Fire Proof

A recent alumni e-mail reminded me of one of the nicknames used by those of us who went to Notre Dame (grad school for me), “domers.” That odd appellation comes from our years of school life under the shadow of a large golden dome, topped with a statue of the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary). It’s actual gold leaf which covers that memorable architectural feature at the center of campus.

In this Sunday’s text from I Corinthians 3:10-23, Paul talks in verse 12 about building with materials like “gold, silver and precious stones,” as well as with “wood, hay, and straw.” The issue is what materials will stand up to the coming “Day,” in verse 13, when fire will be the proof of what was built.

It’s all part of Paul’s switch from an agricultural metaphor for the Christian Church in the first part of chapter 3 (watering, planting, growth, “you are God’s field”) to the image signaled at the end of verse 9 last week, “you are God’s building.”

Throughout I Corinthians, Paul draws on various vivid images to stress the unity in diversity which is the Church. The rich picture of the Church as a human body will show up in chapter 12. But this image of a building helps us grasp that we don’t simply just find ourselves in the church, but that we have a part in creating it. The primary Creator/Builder is of course God, as we read last week. But our work matters too.

Verses 16 and 17 highlight the importance of the Church construction, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” What we create together by coming together as the Church is sacred and is made sacred by its being the very place where God lives.

It’s important to read the footnote to verses 16 and 17 in the NRSV, that in both the word “you” is plural. There’s been much recent unfortunate individualization and secularization of this idea of humans being God’s temple. It’s partly the connection with chapter 6 verse 19, but that verse needs to be read in the light 3:16 and 17 which come before it.

So I regularly hear folks at the gym say something like “My body is a temple,” and then go on to talk about their latest diet or exercise program, which presumably is some sort of worship in that “temple.” But Paul’s idea, the Gospel idea, is that it is all the bodies of God’s people gathered together as the Church which are actually the temple of God. That of course has implications for what each of us does with our own individual bodies, as in chapter 6, but the primary focus is on the larger building of which we each are only a part.

The text ends with yet one more warning against divisiveness in the Church. The problem is feelings of superiority of one faction over another, supposed “wisdom.” The result is division around adopted leaders of those factions.

Yet it is all God’s building through Christ. We all belong to God through Christ, Paul concludes in verse 23. That means that the building we are together needs to be constructed of “materials” which hold together in the fire of judgment.

The golden dome at Notre Dame needs periodic regilding in order to keep shining. But it’s an incredibly beautiful and lasting material. May our life together in Christ make use of similarly precious materials like love and grace and patience, which, while needing to be renewed regularly in this life, will hold us together forever.

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This week’s text, I Corinthians 1:18-31, is difficult for me because of recent political events. It is hard for me to affirm foolishness, even the Lord’s foolishness that is wiser than human wisdom, when it seems like our country is being subjected to the triumph of foolishness over wisdom, the victory of unreason over reason, and ultimately the overcoming of good by evil.

So it takes a bit of subtlety, something for which the current cultural climate has no patience, to grasp that the wisdom under attack in the text is precisely the sort of foolishness which has ensnared our nation. This wisdom-which-is-foolishness is the utilitarian, practical human wisdom which supposes that whatever works is true and good and the best for human welfare. This wisdom which God wants to destroy is the self-aggrandizement of those who imagine they are sophisticates who know how to “make a deal” and thus achieve by human cleverness alone a better world.

Far from an excuse for simple-mindedness or, worse, simple stupidity, the call to accept the “foolishness” of the Cross runs at cross-purposes to all the thoughtless “wisdom” of those in power. Rather than offering a formula for accruing power and advantage to ourselves, the “foolishness” of the Cross calls us to relinquish our own advantage and security for the sake of others.

Contrary to the “wisdom” of making America great and strong again, the “foolishness” of the Cross in verse 27 is meant to shame the wise and shame the strong.

Despite the current populist trend against careful political thought and despite, more painfully, the recurring Christian mistake of supposing that the faithful need to shield themselves from reason and intellect and thoughtful study, the foolishness of the Gospel, of the Cross, of Christ our Lord, demands the deepest thought. For one must understand that what feels natural and even good, like getting the most I can for myself and for those nearest to me, is deeply flawed and mistaken thinking.

