Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Luke 6- You want me to love who?

These teachings of Jesus are among the most challenging words he ever spoke. He says, (6:27-31, ) 
"… Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
I suspect many of us hear those words, and recognize them as strangely beautiful, but then quietly reject them as not livable. It is anti-intuitive to love your enemy. … Is it even possible? What do we mean by “love” in that context? …. We hear Jesus say to turn the other cheek when struck and we suspect that our fist would be halfway to the other person’s nose before we have had a chance to start thinking about it. … We hear Jesus saying, give to everyone who asks, and we suspect we could go broke quite easily following that command. … So, what many Christians do is politely and quietly put these teachings away as sweet words, but don’t seriously consider them realistic and livable.

Now “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” we get. That is the rule we find in Exodus 21:24. There we read 

“if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Exodus 21:23-24).
 We get that. Someone harms you so that you lose an eye, well you can’t kill them, but you can take their eye. … The Old Testament is often about limiting the damage of sin. So, someone punches you and knocks out your tooth, you can’t get revenge by killing the person. Otherwise, one sin could turn into many more. If you escalate the situation by killing the person who knocked out your tooth, then their family retaliates against you and soon we have a feud that could last for generations. “Eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was meant to put limits on retaliation. It limits the effects of sin. We get that. That is sort of the system we use. You do damage to me or my property and the law says you need to compensate for that damage, and it also says I can’t seek revenge in a way that exceeds the crime done to me.

However, if you take away the context and you just think about the act of taking a person’s eye, or tooth, we see that it is an act of destruction. One anonymous Church Father said, 

“If therefore we begin … to return evil for evil to everyone, we are all made evil”.
 … Jesus wants us to live in the kingdom right now. He wants us to behave as citizens of the kingdom now. … So, in everything we do we need to ask ourselves, is this the kind of act that we would find in God’s kingdom? Is a person who lives in the kingdom of God the kind of person that can gouge out a person’s eye? … Destructive actions like taking a person’s eye out do not have a place in that kingdom. Those acts of destruction belong outside the kingdom, so participating in them does something to us and our ability to live in the kingdom Jesus speaks about. We are suddenly acting like people of the fallen world, rather than people of the kingdom.

Jesus knew that when we use fire to fight fire we are likely to have a giant fire that will probably burn us and others. We need a different way of responding to evil and citizens of the kingdom of God. We need water, not more fire. … Put yourself in the attacker’s position, if you hit someone and then they hit you back, you suddenly feel very justified in hitting them again. But, if you hit someone and they don’t hit you back it is usually harder to feel justified in hitting them again.

Some, like Bishop N.T. Wright, believe that there is strategy behind Jesus’ words. If someone were to strike you on your right cheek it probably meant they struck you with the back of their hand. This was not only a violent act, but it was insulting as well. It was an action that declared you were an inferior. What Jesus says isn’t “run away”, nor is it “hit back”. Jesus says to face them and turn to them the other cheek. To hit you on the other cheek with their right hand means suddenly the person has to treat you as an equal, rather than as an inferior.

Gandhi was incredibly inspired by these words of Jesus. He believed that not hitting back and looking the attacker in the eye called out the deeper humanity of the attacker. Gandhi is probably the person that comes to mind for most people when we think about the reality of living these words out. It is ironic that a Hindu man has become iconic for living out these words of Jesus. The other famous example is The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Christian minister, but who also wrote that Gandhi’s teachings were “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change”. It was a Hindu man who taught the Christian minister that the words of Christ could be lived.

Though, there are other examples of love for an enemy. On October 2nd, 2006 there was a school shooting in Pennsylvania. It was a one room schoolhouse in an Amish community. The gunman, Charles Roberts, shot 8 of the 10 girls aged 6 to 13. Five of the girls died. He then turned the gun on himself. This horror shocked the nation and beyond. … But, there was equal shock when the nation saw how the Amish community responded. … The community responded with deep forgiveness and reconciliation. A grandfather of one of the murdered girls was heard warning some younger relatives, “We must not think evil of this man.” Members of the Amish community even reached out to the family of the shooter only hours after the shooting to comfort them and offer forgiveness. 30 members of the Amish community attended the shooter’s funeral and they even set up a charitable fund for the shooter’s family. They also invited the shooter’s widow to the non-public funeral of one of the girls.

