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Why I Voted Against 22-U

Amendment 22-U seeks to add the words, “when appropriate” to the direction that those who come to the Lord’s Table prior to being baptized should receive an invitation to baptism. I voted against this amendment because it is unnecessary, but more, because it dilutes our baptismal theology.

1. The proposed amendment is unnecessary for the reason that the Advisory Committee on the Constitution already identified, namely because the use of “should” in the existing language allows for pastoral discretion in issuing an invitation to baptism.

2. To fully understand the theological issues at stake, an historical perspective is helpful. The origins of this amendment date back to 1998. Then, the 210th General Assembly received an overture to remove the language inviting only “baptized members” to the Lord’s Table. Similar overtures over the next few years were combined and assigned to the Sacrament Study Group (SSG) which convened from 2003-2006. Their report “Invitation to Christ” inaugurated a season of renewed sacramental practice and reflection throughout the Presbyterian Church (USA).

3. In an oversimplification of the SSG’s findings, we may say that “it is appropriate to wash before dinner.” To elaborate a bit more, the SSG found that for: 1) historical, 2) theological, and 3) ecumenical reasons, maintaining the order of baptism before eucharist was advisable. For practical reasons, however, the order may justifiably be reversed. (Note that the overtures leading to the SSG came from both “conservative” and “progressive” churches. Conservatives desired to admit recent converts—“people of faith”—who were not necessarily baptized, to the Table; Progressives desired the Table to be more “hospitable.”) The synergistic solution was to serve everyone at the Table, and invite the unbaptized to baptism.

4. In 2016 the denomination approved a revision to the Directory for Worship which removed the language restricting the Lord’s Table to the baptized only and adopted the language of Invitation to Christ: Inviting those who came to the Lord’s Table prior to baptism to a season of baptismal discernment.

5. The theological issue at stake is the understanding that it is the same grace extended in baptism as at the Table. Thus, if someone is moved to respond to the invitation to the Table, they also desire the grace represented in baptism. They should not be denied the baptismal means of grace simply because they are unaware of it. Even though it is always appropriate to invite people to baptismal preparation and baptism, it is evidently so when they respond to the invitation to the Lord’s Table.

6. Or to put it another way, in the form of a question to the proposed amendment, “Whenever is it not appropriate to invite someone to baptism?

Why I Voted Against 22-T

Amendment 22-T seeks to list the sacrament of baptism as an appropriate action following the confession of sin and assurance of pardon. I voted against this amendment because it is unnecessary, but more, because it dilutes our baptismal theology.

1. The proposed amendment is unnecessary for the reason that the Advisory Committee on the Constitution already identified, namely, since Reformed theology understands baptism to be a response to the Word of God, there is nothing stopping a pastor from administering  baptism following the proclamation of forgiveness as God’s Word. In other words, pastors can already reasonably order worship to have baptism follow the confession and assurance.

2. But the theological reasons are more substantive. In 1982 the World Council of Churches promulgated the ecumenical document “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry” which identified five primary understandings of the meaning of baptism. They are: 1) Participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection; 2) Conversion, Pardoning, and Cleansing; 3) Reception of the Gift of the Spirit; 4) Incorporation into the Body of Christ; and 5) the Sign of the Kingdom.

To these we may add or elaborate that baptism represents: 6) the Sign of the Christian Covenant Community; 7) Union with Christ; 8) New Birth; 9) Sealing of the Word of God; and 10) Commissioning for Christ’s ongoing Ministry through the Church.

3. Administering baptism after the confession and assurance serves to place baptism early in a worship service, since ordinarily the confession occurs early in a worship service. The rationale for the amendment specifies this interest. However, while the declaration of forgiveness is indeed a fundamental Word of God, it is a very limited aspect of the Gospel. In other words, placing baptism here implies that it is a response primarily to God’s cleansing Word.

4. Placing baptism here obscures and diminishes those aspects of God’s Word that call us to conversion, to participation in Christ’s mission, to receiving the Spirit, to covenanting with the community of faith, and to living in the Kingdom of God.

5. Further, since baptism is an extraordinary rite in Sunday worship, placing baptism here in the interest of having it occur early in a worship service gives the appearance of “getting the extraneous out of the way” as soon as possible. I assume the interests underlying this amendment pertain mostly to infant baptism, but even if that is not the case, placing baptism here further marginalizes the significance of baptism in the Christian life.

