body of Christ

reset button—to hit or not to hit?

The epistle reading which is the final note of St. Paul’s farewell to the Corinthian church is to a church that 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; the rich among them have treated the poor with disrespect; they’ve chased after the latest fads; they’ve done these and many other things.  To their credit, one thing they have not been is boring!  But through it all, Paul has consistently guided them in, and to, the love and peace of Jesus Christ.

1 2 coHe starts by saying, “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell.”  That word for “farewell” usually means “rejoice.”[1]  What would it mean for them to fare well with rejoicing?

The apostle has a list of instructions.  When he says, “Put things in order,” he’s not demonstrating OCD!  He’s not being a neat freak; he’s not commanding them to sort each other out.  But we’ll get back to that one in a few moments.

Secondly, his plea to “listen to my appeal” is a plea to learn humility.  That flows into his request when he says, “agree with one another.”  Paul’s not telling them to act like clones.  He wants them as best they can, to obey the law of love.  This will enable them to “live in peace.”

In verse 12, the apostle adds this: “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  He says this in several letters.  This is where the “kiss of peace” and our “passing the peace” come from.  And for anyone who’s ever wondered why we usually do not kiss each other—besides concerns about inappropriate contact (not to mention the virus-imposed concern about transmission of disease)—there’s also the fact that fairly early in church history, they had similar concerns.  The liturgical practice of men kissing women who were not their wives, and women kissing men who were not their husbands, was abandoned.

I have a little story along those lines.  When Banu and I were in seminary, I took a worship class taught by a Presbyterian professor.  She gave us an assignment.  On Sunday, we were to attend a church with a worship service very different from the one we were used to.  There was an Armenian Orthodox church about a mile down the road.  (In case you didn’t know, there are a few differences between the Armenian Orthodox and Presbyterians!)

The entire service was in the Armenian language, except for the sermon and the prayer of confession, which were in English.  Included in their liturgy was the kiss of peace, the holy kiss.  The only other people in the pew where I was sitting was a family with a father, mother, and daughter.  She looked like she was about 20.  They started down the line, kissing each other on the cheek.  Then the daughter started moving toward me; I became a bit nervous.  She extended her hand, so a holy kiss turned into a holy handshake.  Potential drama averted!

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[Ryan Gosling poses a hermeneutical question]

Paul ends the passage with a Trinitarian benediction, a triple blessing.  That’s why this is a scripture for Trinity Sunday.

What does the Holy Trinity mean in our lives?  There are many ways to go with this.  An image that might be helpful is seeing the Holy Trinity as the perfect community of love.  In this community, no one pushes the others aside.  No one tries to hog the spotlight; no one grumbles in the background.  That has ramifications for all of life, including the call to make disciples.  Then it won’t be just a song: they really will “know we are Christians by our love.”

That community of love has an even greater urgency today.  We’ve noticed how this strange new world in which we find ourselves, courtesy of COVID-19, has brought us to a relative standstill, though some places and some people are standing still more than others.  Each of us has taken notice of that reality, sometimes in quite trivial ways.  (I was alarmed when the NHL suspended its season!  But the alarm has turned to relief since they have decided to have the playoffs!)

Banu and I were discussing certain realities in the church.  We are aware that we are in an in-between time.  (We had interim pastor training several years ago, and never has it been more spot-on!)  What is happening now?  What will happen when “this” is all over?

In my Easter sermon, I addressed this very thing.[2]  “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.”

3 2 coHas a reset button has been given to us?  What would it mean to hit it?

Let’s go back to this business of “[putting] things in order.”  It’s probably best to read that as a passive instruction.  “Be restored to order.”  Be restored.  Permit yourselves to be set straight.

Permit me to include what I said in a blog post.[3]

It appears to be increasingly certain that this coronavirus is here to stay.  We need to make long term plans, not simply knee-jerk reactions.  Unless we are prepared for chaos around the globe (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit!), our economic, our political, and most of all, our spiritual mindsets need to change.

