Sermon for February 9, 2020, Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Corinthians 2:1-16 (Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—Series A)

“Spiritual but Not Religious”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

February 9, 2020


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our text is the Epistle recorded in 1 Corinthians, chapter 2:

1And when I came to you, brothers, I did not come with high sounding speech or wisdom when I declared to you the mystery of God. 2For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3But I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4and my word and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and power, 5so that your faith might not be in the wisdom of people but in the power of God. 6But we speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age nor of the rulers of this age who are being reduced to nothing. 7But we speak the wisdom of God in the form of a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God decided before the ages for our glory, 8which none of the rulers of this age recognized. For if they had recognized it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9But just as it stands written: What things an eye has not seen and an ear has not heard and upon a human heart has not arisen, what things God has prepared for those who love him. 10But to us God has revealed these things through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things including the deep things of God. 11For what human being knows what is going on inside a person except the person’s spirit, which is in him? So also no one understands the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12Now we did not receive the spirit of the world but the Spirit which is from God, so that we might know the things graciously given to us by God. 13We also speak about these things not in words taught by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. 14But the unspiritual person does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him because they are spiritually discerned. 15But the spiritual person discerns everything, while he himself is discerned by no one. 16“For who has known the mind of the Lord, so as to advise him?” But we have the mind of Christ.


          “I’m spiritual but not religious.” You’ve probably heard that phrase before. Maybe someone has said it to you when you asked them about their faith and shared what you believe about Jesus Christ. According to a Barna Research report from 2017, about 11% of the population identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or “SBNR.” But what does being SBNR, spiritual but not religious, mean?

          Dr. Paul Thagard, a Canadian philosopher and cognitive scientist, posted an article on the website, “Spirituality for some people seems to mean merely that they believe in ethical values such as caring about other people. . . . Spirituality sometimes goes with a set of practices that may be reassuring and possibly healthy. . . . Sometimes spirituality fits with rejection of modern medicine, which despite its limitations is far more likely to cure people than weird ideas about quantum healing and ineffable mind-body interactions. . . . Perhaps the most common basis of modern spirituality is just a mystical sense that the universe is somehow meaningful and benign, as captured in the slogan that everything happens for a reason. . . .”[1] So-called “spiritual” people believe generally in some “higher power” or “something greater than us” without having what we would understand to be a clear creed or confession of faith.

          The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians Christians about spiritual things. He said that “We,” Paul himself, Apollos, and Simon Peter were about the task of “explaining spiritual things to spiritual people” (v. 13). These three men, over whom divisions popped up in the Corinthian church, were “servants through whom [the Corinthians] believed.” They were “God’s fellow workers.” And the Corinthians were “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor 3:5, 9). Now what “spiritual things” did these men explain? Things quite absurd, actually—a crucified Messiah who rises from the dead and bestows His Spirit on people in order that the people might receive saving faith in this Messiah, the forgiveness of sins won by this Messiah, and everlasting life provided by grace through faith in this Crucified and Risen One.

          If the apostle Paul were standing here this morning, he would tell you that you are not going to receive this message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and the subsequent blessings such faith delivers by being “spiritual” or “religious” as those terms are understood today. To be spiritual according to the New Testament word of God is to “have the mind of Christ.” To “have the mind of Christ” is to receive the things of the Spirit of God which He reveals through the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead for the forgiveness of sins.

          Let’s face facts. No human being comes into this world spiritual or religious. The natural state of every human person is completely unspiritual, dead in sin, and totally unable to do anything about it. Dr. Luther summarizes: “In worldly and outward affairs, which apply to the livelihood and maintenance of the body, a person is cunning, intelligent, and quite active. But in spiritual and divine things, which apply to the salvation of the soul, a person is like a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife [Genesis 19:26], indeed, like a log and a stone. He is like a lifeless statue, which uses neither eyes nor mouth, neither sense nor heart. For a person neither sees nor perceives God’s terrible and fierce wrath resulting from sin and death. He always continues in his security, even knowingly and willingly. In this way he falls into a thousand dangers, and finally into eternal death and damnation. No prayers, no supplications, no warnings, indeed, also no threats, no chiding, are of any help. Indeed, all teaching and preaching is lost on him. . . .” (FC:SD II 20)[2]

