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09.12.21 Technical Difficulties 1 Corinthians 6.12-17 Sermon Summary

Christians are called to made decisions with more than just their brains. In his letter to the Corinthian churches, Paul has already contrasted knowledge and love. Now he contrasts our brain and the body. He’s having an imaginary conversation with people in the Corinthian church. The issue is food used in pagan worship—whether Christians eat it. Some Corinthians say yes, and Paul actually agrees. 

But Paul also warns the Corinthians against “Rationalization,” when we use rational arguments to justify a behavior that may be objectionable. Rationalization puts our brain over everything else—our heart, our gut, or our body. It often appeals to “technicalities” to get around a larger point. Something may be true, yet does not represent the whole picture.

Some technicalities use words: “Well, it isn’t slander because she didn’t say the word, ‘all.’” Others use the law: “It’s not racist, the law is clear about curfews and he was still in town when he was arrested.” Some plead ignorance: “I was speeding? But I didn’t know it was a residential neighborhood. Look, there’s a daycare right there!” And some use nature: “How can it be bad for me when it grows in my garden?”

The Corinthians were appealing to technicalities. They start with Paul’s doctrine, saying, “We’re not under law, but under grace, as you yourself preach, Paul. So everything is legal for me.” And they turn to nature: “The stomach has to be filled. Food is how you fill it. Therefore, I can eat whatever I want.”

Here’s how the conversation reads in the letter:

“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. 

Paul responds that something may be legal but not beneficial. We may be free but we can become addicted. Something may be allowable but we can become unhealthfully attached. Paul’s criteria are not what is legal, what we are free to do, or what is allowable. Instead he wants to save us from harm, from addiction, and from unhealthful attachment. 

He uses a visceral and evocative parallel: Fornication. Why does the parallel work? Because sex has certain things in common with eating. I’ll focus on eating; you can draw the parallels.

It is natural to eat. It is also necessary. Eating is driven by appetites. Some foods are more pleasurable than others. Meals can be relational. But the most important parallel between food and sex is that both deal with the “body.”

Paul’s favorite metaphor for church is the Body of Christ. Paul teaches that we’re all members of the Body of Christ. Baptism in-corporates us into the church—it “in-bodies” us into Christ. We each have gifts of the Spirit for building up the Body. 

With these parallels between food and sex in mind, Paul wants us to think twice about eating whatever we want. “Of course you can eat whatever you want. Of course you can have sex with anyone you want. But it could harm you. You could become addicted. You could develop an unhealthy attachment.”

“Remember you are the church,” Paul continues. “You may have law and liberty on your side but you need another criterion.” Here is that criterion: “You are not your own. God created you to reside in you. God redeemed you. You were bought with a price.”

“You belong to God,” Paul reminds us. “And you belong to each other.”

Think about your own decisions. How often do we rationalize what we want? How often do we appeal to technicalities to justify a particular behavior despite the risk to ourselves or to the common good?

When I was new pastor a couple came to me for guidance. “Should we continue giving to the church? We’ve begun to live on our retirement, and we tithed on our income, including what we invested. Since we tithed on the money then, do we have to tithe on it again now?”

I was a little stumped. They were sincerely seeking the right course. They were not rationalizing away giving to the church. Technically they made a good point. I think I probably told them to tithe on the earnings of their investment. 

What I should have said is, “Giving is more for our benefit than for the church’s. Pray honestly about it and follow the Spirit.” Or, “What’s something you’re passionate about that you’d like to financially support in our church?”

Something may be legal, and we may be at liberty, but if we each are to glorify God, we have to act in accordance with the good of the whole body. Let us keep this in mind as we move through the pandemic, as we cast our votes, and as we spend our money. 

If we each are to glorify God, we have to act in accordance with the good of the whole body. Let us keep this in mind as we use our technology, as we pay our taxes, as we work at our jobs. 

If we each are to glorify God we have to act in accordance with the good of the whole body. Let us keep this in mind as we entertain ourselves, as we use the earth’s resources, as we hear about the less-privileged. 

“For freedom Christ as set us free,” Paul writes to the Galatians. “Use your liberty to love. The whole law is summed up in this: Love your neighbor as yourself. For we are all one body in Christ.”

09.05.21 When Disagreements Happen 1 Cor. 6.1-11 Sermon Summary

Well, this is a concerning statement: Wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God. If this is true we had better pay attention. Paul is trying to warn us, to save us!