Is there any wisdom we can glean from Paul’s use of a single Greek word, καταρτιζω (katartizō)?  Surely “be restored to order” can be seen as applying, to not just our relationship with other humans (be they in the church or not), but to our relationship with the earth itself.  It better be—no, it must be—if we are to live within our calling to be stewards of God’s good creation.

4 2 coIt looks like global climate change has taken on a whole new dimension.  Planet earth is calling “timeout.”

Maybe hitting the reset button will become a daily exercise.  And to be honest, doesn’t that reflect teachings handed down through the centuries?  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon (who were facing their own strange new world), “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7).  Every morning, when they woke up, they had to hit the reset button.  They had no choice.  Still, the prophet of God encouraged them.  He assured them that was the way to life.

If human history—if church history—is any guide, the changes we need to make are usually the ones forced on us.

Speaking of changes we need to make, I would be remiss if I neglected to address the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black folks (especially young men) by the police and others.  Also we can’t ignore the violent opportunists who have turned peaceful demonstrations into acts of wanton destruction, even committing murder, and that includes murdering police officers.

I also can’t ignore what I saw—a man in his final moments of life, calling out for his mama.  In my bold, heroic gesture, I posted on Facebook the three words, “I can’t breathe.”  One of my Facebook friends responded with a series of question marks.  She wasn’t sure what I was referring to, so I said it was about the death of George Floyd.  Her reply: “that is why I am limiting my news exposure.”  I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  (And I have since taken down my post.)

In a way, I understand where she’s coming from.  This happens over and over and over again; it seems to be part of our history.  The names and faces just blur together.

So what can we make of how Paul wraps everything up?  What does it say about being restored to order?  “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you” (v. 13).  Is it just a nice, tidy way to say goodbye?  William Loader says it is “a benediction which teaches us where the heart of the gospel lies—if we ever to stop to think what it really means.”[4]

Each of those terms is filled with meaning, but I want to focus on the third one: “the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

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What does that mean?  One thing it surely means is that communion (in Greek, κοινωνία, koinōnia) is provided by the Holy Spirit.  Communion, fellowship, sharing—however you translate koinōnia—is a gift of the Spirit.  It is a gift given when we come together as the one body of Christ.

“The communion of the Holy Spirit” can also mean “participation in the Holy Spirit.”[5]  It means “the Spirit as that which is shared by believers,” being within the Spirit, so to speak.  As we consider participating in the Spirit, being within the Spirit, I would ask, “What are some other things we participate in?  What other realities are we within?  What do we surround ourselves with?”

On the negative side—I’ll start with bad news!  We can participate in cynicism, a world-weary distrust, a feeling that nothing matters anyway.  We can share in prejudice, to literally “pre-judge,” be it by ethnicity, political orientation, some religious conviction, or someone’s favorite food.  We can surround ourselves with tribalism, which leads to fear and loathing of “the other,” whoever “the other” might be.

Okay, how about some good news?  What are some positive forces, life-enhancing atmospheres we can share, we can breathe?  The fruit of the Holy Spirit is a good starting point: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Ga 5:22-23).  We can enter into confident hope, as opposed to a world in which we always have to watch our back.  We can surround ourselves with humor.  I’m not talking about pointing and laughing, giving people derogatory, immature nicknames.

When we can laugh at ourselves, we allow an easy, joyful spirit to flow among us.  It opens the door to a spirituality of a graceful gratitude.  (Granted, some of us provide more material at which to laugh.  I see evidence of that every day in the mirror!)  I often say one of the sure signs we have been created in the image of God is a sense of humor.

We are told “Paul has expanded a traditional farewell to make it match a situation where community and compassion was largely missing.”[6]  The apostle is reminding the Corinthians that they need to get over themselves.  Hit that reset button!

For us here, regarding that reset button: “to hit or not to hit”—that is the question.  Like the exiles in Babylon, in their strange new world, perhaps we need to hit that button every day.  There’s no question we are facing challenges like never before.  Hitting the reset button daily might keep us sane!

