THE EXCELLENT WAY, 3: WHAT THE HEART KNOWS
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
August 28, 2016; non-lectionary sermon
Proverbs 4:1-11; Ephesians 3:14-21

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries
and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.”
1 Corinthians 13:2

I want to start today by sharing two news stories: one from just a few days ago, and one that’s a little older.

The first is from the world of astrophysics. Astronomers have just discovered what they’re calling a new “exoplanet.” I’d never heard the word “exoplanet” before, though maybe you have. What it means is a planet located outside our solar system.

This exoplanet — that they’re calling Proxima B for now — orbits Proxima Centauri, the nearest star beyond our sun. What’s so exciting about this new planet is that it could — just maybe — have the right conditions to sustain human life. Scientists have always hypothesized that such a planet could exist: but this is the first time they’ve found one.

Life on Proxima B would be very different from what we know here on earth. For one thing, it’s located so close to its star — which, fortunately, isn’t nearly so hot as our sun — that a year on that planet would last just 11 and a half days. Proxima B doesn’t spin on its axis like the earth does. That means it’s got a light side and a dark side. So, it’s either all day all the time, or all night all the time — depending on where on the planet you happen to be standing. The sky on Proxima B would also look very different. The scientists figure it would be red, not blue. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/24/health/proxima-b-centauri-rocky-planet-habitable-zone-neighbor-star/index.html

Now, in case visions of space tourism are dancing in your head, there’s one other fact I ought to mention. Sorry to burst your bubble, but Proxima B is located about 4 light years from earth. That’s right in our neighborhood in galactic terms, but we don’t have Captain Kirk’s starship Enterprise. Our space shuttle — which travels a good deal slower than the speed of light — would take centuries to travel that far.

Still and all, I’m mightily impressed that our scientists can learn so much about a planet so far away, just by monitoring radio waves and looking through telescopes. Truly, the human intellect is a remarkable thing.

*****

So that’s the first news story. The second — which is also about the human intellect — is from just over a month ago: the opening of a conservative Christian theme park in Kentucky known as the Ark Encounter.

You may have heard about it. It’s a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, 510 feet long and seven stories high. A wealthy businessman named Ken Ham built it according to biblical specifications. It cost over 100 million dollars.

The thing is absolutely massive. It’s the largest timber-frame structure in the world. Inside is a museum, including life-size replicas of various animals. Amongst the animals are dinosaurs, because Ken Ham believes the book of Genesis is a literal, scientific account, and that makes the earth younger than 6,000 years old. Because there’s such a thing as dinosaur bones, he figures, that must mean there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark (though they obviously didn’t make it into the modern era).

His beliefs do make room for something like evolution, but only in a limited sense. For example, there are only two dogs on his ark. Those two, he figures, became the ancestors of all the dog breeds living today. It’s a pretty handy explanation: because, if you had to find room on Ken Ham’s ark for every animal species living today, even that massive structure wouldn’t be big enough to fit them all.

*****

So, there you have it: two kinds of knowledge. One finds its starting point in scientific observation, the other in a literal reading of the Bible. One understands Noah’s Ark to be a mythic tale, full of symbolic meaning. The other reads the Bible as the ultimate science textbook, adapting its observations to fit within that template.

It’s appropriate to begin, today, with those two understandings of knowledge: because the second verse of 1 Corinthians 13 is also about knowledge, in its various forms. The verse goes like this:

“…if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Paul starts off, here, speaking about “prophetic powers.” By that he doesn’t mean telling the future. A prophet, in the Bible, is someone who speaks for God, who’s God’s mouthpiece. Sometimes that means warning the people about things that will happen if they don’t amend their ways, but the emphasis is on making changes in the here and now.

Paul says that, if he has such a prophetic commission from God but fails to exercise it in a loving way, he might as well not have it at all.

*****

Next, he goes on to speak about “understanding all mysteries and all knowledge.” We need to pause, here, and take a closer look at each of those two words. Each one has a very specific meaning in the first century A.D.

