Category: Epiphany

For the Sake of the Gospel – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5B (1 Corinthians 9)

1 Corinthians 9:16-23 New Revised Standard Version

16 If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17 For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

19 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. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

**************

                Being that I’m a member of the professional class of Christians. That is, I make my living by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, I could justify myself a bit by suggesting that I’m paid to do the work of the ministry so that I don’t need another job. In other words, my salary and benefits allow me the freedom to share in the ministry of the church without the distraction of another form of employment. I should note that there is a lot of discussion about the sustainability of full-time ministry. Of course, it’s possible to do the work of the ministry without getting paid for it, or at least not paid full-time. Paul himself is often lifted up as an example of “tent-making” ministry. There are benefits to such a ministry. You are freer to say what you think needs to be said without the fear of losing your job. That was true for Paul as well. Then again, the point of preaching the Gospel is gaining a hearing.  

                As we near the close of the season of Epiphany, a season that focuses on sharing the light of Christ with the world, we encounter this reading from I Corinthians 9 designated for the fifth Sunday of Epiphany. In it, we hear Paul claim that while he could have derived an income from preaching the gospel, he chose to do so free of charge. While he doesn’t charge those who hear the message, he does feel a bit of compulsion from God to preach the gospel. In this, Paul is like most prophets. They may serve reluctantly, but they serve because they can do no other. They’ve been called, and so they deliver the messages entrusted to them. Perhaps this why Paul speaks of himself as being a slave to this calling. Therefore, whatever reward he might receive is due to his ability to offer it to his listeners free of charge, even though it is within his rights to receive financial support from them.  

                While he may be free, he has become a slave to all so that he might win his hearers to the Gospel. He becomes all things to all people, so he can win some over to the way of Jesus. Therefore, when it comes to the Law, he may feel that he is no longer bound to live under the Law, he chooses to abide by the Law to reach those within the Jewish community who continue to abide by the Law. The reference to the weak here underscores what we read in chapter 8, regarding food restrictions. It would seem that Paul no longer feels bound by the dietary laws of Judaism, but he’ll continue to abide by them so he can win over his Jewish audience. More specifically, he is proposing a Gospel that transcends the categories prescribed by the culture—thus, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, weak and strong. The only category not mentioned in this particular passage is male and female (see Gal. 3:28). Such a message could have been perceived as challenging.

                When it comes to preaching challenging messages, we need to make sure put ourselves in a position to be heard. For Paul that meant offering the message free of charge. That may not be true for us, but trust needs to be built for the message to be heard. I would guess that Paul had built at least a degree of trust in the Corinthian congregations. With this in mind, we might attend to this word from Lisa Cressman:

We want the gospel to spread to the ends of the earth, right? For that to happen, the gospel needs to be heard. If people tune out or dismiss a sermon because they feel defensive, shamed, or that we’re pushing them to pull down their beloved skies, they’re less likely to listen. They’ll tune us out, open their phones to check social media, or argue with us in their heads. Regardless, they’re not hearing the gospel. [The Gospel People Don’t Want to Hear, p. 48].

For Paul, gaining a hearing meant becoming all things to all people. That is, he embraced an adaptive form of missiology.

                As he describes his methodology, Paul speaks of adapting himself to the cultural context in preaching the Gospel even if he doesn’t feel bound by that context. However, we need to be careful that we don’t simply apply to Paul modern church growth concepts. He’s not saying that the end justifies the means. This isn’t an argument for “relevance.” A close reading of this letter to the Corinthian church reveals that Paul has strong beliefs that ground his message. A better way to view this is to think in terms of embodying the message. He might have discovered certain freedoms in Christ through his proclamation of the Gospel among the Gentiles that he is willing to relinquish to remain in fellowship with Jews whom he hopes to draw into the community of Jesus.  

                In making his message known, Paul exchanges his freedom for the status of a slave. In the Roman world, one was either slave or free. In that congregation, some members were slaves, and some were free. Paul, though free, identifies himself with those who are slaves. Ironically, Paul takes a bit of pride in his decision to take up this lower status for the sake of the Gospel. Ultimately, however, for Paul, he preaches because he can do no other. Thus, as Charles Campbell puts it:

“Paul’s emphasis on the divine
commission to preach (vv. 16-17) theologically creates space for anyone to
proclaim the gospel when God has laid an obligation on them. Ironically, Paul
might be considered the patron saint of all those whose calling to preach has
been challenged by the church. After all, Paul’s own preaching credentials were
themselves being challenged by the Corinthians—and he defines himself, like
women have done throughout history, on the basis of his calling.”
 [Belief: 1 Corinthians, p. 156].

Campbell’s reflections on Paul’s sense of calling reminds me of friends and colleagues who are women whose calling has been challenged. I think here of Aimee Semple McPherson, a powerful evangelist who launched her own denomination, though she had to overcome many barriers to fulfill her calling. Her response to her critics was that God had called her, and so she could do no other. I think of my friend Sarah Barton who wrote of her own sense of call to preach in a tradition that has kept women from the pulpit. She tells her story in her
book A Woman Called, which has inspired many women in her tradition to answer the call they’ve received. Paul makes the same claim here. He preaches because he must. By taking up this task that has been placed upon him, and adapting himself for that task, for the sake of the Gospel he preaches, therefore, he shares in its blessings.

Food Fight – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4B (1 Corinthians 8)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 New Revised Standard Version

 

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For
if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? 11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. 12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

************

                For some reason, food is often the foundation for true fellowship. Living as we are in a pandemic that requires that we stay separated making normal fellowship meals not only difficult but impossible, we are probably feeling this more acutely. It’s not the food we miss. It’s the fellowship. But food can be a problem as well since people have different eating habits and requirements. So, once we can gather for meals once again, this example may bear fruit. Consider that you are sending out an invitation to a dinner party. You have a meal plan in mind, but then you begin to get the responses. One person notes they have gluten allergies. Another is vegetarian. Still another is vegan. Oh, one of your guests happens to be Jewish and can’t mix meat and dairy. So, what do you do? What kind of meal plan will work?

                It seems that the church in Corinth was struggling with food issues. At issue was food that had been sacrificed to idols. Some in the church didn’t think it was an issue where the food came from. Others were quite concerned. The debate once again divided the congregation into parties labeled the weak and the strong. There are plenty of suggestions as to the identities of the partisans, but no conclusive answer has been provided. However, the weak party does seem concerned about food offered up to idols.  

