One of my favorite Christian writers is Kathleen Norris. In her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, she states:
"When I first began to attend church services as an adult I found it ironic that it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out. The dilemma so vividly described by St. Paul in First Corinthians 1:22-23 (“for the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified . . .” KJV) reflected my own situation. Seeking in vain for both signs and wisdom I experienced Jesus only as stumbling block and foolishness."
I have to admit that I identify with Kathleen Norris. When I began to attend church services as an adult I, too, found that it was the language about Jesus Christ that made me feel most left out. I began attending church as an adult when I was thirty-two years old. I hadn’t attended church regularly since I was a child. Christianity had not been a part of my life for years, although, unbeknownst to me, I had been practicing Christian spiritual principles for a number of years. As far as I was consciously concerned, however, I had been in a relationship with an amorphous God, not the Christian God or Jesus. I began attending church to explore whether I could be a Christian. Although I strongly believed in God and had personally experienced the power of God to transform my life, I didn’t know what I believed about Jesus.
About a year after I began attending a church, the pastor asked me if I would give a presentation during Lent about who Jesus is to me. I thought, “Oh no, I came here to find out who Jesus is, not to tell other people who Jesus is.” The only thing that allowed me to give the presentation was the “to me” part. I decided that I could give a presentation about who Jesus is to me at that moment in time, at that moment in my relationship with him, which is what I did.
Kathleen Norris and I are not the only spiritual seekers who have found Jesus Christ to be a “stumbling block and foolishness.” The apostle Paul also found Jesus Christ to be a stumbling block and foolishness; so much so that, as a zealous Jew, he persecuted Christians – until that fateful day when he was on the road to Damascus and had a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12). He was radically converted. His “revelation of Jesus Christ” on the road to Damascus was so powerful that he relinquished all that he had previously held dear and became a committed Christian, giving the remainder of his life to preaching and living the gospel.
What Paul gave up were all the things that made him feel worthy in life, all the things that made him feel righteous, which he listed in his letter to the Philippians:
- he had been circumcised on the eighth day as the Jewish covenant with God prescribed;
- he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews;
- he had fulfilled the law as a scrupulous Pharisee;
- he had been so zealous for his religion that he had persecuted Christians;
- and he had been so righteous according to Jewish law that he was blameless. (Phil 3:4b-6)
What is the “surpassing value of knowing Christ?” Paul wrote of the surpassing value of knowing Christ in two ways. First, the surpassing value of knowing Christ is having a relationship with God based not on the law, but on Christ. Religious credentials – whether he was circumcised, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, or a scrupulous Pharisee – didn’t determine Paul’s status before God; it was the faith and obedience of Christ that determined his status before God. Paul wrote that he didn’t have a righteousness of his own that came from the law, but one that came through the faith and obedience of Christ (3:9).
Second, the surpassing value of knowing Christ is knowing the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings. Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (3:10-11). The power of the resurrection is known in the sharing of Christ’s suffering. Christ’s suffering was suffering for others in order to relieve them of their suffering. Jesus stood up to the religious and civil authorities of his day on behalf of the poor, the outcasts, and the sinners, and it led him to Good Friday and the cross. When we know Christ and the power of the resurrection we are willing to suffer with and for others in order that they may know Christ and the power of the resurrection.
While I was pastor of the United Church of Stonington, I heard a powerful story that illustrates what Paul is describing. In the Stonington area, every Good Friday there is a walk that people do to raise money for a community of people in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, who are very poor. Before receiving financial help, they were so poor that their children, although born with normal IQ’s, were developing intellectual disability by the time they were three or four years old due to malnutrition. The woman who founded the Good Friday Walk visited the Ecumenical Council in the Stonington area to tell us her story. Her name is Kay Doherty. One day, in 1972, she came home from church feeling good. She had just been to a wonderful worship service and she was feeling warm and fuzzy. All was well with the world. So she sat down at her kitchen table to have a cup of tea and read the newspaper.
She opened the newspaper and began reading about the people of Mound Bayou, Mississippi. A group of physicians had founded a farm co-op in the community to end the malnutrition and intellectual disability. The farm co-op was dependent on federal funds. The article that Kay was reading reported that, due to federal budget cutbacks, the farm co-op was about to collapse. The children of the community would then be subject to malnutrition and intellectual disability again.
When Kay first began reading the article she wanted to put it down. After all, it was depressing, and she was in such a good mood after going to church. And then it hit her:
- going to church was not about being in a good mood;
- going to church was about the surpassing value of knowing Christ;
- the surpassing value of knowing Christ was about the power of the resurrection;
- the power of the resurrection was about participating in the suffering of Christ;
- participating in the suffering of Christ was about participating in the suffering of others;
- participating in the suffering of others was about revealing Christ and the power of the resurrection to them.
The Good Friday Walk began as a group of about 30 walkers from Kay’s church and community and it has grown into thousands of walkers in more than 30 locations. Since 1972, Kay has developed relationships with the people in the Mound Bayou community and she travels there every year. This year, Kay, who is now 80 years old, will walk her 45th Good Friday Walk. By the end of 2016, proceeds from the walk given away will be 3,540,000.
Kay could have turned a blind eye to the suffering of the people in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and gone about her comfortable life, going to church every Sunday and feeling warm and fuzzy when she got home. Instead, she knew Christ, and in knowing Christ she knew that she must participate in the suffering of Christ. She knew that the power of the resurrection is known when we are willing to suffer with and for others. Kay knew in her heart that she was called to go and preach the gospel to the poor people of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, by demonstrating that God is a verb and that that verb is LOVE. Through Kay that suffering community came to know Christ and the power of the resurrection.
And, the truth is, as she told her story we at the Ecumenical Council meeting could see Christ in Kay. Her face glowed with joy and excitement as she shared her mission with us. It was clear that she doesn’t find the work a burden, but a joy. It is a mission of love, and that is clear when she shares it with others. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians that he desires to gain Christ and be found in him, and it is clear that Kay has done so.
Kathleen Norris, me, the apostle Paul, you, everyone who goes to church – we are all on a journey with the God of Jesus Christ. We come to church and hear about Jesus and each of us have our different reactions. Some, like Kathleen Norris and me, have had to struggle with the language and come to know Christ over time. Others, like Paul, have had a revelatory experience and been converted on the spot. Others continue to struggle, continue to wonder what it is to know Jesus Christ. The important thing is that we continue on the journey – continue, as Paul says, to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. May we continue to journey as beloved sisters and brothers in Christ. Amen.
Sermon preached by Amy R. F. Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, March 13, 2016, the Fifth Sunday in Lent.
 “Christ.” New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, 161.
 For more information about the Good Friday Walk, go to www.walkingongoodfriday.org.
The graphic image is from http://www.churchofepiphany.com/news/2011/apr/way-of-cross