A situation of wrongdoing exists in the Corinthian church. What it is? Members are suing one another. Their justice system wasn’t like ours. Their culture was determined by “patronage.” Everything was sponsored by the wealthy who exerted unfair influence. (OK, there’s some of that today.)

Because the wealthy loaded the scales of justice, the hope of a “fair, unbiased, impartial” judgment was marginal. Paul had little confidence in worldly justice. And this is his first problem: In an unjust system two Christians in dispute will experience injustice.

Injustice is wrong. Injustice is contrary to God’s Kingdom. Such wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God. 

Paul has another problem: They didn’t even consider the church. “Is no one wise enough?” Paul asks. They had an abundance of spiritual gifts! So someone must be holding back. Or maybe there was too much segregation between their religious life and their “real” life.

Now Paul seems to acknowledge the complexity of some problems. Where there are major or extraordinary matters, maybe the courts are the best place. But Paul speaks of “trivial” and “ordinary” matters. These the wise elders should be able to arbitrate. 

Maybe the Corinthians, being Gentile, didn’t get this. But Paul the Jew understood it all too well. He would remember that Rabbi Jesus was asked about an inheritance issue. A man came and said to Jesus, “Tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” (see Luke 12.13ff) I guess it depends on size of inheritance, but this seems like a pretty big deal to me. Still, it went to Jesus.

Paul knows members of faith communities do this. They ask leaders for help. He says the Corinthian church should be able to handle some matters. After all, he argues, saints will judge the world. Saints will even judge the angels! The church should be able to handle some matters. The Corinthians can’t. “I say this to your shame,” Paul writes.

Something’s wrong with the Corinthian church. And wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

A third problem Paul has is that believers are wronging each other. The kingdoms of this world use force, deception, and exploitation to rule. Jesus resisted the temptation of these kingdoms right after he was baptized. He chose the Kingdom of God over these worldly kingdoms. We’re to be different, too. How can we be wronging one another?

It is wrong for Christians to force, deceive, and exploit anyone. But it’s clearly wrong to force, deceive, and exploit other Christians. And wrongdoers will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

And Paul has a final problem. The wronged believer is defending himself. This is a tough one, because injustice is wrong. Yet Paul says, Why not just be wronged? Let the injustice go. But isn’t that wrong also?

Paul is remembering Jesus, his Lord and King, who allowed himself to be wronged. Paul also believes Jesus’ return is imminent. There may be other things in Paul’s mind, but these two are primary: Jesus was wronged; He’s coming back soon to right all wrongs.

After 2000 years we’ve had to revise our thinking about this, but it’s still worth asking: Is it really worth suing another Christian—whom God will surely judge—when he or she wrongs us?

“Oh, I can’t do that. I can’t let it go. I can’t look away, turn the other cheek. I can’t wait for God’s judgment.”

Anticipating such a response, Paul uses one final rhetorical argument. He uses it a lot. He writes a “vice list.” The vice list is a list of offenses Paul knows his audience will cheer: “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”

“Yeah!” the Corinthians say. “And this is what some of you used to be,” Paul goads. “Yeah!” the Corinthians say. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God,” Paul prods.

“Yeah!” the Corinthians say. “We USED to be wrongdoers. And wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God!”

“All right, then,” Paul warns, “now consider carefully how you settle your disagreements.”

08.29.21 Educating Christians 1 Cor. 8.1-7 Sermon Summary

If we could write a letter to Paul, what questions would we ask? Some would ask, What should we make of “modern worship,” with the different music, skits, and non-traditional sanctuary décor?

What about more contemplative devotional practices like meditation or chant? Can there be such a thing as Christian Yoga? What about things like singing bowls and intinction—isn’t that a Catholic thing?

Our church questions reveal the intersection of Christianity and the world, of worship and worldliness. In my Calvinist tradition the solution early on, and still for some congregations today, included the prohibition of musical instruments of any kind. Too worldly for worship.

The churches in Corinth presented Paul with a list of questions. Here is one of his answers. A burning question in Corinth regarded food used in pagan worship. Can Christians eat it?

In his answer, Paul introduces two criteria. 

  1. What we know to be true
  2. A truth beyond that

He distinguishes between knowledge and “necessary knowledge.” He implies a knowledge beyond knowledge, a truth truer than truth, and the existence not only of human truth, but also a divine truth.

This makes people nervous, especially wordy people like Presbyterians. As a Presbyterian I’m trained to look for truth in words, most especially the Bible. But after that, in theology, creeds, confessions, disputations, theses, and long, long sermons. Nonetheless, Paul contrasts knowledge which puffs up, with love that builds up. 