The first is “mysteries.” Now, when you or I use that word today, we’re probably talking about a puzzle to be solved. A mystery novel is very often a detective story. Some crime has been committed, and the detective has to gather up all the various clues, deducing from the evidence who has done the dastardly deed. It’s a highly rational, scientific process. At the end of it, there’s a solution — which, once revealed, is absolutely convincing. Until the big reveal, though, nobody can figure out what’s happened. Afterwards, they can’t believe they missed seeing the unmistakable pattern.

This is not the type of mystery Paul’s talking about. There’s a type of mystery that doesn’t end up in a crystal-clear solution. This sort of mystery is not so much a problem to be solved as a reality to be lived into.

Sometimes we use that word as we try to explain complicated theological concepts to children. Like the Trinity, for example. How is it that God is three distinct persons — Father, Son and Holy Spirit; or Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer — but yet one undivided reality? We can use all kinds of metaphors to try to explain it. The Trinity is like water, for example, which can be solid, like ice; or gaseous, like steam; or liquid, like water. Or, it’s like an ancient circle dance, all the dancers spinning round and round, until their individual natures merge into one. Yet, each of these images is flawed in some way. None of them exhausts the rich truth that is the Trinity.

Such a truth is mysterious in that it contains many dark and mysterious places we can enter into and explore, but can never explain fully. Mysteries like these, you just have to live with. You can never exhaust their full meaning.

In that sense, they are like human beings — especially the human beings we love. The Lord has made us such complex and interesting creatures that we can live with another person for a lifetime and still not fully understand him or her. Always there are surprises. Always there are fresh aspects of personality to explore. Always there are depths that can never be plumbed.

When Paul uses this word “mystery,” it’s very possible he means it in a specific sense, referring to certain religious options available in the Greek and Roman world. We’re all familiar to some extent with the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus. The cults of these gods were centuries old by the time Paul’s writing. Yet, there was also, in the first century, a host of newer religions, all struggling for dominance in the hearts and minds of the people.

These religions were known as the mystery religions. The most famous among these were the Eleusinian Mysteries, a cult focused in the town of Eleusis, in Greece. The Eleusinian Mysteries focused on the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, who was responsible for the changing of the seasons.

There was also the cult of Isis — same name, but no relation to the modern terrorist organization. Isis-worship was an import from Egypt.

Then there was the cult of Mithras, an import from Persia, that was enormously popular among men in particular — especially the soldiers of the Roman army. Mithras was a hunter-warrior, and at the center of his cult was the ritual slaughter of a bull. Devotees of Mithras met in underground temples, and at the heart of their worship was the bloody sacrifice. They believed that, by participating in the slaughter, they somehow brought the life-force of the animal into their own lives.

A common feature of all these mystery-religions was secrecy. Practitioners were brought into the fold through secret initiation rituals, and worked their way gradually into higher levels of the faith. Always there was something dark and shrouded about what went on inside the temples of the mysteries. Those to whom secrets had been revealed were forbidden from telling their neighbors what they had experienced.

Paul’s saying, here, “If I understand all mysteries but do not have love, I am nothing.” It’s a direct reference to these mystery religions. Christianity, by contrast, had rituals, but never such esoteric secrets. Yes, there was baptism — an initiation-ritual — but it was not performed in secret. As for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it was not celebrated in a darkened room with the curtains drawn, but rather at a common table, in plain sight of all the world.

So, this may very well be what Paul’s referring to, when he speaks of “all mysteries.”

*****

He also mentions “all knowledge.” The Greek word he uses is gnosis. It’s a reference to a powerful religious and philosophical school known as Gnosticism. It was enormously influential in the Greek cities Paul visited. Some aspects of Gnosticism leached their way into Christianity in the early centuries, and became the root of many heresies.

The important thing to know about Gnosticism is that it was centered around a rarified spiritual knowledge. Like the mystery religions, Gnostic knowledge was doled out sparingly to the faithful, according to the judgment of the priests.

Gnostics shunned the physical world. They believed physical matter was ultimately unreal; the only true existence was spiritual. Gnostic practice involved moving up, step by step, to ever higher levels of spiritual consciousness, leaving the physical aspects of life behind. Gnostics tended to practice fasting and sexual abstinence as steps on their long journey to moral perfection.