6 2 coLet me finish with a quote from Thomas à Kempis’ masterpiece, The Imitation of Christ.[7]  (With slightly different language in this particular translation.)  Maybe we can say this is his take on hitting the reset button.

“Every day we should renew our resolve to live a holy life, and every day we should kindle ourselves to a burning love, just as if today were the first day of our new life in Jesus Christ.”

That, my friends, is being restored with a triple blessing.

 

[1] χαιρω (chairō)

[2] www.zebraview.net/2020/04/rich-wounds-yet-visible-above.html

[3] www.zebraview.net/2020/06/hit-the-reset-button.html

[4] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpTrinity.htm

[5] Victor Paul Furnish, The Anchor Bible: 2 Corinthians (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 584.

[6] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/AEpTrinity.htm

[7] www.ccel.org/ccel/kempis/imitation.all.html


elements of the world

Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?  When I was young, I had no idea what that meant.  Why can’t you see the forest?  Isn’t it made up of trees?  If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest?  Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.

1 co Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing.  The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’  The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’  The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”[1]

Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing.  They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing.  Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding.  By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.

When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements.  One of the big ones is “onions.”  I do not like onions.  I really do not like onions.  When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.

2 coShe often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them.  My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?”  Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor.  In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst.  By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen.  So they serve a valuable purpose!  By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.

But I still don’t like them.

In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning.  (Though it has nothing to do with onions!)  His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ.  He wants to warn them against certain errors.  A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.

In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia).  Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate.  In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.”  In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.”  It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things.  Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:

In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire.  This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.

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In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding.  The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food.”  In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.

In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law.  They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3).  And so, we come back to Colossians.

I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone.  There has been plenty of debate down through the ages.  Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended.  And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.

We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.

Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details.  These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.

“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8).  Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).

One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook.  A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate.  This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife.  For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US.  However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989.  The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time.  It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!

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In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13).  To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery.  That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.”  It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.

However, there’s no need to be afraid.

For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements.  We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty.  And that word “awesome” should be taken literally.  We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky.  We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship.  We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.

In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together.  Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves.  Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!

Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.”  Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”[2]

Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.”  We worship our culture, our cars, our cats!  We worship our concepts themselves.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs.  They identify us; they help give meaning to life.  Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God.  You know, the two are not the same!  We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.

Indeed, as Walter Wink notes, “No age has ever been more in the thralldom of the stoicheia; no age has been less aware of its bondage.”[3]

The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”  He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.

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I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions.  And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person.  (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)

The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16).  Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier.  He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17).  They are only a shadow.  Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”

6 coI like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter.  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20).  I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations.  “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21).  I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor.  He’s having a good time!

Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too.  Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:

“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it?  ‘Don’t touch this!  Don’t taste that!  Don’t go near this!’  Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention?  Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.  They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic.  But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”

Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things.  But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself.  It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.”  As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.

There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance.  Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ.  We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us.  Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”[4]

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What elements of the world do we face?  What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us?  Do we still live as though we belonged to the world?  Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12).  We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone.  We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone.  Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.

Alone, we’re helpless.  The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive.  They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.

8 coHowever, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors.  We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won.  We’re just on mopping up duty.  The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world.  We need not be scared of their shadow.

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.

[2] Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.

[3] Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.

[4] Roth, 343.


centered in confession

I want to begin with a part of our worship service.  It deals with confession, and that’s not a confession of faith.  It’s a confession of sin.  And being done as a congregation, it’s a corporate confession of sin.  It is done as a body.  Having said that, I want to start with a question.

I imagine we’ve all been in this situation—probably more than once, maybe much more than once.  Have you ever been told to apologize when you were caught doing something wrong?  Have you ever been told to apologize, even if you didn’t mean it?  Maybe you were just sorry you got caught?  “Tell your sister you’re sorry for pulling her hair.”  (To which you might respond mumbling, “She deserved it.”)

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How many times have you told someone else to say you’re sorry?  (Not having kids, I haven’t had many occasions to do that.)