One can only justly arrives at the embrace of foolishness when, like Paul, you have brought all the God-given powers of mind and heart to the contemplation of what is true and good. Careful reasoning itself leads to the conclusion that the most reasonable choice is the apparently foolish subjection of oneself to weakness and shame alongside our crucified Lord.

The final verses of the text again challenge the spirit of the age which allows unbridled boasting and self-assertion, even when the assertions are false. Those boasts of wisdom and power come to nothing before the Cross of Christ.

And verse 28 is the great reassurance that things will not stay in this sad state. Arrogance, boasting and the thirst for power and wealth will have their day but ultimately be brought low. “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” If kindness, gentleness, civility, humility and love seem in short supply around us, let us not fear. These precious virtues, which seem to be fading from existence around us and even in ourselves, shall, with our Lord who embodies them all, rise again and put down and bring to nothing all that which opposes them.

So when we hear the boasting of those in power, let us remember with Paul in verse 31, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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I’ve often heard people wish that the present-day Christian Church could be more like the Church was in the first century, right after the time of Christ and during the lifetimes of the apostles. My friend Jeff has the perfect response to the desire to go back and be like the early church. He asks people who say that, “Have you ever read I Corinthians? Why would you want to be like that?”

Our text for today, I Corinthians 1:10-17, addresses division and partisanship in a local church, but it rings frighteningly true for the evil spirit which has seized America in the past year. Of course divisions by political party and by social class and by race have differences from the spiritual divisions which plagued the church in Corinth, but I think any honest believer will admit that much the same sort of human sin can do its ugly work in both secular and church politics.

My friend Mark Alfano has written an article on what he calls “communities of trust.” He examines the structure and dynamics of small communities of people in which reciprocal relationships of trust play a large role. The benefits of such communities include mutual care and protection as well as other practical benefits.. But the paper concludes with the worry that the drawbacks of such small communities may be unavoidable. Alfano says, “They can become insular and walled-off from the surrounding community, leading to distrust of the out-group.” That sounds like an incredibly apt description both of the divisions in the ancient church at Corinth and in contemporary American society.

In verse 10, Paul simply tells the Corinthians to cease their divisions and seek a unity of mind and purpose. As anyone who has experienced a church “fight” or recent political debate can tell you, that is much, much easier said than done. My friend is rightly skeptical of whether it is even possible.

The only possible answer I see to the ubiquitous and obvious divisions between human beings is to find unity of mind and purpose in an allegiance higher than and superseding any merely pragmatic social arrangement for mutual benefit. That is, if I am part of a “community of trust,” whether a church or a club or some other social unity, only because I find it helpful to myself in some way, then I will inevitably place my own interests and the interests of my immediate small community above those of others outside the group, leading to isolation, distrust, etc.

Paul’s answer goes back to what we see in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, from Matthew 4:12-23. Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Him. Jesus Himself is the center of that small community of trust we typically call the “disciples.” But the text makes plain that, while Jesus asks these people to follow Him, His concern is much larger than the immediate group gathered around Him. He dubs them “fishers of people” and, in the closing verses of the text, they join Him in a ministry of sharing good news and healing people in a wide area which crossed several political and social boundaries.

At the center of Christian faith and Christian community is a person unlike many public leaders who utilize for their own political ends the natural human inclination to divided and insular community. Jesus constantly points His followers beyond their own interests and immediate concerns to the needs of others, including those outside one’s own community. The Spirit of Jesus is the only source of true non-partisanship in our world, the only hope of any larger unity.

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Big Secret

Many years ago, my wife’s fervent opposition to fashions in Christian theology and life which tended toward the ancient heresy of gnosticism won her the title “Gnostic Buster” from some on-line friends. At its heart, one of the key characteristics of gnosticism is its contention that behind the surface of Christianity is an esoteric gnosis, a secret knowledge known only to a few who have superior wisdom and insight. It’s a heresy because Christian belief does not include any secrets.

