Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit?
1 Corinthians 4:21
Whenever I’ve been able to explore ancient sites, I’ve always been fascinated to observe the staying power of certain materials and artifacts. While things like clothing, food, and wooden projects have mostly rotted away, certain products and materials have millennial durability. Fieldstone fences cobbled from tough granite hang on to this day. Still standing basalt foundations allow archaeologists today to consider how homes were built long ago. Lots of limestone walls are still in situ, even if their roofs have long since burned or crumbled.
On the northern side of the Mediterranean, around Greece and Italy, most major archaeological sites are dominated by the bright white shimmer of marble. Twenty or thirty centuries after it was first put to use, it gleams on today.
Among the construction materials available at your local First Century Home Depot, marble was king. It shone in the sun, held out the elements, and proved a capable canvas for so many Latin inscriptions. Marble was a status symbol; many will remember Caesar Augustus’ famous boast: I found Rome a city of bricks, I left it a city of marble.
On a recent walkthrough of the sprawling excavations in the ancient city of Ephesus, our Turkish guide shared a fascinating recent discovery about marble craftsmanship. During prosperous times in antiquity, wealthy Ephesian citizens came to prize marble coverings for the interior walls of their villas. If the stone was sliced thin enough (think Velveeta cheese thin), the pieces could be set side by side in a sort of tessellation, a repeating grid akin to an old Windows 95 desktop pattern.
The question that had archaeologists stumped for many years, though, was how precisely the marble could be shaved so thin. Iron saws? Diamond blades? Ancient aliens, Giorgio?
The real answer was astonishing. In order to cut marble, our guide smiled, you look to the moth.
More precisely, you employ the moth’s silk. Yep, silk. The fluffy stuff we use for our neckties and special-occasion PJ’s.
Our guide explained. Using complex back-and-forth machinery, perhaps powered by falling water, ancient masons were able to make oiled strands of silk vibrate at speeds capable of slicing straight through marble block.Hard to believe? It was for me until I watched this video that demonstrates how an ordinary sheet of paper can power through metal if it has the right amount of energy behind it. Silk can cut through stone.
Continuing my stroll through Ephesus, I couldn’t help but think about what the Apostle Paul must have felt as he first entered this vast city. How could he, an aging, diminutive Jew hope to make a Christian mark in a city steeped in centuries of paganism?
The residents were purveyors of sorcery, slavery, and the sexualized rituals of the age. To Paul, their hearts might have seemed like hardened marble. He didn’t have the personnel, resources, or time to jackhammer through that kind of worldview.
So Paul didn’t. He opted against meeting the rock-hard cultural obstacles with something even harder. He didn’t try to pound through marble with lots of shouting or by tipping over statues of the gods. Instead, Paul brought out the soft stuff. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. Surrender.
And it worked.
Take notice, gang. In God’s incredible upside-down world of humility and love, silk beats stone.
This is a beautiful lesson with some important implications for how followers of Jesus comport themselves these days.
We can all see it: In 21st Century America, marble is back in vogue. Attentive listening and a openness to new ways of thinking are signs of weakness. Compromise and calm are yesterday’s tactics. These days, it’s about protest, indignation, and volume. The louder voice or the bigger march wins.
At this historical moment, we have to remember what our faith is really about. We have to return to that which Paul preached. We are people of “love and a gentle spirit.”
Christians don’t insult or deride people for thinking differently than we do because we acknowledge that as of right now, our perspectives are limited (1 Corinthians 13:12). We don’t clamber for any sort of “supremacy” because we know our Lord already has that position filled (Colossians 1:18). We strive for reconciliation because God is all about bringing back together that which has been separated (2 Corinthians 5:19).
With the energy of the Holy Spirit animating us, grace and kindness, soft as silk, can penetrate into the heart of a rock-hard culture.