his inner ear adjusts once more.

There are many conclusions to be drawn here. For one, feeling is no indicator of actuality. How we feel is no guide to what is. For another, however upsetting the abnormal is, we soon adjust to it and look upon it as the way things ought to be. For another, any return to what’s normal is highly unsettling, at least initially.

 

Most people look upon the world “out there” as normal, the measure and standard of itself and whatever might come to be. The gospel, however, tells us that the world is capsized.

The world looks upon itself as replete with truth and the measure of truth. The gospel, on the other hand, insists that the world is riddled with falsehood and unable to measure truth.

The world looks upon itself as ultimately real. The gospel, we should note carefully, insists that the world is actual. To say that the world is actual is to say it’s not imaginary and not mythological. The world is actual, to be sure, but it isn’t ultimately real. Ultimate reality is the presence and power of God, the ascendancy of the kingdom, the living efficacy of Jesus Christ. (All these expressions mean the same.)

The world looks upon itself as the source of whatever meaning people discover in the world. The gospel insists that the meaning of the world’s life is given to it by the One who created it and won’t abandon it.

The world unconsciously assumes that whatever most people do is the measure of what humankind ought to do. The gospel insists that what most people do isn’t the measure of anything; God’s truth is the measure of what they ought to do but don’t, and his judgement is the exposure of what they shouldn’t do but do.

So who is right? Think of what it is to be dreaming and what it is to be awake. When we are awake we know indubitably that we’re awake. When we are dreaming we think we’re awake even though we aren’t. It’s only upon awakening that we know our dream of being awake to be an instance of self-deception. When our Lord grants sight to a blind man, the blind fellow knows two things immediately: he knows that he can see (no one could ever persuade him now that he isn’t seeing), and he knows who enabled him to see. When the disciples cry out at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is the Son of God, they know indubitably that he is this even as Jesus reminds them that they didn’t come to this truth by themselves. When the Christians in Corinth exclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, they are as certain of this truth as an awakened person is that she’s awake, even as the apostle reminds them that only the Holy Spirit can bring them to this awareness.

So who is right? The kingdom of God and the world with its self-understanding contradict each other at virtually any point at which we care to compare them. A recent magazine article spoke of a “medical emergency” with the headline, “STDS ARE DEVASTATING YOUNG WOMEN’S HEALTH.” The article discussed the nature of STDs and pointed out that 12 million Americans are diagnosed each year with assorted sexually transmitted diseases. The article insisted that the responsibility for the prevalence and spread of STDs together with their attendant misery; the responsibility for all this lies with the federal government. The government hasn’t assigned sufficient funds to such problems, and government under-funding is the reason STDs continue to proliferate. Nowhere in the lengthy article was there even the hint that responsibility might rest with the women themselves. Why not? Because the article everywhere assumes that common access to sexual partners is as normal as common access to the air we all breathe and common access to the water we all drink.

The gospel engenders truth, substance, solidity. The world traffics in appearance, vacuity, froth. Recently a television program informed the Canadian electorate of how rising politicians are coached. Rule #1. Don’t wear a shirt (if you’re a male) whose collar is too large. A too-large shirt-collar makes a man appear terminally ill. (What does shirt-collar size have to do with serving the public good? What does it have to do with wisdom, integrity, trustworthiness?) Rule #2. Don’t say anything. Talk, to be sure, since all politicians have to talk. But don’t say anything, anything you might have to support or defend or account for. Rule #3. Remember that appearance is everything, substance nothing. A few years ago John Turner had the habit of licking his lips frequently as he spoke. A media-consultant publicly ridiculed him. “He looks like an ant-eater at a picnic!”, she sneered. Does the habit of licking one’s lips mean that one is intellectually deficient and ethically defective?

Anyone with a modicum of rationality would expect the world to recognise and honour honesty, decency, kindness, faithfulness, transparency. But the person who exemplifies this doesn’t even get noticed. On the other hand, when Meyer Lansky was the most powerful mobster in the underworld of the U.S.A., he received a personal invitation to the presidential inauguration of Dwight David Eisenhower. Then which is capsized, the world or the kingdom of God? Which is right side up and which abnormal, even perverse? In which do you feel more comfortable?

I am asked frequently about the paradoxes of the gospel. Such paradoxes abound beyond our telling. The arch-paradox of the gospel that underlies all other paradoxes, of course, is the paradox of the cross. We have to say something about this paradox because this paradox gives all others their force and efficacy and truth.