Some Corinthians had knowledge, and Paul appears to quote them in this passage. “There is only one God,” they started. “So what exactly is eating pagan food—food of another god—but merely the food of a non-god? It’s all God’s food—our God’s food. Thus, it’s fine for us to eat it.”

OK, Paul responds, what about love? What about love for “the weaker” (Paul’s word) Christians? The “weaker” Christians are undiscriminating. They see “stronger” Christians exercising their liberty to eat anything, based on their ability to discriminate. So the weaker emulate the stronger Christians but without discrimination.

The weaker don’t know or believe what the stronger do. They act the same way—eating pagan meat—but in doing so they violate their conscience. The strong act according to knowledge, belief, and conscience. The strong act faithfully. The weak engage the same behavior but they are unfaithful. Same act, but for them it is sin.

This Paul lays at the feet of the strong, of the knowledgeable, because they acted according to knowledge, but not according to love. Knowledge puffs up; love builds up. Later in the letter Paul will famously assert: “If I have all knowledge and understand all mysteries, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:2)

The knowledge beyond knowledge, the truth truer than truth, the divine truth, is love. And where does the capacity to love come from? Who knows how to love this way? Paul tells us.

“For us,” Paul says, “there is one God known as ‘father.’ All things come from this God and we exist relative to this God. And for us there is one Lord known as Jesus Christ. All things came through him and we exist on his account.”

This utter, fundamental dependence on God is grace, and if true, if all things come from God and all things depend on God—including us—then how can we be anything BUT loving? Our lives and everything that exists are a gift. So who are we to withhold love?

In other words, out of gratitude for our lives and all that is, we are able love others by seeking their good and not our rights. We don’t even have rights. We are beneficiaries. Or in the words of Jesus’ teaching, “Freely receive, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

This is the calling of Christian education. May all we do—classes, Bible studies, crafts, activities, small groups, fellowship activities, service projects, worship—EVERYTHING—remind us that our lives and everything we know are gifts of God through Jesus Christ. 

And always let us love one another, no matter how much we think we know.

08.15.21 Who Judges Whom 1 Cor. 4.1-7 Sermon Summary

Some scriptures are easier to apply than others. We have histories to help us remember, psalms to teach us to pray, and wisdom sayings to guide our lives. But letters are more difficult. We don’t know the whole story. And we don’t have the responses.

For example, when the apostle Paul writes “us,” sometimes he is referring to himself and his companions, and other times he includes those he is writing. In this passage, Paul is speaking of himself: “Think of us as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” And later he says he, “applies all this to Apollos” and himself (and no doubt he would include Cephas, i.e., Peter, as well). So it’s clear that he is referring not to the Corinthians, not to us, but only to himself.

Paul is defending himself in this passage, not against attacks on his teaching—though he did have to do that, most vehemently in the Galatians letter—but against the judgments of the Corinthians. 

As a teacher Paul wasn’t as compelling as Apollos. As a preacher he wasn’t as captivating as Peter. As a speaker he was not as eloquent as other philosophers in Corinth. And the Corinthians judged his message, “Christ crucified,” as too simple and upside down culturally. 

Simply put, they didn’t like Paul as much as they did others. You might have heard someone say, “I didn’t get much out of worship today.” Or someone else, “Paul didn’t deliver for me.”

This attitude caused divisions in the Corinthian churches. Opinions and impressions took priority over content and truth. “I like Apollos!” “I prefer Peter!” “Well, I like Paul!”

Paul’s response to all this? “We’re all just serving Christ and stewarding God’s mysteries. We’re trying to be faithful to God.” And finally, “We’re not trying to impress you.”

That was a hard lesson for the Corinthians to hear. They were a cosmopolitan city and used to fine things. And it’s not easy for us to hear either. We’re consumers. We live in a merit-based culture. 

We say, “The customer is always right.” Well, not according to Paul. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you.” Wow.

I know a pastor who was run out of a small town in Iowa for wearing jeans—and not on a Sunday! Other judgments I’ve witnessed? “I don’t think a preacher should have a beard.” “Her high-heels are too high.” “He drives too nice a car.” “His children are ill-mannered.” “Her spouse is uppity.” “I just don’t like her voice.” “You talk too fast.” “You talk too slowly.” “You spilled grape juice on the table cloth.” “The Communion bread is too dry.” “He spends too much time in his office.” “He’s never in his office.” “We are paying her too much.”