                Paul opens the conversation by contrasting “knowledge” with “love.” It would appear that the strong group was emphasizing their superior knowledge. In their wisdom, they apparently had decided that since the gods and deities that their neighbors worshipped in the local temples were mere idols. These monotheists decided that food offered idols had no impact on them or anyone else. So, why not eat food offered to idols. It’s just food after all.

                Interpreting this passage is complicated by questions of context. The issue is food sacrificed to idols, but what does that involve? We know that the temples often served meals featuring food that had been offered to the gods. Could it be that members of the community had chosen to participate in communal banquets or family celebrations held at the temples, which featured such food, believing that it did not affect them? In that case, it’s not just the food, it’s the location. A strip bar might have good food, but is that a good place for a Christian to frequent to get a good burger? Or could it be that the best meat in town was sold at the temples, which meant that if you wanted to serve a nice platter of steaks you would want to go to the temple meat market?  Either way, some in the community found all of this to be problematic and requested Paul’s intervention. The question posed here is rooted in an earlier one we encountered in chapter 6. In that case, while Paul might agree with those in the community who claimed that all things were lawful, he also reminded them that not everything is beneficial (1 Cor.6:12). In this case, knowledge is contrasted with love. Knowledge is fine, but love is superior.

                Now, our situation in life is much different from that of the Corinthians. Christendom might be fading, but Christianity remains the majority religion. There still are more churches in our communities than worship spaces for other religious traditions. It’s likely that the members of the Corinthian church were relatively new converts, whose family and friends were adherents of the local religions. They might feel as if they were being pulled between two poles. Since our situations likely are very different, what word might we hear in this passage that speaks to us?

                I think we have to start with the reference here to knowledge (gnosis). First of all, what Paul has to say here about knowledge shouldn’t be taken as an embrace of anti-intellectualism. It is also not a reference to some form of esoteric knowledge. The position articulated by the strong is orthodox monotheism. There are no other gods like the God they worship. So, Paul could agree with them on that matter, however, he is concerned about how knowledge is understood. Alvin Padilla notes that Paul has a specific form of knowledge in mind. This is the kind of “knowledge that lifts men and women to the point that causes them to have an exaggerated self-conception without concern for the needs of others” [Connections, p. 221]. Paul contrasts this self-centered form of knowledge with love. That’s because instead of puffing one up, love builds up others. That is important to Paul.

                Of course, Paul feels that it is necessary to address the question of whether these so-called gods really exist. Writing as a Jewish monotheist, he acknowledges the reality of gods and deities. That is, he believes that there are spiritual entities, so-called gods, that stand behind these idols. He believes there are demonic forces that can entice humans to worship false gods. He wants to make sure this doesn’t happen.

                Having acknowledged the reality of spiritual forces that might stand opposed to God, he confesses that for him and his community in Corinth there is one God (see Deut. 6:4-6) and one Lord (Jesus). Paul declares that it is through the Lord Jesus Christ that all things are made and through whom we ourselves exist. Having handled the question of spiritual forces, he can make clear his concern about how parties are dividing the congregation over matters of food.

                Since they appear to be the problematic group, Paul addresses those who have concluded that based on their knowledge of spiritual things the gods don’t exist, calling on them to recognize the needs of the members of the community who don’t share their elevated sense of understanding of spiritual things. He points out that those among the weak might see them dining at the temples and because their consciences aren’t as strong, might have their tender faith in God destroyed. In doing this, they sin against Jesus.

                I sense that Paul isn’t all that concerned about food issues, but he is concerned about the spiritual health of his flock. Consider that Paul insists that food won’t bring us close to God (1 Cor. 8:8). Food is, for Christians, adiaphora. There are no real food restrictions. Nonetheless, Paul concludes that “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.” (vs. 13). Now what that means for a modern dinner party is hard to say, though it might mean considering the needs of your invitees as an act of love of neighbor. That would definitely reflect what Paul has in mind here.  We might follow Augustine here in his view of the relationship of love to biblical interpretation: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought” [Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 1:36:40, Kindle Edition]. Knowledge has its place, but love is of greater importance! If we affirm that principle, there won’t be any food fights!

               

                 

Time Is Short – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3B (1 Corinthians 7)

 

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
New Revised Standard Version

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

*******

                Jesus  is on his way! The end is near! As Larry Norman sang decades back, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” I came of age in the 1970s when everyone in my Christian circles was sure that the end was near. Larry Norman sang about the “Six O’clock News” and Barry McGuire turned his antiwar protest song “Eve of Destruction” into an apocalyptic message. We were sure that Jesus was going to return any minute. How did we know this, well we read Hal Lindsey’s best-seller The Late Great Planet Earth. He made it seem as if all the signs were there. These purveyors of apocalyptic messages weren’t the first Christians to offer such visions of the times. It seems as if every generation has its apocalyptic preachers. Going back a bit to the early nineteenth century, we can point to William Miller’s message. He thought he could pinpoint the actual date of Jesus’ return by unlocking the code he believed was to be found in books like Daniel and Revelation. Of course, he was wrong in his calculations and his followers went away disappointed. But he attracted a lot of attention, even among leaders of my own denomination. We can trace such visions all the way back to the first century. So, here we have Paul telling the Corinthian church that getting married, having children, planning for the future might be futile since the time was short and “the present form of this world is passing away.” 

             Over time the expectation that the end was near began to ebb and Christians began to settle in for the duration. It’s not that they gave up the expectation that Jesus might return in glory; they just began to realize that the Day of the Lord might be a bit delayed. So, you might as well prepare for the long haul, even if the times might be short. We just know the timing of this event. There is value in heeding the apocalyptic/eschatological messaging of Paul. It keeps us on our toes so we don’t get complacent.

                Unfortunately, not everyone interprets such directives in the same way. It appears that some of these newly converted Gentile Christians had embraced disembodied spiritual practices, which led to problematic sexual issues. Since the body is irrelevant, anything goes. Thus, at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has to deal with matters of marriage and divorce, and there is more to come in the chapters that follow. Paul writes these words as part of his effort to explain how one lives faithfully in such times. In suggesting that the form of this world is passing away, Paul understood that to mean living into the new creation (2 Corinthians 5).  

