Thursday, September 27, 2012

Colossians 4

Paul concludes the letter as he does all his letters, with some concluding advice. See 2-5 of chapter 4. He encourages them to "devote themselves to prayer . . . and pray for us (2-3)." The prayer he requests is specific -- that God will open a door for his preaching. (I would add pray for my mission team that leaves on Monday -- October 1 -- for Uganda for the same reasons). Paul adds that we should "conduct ourselves wisely toward those outside the church."  Making the most of our time and opportunities.

In the final greetings section there are a few things to notice:
1. Notice that Mark, Barnabas' cousin, is with Paul (10). Mark had abandoned Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey and was the reason for Paul and Barnabas' falling out -- they formed new teams and went in separate directions. Barnabas wanted to give Mark another chance and Paul did not want to risk taking someone along who had abandoned them previously. I find it profoundly encouraging to see that Mark and Paul have reconciled and at this stage of the story they are working together.

2. Notice the reference to a letter to Laodicea (13). This letter has never been found.

3. Verse 14 -- another woman, Nympha, who has a church in her home. . .

Once again, Paul hand writes a greeting (18).

Colossians 3

This section that we call chapter 3 is Paul's description of the new life in Christ. He is not setting down a new set of rules to follow -- a list of things not to do and a list of things we must do. Rather, Paul is describing the difference between a heart centered on Christ and a heart centered on other things. The life that is centered on worldly things is still living by passion, evil desire and greed (5) -- which Paul calls Idolatry. An Idol is anything other than Christ that we put at the center of our lives. If I make lust and accumulation the focus of my life it does not matter what I say my life is about I am living in idolatry.

As we mature and grow other behaviors begin to shift and change -- again we do not wake up one day and follow a new law code. Rather, as we grow deeper in our relationship with Jesus Christ things things, like the old self, begin to fall away -- we give up anger, wrath and malice. We cease to slander or be abusive in our language. We tell the truth and we become inclusive in our relationships with the rest of the world. Notice the language in verse 10 -- we have clothed ourselves with the new self. We are being remade in the image of our creator (11).

Now, as fully clothed and mature Disciples of Jesus, we get even more fully dressed up. We add compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience -- we begin to more fully take on the characteristics of our Lord and Savior. This is basic growth. We all become what we focus on. What I set my heart on; what I worship is what I become. Therefore, at the beginning of this chapter Paul tells us to "set our minds on things that are above . . ." (2). Instead of making this world the focus we look to the bigger, brighter, glorious future we have been invited to share. In this world, whatever we do we do in the name of the Lord Jesus (17).

C.S. Lewis once noted that if we focus our lives on the things of earth in the end we get nothing. However, if we focus our lives on the things (the way, the life, the truth) of heaven we will get earth thrown in.

Colossians 2

Continuing the theme that Christ is the center of all things, Paul addresses the false teachers in Collosae by pointing out that what they are teaching is not necessary. In 6-7 we learn that in Christ is the fullness of life. I remember that great passage in John 6 where many of Jesus disciples have deserted him and he turns to the 12 and asks if they are going also and they reply -- where would we go, you have the words of eternal life. This is the argument Paul is using against the false teachers. Christianity is not a philosophy nor is it a set of rules and regulations or religious behavior -- Christianity, at its heart and core, is a relationship. Because this relationship with God through Jesus Christ is at the core all of the rules about "handle not, taste not, touch not (21)" are irrelevant. Likewise, the regulations of Sabbaths, festivals, new moons, etc. (16) also become trivial. The only thing that matters is the spiritual circumcision (11) that is our baptism -- the symbol of our newly entered relationship, that marks us and seals us as followers of Jesus. Paul argues that these apparent "religious" behaviors, have the form of godliness (promoting self imposed piety -- 23) but completely miss the point and the relationship and, in the final analysis don't accomplish what they are said to accomplish -- that is they are "of no value in checking self indulgence (23)."