I was once part of a Presbytery with a megachurch in it. That church got sideways with the Executive Presbyter and the pastor said, “He should keep in mind we pay half of his salary.”

Can you see how hard it is to hear Paul say, “It’s a small thing that you should judge me.” Where does that kind of strength come from? Because most pastors cave to that judgment. 

And Paul wasn’t just self-assured. He wasn’t arrogant or boastful of his superior education or his ecstatic religious experience. He wrote, “I don’t even judge myself.”

Paul’s confidence came from one place: His single-minded loyalty and devotion to serving Christ and stewarding God’s mysteries. And one, and only one, judgment mattered to Paul: Whether God would say to him on the Day of the Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You called my people to conversion. You called my people to gratitude. You called my people to social justice. You called my people to right relationships.”

Paul tells the Corinthians, “Save your judgment. Judgment comes with the day of the Lord.” There is no “day of the church member.” “Shut it,” Paul says, “and listen.” This rubs privileged folk like the Corinthians wrong. And it rubs consumer cultures like ours wrong also.

So can the preacher say whatever she wants? No. Our lives are judged based on what we have built. Paul often expresses concern that if his audience doesn’t grow both in numbers but more, in spirit, he will have run his race “in vain.”

A shepherd is judged by how many sheep reproduce and how many sheep make it to market. Teachers are judged by the lives of their students, which is why James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

Servants are judged according to the will of their Lord. And Paul isn’t the Corinthians’ servant. He’s Christ’s servant. So on one hand he would agree with Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing.”

And on the other hand he would agree with the very next verse: “Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.” 

Paul ends this passage with a question. “You who judge me, what do you have that you didn’t receive? Since we are all recipients of God’s grace, when you judge me, you judge yourself. For what are you doing? Are you doing all that you can, Like Apollos and I are, to serve Christ?”

We’re listening in 1 Corinthians for guidance for our church in these challenging times. Today’s guidance is this: Instead of judging leadership, pray for them. And then get involved. Remember, Paul started the letter with the hope that together without division the church would share one mind and purpose in the proclamation of Jesus as Lord.

07.25.21 The Gospel in Paul’s Churches 1 Cor 1.18-2.5 Sermon Summary

Sometimes we read the Bible and we think, “There’s something going on here, but I don’t know what.” That’s when we turn to specialists trained in reading ancient texts. Specialists explore arcane details and literary devices. They compare historical references and allusions. They look for theological patterns that may help us understand a passage of scripture like Paul’s dense conversation in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5.

This passage has something going on. It lays out several opposites and contrasts:  Wise and foolish; strong and weak; divine and human. Paul contrasts God’s foolishness to human wisdom, and God’s weakness Paul compares to human strength. 

This isn’t by accident. It is designed. Paul is using a stylistic argument called a chiasmus. It gets its name from the Greek letter Chi which is shaped like an X. It’s the first letter in the word “Christ,” which is why we abbreviate Christmas with Xmas.

A chiasmus crisscrosses words like opposites and contrasts. It takes an idea and twists it, reversing word order, making contrasts, making it look like an X in the imaginatioin. 

For example: Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” We design our buildings with careful controls, but for generations afterwards, buildings control us. Think about the implications of that for a church sanctuary . . .

This passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is riddled with chiasmi. You can find them if you look. Locating them helps us understand the point Paul is trying to make. I want to get to the point through the question, What was Paul’s understanding of the Gospel? In this passage we have three moves constructed as chiasmi.

First: God has made a choice. God has chosen the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong. Why? Because God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom. And, Paul says, God’s weakness is greater than human strength. This is a great contrast between divine and human, between God’s values and ours.

Next, Paul says, God has revealed this choice with the crucifixion of Christ. This is the second move. The crucifixion of Christ reveals God’s choice. Some people want signs or miracles. Others want wisdom, impressive arguments, and productive results. 

So you might hear someone say, or think yourself, “This person sounds very impressive. She is articulate! He is so passionate! And they use such big words! What she’s saying must be true.”

Or, “Gosh this is a huge building. The parking lot is always full and the people are well dressed. Surely this place must be blessed!”

That’s the backstory in Corinth. Since Paul founded the church a few years earlier, the congregations have begun to criticize him for not being very impressive and his message for not being very substantive in comparison to others’.

Paul responds that instead of relying on eloquence and miracles, he simply preached “Christ crucified.” He acknowledges this is a stumbling block to sign-seekers and foolishness to wisdom-seekers. 

