Receiving a King
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…
— 1 Corinthians 2:1
I’ve read these words from the Apostle Paul a number of times throughout the seasons of Advent and, now, Christmas. As is often the case when I read Paul, I find myself scratching my head, wondering why Paul says some of the things he does. I am pausing, in particular, on two words today, on this morning after we celebrated the arrival of the Christ child.
Resolved. The word implies a decision. Paul knows a lot of things about Jesus. Paul has encountered Jesus personally on the road to Damascus. Paul has spoken eloquent words about the kenotic nature of God, about the game-changing nature of the resurrection, about the demolition of religious and ethnic walls between human beings that the career of Jesus of Nazareth makes possible. Paul could zero in on any of these in his correspondence to the church in Corinth. But, no. He resolves, apparently, not to know these more attractive things.
Nothing. As in zero. Paul decides that whatever else might be said about Jesus Christ, whatever else might be important about his life and work—like, say, his incarnation, which we are eager to make much of this time of year, or his revolutionary teaching and example, or his miracles, or his resurrection, for crying out loud, or the future kingdom of peace and justice that he will one day reign over!—it is the crucified Christ on a cruel, ugly Roman cross that is the focal point of his knowledge of God and God’s ways.
I don’t particularly like what Paul claims to be the scope of his knowledge, to be honest. Particularly not at this time of the year when our hearts and minds are filled with celebration and light. Why couldn’t Paul resolve to know nothing but Christ and him incarnated… or resurrected… or glorified? Why crucified? It’s a vital part of the story, yes, but if the story stops at the cross, what do we have? A dead God, that’s what. Why does Paul have to be so miserably morbid? Why not resolve to know a little bit more of the story?
Nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified…
We sing the words each Christmas, Let earth receive her king… But we know that earth did not receive her king very well. Adoration quickly gave way to fear and paranoia. No sooner does the desire of nations, the fulfillment of the hopes and fears of all the years arrive, than he and his parents are refugees, fleeing from a maniacal king’s decree to slaughter all children under the age of two in the region of Bethlehem in order to guard his throne and preemptively deal with the threat he imagines is coming. And, of course we know that eventually, earth’s reception of her king will culminate with regicide—with the brutal execution of heaven’s perfect king at the hands of religion and empire.
And we have pretty much been poor receivers of our king ever since. We have killed him in countless tamer but no less effective ways, whether by ignoring the things he taught us, by refusing the paths that lead to peace, by rebuilding walls once abolished, by commodifying the birth of our king and drowning it in meaningless kitsch, or by wallowing in warm platitudes about a muted incarnation and how it blesses and baptizes all things human, settling our stunted gazes on the comfortably terrestrial. Whenever and wherever, the king has looked in vain for the reception he seeks, the reception he deserves.
Perhaps the reason that Paul resolves to know as little as he knows is because, however awfully earth received and continues to receive her king, the cross is where and how our king receives his subjects. Arms stretched out in agony, forgiving friends and his enemies, giving himself away.
Image above taken from the 2012-13 Christian Seasons Calendar.