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Colossians 1

Remembering our context (the battle is over syncretism) chapter one lays out the issue in profoundly clear terms. After offering a prayer of thanksgiving for the Colossians, Paul lays out the central theme in 1:15-20.
1. He is the image of the invisible God (John 1:14 -- . . . we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.") Jesus Christ is the human face of God.
2. First born of all creation -- again see John 1:1-5 -- Born is the key word here. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God -- begotten not made (created) -- as such the ancient ones believed that Jesus was of the same stuff God is and therefore God (one of the basis of the doctrine of the trinity)
3. in him all tings . . . were created. Christians believe that creation was an act of will and that God spoke the word and it was so (seen Genesis 1). Jesus is identified in John 1 as the "logos (word) of God". Therefore Christians believe that God the Creator performed creation through Christ the Son.
4. He is the head of the body the Church. Human institutional baggage aside, the Christian faith is not headed up by humans but by the resurrected Christ.
5. "For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell (19)". This would be a great verse to simply contemplate and meditate on for a few moments (hours, days, weeks, months). What are the implications of "the fullness of God" dwelling in the human being Jesus? This is incarnation in its simplest form. The word became flesh and dwelt among us -- in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell . . .
6. Through Jesus Christ comes salvation. Through Christ God has reconciled the world to himself. All humans have been reconciled we just need to live into the new reality -- accept what has already been done for us. We could live in rebellion (I'm not sure how that works out over time and eternity). But grace and peace and love and mercy and salvation are already extended (the Kingdom of the Heavens is among us!).

Because of all of this we don't need angels or saints or any intermediary to lead us into the knowledge of God or into a reconciled relationship with God. We are in direct relationship with God through his one and only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.

Colossians Introduction

From my introduction written for my Ugandan friends:

Colossians is written to the village of Colossae. This village was situated near the larger and more affluent cities of Laodicea and Hierapolis in what is modern day Turkey. This region of Asia Minor was evangelized by Epaphras and Philemon, two men who had become Christians while Paul was in Ephesus. The central issue for the Colossian church is syncretism. Syncretism in this context refers to taking the older religions and adding a Christian veneer or overlay. In Colossae members of the church had blended the gospel with some pagan and some marginally Jewish elements. This blending detracted from the uniqueness and the supremacy of Christ though the worship of heavenly beings. The primary aim of this letter is to reassert the preeminence of Christ. This letter was written by Paul from prison in Rome somewhere around AD 61-63. Paul sends the letter with Tychicus and Onesimus. Syncretism (blending non-Christian elements with the Christian faith) is a constant battle for the church. In the modern world syncretistic forms of Christianity include the prosperity gospel (capitalism with a Christian veneer), and any attempt to merge older pagan practices and understandings with the truth of the gospel.

Monday, September 24, 2012

1 Corinthians 16

Paul concludes this letter to the Corinthians in his usual manner, that is to say now that the pastoral and theological issues have been addressed here are some personal greetings and intentions. Notice the collection (12:1-4)-- it is generally believed this collection is part of the relief fund for the destitute in Judea. This fund is addressed in more detail in 2 Corinthians and elsewhere. Paul addresses his travel plans and tells the Corinthian church what he is doing and who is working with him.

Finally come greetings and a final word. In 15 and following Paul talks of three Corinthians who have been working along side of him -- Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus and assisting him in his work in Ephasus. Aquila and Prisca (Priscilla) are fellow makers of tents and close companions of Paul. They appear in several letters and the book of acts.

Notice the signature sentence 12:21 "I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand." Paul generally dictated his letters -- his scribe is not named in this letter but is in other letter (see Romans 16:22).

Verse 22 has a good Aramaic phrase that is translated "Our Lord, come!" the phrase is marana tha! (or maran atha!) It is usually mispronounced in the modern world. Either way it was one way that the early Christian movement exchanged farewells -- by reminding each other that Jesus is coming back -- Our Lord, come!

Friday, September 21, 2012

1 Corinthians 15

This is a significant chapter in understanding how the first century church understood the resurrection. It also contains some important early history of the events following Jesus resurrection including a "post resurrection" appearance list. The list begins in verse 5 and includes Cephas (that is Simon Peter), the 12 (that is the Apostles as a gathered group -- one assumes including the newly elected Matthias), 500 brothers and sisters at once (must have been something to be a part of), James (this would be the James known as the "Lord's half brother"), then to all the apostles -- remember the credential for an apostle (Acts 1:22) was that they were there from the beginning (the baptism of John) and were a witness to the resurrection (this is clearly a number greater than 12), and finally, Paul mentions himself as having seen the resurrected Jesus. He means his vision on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).

Verses 12 to 28 contain Paul's argument on the centrality of the resurrection to the Christian's salvation, life and future hope. "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (19)." He compares the spread of death through the disobedience of the first humans with the spread of life through the obedience of Jesus Christ -- through Adam spread mortality but through Christ spreads life eternal.

