Monday, August 26, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Worship

Preached on Sunday, August 25, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 61:1-6; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31

Summer Vacation, June 2013:
Farm Country, Sutter County, CA
(Included Is a Sighting of an Actual Farmer at Work)
My dad liked to create things. I almost would have said that he was a home-improvement sort of creator, but that was only after he married my mom and had a home to provide for. Before he met my mom, my dad wanted to be a creator of race cars.
In the end, my mom became about as obsessive about controlling my dad’s home improvements as my dad was obsessive about making them. My dad would get carried away, and he didn’t always finish his creations. The result of this was that (after nearly forty years) the family home was never quite finished.
Today, every room in the house has furniture, or cabinets, or some feature that my dad personally designed and made himself; or some antique that he rebuilt and refinished. In every room my dad’s creations praise him. Not a word needs to be said. They just point to him and praise him even though he is no longer there.
God is, by his very nature, a creator. And the Psalms say, “Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion.” (Psalm 103:22)  Every room in the universe is designed to point to God as the creator and say, “He is Lord.” This is the heart and core of all worship.
God has made us in his image. We were designed to point to God, even without saying a word, and make the message clear, “He is Lord.” Only we don’t quite make that message clear, because of the fact that we have gone wrong. Something is missing from the heart and core of worship in the human house of creation.
Human nature has vandalized itself by sin. In Eden, the human race tried to be like God by eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil for their own sake. Instead of becoming like God by imitating his humility we tried to become gods on our own by imitating the devil’s game, and the devil’s pride.
Because our damage went so far and so deep, God started a new creation by means of his humility. He came into our world, in Jesus, and so he became a human being like us, in order to serve us. He served us by carrying our sins, in our place, on the cross. He came to rule a fallen creation by dying for it.
God in his infinite perfection doesn’t need anything, but somehow he chose to make us necessary. In Jesus he says to each one of us: “I want you. I need you. I love you.” In Jesus, God does this so well that (when we truly see it) we must say, “He is Lord.”
By dying for our fallen world, and for our rebel lives, God has begun a new work of creation. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We have been recreated so that we can say (even if we don’t use words), “Jesus is Lord.”
To be the creation of God is to worship God. To be the new creation of God is also to worship in a new way. We worship the passionate intervention of God in Christ and we say, “Jesus is Lord.”
Paul wrote that for anyone to say, “Jesus is Lord,” requires the power, and energy, and work of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3) In another place Paul wrote that it was the Holy Spirit (working through Jesus) that enables us to call God “Father”. (Romans 8:15) This is all about worship.
There are Christians who will talk a lot about spiritual gifts and it is important to know that, when Paul wanted his friends to understand these gifts, he taught them (and us) that knowing Jesus, and being in Jesus (being one with Jesus), is the spiritual gift from which all other gifts come.
Earlier in this letter Paul wrote about Christians being God’s building, or God’s field, in Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:9) Maybe your home or your shop says, “Jesus is Lord.” Maybe your fields or your garden say, “Jesus is Lord.” But buildings and fields don’t move. They don’t “work”. So Paul gave us the picture of our fitting together into one living thing: the working body of Christ.
A healthy body doesn’t have to work at being many parts in one. Only an unhealthy body really has to work at being many parts in one. Otherwise the heart works against the lungs and the back works against the legs.
There is a way in which a young body made of many individual members also has to learn how to work together. The body of Christ is still a very young body, and so working together (for us) is real work.
The eyes, and the ears, and the head, and the hands, and the feet of a baby learn to work together. Babies spend some of their most important time just looking at their own hands, and feet, and belly button. They are learning to be a body that works together; in which all the parts understand each other.