Our text for this Sunday on which we will celebrate Epiphany (actually January 6), Ephesians 3:1-12, might cause one to think I’m wrong about Christianity and secrets. Here is Paul talking about God’s secret plan kept hidden for generations. But the thing to realize is that Paul mentions that hidden plan only to say that it has now been revealed. It’s a mystery, but it is no longer secret.

And the mystery is nothing particularly esoteric, nor is it difficult to understand. It’s the simple truth which is the burden of almost all Paul’s letters, that, through the grace of Jesus Christ, Gentiles have been included alongside Jews among God’s people. Through Christ, anyone can join the family of God.

It’s the same message intimated by the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Matthew 2:1-12, where we see definitely Gentile visitors, likely from Persia, coming to kneel and worship the infant Jesus. There is a place in the circle around our Lord for anyone who wishes to come and adore Him.

In this time of resurgent prejudice, exclusion and discrimination, we need to remember our big Christian secret that is not secret at all. There is no room for racism in our faith, because there is room for everyone in our faith. May we leak that secret to the whole world.

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Unexpected Salvation

Carpenter ShopA copy of this painting by George de la Tour hangs in our home. It’s a beautiful representation of the child Jesus holding a light for His father Joseph in the carpenter shop. I learned from the keen artistic eye of my wife that the lighting of Jesus’ face is unnaturally bright, illumined more than the candle might provide, as you can see by looking at the shadows and lesser illumination on Joseph’s figure and his work. That unexpected light on Jesus’ face hints that there is actually a light within Him.

Our text for this Sunday, Matthew 1:18-25, gives us the birth of Jesus from His foster father’s perspective. Joseph quickly fades from the Gospel story and does not even appear when Jesus is grown, except for references to his occupation as a carpenter. Yet as a carol we will sing Sunday surmises, it is very likely Joseph’s “hands which first held Mary’s child.”

We don’t have much detail about Joseph, but verse 24 of our text says a great deal about the man. Confronted with social embarrassment both by and for the woman to whom is engaged, Joseph nonetheless, “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” He took Mary as his wife and by implication took her Son as his own. And he is still faithfully there at the end of Luke 2 when Jesus is twelve years old.

Our Lord doesn’t really ask any more of us than to do as we are commanded and faithfully stay the course to which he has directed us, whether that is a marriage, a place of service, a friendship or whatever. Joseph represents for us the key place of quiet, often unnoticed and unsung faithfulness to God’s will. Out of such lives the unexpected grace of God will appear, grace which saves.

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Unexpected News

johnbaptI read fiction for pleasure–science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, that sort of thing. So it was sort of a sense of duty that led me to borrow from our library and listen to Shusaku Endo’s Silence over the last couple weeks. There was a little further motivation in the Martin Scorsese film adaption coming out just before Christmas, but having read the book I’m not thrilled about seeing the movie. I like happy endings and found none there. Overall, it’s a bleak but moving story of the suppression of the Catholic mission in Japan.

The central character of Silence, a Jesuit named Rodriques, struggles with his faith in the face of Japanese persecution of Christians in the 17th century. Though he faces the threat of being tortured and martyred, Rodriques is tormented much more by having to watch Japanese Christians be tortured and killed for their faith. He wrestles with his Lord’s silence in the face of all that happens to His people.

In our text for this coming third Sunday in Advent, Matthew 11:2-11, John the Baptist finds himself imprisoned and, we know from other Scripture, ultimately facing execution. He struggles with his faith in the midst of his suffering, wondering if the confidence he had placed in Jesus was warranted. Juan Fernandez de Navarrete’s painting above captures the spirit of John, dolefully contemplating a cross in his prison cell.

Unlike Rodriquez, however, John is not confronted with a silent Lord. When he sent messengers to Jesus, expressing his doubts in verse 3, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John received a reply.

Jesus’ reply to John in verses 4-6 was largely a quotation from Isaiah 35:4-6, our Old Testament lesson for Sunday. But to the words of Isaiah, Jesus adds something. In addition to confirming that He Jesus is accomplishing the miracles which the prophet predicted of the Messiah, Jesus adds a new, unexpected miracle. It’s a surprising addition, unexpected news which makes all the difference to John’s own particular situation.