Have you ever been told to apologize for something you did not do?  Have you been punished for something you didn’t do?

Now, back to the confession of sin.  Does it ever seem like you’re being told say you’re sorry?  Or moving even further, does it ever seem you’re being told to apologize for something you haven’t done?  I have heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a certain prayer of confession.  Does it ever seem like we’re just reciting the words without meaning them?

Why bother with it at all?  Our scripture readings might shed some light on the matter.

The Old Testament reading from Isaiah 6 is one of the more memorable scripture passages.  (It’s also one of the scriptures for Trinity Sunday.)  It features the call of the prophet Isaiah.

There’s the glorious and frightful vision of Isaiah.  The Lord is perched high and mighty on the throne, his garb filling the temple.  The seraphim are flying around, praising with loud voices—voices so powerful that they’re shaking the whole place.  It’s truly an awe-inspiring scene.  And it is “awe”: a vision of astonishment, wonder, and fear.

In the presence of that sublimity, that transcendence, what can the prophet say?  “Woe is me!  I am lost” (v. 5).  Faced with that majestic beauty, he confesses, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Isaiah admits his irreverence, his unworthiness.  So where do we go from here?

How about taking a glowing, fiery coal and pressing it against his lips?  That should sear off the sin.  (Please remember, this is a vision.  He’s not in danger of having his mouth burned off!)

Okay, those unclean lips have been purified; they’ve gone through the fire.  Now what?  The Lord puts out a call of recruitment: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Having now been pronounced worthy, Isaiah ventures to say, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8).

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Quick note: the lectionary reading ends there.  The rest of the chapter has some unfortunate language for those hoping the prophet will say everything’s copacetic.  There’s some rather grim stuff about people being abandoned, left to their own devices.  But don’t worry, it won’t last forever.  As soon as the cities have been depopulated, the land devasted, the wild animals taking up residence in houses—that might be long enough.

I want us to take note of something.  At what point does the narrative change?  When does the tide turn?  It’s when Isaiah confesses his fault, his missing the mark (which is one definition of sin).  That’s the hinge on which the story turns.  That’s when the reverse fire brigade is sent in.

Isaiah confesses, and then he finds freedom.

Our text in St. Luke’s gospel also has a bit of drama.  Jesus is at the lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee), teaching the people.  He’s doing a good job, because they keep moving closer and closer to him.  Picture him backing up and backing up until he’s ankle deep, then knee deep—pretty soon, he’ll be swimming.  He sees a couple of boats belonging to some fishermen, and he gets in one of them.  Jesus needs to push off a little into water; he needs some breathing room.

After he’s done talking, he calls out to Simon Peter and says, “Let’s go out and do some fishing.”  Peter’s been cleaning his net, and, truth be told, he’s dog-tired.  He tells Jesus, “We were out there all night and didn’t catch jack squat—but if you insist.”  So he and his friends head out, and lo and behold, they catch so many fish their nets are about to break.

Peter knows Jesus is doing more than giving great fishing advice.  He is in the presence of greatness.  He is awestruck (to revisit that word), and he falls to his knees.  Peter cries out, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (v. 8).  His friends are also gripped with astonishment, including his good buddies, James and John.

Just as with Isaiah, Peter acknowledges his sinfulness, his unworthiness.  At that moment of humble admission, he is encouraged and elevated by Jesus.  He says to him, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear not!  And just as with Isaiah, Peter is given an assignment; this assignment is a promise.

3 is 6Just at the moment when he has failed as a fisherman, Peter is given a different quarry.  Jesus promises him “from now on you will be catching people,” or some might say, “fishers of men” (v. 10).  It’s a life changing experience.  Peter and his friends leave their boats behind, the tools of their trade; they leave everything and follow him.

I began by talking about the prayer of confession, and there’s nothing like coming clean.  And it is indeed a case of being told to say, “I’m sorry.  I apologize.”  It’s a good thing that we’re told to apologize.  We are called to face ourselves, to unburden ourselves, to cast our cares on the Lord.  One hopes that’s part of our private prayer life, but this, as was noted before, an act of the community of faith.  It is an act of the body.