As adults we try to ignore this. We take our members for granted. We get hurt, we tough it out, and we move on. When one part of a baby’s body is hurting, the whole body cries.
In the Old Testament, the prophets pictured the new creation as being like a kingdom; the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was also the kingdom of the Holy Spirit.
In Isaiah, the king of the kingdom of God rules by the power of the Holy Spirit. His work is the work of the Spirit. His kingdom is shaped by the Spirit. In Isaiah, the king says, “The Spirit of the Lord God is on me, because the Lord as anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1)
Jesus spoke these words and he applied them to himself when he began his mission. (Luke 4:14-21) Jesus is the King of the Holy Spirit.
Because of their king (the king of the Holy Spirit) the people of the kingdom of the Spirit will thrive, “for the display of his splendor,” as Isaiah says. (Isaiah 61:3) They will be like trees “oaks of righteousness.” Sometimes they are strong and silent. Even so, they will all be able to say, “He is Lord,” without saying a word.
Empowered by the king of the Spirit, the people of the kingdom of the Spirit will not just be strong and silent. They will do the work of their king. “They will rebuild the ancient ruins, and restore the places long devastated.” (Isaiah 61:4) They will own the new creation in their work for the king.
Paul is able to talk about the kingdom of Jesus, and of the Holy Spirit, as if it were the living, moving body of Christ, organized and empowered by the Holy Spirit. There are so many gifts, and there are many lists of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.
There are two lists of these gifts in the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians alone, and (even there) they are not exactly the same list. But Paul said, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” (1 Corinthians 12:11) In other words, the Holy Spirit is in charge of who gets what gift; and how, and when, and why.
The most famous lists of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are in Romans, in 1 Corinthians, and in Ephesians. None of these lists are the same.
Probably it’s impossible to make a fool proof list. Christians have many different understandings of these lists and how they relate to each other; and how they relate to us and to the body of Christ. Maybe our human minds aren’t quite able to sort them out. This leads me to believe that only the Holy Spirit fully understands them. Once again it is true to say, “He is Lord.”
The lists are very strange.  They put the strangest things side by side. There are things in the lists that don’t seem like out and out gifts, but more like talents and skills. The fact that these are gifts of the Holy Spirit tells us that these are supernatural things and not natural things at all. The word that Paul uses for these gifts is a word that means grace: something that is not our own doing, something that is not a result of our own work and effort.
In our civilization we have changed the meaning of gift to mean a talent or a skill. Schools have programs for the gifted.
The gifts of the Spirit are different. They are not talents or skills that you can develop, although your talents and skills are all very welcome in the body of Christ. By all means bring them into the service of Jesus.
In Paul’s lists, one of the gifts is the gift of miracles, and right next to that gift (in the same list) is the gift of teaching. Think of all the planning and preparation that can go into teaching. Yet the next gift is the gift of miracles, and (surely, by very definition) you cannot plan and prepare a miracle.
Yet I think (I know) that, sometimes, teaching is truly supernatural and no amount of planning or preparation can explain what happens. There are many times when you teach a lesson that you have planned and prepared, and all that planning and preparation are good and satisfying. That is the art and beauty of teaching.
But there are other times when something good will come into a class and a good teacher will recognize that it has nothing at all to due with their preparation. It is a moment of the Holy Spirit that gives you the words, “Jesus is Lord.”
There are other undramatic gifts; like knowledge and wisdom, and helping and administrating. You think things through and a thought comes that you can’t account for. You help, and you help, and you organize and suddenly someone responds in a totally unexpected way. It is a gift moment, and you say, “Jesus is Lord.”