                Paul’s time was a bit off. Jesus didn’t return in his lifetime. As we know, Jesus still hasn’t returned (and may not return in the way Paul envisioned). Nevertheless, apocalyptic thinking continues to make itself felt within the Christian community. Sometimes that can be helpful and healthy and other times not so helpful. On the positive side, the season of Advent invites us to hear again each year the call to be prepared and stay awake to what God is up to in the world. Unfortunately, apocalyptic thinking can lead to a form of hypervigilance that has dangerous political, social, cultural, economic, and environmental consequences. We are living at a moment in time when many Christians have bought into conspiracy theories that undermine democracy and endanger one’s neighbors. As an older example of susceptibility to conspiracy theories, I’ll point back to the 1970s and 1980s when UPC codes were first introduced. These now-ubiquitous icons that allow us to scan our groceries and other merchandise were portrayed in books and magazines as the mark of the beast. We were told that before too long we would have them emblazoned on our foreheads and hands so that the anti-Christ could keep track of us. So far that hasn’t happened, but these kinds of theories continue to flare up. Now the theories relate to stealing elections by cannibalistic pedophilic Democrats who control the Deep State. Apparently only Donald Trump can save us from these dark forces. Then there are the warnings being issued about the COVID vaccine. In this case, it is being suggested that tracking devices will be injected so that the deep state/anti-Christ can keep track of us (just a reminder since most of us carry smartphones with GPS, we’re already being tracked!). It’s this susceptibility to conspiracy theories that have led Christians to share false information about the presidential election and even join in the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

                As we ponder this brief reading from 1 Corinthians 7, perhaps it lends itself to having an important conversation about eschatology and apocalyptic messages found in Scripture and Christian history. We can have a conversation about the way we envision the emerging future and our role in it. We can consider Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God/Realm of God. What might the passing away of the form of this world look like?  What role do we play in all of this? If Jesus inaugurated the realm with his baptism, what role does the cross and resurrection play in all of this? If we take seriously the message of the Book of Revelation, which envisions a new heaven and a new earth, what does that have to do with the present? If, as Paul believed, the form of this world is passing away, even if that passing away is taking longer than he expected, what should we expect the future to look like? 

                Perhaps one way to read this passage is to hear it as a call to resist the worldly regime that opposes the realm of God. Might we hear this as an expression of the new creation that Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 5? If so, we might hear this as a call to living out that vision in the world. Might this speak of a different set of values from the one the world that is passing away sets before us? As we ponder this message of Paul concerning the passing of ages, it’s important to remember that he was still living in the old age and was influenced by it. We see this in his views on slavery and gender roles. Paul wasn’t a progressive Christian thinker in the modern sense. Charles Campbell writes that Paul’s “own theology remains to some degree captive to the old age ‘cosmos’. On the other hand, one should not interpret Paul’s words in a static, moralistic way in order to reify any hierarchical status quo” [1 Corinthians,  p. 133]. To be faithful to Paul’s message concerning Christ doesn’t mean we embrace first-century social structures. So, Campbell continues: 

“Interruptions and tensions abound, even within Paul’s assumptions about the male-female hierarchy. In the midst of the old age, Paul gives us glimpses of the new creation. The old age nevertheless continues to exercise its influence, and even Paul remains captive to some of its perspectives and priorities. Paul’s own concession that he is often not speaking a command from the Lord, as well as the disruptive qualifications that punctuate his argument highlight his own recognition of the dynamic, contextual character of theology between the ages. At the turn of the ages, as we seek to do theology in the Spirit, we celebrate the glimpses of the new, even as we remain humble about the ways in which theology itself may remain captive to the old. We keep moving and struggling to resist the old-age hierarchies that are passing away.”  [1
Corinthians
,
pp. 133-134]. 

We still experience the penultimate reality. The realm of God has broken into this world, but we still live in the old creation. We see this in all the “isms” of our day, from racism to sexism and more. Thus, there is no place for complacency, even if the time is not as short as Paul envisioned!               

Freedom and Responsibility – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2B (1 Corinthians 6)

 

 

 

 

 

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 New Revised Standard Version

 

12 “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. 13 “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the  body. 14 And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” 17 But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. 18 Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 20 For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

 

**********************

                For Paul, the way of Jesus is an embodied faith. Therefore, what happens in the body plays an important role in the way we express our faith. This may explain why he addresses matters of sexual mores in his letters. It’s not just that he’s prudish. He believes that how we conduct ourselves bodily is an expression of our discipleship. This is especially true of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian churches. What we have in 1 Corinthians is a missive to a rather new Christian community whose membership is largely composed of Gentile converts living in a famous port city. Corinth could easily have carried the moniker of “Sin City.” To get a sense of what this fledgling church was dealing with, take note of the references to prostitution. Paul the Jewish Christian would have been troubled by the lifestyle of the folks there in Corinth, which seems to have been carried over into the life of the church. Paul might advocate grace, but it’s not cheap grace. There are expectations. As John M. G. Barclay writes of Paul’s views on grace: “it is given ‘freely’ in the sense that it is given without prior conditions and without regard to worth or capacity. But that does not mean that it comes with no expectations of return, no hope for a response, no ‘strings attached.’” He goes on further to stated that Paul expects the gift of Christ’s grace to be transformative: “it remolds the self and recreates the community of believers” [Paul & the Power of Grace, p. 125].

                Paul tends to give the people he’s responding to a sense that he agrees to a point but then springs on them the trap. The other shoe drops. We that here in the opening lines of our reading from 1 Corinthians 6. Paul first writes: “All things are lawful for me.” While this might be true, he responds by telling the community that “not all things are beneficial.” Indeed, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” While the original Greek lacks punctuation, including quotation marks, scholars have a rather good sense that the slogan “All things are lawful for me” didn’t come from Paul. It appears to be a slogan popular among the Corinthians who had heard a message of freedom from Paul, which they received with gusto. They heard freedom from the Law as meaning no law (antinomianism). That seems to have caught hold in the congregation, with people taking advantage of their freedom to indulge in activities that Paul would not countenance. He offered them grace but expected self-discipline in response.

                Some of this embracing of freedom may have had its roots in a form of gnosticism in which the spirit was elevated above the body so that the body was irrelevant to the life of faith. You could do what you wanted in the body. It had no spiritual implications. That is not Paul’s view of things. So, when it comes to the body, remember the stomach is for food. The reference is a bit ambiguous, but at least at this point, Paul isn’t focused on food. He’s more concerned with fornication and prostitution. For Paul, illicit sexual escapades, including visits to brothels (which might have been the local religious establishments), were not in line with the faith he proclaimed (see 1 Corinthians 7).