6. Baptism is not merely a ritual addition to our worship, nor is it a family’s churchy rite of passage, nor is it merely a cleansing of sin. Baptism is the ongoing call to Christian living as Martin Luther might put it. Karl Barth recognized it as the foundation of the Christian life. John Calvin saw the sacraments as seals upon God’s Word. We should let the power of baptism seal more of God’s Word than just the assurance of pardon.

Republicans and the Right need to Remember it’s Advent

I’ve read that some Republicans and those on The Right are criticizing the prisoner exchange between the United States and Russia which brought Brittney Griner home. Griner is a professional basketball player charged with drug possession who was serving a nine-year sentence. Those familiar with the circumstances widely agree that the charge and the sentence were unreasonable.

Those on The Right are critical because of who else participated in the exchange, and who didn’t. Griner was exchanged for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer serving time for smuggling. Paul Whelan, a former United States Marine serving time for espionage, was not in the exchange. From the first I heard of it, both Griner and Whelan were part of the negotiation. It ended up with only Griner. Those on The Right are critical because the exchange involved the wrong, or one too few, American.

I ask myself, Why can’t The Right celebrate Griner’s release? Of course it is to be expected in our hyper-partisan political environment. Part of me also wonders if it’s because she’s a she. Moreover, she’s a she who’s married to a woman. Maybe The Right is upset because she’s a professional athlete who went to a Communist country to address the income disparity with her male counterparts in her Capitalist country. Could her being black have anything to do with it? These all represent stark contrasts with Whelan and may contribute to the reaction of The Right.

The Christian theologian in me answers that The Right doesn’t remember that it’s Advent. Advent is that season in the church calendar which reminds us of the promises God has begun to deliver in the presence of Jesus. Prophets of ages past proclaimed a society in which injustices were rectified. This would include vindication of the wrongly accused, deliverance of the oppressed, and the liberation of captives. Jewish Prophets cast this longed-for society as a Divine promise, and the hope of God’s faithfulness to these promises sustain weary people of faith still today. This is why Christians celebrate Advent.

What surprises me is that, while so many of the Republicans and The Right claim the religion of Christianity, they seem to have forgotten the foundation of Christian hope. While it is hard to imagine a just society this side of death, Jesus didn’t simply offer a vision of the afterlife. He proclaimed the “Kingdom of God” already present with himself. And for those who believe in the Resurrection and the Divine Spirit—tenets of Christianity—that presence remains.

The righting of any injustice, the deliverance of any who suffer, the release of any prisoner, are all revelations of God’s faithfulness to Divine promise. They should cause all people to rejoice, and for religious folk to praise God. At least part of the reason Republicans and The Right aren’t rejoicing and praising God this week is because they don’t remember that it is Advent.

My Year With Peter and Jonah

This morning marks one year since my last time preaching and serving at the Lord’s Table. After years of discernment, prolonged by the pandemic, I finally stepped out of the boat and onto the water. Jesus’ disciple Peter did this once. (See Matthew 14) The Bible says he walked for a while before he began to sink.

I walked for two wonderful months. I spent extended time with my family, enjoying the holidays with them for the first time in over 14 years without extra worship services and activities. I received the church’s proclamation of joy, peace, hope, and love instead of planning, managing, and providing it. Those weeks of walking on water were amazing.

The Bible says Peter saw the waves and began to sink. Ten months ago the waves heaped up around me. The Bible and other poetry have additional similes from nature to describe the phenomenon—like earthquakes opening pits, storm clouds gathering, darkness descending, or crossing a desert. The Bible also uses the metaphors of adversarial spirits and enemies and others who taunt, tempt, and try us.

With Peter I walked on the waters for two months: The past ten I have sunk to the bottom with Jonah.

Jonah was the preacher who, unlike me, did everything he could to avoid the pulpit. I tried everything not to leave. But we both ended up at the bottom of the ocean, “waters closing in around us, the deep surrounding us, seaweed wrapping around our heads.” (see Jonah 2) I agree with Jonah, this is hell: We feel separated from God—except for the filament of faith that gives utterance to prayer.

