First Corinthians: The Pneuma Variable
Topic: The Holy Spirit Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2:1–2:16
One of my favorite TV shows is Big Bang Theory. It shouldn’t shock any of you that I find some shared common ground with the nerdy characters on the show. At least in terms of their love for science fiction, superhero movies, and technology. One thing I certainly don’t have in common with them is their incredibly tuned skills in mathematics, physics, and engineering. I once joked that likely more than half of what I think I know about physics has come from watching Big Bang Theory. And one of the things I love most about the show is actually the titles used for episodes. Every episode is titled as if it is a sort of scientific or mathematical theorem. The funny thing is - until you’ve watched the episode, it can be kind of difficult to guess what the title is about. Let me give you some examples. The Cornhusker Vortex. The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification. The Bus Pants Utilization. The Meemaw Materialization. Some of you who are fans of the show might even know what happens in some of these episodes. I’m willing to bet Phil might. One of the first things I saw in Phil’s office when I came here to First Pres was a Big Bang Theory bobble head. But, if you look at the title of our sermon today, you might see where the inspiration came from. And as funny as the show is, it wasn’t actually any of the characters that influenced me. It was something I see the characters of Sheldon and Leonard do frequently on the show: Try and solve a complicated equation or hypothesis.
Maybe it’s only me but there’s something really fascinating about watching the human mind try and solve an unimaginably difficult math problem. It’s not just Big Bang Theory that shows us that either. Movies like Rain Man, Good Will Hunting, and Hidden Figures show us glimpses into the calculating minds and talents of folks with far better math skills than I could hope for. I still need to use an app on my phone to figure out the tip at a restaurant.
Last week Larry started us off in our new message series out of the book of 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians is a really intriguing book when you read it through and see all its collected parts. It really covers a gambit of subjects. Some obscure, some obvious, some awkward, and some deeply moving. And it’s hard to read this ancient letter that Paul wrote and not notice points of personal connection to our own stories.
As I read through the book of 1 Corinthians in preparation for this series, I found myself thinking that Paul’s words and encouragements and message really began to resemble one of those complicated equations we see in Big Bang Theory or the movies. Only instead of a chalkboard or a tablet, the equation is being written throughout our life. Instead of quotients and factors, we have relationships and experiences. In a math or physics problem, you are trying to solve for the desired answer. In our stories, we are trying to solve for meaning and identity and life.
I believe that throughout Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians, we observe his instruction of what to add, subtract, divide and multiply in our lives, as people and as followers of Christ. And just like with complicated math problems or physics theorems, sometimes there is a critical piece of information missing from the equation that is preventing us from solving it. I believe our text this morning shows us what that piece of information is, and I call it the Pneuma Variable. Let’s read 1 Corinthians 2:1-16.
The first thing we read in our text is a disclaimer from Paul, the author. This is actually a kind of neat and important section of 1 Corinthians. Paul knows that he is going to be diving into some of the most guarded parts of these people’s lives. He’ll touch on the sacred and the shameful, the hidden and the invited. So Paul does what any good pastor or counselor would do: he reminds his audience of who he is and where he is coming from. Paul’s main platform for all that he will say, his foundation for every word and prayer, is centered in one place: the crucified Christ. Jesus Christ is Paul’s inspiration and Paul’s stamina, his ability to see into lives and speak the truth, his strength comes from the Holy Spirit.
Then, in verses 6-10, Paul talks about a hidden wisdom, a glory that has always been. Last week Larry kicked off our exploration of 1 Corinthians by showing us how the cross runs through all things. Paul emphasizes that here. The hidden wisdom and the plans of glory God has always had in store for creation begins at the cross. We’re told no rulers or intellects of this age knew it, otherwise they wouldn’t have crucified Jesus. Paul shows us here that the cross was never plan B. God was not surprised by our fall into sin or our need for redemption. God’s design for humanity was never perfection but instead redemption. Paul talks about this overarching meta-truth and he tells us how it is revealed to us. This divine revelation comes from the same source from which Paul draws all of his insight and strength: The Holy Spirit. And that leads us to what I call the Pneuma Variable.
The Holy Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. The Spirit knows our hearts as well, because the Spirit is a profound gift given to us by God. Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit comes in His name and that the Holy Spirit will remind us of everything Jesus taught. The word that Jesus used when he talked about the Holy Spirit was a Greek word paraclaytos. It literally means advocate, counselor, or comforter.
I think that a significant portion of the American church has fallen victim to a problem. We’ve forgotten or ignored the pneuma variable. You’ve heard me say that a few times now. Pneuma is the Greek word for Spirit. The variable that we’ve been missing is the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe we’re willing to exclude the Holy Spirit. It just seems to happen. Let me give you an example. Think about when you pray. When you address the person you’re praying to, what name do you use? God, Father, Jesus, Savior. Maybe we use monikers like Holy One or Creator or Loving God. But can you recall the last time you prayed to or in the name of the Holy Spirit? Now, in truth, whenever we pray in the name of God or the Lord we are praying in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. That’s the benefit of the Trinitarian mystery. But that reality doesn’t change the issue that many of us might be treating the Holy Spirit like the less popular kid in the cafeteria.
