1 Corinthians

light up the sky

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  Rip it into shreds.  Let the fire fall.  Light up the sky!

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So begins Isaiah 64, our Old Testament text for today, the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This chapter is a prayer of lament—a communal lament, a lament of the entire nation.  That’s not exactly how we think of Advent.  That is, if we give it much thought!  In any event, maybe that’s the perfect theme for this year.

Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent.  It is a time to reflect, to repent, to reevaluate how we are living life.  It is a time to reconsider our life of faith in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  Certainly, those are concerns throughout the year, but in Advent, they are meant to especially come into focus.

It might be considered the difference between chronos and kairosChronos is time measured in seconds, hours, years.  It is clock time.  Kairos is time measured in moments, especially the right moment, the opportune moment.  It is time as experienced.  Advent might be considered kairos time, with the understanding that kairos time can’t be willed into existence.  However, we can prepare ourselves for it.

Advent begins in late November or early December, smack dab in the midst of the holiday season!  Can’t you hear the well-wishers and jingles from every nook and cranny?  Hallmark started showing Christmas movies last month.  This is no time for sober self-examination.  Live it up!

Scriptures like the one I just mentioned might only prove the point of those who don’t like Advent.  What’s all this doom and gloom!  Or as Batman’s arch enemy the Joker would say, “Why so serious?  Let’s put a smile on that face!”

2 is(Please note: it is possible to have a genuine check-up and still be of good cheer!  Trust me, I’m no fan of sourpusses.)

Jonathan Aigner, who teaches music to elementary school students and also serves as music minister in his United Methodist Church, has some thoughts on the season of Advent as a time of expectation.[1]

“It prepares us.  It leads us through all the steps in the story so that we can experience the hope and longing.  We look in on John the Baptist crying out, ‘Prepare ye the way!’  We feel some of Mary’s joy and anticipation.  With each week, the longing and anticipation builds.

“But it’s a discipline, and part of discipline is having to wait for the events to come.  In this case, the discipline includes holding off on the celebration while the rest of the world, which doesn’t particularly care about the true reason for Christmas, is busy with its own frenetic energy and excessive indulgence.”

Reflecting his calling as a musician and lover of Advent hymns, he laments,I’ve been put on the spot in front of the choir and the congregation by Advent grinches.  I’ve been insulted and maligned in adult Sunday School classes.  (Ironically, children are usually quite receptive.  It’s the adults who sometimes act like children.)”

Really, what does our consumer culture do with words like, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, / And ransom captive Israel, / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear”?  That business about “captive” and “lonely exile” doesn’t lend itself very well to commercials intent on selling you a car, complete with a red bow mounted on the roof!

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Of course, as already suggested, this year the celebrations are muted.  A pandemic has a way of doing that.  And so, perhaps we can relate to the communal lament of the Jewish people well after the return from exile in Babylon.  (This part of the book likely deals with that time period.)  The initial joy at the homecoming has gradually faded.  Things aren’t working out as well as was hoped.  The prophet recognizes the sin that has worked to overturn, to infect, the dreams of the people.  (More on that point later.)

Please understand.  I’m not saying Covid-19 resulted from sin!  Still, the way we’ve treated each other and the planet has been more than a little sinful.  Maybe Mother Earth is voicing her disapproval!

Let’s follow the original thought of verse 1.  Rip open the sky, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence…  When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv. 1b, 3).  Some big-time seismic activity is on the agenda!

Maybe that can be expected, because the prophet says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (v. 4).  The apostle Paul quotes that in 1 Corinthians 2:9.

Things start to get interesting.  The scripture says, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5).  Come now, who’s really at fault?  You took off and left us to our own devices.  It’s been noted, “If parents left a bunch of toddlers and puppies at home for a few hours and the house was a shambles when they returned—would we blame the puppies and toddlers for making the mess or the parents for leaving?”[2]  In a way, blaming God for our sin is as old as the human race.  Adam pins the blame on the woman he says you, God, created.

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I remember watching a football game a few years ago in which a receiver dropped a pass in the end zone, missing a chance at a game-winning touchdown.  (I won’t say what team it was.)  Afterwards, referring to the play, he tweeted, “I praise you 24/7!!!  And this how you do me!!!”  Hey, it wasn’t my fault.  I need to make sure the coach knows about this.

Having said all that, truth be told, the Hebrew here is unclear.  It could also go something like this: “because we sinned you hid yourself.”  The sequence is reversed.  Still, I think it’s more fun to blame God!

We quickly move on.  “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…  [And again] you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (vv. 6a, 7b).  The word for “delivered us” (מוּג, muwg) means “melt” or “dissolve.”  We are being dissolved by our wrongdoing; we are melting into it.  It is swallowing us up.

Isn’t this an inspiring thought for Advent?  Don’t worry; we’re getting ready to turn the corner.

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (v. 8).  There’s a transition.  We belong to you, O God.  The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Make of us what you will.

Can we relate to this image of Advent?  This isn’t the advent of gentle Jesus born in a barn.  This is the advent of the grand and glorious power from on high.  We hear a desperate and disconsolate cry for deliverance.  A sincere plea for release from prison can only come from a heart of faith.

There is a confession of how the temple and cities have been ravished.  The anxious and accusatory appeal finishes the prayer: “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?  Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (v. 12).  It does end on a dark note.  It does turn out to be a lamentation.

On that note, is there honesty, even beauty, in lament?  If so, what is it?

When my sister and I were kids, our family celebrated Christmas in much the same way as others did.  My dad strung the lights out on the house, sometimes putting some in the bushes in front.  We put up the Christmas tree, glistening with ornaments, its own lights, tinsel, and an angel gracing our presence, hovering high above.

Then, of course, there were the presents.  This was, after all, the crowning feature to the whole business.  We tore open the gifts and we posed with them while my parents photographed us.  (I don’t know if others had that tradition.)  However, it didn’t take very long until the novelty wore off.  It only took a couple of days—sometimes even later on Christmas Day itself.  “Is that all there is to it?”  I had a rather empty feeling inside.

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For my parents, there was an almost palpable sense of relief.  “I’m glad that’s over!”  It was communicated that, when all was said and done, Christmas was a chore.  (Maybe it was just them who felt that way!)

I’m not sure what I felt was exactly lament, but it was close to it.  I felt like I had been robbed.  I felt like I had been robbed while getting presents on a holiday which many people lamented was being commercialized.  (Again, maybe it was just me who had that feeling!)

We as a nation, as a church, need to own our lament.  We need to acknowledge it—especially this year.  Something tells me that won’t be difficult to do!

How does lament help prepare us for the Lord’s advent?  Can we see the honesty in it?  Can we see how, in its own way, lament paves the way to healing?  We short circuit the process when we take a short cut—when we jump to conclusions.  That can lead to a refusal to mature in the faith.  Too often, I fear I’ve done that.

Lament can lead to healing when we come clean, as stated earlier, when we repent.  It’s when, by the grace of God, we change our minds (which is what “repent” literally means).  We are made ready to welcome our Lord’s advent.  We have the promise of the apostle Paul that God will “strengthen [us] to the end, so that [we] may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 1:8).

Come Lord, light up the sky.

 

[1] www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2020/11/23/how-to-explain-advent-to-people-who-think-its-already-christmas/

[2] www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/advent1b


because I can

“What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  We’ve all heard that.  Translation: whatever trouble, whatever debauchery, you get into on a trip to Las Vegas, don’t worry; it stays there.  You won’t have to face the consequences when you leave town.  The hijinks that occurred will never be mentioned!  Never mind that Las Vegas is a city where actual families live.  (Though I would question the wisdom of building a metro area in the desert.)  It still has the nickname “Sin City.”

1 1 coI start with Las Vegas because it isn’t the only place in world history noted for its decadence.  Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are directed to a church in a city that could give Vegas some pointers.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.

In fact, there was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to engaging in promiscuity and immorality.

That is the city providing the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church.  As I noted last month, this church has given him plenty of grief.  He’s had to get after them for being too lax, and then for being too strict.  They’ve split themselves up into competing factions; they’ve treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  And as I said, to their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  And that’s one thing you can say about the town they live in.  It is not boring—far from it.