Verse 29 is a classic hapax. A hapax is a term used in biblical studies to describe a verse or passage of the bible that only appears once and its meaning is unclear. In this case Paul is talking of "baptism on behalf of the dead." No where else in the New or Old Testament is any such practice mentioned. No where else in the scriptures is there any suggested theology for such a practice. The rule of thumb with a hapax is that they be held lightly. We understand the verses and chapters of the Bible in light of the whole (not the other way around). One religious tradition has raised this single verse to an extended and essential practice. I would suggest that we hold this, like we hold the mention of the 1000 year reign in Revelation and women keeping silent in the churches in 1 Corinthians 14, lightly and pray that one day we will understand what was intended.

Paul ends the chapter with a description of the resurrection body -- physical bodies die to be raised as spiritual bodies. Our glory in human form is fleeting but in resurrected form will be eternal. He concludes with a reminder that history is coming to its climatic conclusion -- the trumpet will sound and the dead will rise from their graves and the corruptible will become incorruptible and the perishable will become imperishable.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

1 Corinthians 14

After his magnificent hymn to love, Paul returns to the question of the proper use of spiritual gifts in the church. I suspect he thought a conversation about maturity (when I was a child . . . now I am an adult) and the preeminence of love were necessary when talking about the explosive and potentially divisive subject of speaking in tongues and prophecy. Notice that he suggests that prophecy (speaking for God) is a more significant and more to be desired gift than speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues, a popular gift in charismatic/pentecostal churches and gatherings today as well as the ancient world, is an ecstatic babbling that may or may not resemble human language. As a gift of the Holy Spirit it is manifested through individuals in the form of a private prayer language. Examples of speaking in tongues can be seen in every Christian renewal movement since the beginning -- including the Wesleyan revivals of the 18th century. It is clear, in 1 Corinthians 14, that this ecstatic language was also being spoken aloud in the congregation. Paul insists that this happen only if there is one who has the gift of interpretation of tongues present and that it be done decently and in order (see verses 30-32). It appears that the Corinthians, in their spiritual zeal, were expressing these gifts willy nilly and morning worship was utter chaos.

There is a clear difference between "speaking in tongues" and the tongues spoken on Pentecost. Notice in Acts 2 that the Apostles were all speaking in their native tongue but the HEARERS were hearing them in their own native tongue. The miracle was not in the speaking but in the hearing. Here in Corinth the "gift" is not in the hearing (the hearers cannot understand what is being said without interpretation) but in the speaking of a "heavenly" language.

Notice that Paul assumes that there will be "unbelievers" present in worship. One of the key evangelistic opportunities of the Christian movement is when there are seekers present for morning worship. The seeker gets to see the Christian church at worship, hear the gospel spoken and be present with believers. For this seeker to see utter chaos, Paul suggests, would not be much of a witness. On the other extreme, of course, is that for this guest to witness dry, uninspired, formalism in the context of worship would also not be much of a witness. We need to be free to allow the Holy Spirit to move in the midst of worship and life. But the "spirit of the prophets are subject to the prophets (32)." That is to say, God is not the God of disorder and chaos. A worship celebration is not just about the believers. Worship also needs to show some sensitivity to the seekers among us. And, of course, the focus is on God.

The parenthetical statement in 14:34-36 that requires women to be silent in the churches has to be held in tension with all of the other biblical passages on decorum in worship. The requirement to "keep silent" is clearly not intended to prevent women from teaching or preaching -- there are ample and sufficient examples of women speaking in church and even preaching the good news to suggest that Paul does not mean this. Remember in the context of worship the newly converted Corinthians come from a religious tradition that is free wheeling, loud and chaotic -- or so is described most pagan temple worship of the time. It is likely that this is simply another reminder to all those present to give to those who are speaking the respect due and to not interrupt them for questions (unless, of course, questions have been asked for). There are many scholars who suggest that the parenthetical statement mentioned here is a later gloss which may be indicated by the fact that many early manuscripts have this statement at the end of the chapter (following verse 40).

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

1 Corinthians 13

The amazing hymn of love is one of the more misused and misunderstood passages in the New Testament. We read this at weddings -- a very appropriate passage to read at weddings -- but because we misunderstand what Paul means by "love." We turn it into sweetness and hearts and flowers and miss the deeper meaning.

The Greek New Testament uses three words that get translated into the English word "Love". The first word is Eros -- which is love in all its physical forms, including sexuality, a long walk or enjoying a meal -- which is where our diluted word erotic comes from. The second word is philios -- which is love in all its relational forms including friendship, affection, companionship -- and is the heart of the name of the city of Philadelphia (city of brotherly love). The third is a rarer word and is agape -- love that is a gift or is giving -- and is the word that Paul is using here in 1 Corinthians 13. The Latin translation of Agape is Caritas (where cardiology comes form) and the King James translated Caritas/Agape (love that is a gift) to Charity. In King James time Charity meant love expressed in giving. It has come to mean in our own time the gift itself.