                Passages like this are controversial in our day. Sexual mores have changed. In fact, marriage patterns have changed dramatically. Once upon a time, people got married in their late teens and early 20s. Now, marriage is often delayed into the 30s. There is, therefore, a long period between the onset of puberty and sexual maturity and when marriages are being consummated. So, you can understand that the possibility for people to engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage would be more commonplace than in earlier years, even among Christians. So, whatever we take from Paul’s message to the Corinthians, we will need to take into consideration changing societal and cultural contexts. Nevertheless, Paul’s attempts to bring to bear the holiness code of Leviticus to the lives of Gentiles might still have meaning for our day.

                I sense that while Paul is concerned about sexual behavior, even more important to him was the importance of holiness as the foundation for service to God. We might think here in terms of the behavior of Christian leaders, ranging from the sexual abuse on the part of Catholic priests and bishops to sex scandals among Protestant clergy. Although some, including Augustine, would counsel Christian leaders to embrace celibacy, I don’t think the kind of holiness Paul calls for requires an embrace of extreme asceticism. What it does mean is that we must be concerned about how we connect our personal relationships, making sure they are above board. To put it a bit differently, when it comes to the body not everything is beneficial! In our day respecting the bodies and persons of the other, embracing mutuality, is essential to an embodied faith.

                Paul roots his message in the order of creation, drawing from Genesis 2. He tells his readers that when they come together sexually, they become one flesh. So, don’t treat sex lightly. The sexual relationship unites people with each other.

                When it comes to the reference to prostitution, I wonder whether Paul might have not only illicit sexual relationships in mind but also certain religious rites that involve sex. Temple prostitutes became the conduit for union with the gods. Perhaps Paul is concerned that they might be drawn away from their faith in Jesus through engaging in sexual acts with Temple prostitutes as acts of worship of other gods (idolatry).

                Whatever Paul has in mind here, the opening point is well taken. We may have freedom, but freedom doesn’t mean anything, and everything, goes. This includes sex of course, but many other things that we may let dominate us. Consider the political landscape in the United States where vulgarisms, insults, and more have become the order of the day. In reaction to what is called “political correctness,” we find people saying whatever comes to mind, even if it is destructive and inappropriate. We see this as well in the resistance to wearing masks during a pandemic. People declare that they have the freedom to do as I please, even if that puts others at risk. This is true even of those who claim to be Christians. That is because this is an embodied faith. What we do in the body reflects on the body of Christ, which is the church. So, when I was watching the footage of the rioters breaking into the Capitol during the Congressional meetings to confirm the Presidential election and saw at least one person carrying the so-called “Christian flag” and breaking into the Capitol building, I saw that as a stain on the body of Christ. So, all things might be permissible, but not everything is beneficial.

Which Baptism? — A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 19)

Acts 19:1-7 New Revised Standard Version

 

 

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7 altogether there were about twelve of them.

********

            As Christmas gives way to Epiphany, the moment when in the liturgical year we celebrate the coming of the Magi to offer gifts to Emmanuel, we begin to add to the story of Jesus. When we come to the first Sunday following Epiphany we’re invited to celebrate the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan. On this particular Sunday, which we call Baptism of Jesus Sunday, we have the opportunity to reflect on our baptisms and reaffirm them. As we look back on our baptisms, we can acknowledge that some of us were baptized in infancy. Others of us were baptized at a later moment, usually upon profession of faith. Some were immersed and others had water sprinkled on them. Then there are those, like me, who have been baptized a couple of times, just to cover the bases.   

            In my lectionary reflections, I’ve been focusing on the second lectionary reading, which normally draws from one of the epistles/letters. However, on occasion the stipulated reading dips into the Book of Acts. On this occasion, the reading comes from Acts 19. This reading is paired with the reading from the Gospel of Mark, which takes us to the Jordan, where we find John the Baptist preaching and baptizing. It appears that he is drawing quite a crowd. These people, according to Mark have come to confess their sins and begin life anew. The baptism that John proclaimed spoke of repentance in preparation for the coming of one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Yes, while he baptized with water the one who followed him would baptize with the Holy Spirit. It was after this, according to Mark, that Jesus came and was baptized by John. When he came out of the water, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased’” (Mk. 1:4-11).

            The reading from Acts 19 also speaks of baptism, and both the baptism of John with water and baptism with the Holy Spirit come into play. The passage begins by telling us that Apollos, who had been in Ephesus, where he was further instructed by Priscilla and Aquilla in the way of Jesus, was now in Corinth (Acts 18:24-28). Paul, who had been in Corinth was traveling to Ephesus. When he arrived in Ephesus, Paul encountered persons whom Luke calls “disciples.” Paul asks these “disciples” if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. This question suggests that like Apollos, they were believers in Jesus. However, they answered Paul by saying “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” This exchange, and what follows, raises an important question. Who are these “disciples”? What is the nature of their relationship with Jesus? They claim that, like Apollos, they had received the baptism of John. Paul responds by telling them that while John baptized with water for repentance, Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit (as John had foretold). This led them to be baptized by Paul in the name of Jesus.

            This is where the reading from Mark, and its parallel in Luke 3:15-18, come into play. Paul draws on the story told by both Mark and Luke that while John’s baptism focused on repentance, the baptism of Jesus brought the Holy Spirit. What is interesting here is that, according to Luke, Paul baptized this group of twelve believers in the name of Jesus, something that is not recorded of Apollos, who also had only the baptism of John. There is no evidence that Jesus rebaptized disciples of John who followed him. So, why this group?   

            What is interesting here is that after Paul baptized this group of twelve disciples in the name of Jesus, he laid his laid hands on them, at which point the Holy Spirit came upon the group. This conferral of the Holy Spirit was confirmed by the act of speaking in tongues and prophesying—much like what happened with the household of Cornelius (Acts 10), though in the case of Cornelius the Holy Spirit fell upon them before baptism was offered (and didn’t require laying on of hands). In this case, the laying on of hands suggests a separate ritual from baptism, even though in Acts 2, the gift of the Holy Spirit was linked to baptism. So, we’re left with a wide variety of ways in which the Holy Spirit comes upon these early disciples in the Book of Acts. Sometimes, as with Acts 2, it is connected with baptism. Sometimes the Holy Spirit falls on people even before they can confess faith and be baptized (Acts 10). Then there is the time when baptism and the coming of the Holy Spirit are two separate events. First came the baptism of a group of Samaritans who embrace the message preached by Philip, which is followed by the conferral of the Holy Spirit at the hands of Peter and John (Acts 8). That case has served as a foundation for the rite of Confirmation, which in some traditions is administered by bishops, while baptism is an act that priests and deacons can perform. All of this suggests that the Spirit acts as the Spirit decides! That should give us pause before we become too “dogmatic” about the method and timing of baptism.