In a world preoccupied with power we can’t help asking ourselves “Where does God display his almightiest might?” God does his mightiest work, of course, at the cross. It was for the sake of the cross that he became incarnate in his Son. Everything in God’s 1200-year struggle with Israel came to its focus at the cross. Everything in the earthly ministry of the Son came to its fulfilment at the cross. The paradox of it all is that God does his unique work — God names himself, as it were — precisely where he’s indistinguishable from two criminals whose names the world has never known and never will. God does his most glorious work precisely where he’s most sunk in shame, for the only people the Romans crucified were enemies of the state, soldiers who had deserted, and rapists. God is most effective where bystanders deem him helpless. God is wise beyond the wisdom of the world exactly where knowing people nod their heads and commiserate concerning his folly. God is most exalted not simply where he’s most humbled but even where he’s utterly humiliated. God fashions acquittal for a world he must condemn precisely by subjecting himself to the selfsame condemnation. God displays his righteousness when the Son who knew no sin became sin for us, and God himself identifies himself with that sin which, say the Hebrew prophets, he cannot bear to behold. In sum, God brings life to the world by bringing death upon himself, a death that is the utmost alienation deep in his own heart, a self-alienation without which our reconciliation with him would never occur. The cross is one grand paradox gathering up a dozen paradoxes akin to those named, one grand paradox that is nothing but paradox.

Since the cross dominates and characterises the Christian story, every aspect of that story is therefore paradox as well. If the core of God’s self-involvement with the world is paradox, then every aspect of that involvement, every truth concerning it, is necessarily paradox too. Compared to the Christian story, the story that the world tells about itself appears back-to-front, inside out, upside down. Or is it the Christian story that’s ridiculous while the world’s is normal? Just who is crazy here, anyway?

In the time that remains today we are going to look at one or two paradoxes. A paradox, we must remember, is a statement that is inherently self-contradictory yet nevertheless true. Needless to say, a statement that is inherently self-contradictory can be true only if the ground of that statement is a reality that can’t be overturned or subverted or dispelled. The ground of every paradoxical statement in the Christian story is the cross. It is that reality which can’t be overturned or subverted or dispelled. Therefore the statements in the Christian story are not only inherently self-contradictory but also profoundly true.

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled”, says Jesus, “and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” It’s the last line of our Lord’s parable of the two men who go to the temple to pray. (Luke 18:9-15) One man thanks God for all those things about himself for which he should thank God: he doesn’t extort, he isn’t unjust, he doesn’t commit adultery, he fasts and he tithes. Religiously he’s exemplary; morally, he’s faultless. There isn’t so much as a hint of hypocrisy or insincerity or duplicity in him. Every word he says about himself is true. He practises what he preaches. He’s a thoroughly good man. Surely no one wants to say it would be better if he were exploitative, unfair and a philanderer.

The other fellow, so the story goes, simply cries heavenward, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” And it’s this man, insists Jesus, who goes home “justified”, goes home rightly related to God and therefore exalted before God.

On my first pastoral charge I happened to mention, in casual conversation, that the situation before God of every last human being was the same. My situation before God was identical with that of the most notorious profligate any of us had heard of or could imagine. The reaction to my casually spoken line was swift and hostile. “No, it isn’t!”, church folk spat back at me, “Our condition before God is different. Since God is just (at least we all agreed on this point) our moral circumspection has to count for something.” “It does count for something”, I replied, “it counts for our condemnation.” Whereas a minute ago they had thought me ridiculous, now they thought me deranged. I pointed out to them that the fact I wasn’t a philanderer didn’t mean for a minute that I loved my wife. And my moral achievement (considerable, if I may say so myself) didn’t mean that I loved God at all.

In our Lord’s parable the man who exalted himself in view of his genuine virtue used his virtue as a bargaining chip before God, used it as leverage with God. He pointed to it and reminded God that he wasn’t like others. He was telling the truth: he wasn’t like others; he was morally superior to others. However, his moral superiority, a matter of his will, had blinded him to the condition of his heart. His virtue was a barrier behind which he hid from God; it was a disguise in light of which he thought his heart was unknown to God; it was currency with which he attempted to negotiate with God. Unquestionably morally superior, he also thought himself spiritually superior. More to the point, he was so preoccupied with himself and his achievement that he never grasped what the other fellow in the parable knew from the start: ultimately life isn’t a matter of the achievements we “tot up” but a matter of the relationships we cherish; supremely the relationship, our immersion in the heart of God. He never understood that morality boasted of, morality traded on, morality used as a perch from which to disdain those beneath us is a stench in the nostrils of God. And not only a stench in the nostrils of God, a blindness so thoroughgoing as to blind the boaster to the corruption of his heart and therefore to his vulnerability before God.