So, when Paul writes “If I understand all knowledge — all gnosis — but do not have love, I am nothing,” he’s sending a shot over the bows of the Gnostics, just as he did with the practitioners of mystery religions. Paul looked around him, in Corinth and other Greek cities he visited, and saw the enormous influence these spiritual practices were having on people — even as they led them into dark places and kept them from the true worship of Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians 3:19 — this morning’s New Testament lesson — Paul wishes for his readers “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” This is a major way Christianity differed from all those other religious options out there, in that place and time. Love trumps knowledge. Love always wins.

Is it any different today? More and more, we’re living in a spiritual-cafeteria culture, where people put together their favorite a la carte menu items to form their own distinct religious practice. So many of those choices are self-centered — focusing on individual happiness and well-being — with little sense of obligation to serve others. What Paul’s saying — then and now — is that followers of Jesus ought to be wary of any spiritual practices that don’t nurture our love for others, even as they talk a good line about loving God.

*****

Finally, Paul wraps up this second verse by saying, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

It’s very possible that Paul’s thinking of a particular teaching of Jesus as he writes these words. Jesus says, in Mark 11:22-23:

“Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.’”

Now, when it comes to date of composition, Paul wrote his letters before any of the Gospels were written. So, it wasn’t possible that he had a copy of Mark’s Gospel to refer to. Even so, the Gospel-writers assembled and put together stories of Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as various sayings of his. A great many of these sayings were probably known to Paul, as well as to members of the churches he’d founded. They knew them not from books, but by word of mouth. It’s very possible — even likely — that, in writing about faith that can move mountains, Paul’s making direct reference to something Jesus said.

It sometimes happens that you or I face difficult obstacles in life. This is just as true for people of faith as it is for anyone else. God gives no particular break to us in that regard.

Maybe you or I come down with a serious illness; or face financial problems; or experience turmoil in an intimate relationship. Maybe we’re troubled by growing feelings of failure or self-doubt. The list goes on and on.

In struggling against all manner of problems, you or I often turn to faith as the solution (as well we should). We yearn to deploy our faith as a sort of power, so we may accomplish the otherwise impossible. Is there a mountain looming up in front of us? We want nothing more than the power to shove it out of the way. This, we try to convince ourselves, is what faith is able to do for us — if only we can practice that faith purely and from a sense of holy purpose. If only we can do it right, you and I, too, can move mountains!

That’s certainly true of faith. By faith it’s possible to accomplish all manner of wonders. But still, it may not happen just as we desire. Faith is not so much a super-power we can tap within ourselves, as it is the power of God with which we can sometimes, occasionally, connect. But never on our terms. Always on God’s terms.

About faith, Frederick Buechner once wrote:

“Faith is the word that describes the direction our feet start moving when we find that we are loved. Faith is stepping out into the unknown with nothing to guide us but a hand just beyond our grasp.” [“Follow Me,” from The Magnificent Defeat]

Notice, here, Buechner says nothing about a power we summon up from deep inside. It’s all about reaching out and trusting the one who walks beside us, invisibly, imperceptibly. Jesus says faith can move mountains, but when such a wonder happens, it’s not our faith that does it. It’s God’s faith. You and I merely serve as the electrical connections through which that divine power surges.

Far too many of us spend far too much time obsessing over whether or not our storehouses of faith are full enough. We treat faith like a spiritual bank-balance, when in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Faith is a gift: a free and unmerited gift of God — more like manna in the wilderness than money in the bank. Those who have the deepest, most durable faith know that, in their heart of hearts. They know it’s a matter of “Not my will, but thine be done.”

*****

Prophetic powers; mysteries; knowledge; faith — even a faith that can move mountains. Such powers, awesome as they may be, are still as nothing in comparison with a far greater power: the power of love. The members of that Corinthian church were struggling with one another over all these spiritual virtues. They were arguing with one another ceaselessly over which ones of their number were more spiritually adept. But the Apostle brings them right back down to earth.

“It’s not about any of these things,” says their wise teacher. “At the end of the day, such powers will matter little. The one thing that will truly and certainly matter, when the light of the sun winks out and the stars begin to fall, is the power of love. The love of God in Jesus Christ will still stand, when all else has fallen.”

So, hold fast to the love of God. Trust it. Believe in it. Rely on it. For it is the greatest of all gifts!

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.