Bishop N.T. Wright has said, 

“The kingdom that Jesus preached and lived was all about a glorious, uproarious, absurd generosity. Think of the best thing you can do for the worst person, and go ahead and do it. Think of what you’d really like someone to do for you, and do it for them. Think of the people to whom you are tempted to be nasty, and lavish generosity on them instead. These instructions have a fresh, springlike quality. They are all about new life bursting out energetically, like flowers growing through concrete and startling everyone with their colour and vigour.”

These are examples of Kingdom living. These are ways of imitating the Heavenly Father of Jesus Christ, who showers blessings and mercy on everyone- the deserving and the undeserving. … I don’t think Jesus meant these as rules we are to blindly follow. But, the Early Church also understood the complexity of these teachings. … The early church father Theodore of Heraclea (355ad) says, 

“he does not command to give to everyone who asks without exception, even if one has nothing to give, for that is impossible. Nor does he instruct us, if we have plenty, to give to someone who asks with a bad motive. For the donation then goes for evil things. … For why is it said [in Acts 4:35] concerning the apostles that ‘distribution was made to each as any had need’? This tells us that they gave not so much to those who simply asked but that they provided for others on the basis of need.”
 So, the early church understood that these were complicated issues.

The examples Jesus gives are examples of the kinds of things we might do as children of God as we attempt to imitate the holiness and generosity of our heavenly Father. … Our reasons for not wanting to follow these teachings seem to have to do with fear. We fear that if we don’t hit back, then our enemy wins. We fear that if we give to everyone who asks that we won’t have enough for ourselves. … To follow through on these teachings we have to really believe that our hope is in another kingdom. Our hope is not found in our earthly safety because we will all die. Our hope is not found in our possessions, because they can be easily stolen from us. Justice will only ultimately be found in the Kingdom. To live in the way of Jesus requires us to put our hope in God.

The kingdom way that Jesus describes is also about our own spiritual health. Loving our enemy benefits our enemy, but it also benefits us. If we sit in our hatred of our enemy we are hurting ourselves. The same anonymous church father said, 

“I think that Christ ordered these things not so much for our enemies as for us: not because enemies are fit to be loved by others but because we are not fit to hate anyone. For hatred is the prodigy of dark places. Wherever it resides, it sullies the beauty of sound sense. Therefore not only does Christ order us to love our enemies for the sake of cherishing them but also for the sake of driving away from ourselves what is bad for us. … If you merely hate [your enemy], you have hurt yourself more in the spirit than you have hurt him in the flesh. Perhaps you don’t harm him at all by hating him. But you surely tear yourself apart. If then you are benevolent to an enemy, you have rather spared yourself than him”.[1]

One of my favorite teachers, Dallas Willard, once commented that if we think loving our enemies seems impossible we should look at the lives of those who hate their enemy. Perhaps we could look to Palestine and Israel, or the Hatfields and McCoys. Then we can ask ourselves which way of living seems more desirable- hating our enemies or loving them?

We should also remember that Jesus is not asking us to do anything he himself didn’t do. Jesus lived the kingdom life. Bishop Wright says, 

“When they mocked him, he didn’t respond. When they challenged him, he told quizzical, sometimes humorous, stories that forced them to think differently. When they struck him, he took the pain. When they put the worst bit of Roman equipment on his back- the heavy cross- the piece on which he would be killed- he carried it out of the city to the place of his own execution. When they nailed him to the cross, he prayed for them”.
 Jesus asks his followers to live the way he did. And he promises that it will lead where it led him- to resurrection and eternal life. AMEN

[1] Anonymous, Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 13- pg 56:702.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The Beatitudes- Luke 6

In our Gospel reading Jesus had just come down from a mountain where he had spent the night in prayer. He then chose 12 to be his apostles.

Those who were watching this couldn’t help but think about Moses and the 12 tribes of Israel. They would have immediately understood what Jesus was doing. He was reconstituting the 12 tribes of Israel. He was building a new center for the new thing that God was doing.

When Moses presented the covenant agreement with the people. The covenant was made up of a number of laws that the people agreed to. With those laws came blessings and curses (see Deuteronomy). If they, as a people, obeyed the laws then they would be blessed. If they, as a people, disobeyed the laws then there would be curses. Likewise, many see blessings and curses in Jesus’ words (Blessed... and Woe...). And that all reinforces the idea that what Jesus is doing is in parallel with what Moses was doing. Moses presented a new stage in the life of the people of God. They were the family of Abraham, and under Moses they entered into a new kind of relationship with God- they now had a covenant and a law. Now under Jesus something new was happening- a new Covenant- a new way of being God’s people.

This new thing was good news for those who hadn’t had any for a long time. But, it also seems very strange and backwards to the way things had been.