I’ll leave you to compare the texts and find the surprise. It makes all the difference for all of us.

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Unexpected Warning

I’m waiting for an appointment with a dermatologist. Though it’s probably more than any reader of this blog wishes to know, I’ve got a little pencil-eraser-size scab on my forehead that hasn’t healed up in about five weeks. This past month I’ve been so focused on recovering from minor surgery for another issue that I haven’t paid much attention to other parts of my body. Now I’m seeing the warning.

It’s unexpected. Though I’m definitely fair-skinned and sunburn easily, I regularly wear a hat for outdoor activity and use lots of sunscreen. I have for years. So I’m surprised at the warning sign that I may have some mild form of skin cancer.

Warnings that something is wrong with us are often unexpected. Most of us go along thinking that all is well, physically, morally and spiritually. A surprising pain or unexpected rebuke from a friend or family member may produce outrage and the desire to continue in our illusions that we have no problems either in our bodies or in our souls.

The prelude to Jesus’ unexpected first arrival was the unexpected warning of John the Baptist to repent and turn back to God. That’s our text this Sunday from Matthew 3:1-11. John comes calling for people to get themselves straightened out in anticipation of Jesus’ appearance. Many take his warning to heart, but it is deemed outrageous and unnecessary by the religious establishment. They are confident in their ancestry, their spiritual pedigree as descendants of Abraham.

John helps us see that even those who have nothing apparently wrong with them need a warning. No one is naturally born righteous; just the opposite. We are all sinners in need of repentance and the grace of the One John was preparing for. That’s true of us as Christians too.

Maybe the discord, pain and division between Christians in the aftermath of the election is another unexpected warning we need to heed. It’s time to repent and get right with God and with each other. And for that to happen we desperately need to prepare by turning to Jesus who came and is to come. We have been warned.

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Unexpected Arrival

It’s fitting that this coming Sunday, November 27, is both an ending and a beginning for our congregation. We come to the end of our reading of the New Testament together in the Covenant Community Bible Experience, and begin a new church year with the first Sunday in Advent.

The first Sunday in Advent, which we typically describe as a season of preparation for Christmas, focuses on the second Advent, the return of Christ. Thus it calls us to turn from looking backward at the first Advent of Jesus at Christmas to peering forward toward what we usually calling “the last things” or even “the end of the world.” However in his poem “Little Gidding,” T. S. Eliot says,

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

So the beginning of Advent is a reminder that God’s complete purpose really starts when the “end” has come, when our salvation is completed by the second coming of Jesus. C. S. Lewis expresses much the same thought in The Last Battle:

And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

This Advent my sermons will focus on the theme that much of those endings which are beginnings, the first and second Advent, was and is unexpected, glorious divine surprises as God reveals Himself to us in Jesus. The texts this week from Revelation 22:8-21 and Matthew 24:36-44 deal with some of that surprise. Revelation 22:11 suggests that people will continue on their paths, whether good or evil, only to be surprised by the “reward” Jesus brings in verse 12, “to repay according to everyone’s work.” And of course Jesus says in Matthew 24:44, “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Advent, then, is not just about preparing to walk down the familiar path of an old and comforting story, but readiness for the unexpected implications of that story in our lives. Let us live constantly aware that Jesus may call us to changes we did not expect and that the surprises of His grace always await us.

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emma_lazarus_plaqueAt the risk of doing yet further violence to a rotting equestrian corpse, I recall the famous lines put in the mouth of the Statue of Liberty by Emma Lazarus and cast in bronze on a plaque inside that monument:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The sentiment of that poem is hard to reconcile with current debates over immigration and refugees. But my point in remembering those words is not more political discussion of those issues. It’s to acknowledge their kinship with even older, even more famous words spoken by Jesus Christ,

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice [righteousness],
for they shall be filled.

I am always struck by the fact that the common lectionary chose that text (and the rest of the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12) as a Gospel reading for All Saints Day. This year of the lectionary cycle it’s actually Luke’s version of the blessings, but I’m going to go with Matthew because we read it in our Community Bible Experience this past week.