            In this encounter, the emphasis is less on baptism and more on the Holy Spirit. The act of being baptized in water is important, even foundational, but it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that truly transforms. Whether the Spirit comes upon a person before, during, or after being baptized, the important point is that to be in Christ is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Now, that doesn’t mean one must speak in tongues or prophesy. In I Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul lists tongues and prophesy as possible gifts, but insists that they are not the only gifts of the Spirit nor are they necessarily the most important gifts (for more on this topic see my book Unfettered Spirit). A passage like this can be useful in initiating a conversation about the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Here in Acts 19 Paul reiterates the promise of John that with Jesus comes the infilling of the Holy Spirit. If we follow this into Paul’s own letters, we gain insight into what that means. There are the gifts, but more importantly, there is the unity of the body of Christ, for as Paul writes to the Corinthian church: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ, for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor.12:12-13).   

Image attribution:  Scott, Lorenzo. Baptism of Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56877 [retrieved January 1, 2021]. Original source: https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/baptism-jesus-33953.

No Solid Food For You – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 5A (1 Corinthians 3)

1 Corinthians 3:1-9  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? 

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

**************************
 

                When a child is born, they are given milk at first (whether a mother’s milk or formula). Later, pureed foods are added. Finally, when their systems are ready, and teeth have arrived they will be introduced to solid food. You can’t introduce solid food until a child has the ability to chew. What is true for a human child is true for us as spiritual children. You don’t hand a volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics or Elizabeth Johnson’s She Who Is to a new believer. You might want to give them something more easily digested. As we see in this third chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul has concluded that the Corinthians aren’t quite ready to move on to solid food. They’re still infants needing to be fed a more appropriate diet. Paul comes to this conclusion as he deals with the vexing problem of divisions within the congregation. The quarreling and jealousy that is present in the congregation is evidence that they remain infants in Christ. They’re not ready to receive the deeper truths Paul would like to share with them. They don’t have any spiritual teeth with which to chew this food.

                In this chapter, the nature of the divisions introduced in chapter one seems to become clearer in chapter three. We know that there is a party spirit present in the congregation. Paul had mentioned in chapter 1 that some were claiming to follow Apollos, others Cephas, some Paul, and some simply identified with Jesus. Or perhaps the division is a bit narrower. Perhaps it centers on partisans for Paul and partisans for Apollos. Whatever the nature of this division, Paul refers to it as an expression of the flesh. When Paul refers to the flesh here, he doesn’t have the body in mind. His is a very embodied theology, so what he has in mind here is a sinful predisposition that has its grip on this congregation. To say that the congregation is divided over their loyalty to Paul or Apollos, doesn’t mean that either man intended for this to happen. Nevertheless, the Corinthians, being spiritual infants who are not ready for solid food, have fallen into this trap that is so common in our world. Just look at the way politics often works, especially right now.  

 

 Regarding the person known as Apollos, the only place besides 1 Corinthians that he’s mentioned in any detail is the Book of Acts (he is mentioned in Titus 3:13, where he appears to have been in Crete and may have served as a courier for the letter to Titus). According to the Book of Acts, Apollos arrived in Corinth around the time that Paul was leaving the city. He had come from Ephesus, which was where Paul was heading. In Ephesus, he had met Priscilla and Aquila, who instructed him more fully in “the Way.” It is said there that he had some knowledge of Jesus but had experienced only the Baptism of John. It would seem that Priscilla and Aquila gave him his graduate education in the Christian faith possibly baptized him before he left for Greece, where he ended up in Corinth (Acts 18:24-19:1). We’re told he was well-educated, probably in the art of rhetoric. Thus, he was an effective teacher of the faith. When he arrived in Corinth, it seems that Apollos, being an effective speaker and having the appropriate instruction, became part of the leadership in the Corinthian church. Perhaps there were those who embraced him at the expense of Paul, the founder of the church in Corinth.

I’m wondering, though I can’t prove it, whether Apollos had attempted to introduce the congregation to “solid food” before they were ready. Sometimes, immediately after finishing seminary, new pastors, flush with knowledge want to share what they know with their congregation. Some in the congregation might have been ready for it but were impressed by his erudition. Could it be that they were excited about receiving “deeper knowledge” than what Paul had shared with them?

If we read between the lines, it seems that Apollos was a much more impressive figure than Paul. If he was a rhetorician, he knew how to communicate effectively. He probably sounded a lot like the teachers that populated the town square. His message might have been different from theirs, but he might have shared their eloquence. So, it’s no wonder that he developed a following in Corinth. However, not everyone was as impressed. There were those who preferred Paul’s message. After all, he was the founding pastor. He had laid the groundwork. When Paul heard all this he wanted to straighten things out. He wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t about Apollos or him. Both had their place, but ultimately this was about God. Or, as Paul puts it here, switching metaphors from babies to agriculture, he had planted the seeds that Apollos watered, but ultimately God is the one who brings the growth.

What happened in Corinth is not a unique occurrence. History is filled with examples of division, quarreling, and jealousy. As a preacher, I’ve experienced I’ve known jealousy! So, I know what Paul is talking about.

The causes of division are many. They could be rooted in theological differences, but quite often what looks like a theological issue is really a personal one. Sometimes the messenger’s personality gets in the way of an effective conversation. It’s been suggested that the Nestorian controversy was rooted as much in Nestorius’ gruff personality as it was his theological views. We know that Cyril of Alexandria was a brilliant theologian, but he got himself caught up in some rather distasteful and violent affairs that shook the Alexandrian church during his tenure. The Donatist controversy wasn’t so much about theology as it was cultural differences. My own denomination is part of a larger movement that had as one of its reasons for existing the pursuit of Christian unity, and yet we’ve divided several times. Some elements of this division might be theological, but not all of them. As in Corinth, it probably involves a lot of fleshiness.

It’s worth remembering that the Corinthian church probably wasn’t much more than five years old. It was populated largely by converts. Even Apollos hadn’t been at this very long. So, it probably shouldn’t surprise us that this congregation might be experiencing growing pains. Can the same be said for the church today? After all, we’ve been at it for nearly two thousand years. Yet, the flesh is still with us. We are still captive to the ways of the world. Division is common. Fear is common, and it can lead, as it seems to be doing today, to circling the wagons. There are attempts to protect privileges that are rooted not in the teachings of Jesus, but human sinfulness.

