In the ancient Greco-Roman world, the gods were impulsive, temperamental beings who acted arbitrarily. They were powerful entities of whom controlled everything from the course of one’s life to the amount of rain which fell upon the land. Humanity was at their mercy, so people did their best to avoid provoking their wrath. Elaborate rituals and devotion to daily prayers to household idols were performed to entice their favor. Even the Roman Empire kowtowed to the whims of the divine pantheon to maintain their dominance of the realms they ruled.
Jews also followed a rigorous code of laws designed to honor and appease the one true all-powerful God. Festivals, seasons of penitence, animal sacrifices, and strict dietary laws were adhered to keep one in the good graces of YHWH. Deviance from these norms would usually resulted in public shunning, poverty, or even death by stoning. Jews made very effort to keep God on their side.
The Gospel story is so familiar to us today that we forget just how scandalous Paul’s claims were to the Jews and Greeks of his time. The assertion that Jesus was not only divine, but the One True God was blasphemy to Jews and utter nonsense to Greeks. How could God be killed? What purpose would it possibly serve for a god to disgrace himself by living in skin only to be executed by the state in the most humiliating manner possible? The notion was absurd, even offensive to it hearers!
This is the incredulity Paul addressed in 2 Corinthians 5:11-15 when he wrote:
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
Most people who heard his message thought that Paul was out of his mind. The Gospel account was so antithetical to the norms of religious thought at the time that it was equivalent to insisting that the moon is made of cheese. It is why he used words like persuade, out of our mind, and compel in his letter. They indicate that the Gospel was not a story people would accept at face value. It required careful explanation, evidence of its power, and a steadfast passion to share its life-changing truth to skeptical crowds, knowing full well that only a small sliver of folks would be interested enough to hear more.
Reticence to the gospel story is as commonplace in our time as it was in Paul’s. While Christianity has historically influenced the mores in the United States, adherence to the faith has waned with each passing year. Today, large swaths of the population have never heard the Gospel fully explained. They may catch glimpses of the story as they pass by digital church signs, in Nativity scenes at Christmastime, and at weddings or funerals. Some may even hear snippets here and there on Facebook or on TV, but very few have ever heard a faithful rendering of the Gospel by a Christian. What bits and pieces they gathered from politicians, televangelists, and bumper stickers on the backs of SUVs offer no enticement to learn more about Jesus or what he means to them.
Paul shares what persuaded him to look foolish before the crowds: Christ’s love (v.14). He wants others to experience the unadulterated, inextinguishable love he received from God through the resurrected Jesus. The Good News was such good news to Paul that he traveled around the known world to tell anyone who would listen in the hopes that they, too, would find respite and comfort in the love of God.
Jesus never intended his followers to remain cloistered behind church walls, avoiding any contact with the people and culture beyond its doors. We cannot ignore the widow, the orphan, the stranger, or the poor in our community and continue to bear his name. The hymns and prayers of the church are not just for our own wellbeing: they are also for the fields of people who desperately need to hear what we know (Matthew 9:35-38). It is what Jesus said to do. It is what the apostles did. It is what we are to do as well.
The people around us need to hear the crazy story about the God who so loved his creation that he stooped down to our level to lift us up. They ought to be given the same opportunity we had to consider embracing it. We can pray for God to place a desire in their souls for him, how can they call on him if they have never heard his story (Rom 10:14)? May we all come to agree with the prayer St. Francis of Assisi wrote in the 11th century:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Blessings to each one of you,