Paul preached that an uncredentialed Jewish Rabbi who was opposed by religious leaders and the politically powerful was nonetheless beloved of the poor and simple. He was the hope of the oppressed, the marginalized, and those in vulnerable communities. 

So maybe Jesus isn’t JUST A Rabbi, just a teacher. He is a prophet who speaks the truth. He is a priest who makes God present to us and us to God. Maybe he’s a new king, a deliverer and redeemer. And if so, maybe he could be the Messiah [“Christ”], the very embodiment of God’s promises fulfilled!

But if so, how could Paul preach “Christ crucified”?! That’s weakness, not strength. It’s foolishness, not wisdom. It’s human, not divine. But that’s what Paul preached: Christ crucified. It is the revelation of God’s choice: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor 1:28)

This brings us to the third move. God calls, and we respond. Jesus calls us to follow him, to follow in this way, in this counter wisdom, to trust in this counter strength. And those who respond, Paul writes, discover that God is the source of their life, and that in Christ is our redemption.

So what is the Gospel in Paul’s churches? Our salvation comes through Christ crucified. This is God’s choice. Why? So that no one can boast. It is God’s doing. In other words, it is a gift. It is grace.

Let us not hope to boast in signs and wonders, in displays of power and prestige, or in demonstrable productivity. Let us not hope to boast in intelligent and articulate arguments, or in reason and prudence. 

These would be our choices. But the Gospel is about God’s choices. And God has chosen Christ crucified, the weak to shame the strong, what is foolish to shame the wise.

And to all who believe and respond, God chooses to give divine life, power, and wisdom, to make us holy, and to redeem our lives.

If this is Paul’s Gospel in Corinth, should we not consider it our own cities?

07.18.21 What We Can and Can’t Do Mark 10.35-45 Sermon Summary

There are things we can do, and things we can’t. We can’t determine our position in heaven. James and John had a vision, to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in the Kingdom. So they asked, “What do we have to do?”

Jesus replied, “Can you drink the cup I drink? Can you share my baptism?” “Yes,” they answered, and Jesus was impressed. I think he was actually surprised. “Indeed,” he responds, but he also reflects. 

“Where you sit in the Kingdom is not up to me. It is up to God.” In other words, we can’t impact our “place” in heaven. It is in God’s hands, and God’s hands alone.

But Jesus does indicate how we can be “great.” He reveals the secret to being “first.” It is to, “be the servant of all.” To serve, self-sacrificially. To seek the common good and not our own good.

We can’t influence our place in the afterlife. But we can pursue greatness. We can position ourselves as number one. We can pursue advancement. And the path is service, things like: Civil service, military service, social justice advocacy, community service, teaching, public utilities, politics, community organizing, and providing for and protecting vulnerable communities.

We believe that God’s Spirit gifts each member of the church with special interests, talents, and skills for the common good of the church. But just as God works beyond the church, and the Spirit moves outside the church, so we give thanks for the many ways people serve the common good through channels not related to the church. 

Jesus calls the church to follow him on the path of service, of care for the neighbor, of love for our enemy. In our own individual lives, this call finds infinite unique expressions, as we each consider the cares of our neighbors, as we protect the interest of the weak, as we desire to be the best version of ourselves according to God’s vision upon our lives. 

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Let your light so shine before others that they may receive the blessing of your service and give thanks to God.” Amen.

07.11.21 Seeing Through Jesus’ Eyes Matthew 19.1-12 Sermon Summary

OPENING INTENTION

The Bible says that at the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and everything in between. God created the light and the darkness, which includes the dusk and the dawn. God created the sea and the dry land, which includes beaches and coral reefs. God created flying birds and swimming fish, which includes swimming penguins and leaping dolphins. 

The Bible says that at the beginning, God created humankind in God’s image, male and female God created them. 

Today we celebrate the diversity of God’s creation, and give thanks for God’s abundant love. Let us come and worship this God of the Bible, who welcomes young and old and everyone in between. Who welcomes human and insect and all that is in between. Who welcomes believer and doubter and all who are in between. Who welcomes male and female and all who are in between. 

You, whoever you are, have a place here. For we are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture. 

SERMON: Seeing Through Jesus’ Eyes

Here are two characteristics about humanity in general: (1) We prefer easier to more difficult; (2) We don’t like fear or confusion. These two characteristics cause our brains to wire in a specific way early in our lives. Jesus calls us to rewire. 