Jesus is reconstituting Israel. He is giving a New Covenant. Another way to say this is that Jesus is welcoming people into God’s Kingdom. Kingdoms have entrance requirements. To enter Canada you need a valid passport and to pass the government’s approval process. For example, you can’t have been guilty of a major crime in your home country. In our reading, Jesus is describing who is welcomed to be citizens of God’s kingdom. But, he doesn’t give the requirements most of us would give.

Jesus describes a number of situations people might find themselves in and then calls them “blessed” or “fortunate”. “Fortunate (or blessed) are those who…”. But they seem to be backwards. Our society, as well as Jesus’ society, would say “Blessed are the rich”, but Jesus says “blessed are you who are poor”. Society would say “blessed are the full and satisfied”, but Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry”. Society would say, “Blessed are those who laugh”, but Jesus says, “blessed are you who weep”. Society would say, “Blessed are you when people love you”- "Blessed are you when you have 2 million likes on your Instagram picture", but Jesus says, “blessed are you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of [Jesus]”.

From a common human perspective, if we are looking at those who belong to the kingdom of the blessed we wouldn’t select those Jesus points out because they don’t seem very blessed. It all seems very backwards. We don’t usually envy those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. Actually, we are probably more inclined to think that they are among those who haven’t been able to make it into the kingdom- They have not received blessing.

There isn’t anything inherently good about being poor, hungry, sad, or hated. They are not situations we are to try to imitate. Christian commentators sometimes try with great difficulty to find ways for us to be imitators of these traits. So, they might suggest we give away all our money to be poor. They might suggest the practice of fasting to be hungry. They suggest weeping over our sins in repentance. And they suggest participating in evangelism and standing up for Christian values in the political arena to the point of being hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed. … And I’m not saying these are necessarily bad things. In fact, I am for being generous with our money, and fasting, and repentance, and evangelism, and standing up for what we believe in in the public arena. … But, I’m not sure that is what Jesus is aiming at with this teaching.

I think that Jesus is saying that wherever you are, you can be a part of the Kingdom he is talking about (See Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy). There can be an assumption in our society about who is blessed, usually they are the rich, the beautiful, and those who haven’t had to deal with any major tragedy. Jesus is saying that you don’t have to get your financial situation sorted out before you can feel the blessing of God and be welcomed as a citizen of His Kingdom. Whatever situation you are in is a fine entry point into the kingdom. You can be hungry and a member of the kingdom. You can be dealing with tragedy and be in the kingdom of God. Tragedy isn’t an indication that God has abandoned you. That is what some of us can be led to think when we are dealing with difficulty. Society might reject you, and even hate you, because you are a disciple of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean you have failed, or that God isn’t with you, or that you aren’t a citizen of the kingdom of God. … God will happily receive you wherever you are and He will bring you into the Kingdom where he will exchange poverty for a kingdom, hunger for full bellies, weeping for laughter, and rejection for a great reward.

The opposite can also sometimes be true. We make assumptions about who is blessed. We often assume that is the wealthy, those who eat in fine restaurants, those full of laughter and whose lives are free of tragedy, and those who are popular and well-liked by everyone. 
There isn’t inherently anything wrong with these things, but we shouldn’t automatically assume that people are in God’s favor merely because people are in these situations. In our society and in ancient societies, wealth was often considered a sign that a person was specially favored by God. Jesus is debunking this common assumption. Remember in Luke 18:18-30 when Jesus speaks with the rich young man who refuses to give his wealth away, and Jesus says how difficult it is for the wealthy to get into the kingdom of God? The disciples are shocked because they assumed that the wealthy were obviously blessed by God. Their riches were an award from God for being God's favorites. That also implies that the poor might be being punished through their poverty. Jesus overturns this. Don’t assume someone is automatically a citizen in God’s kingdom merely because they have money. They could be far from God’s kingdom. I don’t think that is necessarily so, merely because someone has money. Jesus is turning over the assumptions of the day- his day, and our day. Don’t assume that you can tell if someone is blessed by God or not on the basis of how much money they have in the bank. 

Wherever we are, and whatever we are going through, we are welcomed to take our first steps into the kingdom. Living in the kingdom isn’t a promise to live a stress-free life. Living in the kingdom for Jesus meant a cross. Living in the midst of suffering and struggle doesn’t mean you are excluded from the kingdom. If you struggle because you’re poor, or hungry, or because you are sad, or hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed, you can still be a citizen of the kingdom. Even in the midst of these struggles you are welcome to live the life of the kingdom. Even on the cross Jesus was living the life of the kingdom.

