Ayr: St Columba Church

Christ nailed to the cross

Lessons 1 Corinthians 2: 1 – 12 St Matthew 5: 13 – 20

Prayer of Illumination

Calm us, O Lord. For a time, let distractions melt away and in the beauty and stillness of this sanctuary may we rest awhile soaked in Eternity’s stillness. Amen.

In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the apostle Paul said that he came before them without pretensions to eloquence or worldly wisdom. Boldly, he wrote, ‘I would not claim to know anything but Jesus Christ – Christ nailed to the cross’.

Corinth was the apostle’s first missionary base; St Paul arrived in the city in the spring of AD 50. Known as ‘Wealthy Corinth’, the city commanded a significant position on both the north-south and east-west trade routes. Situated in the Corinthian Gulf in southern Greece, Corinth was responsible for hosting the Isthmian Games, which were celebratory festivals honouring Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, storms and earthquakes. At the heart of Corinth was the temple of Poseidon. Together, the temple and the games meant that there was regular need for tents to accommodate the many visitors and traders; in Corinth, Paul was a tentmaker.

A citizen of Israel, a descendent of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, and impassioned with a pharisaic love of law and legalism, Paul became one of Christianity’s greatest mystics. We know nothing of Paul’s childhood or education. In the course of his public ministry, he was flogged five times, shipwrecked three times, on occasion stoned almost to death and ambushed and robbed by brigands.

Paul’s mystical encounter on the road to Damascus was, for him, an ‘unveiling’. Through blinding light, Paul encountered the Risen Christ. He did not see Jesus – he saw only dazzlingly bright light – but with the ‘ear of the heart’ he heard the ‘voice’ of Jesus. Paul described his experience, his inner encounter, as being the same as that of the twelve disciples and the five hundred followers who later ‘saw’ the Risen Christ. In a sense, it was not difficult for Jews to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead because in the Tanakh, our Old Testament, and in the wider Jewish tradition, Adam, Enoch, Moses and Elijah had overcome death and been raised to heaven. In the Gospels, in the Transfiguration, in a mystical vision, the disciples ‘saw’ Jesus stand alongside Moses and Elijah, already raised from the dead.

It is worth remembering that the letters of Paul predate the Gospels, in some cases by many decades. Paul described his encounter as dazzling, blinding light. His companions on the Damascus Road did not see what Paul saw. There was no light in the sky, no revelation from out there; it was an inner vision, an unveiling. Paul discovered Christ, the Living Christ, within.

In the Christian tradition, many of the saints and mystics have had intense, life-transforming encounters. In a moment of reflective concentration, in meditation, in the consciousness, St Anthony held the Christ-Child; St Francis took down the dead Christ from the cross; and St Teresa of Avila sat with Jesus in His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. By contrast, the twelfth century saint, the abbot of Clairvaux, Bernard was asked how he experienced Christ. He said:

There is nothing sensational. I don’t see
anything, I don’t hear voices, I suddenly feel
a warmth and glow in my heart and I know
that [Christ] is there, and there are times
when I feel he has gone away, and then I
begin to cry out: ‘Come back’. I keep crying
out till he comes back. That’s all my experience.

How would you speak of your faith? Would you be like Paul, Anthony, Francis or Teresa with some sense of dazzling light or intimate moment with Christ? Would you be like Bernard who spoke of ‘a warmth’? For me, we need always to be rational and reflect intellectually on our experiences but, crucially, faith is first and foremost an intuition, an emotion, and an awareness of the Divine. Faith is an unveiling: we begin to ‘see’, see with the heart, all things in God and God in all things. The evidence for God is not ‘out there’; it’s in here! Paul journeyed from Athens to Corinth to speak to the people about his faith, about the Christ within him.

At the very heart of Paul’s religion is union with Christ. In Galatians, Paul said, ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me’. The Scottish academic and preacher of last century, James S Stewart, said that, ‘The religion of Paul is something quite simple. It is communion with Christ’. In the metropolitan city of Corinth, over a period of eighteen months, Paul spoke to pagans and Jews about the mystery of God: ‘I would not claim to know anything but Jesus Christ – Christ nailed to the cross’. Christ lives in the hearts of believers. What did Paul mean when he said, ‘Christ nailed to the cross’?

Paul had discovered Christ, discovered God, in all the circumstances of our lives: in joy and celebration and in sadness and darkness. One of the most outstanding individuals of personal faith is Etty Hillesum. A Jewish mystic who drew on Christian texts and poetry, Hillesum grew up in Deventer in the centre of Holland. In her early twenties at the outbreak of the Second World War, Hillesum lived in Amsterdam. Like so many of her people, she was first taken to Westerbork transit camp before eventually being moved to Auschwitz, where she died in 1943, aged 29.

Etty Hillesum was a remarkable soul. Throughout her torturous ordeal, she refused to hate. On one occasion when a Gestapo officer fiercely shouted at her to scare her, she remained unafraid. Hillesum reflected that she was not brave but remembered that she was dealing with human beings. She said that behind the soldier’s protective mask, she saw a young man ‘harassed and driven, sullen and weak’, pitiful in his need to humiliate and bully.

Over the many months that followed, Hillesum said that sorrow binds and bonds us. From the confines of the camp, she said, ‘Do not relieve your feelings through hatred. Do not seek to be avenged on all German mothers, for they, too, sorrow….for their slain and murdered sons’.

Speaking of her faith, she described God as ‘the deepest and best in me’. She encouraged people not to overthink faith but rather to listen. Despite all that was going on around her, despite the worry, suffering and hopelessness, Hillesum sought moments of quiet, emptiness, and stillness. She wrote:

One day I shall surely strike a balance between
thinking and feeling. But this is my remedy: do
not speak, do not listen to the world outside, but
be perfectly still, try letting your innermost being
resound, and listen to that. It is the only way.

For Hillesum, God was the hidden source within. In prayer, we may close our eyes or cover our eyes with our hands in order that, for a time, we may avert our gaze from the world, sit alone with God, and be still. In prayer, in the language of poetry, the young Dutch Jew said that ‘a small piece of eternity descends on me with a sweeping wingbeat’.

St Paul spoke of Christ nailed to the cross. Hillesum discovered what Paul had preached two millennia earlier: Christ, God, the Indwelling Presence, is with us even in our darkest, most distressing and hopeless moments. God is present in the brutality of the world, suffering, silent and, when we can, if we are open, aware, we may draw strength for the Divine.

Standing in Westerbork or Auschwitz, it is not that God would miraculously rescue her, whisk her over the high fence. The strength she felt came from sitting with God; alone, still and silent with the Eternal, the maker of the universe. Hillesum went as far as to say that God, the vulnerable tender Presence, could not save her. She said, ‘You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last’. We are made in the image of God; we are goodness, compassion and love. We must not let that place die.

What, then, did Paul take to Corinth? The mystery of the God who suffers, who endures the worst of human degradation and violence, and whose dwelling place is within us. Hillesum did not survive the Holocaust. On a postcard pushed through the slats of her cattle car, she wrote, ‘We left the camp singing’. Not everyone would truly manage to say that but what do we know? We know that Christ, God, is nailed to the cross: Christ lives in us, always.

Amen.