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.”



don't kill the messenger

In case you didn’t know it, the book of Malachi is the final one in the Old Testament.  (Maybe it’s a case of the last will be first—something like that.)  Aside from that, in delivering his message, it’s his style that sets him apart.

Instead of the usual, “thus says the Lord,” Malachi uses a question-and-answer format.  Some say the book is meant to portray a court case, with the Jewish nation bringing charges against God, charges which in turn are rebutted.  The setting is the mid-400s BC, almost 100 years after the first exiles returned from Babylon.  This is well into the era of Persian rule.

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By this time, the temple has been rebuilt, but the people have grown weary of their new masters.  Still, just as the handwriting on the wall spelled doom for the Babylonian Empire, the Persian Empire will begin to weaken until, in the next century, a guy named Alexander the Great will lead the Greeks throughout the Middle East.

Besides his question-and-answer style, there’s something else that sets Malachi apart.  It is possible the prophet we call Malachi is anonymous.  The Hebrew word “Malachi,” מַלְאָכׅי (male’aki), literally means, “my messenger.”  It’s often assumed that the name comes from 3:1: “I am sending my messenger [I am sending Malachi] to prepare the way before me.”

If we know what the name Malachi means, maybe my sermon title makes sense.  As with other prophets, Malachi’s message is likely to get a chilly response from his audience.  He repeatedly mentions the covenant of love that God has established with them, as well as the ways they’ve violated it.

Here’s where understanding the history helps.  As I said, at this point, the Persians have been in charge for a long time.  Malachi addresses a defeated people.  We hear the cry, “Where is the God of justice?”  In the face of Persian rule, many doubt the Lord even cares about what’s going on.

Malachi speaks of the coming day of judgment, the day of the Lord.  The church sees the two figures, “my messenger to prepare the way for me” and “the Lord you are looking for,” as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ (3:1).

He gets on their cases about several things, but verse 8 has an interesting question.  He asks, “Will anyone rob God?”  Is it okay to pull a fast one on the Lord?  Malachi gets into the always lively subject of money and possessions.

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Actually, he’s already brought it up.  In chapter 1, he chastises the people for bringing lame and diseased animals for sacrifice at the temple.  Malachi makes this inquiry, dripping with sarcasm, “Do you think the government would let you get away with that?  So why are you trying it with God?”

I sometimes notice this with gifts to charities and church groups.  You’re not supposed to bring dirty and broken stuff.  More than once while bringing items to the Salvation Army or Goodwill, I’ve seen people dumping off their junk.  I remember watching someone dumping armloads of clothes onto the bare concrete, right next to the very edge of the loading dock.  I can’t say that the clothes were soiled, but the person didn’t appear to be treating them as an offering to the church.

The prophet continues his line of thought in chapter 3.  By being stingy with their tithes and offerings, he says the people are robbing God.  Malachi has mentioned other ways in which their worship has become slipshod.  The withholding of offerings is yet one more example of how their service is insincere.

But of course, this is much bigger than what happens on Sunday morning.  This extends to all of life.  We hear the promise of the Lord, when “put…to the test,” to “see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (v. 10).

I don’t know about you, but this is a scripture text I’ve heard abused in some pretty crass ways.  We’ve all heard preachers talk about giving to God like it’s a business transaction.  The promises of God’s blessings are compared with wise investments.

It must work!  The ministers encouraging those investments seem to have fabulous houses, fast cars, and fine suits.

Verse 11 continues the pledge: “I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil”.  The Hebrew word for “locust” אכֵל (’okel) literally means “devourer.”  Today, locusts are still a problem, but we all can think of things that eat up our resources.

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Malachi wants the people to reaffirm the covenant with Yahweh they’ve ignored.  They need to get their priorities in order.  When that happens, the word from the Lord is that “all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight” (v. 12).  The Lord will bless them, or maybe, they’ll understand that they’ve already received a blessing.

The tithe, ten percent, was part of the Old Testament law.  It was part of the teaching Jesus received.  Many of his parables deal with the use of money and valuables.  In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching deals with money.

The crazy and “true story [is told] of a man in Dade County, Florida, who sued his church for the return of the money which he had contributed to it.  ‘I delivered $800 of my savings to the…Church,’ said the man in his [lawsuit], ‘in response to the pastor’s promise that blessings, benefits, and rewards would come to the person who did tithe 10 per cent of his wealth.  I did not and have not received these benefits.’”[1]

This guy, his pastor, or both of them are looking at this thing completely backward.  They’re asking, “What’s in it for me?”  And by the way, there’s some of that crassness I spoke of earlier.  (And I must confess, I don’t know how that case turned out!)