Jesus is building the Kingdom of God. It exists now, but it is not fully formed yet. It is always expanding. It expands into each of our lives, and we are invited to accept it of reject it. Whatever our circumstances are, we can be citizens of that heavenly kingdom right now. This isn’t just for when we die. We can live as citizens of that kingdom now, and that may come with suffering, but at the end of that struggle, comes the fullness of the kingdom of God- satisfied bellies, laughter, and the reward of the prophets. AMEN

Monday, 11 February 2019

Resurrection 1 Cor 15:1-11

Paul says some pretty unambiguous words in 1 Corinthians 15- 
“If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (15:14, 19).

Paul is saying that Christianity can be proven false if this one point fails. Christianity stands on a main pillar. It that pillar is destroyed, then the whole complex of Christianity falls apart. Paul says that pillar is the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Greek words for “the resurrection of the body” are anastasis nekron, which means “the sitting-up of the corpse”. The resurrection of Christ, according to the New Testament, is a very physical reality. The gospels tell us that the body was missing. We read there about the disciples touching Jesus and witnessing him eating. They seem to go out of their way to say that their experience of the risen Jesus was not a vision, and that Jesus was not a ghost. We are faced with the reality that the early Christians believed that their faith stood or fell on the basis of the physical resurrection of Jesus.

This seems to have become a question for some of the Corinthians. Some of their doubt may have come from the Greek philosophy that was popular at the time. They didn’t really have a problem with miracles. Their problem was that they didn’t see the body as being valuable beyond death. Physical reality wasn’t necessarily good. The philosopher Plato called the body “the soul’s tomb”. In Mediterranean culture at that time, especially among those sophisticated enough to know the Greek philosophers, it was very unfashionable and simple-minded to believe a crass reality like a bodily resurrection. It was much more sophisticated to believe that the spark of the soul would fly away from physical reality to the realm of pure ideas. … Paul, on the other hand, not only emphasized the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but elevated the bodies of believers. Paul insisted that the body is good, even if a place of temptation. For Paul, the body is a holy thing- the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). The body is the seed of something that is destined to live with God for ever. It will be the same and yet, transformed for life in eternity.

We can face a similar challenge. In our society we can have a very hard time believing in miracles in general. We are often presented with the false dichotomy that we have to choose either science or Christianity. The intellectually sophisticated in our culture might even look down on those who believe in miracles as being simple-minded, or unscientific.

So, having a problem with the physical resurrection of Jesus is not a new thing, even if the doubt has a different motivation.

How might we rationally believe in the bodily resurrection as modern people? Of course, there were no video cameras back then, so we don’t have that kind of proof. But we believe other things about that tie period. We believe Nero was emperor, for example. How can we be so confident if there was no video, or pictures? … We have to rely on a different kind of evidence. We have to rely on history. We have to rely on what was written down and the logical conclusion we can draw from those writings.

There are four historical facts that scholars tend not to consider controversial.

  1. Jesus was buried
  2. Jesus’ tomb was discovered to be empty
  3. People reported seeing Jesus after his death
  4. The disciples quickly began to believe strongly in the resurrection of Jesus 

If all of these are historical facts that are not disputed, then we need a historical explanation that accounts for all of these facts. So, for example, saying that the disciples were hallucinating when they saw Jesus after his crucifixion doesn’t explain the empty tomb. So, then they would have to say, well, maybe the disciples hallucinated, and someone stole the body. And that starts to get very complicated and unlikely because you have having to now explain why they were hallucinating and what the motivation was for stealing the body, and then you have to talk about the chances of those things happening at the same time and not getting found out.

There have been a number of theories presented over the years that try to explain what happened on that first Easter, but none of them has gained a very wide following among scholars.

The best explanation of those four historical facts seems to be that Jesus really bodily rose from the dead, but some have a very hard time accepting that and want to find alternative explanations.

First, Jesus was buried. That seems to be plain and accepted across all the appropriate documents. The Gospel of Mark might be dated as early as 7 years after the crucifixion. And Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians is dated around 54 AD. Scholars think Jesus was crucified sometime between 30 and 33AD. So that means the letter we are reading was written 21-24 years after Jesus died. Do you remember O.J. driving the white bronco? The time from now to then, well that's how much time had passed from Jesus' death to this letter we are reading today. That means that the people reading Paul’s letter could go talk to people who met Jesus and knew the events surrounding his death, who were telling these stories. And these are people who are dedicating their lives to Jesus and what he taught. The written accounts of Jesus’ burial are plain and simple and no one disputes them. They are uncontroversial.