On this anniversary of my last Sunday, Psalm 42 is my prayer: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

11.14.21 Source and Summit 1 Corinthians 10.1-6, 14-22 Sermon Summary

This is the final message in a series called “Church in Challenging Times”. It is based on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, a group of churches that presented Paul with many challenges. What have we heard over the past ten messages?

  1. We belong to God, and this is a gift.
  2. This gift is revealed through Christ Crucified so that anyone who has felt foolish, weak, or just human, can be comfortable receiving the gift.
  3. We can trust God alone to judge, and this frees us to get about the business of love.
  4. We heard how love contrasts with knowledge. Knowledge leads to pride and the abuse of others, whereas love leads to service and the building others up.
  5. Then we looked at a case study on love: How we settle disputes. Will we do so using the tactics of the Kingdom of the World, of privilege and power? Or will we practice the values of the Kingdom of God, like social justice and forbearance?
  6. We were challenged: Instead of using technicalities to justify our wants, try the more faithful approach to seek God’s will for the common good.
  7. We saw how each of us is called, and that it is up to each of us to respond—no matter how difficult it is for us, or how different our response is from others’.
  8. In whatever our calling, Paul urges us to work at it like a professional athlete and with a servant’s heart.
  9. We were surprised to realize that the main point of the Resurrection of Christ is that God’s great cleanup has begun. True faith picks up a broom and joins effort in this life.
  10. And we saw how our primary and truest identity is as the “Body of Christ.” The universal welcome of God, the generous providence of God, and the Kingdom of God, were all on display in Jesus’ life. And so are they to be with us today as the “Body of Christ.”

Which brings us to this morning. How does what Paul says to the Corinthian churches, churches existing in challenging times, speak to us today?

Corinth is a Gentile city, a non-Jewish urban center. Still, Paul proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, from the Jewish Scriptures. “Remember our ancestors with Moses,” he says. These aren’t the Corinthians’ ancestors!

But Paul knows something, something Gentile Corinthians didn’t know, and something his fellow Jews didn’t realize: These two communities have been made one in Christ. Paul writes that these ancestors were, “all under the cloud, all passed through sea, all ate and drank of the same Spirit, and that Spirit is Christ.” Who knew?! Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the ancient Israelites with Moses were encountering Christ!

Jesus taught that, “God makes the sun rise on bad people and good people, and rain to fall on good people and bad people.” (Matthew 5:45) Jesus saw that God gives life to everyone, that God loves everyone, and that God is present to everyone. The church calls this “grace.” It’s helpful to remember these truths when we look in the mirror or at another person. We are all under God’s grace.

What Paul understood is that God has made us all one in Christ. Still, we can separate ourselves. So Paul offers a warning. We become separate when we worship idols, when we put other things ahead of God. He says this, “tests the strength of Christ’s bond.” Be assured, Christ’s bond passes the test! But why test it, Paul asks?

And so he says, “Flee from the worship of idols,” and he uses the Lord’s Table to illustrate his point. “You come to this Table,” he writes, “but you also worship at other altars.” We worship, for example, at the altars of physical safety, of financial security, of achievement, and at the altar of vanity.

Be honest: We each have our idols; we all visit other altars. These other altars test the spiritual bond with Christ. But the Lord’s Table strengthens it.

Paul is saying, “Here is the true altar. No matter where else you have worshiped, no matter what idols you may have, keep coming back to this Table.”

The new life in Christ starts at this Table, and God will always call us back to this Table. Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, the Jewish Messiah, the Christian Lord, is our source and summit. No matter what challenges the church may face, so long as we come back to this Table, we can hope in the deliverance of God. 

10.24.21 One with God and One Another 1 Corinthians 12 Sermon Summary

The Apostle Paul refers to the church as a Spiritual Temple and the Bride of Christ. His theology led pseudonymous authors to refer to us as the Household of God. But the most famous metaphor for the Church in Paul’s writing is the “Body of Christ.” And to me it is the most surprising.

As a Pharisee, Paul would have been preoccupied with the body. He would have been a fan of baptism for ritual cleansing. Even so, what the Pharisees thought about John’s baptism of repentance is mixed, according to the Gospel accounts. John wasn’t a Pharisee, for one. And though he came from a priestly family, that didn’t help much because he didn’t minister at the Temple.