The miracle is that there are spontaneous moments of worship. There are these divine surprises that tell you that Jesus is Lord.
Those are wonderful, miraculous moments. They are gifts in themselves, scattered unexpectedly by the Spirit for his own purpose. Some such gifts are occasional and sporadic, but they are so refreshing and renewing. They are truly gifts. They are like drinking from the fountain of the Spirit of God. (1 Cor. 12:13)
Sometimes the gift is steadier. It can be more like a calling; more like a habit or a pattern. They are what you do every day and every week, just as much as they are what the Spirit does.
Yet these gifts are not your doing. These gifts are truly grace from the Holy Spirit when they become that calling-place (or meeting-place) in your life where Jesus is Lord (over, and over, and over again) like the gift of prayer. Those gifts in your life are the calling-places (the meeting-places) where other people may also find that Jesus is Lord; because of that gift of the Spirit.
I am not sure that those places where you find that Jesus is Lord will always be in the same places where you do well, or in the places where other people agree that you do well. There were many Christians who knew Paul; they knew how he worked, and thought, and spoke, and wrote, and lived; and they were not impressed. The gifts were there but went unnoticed.
In Second Corinthians Paul wrote his reaction to some people’s criticism. “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge.” (2 Cor. 11:6) What I like about this line in Paul is that the Greek word for unskilled, here, is the root for our word “idiot”.
Even though (in this case) it’s not accurate to translate the word (literally) as idiot, I see, in this, the joke that some people thought that Paul was an idiot as a speaker. I firmly believe that it doesn’t matter if you are good at something, or not: that idiotic thing can still be the place where you see that Jesus is Lord. Maybe someone else will see it too.
Paul writes about a crazy debate between the head and the feet in the body. In Paul’s world, the head was noble and the feet were an obscenity. Pointing the sole of your foot at another person would be like giving them “the finger” or “mooning” them. The debate that Paul imagines taking place in the body of Christ is about contempt, and scorn, and disrespect.
Paul wrote this parable of the body to describe the crazy behavior of the people of the Holy Spirit who are oblivious to the presence and the message of the Holy Spirit. It happens.
The body of Christ can only say, “Jesus is Lord,” when diametrically opposed members, as different from each other as the head from the feet, love each other, and know in their heart that they need each other. The body of Christ can only say “Jesus is Lord” when its members are moved to bridge a gap that seems as wide and as deep as the gap between heaven and earth: a gap that only the cross can bridge. The cross is the humblest, most desperate plea in the world; where God himself says, “I want you. I need you. I love you.”
If the members of the body act like they don’t belong to each other, if they act as though they don’t need each other, then the Holy Spirit does not say “Jesus is Lord.” This is for the very simple reason that Jesus is not the Lord in such a body. At least he is not allowed to be the Lord. Can anything be clearer than this?
Sometimes the body of Christ seems like an awfully crotchety place. I think that we suffer, more than we realize, from all the divisions in the body of Christ. I think that we live in a world where the body of Christ has been divided for so long that we think that our present, divided way of being the church is normal.
As Christians, we are living, all our lives, in a body where amputations have taken place, beyond living memory, and there are phantom pains. There are the pains of limbs and organs we have never known. A lot of the dysfunction in the church is due to this. We will see this when we go to meet Jesus, or when he comes to meet us.
The Holy Spirit is present in the way that he wants to be when there are members saying to the others, “We want you. We need you. We love you.” In such a body, Jesus is Lord.
In First Corinthians, chapters eleven through fourteen are all about worship. They all go together and say many great things about worship.
Right here, in chapter twelve, we are taught this central thing about worship. Worship happens every time we say that Jesus is Lord, but this will never quite ring true unless we can all say it together. And we can never truly mean what we say about Jesus being Lord until we can truthfully say to each other, with all our heart, “I want you. I need you. I love you.” Then we will have listened to the message of the cross.