Second, The tomb was discovered empty. A group of women seems to find it that way. I’ve said this before, but women at this time were not ideal witnesses. It wouldn’t be smart to use them as your witnesses to a controversial claim. Women were probably recorded as the first witnesses because they actually were the first witnesses. It is hard to see another motivation. This is a part of all the early reports. There are no early accounts disagreeing with this.

The authorities actually agreed that the tomb was empty, but they argued that the disciples must have stolen the body. If they could have produced the body of Jesus, that would have ended the story.

Thirdly, it is also uncontroversial that the early followers had experiences of Jesus following his death. Ed Sanders is a scholar at Duke University and he has said, 
"that Jesus followers, and later Paul, had resurrection experiences, is in my judgment, a fact. What gave rise to their experiences I do not know."
 There is agreement that he earliest followers believed they experienced Jesus.

There are a lot of people who experience a lot of different things, but that doesn’t mean their experiences match with reality. At one church I served I regularly met with a man who believed he could turn into a tiger. I don’t think his experience matched reality, but I hardly think that we can discount all our experiences because some people hallucinate.

Hallucination is usually a pretty individual experience. You might have 5 people all hallucinating on LSD in the same room, but they won’t be all seeing the same thing.

Paul gives a report of the witnesses to the resurrection in our letter. He says, 
[Jesus] “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Cor 14:5-7).
 If that was a hallucination, you would need multiple people seeing the same thing, and for that to happen a number of times.

Remember that this letter was written very early, so it’s not like there has been a lot of time for these stories to be embellished. People were still alive who could say if this was accurate or not. … They also didn’t describe what they saw as a vision or as a ghost. They described an embodied Jesus.

Fourthly, the last historical fact is that the followers of Jesus became bold in their faith. Their fearlessly proclaimed what they believed. They were open about stating that Jesus, who was killed as a criminal by both Rome and the Jewish authorities, was resurrected and alive again. This opened them to threat from these same authorities. And yet, instead of becoming afraid. They were bold. Their leader had died, and instead of their movement dying, it grew.

Jesus was buried; Jesus’ tomb was discovered to be empty; People reported seeing Jesus after his death; The disciples quickly began to believe strongly in the resurrection of Jesus. These are all historical facts accepted by those who work in this time of history. A theory is needed to logically explain all these facts, or we need to abandon doing history at all.

Paul says, 
“If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (15:14, 19).
 If the best explanation of these facts is that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead, then our faith is firmly grounded. AMEN

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Embodying Love 1 Cor 13

At the University of Lethbridge I used to meet with a group of students to teach them different methods of prayer. One week I met with them and I used 1 Corinthians 13 to help us enter into prayer. First, I asked them to read the chapter and understand what it was saying. We read it out loud, and then we sat in silence as they re-read it privately to themselves- internalizing it. Then after a few minutes I asked them to read it again silently and this time replace the word “love” with their name in versus 4-7. So, where it says, 
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
 It then became (for me), 
“[Chris] is patient; [Chris] is kind; [Chris] is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. [Chris] does not insist on [his] own way; [he] is not irritable or resentful; [he] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. [he] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
 We then sat in silence meditating on our lives as compared to 1 Corinthians 13. I asked them to notice where it felt comfortable, and where it felt uncomfortable, and then to talk to God about what they were feeling. It’s a humbling experience. No one comes away feeling like they don’t have areas of their life they need to work on.

One student rebelled against my directions. She said, “I can’t see myself that way, so I inserted Jesus’ name instead”. She had a point. This is a more profound kind of love than I can pull out of myself. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was preaching on this passage and said, 
“Who is this love- if it is not he who bore all things, believed all things, hoped all things- and indeed, had to endure all things, all the way to the cross? Who was never looking for his own gain, never became bitter, and never kept count of the evil done to him- and thus was overpowered by evil? Who even prayed for his enemies on the cross [Lk 23:34] and thereby totally overcame evil? Who is this love, which Paul was talking about, other than Jesus Christ himself? Who else could it be, if not he? What better symbol could there be, standing over this entire passage, than the cross?” (What Love Wants- London, Oct 21, 1934).

So, the rebellious university student that refused to follow my directions had a point- little did she know she had Bonhoeffer to back her up. Yes, this is a profound kind of love. It is a love that we cannot come to on our own. It is a love that has to arise in us from somewhere outside us. It has to be inserted in us by Jesus.

