Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
There is a quote that captures a truth of art and renaissance art in particular. Who said it first is up for debate, but it is often attributed to legendary artist Leonardo Da Vinci. While Leonardo may not have originated the phrase he quoted it several times in his own writings and that “every painter paints himself.” One self portrait of Leonardo Da Vinci is known to exist, but several renaissance artists often found ways to sneak themselves into pictures. For instance, Michelangelo painted himself onto the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Likewise, Raphael inserted himself into his famous school of Athens painting as one of the students. Artists painting themselves is not just a renaissance thing. For some artists their most famous paintings are self-portraits. This is true of Vincent Van Gogh who produced 36 self-portraits over a period of ten years. Twentieth century artists Frida Kahlo took it a step further. Of her 143 know paintings 55 of them are self-portraits. Performance artist Marina Abramovic took the concept to the next level with her 2010 work “The Artist is Present”. In this performance art piece she sat in a chair, and other art gallery patrons were invited to sit in a chair across from her. When the chair was empty her eyes were closed, and when someone sat in the chair she would open her eyes but otherwise be a still-life self-portrait in real time. In one way it makes sense, after all the self is an artist’s most accessible subject. Yet when an artist paints a self-portrait or inserts themselves into a painting they are no longer just the artist, but they become the art themselves. While there is no evidence that the apostle Paul ever picked up a paintbrush I think he is advocating for something similar in this passage from 1 Corinthians.
The word sermon is not one with a great connotation. In fact of its official definitions one of them is “a long, tedious speech.” Not the best definition. The other ways a sermon is defined do fill out the context a bit. A sermon is a discourse over religious instruction, a moral issue or exhortation of a text of scripture. What makes a good or bad sermon is subjective, but if you have spent any amount of time attending churches you probably have been exposed to both. You probably have a good feel for what makes a good sermon and what makes a bad sermon. For me, at its best a sermon should leave us with a better understanding of how a scripture reveals who God is, who God wants us to be, and inspire us to move in that direction. At its worse I suppose a sermon is a long, tedious speech that leaves us feeling worse about ourselves and unsure about God.
Typically the painter is the artist and what they are putting on the canvas is the subject, but a self-portrait turns that around and it makes the painter the subject as well. In the same way a sermon is typically spoken word to inspire righteous living, but perhaps we can create a self-portrait sermon. The way we live can preach about who God is to others. If we do it right, we will not be tedious but will inspire others to envision what a new, born again life can truly be. In this morning’s scripture Paul shows us how to do that.
I think this morning’s scripture gives us two key points on how we can be a sermon, how we can live out our faith so that it points others to the God who loves them. First, Paul lays out the model he used. Verse 1 states, “When I came to you I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony of God.” On his missionary journeys Paul was essentially a traveling teacher, but he did not fit the model of the day. He was not like a Jewish rabbi, and he was not like a Greek Sophist (traveling philosopher). Jesus much closer fit the model of a Jewish rabbi than Paul did, and we can see the difference between the ministry of Jesus in the gospels and the ministry of Paul in Acts. Often when Jesus arrived in town it became a bit of an event. Jesus drew crowds. He traveled with disciples who were intentionally sitting at his feet to learn his teachings. Jesus was invited to banquets and parties so that people could get more face time with him. The most effective way to communicate the good news that the kingdom of God is near for Jesus was to use the already established model of the rabbi. Paul’s approach was a bit different.