Then, all his works will praise him. Then his body, the church, will truly be the place of his dominion.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Freedom

Preached on Sunday, August 18, 2013

Scripture readings: Genesis 2:8-17; 1 Corinthians 8:1-3; 10:23-11:1

When I was eighteen, my good friend Danny met Jesus. He received a new life from Jesus. Danny had been raised a Catholic, and (for all I knew) he had been a serious Catholic. But this experience of Christ came to him in the setting of a Pentecostal prayer meeting.
Summer Vacation June 2013:
Town & Country - Live Oak CA, Sutter County, Butte County
So Danny became a Pentecostal. This meant that, if I was going to hang around with Danny, I had to also hang around with his new Pentecostal friends. This was tricky, because I was sort of a lapsed Presbyterian-Methodist type kid.
When the change in Danny took place, I was having a tricky time with myself. I was sorting out an old, fifth grade commitment to Christ. I was grieving over a calling to the ministry that first came to me when I was twelve. I was in the process of retracing my steps and surrendering to Jesus in a new way (although I had never stopped loving him). Because of Danny, I was also sorting out my relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Well, I wasn’t sorting things out. Jesus was sorting me out.
I had to let Jesus have his say. I came back to the church. I recommitted my life to Christ. I experienced being filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues (as I continue to do to this day).
I still had to get along with Danny’s friends and this was not always easy. I liked his Pentecostal friends and they seemed to like me; except that we didn’t agree about a lot of strange things.
I remember talking to one of these kids and the conversation drifted into the subject of dancing. This kid said he didn’t dance.
I laughed and said, “Neither do I: I’m a terrible dancer!” Then he became very solemn and said: no, he didn’t dance, because he was a Christian. Christians didn’t dance. Dancing was a dangerous, slippery slope.
I didn’t dance because I was a terrible dancer. Dancing only embarrassed me. I would have danced if I felt freedom doing it.
A few years later, when I was in seminary, I met a girl named Donna, who was one of my fellow students. Donna loved to dance, and I loved to be with Donna. With our friends, we would go to a real disco place in Dubuque where they had a genuine disco floor lighted from underneath. The place even had a giant mirrored ball hanging from the ceiling and strobe lights. It was the seventies, even in Dubuque, Iowa.
I would dance on that disco floor with Donna, and she would have this big smile on her face. Maybe she was smiling because liked me, or maybe she smiled because I looked so funny, or maybe her smile came from a combination of both. She was doing what she loved, and I was with her.
I refused to care what I looked like because all of this made me happy, and I was thankful to God when I danced with Donna. I was blessed on what some Christians would have called a dangerous, slippery slope.
This relates to three chapters in First Corinthians where Paul writes about the problem of eating the meat that came from an animal sacrifice made in a pagan temple. Greek and Roman towns were full of temples to the gods and goddess of the ancient world. Not all the meat from those sacrifices could be eaten by the priests in those temples, or by the people who offered their sacrifices there. It wouldn’t keep, and so it was sold in the markets. The price of meat always went say down during the big pagan holidays.
Should a Christian eat the meat that came from those worship sacrifices that so many people made in their temples: to Juno, or Jupiter, or Venus, or Apollo, or Pomona? Should a Christian not eat such meat?
Paul says not to eat a sacrificial meal within a pagan temple. That would mean getting involved in pagan worship. That much should be clear.
But, what about just going to the meat market? Everyone knew that most of the product there came from the temples. What about going to the home of some old family friends or relatives who were not Christians, and eating the meat they might have gotten from making a sacrifice in a pagan temple?
Paul said (and I paraphrase), “Don’t worry about it. The claim of Christ over any part of God’s creation is infinitely stronger than any other association, even with the ancient gods.” (This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 10:25.) “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (1 Corinthians 10:25 and Psalm 24:1) Eat and don’t worry about it.
But what if someone brought up the matter of where the meat came from? Maybe the host was a good, honest host. They felt a need to warn you before you took a bite because they cared about you. They didn’t want you to go wrong or get in trouble with your God.
Maybe the warning would come from a fellow Christian at the meal who was “in the know” and nervous about what they should do. They wanted to know what you would do.
In that case Paul told his friends not to eat. This was because they should take seriously the consciences of the ones who warned them.
The ones who had warned them might be Christians who still felt the influences of the old gods that they had left behind. They felt this influence as a powerful thing; a hard thing to change a hard thing to do without.
Because of your casual attitude, they might share the meal and be tricked by the memories and the influences of their old gods. They might stumble into losing their faith.
The ones who had warned you might be your non-Christian friends or family members. They might see you knowingly eating pagan meat and think that you were not serious about your own departure from the gods. If you, as a Christian, didn’t take your own new life seriously, then why should they; why should anyone else?
And so that pagan meat was a slippery slope. If it showed that Christians were just like anyone else, why bother. Or it might lead vulnerable Christians to temptations they couldn’t handle. Paul said that we should be careful about the influence our lives have on others.
For my old non-dancing friends dancing was a slippery slope. Dancing could lead to risky and tempting situations. Dancing could lead you to absorb immoral ideas from the songs and have those ideas creep into your life. If it had no slippery effect on you, then your dancing might still have a slippery effect on others.
Paul said that meat didn’t really matter, and yet it might matter to someone, and that was what mattered. We know very well that meat offered to idols is not an issue because we shop in places like Wal-Mart, or Costco, or Win-co.
