1 Corinthians 1.18—2.5
Bishop’s Charge to Ordination Candidates, July 2 2005
The Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright
‘Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom; but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’ As the Dean has so movingly indicated in his addresses, all the lines of wisdom from the rich treasure-house of the Old Testament come forward and meet in the one of whom all scripture speaks. As we draw together the threads of this retreat we find that the rich tapestry they form takes the shape, well known but still shocking and challenging, of the crucified one. All Christian ministry of whatever kind is a living in Christ and a living out of the life of Christ before the world, and it is right that we should pause at this point and bring to explicit and focal statement what has been implicit all along.
Watch how the themes of wisdom come together, remembering of course that the word ‘Christ’ was never simply a proper name for Paul, but simply the Greek word for ‘Messiah’. It is when we look long at Jesus Christ and him crucified that we understand what it means to call him Messiah, Israel’s true King, great David’s greater son, the one who described himself as ‘a greater than Solomon’. It is in him, as the true Solomon if you like, that we discover, as Paul says elsewhere, that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden. It is when we stand at the foot of the cross that we discover the true identity of Lady Wisdom, calling to the simple to turn aside and enter, to eat her bread and drink her wine. The Messiah is the ultimate interpreter, of God to the world and the world to God, of God to ourselves and ourselves to God, indeed of ourselves to ourselves, assuring us that while we may have meant it for evil, God meant it for good. It is in him that we are rooted and grounded, that we find our ultimate terroir, the soil that nourishes us and makes us what we are. And, particularly, it is in him that the dark theme of suffering comes to full expression. Part of the point of the book of Job is that we don’t understand, and never will in this life, how all of that makes sense. But part of the point of Paul’s gospel of the crucified Messiah is that this unfathomable act of love is where that sense is to be found. And even the folly of Solomon comes into focus at this point; because part of God’s wager in the Old Testament is that he chooses to act in and through the people of Israel, knowing that because they, too, are composed of sinful human beings they will get it wrong, and that he will come himself, in the person of his own Son, the true king, the man after his own heart, to take upon himself the long-term results of Israel’s royal folly as well as the long-term outworking of Israel’s royal wisdom. We find in the ancient biblical record itself the same ‘problem of evil’ that we observe in the created order; but as we do so we discover that it, too, is held firmly within the mystery of Christ and him crucified. ‘O loving wisdom of our God, when all was sin and shame, a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came.’ Loving wisdom; another name for our beloved Jesus.
So as Paul teaches the muddled Corinthians, divided and confused as they were about many things, where they may find the wisdom that upstages the wisdom of the world, he brings them back to the very heart of it all, the centre of all Christian living and hence the centre of all Christian ministry. Being ordained is partly about standing up in public as a sign – God help us! – that there is such a thing as Christian believing and living and that it makes sense; and we who are ‘professionals’ dare not for a second forget that the only way to make sense of ordination is to be ever more deeply rooted and grounded in Jesus the Messiah and him crucified. Listen again to what Paul says: He (that is, God) is the source of your life in the Messiah, Jesus, who became for us the wisdom of God, yes, righteousness, sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, the one who boasts should boast of the Lord. Actually, that first line is even tighter in the Greek: it reads, literally, ‘from him are you in Christ Jesus’. From God in Christ; that is who we are, what we are, where we are and why we are. Everything we shall do today and tomorrow (not least the first eucharist that the new priests will celebrate), and everything we shall do from Monday morning onwards, whether it’s walking down the High Street in a new dog collar, making a funeral visit, or even taking a short break with the family – everything is to be seen in these terms, From God in Christ. An ordained person is, par excellence, what every Christian is: a gift from God, wrapped up in Christ – a gift not just to the church, but to the world. As Paul says later in the letter, you are not your own, you were bought with a price. God went out to buy a present for the world he loves so much; he chose you, wrapped you in the healing and cleansing life and death of his own Son, and now presents you to the world as a gift of his love, his wisdom.