There’s a particular subject I would like us to consider, and it involves the community; it involves the body of Christ.  It deals with conflict, and too often, that involves sin.

Michael Gulker is the founder of the Colossian Forum, which deals with conflict and Christian discipleship.  It draws its inspiration from Colossians 1:17—all things hold together in Christ.  He and some friends recognized how the church was facing serious problems, but not always dealing with them in a Christlike way, to put it mildly!

He said, “We started gathering people of different stripes around a variety of topics.  We said we were going to worship and follow the structure of the liturgy and put an argument where the homily went and then ask at the end whether the Spirit had produced fruit.  If it did, then our love of God and neighbor is richer and deeper.  And if not, then what do we need to repent of, lament, confess?”[1]

You might say they took the prayer of confession of sin and just ran with it.

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I’ve sometimes wondered if our worship could ever be dangerous—not safe and cuddly, not ever challenging.  Would it be dangerous to not shy away from the tricky issues?  Would it be dangerous to ask what the gospel of Jesus Christ has to say about climate change, racism, abortion, capital punishment, war, gun control, the pros and cons of eating squid, all those delicious issues and more!

Gulker said they were speaking with some youth, and this was one of the observations.  “They said they were interested in Jesus ‘but the church doesn’t smell like Jesus.’  They were saying that the church just smells like the rest of the culture.”

He continues, “We confess that all things hold together in Christ, not because of something we did, but because of something that has already been done, and we get to participate in that.  To do that well, we know that we have to pray.  We have to meditate on the Scriptures, together, across our differences.”

I said earlier I’ve heard people say they haven’t done or been the things in a prayer of confession.  There’s the question, “Don’t we typically go into conflict thinking, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong?’  There’s a lot of work just going into conflict with humility and realizing, ‘Maybe I’m wrong.”

There’s something dangerously freeing about, as our friend Michael says, “coming together to worship and [being] honest and [being] willing to get it wrong together…  We can get it wrong.  We can tell the truth about when we get it wrong because when we do, we can confess our sins and God is glorified.  People have forgotten this.  They forget it the moment they walk into a conflict.  So to simply remind people of that is gospel.  You can watch them light up and taste the gospel.  They’ve forgotten it.”

What a wonderful and powerful statement: people light up and taste the gospel.

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Did you know it’s possible to disagree with someone and not think they’re stupid or evil?  We can have a discussion and wonder how something might lead us to more fully love God and neighbor and creation.  We can come together and see how the good news of Jesus Christ shines on what divides us.

We are centered in confession.

 

[1] www.faithandleadership.com/michael-gulker-conflict-and-christian-discipleship


worship that smells good

Once in a great while, I have noticed an unusual smell wafting out of the kitchen.  It has usually been something with an oniony or a vinegary note to it.  On rare occasions I have asked, “What is that stench?”  Sometimes I’ve added, “Is someone involved in gas warfare?  My eyes are burning.”  My wife has responded, “That’s dinner.”

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For some reason—which I have yet to fathom—describing the smell of food as having a “stench” is worse than commenting on its “aroma”!  (Still, aside from any poorly chosen words on my part, my wife really is a very good cook.)

The culinary arts are not the only arena in which something meant to be beautiful can be taken as something hideous.  Has anyone here ever given what you thought was the perfect gift, only to have it rejected?  (Or perhaps later, made the discovery that it was re-gifted?)  As we see in our scripture reading from Isaiah, sadly, worship can also be put into the category of “what we thought was amazing, but considered repulsive.”

On the face of it, what the prophet says doesn’t make sense.  We might feel like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

Speaking for the Lord, Isaiah lays into his fellow citizens of Judah.  “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” (v. 11).  The Good News Bible says, “Do you think I want all these sacrifices you keep offering to me?”  Of course, the book of Leviticus goes into detail about the need to offer sacrifices—sacrifices that are now being rejected.