For us, the issues are other things: what and how we drink; how we relate to the opposite sex; what we watch on television or the internet; how we do business; how we talk and function in the church or in the community. Even if we don’t mean anything by it, even if we don’t find our selves on a slippery slope where we are getting out of control, it still can have an effect on others. Paul wanted us to deal with the dangers of freedom and realize that the freedom of the Christian life is a path that requires us to be thankful and joyful, and also to think.
This is the bigger issue that wanted us to understand. “Why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?” (1 Corinthians 10:29) In other words, why should my freedom be restricted by how another person might react to my free actions?
If my non-dancing friends had seen the way I danced with Donna they might have laughed at what a klutz I was. They might have seen that there was no slippery slope except for my own feet.
Or they still could have taken it seriously. They could have been scandalized by it: “And you’re going into the ministry! Oh, but you’re a Presbyterian, so you don’t count!”
Why should I even care what they thought? Whatever they thought wouldn’t be my problem. It would be their problem.
What if “what should I care” was the right way to think about it? What if they were being narrow, and judging, and self righteous? Now that would be a dangerous, slippery slope! Their huffiness might turn out to be their own slippery slope to sin and hell. They might see foolish I was, and how much wiser they were, and that be much worse for them than it would be for me.
It would have been a matter of how much they knew (or thought they knew), and how much they did not love. Paul wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) They might have been tempted to know good and evil the way they thought that God knows it without trying to love the way God loves.
This is an old, old sin. It’s as old as the Garden of Eden. There were two trees at the center of the garden: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And they were both good trees with good fruit, but the Tree of the Knowledge of God and Evil was both good and dangerous.
We know that both trees were good because everything that God had made was good. Everything in Eden was good. There were rivers in the garden. The rivers (like the forbidden fruit) were both good and dangerous; but they were not nearly as dangerous as the goodness of the knowledge of good and evil, and so they were not forbidden.
Knowledge is a good thing. The serpent (the Devil) told the truth there. But knowledge, in the Bible, means intimacy with the things you know.
If we become intimate with evil (even when we are also intimate with goodness at the same time) we are in danger. We don’t know how to do it they same way that God does.
Our intimacy with evil divides us from God, and from others, and even from our own well-being. If we choose the knowledge of evil over and against the protective warnings of God then we end up choosing knowledge and experience over God. We choose knowledge over love.
Paul found that the Christians in Corinth were tempted to choose knowledge over love. They were tempted to choose their spiritual knowledge of the real harmlessness of meat offered to idols over the well being of others. They were choosing their mature Christian freedom over their love of others for whom Christ died; and so they managed to choose the knowledge of Christ over the love of Christ that had saved them.
In a sense (by choosing knowledge over love) they had even chosen not to think. Their priorities were in serious trouble.
It was the sin of Eden, where Adam and Eve chose a forbidden good over their love for God and for each other. Their knowledge of good and evil came from their resistance to trusting and loving. This changed them to the core of their being and altered human nature. Their nature because human nature as we know it today.
They traded their trust in God for an intimacy that they supposed would make them like God. And yet their choice made them less like God than God had created them.
Their own choice vandalized the image of God within them. It made them less than they had been before. It made them less able to love each other. It made them less able to do each other good.
Because of their choice, we want the knowledge of our rights more than we want what is good for others. We want to think what we want, and to say what we want, and to do what we want. We are our own little gods (and “God knows best”)
It is the nature of God to gear what he thinks, and says, and does in order to do us good. God shapes what he thinks, and says, and does in order to restore us to fellowship and harmony with him and with each other. God came down from the bliss, and the happiness, and the freedom of heaven, in Jesus, to redemptively love us on the cross.
God truly knew good and evil as no one else can. He had true intimacy with both. God’s intimacy with good and evil meant, for him, doing us good by bearing on the cross the evil that we had chosen for ourselves.
For God, knowing good and evil meant saving us from sin like a bystander might run into the earthly hell of a burning building in order to save a child trapped in the fire. God chose to know our evil in order to save us because we were trapped by a fire that we (as humans) had set for ourselves.
This is the measure of God’s love on the cross. We do not always love the cross when Jesus gives us the freedom to take up the cross and follow him.
Our cross often consists of caring about the good of others and thinking, saying, and doing what we hope will bring glory to God in the lives of others. This is very hard and inconvenient. So this becomes a cross we don’t want.
Our biggest worry is about how other people are interfering with our freedom instead of using our freedom for the good of others. This is often the freedom of serving others as opposed to the freedom of judging them.
This freedom of following Jesus for the good of others is one of the highest forms of freedom. If we could see this freedom as God sees it, it might have all the beauty of a dance. It doesn’t shout, “I will do this because I can!” It doesn‘t come from the non-dancers on the sidelines who shout, “I judge, because I know what good and evil is!” The highest form of freedom serves and shouts, “I will do this because I love!”
It’s a freedom like a dance. But you never do it because you can, you do it because (even though you really can’t) it is the dance of Jesus. Even though you can’t dance, you will dance because it gives you joy to do it with him. That is the kind of dance I did with Donna.