Later in life most people learn to choose difficulty over ease and to challenge fear or confusion. But early on, in order to facilitate our survival, our brain wires itself to see opposite pairs. This makes decision-making easier. Two alternatives are easier to manage than three or more.

This is why we make lists: Pros and cons, dos and don’ts, wrongs and rights. It’s why we see things as my way vs. your way, our interests vs. their interests, and that one person’s loss is another one’s gain. Neuroscientists call this “binary thinking.” It is natural, it develops early on, and it is necessary for survival.

But God wants us to do more than survive. God wants us to thrive. Jesus doesn’t just lead us to life. He leads us to abundant life. Jesus calls us beyond binary thinking. He does so because that’s where he resides.

Jesus resides beyond the binaries. Here is a Jew who is inclusive of Gentiles. Here is a Rabbi who teaches women. Here is a human who bears the divine image. If we see only believer or non-believer, knowledgeable or ignorant, man or God, we won’t see Jesus. 

Jesus challenged the binary thinking of the woman at the well, saying, “God is not worshipped on this mountain or that mountain, but in Spirit.” And of the tradition about Law: “Law isn’t about acting this way or that way but about loving God and neighbor.” And of the Pharisees who asked him about marriage and divorce, when he makes his comments about eunuchs.

The Pharisees have asked him about the application of a specific law. Jesus redirected their attention to love. It is more difficult to love. It is easier to walk away. In response to the Pharisees question about marriage and divorce, Jesus urges the hard work of love. 

He lifts up eunuchs as examples. Extraordinary! Here’s how the Bible defines “eunuchs”: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1) In other words, anyone whose sexual identifiers are ambiguous is left out.

The biblical authors didn’t know about gender or sexual orientation or the concept of self-identification. Thus the Bible is largely binary, beginning with the very first chapter where Creation occurs by separating opposites: Morning and evening, light and darkness, water and dry land. And later chapters and books oppose the righteous and the unjust, the wise and the foolish, and Israel and the nations. 

Running throughout the Bible is a fundamental binary of male and female. If you are ambiguous, if you don’t fit in the binary, you are excluded from the community.

This fundamental binary is obvious to the biblical writers, but Jesus sees more. How does he see more? Jesus looks at the eunuch who is supposed to be a male but yet not a male, and he sees a person, a being capable of loving God.

Jesus looks past the fundamental binary and sees something even more fundamental. He sees past the ambiguity to the person made in God’s image.

Why does Jesus see this where others do not? It is because he brings the messianic age envisioned by Isaiah.

“Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people.’ And do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD: to the eunuchs who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than the sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 56:1-6)

Remember how we prefer easier to more difficult, and don’t like fear and confusion? Life would be a lot easier, and would require less courage, if the world were truly binary. If ostriches could fly like other birds. If rain only watered the earth without flooding it. If fire just warmed us and cooked our food without consuming our houses. But then we wouldn’t see the world as Isaiah envisioned it: A household of God expansive enough to welcome and include foreigners and eunuchs.

Life would be a lot easier, and would require less courage, if reality was truly binary. If obedience to the Law determined justice. If the absence of war was the definition of peace. If God was transcendent and wholly other. But then we wouldn’t see God as Jesus does. It’s only after Jesus that we had to create the concept and invent the word “Trinity.”

Life would be a lot easier, and would require less courage, if life was truly binary. If male and female was all there was. If marriage was a matter of like and dislike, or determined by the presence or absence of a certificate. If Eunuchs didn’t exist.

But then, worst of all, we wouldn’t see what Jesus sees: A fellow human as a child of God, as sibling, as a partner, as a friend. Seeing the Eunuch through Jesus’ eyes isn’t the easier way. It can be fearful and confusing. It takes hard work and courage. But that’s where Jesus is, where Jesus reveals God. It’s where Isaiah saw it all going. It’s where Jesus wants us to follow him.

And so as Jesus said, “Let anyone accept this who can.”

Psalm 95

Come worship

God as God

as our God

Listen

Rest

06.27.21 One Thing Unites 1 Cor. 1.10-17 Sermon Summary

There is paradox in the nature of God’s grace. On one hand, it is a gift unconditionally offered and freely received. However, once received, it claims our allegiance. 

Last week we looked at how the paradox of grace applies to holiness. “Sanctification,” as the theologians call it, is God’s gift to us. But it is also our response to God. Holiness a foundation of the church. This week we consider another foundation and another paradox of grace: Unity.