Paul did have traveling companions, but those who traveled with Paul were not his students. The relationship was not a master-apprentice one like it is for Jesus and his disciples. Paul and his companions were co-workers, they were members of the same team aligned with a common purpose. Paul also did not tend to come into a place with a lot of fanfare. It was not an event when Paul came into town. He would try to establish himself in the synagogues to share the message of Christ crucified, and if the Jewish population would not hear it then he would go to the Gentile forums, but as this morning’s scripture indicates he did not do it with any kind of celebrity status. Paul did not have a marketing team to drum up interest before he showed up. Paul did not hold revival like event where the goal was to use a charismatic message to respond to an altar call. The approach Paul took was much more organic. Paul was fairly migrant, but when he came into a town he became part of that town. Unlike traveling teachers he did not solicit or rely on the support of patrons. He makes that very clear in his other letters. Paul worked a trade, and made tents. Paul’s model was to work alongside the people and be with the people of any given community. Paul did not isolate himself from the Corinthians or the citizens of any other town he visited. Yet while he lived out life among them, he kept Jesus his primary focus as verse 2 records: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
I think this shows the first key point about how we can be a sermon. Paul moved from town to town and established a fairly normal life in that town. Where ever he went though, he became primarily known for his message of how people can be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. His passion for and dedication to this message was part of his identity and it defined him for others. Showing this same sort of passion for the good news of Jesus is the first way our lives can be living sermons. There is a good chance that many of you were taught that religion was a private matter and that talking about our faith beliefs is somehow impolite. This has led to an unfortunate patter that we see far too often where faith becomes just one aspect of someone’s life. It is like a little slice of life that exists on Sunday mornings, but has no impact on how we live the other six days of the week.
The idea that faith should be a quite personal and private thing that is never talked about makes no sense to me. For those of us who profess to be a Christian, the good news of Jesus Christ, the grace of the cross, and the new life of the empty tomb should be something that we honestly cannot shut up about. Our faith is not a private affair, like it was for the apostle Paul it should be one of our defining characteristics. Think about the people you know and what you know about them. We often associate with people the stuff they are most passionate about. For instance, just about everyone here probably has one passionate Cubs (or White Sox) fan in their life. Personally, if someone spends more than 15 minutes talking to me, they will probably figure out I love Star Wars. We are not quiet about the things we care about, so why on earth would be quiet about the savior who has changed our lives, saved us from slavery to sin and death, and reconciled us with our Creator forever and ever?
This gets to the second point we find in this scripture about how to be a living sermon. In verse 4 Paul wrote, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” We do not know what this demonstration was, but what we can be assured of is that Paul in some way put his faith into actions. The first point we get from this scripture is that in living our everyday life our faith should be a defining aspect of who we are, and the second point we can take is that our the way our faith defines us to others is through our actions. We sometimes try to shortcut this. We try to let a fish bumper sticker, or a T-shirt with some slogan like “I stand for the flag, kneel for the cross” stand in as a faith declaration. However, these outward expressions are meaningless if we do not back it up. As Brennan Manning once wrote, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”
We cannot just tell people we are Christians we have to actually be Christians. We do not show we are Christians by engaging in cultural wars, belittling those who disagree with us, or shouting what we are against. We show we are Christians when we are slow to anger and quick to forgive. We show we are Christians when we respond with compassion not condemnation. We show we are Christians when we have mercy without judgement. We show the world that we are Christians, by our love. By our love.
This is how we become a sermon. We need to do these things, because the reality is all of us all preachers in one way or another. The way we live our lives declares where our passions and allegiances lie. We all preach a sermon, so may the message we preach be Jesus Christ crucified. As Paul pointed out in verses 6 onwards in this morning’s scripture, the good news of Jesus was not one that was understood in his time. It is still not one that is understood. There are a lot of people in our community who are sitting at home right now because they believe the good news we profess to be foolishness. The only way we can reach them is not with wise and persuasive words but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, and that demonstration is how Jesus has changed us. It is only through living a life that points to the life changing power of Jesus, that God’s love is made known and hearts are transformed.
So what message do you proclaim? What sermon do you preach? May the love you have for God and the passion you have for Jesus be a defining characteristic of who you are. May you not be quiet about what you believe, but may you share you faith not just through your words but through how you live. May you put your faith into action, may you care for others, may you love others, and may you serve the least of these in our community. May your life be a sermon, and may it be to which all the people joyfully declare “Amen!”