That’s enough debauchery for right now, but rest assured, we will come back to it!

Here’s a very quick outline of 1 Corinthians.  The opening verses have the salutation, and then the first four chapters deal with divisions in the church.  Chapters 5 and 6 address a man and his stepmother (fill in the blank), church members dragging each other into court, and Corinthianizing.  In the middle part of the letter, chapters 7 to 10, Paul answers questions they have posed to him.  Chapters 11 to 14 are about order in worship.  Chapter 15 is about the resurrection, and chapter 16 is the conclusion.

I want to look at a passage in chapter 9 and a snippet from chapter 10.  This is in the section where Paul is fielding questions.  A common refrain among many of the Corinthians is, “Who do you think you are?”  Many folks have expressed uncertainty and/or hurled accusations regarding his role as apostle.  They are holding his feet to the fire.

Here’s where Paul wants to make a point.  He hasn’t exercised his full rights as an apostle.  He hasn’t asked for all he could.  Maybe given the, at times, problematic relationship, Paul wants to be as above reproach as possible.  He doesn’t want to give anyone an excuse to challenge his motives.  Still, in some peoples’ eyes, that will take some doing.

Imagine applying for a job.  One thing sure to be asked is, “Do you have any references?”  I think Paul has this one covered.  In verse 1 he asks, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”  Not everyone can make that claim.  It looks like Paul might be qualified for the position, at least as far as Jesus is concerned—assuming he gave Paul a good reference!

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It’s important that Paul has his credentials in order.  His identity as an apostle is at stake.  And he needs credibility, especially since much of the discord hinges on people’s rights.

As noted before, Corinth is a cosmopolitan city, and the church reflects it.  Its members are primarily Gentiles, with the (as expected) background of pagan religions.  These would be Greek gods and whatever gods were imported by folks from near and far.

There was the question of eating food which had been sacrificed to pagan gods—to idols, as Paul would say.  Some of the food would be burned, but the leftover amount would go to local shopkeepers for sale.  Should Christian converts eat the food if they knew where it came from?  Paul says, “We know those gods don’t really exist.  But if someone who is still tempted to believe they’re real sees me eating the food, they might think, ‘Well, Paul’s joining in, so it must be okay!’”

The apostle is clear: I will not exercise my right to eat, if it means I will cause someone else to stumble.  It’s almost like serving wine in front of a recovering alcoholic.  (That would actually be a cruel thing to do!)

It’s a lesson he teaches them.  Basically, put yourself in the other person’s place.  “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them” (v. 19).  He gives examples.  “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews” (v. 20).  Likewise, “to those under the law…, to those outside the law…, to the weak…”  “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some” (v. 22).

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Understand, this isn’t saying anything goes.  It’s a commitment to forego his right to do something if it means someone else will be hurt.  That’s a crucial point to make.

Here’s where we come back to the notorious reputation of Corinth.  They have a saying which Paul repeats in chapter 10: “All things are lawful.”  And they do mean “all things.”  In this case, anything does go!

Paul finishes the thought.  “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial. “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up.  Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (vv. 23-24).  Paul includes the quote earlier in the letter, and here’s how he finishes there: “…but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12).

Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do it.  Actually, when you say, “because I can,” you might get more than you bargained for.  Our dear apostle warns you might become dominated by your choice; you might become its slave.  You might get addicted.

Still, even short of that, as Eugene Peterson reflected, “We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well” (10:24).

There was a question I used to hear when we were electing new officials.  It went along these lines: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  The implied suggestion would be “no.”  That sounds like a reasonable question.  However, I remember someone speaking of a truly Christian version.  “Are your neighbors better off than they were four years ago?”  I would love to hear that question asked.

This pandemically plagued planet has posed new problems.  For example, do we have the right to forego wearing masks in public?

There was a recent article in The Atlantic by Julia Marcus bearing the colorful title, “The Dudes Who Won’t Wear Masks.”[1]  The example given was former baseball player Aubrey Huff, who wrote on Twitter that he wouldn’t wear a mask inside any business, noting, “It’s unconstitutional to enforce.”  He also posted a video getting plenty of attention.

“In his video,” Marcus writes, “he appears to be wearing a seatbelt.  Yet unlike a seatbelt, which directly benefits the user, masks primarily protect everyone else, particularly people who are older or have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.  Huff seems to understand this; he just thinks those people should ‘stay the [blank] home.’”  It looks like if he had his way, those who are more vulnerable, including children, should have their freedom curtailed, their rights restricted.

He ends the video by proclaiming, “I would rather die from coronavirus than to live the rest of my life in fear and wearing a [blank] mask.”  I guess my response would be, “He has the right to do that.”

(On a side note, I wouldn’t say I’m living in fear by wearing a mask.  I won’t deny it is tedious, and I’m still not really used to seeing people in public wearing them.  But no, I don’t think my motivation in wearing a mask is driven by fear!)

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“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings” (9:23).  That’s what Paul the apostle says.  We squabble over our rights and close our eyes to the shining glory Jesus the Christ offers.  We fight over crumbs while a splendid banquet is set for us.

Our friend Mr. Huff would rather die from the virus than wear a mask.  Our friend the apostle Paul “would rather die than” insist on his rights.  Why?  So that “no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting!” (v. 15).  He isn’t boasting about himself; he has “no ground for boasting” (vv. 15-16).  He is boasting about our Lord, who has redeemed him, just as our Lord has redeemed us.

Because of that, we are held to a higher standard than those who don’t know the Lord—the standard of love.  And that is a rigorous standard.  It requires repentance, continual repentance, a continual changing of our minds.  It calls for our lives to be a witness to Christ, who puts others first.  At the end of the day, we find wearing a mask really isn’t such a sacrifice!

Why Lord, do you pour out blessings and meet us in these very difficult times?

“Because I can.”

 

[1] medium.com/the-atlantic/the-dudes-who-wont-wear-masks-be8df1a9ec41


rich wounds, yet visible above

As you might have guessed, I have taken my title from the hymn, “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”  It’s part of the line, “Crown him with many crowns / Behold his hands and side / Rich wounds, yet visible above / In beauty glorified.”  That hymn isn’t usually sung on Easter, but there’s no law saying we can’t!

We’ll get to those rich wounds in a moment.

Our celebration of Easter this year is somewhat muted.  For many it is a great deal muted.  I’ve heard of some churches who plan to wait on celebrating Easter until they can return to their sanctuaries.  I suppose I would remind us that every Sunday, being the Lord’s Day, is a “little Easter.”  There are Christians all over the world who don’t have the luxury of a building on any Sunday.  My guess is they are celebrating the resurrection of our Lord today.

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[He Qi, "Easter Morning"]

And unfortunately, there are still some churches who are doing business as usual.  Of course, if they keep doing that, my prediction is they will very soon not be doing any business at all!

Having said all that, I am well aware of how we, and the rest of the human race, are exploring uncharted territory, to use a considerable understatement.

And sadly, the coronavirus has struck our church family.

If the planet Earth itself was ever in need of resurrection, this is the time.

Jesus is risen from the dead.  Matthew tells us, “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (28:1).  They were in for the surprise of their lives.

There is the utter disbelief of his friends, not to mention his enemies.  Seriously, it was just too insane.  Still, the women were quicker to accept it than the men were.  In his version, Luke tells us the men’s reaction to the women’s report.  “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (24:11).

I don’t know about you, but I for one am glad that men disbelieving women is a thing of the past!

To quickly summarize Matthew 28: the women find the stone blocking the tomb has been rolled away.  The guards are quaking in their boots.  An angel tells the women to go and report what they saw, but on the way, Jesus appears to them.  When the priests hear the story, they engineer a coverup.  The disciples go to Galilee and meet the risen Jesus.  He gives them what has come to be known as the Great Commission.

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (vv. 18-20).

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A scripture passage often used for funerals is 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s chapter on the resurrection.  A question that gets him started is this: “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (v. 12).  Later he deals with the questions, “How are the dead raised?  With what kind of body do they come?” (v. 35).