The other fellow in the parable had nothing of which to boast. Having nothing of which to boast, he wasn’t tempted to boast. Knowing himself surviving at that moment only by God’s patience and going to survive only by God’s pardon, he was without pretence, without pride, without self-deception. Humbled, he could only cry, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He went home “justified”, rightly related to God, and thereafter exalted.

The humble, says Jesus, are the exalted; the exalted (self-exalted) are going to find themselves humbled.

Let’s look this time not at a paradox from the lips of Jesus but at one from the pen of Paul. To the Christians in Corinth he speaks of himself and his fellow-apostles as “having nothing yet possessing everything.” (2 Cor. 6:10) We have no difficulty understanding what it is to “have nothing.” To have nothing is to have nothing. But what’s the “everything” that the “have nothing’s” possess simultaneously? The apostle drops clues to this “everything” throughout his letters. “For me to live is Christ” he tells the congregation in Philippi. (Phil. 1:21) “The Son of God loved me“, he exclaims to the spiritually confused in Galatia, “and gave himself for me!” (Gal. 2:20) “Nothing can compare with the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord!”, he exults yet again. (Phil. 3:7) When he contemplates the Christians in Thessalonica, men and women sunk in paganism who had turned from prostrating themselves before idols to serve the living God, he glows, “You dear people in Thessalonica; you are my glory and my joy!” (1 Thess. 2:19) He sums it all up in the pithiest exclamation to the church in Corinth: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 9:15)

Having nothing, the apostle yet possesses everything. His intimacy with his Lord is so very intimate, so very intense, that he finds no vocabulary able to do it justice and can only say, “I have been admitted to that which I can’t describe; I have heard what may not be uttered.” (2 Cor. 12:4) Still, he can say something, as his numerous letters attest. Having nothing, he yet possesses everything: an intimacy with his Lord that no one will ever take from him and no misfortune will ever eclipse. It’s an intimacy that is, ultimately, the only wealth he possesses, the only riches he has to share, the only gift he can hold up before his people. This gift (his admittance to innermost intimacy with Jesus Christ) is inexpressible; this gift was fashioned with him in mind; this gift is of surpassing worth (he means incomparable worth). As often as he reflects on this gift he “lights up.” As often as he thinks of people like the Thessalonians who have come to know and cherish the same gift for themselves he is reconfirmed in his vocation, and he recalls that on the day of judgement their intimacy with the Lord will be his glory even as it is his joy now. Because he possesses everything, he can minister out of his riches to others in their spiritual poverty.

I am moved every time I read John Wesley’s journal. At the end of a harrying day when he has ridden miles, exchanged his lame horse for a sound one, contended with smirking magistrates and angry mobs, preached to convicts on their way to execution and coalminers on their way to the pits, written yet another tract for public dissemination and sorted out squabbles among his assistant preachers; at the end of such a day Wesley writes four brief words in his journal, “I offered them Christ.” It was all he wanted to offer. It was all he could. And it was enough, everything in fact.

I began the sermon with an illustration from the psychology of perception. I pointed out that once we become accustomed to what is abnormal; once the abnormal seems normal, a return to what is normal upsets us considerably. At the same time, however much a return to what is normal may upset us at first, we know soon that the kingdom of God is the creation of God right side up, while the world at large is the creation of God upside down. And in the same moment we understand that the gospel is true and sound and sane while it’s the world that’s crazy.

The paradoxes of the Christian story are self-contradictory by definition and therefore nothing more than “gobbledegook” for those who read them through the spectacles of unbelief. But for us whose minds and hearts have been conformed to the peculiar logic of the cross – the grand paradox, the paradox that renders everything about the Christian faith paradox; we glory in that paradox which now makes perfect sense to us, even as we pursue that life where first is last and last first, where saved is lost and lost saved. We count it a privilege to pursue it and therefore will ever pursue it until the day when paradox disappears as the logic of the cross – illogic to the world at present – is seen to be the soul of common sense. For on that day the logic of the cross will be known as truth that never could have been refuted, truth that henceforth can never be refused.

Victor Shepherd    

February 2000