February 5, 2017
The Fifth Sunday in Epiphany
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
Rev. Ryan Slifka
There’s something that can happen to young people who go to University. This thing happened to me. I went from living in a small town just outside of Calgary, working class parents, to being immersed in the life of the mind. All the great intellectual traditions of the West (and some of the not so great ones). Poetry, literature, philosophy. Cultural theory, gender studies, economics, history. I found myself exposed to whole worlds I’d never set foot in before, and my head was filled with all sorts of knowledge I never dreamed of. It was like drinking at a bottomless well of new ideas.
I loved University. I grew as a person in a lot of ways. It expanded my mind. But as soon as I went home for the holidays it was clear that all this new knowledge also kind of made me a jerk. You see, I looked at my parents, and all the people I grew up with. And I thought “man, they really have no idea how this world works, do they?” I took a look at all these poor, ignorant people. And just knew I had to enlighten them. So when politics would come up at the table, things got heated. But I’d been to University. So when I wanted to shut down everyone else’s points, I’d just sift through my mighty brain, and I’d whip out the most recent economic theory or some surprising statistics. Or maybe some plain old facts. So I could deliver the final blow. One that would finally deliver everybody from the cloud of their ignorance. I’m sure that there are others here who can relate. As the student dispensing wisdom. Or the parent on the receiving end. And if you’ve been on the receiving end, you probably know just how condescending it feels. And how belittling it can be.
Now, some things for me haven’t changed. I still believe that Ralph Klein was a terrible Premier—not going to give that one up to mom and dad. But gradually, I’ve come to realize something about myself, and the way I thought and acted then. As wonderful as all this new knowledge was, a side-effect was a greatly increased ego. I had something other people didn’t have. Not only could I demonstrate my own greatness—I realized I could use it as a weapon to win arguments, to gain an upper hand on other people. And to make sure we were finally on the same page. The page was my page, but the same page, nonetheless. It’s that old phrase “knowledge is power.” It made me feel powerful. Because it gave me power over others. But the outcome was never positive. In fact, sometimes it was poisonous.
But it’s not just for anti-social nerds like me in university. It’s how we tend to use knowledge, how we us wisdom as a culture. Especially now. Maybe even most especially following the recent U.S. election. We live in an age where there’s more information, more knowledge available to us than ever before. And yet, it took me about five minutes on the internet, scrolling through Facebook posts, Twitter replies, and blog comments, to realize that we mostly use this vast amount of knowledge as a weapon against our opponents. Whether we’re liberal or conservative or whatever. I saw one post recently that said “New evidence emerges suggesting conservatives more susceptible to lies.” Who knows, maybe that’s true. But the purpose of the article less about the truth than gaining power over the opposing side by proving their ignorance.
Now I’m not suggesting that we avoid controversy by not getting into arguments, either in person or on the internet. Or that knowledge shouldn’t be deployed for the purpose of doing good, or making stands where they need to be taken. But there seems to be an underlying dynamic at play that has infected the way we interact with each other. Perhaps this is why there are “facts” and so-called “alternative facts.” Because information has become less about broadening our minds in the search for truth than it has become a weapon. One that allows us to get a leg up over our opponents. The internet seems to have become a place where we spend most of our time displaying our unique wisdom and intelligence over and against others. We may believe that the purpose is to win opponents over to our point of view. But in reality we have this desire to possess the data that delivers a final knock-out blow against our opponents. And it has poisoned the way we think about each other and act toward each other. Online and offline. Knowledge is power. And it can so easily be put to use for less than noble purposes. In gaining a sense of power for ourselves.
Now, we aren’t the first people to struggle with this. You see, in the ancient world, people were just as obsessed with gaining knowledge, with accumulating wisdom as we are. Even if it came in a different package and there was way less of it was floating around. Wisdom allowed you to understand the way the world works. If you gained all the right knowledge, and you understood the way things worked, then you could start living in a way that would lead you to more successes instead of failures. A good thing to have lots of.
But, as in our own case, it could just as easily be corrupted. You’ll remember that our reading this morning is a letter from the Apostle Paul to a church in the city of Corinth, a community he helped found three years earlier. It’s a letter written in response to a community that wants his help in healing their divisions. If you remember a few weeks ago, Paul’s people were saying they “belonged” to various leaders. The Corinthians are under the trance of smooth talking leaders. These leaders seem really wise, really smart. They’ve got all the answers. They have become loyal to certain leaders over other ones based on superior knowledge and understanding. Like us, knowledge, wisdom, for them has become a way to one up themselves against others. To gain privilege. To assert power. Wisdom has become a weapon. One that is pulling them apart.
Like our own culture, the use of knowledge is pulling the Corinthians apart. But in response, Paul reminds them of how they came together. “When I came to you, brothers and sisters,” he says. When I came to you “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Make no mistake, Paul was and is a compelling speaker, with a compelling message. He’s a guy bearing a certain kind of knowledge and wisdom, one that once ignited the minds and hearts of his listeners. But the difference is that for Paul the wisdom he comes bearing points away from him. And it points to Jesus. Paul doesn’t use his knowledge to gather power for himself and over others. For Paul, the knowledge he’s been given is not a weapon. But a Jesus-inspired, cross-shaped vehicle for the transformational power of the Holy Spirit. This knowledge is power. But a different kind of power. This Spirit-infused wisdom is what drew his community together in the first place. And promises to mend it once again.
Like the Corinthians who saw wisdom as a way gain status for themselves, and power over others, we live in a culture that sees knowledge as a weapon. As a tool for the same. And yet, for Paul, the knowledge he’d been given, somehow led him in a different direction. Paul was given the mind of Christ. This knowledge transformed all of this knowledge. His encounter with Jesus crucified (and risen) turned every encounter, every action, every word, every shred of knowledge or data, in to an occasion to channel God’s power for life instead. One that creates community. Rather than destroying it.
Friends, brothers and sisters in Christ. Knowledge is power. It can be used as a weapon. Or it can be an occasion for an encounter with the Living God, the risen Christ. The great 18th century American preacher Jonathan Edwards once said. “Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek it for the benefit of your souls, and in order to practice.” As Paul says later in this letter, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In a culture like ours where knowledge is a weapon to cut others down, we are in urgent need of a different way. May your wordsbe a vehicle for the Holy Spirit. May they bring healing, rather than division. May you be armed only with the love of Christ.