How do we describe the resurrection body?  Paul says that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (v. 53).  I’ll be honest: that really doesn’t help me much!  I have trouble envisioning what that looks like.

Someone who could probably identify with that is Thomas, the so-called “doubting Thomas.”  He wasn’t there when the risen Jesus appeared to his friends.  They say he showed them his hands and side—the hands and side pierced with nail and spear.  He doesn’t believe them, but a week later he does.  Jesus again appears to them, and he shows Thomas that he is real.

Through the ages, people have painted Thomas, not so much as a bad guy, but one who needs a major faith adjustment!  Is it possible that the idea of a resurrected body (as difficult as that is to swallow) still bearing wounds is even more of a stretch?  Here’s where we return to that “rich wounds, yet visible above” business.

The resurrection body of Jesus, who defeated death and the grave, still has scars!  I find that remarkable.  At first thought, we might expect his body, risen from the dead, to be in immaculate condition.  Does God do things by half-measures?  Why not have complete healing?

Perhaps the resurrection body of Jesus models what it means to be scarred.  Maybe it was a way of showing the disciples that it really was him.  They weren’t encountering a ghost; they weren’t having a vision.  So his wounds were a method of identification.

But surely it was much more than that.  In fact, the scriptures give testimony to that.  In 1 Peter 2, we are told, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (v. 24).  By his wounds you have been healed.  Jesus heals by taking on our infirmity.

Back to the idea of an immaculate, a flawless body—God not employing half-measures.  What better way to identify with we humans, to be plunged into human flesh, than to honor it?  Jesus, more than anyone else, understood what it meant to be “the man of sorrows.”  By retaining the scars, Jesus honors the depth of what it means to be human.  After all, he was human!

There has been much discussion about getting back to normal (post pandemic) and how long it will take before it happens.  I don’t believe it will ever happen.  If we somehow pretend to go back to the way things were, we’ll be fooling ourselves.  These events are happening; there’s nothing we can do to change it.  The question will be if we learn from this—if we allow the Spirit to teach us.

Maybe you’ve seen images from around the world what the reduced use of pollution-causing activities has done.  I saw a report on how, in northern India, the reduction of pollution has enabled residents to see the Himalayas, 200 kilometers away (about 125 miles).[1]  Someone commented, “We can see the snow-covered mountains clearly from our roofs.  And not just that, stars are visible at night.  I have never seen anything like this in recent times.”

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And it’s only taken a worldwide disaster to get it done!

Shelly Rambo, who teaches at Boston University School of Theology, has written extensively on trauma.  Something she says about trauma is that it marks “a ‘new normal’ in that there is no possibility of the person returning to who they were before.  A radical break has occurred between the old self and the new one.”[2]  The challenge for one who’s undergone trauma is how to “[integrate] the experience into their life.”  That’s true for us all.  That’s true for us as the church.

We see many reactions to this unwelcome viral visitor, just as we do with other calamities.  One of the most common is one I think we all have had, in one way or another.  We believe God has sent the disease or the storm or the accident or whatever.  Is it God’s will?  Is it a test?  Is it a punishment?  Is it a cruel cosmic joke?

(For what it’s worth, I don’t believe any of those things.  However, I do believe we can choose to believe those things.)

Regardless of what we believe, perhaps the more important point is asking how that belief affects us.  How does it affect our behavior?  How does it affect our faith?  Rambo says we can see Jesus’ wounds as “not only as marks of death but as ways of marking life forward.”

Our scars do not define us.  We all bear scars, be they visible or invisible.

Yes, the scars can be visible.  They might be scars from accidents or surgery.  Maybe we’ve been harmed by others.  Maybe we have harmed ourselves.

And yes, the scars can be invisible.  They might be the result of a constant drumbeat of insults, of ridicule.  Maybe we’ve been rejected because of the way we were born.  Scars can be left—left because of self-deprecation, self-doubt, self-hatred.

4 mtBut that takes us back to the glorious nature of this day.  Rich wounds, yet visible above—in all the ways “above” can mean.  In beauty glorified.  Jesus Christ looks at us, and he sees in our wounds something beautiful.  Our scars are beautiful.

[Even this guy’s scars are beautiful?]

The good news of this Resurrection Day is that the Holy Spirit empowers us as we mark our life forward.  We testify today we as the body of Christ, though wounded we may be, are empowered to say the devil, the grave, that which would harm us, does not have the last word.  Our risen Lord journeys with us as we declare with a holy boldness:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

“But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 15:54-55, 57).

 

[1] www.sbs.com.au/language/english/audio/himalayas-visible-for-first-time-in-30-years-as-pollution-levels-in-india-drop

[2] www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/how-christian-theology-and-practice-are-being-shaped-trauma-studies


revelation of gratitude

When I was at seminary, I took a worship class taught by one of the two Presbyterian professors at our American Baptist school.  Well, there was one other Presbyterian who came in from time to time and taught polity.  This was Banu’s pastor at the congregation where she did field education.

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Banu and I lived on the top floor in the front corner apartment.

In our class, when we got to the subject of Advent, besides discussing the Lord’s first advent as the baby of Bethlehem, we dealt with possibly the more meaningful aspect of Advent: the Lord’s second advent, the second coming of Christ, in power and glory.  “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King!”

It was pointed out that during the season of Advent, this is especially the time of year when we focus on our Lord’s return.  I made a comment about that.  I said when I was in the Assemblies of God, the return of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was almost a weekly theme!  It was mentioned almost every Sunday.

We Presbyterians, along with so many others who observe the liturgical year, can (and do) fail to give the proper attention to the Lord’s return, however we envision the return.  We can fail to join with St. Paul as he joyfully proclaims at the end of 1 Corinthians, “Maranatha” (16:22).  “The Lord is coming,” or it can also mean, “Lord, come!”

This talk of Jesus Christ coming again makes some people nervous.  And considering the gospel reading for today (Mark 13:24-37), that’s understandable.  Hearing stuff like, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” might be enough to give anyone pause, to put it lightly (v. 33).  “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (v. 37).  The eyes of your heart will get drowsy, so throw some spiritual cold water on yourself!

2 1co1But that need not be seen as a dire warning.  It is a reminder that something wonderful is about to happen.  Stay awake, or we’ll miss out.  It will be—and is—right before our eyes.  Can we see it?

That upbeat message seems to be on Paul’s mind as we begin today’s epistle reading.  “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3).  Wishing someone grace and peace is not a typical greeting if you’re about to deliver bad news!  That would be a sneaky way to set them up before lowering the boom.  Later on, he does address the numerous problems among them, but not yet.

Then he follows with another joyful declaration (v. 4).  “I give thanks to my God always for you.”  Why is he so thankful?  “[B]ecause of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus.”  He’s about to burst with gratitude.  They’ve been given blessings galore: “in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (v. 5).  Speech and knowledge of every kind.  He’s definitely not soft pedaling it.

Do they see it?  Do they recognize it?  Sometimes it can be hard to understand what someone else sees in you.

As for myself, I used to be afraid of public speaking.  I would become visibly nervous, even terrified.  My chest would tighten up; I would forget to breathe!  But my Assemblies of God pastor apparently saw something in me.  He invited me to preach several times, and I struggled through it.  To be honest, sometimes I still get a bit nervous.

“Speech and knowledge of every kind.”

The apostle gives thanks for them.  The word for “give thanks” is ευχαριστεω (eucharisteō), and with a slight variation, “thanksgiving.”  It’s where we get our word, “Eucharist.”  It comes directly from the New Testament, where it’s used over 50 times.  We will act it out momentarily at the table, with a sacrament called “thanks.”  Thank you!

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Paul says, “the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you” (v. 6).  They are increasingly bearing witness to Christ; Christ is increasingly bearing witness through them.  They are receiving gifts from the Holy Spirit, some of which we might call supernatural and others we might call abilities.  Whatever the case, they are intended for service to others, not for display.

This is happening as they “wait of the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7).  The word for “revealing” is αποκαλυψις (apocalypsis), “uncovering,” “revelation.”  And yes, that’s the same word for the book of Revelation.  That word also appears numerous times in the New Testament.