The Pharisees also got into a conflict with Jesus in Mark 7 over the washing of hands before eating. Jesus excoriates them. In another passage, Jesus calls the Pharisees dirty cups and tombs; beautiful on the outsides but filthy and dead inside.

So it’s interesting to me that Paul lands on the “Body of Christ” as a metaphor for the Church, because I think Paul had “body issues.” In his writing we see concerns for purity leading him to advocate for separation. But we also see him welcoming and accepting the impure. 

I suspect Paul learned about the church as the Body of Christ at the Lord’s Table. There he saw women and children participate fully. Sinners were welcome. The poor were fed. The rich shared generously. At the Table, the Kingdom of God is on display through the Body of Christ, and Paul would have seen this.

I think Paul realized that “in Christ” (another of his favorite expressions), the church should be a place where all are welcome, all are fed, and the Kingdom of God is on display. 

Not just on Sundays, but every day.

Not just in Sanctuaries, but in every building. 

Not just around this Table, but at every table. 

For Paul, we are the Body of Christ for the world—everywhere, at all times.

Saint Teresa of Avila (16c) put it this way:

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

What does this mean practically? We get glimpses from two other New Testament letters.

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:15-17)How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. (1 John 3:17-18)

Saint Augustine referred to our passage in his Sermon 272.

Listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. 

And I believe Brennan Manning had Augustine’s passage in mind when he wrote this passage from the chapter “The Ring of Truth” in Wisdom of Tenderness (pp. 55-56).

What gives the ring of truth and the stamp of authenticity to the Christian’s response to Abba’s love, the firm assurance that she isn’t deceiving herself?

The answer is neither vague nor ambiguous. Speaking first through the voice of his beloved Son, Abba says, “Come you have your Father’s blessing! Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.” Why do I declare you blessed and beneficiaries of the Kingdom? Because the only Son I’ve ever had was hungry and you gave him food, he was thirsty and you gave him a drink. He was a stranger and you welcomed him, naked and you clothed him. He was ill and you comforted him, in prison and you came to visit him. Then you just ones will ask me, “Abba, when did we see your beloved son hungry and give him food or see him thirsty and give him a drink. When did we welcome him away from home or clothe him in his nakedness. When did we visit him when he was ill or in prison?” I will answer them: “I assure you as often as you did it for one of your least brothers and sisters, you did it for my only-begotten Son.”

Our church has decided to use our building for four weeks next year hosting families experiencing homelessness. And our city is scheduled to receive 100 Afghan refugees soon. Our church is going to sponsor at least one of those families for a year.

That’s what the Body of Christ known as Faith Presbyterian Church is doing. But we all are the Body of Christ, “and individually members of it,” Paul writes. So may each of us find ways to participate in Christ’s ministry. Like Paul at the Table of the Lord, may we behold what we are, and become what we receive. Amen.

10.17.21 Sowing Seeds of Glory 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, 58 Sermon Summary

Most people want their lives to be meaningful, to have some purpose, to contribute to a legacy. The resurrection of the dead, beginning with Jesus Christ, is the guarantee that our lives can be meaningful. 

The most thorough treatment to be found in the Bible on the resurrection of the dead is Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15. Most people and much of the tradition expound a minor point and miss the major point Paul is trying to make.

The minor point is this: Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. The body wasn’t there when the disciples went looking for it. From this follow many conclusions: A miracle had occurred, something that had never happened before. Jesus’ resurrection proves he is the Messiah, the Lord, even God. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, his teaching is true, the Bible is God’s Word, and Christianity is superior to Judaism and all other religions. And most importantly, Jesus’ resurrection proves there is life after death.

“But aren’t these things true? Does not the resurrection of Christ prove all these?” These may be true but they are not the whole truth. They are, as I’ve said, minor points. And they are not Paul’s main point. 

But pause and decide right now: If you cherish these truths which I’ve suggested are minor points, can you set them aside, for just the present moment, and consider whether Paul might be making a bigger point?

Because neither Paul, nor I, nor Jesus for that matter want you to believe “in vain.”

