Mother of kindness

Some members of the church in Corinth thought of themselves as especially inspired, Spirit-filled, spiritual persons. They got all puffed up about how wise they were and mature, especially compared to those in the church who sat on the lower rungs of the ladder, whom they considered mere spiritual babies. The “spiritually advanced” saints in Corinth didn’t just have an air of superiority about them, they breathed the stuff, convinced it was the very Spirit of God. The opening chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians are designed to deflate those boast bags— and I should be very careful what names I choose for them, because the longer I point the finger at them, the closer I am to joining their exclusive club. Paul wrote,

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, 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.

The center of the scene, says Paul, is not occupied by a ladder, where we rank ourselves and each other according to ethnic and cultural backgrounds, gender, educational achievements, income levels, or any other indicators— the center is occupied by Jesus Christ crucified. We all gather under the cross and around the cross, but our attention is so readily caught by our differences rather than by the new reality that brings and holds us together in its power: the love of God revealed in Christ. Elsewhere Paul wrote,

…make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.[1]

The center is occupied, not by our dreams of greatness and the ladders by which we seek to achieve them, but by Jesus Christ crucified. Paul’s insistence gives his words a graphic quality; he paints a new picture of the world, a world no longer under the power of sin, but flourishing in freedom and in love. And at the center is the cross as the revelation of God, imperceptible to human criteria and concepts of greatness, power and glory. What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit, the Apostle writes. The knowledge of God is not the mind’s intellectual ascent to the heights of all that is true, good, and beautiful. The knowledge of God is letting ourselves be fully known in the embrace of Christ. The knowledge of God is love responding to love. And the primary movement of that response is not upward, but across the many lines that separate us from each other.

I want to share with you three vignettes; one is a letter, one a prophetic word, and the third a word of encouragement. They each address the challenges of living with the cross of Christ at the center of our world as well as the promise of that new life.

I. A Letter

We have C. S. Lewis to thank for a series of letters from a senior Demon by the name of Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter. The uncle’s mentorship pertains to the nephew’s responsibility in securing the damnation of a man referred to only as “the patient”. In one of his letters Screwtape imagines the patient going to church:

My dear Wormwood,

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. … [However,] there is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. … All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.

It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. … Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. …

He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these … commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

Your affectionate uncle,


II. A Prophetic Word of Judgment

This is not a letter, although we can hear it as such; it is a stark warning from a prophet of the 19th century for the church in the 21st century not to lose sight of the cross at the center of our life together. “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ,” wrote Frederick Douglass in an appendix to the narrative of his life.

I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. … We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. ... The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.[3]

III. A Word of Encouragement

“All of Portland seemed to be in a bad mood that Sunday afternoon not too long ago. The sky was spitting rain in intermittent bursts, frustrating both the people who had gone through the trouble to bring an umbrella and the ones who hadn’t.” Journalist Egan Millard was feeling adrift. He had only recently moved across the continent and, as much as he was loving Portland, hadn’t had time to adjust or relax. “My life was changing rapidly, and it seemed like the world was too. When I feel ungrounded, I gravitate to the firmest ground I know, which is the church.”

As it turned out, he was the only congregant to show up for the evening service that Sunday.

I took a seat and looked up into the chapel’s spire. Every once in a while, some muffled fragment of a sound would surface briefly – a faint siren, rain on the roof – before dissolving. Candlelight brought a warm glow to the chapel’s wood-paneled walls, which fold into a partial dome over the altar. … Imagine being cradled in a conch shell under a dark sea. In those minutes, my understanding of the word ‘sanctuary’ deepened.

The priest went ahead with the liturgy; she asked Millard if he would read the scripture passages appointed for the day, and when it was time for the homily, she came and sat by him in the pew and asked about his life.

As we talked, I thought about the timeliness of this little scene. In an age when many Americans have abandoned the institutions they once turned to for solace and truth, there we were, a priest and a journalist huddled together in an empty church. With the light fading and our voices low, it felt almost subversive, as if even kindness were a political act.[4]

The Apostle Paul has painted a picture of the world with Jesus Christ crucified at the center. He reminds us just how subversive love, the mother of kindness, is.

[1] Philippians 2:1ff.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Harper Collins, 1996) 5-8.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass (Kindle Locations 1716-1735).


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