Paul wrote: “For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:33-11:1) That is how God measures his own freedom. That is where we see that freedom measured out for us on the cross. Let’s use this freedom for the love of Jesus.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Community

Preached on Sunday, August 11, 2013 (a Communion Sunday)

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 & 11:17-34

Summer Vacation June 2013:
Scenes along the Feather River, East of Live Oak, CA
More than one hundred and fifty years ago there was a pioneer of modern nursing named Florence Nightingale who went to organize the medical care of the British troops who were fighting around the Black Sea in the Crimean War. The story goes that, one day, when she was spending some time carefully washing the wounds of a gravely injured soldier, that soldier looked up at her and said, “You are Christ to me.”

Imagine simply looking at another person (a perfectly ordinary person, just like you and me), and seeing Christ. As Christians, we ought to be amazed at being able, in the best of times, to do exactly this with each other. As Christians, we ought to be amazed to look at someone we don’t even know (someone who walks through these doors and sits with us in this room) and be able to see that they are Christ to us. We should find ourselves living every day being amazed (or at least deeply puzzled) by this.

What would you do if you saw this; if you saw Christ in others? How would you welcome them here, and anywhere? How would you welcome a stranger who might turn out to be Christ to you?

Jeremiah in his prophecy and Paul in his letter to the Christians in Corinth shed light on this experience. They tell us how we should find ourselves and our church being changed by seeing God, by seeing Christ, in others.

Jeremiah told of a time when a whole new relationship would be possible between God and human beings. It would be a relationship that changed people inside and out: a new mind, a new heart; a new life. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

Something makes us hesitate to say, “I know God. I know the Lord. I know Jesus.” And our hesitation may come from the fact that we don’t, or not very well.

But there may be other reasons. When you say that you know something that other people may not know, you may feel that you are claiming to be smarter than they are: at least about that one thing. Even if we want to be smarter than others, we also want to appear to be polite. Or you might seem to be claiming special privileges for yourself. This also does not seem polite.

Knowing God doesn’t have much to do with being smart, but it ought to be a very humbling sort of special privilege. It is the knowledge that comes from special privilege that husbands and wives learn from each other. It’s the special knowledge shared by parents that kids learn about when they try to play mom and dad against each other. In a healthy marriage you see this special knowledge (this privileged knowledge) when you mention something about a wife to her husband; or about a husband to his wife.

The Old Testament teaches us that the knowledge that counts is the knowledge of relationship. In the older translations of the Bible, the first time we meet the knowledge that comes from the privilege of a special relationship is in Genesis.

It’s in the relationship between Adam and Eve. “Now Adam knew Eve, his wife, and she conceived, and bore Cain.” (Genesis 4:1) That is a privileged experience of knowing someone in a way that makes a real difference.