Of course, that image breaks down, because with an ordinary present you throw away the wrapping and keep what’s inside. But when God clothes you with Christ you become a different person, a new person, in him, and all the failures and inadequacies of which we are all only too conscious are taken up in his life. Not many of you, says Paul, were wise or powerful or noble by human standards; but God chose the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the lowly to bring down the mighty. You might think Paul had been reading the Magnificat, and perhaps he had. That’s the wonderful paradox at the heart of all your training and qualification, all the preparation you have rightly undergone; that at the end of it, when you stand before the congregation and we declare that those whose job it is have examined you and discovered you to be people ready to undertake this ministry, we are also saying that unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain, that we are unprofitable servants intent only on doing our duty, that no-one can boast in his presence because our only sufficiency comes from him and him alone. From God in Christ; as you stand there, tonight or tomorrow, as you stand before your own congregation as a newly ordained deacon or priest, as you go to work on Monday morning, of course it matters that you have done your homework, read the books, passed the exams, learned how to be a pastor – but it matters far, far more that you are in Christ, that you will speak of Christ, that you will live Christ before the world, Christ who became for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. If that were not true, we all ought to run away and hide our heads in a hole for very shame at the thought that we could dare to speak truly of the living God, of the loving Christ, or to live his life before the watching world.
There are therefore three things which grow out of this passage and this theme to which I want to urge you to give special attention as you come to ordination and as you grow in your new position in the days to come. They are very obvious but at times like this we need to say the obvious things so that we can then look one another in the eye hereafter and hold one another accountable to them.
The first is the life of prayer, the prayer of the people who are from God in Christ. There are more helps to prayer available now than ever before – some of them, indeed, written by Bishop John! – and you have read some of them already. Different patterns and styles of prayer are appropriate for different people at different times of their lives, and you must constantly work at finding the right pattern for yourself. Some of you have spoken to me about the difficulty, which I know only too well for myself, of finding an appropriate pattern when you’re juggling work and church and family. Praying by yourself, praying with your spouse, praying with your colleagues in church, all these are important and carving out regular time for them is the vital task which, if you don’t do it, will leave you weak and ill-equipped for the work you have to do. Again and again in my ministry I find myself, at the heart of the busy day with all its demands, going back in my heart and mind to the prayer of the early morning and drawing strength from it. But amid all the organisation and techniques, the one thing that is needful, as Jesus said to Martha, is to be rooted and grounded in Jesus himself: from God, in Christ. That takes time; time to ponder a passage from the gospels until you become a character in the story, following Jesus and listening to his words; time to stand again at the foot of the cross, or to walk again along the Emmaus Road, to hear the words which say, Foolish ones, slow of heart to believe – was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer and enter his glory? It may well lead you into one of those patterns of prayer that our Eastern cousins know so well, whether the Jesus prayer, repeated over and over until it becomes a bubbling well of the life and love of Jesus deep within you, or some other. Indeed Paul, in this same letter, gives us what I take to be his Christian version of the ancient Jewish prayer, the Shema (‘Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one’, which the pious Jew might repeat not just three times a day but over and over); Paul’s version, drawing closely on the theme of from God, in Christ, goes like this: one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we to him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him. That’s a prayer (you’ll find it in 1 Corinthians 8.6) which you could do worse than pray, slowly and meditatively, as you hold before God the coming day or the one that’s just past, as you seek to know yourself once more as from God in Christ, as you stand in Christ before the throne of grace with your people on your heart.
Of course prayer is often difficult. It wouldn’t be worth much if it wasn’t. God sometimes withdraws from us so that we can go looking for him the more eagerly. Again and again other concerns crowd in and threaten to disrupt our praying. That is to be expected. You must rise to the daily challenge to see these distractions coming up and to avoid them, almost like one of those computer games where you’re on a journey and obstacles get put in the way and little green men come to attack you. It gets harder, not easier, but part of the trick is to recognise that the difficulties are themselves a sign that prayer matters, that the enemy knows if he can prevent you from being rooted and grounded in Christ and discovering the true wisdom in him he will have neutralized your effectiveness. One God, the Father, from whom are all things and we to him; one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him. From God in Christ: make that a daily reality through prayer.
Along with prayer goes the life of holiness. Again, it’s obvious, but the obvious things do need saying from time to time. Paul writes that Jesus the Messiah has become for us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption. Big, clunky words like three enormous verbal elephants guarding a central truth. The order is interesting; you might have thought he’d have put redemption first; but we’ll leave that for another time. The point is that we cannot claim to be ‘from God in Christ’, we cannot try to inhabit the divine wisdom which overcomes the world, unless we are also inhabiting the righteousness which is the covenant status we have in him, the sanctification which is the transformation of our whole personality so that it genuinely reflects his image, and the redemption which celebrates its deliverance from the slavery of sin and its destiny in the promised land of God’s new creation. Living and being ‘from God in Christ’ means the daily and hourly commitment to stand firm in his righteousness, to struggle to inhabit his sanctification, and to refuse, like the Israelites in the wilderness, to go back to slavery in Egypt.