Beginning in the 90s, a movement called the emerging, or emergent, church started taking shape.  Some see a difference in those terms; others do not.  I won’t go into great detail.  Suffice it to say it’s one expression of the church as we have moved into the 21st century and attempting to address its changing realities and philosophies.  It wants to recapture the ancient and embrace the future.  Examples would be using Jesus as a model for living and not simply an object for worship, inviting questions and not simply providing answers, and promoting peacemaking rather than relying on power.  Again, that’s a very quick thumbnail sketch.

It’s one expression of a new reformation, 500 years after the first one.  It represents a revolution, not only of church and denominational structures, but of consciousness itself.

When we were in Jamestown, a leader in the emerging church from London was in the United States.  He was invited to come and speak to us.  During the discussion, I made the observation that the emerging church movement was part of the Holy Spirit’s being poured out on all flesh, on all of humanity.  In Acts 2, St. Peter speaks of that on the day of Pentecost; he’s quoting the prophet Joel.  The outpouring of the Spirit is very definitely a key theme of the Assemblies of God, who I mentioned earlier.

But the speaker dismissed my comment, which I found extremely puzzling.  I wondered how he could fail to see the outpouring of the Spirit at work in all these changes in the church, changes he himself was espousing.  Still, I felt like he was accomplishing some great things.  And it’s entirely possible he didn’t catch what I was trying to say.

That particular fellow aside, we can see “the revealing, the ‘return’ of the Lord as the consummation of the Spirit being poured out on all “flesh,” on all of humanity.  It’s the final act, the crème de la crème, the end of the world as we know it—but in a good and wonderful way.  But we’re not there yet.  The Spirit is continuously being poured out on we frail and beloved humans.

And that has remarkable meaning.

I want to draw again on my time in the Assemblies of God.  After graduating from MTSU with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, I decided to go to one of their colleges: Southeastern College (now Southeastern University) in Lakeland, Florida.  In a class on the history of the Assemblies of God, I learned some fascinating things.

In 1906, the revival at Azusa Street in Los Angeles began.  The leader was a minister named William Joseph Seymour.  Out of this revival, the Assemblies of God and other Pentecostal movements had their birth.  Those early Pentecostals firmly embraced pacifism.  (They were like the Quakers.)  When the US entered World War 1, their commitment was put to the test.  It’s never easy to be a pacifist, especially in America.  As the years went by, the commitment waned.  People become accommodated to the culture at large, and besides, no one likes being thought of as a traitor!

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William Joseph Seymour

And of course, they understood: women and men are equal.  How could the Spirit of God work otherwise?  Here’s a quote from Rev. Seymour: “We have no right to lay a straw in [a woman’s] way, but to be men of holiness, purity and virtue, to hold up the standard and encourage the woman in her work, and God will honor and bless us as never before.  It is the same Holy Spirit in the woman as in the man.”[1]  As the 20th century rolled along, even that vision started getting foggy.

Certainly, the Assemblies of God aren’t the only ones to waver.  We also have a handle on that!  But the apostle Paul assures his beloved friends in Corinth, and us, “[God] will…strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 8).

The day of our Lord has its origins in the Old Testament.  There, it is usually portrayed as a day of reckoning, with an ominous tone.  The prophet Joel says, “Alas for the day!  For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (1:15).  The prophet Amos throws in his two cents’ worth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).

That does sound pretty stern.  But it’s not unlike what we saw earlier on the Advent of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  Beware, keep alert.  Keep awake.

I like the song written by Curtis Mayfield in the 1960s, which was inspired by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the gospel tradition: “People Get Ready.”  It’s been recorded by many artists since then (including Rod Stewart on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar, and also, Ziggy Marley)!

“People, get ready / There’s a train a-coming / You don’t need no baggage / You just get on board / All you need is faith / To hear the diesels humming / Don’t need no ticket / You just thank the Lord.”

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The advent of Jesus Christ, the apocalypsis of Christ, is a revelation of gratitude.  Advent is meant to be a time of taking stock of our lives, not getting lost in the dizzying distractions pulling at us with promises of great deals on Christmas presents.  When we open our hearts in loving gratitude, we find “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).

Maranatha.  The Lord is coming.  We wait for you, Lord, with thanksgiving.

 

[1] fullerstudio.fuller.edu/women-in-the-pentecostal-movement


be a man

Be a man.  That’s part of the closing message St. Paul gives in his first letter to the Corinthian church.

This, from the same guy who sounds like he’s downplaying being a man.  He says, “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” (Ga 3:28).

And this, from the same guy who admits at times his frail and even sickly appearance.  People say of him, “His letters are lengthy and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Co 10:10).  He thanks the Galatians for not being disgusted by him.  He says, “though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus” (4:14).

1 be a manHaving said that, I admit he says some stuff which seems to demean his sisters in Christ.  One example would be, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission.  I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Ti 2:11-12).  That doesn’t appear to line up with his other thoughts.  It’s been said he’s referring to a particular situation, but I won’t get into that now!

You might ask, “Where does he say, ‘Be a man’”?  Most translations don’t use that phrasing.

There are four commands in 16:13.  “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  It’s that third one—be courageous—which comes from the Greek word, ανδριζεσθε (andrizesthe).  And it literally means, “be a man.”  I don’t suppose it would be a big surprise to hear “being a man” linked with “being courageous.”

If you’re wondering what the command to “be a man” has to do with the other half of the human race, don’t worry, I’ll get to it in a few moments!

Recently, conservative columnist David Brooks published an article entitled, “Before Manliness Lost Its Virtue.”[1]  He uses as a starting point the ancient Greek concept of manliness.  I wouldn’t say the ancient Greeks’ point of view is the epitome, or the final word on the subject, but since there is that cultural background in the apostle Paul’s world, maybe it deserves a look.

“Greek manliness,” he says, “started from a different place than ours does now.  For the ancient Greeks, it would have been incomprehensible to count yourself an alpha male simply because you can run a trading floor or sell an apartment because you gilded a faucet handle.

“For them, real men defended or served their city, or performed some noble public service.  Braying after money was the opposite of manliness.  For the Greeks, that was just avariciousness, an activity that shrunk you down into a people-pleasing marketer or hollowed you out because you pursued hollow things.”

2 be a manI think we definitely can see some parallels with our society.  We even see it mentioned sarcastically in the psalms: “you are praised when you do well for yourself” (Ps 49:18).

Brooks talks about certain traits the ancient Greeks considered indicative of a manly man: being courageous, assertive, competitive, demonstrating his prowess, being self-confident.  Still, there is something else about the manly man.  “[H]e is also touchy.  He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due…  They are hard to live with.  They are constantly picking fights and engaging in peacock displays.”

When he says, “Be a man,” I really don’t think Paul is telling us to act that way!  He’s had plenty of run-ins with characters like that.  For example, in a couple of places, he mockingly refers to “super-apostles” (2 Co 11:5, 12:11).  These guys are flexing their apostolic muscles!  (Like bragging about the size of their audience.)

Brooks mentions a corrective the Greeks had.  They “took manliness to the next level.  On top of the honor code, they gave us the concept of magnanimity…  The magnanimous leader possesses all the spirited traits described above, but uses his traits not just to puff himself up, but to create a just political order.”

And accordingly, Paul warns us, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Co 8:1).

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Has there been a leader in recent history who better defined magnanimous than Nelson Mandela?

Here’s where I get back to the question of what “being a man” says to women and children.  Clearly, the apostle is addressing the whole church.

He praises women who have served Christ and the church, sometimes at personal risk.  Paul refers to Chloe as one of the church’s leaders (1:11).  And in his closing statements to the church in Rome, he gives God thanks for Phoebe, a deacon, for Mary (one of several Marys, we don’t know which), the sisters Tryphaena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis, among others (16:1,6, 12).

It’s safe to say these women have demonstrated, they have lived, the four-fold command of verse 13.

What they have not done is spread gossip, look with a greedy eye at their neighbor’s possessions—or at their husband (if they’re in the market for that sort of thing!)  Their favorite song is not “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  (Apologies to fans of Marilyn Monroe.)  And they don’t have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos did.

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Something else about this business of being a man is the term “son of man.”