I wonder if all those brides and grooms who used 1 Corinthians 13 knew what they were not just reading a sweet passage but were actually committing themselves to fully and freely give themselves not just to each other but in the same way God gives -- service to the world. If I have spiritual gifts and understand the deepest mysteries and have amazing faith but do not understand that the love of God is poured through me in service to the world . . . I gain nothing.

Love that gives never quits, it is patient, it is kind, it is not irritable. . .

Love that Gives is eternal -- everything else is temporary. Abilities, good looks, youthful energy are all fleeting. But love endures. I think in verse 11 Paul is gently saying to the Corinthians -- it is time to grow up and stop behaving like Children. The time is coming when we will be able to Love as fully and freely as we are loved.

This love transcends feeling and affection. This love transcends physical attraction and desire. This love is an act of will that chooses to build up and not tear down. This love is a choice that will always seek what is best for the other. This love is a gift that never (EVER) stops giving. When all else fails -- when we are old and in our decrepitude -- this love continues to give.

May you live into the Agape of God who is Agape!

1 Corinthians 12

. . . a day late . . .

Now we get to the heart of the matter for the Corinthian church. The question of Spiritual gifts. Chapters 12/13/14 are all addressing the question of the appropriate use of spiritual gifts. Paul comes at the question from three angels: 1) everyone has spiritual gifts (chapter 12); 2) Spiritual fruit (especially love) are more important than spiritual gifts (chapter 13); 3) spiritual gifts do not function independent of the gifted person and must be used in the context of spiritual covering and orderliness.

Chapter 12 -- we are one body with many members is the subject of this Sunday's sermon at Christ Church in Amherst, New York. The discussion of spiritual gifts can be found in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4 and a few other places. There are 24 to 29 gifts mentioned (depending on what you count). None of that really matters, what matters is that Paul teaches that when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives at our conversion (baptism) the Holy Spirit arrives bearing gifts. These gifts are not for our sake or for our own personal aggrandizement. These gifts are not given TO us but are given THROUGH us for the building up of the whole church.

Everyone is gifted. Everyone. The church is most fully the church when everyone knows their gifts and everyone is using their gifts in mission and ministry. No exceptions. Notice in verse 4 and following some of the gifts, speaking wisdom, speaking knowledge, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. Notice also in verse 27 helps, leadership, apostles, prophets, teachers, deeds of power. Elsewhere we learn of mercy and hospitality, etc. The point, again, is that everyone is gifted and everyone should fully use their gifting for the building up of the Church of Jesus Christ.

How has God gifted you? Do you know your spiritual gifts? (they are different from talents and abilities).

1 Corinthians 11

. . . a few days late . . .

2-16 takes us back to cultural norms and practices that have little application in our world. It must also be taken in harmony with the rest of the Bible. Look at 14 -- a man wearing long hear is degrading. What are we to do with Samson or Absalom in the OT who were known for their uncut hair? The principle that does apply here is consistent in the Bible and it is the principle of the need for a "spiritual" cover. That is none of us stand alone but we stand in covenant and community and within the community all leaders have those who oversee their work. I am covered by my District Superintendent who is covered by the Bishop and the council of Bishops cover each other. No one human being stands spiritually independent of the whole.

The rest of Chapter 11 has to do with instructions for the Corinthian church on celebrating the "Lord's Supper". We call it Communion or even Eucharist (a good Greek word meaning "Thanksgiving"). Once again this passage should not be taken independent of the other passages in the New Testament that teach about Communion. It must be held in balance with the last supper itself with Luke 24 (the Emmaus Road story) and other places. Essentially the issue is the Corinthians were having a "Banquet" at communion and it was beginning to look and sound like the pagan rituals that were going on in the other temples in town. Our call to a more somber celebration is in order. We are declaring the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus and should do so with grace and dignity and self awareness.

Friday, September 14, 2012

1 Corinthians 10

The question I often find myself asking when I read the stories and history contained in the Hebrew scriptures (aka Old Testament) is this: why was this story preserved? What lesson, what instruction, what insight am I expected to gain from reading this passage. The stories of Genesis and Numbers, the history of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles were not preserved at random. These stories and histories are intended to teach future generations something essential about God, about the life of faith, about how we are to live our lives. Paul begins chapter 10 by recounting some of the lessons from Israel's history. God has formed a people for himself (1-5) and the people shared things in common -- common experience of the red sea, common experience of water from the rock, and the common experience of eating manna. There are negative examples as well -- the people were rebellious, stiff necked, immoral and idolatrous and what happened to them in the wilderness should serve as a reminder to us.