The question is, are we ready for some solid food?  In other words, are ready to take up our calling to be God’s servants who work together in God’s field (or building)? Or do we still require spiritual formula?

Picture attribution: Blommers, B. J. (Bernardus Johannes), 1845-1914. A Peasant Meal, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=51140 [retrieved February 9, 2020]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

The Foolishness of God – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4A (1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Lucas Cranach – Chicago Institute of Art
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, 

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

    and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 

26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

*************

                “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.” How do you read that statement? We might reply, yes, God’s thoughts are greater than ours but is that what Paul had in mind? Paul makes this statement in connection to his proclamation of the cross, which both Jew and Greek see as foolishness. Why would anyone think it wise to follow someone who was crucified? Yet, that is what Paul preached. He even takes note of the fact that those who answered the call to follow the crucified one weren’t considered wise by human standards. They weren’t powerful people or of noble birth. They were the kind of people who might be considered fools by those who thought of themselves as being wise by human standards. That may be true, but who really wants to be considered a fool?

                When I read this passage, I have to wonder what Paul has in mind. Might a message like this even be counterproductive in an age where growing numbers of our fellow citizens are rejecting expertise as elitism. Is Paul, in making this statement, giving license to Christian anti-intellectualism? I hope not, but I can see it being read that way. There has always been a strain of anti-intellectualism within the Christian tradition. Years ago, Mark Noll, a leading Evangelical historian wrote a book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In that book, he addressed the presence of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical movement (as signified by ideologies such as young-earth creationism). So, what do we make of this?

When Paul declares: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” does this mean that there is no place for instruction or expertise in the religious world? We might want to start our reflection by remembering that Paul was confronting a congregation that was divided into factions that seem to be centered around specific teachers. Might there be those arguing against making the cross a centerpiece of the message, suggesting that this would look foolish to those who think of themselves as being wise? There is a tendency to tailor the message to the audience. Consider Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. Paul knew about the cultured despisers who seemed to reject the message of the cross.  

 

In making the case that the cross is the center of his message, Paul is arguing that human wisdom won’t lead you to God. You can’t study your way to a crucified messiah. It just will never make sense. It is something we take by faith. We look at Jesus on the cross and we see a different way of being. In the companion reading from Micah 6, we’re reminded that what God desires is justice, loving-kindness, and humility. The cross is a sign of humility and it is also a witness to justice, especially in light of the resurrection, which is God’s no to Rome’s act of condemnation. The cross is foolishness to those who cannot see God present in that moment, but it offers a different way of being, one that human wisdom can never discern.

If we can grant this premise, then we can address the other question, and that concerns the role of wisdom in the path of faith. I’m assuming that we still want physicians and our surgeons to be well qualified, though we seem less open to the possibility that the conclusions of the majority of climate scientists are correct. We seem, at times, to be impressed with our own observations, which we attribute to “common sense.” What comes to our religious teachers, should we expect a bit of knowledge and instruction? I understand that Jesus didn’t go to seminary, but Paul was rather well educated. In the Philippian letter he claimed as his religious heritage descent from the tribe of Benjamin, he was circumcised on the eighth day, and he was a Pharisee. As a Pharisee, he would have had significant religious training. There is even the suggestion that he had been a disciple of the famed Rabbi Gamaliel. But according to Paul, none of this mattered to him in relation to his position in Christ (Phil 3:1-11). He could brag if he needed to, but he considered this to be foolishness. That might be true, but Paul was still a rather well-educated person, as demonstrated by his letters.   

 

                So, when Paul speaks here of God’s foolishness and the foolishness of the cross, when he speaks of God destroying the wisdom of the wise, I don’t believe he is embracing anti-intellectualism. We don’t have to check our brains at the entrance to the church, but Paul makes it clear that human wisdom will not get you to the cross and thus to Jesus. He’s making it clear that following Jesus won’t make you respectable in the eyes of the world. Then again, when it comes to the message of salvation, God is willing to look foolish. St. Francis of Assisi was willing to be considered a Holy Fool for God. The question is, am I willing to be a Holy Fool? Am I willing to embrace God’s foolishness rather than seek salvation through human wisdom?       

               

 

Unity in the Power of the Cross – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3A (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

***************
 

                When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian Church, he called them saints (1 Cor. 1:2). That might have been a more aspirational than descriptive statement, as we quickly discover when coming to the Second Reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany. This reading follows the previous week’s reading which didn’t hint at problems, but it’s clear from this passage that this was a divided people. It seems that Paul, who had helped found the Corinthian congregation, had received word from a number of sources, including Chloe’s people, that the Corinthian saints were quarreling. Factions had developed, and they seem to have been dividing up according to allegiances. Some claimed to be followers of Paul, and some Cephas (Peter), and others Apollos. Then there might have been another group, who stand out for their claim to follow Christ.

I especially like that last grouping, the one that claimed to follow Christ. You see, I’m part of a denominational tradition that prides itself on its non-sectarian name. We’re “Disciples of Christ” and one of our Movement’s favorite slogans is “We’re not the only Christians, but we’re Christians only.” Yes, we’re Disciples of Christ and we wear that title proudly. So, take that Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Baptists. Why don’t you get with the program? For some reason, I don’t think Paul would appreciate this attempt to portray our movement as holier than others because we claim to follow Jesus and not a later leader or form of church government. After all, as Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided?” Paul’s point is that the church shouldn’t be divided. It doesn’t matter how you define yourselves, be of one mind and purpose. In other words, remember your calling.  

 

                Paul’s call for the Corinthians to be of one mind and one purpose, with no divisions among them, appeals to me. Things ecumenical stir my passions. That may be due in part to my own denominationally diverse background, but I have longed to the followers of Jesus united. At the same time, as a historian, I know that unity that is coerced, often by governmental decree, doesn’t honor the one whom Christians claim to follow. In many ways, Christian unity is more aspirational than practical, especially as the “church” has expanded across the globe. Besides, it’s difficult to let go of beliefs and practices that have been embraced over time. Sometimes it’s just the way we organize ourselves that stands in the way of unity.