In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, “son of man” (בֶן־אָדָם, ben ’adam) appears 93 times.  For him, it simply means “mortal.”  It doesn’t have the messianic tone it takes later on.

However, for Jesus there is a sense of being the messiah, the Christ.  Still, aside from that, “Son of Man” describes him as the essence of what it means to be human.  It’s Son of Man as opposed to Son of God.  He is “the human one.”  To the extent we are like Jesus, to that same extent we are human.

Jesus embraces, personifies, both what are often thought of as masculine and feminine qualities, such as might and meekness.  Over and over in the gospels, we see him moving beyond what his culture rigidly assigns as the realm of men and the realm of women.  He welcomes women as his disciples; he actually teaches women!  That’s a big no-no.

So, having said all of that, we immediately have verse 14.  “Let all that you do be done in love.”  That comes right after being told, “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.”  Be a man.  Be courageous, but do it in love.  Maybe we can say, as we saw earlier, be magnanimous!

What does all this mean?  Well, let’s look at Ezekiel and Jesus again.

The first time the Lord calls Ezekiel “son of man” is when he gets his commission.  He’s given quite a task.  “Mortal [son of man], I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.” (2:3).  Hmm, I’m not sure I like where this is going.  Is there anything else?

“The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (v. 4).  It doesn’t sound like the prophet will get a welcome reception.

Hostility is not the only reaction.  Later in the book, we see him being disregarded.  In chapter 33, the Lord tells him about the people, “To them you are like a singer of love songs, one who has a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument; they hear what you say, but they will not do it” (v. 32).  These folks aren’t mad at him.  They applaud and say, “Wonderful job,” and then go on about their business.

Even so, Ezekiel loves his people.  He demonstrates loving courage.  Love is no easy thing.

What about Jesus?  He tells his disciples, his friends, something that will shock and dismay them.  He lets them know what is in store.  Jesus will be betrayed, condemned to death, mocked, flogged, and crucified.  Now there is the tiny bit about being raised from the dead, but they can’t get past the laundry list of insane stuff coming first.

Knowing what’s ahead of him, Jesus demonstrates loving courage.

What does loving courage mean for us?  What does loving courage mean for me?  I wonder, in what ways do I ignore St. Paul’s call to live a life of courage, shot through with love?  How often do I imitate the admirers of Ezekiel, finding joy in art, books, film, and music­­—even the scriptures—and yet not allowing it to change me?  How often do I lack that courage—to not fully be a man—to not fully be human?

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What does loving courage mean for all of us?  Do we have the courage to ruffle some feathers?  When the loving Holy Spirit prompts us, do we change the way we’ve been doing things?  Do we make room for others?

These are questions to ask the person in the mirror.  Do I help others to be courageous?  Do I help others to be human?

In his final words, Paul cries out, “Maranatha” (v. 22).  Maranatha means two things.  “Come, our Lord,” and “Our Lord has come”!  May we be people who find the loving courage to live out those words.

 

[1] www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/opinion/scaramucci-mccain-masculinity-white-house.html


what’s on the menu?

I’m sure all of us have had this experience.  Maybe a friend invites you to a restaurant that serves food you’re completely unfamiliar with.  Maybe it’s a Thai restaurant or a Turkish one.  You’re carefully examining the menu, reading the names of dishes you know nothing about.  Some menus are more helpful than others.  Some do a better job of listing the ingredients.  Still, food is more than its ingredients.  How is it prepared?  Who is preparing it?

1-menuAs we’re considering the MIF (Ministry Information Form), in particular the Leadership Competencies section we see a big list of terminology.  [FYI, the MIF is a Presbyterian ministry search form!]  No doubt many of them mean different things to different people.  For example, the term “Hopeful” has a lot of nuances to me.  But I need to look at the description, to read the ingredients to know what’s on the menu.  We need to know what the terms mean to the people who drew up the document, the ones who created the menu.

After all, we don’t want an allergic reaction.  We don’t want a bad taste in our mouth!

Under “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter” there are six qualities listed.  Under “Communication” there are five.  “Organizational Leadership” has by far the most—fifteen.  And “Interpersonal Engagement” is given seven qualities.

We have four scripture readings, and I want to use each of them to address a certain competency.  I’ll say right up front that none of these perfectly match the qualities that are listed.  No doubt, other scriptures and stories from the Bible might be better suited, but these readings, in one way or another, seemed to me to capture a particular feeling of the item in question.

The four categories I chose wouldn’t necessarily be my top priorities, but there was something about them that jumped out at me—something about them that spoke to me.  As I thought and meditated on them, a light turned on.  And so, I want to share with you this little light of mine!

In that first section, “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter,” I selected two for comment: “Hopeful” and “Lifelong Learner.”  First, there’s “Hopeful.”

Two of the descriptions really caught my eye: “maintains stability in the moment and hope for the future” and “helps followers to see a way through chaos and complexity.”  As I just said, none of the scripture readings or the characters within them perfectly illustrate these ideas, but there is a certain connection.

Consider the story of Caleb in Numbers 13.

At this point in time, the Israelites, having fled Egypt in the exodus, are drawing closer to the land of Canaan.  For them, this is the promised land.  The Lord tells Moses to send out spies to do some reconnaissance.  Check out the place; see what’s going on.  See how fertile the land is.  Come back with some fruit, if you find any.

So off they go.  Upon their return, they speak in glowing terms about what they found.  It’s almost heaven on earth; it’s flowing with milk and honey.  However…

With the exception of Caleb and Joshua, the scouts have some serious reservations.  “It’s true; the land is wonderful.  We weren’t kidding.  But you didn’t see the people who live there.  I tell you, they’re giants!  Compared to them, we’re grasshoppers.  We’re bugs!

“You know, where we are isn’t so bad.  How about we leave well enough alone.  We’re not too excited about having our butts kicked!”

Hearing that, the spirit of the people sinks.  Their hopes have been dashed.  The grumbling begins.

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This is where Caleb speaks up.  The scripture says that “Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it’” (v. 30).  Caleb speaks hope, and as the MIF says, he “maintains stability in the moment and hope for the future.”  He presents a vision for the people “to see a way through chaos and complexity.”

He does what he can.  He lets them know “we are well able to overcome.”  The Bible just gives us that one line.  No doubt, he lays out some possibilities.  He tries to answer their questions and allay their fears.  Still, at the end of the day, it’s their choice.  He can’t force them to choose.

And it’s the same way with us.  The quality of being hopeful is the ability to present possibilities, to cut through the fog of fear and resignation.  Being hopeful in the midst of chaos means not losing one’s own head, as difficult as that might be.  It means trusting and learning from the one who gives all of us hope.

The other competency I want to address under “Theological / Spiritual Interpreter” is “Lifelong Learner.”

My example is from Matthew 15, Jesus in the story of the Canaanite woman.  What I’m about to suggest might rub you the wrong way.  You might think I’ve gone off the deep end.

It seems to me that a key part of the incarnation, God’s appearing in the flesh in the form of the human being Jesus, means that, like any other human, Jesus has to learn.  He has to learn about the world around him.  I don’t think there’s any real controversy about that.  But Jesus is a product of his culture, first century Judaism.  His patterns of thinking are a result of that.

Our scripture comes right after Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for insisting on unjust traditions, especially about things that defile.  He learns what aspects of his culture’s heritage, its traditions, are worthy of accepting and what is to be rejected.  It’s not something that’s learned all at once.  It takes time.

In our story, Jesus and his disciples are on the outskirts of Jewish territory.  The woman who asks healing for her daughter is a foreigner.  Notice what verse 23 says.  “But he did not answer her at all.”  She continues to plead with him.  He responds, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24).  Unmoved, she doesn’t relent.

Finally, Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26).  We need to understand that the Jews in Jesus’ culture have a very negative view of foreigners.  (Clearly, they aren’t the only ones who have felt that way!)  One of the names they call them are “dogs.”  That is not a compliment!

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Jesus has breathed the atmosphere of bias and bigotry all his life.  I think it’s safe to say we in America have breathed the atmosphere of bias and bigotry.  As I said, examination of one’s own culture isn’t something that happens overnight.  It does take time.  I think it’s entirely likely that this is a lesson, a realization, which fits in that category.