Jesus has appeared to many after his death. This is NOT that surprising. First of all, people had already come back from the dead. Elijah raised the son of the Widow of Zarephath. Likewise, Jesus raised the son of the Widow of Nain. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter, and most famously, Jesus had raised Lazarus. These all appeared to others after they had died. So did Jesus. That’s not what matters to Paul.

Second, many Jews expected the resurrection from the dead, and had for about two centuries before Christ. Whether it was the influence of Greek thinking upon Judaism or because of reflections on injustices, Judaism of Jesus’ day included a belief in the resurrection of the dead to a divine judgment.

Not all Jews did, and apparently not all Corinthians did either. So Paul writes, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.” (1 Cor. 15.12-14)

Paul the Jew had to reaffirm the Corinthians that there is a resurrection of the dead. His proclamation makes no sense until you understand that Jewish belief. Jesus believed it. Paul believed it. To understand Paul, you have to understand this.

There is a resurrection of the dead, sometime after this life ends, to a judgment by God, of this life we have lived. This is crucial to understanding the importance of Jesus’ resurrection. That Jesus was resurrected was NOT the big deal, and it is NOT the main point of 1 Corinthians 15.

The NEW thing for Paul with regards to Jesus’ resurrection was that Jesus is the first fruits of resurrection. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” (1 Cor. 15:20) In other words, Paul understands Jesus’ resurrection to be the sign that God’s Kingdom has come and the judgment has begun.

To borrow from Mary’s vision: “The powerful will be brought down from their thrones, the lowly will be lifted up. The hungry will be filled, and the rich sent away empty.” (See Luke 1:46ff)

In Zechariah the Priest’s words: “The dawn from on high is breaking upon us, giving light to those who sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (see Luke 1:67ff)

In Paul’s words to the churches in Rome: “the righteousness of God has been disclosed, through the faith of Jesus Christ, for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-24)

We’ll come back to why this is so important to Paul in a moment. But first Paul has to deal with the Corinthians who get lost in the weeds of literalism. They ask a question we all ask: “What kind of body do the resurrected have?”

Paul answers with the metaphor of the seeds and the harvest. We plant seeds and then we reap a harvest. After the seed dies, the harvest is born. Obviously they are related, but they not the same. 

Paul appeals to the first Creation story of Genesis 1. There we read of earthly bodies consisting of all creatures. And we read of heavenly bodies to include the sun, moon, and stars. Jesus, Paul reminds us, had an earthly body. But the Resurrected Christ has heavenly body. Jesus, Paul reminds us, had a perishable body. The Resurrected Christ has an imperishable one. Jesus had a mortal body, Paul writes. And the Resurrected Christ has an immortal one.

So Paul concludes: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed. For the last trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and the living will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (1 Cor 15:50-53)

All this, beginning with the resurrection of Christ, Paul says occurs “according to the scriptures.” Which scriptures? You won’t find references to Jesus’ resurrection in the Old Testament. But Paul tells us which scriptures he has in mind by quoting them at the end of the chapter.

The first is Isaiah 25:7-8. “God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples, he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.”

The second is a paraphrase of Hosea 13:14 where God says, “I shall redeem my people from Death. O Death, where are your plagues? Where is your destruction?”

And this, finally, brings us to the main point. The resurrection of the dead is expected, and Jesus’ is the first fruits of that resurrection. God’s Kingdom has been revealed. God’s judgment has begun. All creation is being redeemed.

And so, “Therefore, my beloved,” Paul concludes, “be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in this work of the Lord, [this work of redemption] because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58, the final verse of the chapter)

“In vain” is variously translated “void” or “empty handed” in other places in the Newer Testament. It means “with nothing in hand.” For this reason Paul writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)

Imagine if all that this is about is the afterlife, if our “hope in Christ” is only about going to heaven when we die. Then Paul’s proclamation is in vain, and our faith is in vain. We have faith, but we have nothing in hand. 

But imagine if, with our “hope in Christ,” we participated in the glory of the resurrection, not just by being physical seeds which will inherit the spiritual body, but if we planted seeds of glory that will be harvested at the last trumpet!

Imagine if, with our “hope in Christ,” we participated in God’s Kingdom in this life, if we stood for justice in this life, if we worked for the redemption of the world in this life.