Nevertheless, unity might be difficult to achieve, but that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. But unity needs to find its path in ways that honor our diversity in doctrine, practices, and governance. Since Paul mentions baptism here, we might think of our differences with regard to baptism. There isn’t just one way that Christians baptize. We’ve been arguing about it for centuries. I have embraced a particular form of baptism as my own, but I understand why others have embraced a different view. In Paul’s context, it may have been a question not of form or even doctrine, but the person who baptized a particular person. Paul responds to this problem, by downplaying his own participation in the baptism of members of the Corinthian Church. He goes so far as suggesting that his calling involved preaching the Gospel not baptizing people. Now that claim might get him in trouble in certain circles of my tradition. It might even get you fired from your post as a theology professor. since some in the broader tradition of which I’m a member believe that baptism is essential for salvation (and by baptism, I mean immersion for the remission of sins on the basis of an informed confession of faith). Baptism is, in my mind, an important element of the Christian faith, but fighting over it does nothing to further the message of God’s realm.

Rather than focus on who baptizes whom, Paul wants to focus on the cross of Jesus, which is itself rather scandalous. Paul says that it is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for those who are being saved, it is the power of God. We might struggle with Paul’s statement regarding salvation, but his point is clear, the gospel is revealed in the cross, which to Jew and Gentile was scandalous. In our day much of the scandal of the cross has dissipated. We wear the cross as jewelry, with no thought to its original use. In other words, what was once scandalous has been domesticated.

          The arguments that were dividing the Corinthian community had to do with power and influence. That’s why Paul put his focus on the cross in all its foolishness. There in the cross, one would find the power of God, and not in the eloquence of a preacher. Paul felt called to preach the gospel, but he was concerned about those who put an emphasis on eloquence. It’s possible that some in Corinth didn’t think much of his preaching, but that didn’t really matter to him. He might not be the best preacher in the realm, but he knew what his calling was. It’s probably useful to remember that in his day there were those who studied rhetoric so they could be professional speakers. To be eloquent, was to have power. As for Paul, whether he was a good preacher or not, his focus was on the cross, lest it lose its power. He didn’t want to get in the way of the gospel, which is rooted in the cross of Christ. It’s a temptation that is as prevalent today as it was in the first century. There is a desire within all of us to be admired, but when that desire gets in the way of the gospel then it’s a problem. It’s not that preachers ought not to give attention to their craft, they just need to keep things in perspective. As a preacher, I try to do my best to offer something worth hearing, but in the end, it shouldn’t be about me (or any preacher, even the most eloquent of preachers).

            Now those who claimed to be of Christ rather than Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, were on the right track, but perhaps for the wrong reason. We should be about Christ in the church, but if we use that claim as a way of holding ourselves over others then we’ve defeated the purpose of our identification with Jesus. So, even though the cross seems to be a foolish place to center ourselves, that’s where Paul puts the focus. Not his eloquence. Not his prowess as a baptizer. No, it’s the cross of Jesus that matters.  Whatever unity was to be had in the Christian community would come in terms of the cross, which may seem like a rather foolish idea—Why would one want to find unity in a method of execution that emphasized humiliation? —but it is the way of Jesus (and Paul).        

 

Lacking No Spiritual Gifts – A Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2A (1 Corinthians 1)

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, 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:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

***************

                Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church is one of the best reminders that there never was a Christian Golden Age that we might seek to restore. In this letter we encounter a church that is, to put it mildly, dysfunctional. Here in 1 Corinthians, we find a church that is divided and conflicted. There is evidence of sexual indiscretions, marriage problems, concerns about social inequality, and much more. If you are looking for a model church this is not it, and yet despite the many problems facing the congregation, it is also a congregation that is truly gifted. So, there are things we can learn from them that can enhance life in the modern church—just not the conflicts.

                This reading from 1 Corinthians doesn’t reveal the problems present in the congregation. Paul addresses them as a community that is sanctified in Christ Jesus. In fact, he calls them saints. In fact, Paul gives thanks to God for them, and he does so always. He might be frustrated with them at times, but he seems to have great affection for this community, which he helped launch. He will address the problems that are presenting themselves as the letter proceeds, but he doesn’t start out by taking them behind the woodshed. While the appellation of saints might be more aspirational than descriptive, this is the way he wishes to them. They may have their problems, but they still are part of the body of Christ.

                Because I am deeply interested in matters relating to spiritual gifts (see my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening), Paul’s statement in verse 7, where he gives thanks that they’re not lacking in any spiritual gift (charismata), stood out to me. Of course, it is here in 1 Corinthians that Paul devotes the greatest amount of space to spiritual gifts, but here he gives us a hint of what is to come. He commends them for their giftedness, and he couches this statement in eschatological language. He notes that they don’t lack any spiritual gift as they “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

 

                This word about the revealing of Jesus fits well into the context of Epiphany. At this point in the liturgical year, we are supposed to be looking for those signs that God is present, those moments of divine revealing. The Spirit is the one who does the revealing, and who empowers the church to bear witness to that revealing, as we await the day when Jesus returns. The expectation is that when this day arrives we will be found blameless.    

 

                Unlike with Paul’s greeting to the Roman Church, in this case, Paul is quite familiar with the community to which he writes. This is a congregation (likely a collection of house churches) that he founded. These are his people, his congregation. As we discover as we read further, Paul uses this letter to answer queries from members of the congregation. His responses are meant to get them back on track. One would assume that when he left, he had some confidence that they were ready to go out on their own. Perhaps that confidence was unwarranted. The reading ends in verse 9, but verses 10 through 17, suggest that there is significant division in the church. This is not what Paul desires. He appeals for unity. He asks that they would be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10).  

 

Among the points of division in the congregation is the matter of these spiritual gifts, which the congregation is not lacking. They have gifts aplenty, but not a come sense of purpose as to their use. When we get to chapters 12 and 14, we discover that this is a congregation that prizes spiritual things and spiritual experiences. They understand these spiritualities in very individualistic ways. They appear to have ranked the gifts and desire to possess the most spectacular of the gifts. The one that seems to be prized the most is this ability to speak in tongues. Instead of seeking gifts that enhance one’s own stature, Paul encourages them to pursue gifts that build up the church (1 Cor. 14:12).