As such, this is a lesson which Jesus learns.  We believe that Jesus was sinless. Misunderstanding is not the same thing as sin.  The need to be enlightened is not the same thing as sin.  It becomes sin when we refuse to learn.  It is sin when we cling to unjust ways.

I believe this woman serves to bring Jesus a new level of awareness.  Look at how the passage ends.  “She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’  Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish.’  And her daughter was healed instantly” (vv. 27-28).  I think that’s awesome.

Using the phrase from our MIF, Jesus is one of those “individuals who use every experience in life as a potential tool for growth.”  Jesus could ignore the woman and hold on to the foolishness his culture has taught him.  However, he sees that there is a better path, a sacred path, a holy path.  It’s a path in which we see God in everyone.

Another aspect of being a “Lifelong Learner” describes “those who build on strengths and seek assistance to improve weaknesses.”  Again, as a human being, Jesus builds on strengths and seeks help on weaknesses.  The woman provides the help Jesus needs.

Being perfect is not the same thing as being flawless.  Being perfect is being perfected.  It is being completed.  Jesus is the model of being a completed human.

The third competency I want to address is in the section, “Organizational Leadership,” and it is “Willingness to Engage Conflict.”  That sounds like a daunting one!  I think we can see in Acts 6 a good example of willingness to engage conflict, to address it head on.

Early on, as the number of disciples is increasing, the “Hellenists” (the Greek-speaking) have a complaint against the “Hebrews” (the Aramaic-speaking).  It appears that their widows are being shortchanged in the distribution of food.  This problem seems to have been a long time coming.  The relationship between the Greek speakers and the Aramaic speakers has been getting increasingly tense.

F. F. Bruce comments on this. “The tension came to a head (as tension often does) in what might appear to be a trifling matter.” But there’s more going on beneath the surface.  “The Hellenistic widows were said to be at a disadvantage in comparison with the ‘Hebrew’ widows, perhaps because the distribution of charity was in the hands of the ‘Hebrews.’”[1]  How convenient!

Word of the dispute comes to the apostles, and what do they do?  They decide to pretend that it doesn’t exist and wait for it to blow over.  Well, not exactly.  Verse 2 says “the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples.”  (They had a special congregational meeting.  Those things always run smoothly.)

They concluded, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”  That phrase “to wait on tables,” means “to keep accounts.”  So those are tables of numbers, checklists.  They aren’t tables in which somebody takes your order from those menus I talked about earlier!

As a result, the apostles have the people select “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task” (v. 3).

All of the descriptions of “Willingness to Engage Conflict” on the MIF seem to be present in the story: steps up to conflicts, seeing them as opportunities; reads situations quickly; good at focused listening; and can identify common ground and elicit cooperation from others in crafting mutual solutions.

So, session members [a Presbyterian board of elders], we can look to Acts 6 the next time a conflict is looming!

Now, the final quality I want to look at is, in my humble opinion, perhaps the most important of all.  Under “Interpersonal Engagement” is “Self Differentiation.”  Again, there are plenty of ways to go with this, but 1 Corinthians 13 seems to really sum it up.

This is the chapter on love which St. Paul fits into his discussion of spiritual gifts.  This is real love, not the “warm and fuzzy stuff.”  When we know who we are, and we don’t need others to constantly validate us, then this is the love we have.  It is, to use a description from our document, an “emotionally mature” love.  Paul says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (v. 11).

Psychiatrist Murray Bowen devised a concept of differentiation based on the biology of cells.  “When a cell becomes something specific, such as a heart cell or a muscle cell, it is said to be differentiated.  In contrast, a cell that remains nonspecific—a stem cell—is an immature cell.  Differentiation, therefore, refers to maturity.”[2]

The more we are self differentiated, the more we become ourselves.  We can “own” ourselves and our decisions.  The more we are self differentiated, the greater impulse control we exercise.  To revisit Paul, love “bears all things.”  Love “endures all things” (v. 7).  We become able to command our emotions, not to be commandeered by them.  Like Caleb, we become more hopeful, more able to see beyond the chaos and speak peace.  Love “hopes all things.”

Self differentiation means just that.  We differentiate ourselves from others.  We demonstrate “strong and appropriate personal boundaries.”  We don’t become enmeshed with others.  We have “a healthy appreciation of self, without being egotistical.”  “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way” (vv. 4-5).

Our sense of self-worth does not come from others.  The love from others, as sincere and strong as it may be, eventually does not fill the emptiness in our souls.  That explains why love can so easily turn into hate.  We put unrealistic expectations on each other.

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Carolyn Pyfrom, “Now We See Through a Glass Darkly”

To sum up, this list that we go through is intended to draw a picture in what we want from a pastoral leader.  And well it should.  But pastors are also broken human beings, working to be perfect, to be perfected, to be completed.  The model for all of us is Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus is the model of hopefulness, of continuing to learn, of willing to meet conflict in courageous and loving ways, of differentiating oneself and knowing who we are.

When all is said and done, it’s a question of whose we are.  Despite whatever trials we endure, we are in the hands of God.  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (v. 12).

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 [1] F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1954 (reprint 1987), 128.

[2] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, Chapter 9, section 2, paragraph 1.


gifted to be partners

“Where are you in your walk with the Lord?”  “How has God been guiding you?”  “Have sensitive are you to the leading of the Spirit?”  Throughout my life as a Christian, I’ve been asked those questions, or something like that.  Sometimes they really bug me.  (Well, a little bit more than “sometimes.”)  I often have trouble coming up with a coherent and honest answer.  But I need those questions.

Those questions probably aren’t meant to be answered too quickly.  Those questions need meditation and reflection and prayer.  But then, we have to act on them.

An extension of those questions might be, “How are you using your spiritual gifts?”  Spiritual gifts?  I’m not sure I have any.  Our Book of Order, drawing inspiration from St. Paul, says, “the Holy Spirit has graced each member with particular gifts for strengthening the body of Christ for mission” (W-2.5002).

Spiritual gifts aren’t for us alone; they are primarily for increasing life to the body of Christ.  1
They enhance communion; they enhance fellowship; they enhance sharing.  God “has called [us] to be partners with…Jesus Christ” (v. 9, NJB).  All those terms are different meanings of the Greek word κοινωνια (koinōnia).

So after all of that, we can say that we have been gifted to be partners.  We have spiritual gifts, and they are meant for koinōnia.  But hold that thought; we’ll get back to it!

The epistle lesson is the introduction to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  We see he’s joined by Sosthenes, who he calls “our brother” (v. 1).  We’re not sure who he is.  Maybe the apostle is dictating his letter to him.

It looks like Paul’s laying out what he wants to accomplish in the letter.  He tells the church in Corinth how he sees them (he’s thankful for them)—and even better, how they could be.  He encourages them, warts and all.  Immediately after the introduction, he dives into it.  In verse 10, he appeals to them “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.”

The first thing he mentions are divisions.  This doesn’t mean to think the same thoughts.  It doesn’t mean to have the same opinions.  We have brains.  We aren’t supposed to shut them off in service to some totalitarian ideal.  In biblical terminology, we aren’t supposed to serve idols.

Paul’s argument is with divisiveness, to use a term familiar to us.  That is, the thriving on division.  Divisiveness is not the same as division, which simply happens because we have those brains I just mentioned.  Divisiveness is, to be honest, a sinful refusal to look beyond differences.  It’s the refusal to acknowledge, “I don’t have to agree with you to love you.”

The divisiveness that encourages division is, sadly, no stranger to us.

Last month, the TV show Face the Nation had an interview with comedian Stephen Colbert.  He’s the host of CBS’ The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.  (Just in case you hadn’t figured that out!)  John Dickerson spoke with him in reflection on 2016.[1]

Dickerson asked him, “What was the good news in 2016?”  Colbert hesitated a moment, and then mentioned their Thanksgiving dinner.  Then he altered the question a bit.  He said just before saying grace, he asked himself what he was thankful for.  He spoke of family and friends and dear ones who have passed away.