In any case, the framers of the lectionary seemed to think that the Beatitudes express something about the character of saints. So does Pope Francis, who yesterday in an All Saints message in Sweden called the Beatitudes the Christian “identity card,” and offered an additional six beatitudes of his own for the present time.

The Pope’s beatitudes express fine aspirations for Christian virtue in response to the needs of our day, but they may obscure what Jesus wanted to say by beginning where He did. Jesus’ original Beatitudes begin with blessing on those suffering painful circumstances rather than with the blessings on what seems more virtuous behavior in the second half of the Beatitudes.

Christian identity certainly includes virtue, all kinds of virtue like purity and peace and Francis’ suggestions of faithfulness in the face of evil and solidarity with those on the margins. But Jesus wants us to recognize that our identity begins in our own need and marginality (spell-check says that’s not a word, but who cares). We are not in the kingdom because we belong there, but because in our poverty of spirit it was given to us by grace. And so for the rest of at least those first four Beatitudes. Dallas Willard makes at least an interesting case that the last four should be read the same way, not as virtues, but as deficits which God meets with an outpouring of love and grace (so the “merciful” are not exactly wonderful forgiving folks, they are people who are as guilty as anyone else and are often taken advantage of for extending the mercy to others which they’d like to have for themselves).

As we observe All Saints in our worship on this coming Sunday, it’s a good time to remember the basic and abject humility of who we are in Christ, poor, sad, meek and hungry, with nothing really good to say for ourselves. Starting there, we can really rejoice when Jesus tells us how blessed in fact we are. Thanks be to God.

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Law or Faith?

e-ticket“E-ticket ride” was an expression that could be applied to a fine wave when surfing, a good movie, or any other experience that was top-notch fun and entertainment. It came from the old ticket system at Disneyland which assigned different price individual tickets for different classes of rides. An A or B ticket got you into less exciting children’s rides or attractions, while an E-ticket was the admission to the best Disneyland had to offer, the Matterhorn, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.

The best deal on tickets was to buy them in booklets of a few of each level. The problem was that one quickly ran out of E-tickets and usually had A and B tickets leftover. Someone recently mentioned to me that she remembered members of her church donating those lame leftovers to visiting missionaries.

Disneyland’s ticket system was ultimately replaced by a system they were already using for private evening parties at their amusement park, one price for admission and then all rides and attractions open without tickets as many times as you like. Of course, long lines still curtail how often one rides the best rides.

The thing is, that once one had experienced the one-admission-price-all-rides-free system, you never wanted to go back to the old, pricey, confusing ticket system. So those “private” company parties were bound to lead to the disappearance of the ticket system. Whatever nostalgia “E-ticket” might evoke, no one headed for Disneyland really wants to experience under the old system (although one could certainly wish for a lower admission price).

In our text for this coming Sunday, Galatians 3:1-15, and overall in the epistles we’ve been reading for our Community Bible Experience, I & II Corinthians, Galatians, and the beginning of Romans, Paul is suggesting that believers in Jesus who want to put themselves back under the system of the Mosaic law are crazier than a person who might seriously want to reinstate the ticket system at Disneyland. Once you’ve experienced the grace of all rides for one price, why would you want to go back to a complex arrangement of paying separately for each ride? Once you’ve experienced the welcome into God’s family by grace through faith, why would you want to go back to trying to confirm your place in that family by keeping the law?

Our text assures us that our entry into the family of God, into His kingdom, is on the same basis it was for Abraham, who, in verse 6 (which quotes Genesis 15:6) “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” That “righteousness” is nothing less than a total welcome into and identity as the people of God, those who enjoy and will enjoy all the blessings God has for those who love Him.

With the old Disneyland system, people got into the park and enjoyed it two different ways, some under the “law” of those lettered tickets and some under the “grace” of a one-price admission to a company party. Now everyone comes in more or less the same way. The message of Paul throughout his letters is that God’s kingdom, God’s family beginning with Abraham, continuing with the Jewish people, and culminating in the Christian church, also has one system. We enter by faith, by accepting, trusting and living in the grace of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to abolish the old system and give us the new one.

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