Paul ends his teaching on resurrection, “Therefore, be always excelling in this work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord, your work is not in vain.” We’ll have faith, AND we’ll have something in hand. 

Jesus had faith, and it was not in vain. It was not empty handed. With faith Jesus took into his hands the bread and cup of the sacrament, giving us the grace to continue his ministry of peace and justice, of faith, hope, and love. May our faith not be in vain. But may we live as the fruit of God’s Kingdom. May we live as those who have been resurrected from the dead with Christ.

10.03.21 1 Corinthians 9.19-27 We Are What the World Needs Sermon Summary

The Apostle Paul was always something of an enthusiast. As a Pharisee named Saul he sought to glorify God in everything he did. Then as a persecutor of the church he sought to extinguish the Jesus-heresy. After his conversion he became an evangelist, and he sought to go anywhere and do anything to win converts.

Enthusiasts are often admired because they inspire common folk. They can become egoistic. Paul even writes, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” 

They are also often attacked because they are easily misunderstood and sometimes make common folk feel guilty. So enthusiasts can become defensive. Remember when Paul said, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged by you”? In other places he wrote, “I was personally commissioned by the Resurrected Christ.” “I didn’t consult any of the original disciples.” “I work harder than anyone else.”

It’s easy to forget that enthusiasts, like everyone else, are human. This includes Paul. Why am I telling you this? Because it’s challenging to know how to read enthusiasts.

When Paul writes, is he referring to himself? To his audience? To a wider audience? If a wider audience, is it just the churches of his time? Or the churches of our time, too? And if the churches of our time, to each one of us?

Here are some examples from sermons over the past several weeks of statements that make it hard to know about whom Paul is referring. “You are the Body of Christ.” “You are the temple of the Holy Spirit.” “We have the mind of Christ.”

Last week I offered one path forward—to look for principles. I suggested by considering the illustrations Paul uses, we might be able to discern the principles that apply to our lives. 

One of the illustrations in this chapter is the athlete running in a race. Sometimes I run as my exercise. I’m not running to win a prize. I’m just running—sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. I look around. I listen to music. 

But let’s say there’s a prize—like dessert after dinner. Then I run with a purpose. I’m excited and focused. I run like an athlete in a race.

This is how Paul thinks about his job as an evangelist in the church. Everyone has a job in the church. It may be giving for the needs of others, or encouraging people when they feel bad, or helping with the church building. The job may be praying with others, playing music or teaching, or listening and studying. 

Each of us has a job in the church. We don’t all have the same job. We don’t all have Paul’s job. Paul’s job was to be an itinerant evangelist. He was to convert as many people in as many places as fast as he could.

He did his evangelist job as an athlete running to win. “To the Jews, I became as a Jew” (easy for Paul). “To the non-Jews, I became as a non-Jew” (he had to learn this). “To the weak I became as one who is weak.” In fact, Paul says, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

Paul does his job like an athlete competing to win: “I exercise my body and bend it to my will.” “Athletes compete for a perishable prize,” he says, a prize that fades away. We do our jobs in the church for an imperishable one, a prize that lasts forever.

And what is that prize? Paul writes, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. . . so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.”

The prize Paul wants is to share in the gospel he proclaims. It is the gospel of reconciliation: Because of Jesus Christ, God and God’s creation are at peace, humans and God are together again, humans can be together with each other again.

Paul received this gospel from Jesus and he shares this gospel with the world. He shares it like an athlete running to win the prize. That’s his job as an evangelist. And that’s the principle we can all apply to our lives

What’s your job in the church? What has God given you to do? Maybe like Paul it’s evangelism. Or maybe it’s one of the gifts listed by Paul and his disciple in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, or Ephesians 4. Or maybe it’s something not on the lists.

But you have one. You have a job. And once you figure it out, do it like Paul did his job. Do it like an athlete competing to win. For the more you do that, the more you’ll receive the Gospel. You’ll feel more reconciled to God. You’ll feel closer to your fellow humans. 

Paul went to the world with his job like an athlete competing to win. The other illustration in this chapter is the slave. Paul served the world with his job.

The world needs us to do the same. It needs us to do our job, whatever it is, like an athlete competing to win. The world needs our service. We are what the world needs.