Paul goes on to explain another reason why idolatry is so very bad. We are partakers of the body and blood of Christ through Christian communion. Sacrifices offered in pagan temples are offered to false gods (even demons - 20). What communion does the Son of God have with demons? When we make our choice to follow Jesus we need to do so whole heartedly and free of previous encumbrances.

Finally Paul lays down a vital principle of the Christian life (one that I will preach about on September 16 at Christ Church). We need to do all that we do to the glory of God. Various things motivate us and various emotions inform and dictate divers aspects of our lives. As Christ followers there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular. Everything is spiritual and everything we have, do, say, engage in, etc. -- literally everything -- influences our spiritual growth or lack there of. There is no line between what we do "for a living" and the life to which we are called. If I am a dentist or a line worker in a factory I need to do what I do to my very best and offer it all to the glory of God. When we eat we eat with thanksgiving to God. When we drink we drink with thanksgiving to God. When we work we work with thanksgiving to God. When we play we play with thanksgiving to God. "So, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God (10:31)."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

1 Corinthians 9

Paul begins this chapter by reminding the Corinthians that, as a minister of the gospel and an apostle he is entitled to receive financial/material support from them. Although a bit crude, not muzzling the ox that treads the grain, is a marvelous image for pastoral support. From previous comments it is unlikely that Paul is a married man (in previous chapters he has argued that people should be as he is -- unencumbered and free from marriage responsibilities) however, he does hold on to the "right to travel" with a believing wife. Notice that the other apostles, the Lord's brothers and Peter (Cephas) all are married and all travel with their spouses. This and other passages establishes the Christian tradition of paid clergy. There are exceptions, curiously Paul is one of the exceptions as, at least in Corinth anyway, he chose to work as a maker of tents rather than be a burden on the community.

The principles laid down in 19 and following are vital for understanding Christian ministry and evangelism. Notice that Paul does not expect the rest of the world to conform to his expectations and standards. Rather he is willing to adopt the mannerisms and expectations of various segments of society in order to communicate the gospel to them. When he is among the Jews he plays up his jewishness, when he is among the gentiles he plays up his connections with them. This is why he uses two names -- he is called Saul (his Hebrew name) when he is working in and around Palestine but he calls himself Paulus (Paul -- his Greek name) when he is out among the gentile world.

Apostles were first century missionaries and church planters. The Church planter must understand the culture in which the church is being planted. There are different expressions, different themes, different cultural expectations from community to community, country to country, culture to culture. The Apostle has to be recognized and have understanding before he/she can hope to be heard and to be understood. In a sense the Apostle has to be a cultural anthropologist as well as a preacher of the Gospel. Several places in Paul's ministry we see this playing out. When he is in Athens (Acts 17), although he is grieved by the idolatry of the city he does not begin by renouncing or denouncing the cities idolatry. Rather he uses the multiple altars and the environment as a beginning point for his preaching of the gospel.

How could the 21st century Christian church be better cultural anthropologists so that we may more effectively communicate the gospel?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

1 Corinthians 8

"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (8:1) This sentence is the controlling thought in chapter 8. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing and when we allow our perceived or presumed superior information to give us feelings of superiority or standing we will find ourselves doing things that actually hurt others. The issue in chapter 8 is whether or not it is permitted to eat food offered to idols. This is not an issue that modern Americans have to deal with on any regular basis -- though there are still many places in the world where this is still played out. In Corinth, where many gods are worshiped openly and where most religious expressions involved some form of ritual sacrifice it is a major issue. Many commentators have noted that most of the meat sold in the public markets of Corinth came from the altars of various temples. The priests would take the sacrificed meat and sell it on the open market to help finance the temple (a perfectly acceptable practice in most of the ancient religions). Many of the dining establishments in Corinth would be feasting places for various gods and goddesses as well -- and eating in them was common practice.

Because of this practice of selling meat offered to idols on the open market, one could never be sure if the rib eye steak or other dinner entree that was purchased in the market came from pagan temples or not. For most of us this is not an issue. As Paul notes -- no idol in the world really exists -- we recognize that the idol is nothing and that the god or goddess perceived behind the idol is nothing. Therefore the food offered there is not contaminated in any way. This knowledge gives us a sense of superiority over those who have scruples about eating meat that was offered to the idol. In a multi-religious culture where many gods are worshiped openly and in the church where nearly all of the members grew up in the temple/idol culture there are going to be many people who will not be able to get beyond where the meat came from. Not to mention the difficulty of having left the temple religion for faith in Christ and then seeing your fellow believer back at the pagan feasts.

