“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).
“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)
I chose the post title The Church of Nothing for this and the previous installment precisely for its double meaning. It’s been done before. Sir Thomas More, who was a lawyer, statesman and Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor until he fell out of favor with the king (to put it mildly), did it when he wrote Utopia, about a fictional ideal society.
Utopia breaks down into Greek topos, “place,” and either eu, “good” or ou, “no.” So Utopia is the good place and no place. Clever enough. And I am hardly in the same literary league as Sir Thomas More.
Well, who cares? What does this have to do with the kingdom of heaven? (You do remember asking that question repeatedly in the last post about this, right?)
OK, point taken. So it doesn’t matter to you. And you could be forgiven if you thought Thomas More played the Lone Ranger on television (that’s Clayton Moore) or that he might have been a cornerback for the Arizona Cardinals (I have no idea).
But when I first moved to Springfield, I visited a church on the other side of the county that had an endorsement from a cable pundit (on the website, I think). He praised the church’s pastor for his breadth of learning (“ancient history,” etc.). So you can put your contempt for sweaty, red-faced, sawdust-trail preachers back in the holster. This guy has something they don’t. (And you need to work on your prejudice, too. You didn’t know anything about the guy and you were already jumping to imaginative conclusions.)
But if you move even closer to the ivy-covered halls of learning, there are some people for whom a proper degree (or degrees) means everything. I know, for example, I will never move in certain circles because of my abbreviated theological training. To wit:
Search Committee Chairperson: Mr. Taylor, it says here, “I started seminary but did not complete it.” Can you elaborate?
Me: I started seminary but couldn’t finish because I ran out of money. I just stopped.
Chairperson: But surely you’re familiar with Jesus’ teaching on “counting the cost”?
Me: That’s in the New Testament isn’t it? In Two Corinthians?
Chairperson: Thank you, Mr. Taylor. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Actually, I used to move in those circles. But it’s what I found there that dissuaded me from ever going back. Nothing.
That’s what keeps appearing in church history, unfortunately. In A World Lit Only by Fire, a book I’ve been reading about medieval life before, during and being upended by the Renaissance, the historian William Manchester, not a known Bible-thumper, recounts some of the truly incredible (as in not credible, SMH this couldn’t really be true, could it?) features of medieval Christianity: the superstitious veneration of relics, the draconian penances (some extending to pilgrimages of thousands of miles), the Vatican that had become a bordello.
He asks a simple, honest, fair-play-to-you question: What did any of this have to do with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth? You already know the answer. (Note to self: just make this a macro.)
So what is God’s antidote for the Church of Nothing? Sorry, but it’s Nothing. Before you say, “I’m getting you-know-what out of this,” (ha ha) please hear me out.
How many Pharisees, Sadducees and members of the Sanhedrin resigned to become part of Jesus’ band of twelve apostles? Actually, they never had the chance. Jesus chose men from Galilee before any of them even had time to upload their resumes to Indeed. More than half were probably fishermen.
Later, Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to little children” (Mt 11:25). What were “the wise and learned” understanding about Jesus’ ministry (aside from the threat it posed)? Nothing.
Later yet, after Pentecost, Jesus’ choices and methods were vindicated again. “When they [i.e., the Sanhedrin] saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Astonished. That’s saying something. And so is this: “’What are we going to do with these men?’ they asked. ‘Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no longer to anyone in this name’” (vv. 16-17).
At that point it was just “this thing.” But they’re definitely worried about it already. So it’s something, not nothing.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he started by commending them for lacking no spiritual gift and for their breadth of knowledge. They were gifted and wise. But that was actually causing problems.
Some were trying to form followings (“I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos”) that were actually dividing the church. Paul’s response was that they were making something out of nothing and damaging the work of the ministry.
So he started by reminding them of their humble beginnings: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26). Definitely worth remembering, but it won’t fit on a travel mug or even a bumper sticker. That’s more like side-of-a-Metro-bus material.
Yes, I know I said you were knowledgeable and spiritually gifted earlier, and I’ll get to why these two apparently disparate facts can be reconciled. But you can’t make something out of nothing; only God can.
First, as it applies to Apollos and me. I’m not really interested in having “Saint Paul Streets” in every Western city of any consequence, so let me remind you that Apollos and I are “only servants.”
Do you remember the teaching about the greatest among you must be the servant of all? Well, here we are. The first (something) are last (nothing) and the last (ditto) are first (2x ditto). Let that sink in, because that’s how The Church of Nothing (which is actually The Church of Something That Even the Gates of Hades Won’t Overtake) operates.
I can’t find my car keys. I must have left them in the church office where I was interviewing with the Search Committee.
Me: Uh, sorry to bother you, but I can’t find my car keys.
Chairperson: I’m sorry. And who are you again?
Me: Well, nobody really. But I’m standing right beside you at the foot of the cross. And look, there’s Paul and Apollos and all of Abraham’s descendants by faith as far as the eye can see. And there seems to be plenty of room. Isn’t that something?
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