“What do you know?” There are all sorts of ways to ask that question. It could be a genuine search for knowledge. It could be a dismissal, or a taunt. It could be a question of incredulity, surprised by the object of the inquiry. It would be an expression of wonder. There are probably more ways we could nuance those words. But while that’s an intriguing question to focus on, and in many ways it sounds like what Paul is dealing with in this week’s Epistle text, it’s not really the question in the center of the proclamation.
Wisdom is the word Paul comes back to again and again. We could throw in mystery as well. Lofty words that we might call rhetoric are also present in the text. All of them point to knowledge, at least on the surface. What do you know that you can pass on to us? That may have been the question on people’s minds as they came to hear Paul when he rolled into town. What can you pass on, what can you teach, what do you know, Paul?
Paul says that’s the wrong question. Not that there aren’t things to know. Not that there aren’t words to use or stories to tell. But the premise of the question is what is giving him pause. He says he didn’t come with a body of knowledge. And he did this by choice. It wasn’t that he didn’t know stuff. He was a Pharisee; he knew plenty. He could talk your ear off with all the stuff he knew. But he chose to set all that aside.
“I decided,” he wrote, “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” For Paul, “What do you know?” is the wrong question. The better, more proper question is “Whom do you know?” This mystery of God, this wisdom that is beyond the wisdom of this age, this Spirit that is not the spirit of the age, is a who not a what.
OK, so our content is information about Jesus, right? Well, Paul would argue, no, not really. It is something much riskier than information. It is relationship. Paul says he came with fear and trembling; he came in weakness. All he had to offer was himself and the Christ who lives within. He had no argument to make, no knowledge to pass on; he just had who he is and is becoming in Christ.
Think about this for a moment. We in The United Methodist Church adhere to a mission statement that says, “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” That’s complicated enough as it is. But if Paul is right, then we are doing it wrong when we give information to people to help them become disciples. We’ve lost something of significance when we reduce this process to information we can pass on, or even put in a pamphlet and hand out to people.
Paul says he was among the people not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power. What does this mean? What did he offer? Here at Discipleship Ministries, we are serving the churches all over the denomination by helping create intentional discipleship systems. If making disciples is the core reason for our existence, then we need to take it seriously and figure out ways to go about doing it more effectively and efficiently – not for the survival of the church, but because that is our call as Christ followers. So, we work within the congregation, helping one another grow in faith to become the disciples they were called to be. Paul calls them saints; remember last chapter! But we also work in our wider community, where we attempt to “see all the people” – not just our people, the people within the walls of the church, but all the people – the people around us as we work and worship; the hurting and the hungry; the distracted and the cynical – all the people. The searchers and those who don’t know there’s anything to search for – all the people.
And what do we have to offer them? Nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. But again, not information about this Christ, though there is a story to tell and knowledge to share. Not a process of joining the church, though there is a family who will gather them in and help them be a part of the whole. Not levels to attain and achievements to unlock, though there are processes and systems that help us keep focused on the task. No, what we have is what Paul had, and that is nothing but himself and the Christ that dwells within.
Paul talks about sharing an inner experience, wisdom taught by the Spirit. But he also talks about how the “unspiritual” can’t receive this wisdom or understand these gifts. So, are we supposed to talk to insiders only? Are we ultimately concerned only with those people who already have faith, already have a relationship with Jesus? Of course not. His point is, we must watch our language. We can’t lead with the language of faith. Telling someone “the Bible says . . .” won’t get you very far when your hearer doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible yet. But if our insider words aren’t that helpful, what are we left with? The same thing Paul was left with when he showed up in Corinth – nothing but Jesus. And a lot of fear and trembling. In the end, it is about relationships. Ultimately, it is about a relationship with Jesus Christ. But it might begin with a relationship with you. With us. With disciples of Jesus who know nothing but Christ and are willing to demonstrate what God is doing in their lives each and every day. This is a call to be real as we go about the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.