Paul's solution is unique. He suggests that we who perceive ourselves to be strong should give up our "rights" so as not to cause spiritual difficulty for those who are "weaker". In this case weaker means those who are still struggling with leaving the older idol/temple traditions and practices.

Imagine. What if ever choice for freedom I made, was made considering the impact (good or bad) that it might have on those around me. . . what if building others up out ranked my own personal pleasure or freedom? Remember knowledge puffs up but love builds up . . .

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

1 Corinthians 7

This chapter reads a bit like "friendly marital advice from bachelor Uncle Paul." There are some unspoken and barely spoken assumptions that are behind Paul's teaching in this chapter. He believes that the "Day of the Lord" is soon to come and he understands that day, not as joy and peace, but death and destruction. At the end, when Jesus returns, all will be restored, but it will be hard times and difficult experiences until then. Remember that by the middle of the first century (AD 60 or so) Rome has turned decidedly against the fledgling Christian movement. Nero has blamed the Christians and killed them by the thousands. Times are already difficult. In light of this situation, Paul is suggesting that the Corinthians not take on any more responsibility and to keep their lives unencumbered as much as possible.

7:14 is one of the underpinnings of the theology of infant baptism. If the faith of the believing parents makes the children holy than these children should be baptized and included in the church. It is an interesting argument and, fortunately, not the only argument.

Notice that even though Paul suggests that we "stay in the situation/station" we were in when we became Christians, he allows exceptions in almost every case. To the slaves, stay as slaves (but get free if you can) is one perfect example (21ff). This is part of the "trajectory against human slavery" that emerges by the end of the first century.

Notice here the second grounds for legitimate divorce. The first is adultery. Here in chapter 7:15 we add abandonment: he the unbelievers leaves, let it be so. The brother or sister is not bound in such circumstances . . . " For the believing couple (where both are believers) there are a different set of understandings but for the "unequally yoked" marriage abandonment is grounds for divorce and remarriage by the believer.

Monday, September 10, 2012

1 Corinthians 6

The complexities of the ancient world are often lost on modern readers. The extended conversation in chapter six about fornication and "joining" with a prostitute seems, to the modern reader, to be a simple reminder to keep oneself sexually and morally pure. The complicating factor is that sexual intercourse was often a key factor in pagan temple worship. The primary goddess of the city of Corinth was "the goddess of love" and "ritual fornication" was an integral part of worship. The reference in 6:9 to "male prostitutes" is a reference to this same ritualized behavior. Paul's condemnation of this practice has as much to do with avoiding idolatry and returning to pagan worship than it does with more conventional sexual mores (although I believe, both apply).

The bottom line, sexual values aside, is glorifying God in body and spirit. How we live, how we steward our bodies, our time, our very selves does matter. Think of it this way. The human being is a unique blend of physical and spiritual being. Angels are pure spirit. Animals are pure physical. But human beings live life with a foot in both camps. We know that what impacts our bodies also impacts our spirit (try to pray when stricken with the flu). We also know that what impacts our spirit also impacts our bodies (that knot in the pit of our stomach when things are not right). The biblical goal is to seek and find balance. Balance between healthy physical living (faithful stewardship of our bodies) and healthy spiritual living (faith stewardship of our Spirit). The body and the spirit are not in competition with each other -- our physical self is not a burden nor is it inherently evil -- the harmony of body, mind, spirit and relationships is part of what the Kingdom of the Heavens is about. This is living life in "right relationship".

I didn't say much about the "lawsuit" issue in chapter 6. Suffice it to say that pride and the search for vengeance can cause us to do some pretty stupid things.

Friday, September 7, 2012

1 Corinthians 5

There are some important principles in chapter 5. The first is Paul's admonition regarding a flagrant case of sexual immorality in the church. A man is has taken his father's wife. This does not mean the woman is his mother (although possible) but under the law code of the Hebrew Scriptures this is clearly and consistently forbidden. It is not an issue Jesus address in any specific way and so the early church's understanding was that such behavior was still forbidden. The problem is that the Corinthian church has chosen to boast about their "freedom" and "grace" rather than confronting the man with his behavior (not to mention his father's wife).