And according to Paul, it is that missing variable - this missing person - that could make it not only difficult, but impossible for us to live out the story we were made for. Paul says in verse 14: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” Physicists and mathematicians rely on a variety of formulas in order to solve complicated equations. If even one variable is off or missing, it prevents the ability to come to a right answer. We might not be trying to determine the mass of neutrinos or how to identify dark matter, but each of us does face an incredibly intricate equation with an insurmountable number of minute details and factors. We call it life. Every decision, relationship, experience, and hope we have, figures into the story we live. Often times, we try to figure out this equation on our own using whatever knowledge and facilities are available to us. And when we rely on our own strength and resources, a few things end up happening. First, we inevitably end up reaching a point where we can’t figure it out. Just like a place in an impossibly difficult math test, we end up staring at our life in that moment and feeling utterly lost. But even if we somehow do the unthinkable and avoid moments like that for quite some time, we still end up living a story that is missing the vibrancy and vividness that God intended every life to possess.
The Holy Spirit’s presence in our life, what I’m calling the Pneuma Variable, is the x-factor that opens up depths otherwise unavailable to us. We are made in the image of God. We are animated by the breath of God. We are creatures designed to be in step and tune with the divine. Jesus knew this. In his very last words to humanity before being taken back up to heaven, this is what Jesus said. Acts 1:8: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus had done the work he set out to accomplish through the cross. Sin and death had been defeated, redemption for humanity is secured. But as is the case with any act of true, meaningful love: there is the design for more than mere survival. Jesus’ work on the cross not only saved us from something but also saved us for something. We would receive power in and through the Holy Spirit so that we might share with all the world, the nature and affection of God.
And in the very next chapter of Acts, we witness what is called Pentecost. A descending of the Holy Spirit in flickers of flame that open the mouths and hearts of all who are touched by it. A revolutionary moment in the history of God’s people where our strength originates no longer from the reach of our intellect, or the strength of our own muscle, but from the divine person of the Triune God that we call the Holy Spirit. A moment where the equation of our life is no longer aimed at achieving our own happiness but instead seeing the redemptive and transforming wholeness found only in Jesus, touch each and every heart we encounter. That can only occur when we factor in the Pneuma Variable, when we search out and follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.
At this point, you might be wondering how we do that. How do we factor in the Pneuma Variable? How do we hear the Spirit in our own lives? Well, I believe Paul had the answer for us in the final sentence of our text. Paul describes in the final words of this message what it looks like for someone to not consider the Holy Spirit into the complicated equation of their life. A life without the Pneuma Variable, without the presence and voice of the Holy Spirit, is a life lived with blurred vision and dulled senses. It is a life with no hope beyond its own reach. A life unable to see the blessings of God and the perfection of His will. It is a life tossed back and forth by the opinions, judgments, and self-acclaimed wisdom of society and any voice that happens to fill our ear at the moment. The alternative, according to Paul, is as simple as it is complicated. It’s the classic Sunday school answer. Jesus.
Paul says that a person with the Spirit, who looks beyond merely human judgments, has one distinction: That person has the mind of Christ. In order to apply the Pneuma Variable to our life and foster a deeper intimacy with the Holy Spirit, we need to think like Jesus. This makes sense in many ways, especially when we remember that the Spirit is a gift to us from Christ. When we receive a great gift from a friend or family member, there is more to it than the item itself. We can perceive the love and intentions of the gift giver. We can take joy in knowing that the gift giver listened to us when we expressed our desire for that gift, and even more meaningful, we are touched by the gift givers knowledge of our heart and mind, able to know just what the perfect gift would be, for us. Jesus listens to us, knows us, and loves us in more reaching ways than we can comprehend. And in that unimaginable affection and supernatural knowing of our hearts, Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit.
To receive the gift of the Spirit fully, and in its most potent form, we need to know Jesus. And even more, Paul says we need to have the mind of Jesus, we need to think like him. This is why exploring Scripture is such an important element of our life as the people of God. The formula is relatively simple. We open the pages of Scripture. We read about the person of Jesus Christ. We are moved by the goodness and strength of Jesus, to become more like him. And as we make the daily decisions, to think and act as Jesus would, we begin to feel and be moved by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And with that variable in place, we reach an entirely new realm of ability and perception. Our faculty to love becomes exponential. The mark we leave upon those we encounter, those we love, the very world we live in becomes infinitely more meaningful and transformative. All because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our life. All because we continue to strive to factor in the Pneuma Variable.