Our litigious church member, as well as his pastor, might do well to meditate on 2 Corinthians 9.  They need to be reminded that “God loves a cheerful giver,” one whose vision is expanded to see the big picture (v. 7).  When such a person gives, the result is an overflow “with many thanksgivings to God” (v. 12).

What we’re talking about here is stewardship.  And stewardship is about more than just money.  Again, this extends to all of life.  It even includes home sweet home.

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Marilyn Gardner wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor entitled, “What’s Happening to the American Home?”[2]  One of the article’s main points was that the size of new houses in the US has been growing by 500 square feet every 20 years since 1950, while family size has decreased from 3.4 to 2.6.  The reason for the increased size is partly, if not primarily, due to our consumer culture’s thirst for more and more possessions.

It’s long seemed to me that referring to people as “consumers” is actually an insult; it’s a derogatory name.  Especially in America, whether in the church or out of it (sadly, it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference!), we are given an order to consume.  We are to behave like locusts!

Take the earth’s resources, turn them into all kinds of useless crap, buy them, waste them, put them in off-site storage units, use cheaply-made products which soon break, throw them away, pollute the environment, and then consume more in a never-ending cycle.  (Please excuse my ranting!)

Cindy Glovinsky, author of Making Peace With the Things in Your Life, says, “If there’s one addiction that’s holding the human race hostage, it’s an addiction to things…  I’ve seen people who haven’t had a guest in their home for years because they’re having so much trouble keeping up with stuff, and they’re so ashamed of the way things look…  Yet these people refuse to let go of things so they can have people in their lives.”  Architect Sarah Susanka is even more blunt: “We’re not living our lives…  Our stuff is living us.”

The crazy thing—the insane thing—is that this addiction to consume is one we willfully plunge into.  But God, always faithful, constantly calls us to turn from this false god that consumes us, this ’okel, this locust, that devours!  It leads us to devote our resources and energy in a skewed way.  We forget that everything we own is a gift from God—and should be treated as such.

Here’s one more story.  It’s an old tale about the rabbi of Sassov (in present-day Ukraine).  Apparently, he “once gave away the last money he had in his pocket to a man of ill repute [who quickly squandered it all].  When his disciples objected, he asked, ‘Shall I be more finicky than God, who gave it to me?’”[3]

5 malIf you’re like me, when I first heard that, there was a red flag that went up.  Should we simply waste our resources?  That would seem to contradict what I said earlier.  Still, I wonder if, when opportunities for ministry and sharing present themselves, do we ever look first for reasons not to do something?  (“They don’t deserve it.  They’re just going to waste it.”)

We want to be free—free of the many things that would enslave us.  I can’t pretend to have the answer each of us needs for liberation from that stuff.  I’ve made some tiny hints at what such a life would look like.  Instead, I invite us to receive the message from God through the Holy Spirit, however that happens.

Please keep one thing in mind: don’t kill the messenger!


[1] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1986), 189.



I have the right to!

Know your rights. The large majority of the time, this is an extremely positive statement to make. In a world in which rights are routinely violated (including human rights, women’s rights, patient’s rights, etc.), it’s very important to insist on this. However, as we turn our attention to 1 Corinthians 6, it seems that some correction must be made.

The apostle Paul is exasperated at how litigious the Christians in Corinth are with each other. They are constantly dragging each other into court, behaving no differently than the society around them. Paul isn’t saying that there is something inherently wrong with the judicial system; he also on occasion has made use of his rights as a Roman citizen. What he laments is the lack of wisdom and love that their behavior displays. His frustration is seen in verses 7 and 8: “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.”

The overemphasis on my rights is also seen by the use of a slogan which was probably used by Paul, but now has been carried to extremes. “All things are lawful for me.” Used in its proper context, that statement speaks to freedom in Christ. Some people in Corinth are using Paul’s words, not for the sake of liberty, but libertinism.

“All things are lawful for me.” That’s true, the apostle says, “but not all things are beneficial.” “All things are lawful for me.” Understood correctly, that’s right, “but I will not be dominated by anything” (v. 12). Being unrestrained in this way, lacking self-control, can lead to a strange kind of legalism that prides itself on how anti-legalistic it is!

Can we see ways in which we display these same qualities of litigiousness and libertinism? Do we insist on our rights, no matter the damage we do to others, the environment, or ourselves?