As much as my student friend and Bonhoeffer see the love of Jesus here, Paul was also writing this letter in the hopes that this kind of love would be seen in the Corinthian Christians. Paul wasn’t writing this so they could admire the love of Jesus from a distance, but so they could manifest this love in their church… because, by the Holy Spirit, Christ was in them. This love is what they need to correct their issues.

Lets look at this profound reading.
First, Paul starts by describing how important this love is. I might have the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, and might seem very impressive to people around me, and might be considered a very “spiritual” person. But, if I don’t have love, then I’m just a noise-maker. I’m just making meaningless sound. I might have prophetic powers, revealing the will of God and the deepest mysteries of reality in a profound way, but if I don’t have love, I’m nothing. It’s pointless. If I have all kinds of trust in God, so that I never worry about the future and no obstacle seems too big, if I have that kind of faith, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. I could do amazing acts of charity. I could give everything I own away to the poor, but if I do it out of self-love to puff myself up, rather than out of love for God and my neighbour, then it’s for nothing. It’s pointless. I gain nothing. I could even offer my body. I could give my life protecting someone, or I could give up my life as a martyr for refusing to deny Christ, but if I do it for any reason but love, then it was for nothing.

Later in the reading Paul points out the temporary nature of these gifts that we find to be so impressive: 
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.

Paul is saying that the only thing that makes anything valuable in an eternal sense is love. … Paul says it is really the only think that is important. Every achievement that we think is important, if it isn’t at its root about love, then it is just dust in the wind. It will all end up in the grave.

What makes us think a person is important? A prestigious position- I could become the prime minister. Or maybe some important academic- maybe I win a Nobel Prize for physics or medicine. Or, maybe I’m the most beautiful, or maybe I’m famous and on TV. Maybe I start a charity and drill wells for thirsty people in third world countries. … Paul says it’s all pointless without love. With love it is all worth something. And we could make the argument in reverse. I could do the most common undistinguished task- I could clean the toilet- and if love is present in that action, then it has eternal significance.

Why would this love matter so much? Well, this isn’t any ordinary kind of love. We use that word in a lot of different ways. I love my wife. I love my children. I love pizza. I love hiking. I love books. Do I really mean the same thing when I use the word “love” in all those statements? When Paul speaks about “love” he is speaking about what John was speaking about when he said that “God is Love” (1 Jn 4:8). Love incarnate is what Bonhoeffer was talking about when he called Christ that love. This is the love we meet on the cross. It is the love we see in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where it says Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). It is a love that selflessly serves the beloved.

After saying why this love is so important, Paul talks about what this love looks like on the ground. He wants it to be concrete so we can identify it when we see it. He doesn’t want it to be abstract. He wants us to be able to yearn for it in ourselves. Really, intuitively, this is how we all want to be loved.  The nature of the love is outward facing. It is all about desiring benefit for the other- respect and concern for the other. He says love is patient. It doesn’t rush. It can wait a very very long time. It doesn’t force anyone before they are ready. Even when it seems pointless, love keeps on. … Love is kind. Not in a passive sense, but in actively showing kindness.

Love is not selfish the way envy is, or boasting is, or the way arrogance is, or the way rudeness is. All that is in some way about self-obsession. Insisting on your own way, irritability (overreacting, being easily offended), and resentment or bitterness… it’s self-obsession- it is serving the self rather than the other. Self- interest and self-centeredness is exactly the opposite of what Paul is aiming at. We can call something “love” that is really an attempt to control the other person for our own self-gratification. A lot of what we call love is really polluted by manipulation and control and does not reflect the character of Christ who “did not please himself” (Rom 15:3).

In verse 7 we see a list of “all things”- it bears the unbearable. It doesn’t look away from the pain, the sin, or the disaster. Bonhoeffer says, “love is still greater than the greatest guilt”. It believes all things. Doesn’t that mean we will be lied to by people, and be taken for fools? Out of love, yes, we will sometimes. We listen thinking the best of the person before us. It has been said that attentively listening to someone looks almost exactly like loving someone. Sometimes out of love we will believe the unbelievable. This doesn’t mean we believe lies, or we don’t worry about truth, but when we are listening to the person in front of us, we listen like they are telling the absolute truth. We listen in a way that our love for them is more important than evaluating the truth or falsity of what they are saying. One sociologist said that young men are looking for an unshockable friend. A friend they could tell anything and they would still stay by their side. Love hopes all things and endures all things- it never gives up on anyone even if we look like fools. It is hopeful that something good is potentially in the future for the beloved. In the end, love is never wasted.