          It is as Paul writes by the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, “The unspiritual person,” that is, the natural person in their lost and condemned condition, “does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him because they are spiritually discerned,” and the natural person is not able to discern and understand such things in their lost state. And truly it doesn’t get much more foolish in the eyes of human or worldly wisdom than a God who humiliates Himself by taking on the flesh and blood of His human creation and allows Himself the indignity of not only being fully human but undergoing death on a cross.

Take for example, perhaps an extreme case, the views of John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church. From 1979 to 2000, he was the Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. He says, “The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed. Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history” (Twelve Theses, Call for a New Reformation).

          It is as Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23 ESV). And in our text, “we speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age nor of the rulers of this age who are being reduced to nothing.” Now, I want to go back to Dr. Luther’s summary. We left off with the good Doctor saying, “No prayers, no supplications, no warnings, . . . are of any help. Indeed, all teaching and preaching is lost on him.” But he continues by saying that it is only lost on the unspiritual person “until he is enlightened, converted, and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. For only mankind, not stone or block, was created for renewal by the Holy Spirit. . . . This comes not from [human nature’s] own natural, active skill, ability, or capacity (for a person’s nature is stubbornly hostile against God). It comes only from pure grace, through the gracious effective working of the Holy Spirit.”[3]

          Paul tells us that “God has revealed these things”—the incarnation, person, work, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ—“to us through the Spirit.” It’s not the spirit of the lost and corrupted world that we have received but God the Holy Spirit. You and I have become true spiritual people because God the Holy Spirit has been given us in Holy Baptism.

In Baptism and through the hearing of the Good News of Christ, we received saving faith that trusts in Christ alone for full forgiveness, life, and salvation. We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus, true God and true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, is our Lord. Jesus was indeed crucified, died, and was buried, having borne our sins in His body on the cross, suffering hell in our place, and dying our death so that forgiveness of sins and everlasting life would be given to us by the Spirit whom He has poured out on us richly (Titus 3:6).

You see, the Gospel of the crucified Messiah is true wisdom for those who are “spiritual.” You are now spiritual people because you have the Spirit, who has revealed to you what God has really accomplished in Christ for you. Because you do have the Holy Spirit who dwells in you, you also have the mind of Christ. How blessed are you that you have seen the cross for what it is—God’s wisdom and God’s power at work in you and for you because the Spirit delivered to you the forgiveness and everlasting life Christ Jesus purchased and won for you![4]

You know, I’ve been thinking about SBNR—spiritual but not religious. Maybe it’s time for Christians to claim that acronym for ourselves. We’re not “religious” in the sense of following a set of manmade rules and regulations. That’s the way “religious” is often understood today. No, we are followers, disciples, of God the Son, Jesus Christ. We’re also not “spiritual” in the way it’s understood today as just having a sense of “higher things.” What we are is formerly unspiritual, lost and condemned creatures, who have been redeemed and restored to God’s favor by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. We have been made truly spiritual because we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit by means of Baptism. You and I have received, not only the Spirit Himself, but also the things of the Spirit in Baptism, Word, and Lord’s Supper—faith, new life, forgiveness.

In light of the Gospel, the wisdom of God in Christ says that you and I, as Christians, are the truly spiritual people. You and I are people filled with the Holy Spirit; we’re God’s field, God’s building. In the power of the Spirit working through the Word and Sacraments, you and I live out our Christian faith in our daily callings by showing and doing the fruits of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22–23 ESV). Spiritual but not religious—that might just be us after all—through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Paul Thagard, “Spiritual but Not Religious: Does it make sense to reject religion while maintaining spirituality?,” Psychology Today, October 28, 2016, accessed February 4, 2020,


[2] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 524.

[3] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 524.

[4] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse et al., Revised Edition., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 104.

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