                As I noted earlier, Paul sets this conversation in a context of expectation. There is a high level of concern in this community as to the return of Christ. The conversation in chapter seven about marriage is evidence of this, as is the discussion of the resurrection in chapter fifteen. It might be that this eschatological fervor created a sense of anxiety that led to some of the problems present in the congregation. This spiritual anxiety might help explain why they seemed to embrace a rather individualistic spirituality. Paul addresses that anxiety, while also pointing them toward gifts that will benefit the community. Thus, while the body of Christ has many members, no one member stands on her or his own. Therefore, there should be no divisions. After all, there is no lack of gifts in the congregation. They simply need to be affirmed. The good news is that “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 

No Partiality – A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 10)

No Partiality – A Lectionary Reflection for Baptism of Jesus Sunday (Acts 10)

Acts 10:34-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

34 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37 That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38 how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40 but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

************

                Christmas and Epiphany have come and gone. It’s time for the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood to give way to the beginning of his ministry. On this first Sunday after Epiphany, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. This baptismal event at the hands of John, which took place in the Jordan, marks the point at which God claimed Jesus as beloved Son. With that, after spending time in the wilderness, Jesus began his earthly ministry. As Matthew, and other Gospels, tell it, at the moment of his baptism the heavens opened, and God claimed him as God’s Son, the beloved (Mt. 3:13-17). Baptism of Jesus Sunday often serves as an opportunity for modern followers of Jesus to reaffirm their baptismal vows and renew their vision of ministry.  

 

If the Gospel reading from Matthew 3 invites us to join Jesus at the Jordan, the Second Reading, which normally is drawn from one of the epistles, takes us to the Book of Acts. Contextually, we find ourselves at the home of Cornelius, a Gentile Centurion, who has summoned Peter to share with the household something about Jesus. At this point in the story, as told in the book of Acts, Peter’s focus has been on the ministry to those Jews who might be open to the message of Jesus, although the ministry of Philip had opened the mission to the Samaritans. But things are about to change because Peter has discerned through a vision that God might be opening the circle a little wider. Maybe, that circle could be drawn to include not only Jews and Samaritans but Gentiles as well. The connecting tissue linking this reading from Acts 10 to the aforementioned baptism of Jesus, is the reference to God anointing Jesus, perhaps through the aforementioned baptism of John, “with the Holy Spirit and with power.” As the reading for today speaks of John’s Baptism and suggests that Jesus might have experienced that baptism, we have another element of background information to interpret this passage and the message Peter wants to deliver to Cornelius’ household. Since this is a Sunday in which so many reaffirm their baptisms, it’s appropriate to note that before Peter gets too far into his sermon the Spirit falls on Cornelius and his household, which leads Peter to decide that there is nothing stopping them from being baptized themselves.

 

In this excerpt from the longer story that takes up chapters 10 and 11 of the Book of Acts, Peter’s gospel preaching begins with Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit in the aftermath of John’s baptism. He notes that Jesus traveled the countryside doing good things, including offering to heal to those oppressed by the devil (exorcism). He notes that he was a witness to all that Jesus said and did, including his death and resurrection. He also notes that God appointed Jesus to the position of judge over the living and the dead. All of this took place as revealed by the prophets, so that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43 CEB). As for Peter, he was a witness to all of this.

 

                While Luke records Peter’s stump speech, what stands out is Peter’s declaration that he has learned that God doesn’t show partiality to any one group of people. We need to be careful here so that we don’t take an anti-Jewish step. This could involve the suggestion that Jews are Christ-killers (“they hung him on a tree”). We also need to be careful not to suggest that what Peter is doing here offers Jesus as a replacement for Judaism. Peter is saying, however, that while God may have chosen Israel and continues to treasure Israel, God ultimately shows no partiality to any specific group. This may seem contradictory, but I think God can hold things into tension. The message that Peter heard in his vision and he shares now is that in Christ all are welcome. God may have chosen Israel, but that doesn’t exclude Gentiles from enjoying the blessings of God’s realm.

 

                If we can remove any possible taint of anti-Semitism from this statement, then we get to what I think is the core message here, and that is God welcomes everyone into the family. The criteria we often use to exclude have no standing here. In the case of Cornelius, Peter may have in mind his Gentile status. He might also have been concerned about Cornelius’ military career. But, apparently, none of this matters to God.  

 

                Now, this moment has been coming for some time. It would seem to be rooted in the call to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That could have been simply a call to minister to the diaspora, but even the Gospel of Luke there are hints that Jesus has other things in mind. Eventually, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles will take center stage, but not quite yet. It’s actually Peter who gets the first honor of breaking down the wall of separation. Again, we need to be careful not to cast Jews in a negative light. There were degrees of welcome in Judaism of the first century and earlier, just as there have been degrees of welcome within the Christian community toward those who have lived outside the circle.

 

                The context for hearing this message is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus, which inaugurates his ministry. The context of the passage is a different baptism, but one that marks a transitional moment in the life of the church. Paul will be the lead person in the Gentile mission, but Peter is the one who takes the first step. That’s appropriate. He was, it seems, Jesus’ closest companion. He was the leader of the church. Whatever decision he made in a situation like this set the parameters for what would come later.

 

                The sermon he preaches to Cornelius’ household occurs only because Peter had already experienced conversion through the vision in which God reminded him that he should not declare unclean what God had declared clean. Now that part of the story isn’t mentioned here, but it’s the context. We wouldn’t be here without that vision.

 

                So, what does Peter’s declaration that God shows no partiality mean for the 21st-century Christian community? After all, our churches remain largely segregated according to ethnicity/race. Some of this is cultural and some of it has to do with comfort level. But it also to do with the fact that many of us in the White Christian community has not yet made peace with our complicity in the suppression/oppression of minority communities. Then there is the church’s relationship to those who make up the LBTQ community, which itself is not monolithic. The church as a whole has been largely hostile to this community, to everyone’s detriment. The story that we find in Acts 10 and 11 has proven to be an important piece in my own journey to welcoming fully my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. The Spirit moves as the Spirit moves!  

 

                Regarding the question of Partiality, I appreciate this word from Matthew Skinner:

A God who “shows no partiality” is not politically neutral or aloof; the expression in this context indicates God’s active concern for all humanity. Peter would have already known this from Jewish scriptural traditions, but he sees it coming to pass now in an unexpected way, with old boundaries passing away and new solidarity and fellowship springing into being, sealed by the Holy Spirit. If God shows this kind of impartiality, so should God’s people. [Connections, Kindle Edition].

Boundaries are difficult to let go of, but as Peter discovered in his encounter with Cornelius, it’s possible. It’s just a matter of flowing with the Spirit. So, what about our boundaries and barriers? What needs to go so that God’s inclusive love might be made known to the world? Since this is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, how does such a concern relate to our understanding of baptism?