In verse 12 he demands, “Trample my courts no more.”  Again, the Good News Bible says, “Who asked you to do all this tramping around in my Temple?”  They might be forgiven if they were to respond, “Actually, you did.”  There are a number of festivals in which they are told to come to the temple and offer sacrifice, such as Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles (Ex 23:16-17).

And reflecting my opening thoughts about “stench” versus “aroma,” verse 13 claims “incense is an abomination to me.”[1]  Some other translations are even less diplomatic.  Cases in point: “the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me”; “the smoke from them fills me with disgust” (Revised English Bible, New Jerusalem Bible).

What is going on, besides the often-competing points of view of priest and prophet?

As we continue reading, we start to understand why the prophet is telling the people their worship stinks!

2 worshipHe declares, “your hands are full of blood” (v. 15).  Worship alone—observance of ritual alone—is not the answer.  So what is?  “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (vv. 16-17).

If our worship doesn’t make us more sensitive to the condition of everything in creation (other people, the animals, the earth)—or worse, we become hardened—then something really is wrong.

Richard Rohr speaks of something similar, mystical moments, deep experiences with God in which we encounter God’s love.  This is what he says:

“If it isn’t an experience of newfound freedom, I don’t think it is an authentic God experience.  God is always bigger than you imagined or expected or even hoped for.  When you see people going to church and becoming smaller instead of larger, you have every reason to question whether the practices or sermons or sacraments or liturgies are opening them to an authentic God experience.”[2]

Our epistle reading has St. Paul encouraging his readers to be larger, not smaller, people.

1 Corinthians 11 includes what are known as the words of institution of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper.  (FYI: that’s what we say when we break the bread and pour the cup.  The long prayer before it is called the Great Thanksgiving.)

Banu and I were ordained in 1997, and we spent the next three years at the first church we served, which was in Nebraska.  For quite a while, whenever we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, I would read the words for sharing the bread and cup from our Book of Common Worship verbatim.  I didn’t want to make a mistake!

3 worshipBut in time, I got tired of doing that.  It seemed like I was speaking the words as if they were an incantation.  Mess up a phrase, and the spell would be broken!  What happened was that I started telling the story.  If you read something long enough, eventually, something starts to sink in.

Word has reached the apostle Paul’s ears of a quite unwelcome practice.  To appreciate why he’s upset, we need to understand something about their celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  It’s not the way we do it, with a nibble and a sip.  For them it’s something more substantial; it’s an actual meal.  The practice for much of the New Testament church is to host a love feast, an agape meal.

However, there is a problem.  It seems some of the wealthier Christians are going ahead and helping themselves to the tasty morsels they’ve brought.  They’re not offering to share with the others.  The result is, as the apostle puts it, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21).

So Paul lets them have it.  If you people want to pig out and get drunk, then do it at home.  Don’t pretend you’re worshipping the Lord.  You’re disrespecting your sisters and brothers who have less.  As he says in verse 20, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper.”  He’s telling them their worship stinks!

They need to be reminded that the Lord’s Supper is a communal event; it’s not just a question of observing a ritual.  When Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” it’s not just some mental exercise (v. 24).  It means recognizing the presence of Jesus in their midst—discerning the body of Christ!

The failure of the Corinthians to honor Christ among them—by practicing selfishness instead of love—has had serious consequences.  The apostle is concerned because “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).  How in the world has this come about?

In the late 19th century, a famous preacher in London, Charles Spurgeon, spoke about this in a sermon.[3]  He commented on verse 27, which speaks of those receiving the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner—being “answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

“Many have been troubled by this verse,” he says.  “They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’”  Spurgeon replies, “You are, this is quite true; but the text does not say anything about your being unworthy.  Paul uses an adverb, not an adjective.  His words are, ‘Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily,’ that is, in an unfit way.”  Or, as the NRSV puts it, “in an unworthy manner.”  It’s not about us; it’s about the way we do it.

