Already on the first pages of J.K. Rowling’s first “Harry Potter” book we knew she was going to come up with a whole little universe of wild and funny things. The first such gadget we encounter is Dumbledore’s “deluminator.” It was the opposite of a cigarette lighter—you did not use the deluminator to light a candle but to snatch the flame from a burning candle and put it out. The device could similarly snatch the light from already lit street lights and table lamps, storing the energy inside the deluminator until you decided to put it back. Clever. (Most of us who were pre-reading that first book before allowing our kids to read them were hooked from the deluminator forward!)
Another wonderful bit of intrigue is the Hogwarts Castle and its “Room of Requirement.” This was a real—and very large—room that did not appear on any castle maps, had no entry or exit door anyone could ordinarily see. It was said to be the repository of many mystical objects (and a few dangerous one). It was an assemblage of vast secrets—the place where all things were hidden. But getting into the room was itself a trick. You had to sort of believe in the room and wish your way inside. And there was a standard way to refer to how to find and get into the Room of Requirement and it went like this:
“If you have to ask, you will never know. If you know, you need only ask.”
That pretty well sums up 1 Corinthians 2 as well.
Paul rounded out the first chapter of this letter with a meditation on the glorious mystery that is the cross of Christ. The cross turns everything on its head in this world. Its weakness is true power, its apparent failure is galactic success, its utter folly as a source of hope is nothing short of the truest wisdom of God for all hope and new life. Now as Paul turns the corner into what we call the second chapter, he reflects on the message about all this mystery that he preached when he first came to Corinth years before. The message was something straight out of anything and everything the rest of society (then and now) would label as a non-starter, as foolishness, as a formula for going exactly nowhere in life.
“I came to you determined to know only Christ and him crucified” Paul writes. Think about that: that is ALL Paul wanted to know about. That was the full content of his mind and heart. If he knew that, he knew it all. If he could get others to know that and understand what that cross of Jesus means, they would know all they’d ever finally need to understand for eternal life, too. It was at once that simple and that complicated. Paul was an unapologetic one-trick pony if ever there were one. He was all one note. He sold exactly one flavor of ice cream.
But simple and consistent though his message was, it was no cinch for people to grasp it. It required a whole new set of mental software and only the Holy Spirit of God was capable of installing the necessary program components. Once this gift of faith is received and duly installed, everything would become clear. The apparent foolishness of the cross would become the wisdom of God, the dead-end nature of the proclamation would become the gateway to life. But it was going to require a whole new way of thinking to get one’s mind around this. Because it is finally a very great mystery.
But a true mystery can never be explained. That’s part of a mystery’s charm! If you could explain it, break it down into bite-sized pieces, square everything at the corners or tie off every loose end, it would not be a mystery. It might be a math problem. It might be a recipe for the best chocolate soufflé ever. But if you can reduce it, explain it, break it up into logical component parts, then it’s not a mystery.
When it’s a mystery, the most you can say at the end of the day is something like “I don’t know how or why it works but it does.” Science hates mysteries. Hardcore scientists insist they can—sooner or later—explain everything, even love. They are probably wrong about that and what they are even more profoundly wrong about is the idea that everybody wants something like love explained and broken down into so many neural transmitters, electrical flashes, and enzymes. What is love? Well, if you have to ask, you’ll never know. And if you know, you need only ask. To coin a phrase.
What we believe as Christians about how we get saved through a death on a cross of all things is a mystery like that. Now, we can wield this fact arrogantly, turning our noses up at unbelievers and taunting them with some version of the playground chant “We know something you don’t know!” But that’s hardly Christ-like. All we can do is bear humble witness to the fact that we cannot really tell you, either, why we believe in the Gospel as ardently as we do. It’s a mystery to us, too. And it’s all frankly a little crazy and far-fetched. We know that. But we also know and believe its truth in a way we can but pray will come to more and more people through our loving witness.
“We have the mind of Christ” Paul writes at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. That’s a, no pun intended, mind-blowing claim. But so it is. We have been grafted into Christ and now share his life and his very mind. We didn’t do that. We didn’t earn that. It was a sheer gift. That is what we know for sure. But unlike the Room of Requirement, in this case if you do not know, you still need only ask and the Spirit of God may lavish you, too, with the knowledge of the mystery that had been kept hidden for ages past but is now revealed to us. Thanks be to God!
From Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. San Francisco: Harper & Row 1973, p. 64.
“There are mysteries which you can solve by taking thought. For instance, a murder-mystery whose mysteriousness must be dispelled in order for the truth to be known. There are other mysteries which do not conceal a truth to think your way to but whose truth is itself the mystery. The mystery of your self, for instance. The more you try to fathom it, the more fathomless it is revealed to be. No matter how much of your self you are able to objectify and examine, the quintessential living part of yourself will always elude you; i.e., the part that is conducting the examination. Thus you do not solve the mystery, you live the mystery. And you do that not by fully knowing yourself but by fully being yourself.
To say that God is a mystery is to say that you can never nail him down. Even on Christ the nails proved ultimately ineffective.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 5, 2017
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16) Commentary