January 18, 2011

Unlike his letter to the Thessalonians, in which he emphasizes the chosen status of the church, and unlike his letter to the Galatians, in which he warns against the church trying to be the chosen (by caving to those who would emphasize circumcision and other religious performance), the apostle Paul’s first letter to the church of Corinth expresses both gratitude and agitation. “I give thanks,” he writes in verse four. But as we continue to read in verses five and six, it’s important to note words like “enriched” and “strengthened,” which, when combined, produce a pregnant clause that sounds like this:
“so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…”

Now, I don’t know about you, but when someone of stature launches into a litany of complements and overt affirmations, I have to wonder. Is this person merely blowing smoke? Is he piling on the flattery because he wants something? Or could it be that I have not been living up to my full potential?

For example, consider a 7th grade class, who has mastered the dynamics of addition, subtraction, the multiplication table and so on. If that group of students were to some day refuse to try algebra, or geometry, or calculus, it would be tragic. It would be a waste of how far they‘ve come if they did not then decide to go out a little farther. It would be a waste if they simply came to school and performed admirably, but didn’t risk being wrong with a new set of problems and equations.

Listen to the irony in Paul’s tone of voice in 1 Corinthians 4:8:
“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kinds so that we might be kings with you!”

You see, the truth is that the Corinthian Church does not have all that it wants. It has deluded itself into thinking that it’s good enough to learn the basics when it comes to God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. But they are refusing to follow the implications of that grace. What have they been forgiven for?

Here’s another quick analogy: imagine if you’ve taken the time to have surgery on your knee or on your shoulder. The operation has been successful, and you now are recuperating on the couch at home. It would be such a waste and even dangerous for you then never to exercise that repaired knee or shoulder again. Your muscles would atrophy and you would eventually even wonder if the surgery had been worth the all the trouble in the first place.
“He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Last week, as we discussions the situation in Galatia, I emphasized how powerfully simple it is to accept that you and I are accepted by God. Grasping that truth, of course, is awesome and amazing—something we refer to as justification. But in Corinth, the problem involves a refusal to go where justification leads and that is, something known as being sanctified, sanctification or the process of being made holy.

Jerry Sittser, in one of his books, describes a friend of his who asked to meet, and during the meeting, the friend said that he was contemplating an affair with another woman. He didn’t exactly say it like that to the Whitworth professor of religion, however. Instead he asked if God would forgive him in advance for what he was about to do. And, you see, what we need to emphasize is that questions like that reveal the fact that this person is stuck. And presumably he’s been stuck for long time. Having mastered the mathematics of God’s forgiveness, he’s refused to contemplate what it might take to become more and more and more holy.

Yes, I know that sounds scary. And, without a doubt, the prospect of being transformed—of going from a blamed, but forgiven person to one of the “blameless” saints—does give us a reason to fear God. But not in the ways that we might imagine. Ordinarily, we might be afraid of God because of what punishment might be inflicted upon us by an almighty deity. But part of being sanctified means embracing the image of God as a loving Father—someone so personally intertwined with your life that it hurts.

And yet, what if I were to tell you that getting closer and closer to God might lead you to an experience in which we ultimately lose track of where our own egos end and where the Spirit of Jesus Christ begins. In fact, something about the ego—that mask of a persona which we defend tooth and nail—something about that competent, coping mechanism—breathes a final breath and dies. And then, something new emerges.



January 9, 2011

Something is agitating the apostle Paul. Something is sticking in his crawl.

In letter after letter—and wherever he travels—he has always been known for his outpouring of thanks and, and if not his genuine gratitude, his polite civility. When, however, the recipients of this letter—the letter to the Galatians—opened it and read the assault of words aloud, before the wide-eyed assembly, I’m imagining their shock and dismay. Are they “confused” in the way that Paul claims them to be? Are they failing to live out some of the basic truth that Paul had originally taught them?

“I accept your apology,” says Steven Colbert on the Comedy Central program, The Colbert Report. “I accept your apology,” he says, even when the person doesn’t feel as if she’s apologized or has the need to apologize. And the overall effect, you see, is not only ironic; it’s disorienting. How do you say to someone who is not sorry that you accept her feeling of remorse? And how does Paul say to the Galatians, “You’re confused,” even when they may not feel confused in the slightest?