I cannot stress just how important this is. The pressure will constantly be on you, precisely because you rightly want to get alongside your people, to be incarnational in your ministry, to be on all fours with where folk are at – the pressure will constantly be on you to compromise the standards which genuinely reflect and embody the life of Christ. It happens in little things, matters of what we say and how we say it, our body language and facial language, our little choices about how we spend our time, what we make a priority in small things as in large. Far be it from me to encourage paranoia; what I am encouraging, in myself as much as in you, is an ever deeper self-awareness, and the bringing of that self-awareness into the light of the rubric ‘from God in Christ’, not so that you can be thinking about yourself all the time but precisely so that you won’t need to. This is where a good spiritual director can really help enormously. But it also matters, of course (but again it needs saying) in the larger matters, too. The big three issues that face us all – money, sex and power – pose major problems and raise major questions. I have seen clergy make major shipwreck in these areas, and the truly worrying thing about that is that they had clearly managed to deceive themselves very thoroughly into thinking that God in Christ was not only condoning but actually encouraging their misbehaviour. Please, please, keep short accounts with God, with or without the help of a confessor, in all these areas, and when you’re under pressure in any of them, as some of you will be from time to time, don’t be too proud to get help. You owe it to yourself; you owe it to the church; you owe it to God. You are ‘from God, in Christ’, and he has become our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption. Live by that truth; live in that truth; remember once again that you were bought with a price.
Third and lastly, remember what this is all for. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is lowly in the world, including you and me, to shame the high and mighty. If a Christian is one who is from God in Christ, and if an ordained Christian is one who brings that to clear and focussed expression to enable the rest of the church to be the church, our calling is always for the sake of mission, the mission of the church to speak God’s wise foolishness, to act in God’s weak strength, to live out God’s noble humility. We are to be the upside-down people, or rather the right-way-up people, whose lives from God in Christ are a cheerful standing question mark, challenge, rebuke, warning and invitation to the rest of the world. Prayer and holiness root us in Christ in order that we may be at the forefront of God’s mission to the world, and may lead our people in this mission which is theirs as well as ours. Thank God that we have learned in our day, or at least are learning, that the mission of the church is not to save souls for a disembodied heaven, nor simply to improve the lot of people on the present earth, but to aim at something larger which transcends both. Paul speaks later in 1 Corinthians, as the climax of the letter, of the hope of resurrection into God’s new creation; and notice what happens if we get that perspective right. If you think simply of souls ending up in a disembodied heaven, you will anticipate that in the present by a life of quietist, detached spirituality, denying all those things that speak of the universe of space, time and matter. That is Platonism, not Christianity. If you think simply of helping people to improve their social, cultural and societal lot in the present world, you have nothing to say, as John Sentamu recently pointed out, when people have everything going for them materially and yet have no idea about the meaning of it all. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But if, instead, we set our gaze firmly on God’s promise of new heavens and new earth, of the whole creation renewed from God in Christ, we see that our anticipation of that future in the present is to be a rich mixture of what we have called ‘spirituality’ and what we have called ‘kingdom-work’. They go together, because together they anticipate that time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
At the moment the wisdom of the world doesn’t see this, and our foolish wisdom must put it to shame. The task of articulating and expounding the Christian world view remains central to our calling. At the moment the politicians and economists exercise power in one particular way, and our weak strength must put them to shame. The task living together, and witnessing to the world, a different kind of power and glory remains central to our calling. At the moment the great ones of the earth have no idea where true greatness lies, and our humble nobility must put them to shame; the task of living in a genuinely counter-cultural way (not simply a Christian version of inverted snobbery!) remains at the heart of our calling.
Like prayer and holiness, the mission of the church thus grows directly out of the fresh wisdom of 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, proclaiming and living Christ crucified, a stumbling block and folly to others, but to us Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. You are from God in Christ; that is your glory and the centre of your calling. Go to your tasks with gladness and singleness of heart. Our faith and our calling, and in particular the calling to which you are now saying Yes, does not rest in human wisdom, but in the power of God.