I know lists can be sort of difficult to listen to, but just remember the core of what he is saying. As we hold all these together all at once we see that the love he is really talking about expresses itself in respect and concern for the other. What we often mean by love is a warm positive feeling towards the other person. That’s not what Paul is talking about here. It is an active respect for the other person, so we don’t allow ourselves to speak or even think negatively about the other. It is an active concern for the other person’s wellbeing.

Like my rebellious university friend you might be saying to yourself, “but, I can’t love like this”. It’s too hard. It leaves me too vulnerable to being taken advantage of. You’re right. You can’t love like this. Only Christ in you can love like this. … He will teach us how to do this. Don’t start with trying to love the most evil person you can imagine. Start with loving a person that slightly annoys you- the neighbor with the noisy dog. Start small and Christ in you will build your capacity to love.

This isn’t something we should put off as “sissy stuff” or “too hard”. If Paul is right, what we put love into are the only things that will have any eternal significance. According to Paul, from an eternal perspective, training ourselves to love is the most important thing we can do. Whatever we do in love lasts into eternity. Whatever we do without love ultimately means nothing. For Paul, a wasted life is a life with a lack of love.

It is only possible for us to love this way because he first loved us (1 Jn 4:19). When we see that God is love, and we see that God loved us so powerfully and profoundly- when we receive that love- then we can love truly. Or maybe it’s better to say, we can allow that love to flow through us. All other love is a mere shadow of that true love. True love does not look into another person to find something lovable. True love flows through us from God into the world.

In everything we do, may we be motivated by that Love that first loved us. May you feel that Love course through your veins, until holding it back becomes painful. May the love that fills you pour out into the world and transform it because God is loving the world through you. AMEN

Saturday, 2 February 2019

1 Cor 12- The Body of Christ

Before we talk about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it might be helpful to say something about the city of Corinth. The city had been almost completely destroyed at one point, but by Paul’s day the city had been rebuilt for about 100 years as a Roman colony. So, it had the feel of a new city. There wasn’t really any aristocracy because it was a recently rebuilt city that was populated mostly with Roman soldiers, freedmen (which were a step above slaves on the social ladder), and slaves. It was now an important city with lots of things going on. Don’t think of a sleepy backwater. This town was buzzing. There was tourism, with people coming to watch athletic competitions. There was lots of trade, which brought in lots of different people traveling from all over to do business. It had the feel of a boom town.

It also had a bit of a reputation in ancient literature. What I’m about to say is a little before the time period we are dealing with, but it seems like some of this still marked the city- to “act like a Corinthian” became a phrase meaning “to commit fornication” (see Aristophanes (430-385 BC) who coined the term “korinthiazethai”). Plato used the phrase “Corinthian girl” to mean “prostitute”. Corinth was also home to the temple of Aphrodite, which is said to have had around a thousand temple prostitutes. … It was a melting pot of all kinds of cultures, philosophies, and religions.

The people who made up the church brought some of this cultural baggage with them into the church. There were some strong egos in the church. There was competition and self-promotion. Some had the attitude that they could function quite fine without the rest of the community. There were some in the church who seemed to value some people’s contributions and gifts, but not others.

In lots of ways the letter to the Corinthian church has a lot to say to our culture. We are in a culture that seems to encourage narcissism. It’s all about me, and what I deserve. That’s what some of the advertising we are bombarded with tells me anyway. We live in a culture that is mostly determined by economics and the markets. We are competitive, especially when it comes to toys, vacations, and houses. Like the Corinthians, we are confronted by a mixture of all kinds of cultures and life styles. We are bombarded by images of sexuality and messages that tell us to follow our every desire. So, we aren’t that far off from Corinth.

In this particular part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians Paul is trying to teach them about what it means to be the body of Christ, which is the church. There is diversity within the body of Christ, but there is a stronger unity. There is diversity of ethnicity (Jew and gentile) and diversity of social standing (slave and free). … But, the diversity Paul is primarily concerned with here is diversity based on spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has granted gifts to his people to both show God’s power in their midst, but also to build up the church. He gives a number of examples of these gifts throughout this chapter (1 Cor 12).

As a side note, I just want to point out that he is giving examples here, so there are more gifts than are in this list. We know this because he seems to add to the list and gives different lists in other letters.

Okay, back to diversity. Given the diversity in the church in Corinth, he wants them to avoid two temptations. One is to look down on people as not valuable to the community, the other is to look up to someone (besides Christ) to be the savior of the community.