Well, here’s an important observation when it comes to church, to work, to family or to wherever people gather. And that is, confusion reigns when people feel absolutely certain of what they think. Or, to put that another way, when you and I are the most confused we are usually the most adamant about our own opinion and/or point of view. And perhaps this is the reason that the apostle Paul comes on so strong. He’s not insisting on his own way. And we know this by what he says in verse eight:
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed.”

So if you wondering at this moment, how we might avoid a gospel that is “contrary to what we proclaimed to you,” and simultaneously not hold our own opinions or points of view too tightly, my hunch is that it relates to the number of names that we drop.

Name-dropping, as we understand it today, is probably the most prevalent method we have of throwing our weight around. That is, ordinarily, if we’d like to convince ourselves and others that we know what we’re talking about—we will pull out the trump card of a name, of some reputable personality. For example, in 55 AD, the names that commanded instant respect in the Christian community went like this: Cephas (or Peter), James and John. And likewise, in 2011, we have names like Billy Graham, Beth Moore and Pope Benedict, among many others.

Now, to avoid confusion, I will insist that each name that I’ve just dropped is meant to symbolize a person, a person who has made a powerful witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the life of faith, there is nothing inherently wrong with relying upon the important people who have gone before us in the journey. The confusion comes, however, when we insist—and when we absolutely insist—on doing faith only and exclusively in the ways that have been lived before us.
“Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities…”

You see, I read this introduction, not as Paul trying to blow his own horn, but as him advancing a gospel message where he doesn’t need to drop names like Cephas or James or John.
“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people I would not be a servant of Christ.”

The point is—no matter how many important people have influenced Paul and affected us and infected us with their faith—we will all have a component of our journey that remains unmapped by others. And it’s for this reason that we begin to see ourselves as “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.”

That phrase, “who raised him from the dead,” is not a throw-away tagline. It’s intended, I think, to remind us that God accepts our apology, that just as we have been uniquely forgiven for sins which we have uniquely committed and just as those sins pounded the nails into Jesus’ flesh on the cross, you and I have been uniquely called by the God who reverses all of that. Nothing else is necessary for our salvation. Just the contemplation of that story as the central core of our own story. Nothing else. Simply accept that God accepts your sincere apology.

But, of course, there’s a problem. There’s always a problem and the problem arises when we don’t really think of ourselves as confused. It arises when we assume without a doubt that we know the steps of faith, and we know them because Billy Graham has instructed us in the exact way that we should go, or Beth Moore has told us all we need to know, or Pope Benedict has issued an encyclical statement.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you…”

So, let’s see: are we really “deserting the one who called”? Well, to the extent that we don’t see ourselves as taking any fresh and free steps in the journey, yes, we are!

For example, when we harken back to the first century, Cephas and James and John happened to be all circumcised Jews, and as circumcised Jews they met Jesus of Nazareth, walked with him, talked with him and therefore experienced transformation in his name. And yet, if the Christians of Galatia assume that all the males must now submit to the removal of their foreskins, they are confused. And they need someone to tell them: “but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

At this point, of course, the depth and the integrity of the message of grace takes over. It has to take over. At Latah Valley, for example, I’d like you to metaphorically survey the snow-covered landscape where we worship today. There are tracks all around us, made by animals and people of faith. Yet, in this journey that we take here, we need not follow the instructions exactly, precisely, without our equivocation and question. Take a step into the fresh snow of faith and live. Amen.

Summary Focus:

Paul is not anti-social. Nor is he against the human, embodied transmission of the gospel. What repulses him, however, is when the message of grace becomes twisted by who you know, when you know it and lastly what details you’d like to control.

A few days ago the Spokesman Review ran a story about a group of classmates who reunited for the first time since participating in a 5th Grade assignment. Evidently their teacher had invited them to bury a cookie tin in Riverside State Park and within the cookie tin these students placed various icons and memorabilia from the distant year of 1986. Some of the items included clothing catalogues and watches with these instructions: “This is a watch. We wear them on our wrists.”