09.26.21 God’s Call to Each and All 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 Sermon Summary

As young person and a young Christian, I was preoccupied with romance, relationships, and marriage. Naturally I looked to the Bible for God’s direction. There’s not much there. What little there is quite specific, for example, Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7.

It seems that some Corinthians were saying that celibacy is better than sex. ( . . . ) And it seems that Paul agrees. (!) But Paul recognizes that the sexual drive is powerful and so he makes a “concession”: It’s OK to get married—to allow for sexual activity. “But practice times of abstinence!” Paul says. He even tells you how long.

First Corinthians addresses other related topics. Paul speaks to unmarried people, widows, and to sexually active singles. He advises engaged couples, married couples, and couples is mixed marriages (that is, one spouse is a Christian while the other is not).

It can be very confusing to a young person (or any person) looking for guidance. Could it be that Paul’s advise is too specific to Corinth and its day to be helpful in our day? Because relationships today (to say nothing of marriage) are complicated! They are highly individual and highly personal.

In my service as a pastoral counselor, for example, I’ve come up with many complicated situations. What are the roles between partners? Who’s going to do the grocery shopping, the lawn care, the vehicle maintenance, the schedule keeping? How will couples discipline children? Time outs or spanking? What about the relationship with the in-laws and where to spend holidays? Remember, Thanksgiving here obligates you to Christmas there.

What about the financial relationship? Should couples keep separate financial accounts? What about prenuptial agreements, especially between older partners with significant assets and children from first marriages to consider? Should older people get married at all and risk losing the financial benefits to which they’re entitled as single people?

Paul has none of this in mind in 1 Corinthians. So how can we find direction in all this? Paul himself distinguishes his personal opinion from directions he believes reflect God’s will! Is it even possible, then, to find direction in our day from this highly dated and contextual scripture?

One answer is to look for principles. But how to find them? One popular technique is to investigate other passages in the Bible on the same or similar topic. Once found, look for some consistency or theme. That may be helpful.

Another approach is to consider the comparisons the author may make on the topic. What illustrations, analogies, metaphors, or similes does the author use? That could be helpful.

In the case of 1 Corinthians 7, right in the middle we have a statement of principle and two parallel illustrations. The principle is, “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches.” And the two examples parallel to marriage are circumcision and slavery. 

Here’s how the illustrations work. Circumcision is an outward display (though not very public). It is evidence of an affiliation. In Paul’s day, it is particularly Jewish (for males only, of course). 

Now Jesus was a Jew, and so was Paul. In Paul’s day, some preachers taught that to become a follower of Christ one must first convert to Judaism. That is to say, become a Christian, and you have to be circumcised. 

Paul emphatically taught against this, and being a church founded by Paul the Corinthians knew this. So Paul simply reminds them: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

So with slavery. Keep in mind that slavery in the ancient world of Paul was much different than slavery in the antebellum southern United States. Even so, Paul prefers the manumission of slaves because Christ makes all people free. On the other hand, Christ is also Lord of all, that is, “master” of all. So all members of the church are both free and slaves simultaneously. Thus Paul writes, “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.”

So with marriage. Are you single? Are you married? Can you remain single? Can you remain married? If so, don’t change your state. If not, change your state. The principle is, “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.”

Paul combines these three illustrations a lot. In Galatians 3:28, in the most succinct and famous example, Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The bottom line? Paul is saying be faithful in your life. In the details of your life. In the circumstances of your life. In the uniqueness of your life. Because God has called you. Nothing about your life is unimportant, or inconsequential, or wasted. 

You are not too young, or too old, or too lacking in resources, or too abundant in resources. You are not too educated, or not educated enough, or too busy, or too available. 

God is calling you to live a faithful life. Paul applied this to his life. He spent a lot of time in prison where you might have thought he would doubt his calling to be a traveling evangelist. But no; he wrote letters, sent messengers, introduced other prisoners to Christian faith, and even guards too.

You might think you can’t do much in your life, but because God calls you, you can! “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.” In God’s hands, all things serve a purpose, and Jesus gave us the Table to remind us of this. In Jesus’ hands, bread and cup are more than just grain and grape. And in God’s hands, your life can be a sacrament also. Live the life that God has assigned to you, to which God has called you.

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.”