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Then Colbert spoke of people he does not agree with.  He said “they make me think about what I do.  They question my beliefs.  And an unquestioned belief is almost vestigial.  It doesn’t motivate you in any way.  It doesn’t serve you in any way if you don’t question it, because a belief is a filter.  You have to run things through it, you know, so you know how you see the world.  It’s a lens; it’s not a prop.”

He speaks of the tendency to engage in divisiveness.  He says “divisiveness is a vice.  But like a lot of vices, super seductive.  And so you indulge in it until it bites you, and then you go oh, darn—oh, darn, the wages of sin is death.  And it makes you question having indulged in the vice.  And I think that political divisiveness is a vice; picking sides is a vice rather than picking ideas.”

He speaks specifically of political divisiveness, but it can apply to anything.  And Paul wants all of us to be aware of that.

We can see that sentiment in verse 2 when he addresses the Corinthians, those 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.”  Another translation says, “along with all who invoke the name of our Lord Jesus Christ wherever they may be—their Lord as well as ours” (REB).  Wherever they may be.  Whoever they may be.  We have the same Lord.

A few moments ago, I said that we have been gifted to be partners.  But these aren’t partners in the sense of, “Hey buddy!  Hey pal!  Hey amigo!”  Or if you’re addressing a woman, “Hey amiga!”

There’s an almost sinister force at work in creating divisions.  That’s what Stephen Colbert was hinting at.  And for partnership in the sense of koinōnia to exist and to flourish, spiritual giftedness is needed.

Paul tells the Corinthian church “in every way you have been enriched in [Christ]…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (vv. 5, 7).  As a church, we are not lacking in any spiritual gift.  It might not seem like it; we might look around and say, “Woe is us!  What can we do?”  Sometimes we might not even want to hear about that multitude of gifts, but the Spirit is here, waiting for us to ask.

Again, here’s a case in which Paul is giving a preview of his plan.  He talks about spiritual gifts in chapters 12 to 14.

The apostle begins this long passage by going to the doctor’s office.  He performs a physical examination of the body.  I mean the body of Christ and the gifts of each part which function for the benefit of all.  It’s what keep us healthy.  He concludes with what we might call the charismatic gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophesying.

By the way, our Book of Order says in a section called “Expressing Prayer” (W-5.4002), “One may pray in tongues as a personal and private discipline.”  So we at least acknowledge the personal and private part!

Those two sections bracket chapter 13, which speaks of the greatest gift, love.  He doesn’t mean something gooey or romantic or warm and fuzzy.  This isn’t the sole domain of wedding services!  Read through that chapter; he covers all of life.  All spiritual gifts converge in love.  It never ends; it has absolutely no limit.  We never grasp the entirety of love in this life.

2a

Paul doesn’t talk about spiritual gifts in a vacuum.  He links them to waiting for “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He speaks about being “blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vv. 7-8).  He’s drawing on references in the Old Testament to the “day of the Lord,” which is both warning and blessing.

The prophet Amos chastises the people for their hypocrisy in worship.  They pay special attention in making sure the worship service is done properly, but they fail to use that diligence in seeking justice.  They love lies, but hate the truth.  “Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!” Amos says, “Why do you want the day of the Lord?  It is darkness, not light” (5:18).  They have chosen darkness, and that’s what they’ll get.  I think that qualifies as a warning!

The book of Isaiah is another place where we see the day of the Lord.  “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,” says the prophet, “because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn” (61:1-2).

In the midst of all that blessing, “the day of vengeance of our God” seems quite out of place.  Something to bear in mind is that God’s vengeance, God’s justice, is not the way we usually think of those words.  God’s vision is about restoration; our vision is about retribution.  Aside from that, the word for “vengeance,” נקם (naqam), can also mean “deliverance.”[2]  So there’s the blessing!

Getting back to Paul, he says spiritual gifts are to be exercised with a view toward the coming of the Lord, that is the Lord Jesus Christ.  That is the perspective the church has as its orientation.  Jesus is magnetic north on our compass.

Our scripture reading ends, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 9).  We are called into koinōnia with Christ.  As I said earlier, that word also means “partnership” or “communion.”  That’s a deep partnership, not a shallow one in which we never get past small talk.  What does it mean to have that deep partnership, true communion, with the Lord?

Well, look around.  Loving God also means loving our neighbor.  The way we treat each other, the way we treat all of creation—plants, animals, the earth itself—is how we treat the Lord.

If we use our giftedness to be partners, then we will respect each other.  We will honor each other.  In Romans 12, Paul says to “outdo one another in showing honor” (v. 10).  Now that’s setting a really high bar!  We are to compete with each other in showing love.

And revisiting Stephen Colbert’s comments, that means showing love, even when we strongly disagree.  In the book of Proverbs we read, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another” (27:17).  In other words, let’s get out of our bubbles.  Don’t simply listen to people who tell us what we want to hear.  We actually can learn from, and love, people who are different!

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The official holiday is tomorrow.  If there is someone who loved people who were different, people with whom he passionately disagreed, it would be hard to find a better example than King.  He demonstrated the giftedness of partnering.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he speaks to his critics who are concerned about “outsiders coming in.”[3]  He writes, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

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Unfortunately, it is also true that King was more puzzled and disappointed by white moderates than outright segregationists.  Of those who would claim to be in fellowship with him, he said too many “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”

We don’t have stained glass windows, so that can’t be us!

He later says, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church.  But be assured that my tears have been tears of love.  There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes, I love the church.  How could I do otherwise?…  But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.  If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity.”

I think that’s always a danger.  And I certainly don’t exclude myself from this.  We can claim to be open, welcoming, affirming.  Admittedly, it’s easy to welcome those with whom we agree.  We can either explicitly or implicitly reject and be divisive.  But what pain we cause each other!  And what pain we cause our Lord.  When we reject and divide, we deny God’s faithfulness, and we reject our calling into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Still, God is faithful.  As we open ourselves to God and to the gifts that are in store, to our amazement we make discoveries.  What once seemed unlikely, or even impossible, now begins to happen.  We find that we are loved, and that enables us to extend love.  We find that we are forgiven, and that enables us to extend forgiveness.  We find that God actually likes us, and that enables us to……  Well, maybe I’m jumping the gun on saying that we can like everyone!

But we find ourselves making progress in our call to be partners in Christ.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcript-december-25-2016-colbert-correspondents-panel

[2] John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 179.

[3] www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html


love rescued from the grave

I’m sure many of us have said goodbye to a best friend for what we both believed, or knew, was the last time. In our lives, we say goodbye to a lot of people that we’ll never see again, and we’re fine with it. Sometimes we play games and say stuff like, “see you later,” when we know very well there will be no “later.” (At least, not in this lifetime.)

It can be an awkward moment. But with our best friend, it’s more than awkward—it’s painful. Silly games like “see you later,” “hasta la vista,” just won’t work, and we both know it.

I’ve had this kind of experience once in my life, when I was preparing to graduate from the Assemblies of God college, Southeastern College in Lakeland, Florida. (It’s now Southeastern University.) In December 1988, I had finished my coursework and was joining the small number of students who also were ready to graduate. My roommate still had over two years to go. He was about to go home for the Christmas break.

There were times when he truly angered me and I wanted to strangle the guy. However, the fact that he could easily beat me up kept me from acting on that particular impulse! At the time, we seemed to have little in common. With a few exceptions, we were not into the same kind of music. He wasn’t terribly fond of books, movies, or sports. It seems like our faith was the only thing we really had in common, but as it turned out, that was more than enough.

Whatever the reason, I can say that he became my best friend. (I should add that this was before I met Banu. So by “best friend,” I mean my male best friend!) Even though he still irritated and embarrassed me at times with some of his antics in public, I came to love him. And so it happened on the day that a fellow student pulled up in the parking lot to take him to the Tampa airport, we each found ourselves at that terrible moment of saying goodbye to our best friend.

I just wanted him to get in the car and leave quickly. I could feel the pain increasing. As soon as the car left the parking lot, I turned and hurried back into the dorm. I didn’t want anyone to see me with my eyes watering up. Besides, I could barely see where I was going. Even then, in that moment, I was imagining myself tripping on the stairs and rolling back to the bottom. But I did make it to my room, where I put my head on my desk, and for about ten minutes, I just cried.