The churches in Corinth were a gifted group. They were a diverse church and had exalted expectations. This made them a challenging church to lead. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to guide the challenging church, and we are looking to Paul to teach us how to face our own challenges as the church today.

Paul continues laying the foundations of his letter with these words. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

My congregation is similar to the church in Corinth. As in Corinth, my congregation has an abundance of strong leadership. Corinth had Paul, Apollos, and Peter (Paul calls him Cephas). We have such leaders as I’ve outlined in earlier sermons (here and here).

As in Corinth, part of the leadership in my congregation consists of outspoken women. In Corinth, for example, Chloe may have been a house sponsor, that is, a pastor. 

As in Corinth, my congregation has talented worship leaders exercising a variety of spiritual gifts. And we both share a robust celebration of the sacraments. 

And as in Corinth, in my congregation all this abundance has led to a steady stream of visitors. 

In writing to Corinth, Paul offers thanks but also a warning: Abundance easily distracts. We can become beholden to our abundance, become proud. And so abundance also easily divides as we think to ourselves, “Our way is better than others.” And this has the potential to create “cliques” within a church, according to biblical scholar Preben Vang.

Many churches go through difficulties caused by cliquish behavior. Whether these are caused by forceful personalities, political conviction, musical tastes, preference for certain church programs, theological catchphrases, or something else, they will eventually undermine the power of the gospel. If Christ, who came to break down the wall that separates (Eph. 2:14), cannot even remove cliques in his own body, the cross has lost its power (1 Cor. 1:17) and the church is left without a testimony. (Vang, Preben. 1 Corinthians p. 26. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Distraction and division can be avoided, however, and the cross can again be powerful. The church can maintain a testimony if we remember our unity in Christ.

Some in my congregation say, “But we don’t have unity. There are too many differences: Political. Theological. Practical. We don’t have unity.”

But we do. The Confession of Belhar was written in 1986 in South Africa during Apartheid, the white minority rule over the black and colored majorities. In 2016 my denomination included Belhar in its Book of Confessions, our primary traditional guidance in interpreting the Bible. The confession’s themes are unity, reconciliation, and justice. About unity, it states:

“We believe that unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.”

Some things to note: Unity is a “gift.” It is already given. It is achieved by Christ. It is sustained by the Spirit. Yet it is also an “obligation.” The church is to pursue and seek it. We have to be trained how to do this.

This theology finds expression my denomination’s polity through the Book of Order, Foundations 1.0302: “Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one.” This is a paradox of grace. Like holiness last week, unity is a gift we strive to make real. 

How do we do this? Belhar goes on to enumerate a number of ways. It begins with love for one another. It includes actively pursuing community with one another. We are to give of ourselves to the benefit of each other. We should share experiences and burdens with one another. 

The Corinthians were facing challenges. They were distracted and divided, taking power from the Cross and losing their testimony. This is real today. Just ask the “nones,” those surveyed who check “none of the above” with regards to their religious affiliation. Their numbers are growing every year.

When we in the church say, “We don’t have unity,” then cite all the examples and argue that our way is better than others, it’s easy for people to dismiss the church. Instead of lamenting diversity, Belhar says we need to celebrate it.

“We believe that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God.”

From this perspective, “variety” creates opportunities for service and enrichment. It does so because of our unity in Christ, already secured. 

Does the church face challenges? According to Paul, it needs to focus on the mind of Christ and his purpose. Jesus never forgot the lost sheep. They were continuously in his mind. Instead he always went looking for them. He still does. To face our challenges we need to remember our unity, celebrate our diversity, and follow our Lord: Make the lost a priority.

“The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone.” (Book of Order, Foundations 1.0302) If we don’t “seek to include all people,” if we are “content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for ourselves alone,” we will be distracted and divided, the cross will lose its power, and we will lose our testimony.

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Let us be united in the mind and purpose of Christ. Amen.

06.20.21 Paul’s Assumptions about Church 1 Corinthians 1.1-9 Sermon Summary

We’re going to listen to 1 Corinthians for a while because we need guidance. The Apostle Paul was dealing with a challenging church, and today we are dealing with challenging times.

Corinth was a large city. It was primarily Gentile, wealthy, and diverse. This created friction in the churches. As trade center, the Corinthians had cultivated exalted expectations. This was a problem for Paul who apparently was not an eloquent speaker.

First Corinthians appears as the second of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. That’s because it’s his second longest. In terms of chronology, 1 Corinthians is, among the letters that have survived, probably Paul’s third after 1 Thessalonians and Galatians.