Paul makes a distinction in 5:9ff between judging the behavior of those who claim to be Christ followers and judging the behavior of those who are not claiming to be Christ followers. We are not to judge the behavior of those who do not belong to Christ. We are to love them, walk with them and our encouragement of them is not "clean up your act" but "come to Jesus." A friend of mine once said that Jesus never cleans his fish before he catches them. It is up to Jesus to bring conviction and correction to the life of one living immorally. However, if we claim to be Christians we have a responsibility to live up to a different standard. In modern America this is profoundly difficult. Research consistently shows that there is minimal difference in the ethics and behavior of those who claim to be Christian and those who do not. Divorce rates among those who claim to be Christians is no lower than the national norm and instances of alcoholism and infidelity run about the same. I have often thought that in modern American we have as many non or nominal Christians inside the church on a Sunday as we do outside the church on a Sunday. How do we handle these confrontations today?

I have come to believe that I must earn the right to speak into someone's life. Just become someone comes to church on a regular basis does not mean that they are committed to following Jesus nor is it an automatic indicator that they intend to do so. It is only in convenental relationships that we have permission to speak into peoples lives. In my covenant group we strive to hold each other accountable and when one of us is off the rails a bit the group confronts and strives to bring them back.

I have also come to believe that the church is open and available for everyone -- regardless of what they are doing or where they come from. However, leadership in the church is an entirely different matter. What behaviors should be considered "forbidden" for leaders? What "immoralities" should be confronted? For the first century Corinthian Church, they were choosing to live by the same standards as the world around them (and, in this one specific case, at an even lower standard than society around them). As we shall see in the next chapter (on Monday) this is not the only issue they struggled with.

Finally notice that is not just the sexual immorality that Paul wants us to take notice of: he adds "greedy" "idolater" "reviler" "drunkard" and "robber" to the list. We tend to focus on the "hot" sins like sexual immorality and neglect the deadlier behaviors of greed, idolatry, putting others down, conspicuous consumption and wrongfully taking from others. . .

Thursday, September 6, 2012

1 Corinthians 4

Some people in the Corinthian church have been challenging Paul's authority. It appears that they have accused him of being "stern" in letters but not so challenging in person and some more aggressive members of the community have used this to stir dissent and division in the Church. Paul's response to this is to place himself, not in the position of power and control, but along side Christ who emptied himself and became a servant (see Philippians 2). Paul says it is pointless to pass judgment on him since there is only one judge (Jesus) and when judgment day comes everything will be revealed about everything.

He continues his argument by noting that the Apostolic life is the hardest of all. The Apostles have been put on display (see 8-11) and are "fools for Christ." I had a friend, Andy, who had a T-shirt that said "I'm a fool for Christ, whose fool are you." It is an unspoken but inevitable conclusion of life that everyone is a servant of someone or something or some "idea" or "ideal". Paul says in one of his other letters that we are the servant of whatever we submit or surrender to. We are wired in such a way that something has to have first priority in our lives. It might be self preservation, it might be a political ideal, or it might just be one of the primary idols of our culture: money, sex, power or self. Notice the litany in verse 11: "we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. . . " They apostolic life -- the life of preaching the gospel in new places to new people -- was a very difficult life, indeed.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

1 Corinthians 3

Paul continues his denunciation of "factions" in the church. I wonder what he would have thought of the modern concept of "denominations" -- I suspect the rhetoric he used on the Corinthians would be mild in comparison. He tells them (1-4) that they are behaving like babies (can only drink milk, cannot handle solid food). The example of their babyness is their clinging to the factions. From chapter 1 we learned that there were at least four different factions in the church: the Paul group, the Apollos group, the Cephas (Peter) group and the Christ group. Paul's solution to this factionalism to to point out that Paul, Apollos, Cephas are all servants of Christ -- one plants, another weeds, another waters but God gives the increase and the ultimate harvest is the harvest of souls.

He shifts metaphors in 3:10 from "growing" to building. Paul says he has labored, like a good worker, to lay an excellent foundation. He is blessed to know that others have followed him and have built on his foundation. In the "Day" -- short hand for "The Day of the Lord" -- our works will be tried by fire and what we are will ultimately be revealed. For pastors and other Christian leaders this image is vitally important. All of us stand on the shoulders of those who went before us. I pastor Christ Church in Snyder. I pastor here because many other pastors laid foundations, built structures, gathered community and engaged in mission and ministry in this place. I am grateful to all of them. My job is to build on the foundations they laid down. The next stage of the equation is equally important. I do not live in an isolated present. I am building a foundation and a community that others will be responsible for after me. I need to be the best foundation builder, community builder I can possibly be.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

1 Corinthians 2

Only those who are striving to "walk in the Spirit" can understand spiritual things (14-15). I have observed in my years of being a Pastor this important but profound truth. Until I am awakened to the presence and the redeeming grace of God I cannot perceive nor can I understand the life in faith. When I first traveled to Africa (in 2006) I was told many stories, I saw photos, I saw videos, I heard first person accounts of what life in Zimbabwe might be like. I filed all that information away and believed myself prepared for the experience. I was not prepared for the experience. When I was immersed in the Zimbabwe world I had a change of heart and a change of world view that no amount of story telling or photo showing could have accomplished. With this change of heart and world view I understood (or, perhaps put more humbly) I began to understand and a whole new world opened up to me. I could not have had this change of heart without the experience of being there and meeting the people.