(As it turned out, it wasn’t the last time we saw each other. We got together several more times. In fact, he even attended Banu’s and my wedding. He now lives in Costa Rica, and I’ve Skyped with him from there.)

John 20 gives us another case of saying goodbye to a best friend. Of course, in this case, the best friend is Jesus. And he’s not on his way to the airport.

The story of Easter in John’s gospel is unique. Mary Magdalene is the primary focus. Sure, Simon Peter and the other disciple, “the one whom Jesus loved,” run through the scene. But it’s Mary who steals the show.

Mary magdalene of the tears
After all the excitement, with Mary running to tell the others that the body of Jesus is missing, with them running to the tomb, with them searching around inside, with them giving up and going back home—after all of that—we’re left with Mary, just standing there and crying.

The quiet of the empty tomb is deep. Only her tears fill that silence. Mary Magdalene has lost her best friend: some say, more than a friend.

But the stillness is soon broken. She takes another look into the tomb, and Mary sees what must be two people. She laments that Jesus’ body has been taken away. “Have you seen it?” Their brief conversation leaves her feeling disheartened and dismayed.

Suzanne Guthrie speaks of these encounters in the darkness of that Easter morning, the not-yet dawning of light. The day before, what we now call Holy Saturday, was the sabbath, the day of rest. Guthrie doubts that Mary’s sabbath was a day of holy respite. “More likely,” she says, Mary “spent her sabbath in a hell-fury of grief and recriminations against Romans, against the Sanhedrin, against the very Creator of the universe. And perhaps against Jesus himself.”*

“You didn’t have to do this! How could you leave us? How could you leave me?” Mary’s loss is bitter.

Guthrie elaborates, “What is loss but the experience of love, after all? If you did not love, there would be no loss.” Losing a best friend is love lost.

She continues, “Absence becomes a kind of presence. But during this particular dark hour in this particular place in time, the emptiness becomes real presence.”

Into that hopeless emptiness a real presence emerges. It is Jesus, but Jesus as yet unrecognized. Jesus emerges into our emptiness. Do we recognize him?

We see that lack of recognition in verses 14 and 15. Jesus appears before her and asks the same question that those two strange characters asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She thinks he’s the gardener, the one tending the graveyard. “Just tell me where you placed his body, and I’ll take it away.”

Mary’s grief and sorrow prevent her from seeing the one she loves. She looks, but she doesn’t see.

But then something wonderful happens. Jesus speaks her name. The scripture says, “She turned.” She turns; her eyes are opened.

It is more than her grief that has prevented her from seeing him. He is no longer simply Jesus, the man they all knew. Standing before her is the Christ, the one raised from the dead—love rescued from the grave.

Mary reaches out to him, crying, “my teacher.” And if coming back from the dead isn’t crazy enough, things start to get really weird! Verse 17 is a real head-scratcher.

“Do not hold on to me,” he says. What a strange thing to say. Can’t he see her joy? Why can’t he give this to her? Or is there something more? There must be, since he doesn’t stop there. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

For St. John, ascension is the continuation of resurrection. That’s what we see in this gospel. There’s an evolution from Jesus being raised from the dead to being the Christ who fills all things, as St. Paul puts it, “who fills all in all” (Ep 1:23).

Our friend Suzanne says that “in this world you cannot cling to love. You cannot hold or hoard it. In a suffering world, there is no time to linger in the sacred moment. Instead, every love must transfigure into ever-widening circles of compassion. This love must go out to the ends of the earth with the message of hope.”

Mary magdalene, our lady of fire

It’s true; love causes us to tumble out of control. We fall into it. But love isn’t simply some wishy-washy feel-good emotion; that’s infatuation. No, love calls for pretty serious demands.

And the first demand made of Mary Magdalene is for her to act on that love. She is to go back to the other disciples and spread the message. “I have seen the Lord! Jesus is risen!” That’s how she gets the nickname, “apostle to the apostles.”

Whether or not the others believe her is pretty much out of her hands. It’s up to them. All she can do is allow that love rescued from the grave be shown in her words, and much more, in her actions. It’s as simple as that, and as difficult as that! I think we all can testify to that tricky balance.

When we fail to act on love, it begins to wither and die. It shrivels, and we with it. But when we are granted the amazing grace of love rescued from the grave, it is given a new chance. It becomes a new creation, part of a brand new order. It is the second chance, the second chance that we always need.

Love can die, but it still is a candidate for resurrection. It can ascend and fill all things. Remember, love isn’t something we have to feel. In fact, most of the time, we are oblivious to it. It surrounds us and only asks that we join with it. What then are we to do?

I said that love makes serious demands. Here comes the part I don’t like, and maybe I’m not alone. If we join with love, we can’t run from it. We can’t avoid suffering. Suzanne Guthrie, and a multitude of others, links loss with love. That’s the story of the three days that just ended, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Guthrie, and a multitude of others, say love must be transfigured, transformed. That is what it means to join with love.

But remember that Christ is with us, especially and primarily in community. He raises us up. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (vv. 22-23).

Like a tree flowering in spring, Christ is the first fruit of resurrection, of new life, but we join with him. We have to be brought back from the dead—it would seem, over and over! And knowing ourselves, that takes a miracle, something like a Lord being raised from the grave.

When that miracle happens, we can join with the happy chorus. “Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!”

*Suzanne Guthrie, “No Time to Linger,” Christian Century (22 March 2005): 18.

[the images are Mary Magdalene of the Tears and Mary Magdalene, Our Lady of Fire, at www.artbytanyatorres.com]


reaffirm your love


  Get+out+of+jail+free+card
 
In chapter 2 of 2 Corinthians, Paul deals with the response of the church to an unnamed offender.  In 1 Corinthians 5, there was the case of the man in a sexual relationship with his stepmother.  Paul was angry because the church said nothing about it; they seemed okay with it.  Some people believe that Paul is now dealing with the aftermath of the discipline that the church imposed. 
 
Still, verse 5 suggests that a different situation may be in view.  He says that “if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent—not to exaggerate it—to all of you.”  It’s entirely probable that an individual in Corinth has been attacking the apostle, for whatever reason.  Again, it’s not simply the possible slander that Paul is upset about.  (He’s a big boy; he can handle it!)  He’s upset due to the effect on the community.  His response, a letter of reprimand, is one in which he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (v. 4). 
 
It seems that the church got the message—and now has gone overboard in its punishment!  Paul urges them to show mercy and to offer restoration.  He stresses the need of forgiveness, “so that,” as he puts it, “we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (v. 11). 
 
Are there people we are slow to forgive?  Do we harbor desires for continued retribution?  Can we see ways in which that serves evil?

let anyone be accursed

  Phileo
“The peace of Christ be with you.”  Is that familiar to anyone?  Do we include that in our public worship?  As 1 Corinthians is drawing to a close, Paul says, “All the brothers and sisters send greetings.  Greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:20).  I’m not sure how many churches still literally practice the “kiss” of peace, but we still pass the peace of Christ.
 
Throughout this letter, the apostle has gotten on the Corinthians’ case about plenty of stuff.  Something he has stressed over and over is the importance of love.  It’s a message this contentious bunch needs to take to heart.  Still, only two verses later, he comes out with this:  “Let anyone be accursed who has no love for the Lord.”  Yikes!  Now he’s breaking out the a-word, and I do mean the Greek one, anathema.  Hasn’t he been trying to spread the love, not the hate?
 
We should notice that the word he uses for “love” in verse 22 is phileō.  In all of his writings, he only uses that word one other time.  It’s closely related to the word for “kiss” (philēma).  It’s sometimes considered to be a love not quite as exalted as the one he usually refers to, agapē.
 
So maybe Paul is saying this.  Those who don’t love the Lord, even at the level we might usually love each other (including our actions in worship), have somehow cursed themselves.  Indeed, without the love of the Lord inside us, life itself can sometimes seem to be accursed. 
 
That’s something to consider the next time we say, “The peace of Christ be with you”!