Paul speaks about the community as the body of Christ. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, he doesn’t say, “Why are you persecuting my people?” or “my disciples?” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 8:4). As far as Paul knew, until that moment he never met Jesus. But here Jesus is telling Paul that not only have they met, but he has been being abused at the hands of Paul.

This should give us pause. When we talk about the church we are not talking about a social club. It is deeper than that. If we think of the church like a club then we will act like a club. We might jockey for position. And decide who should belong and who shouldn’t. And try to get things our way, if we can. The church is not a social club.

The church is a deeper mystery. When Paul mistreated a Christian he was mistreating Christ. That’s true for us as well. If we mistreat a member of the church- if we make them feel like second class Christians- if we alienate them and make them feel like they don’t belong- then we are doing that to Christ. To sin against a fellow Christian is to sin against Christ himself. So, a major lesson to take from this passage is that, when we are dealing with members of the church, we are dealing with the body of Christ.

A body is made up of parts (obviously). The parts have different functions. The eye is different from the ear, which is different from the foot. Sometimes we can look at a particular person with a particular gift and think “wouldn’t it be great if the church was full of that kind of person”. Or, sometimes we can be envious of the kinds of gifts a person has and we can wish we had that gift too. Paul says that is like wishing for a body made up of eyeballs and no ears or hands. Each Christian has a gift, and those gifts are to be used to build up the body of Christ. We need all the gifts of the members of the body if we are going to be healthy.

As we know, pain or disability in a specific part of the body can have a detrimental effect on the whole body. We all know the effect on the whole body if you get a thorn in your foot. It effects the whole person. Each member of the church has an ability to affect the whole. … In a similar way, the body working together harmoniously can accomplish great things and the whole body gets the credit. Imagine a runner who wins a race. They don’t give the trophy to the legs, as if the heart and lungs and eyes didn’t have anything to do with it. Each member of the church has an effect on all the others. When one of us suffers, we should all suffer. When one of us accomplishes something we should all join in the joy of that accomplishment. We carry one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). We weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice (Rom 12:15).

We need all the gifts. We need preachers, teachers, givers, administrators, healers, and leaders. But, we also need the more subtle gifts. There is a theologian, J├╝rgen Moltmann, who says that those Christians who bring with them particular disabilities and experiences of suffering may be particularly gifted parts of the body of Christ because the church needs them to fully live out and teach the character of the gospel that has the suffering and rejected Christ at the center of it. Paul says, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour” (1 Cor 12:22-23). So, every part matters to God. You all matter to God. So much so, that to feel you leave the church would feel like dismemberment to God. Like a limb getting pulled off, or an eye removed.

Each one of you brings gifts that are needed to build us up and make this church healthy. For any one of you to be mistreated means Christ feels that as if it was personally done to him.

I also think this is true as we draw the circle a bit wider. It is true of “the church in Red Deer”. We are all a part of the same body, and we should be careful about speaking negatively of other churches or suggesting that their voice is not necessary. For the church to be healthy we need the Pentecostal voice, and the Roman Catholic voice, and all the others. In a sense we live in a state of disobedience that we are not more unified than we are (Jn 17).

This also goes for our diocese, our denomination, and our wider ecumenical relationships. The worldwide church is the body of Christ, and it transcends geography and denomination. We dare not dismiss members of Christ’s body and say they aren’t valuable. We should especially not mistreat them. To do so is to mistreat Christ.

Fully participating in the body of Christ with this attitude is also preparation for living life in the world. If, in the church, we can recognize Christ in one another, then perhaps in the world we can see other people as made in the image of God. If we can see people this way, we learn to value everyone regardless of what society thinks of them, or what we think they have to offer us. If I can see Christ in you all, then maybe I can see the image of God in the fellow who broke into the church this week.

Maybe we can extend it even more. Perhaps we can learn to see God’s fingerprints on the trees and the stones and the deer. If we can learn to see Christ in one another, and learn to see God’s image in other people, and learn to see the world as the work of our loving Creator, then maybe the world can become a kind of sacrament where we can encounter God as we walk down the street, or look at the sky. If we can learn not to reject another member of the church, perhaps we can see everything and everyone as belonging in the world in some mysterious way.

I think Fyodor Dostoyevsky captures this when he writes, “Love people even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love” (the Brothers Karamazov).

If we can learn to love within the body of Christ (seeing each other as belonging and having something valuable to offer), then perhaps that is a step towards learning this broader love. AMEN
Follow @RevChrisRoth