Well, as you know, it has been a grand total of twenty-four years since that time capsule has seen the light of day, and although I was not personally a member of that fifth grade class, their assignment gives us the opportunity to wonder about the long-term effects of the passage of time on our work of faith. For example, if Mount Rainier should erupt in a fury of volcanic debris and molten-hot lava, like the Mount Vesuvius did over Pompeii, what might future generations say that we were doing right now? What labors of love might be encased in layers of ash for posterity? You and I have no way of knowing. We can speculate like good science-fiction writers often do. Based upon the ways that historians in 2011 examine the artifacts of ancient ruins, we can guess what our gadgets and our literature may say about us. But one of the intangible things that First Thessalonians highlights for us is what the apostle Paul describes as “remembering before our God and Father…” And, you see, remembering before God is not like any other kind fact-finding mission or any other mode of recalling experiences:
“For we know, brothers and sisters, that he has chosen you…”

An elderly woman, named Betsy, once sat in a circle with other patients at the nursing home. Philip Yancey describes her as “slender, with snow white hair, blue eyes and a pleasant smile” (p. 286). Yancey’s wife, Janet, introduces herself every week to Betsy and every week, without fail, Betsy responds as if she’s never seen her before. During conversations her eyes are vacant. The lights in her mind are still turned on, but for all intents and purposes, no one is home. After a few weeks, however, the ladies in the circle realize that Betsy can still read. She carries around with her a postcard from her daughter and pores over the sentences as if it came in yesterday’s mail. So, in a masterstroke, Janet began calling on the victim of Alzheimer’s to read an old hymn.
“On a hill far away, stands an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame…”

Suddenly Betsy became agitated, and she said, “I can’t go on! It’s too sad! Too sad!” The others then put their hands to their mouths. Over the course of several years, they had never heard Betsy put together two meaningful and reflective words… “That’s fine, Betsy,” replied Janet. “You don’t have to keep reading if you don’t want to.”

But, you see, the old woman did read. She read the words as if she were remembering them before God. And then, amazingly, as the circle broke up and Betsy was escorted to the elevator, she began to sing:
“And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.”

Now, you and I, at our respective ages, can poo-poo and otherwise diminish this episode as nothing very important. We can pretend that interactions like these happen all the time. But really the only time they happen is when a person has internalized and utterly embraced the identity of being chosen. And that, you see, is what I’d like to recommend for those of us who gather here, and to those who are scattered from here.
“For we know, brothers and sisters, beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit…”

The fifth grade class that I mentioned at the start this morning has dug up a collection of relics from 1986. And, of course, only the members of that original group were chosen to go back and excavate the cookie tin. But just imagine a group of Greek-speaking Christians who met in someone’s home in ancient Thessalonica. It had been over two decades since the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred in a place over five-hundred miles away. How, in the world, would they consider themselves chosen? Were they a part of that Davidic line that could be traced over 42 Jewish generations through Joseph, the husband of Mary? Were they intimately acquainted Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? And considering what’s now expected of them, in terms of a change in behavior, why would the Thessalonians want to be chosen?

In the Fellowship of the Ring, a small and insignificant Hobbit, by the name of Frodo Baggins, has been chosen. He’s chosen at first by series of freak circumstances and then later by the secret council of Elround that gathers in Rivendell.
But here’s the bottom line when it comes to Frodo’s chosen status. He is chosen to carry the ring of power because no one else can. He is chosen, as Jesus had been chosen, because he is humble enough to bear all the temptations that come with it. Around him, however, gather eight supportive characters: an Elf, a Dwarf, a Wizard, two regal human beings and four other Hobbits. And these figures, to the extent that they embrace Frodo’s mission, are also chosen. In the story of J. R. R. Tolkien, they are chosen to see that Frodo makes it to the fiery chasm of Mordor and that he cast the ring of power back into the chaos and oblivion where it had been forged. They are chosen, you see, regardless of their backgrounds, to witness this cosmic event. That is, the fellowship is chosen to see the reason for its existence un-made. And likewise, so are the Thessalonians and so are we when it comes to Jesus!

Latah Valley, as you know, is a young and fragile fellowship. And what we bear with and for one another we bear in the name of this ancient and this most relevant message: in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, God is un-making the evil that we do and the evil that has been done and will be done to us and through us.

Latah Valley, as you know, is a meager fellowship. But this fellowship, in so many ways, has been chosen. Our purpose, awkwardly, is to unmake the reason for our existence—to anticipate a world where churches are no longer necessary and where reconciliation reigns. Amen.