Some people decide not to receive the Eucharist, holy communion.  There may be any number of reasons for that.  But refusing on the grounds that one doesn’t feel worthy actually doesn’t make a great deal of sense.  In fact, according to another 19th century minister, the American, Charles Hodge, an unworthy feeling “is one of the conditions of acceptable communion.  It is not the whole [the healthy], but the consciously sick whom Christ came to heal.”[4]

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“They have said, ‘We are unworthy.’” Charles Spurgeon: you bet you are!

In other words, if you feel unworthy, then that’s all the more reason to receive the body and blood of Christ.  It is a gift of grace.

We hear the warning of verse 29, that those “who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.”  All that leads to a good question: exactly what does it mean to discern the body?  Some say Paul speaks of those who come to the table with unexamined lives—for example, bearing grudges and being unforgiving.  As a result, they’ve been stricken with illness and death as divine judgment.

However, discerning (or not discerning) the body of Christ can be imagined in other ways, possibly more helpful ways.  We may fail to see Christ in people—people in whom we do not wish to see Christ!  It looks like this is what Paul’s talking about.  In our world, many Christians do not see Christ in those on the margins.  We fail to discern the body in the starving and the tortured and those seeking refuge.  We fail to see Christ in those without health care!  Over and over, verse 30 comes true: “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

It may come down to a twist on a question some people ask at Christmas: whose birthday is it, anyway?  Paul seems to be asking, “Whose body is it, anyway?”  If we, like the Corinthians, imagine we are the hosts of this celebration, then that means we get to decide who’s on the guest list.  And we get to decide who’s not.

But if we recognize Christ as our host—that it’s his body we both share and are a part of—our understanding of ourselves and the world gets a radical makeover!

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I’ll close as Spurgeon did so many years ago after reflecting on Paul’s words: “May we…keep this feast in due order under the power of the Holy Spirit, and may we find a blessing in it to God’s praise!”

That is worship that smells good!

 

[1] תּוׄעֵבָה (toebah)

[2] stjohnsquamish.ca/seven-underlying-themes-of-richard-rohrs-teaching/

[3] answersingenesis.org/education/spurgeon-sermons/2268-question-for-communicants/

[4] www.puritansermons.com/reformed/hodge02.htm


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.

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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


pay attention to the body


“All who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” Our Bible study is moving to chapters 10 and 11 of 1 Corinthians. Paul’s warning about failure to discern the body appears in verse 29 of the latter chapter. This is part of his critique of the Corinthian church and their observance of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or rather, the lack thereof.

The apostle begins this section in verse 17 with the rather diplomatic statement, “I do not commend you.” It seems that the divisions of rich and poor have not only been maintained among these followers of Christ, but they’ve found expression at the very heart of worship. He speaks of the agape or love feast, which was joined with the Eucharist, in which “each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21). His outrage boils over in the next verse: “What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?”

This failure of love—this failure of generosity—is due to the aforementioned failure to discern the body, to recognize the body of Christ. Consequently, Paul’s verdict is that “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).

What’s going on here? Verse 28 says, “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Is this failure in discernment a faulty self-diagnostic? Is it a question of being oblivious to what the body and blood of the Lord are all about? In extreme cases, does that lead to visible effects in health, even resulting in death? (I suppose the opposing maladies of overindulgence and hunger would seem to make that evident!)

There clearly is also in operation a reality that is communal, even political, in nature. Failure to discern the body is in line with one of Paul’s often repeated sentiments, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (10:24). When we fail to love our neighbor, across the street or across the world, we fail to discern the body. We fail to recognize our sisters and brothers and our unity with them.

In his book, Deeper than Words, Brother David Steindl-Rast uses the concept of “the holy catholic church” from the Apostles’ Creed and expands on it. He says that “our horizon has grown wider…Truly catholic is only that faith in Life and its ultimate Source that all humans share. It remains alive in the hearts of humans who are not even aware of it.” (139)

That’s something deserving of our attention!