First Corinthians was written about 53-55. Paul had founded the church in 50. It is an “occasional” letter, which means Paul was addressing particular matters as he wrote. But reading behind the text and between the lines we can discern a coherent theology; Paul’s theology.

Very quickly the wider church discerned God spoke to us through Paul’s writings and so we continue listen for God’s Word in Paul’s letters. In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians we discover a couple of assumptions Paul makes about the church in general. 

“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”

Our first observation is that church people are “sanctified.” Paul never writes about joining a church or being a member of a church. Instead he uses language of joining the Body of Christ, being a member of the Body of Christ. One of his favorite ways to refer to this is to be “in Christ.”

If someone is “in Christ” it means he or she will be “in church.” For Paul, if you were “in church” you were also “in Christ.” This is because in Paul’s day, people chose Christ over many options; over other deities, over other lords and kings presented as deities, and over the typical distractions of status, wealth, and leisure.

To choose Christ, to be in church, was counter-cultural, anti-government, and unpatriotic. It led to persecution and could cost you your life. This made it hard to be Christian. You needed support. You needed others. You needed a community. You needed the church. 

Many have observed that we are returning to that reality today, where being in church is counter-cultural. When Christians stand for peace, justice, equality, and love, we may be called unpatriotic. For many of us this is not a bad thing. It suggests a purifying of the church and of Christianity.

All this is why Paul writes that church people are “sanctified.” This a word that simply means “made holy.” You might think “holy-fied” when you hear “sanctified.”

Something is holy only as it belongs to God, because God alone is purely holy. Kingdoms of the world are not holy. The Kingdom that belongs to God is holy. Those who belong to the Kingdom of God are holy. They are “sanctified.”

While we are already sanctified, Paul yet calls us to be saints. We are already holy, and we are called to be increasingly holy. We already belong to God, and we are called to belong to God more and more

Our Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith expresses what we’ve said thus far: 

“In life and in death we belong to God. . . [T]he Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace. In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.” 

Notice how in the famous first line is the assertion that “we belong to God.” In the final section about the role of the Spirit in our lives, the confession calls us to increasingly exhaustive holiness (and joy!) in our lives.

We are “holy-fied” and called to be holy. And we are not alone. We are church, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours,” Paul asserts.

My second and much shorter observation is that our sanctification, our holy-fication, is a gift from God. This is what Paul means by “grace.” Notice Paul’s emphasis on the passive voice, which means the action is happing to us. We are not doing it ourselves.

Paul is an apostle “by the will of God.” The church is comprised of those who “are sanctified” and “are called” to holiness. The “grace of God has been given to you,” Paul writes, and the Corinthians “have been enriched in Christ.” Paul’s testimony “has been strengthened” among them and God will also “strengthen them to the end.” By God they “were called into the fellowship of Christ.”

This is Paul’s understanding of “grace;” it is something that is given. It cannot be achieved. It is to be received.

The Corinthian churches were challenging churches, and we are in challenging times. But before dealing with the challenges of his day, Paul lays the foundation in these opening verses. The church is sanctified. And it is sanctified by God.

What does the future of the church look like post pandemic and after online ministry?

What does the future of the church look like now that we are waking up white?

What does the future of the church look like now that we are taking responsibility for the environment?

What does the future of the church look like now that we realize “boy” and “girl” don’t fully describe all people?

What does the future of the church look like now that we understand brain chemistry and the overwhelming effects of trauma?

What does the future of the church look like now that we’re taking Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, and to love our enemies, and to love ourselves, and to love God with everything—and he means everything?

I don’t know what it looks like and it scares me. It makes me nostalgic for simpler times. It makes me defensive. It makes me closed-minded. And so I look to Paul and he tells me, “You are already holy. You are to pursue holiness. The church is already holy. It is to pursue holiness.

“God has given you what you are, and God will give you what you will be. You have only to believe. You have only to receive.”

“Do not worry,” Jesus said. “Desire first God’s Kingdom, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

“Do not be anxious about anything,” Paul wrote in another letter, “but in all things, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and the peace of God, which transcends understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Spirit, give us to desire first God’s kingdom. Then add to us what you will, not what we will. We thank you for calling us to be in Christ, to be members of his Body, to be your church in the world today. We present our requests: Lead us. Guide us. Give us vision. Ease our anxieties. Calm our fears. Increase our faith. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour. For we are a challenged church, and we are a challenging church. And we need to remember that by your grace, and your grace alone, we are holy, and we may be holy. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.