The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Text: I Corinthians 1:18-31
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
27 January 2023
As many of you know, I teach history at the University of Central Missouri in addition to serving here at St. Mary’s. Our spring semester is in full swing, having finished up our third week already. This semester, I have the special pleasure of teaching a graduate seminar on Christian history, my area of specialty, and we get to read a lot of interesting books. Three of the books that I assigned were authored by former professors of mine from graduate school.
As I was preparing the syllabus, I decided to google one of the professors. I was saddened to learn that he had died recently. Of the three former professors whose works I assigned for the class, two have died, and one is still living, aged 93. I had almost forgotten that it has been almost twenty years since I was in school – almost a generation ago. But in my mind, I still picture my professors as they were in the classroom back then – imposing paragons of knowledge and scholarship. Some of you may have seen the movie or TV show “The Paper Chase.” Do you remember Professor Kingsfield? I had quite a few professors who resembled him.
If learning about the deaths of these beloved teachers and mentors wasn’t enough, I was further saddened to discover that very few people read their books these days; they’re considered out of fashion in the ever-changing academic landscape. This is quite sobering, especially since I’m an academic myself. These scholars were some of the most brilliant minds that I had encountered. During their careers, they made a huge impact in their fields and became famous. But now they are mostly forgotten.
Today’s Epistle reading is a powerful reflection on the nature of wisdom. It sets up a stark contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we read: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of his age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (I Corinthians 1:20). For Paul, wisdom presents a paradox. The wisdom of his time - the Greeks with their sophisticated philosophy and the Jews with their prodigious legal and religious scholarship – is foolishness, while what the world considers foolish – the Christian proclamation of Christ crucified, the idea of worshiping a God who died a criminal’s death - is true wisdom.
In this passage, Paul himself is a paradox. Paul was a highly educated Jew, someone who would have been called wise by others. Paul studied in Jerusalem with one of the leading teachers of the Law, Gamaliel. The product of an elite education, Paul’s brilliance and sophistication come through in his writings – and often make them difficult to understand, typical of a lot of scholars. Try the Letter to the Romans for some light reading. And, of course, Paul is the Church’s first theologian, the pioneer in systematically explaining the meaning and significance of Jesus for the Church. Yet here he is in this passage; he seems to be taking an anti-intellectual stance, dismissing the life of the mind.
Placing his comments in the broader context of his writings, Paul is not calling us to suspend our intelligence and enter a state of blissful ignorance. That would be hypocritical. What is at issue for Paul is the knowledge of God. For Paul, no matter how learned and wise we may be, we cannot know God through our own efforts. He states: “the world did not know God through wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:21). It is not through books or the exercise of our reason that we come to know God. Rather, we know God because he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Paul proclaims that Jesus is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:24). So, to know Jesus is to know God.
In looking at the history of Christianity, we have a rich and diverse depository of knowledge and wisdom. The theologians who succeeded Paul, the Church Fathers, continued the tradition of learning and scholarship, even combining Christian faith with Greek philosophy. And in the Middle Ages, Christian theologians and scholars dominated the intellectual life of Western Europe. In addition to the great thinkers, the Church also established countless schools, libraries and other centers of learning. In fact, the origins of the modern university are in the cathedral schools of the Middle Ages.
There is great value in learning. It illuminates and enriches our understanding of Christian belief and practice and helps us grow in our faith. And yet for all the book learning that we may have, even the wisdom of the Church, we will get no closer to knowing God if we do not heed the Apostle Paul’s call to experience the crucified Christ.
Yesterday was the feast day of Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest Christian thinkers in history. There is an interesting story about Aquinas that reflects the paradox of wisdom that the Apostle Paul presents. The story goes that after decades of brilliant scholarship, he suddenly stopped writing in the year 1273, a year before his death. He did not write another word. He even left his masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, unfinished, though even in its unfinished form, it is a cornerstone of Roman Catholic theology. We do not know exactly why Aquinas ceased his work. He made the decision to stop writing after celebrating Mass, so we think he had a mystical experience during the service, but we don’t know for sure. When one of his friends asked him why he stopped writing, he answered: "I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw.” Whatever the reason may have been for Aquinas’s silence, it is clear that he believed his theological writings fall short of explaining God and Christian faith. To put it another way, he recognized that there are limits to wisdom in knowing God.
While Aquinas stopped writing, he remained faithful in his passionate devotion to the Holy Eucharist. He wrote some of the most beautiful Eucharistic hymns, many of which we use today, including Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels), O Salutaris Hostia (O Saving Victim), and Pange Lingua (Sing, My Tongue). And if you happen to have the laminated card with the Private Prayers Before and After Mass in front of you, one of them was written by Aquinas. While Aquinas stopped trying to understand God through his scholarship and writing, he never wavered in his personal experience of the crucified Christ in the Holy Eucharist. While reason may have failed him, he found fulfillment in mystery.
So, we, too, gather this morning at the altar for Holy Eucharist to proclaim, together with Thomas Aquinas, the Apostle Paul, and all the saints past and present, Christ crucified, foolishness to the world but the wisdom of God to believers. Christ is the wisdom that reveals God to us. Christ is the wisdom that unites us with God. Christ is the wisdom that will lead us to eternal life.
 Terrence Klein, “Thomas Aquinas fell silent when he learned the truth: The mystery of God is impossible to grasp,” America Magazine: The Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture, 2 February 2022.
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