The same is true of the life in the Spirit. I can tell people about it, I can show examples and introduce others who are on the same journey but none of that compares to the reality or the spiritual life and that reality has to be personally experienced -- it cannot be taught it must be caught. C.S. Lewis once suggested that the best way to experience this, from a doubter's perspective, was to take a month and live one's life as if the Christian message were true and see what happens. I suspect that when I spend that month reading the Bible, taking time to pray, engaging in mission and ministry and seeking worship, the Holy Spirit will meet me in each and every one of those points of contact and I will discover that my heart and life has been renewed by the presence and the power of God through Jesus.

1 Corinthians 1

The Corinthian church looks a little like the modern American (or anywhere else for that matter) church. The good news is that the church is full of people. The bad news is that the church is full of people. Human beings are broken, flawed and wayward creatures. One of  my professors used to say "human beings are not rational animals they are animals that rationalize." When I read the Corinthian correspondence I am reminded that folks in the first century were no so different from us -- and 21st century arrogance aside -- we have not improved much over the past 2000 years.

Key issue in chapter 1: Divisions in the Church. The church has fallen into "party" factions based on which preacher they came to faith under (or were baptized by). There is the Paul party, the Apollos party, the Peter party (Cephas) and then the true posers who claim to be of the "Christ" party. From play grounds to board rooms from the athletic fields to the cooking channel, human beings are locked into a struggle. It is the game called "I'm better than you." In our pathetic struggles to be able to declare "we are number 1" even if it is vicarious through our local sports teams, we find ourselves divided. We are red or blue states, democrats or republicans, Orange or Blue, UB or Buff state, socialists or capitalists,all aligned divisions that keep the world from coming together.

Notice the biblical solution to this. It is the message of the Gospel: "but we proclaim Christ crucified," (23). At the heart of the Jesus movement is an understanding of the renunciation of tribalism and all inherent power. Jesus proves his love for us and redeems the world not by political means or creating a new faction (even those who are of the "Christ" party) but by embracing the horror of our humanity and in embracing it he redeems it through is death and resurrection. In the first century this was "foolishness" and a "stumbling block". The crucified were not discussed in the Roman Empire -- it was considered the most shameful of all deaths (which is why "Jesus scorned the shame" Hebrews 12:2). The Jews understood from the Hebrew Scriptures that "cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:23)." Ours is not a faith of power to control but a faith of power to redeem, release, forgive and to heal. We have no reason to boast or to create a whole new "us versus them" mentality because what was done was done for us and not by us -- it is a gift from God, and not something we did by ourselves.

1 Corinthians Introduction

Here is the introduction I wrote for my Ugandan friends:

1 Corinthians was written from Ephesus around AD 55 by Paul. 1 Corinthians is the second letter Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. The first letter (see 1 Corinthians 5:9) is lost but the Corinthian’s response to that letter forms the basis for 1 Corinthians. The city of Corinth was an affluent and decadent city that controlled the critical trade route between the Aegean and Adriatic Seas. I understand that there is a word in Latin "to Corinthianize" which means to take something good or innocent and completely corrupt it.  Corinth was the home of the temple of Aphrodite (goddess of love.) The city of Corinth was a melting pot of cultures, races, and religions. The Corinthian church reflects this diversity. The issues that necessitated this letter are spelled out in Chapters 7 through 15 – marriage, celibacy, food offered to idols, worship, spiritual gifts (especially speaking in tongues), and bodily resurrection. Before Paul addresses these matters, he establishes his authority by addressing some other matters: factions in the congregation, a case of immorality, and lawsuits among Christians. The letter contains some of the earliest Christian traditions regarding the resurrection (see chapter 15) and Communion (see chapter 11) and one of the most beloved chapters in all the New Testament – Paul’s hymn to Christian love (chapter 13). The early Christian movement struggled with people making the transition from pagan religions to becoming faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Old behaviors, habits, and understandings were often difficult to change. 1 Corinthians, more than any other letter, reveals the broken humanity that filled early Christian churches.