From that time forth, I am sure that they were very different together, and they would have acquired a certain look about them that they had never had before. It was a look that anyone would have noticed, if there had been anyone else around to notice!

 Jeremiah said that there would come a time when this sort of privileged knowledge of God would become the common knowledge. Every one of God’s people would have this kind of knowledge of God based on relationship.

It wouldn’t be the knowledge of something written on stone, or in a book. It would be the knowledge of God and his ways written on their own hearts and minds.

It wouldn’t be found written in a special chapter of its own. You wouldn’t have to search for it in the index. It would be the whole story of the book of your life. There would be no sentence in your story that didn’t have God written in it.

Anyone who wanted you to know what they knew about God would begin to tell you, and then they would stop; because they would see that look. They would remember that they had just the same look that you have. Their own life was simply another telling of the same story of God in Christ.

When I was a child, I sometimes tried to pull something over on my mom. She would see what I was doing, and then she would repeat this very scary saying. She would say, “I can read you like a book.” But Jeremiah tells us of a time when we will look at the cover of any person’s life, and we will see a story that we know and share.

This new covenant, the new relationship that every person of God will share, is the story of Jesus, the story of the gospel (the good news of Jesus). It is the story of a life and death through which we die and live. Jesus died for our sins and so, in his death, we die to ourselves. In his resurrection from the dead he defeated every kind of death, and so (in him) we rise to a new life.

If anyone belongs to Jesus, the same story is retold in each and every one of us. Paul tells us the outline of the story in his letter to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

So any Christian can look any other Christian in the face and say, “You are Christ to me.” This is a kind of knowing and recognition that comes from God working in Jesus Christ. It is written in each and every one of us in the flesh and blood of a God who became a baby in Bethlehem, and a carpenter in Nazareth, and a victim of injustice on the cross. It is written in the flesh and blood of a God who died and rose from the dead; the flesh and blood of a God who still wears the scars and sits on the throne of the universe in heaven.

It is a story written in the biggest letters in the world, in our hearts and minds. How can anyone who has that story written upon them miss it in others?

But Paul says that the Christians who were living in Corinth were doing exactly that. They were all sharers in the body and blood of Christ, and yet they didn’t treat each other that way. In the Lord’s Supper, they all relived that story in the book where it is written in bread and wine, yet they skimmed over the place that says who the supper is for.

When they sat down to eat and drink the story, so many of them did it as individuals. They each did it as a party of one. They did not look at each other and see the same story written in the body and the blood, in the bread and the wine.

Paul seems to start out by complaining about divisions in the church, and we jump to the conclusion that these must be divisions of doctrine and teaching, but Paul makes it clear that the division was a failure of practice. They were divided because they were not including each other. They were living together, apart.

Well, the rich in the church were a little club unto themselves. Sunday was a work day in the ancient world of the New Testament; but not everyone had to work.

The Lord’s Supper was part of a larger meal that was served in a house that was big enough to hold a whole congregation. These big houses were the homes of the rich where they often entertained their wealthy friends. The well-off Christians could come early to these homes where they were often guests for social occasions.

They forgot, on Sundays, that these homes were also houses of worship where the body of Christ was to be found. They forgot that the body of Christ was bigger and more inclusive than the body of their special set of friends.

Other people had to work for bosses who kept track of their hours. They couldn’t come as early as the well-to-do. They came to the body of Christ and found a table of crumbs. They found the holy meal was shared without them.

In the history of the church, one reason why we have just a taste of bread and a sip of wine is to keep everyone on the same page in the same story. We are partners in the body and blood of Christ.

There are no divisions in this partnership. We are never to see anyone as having more or having less at this table. We are never even to think it. We are definitely never to treat others this way, as if they had less or more of the meal of Jesus, or as if anyone was entitled to less or more.

Modern people are so mental about remembering. We think that remembering has something to do with our brains; especially these days, when life spans have gotten so long that we all feel at risk for dementia. Remembering, in the Bible, has very little to do with the brain. It has to do with the heart. When our brains stop working our memories are hidden in a spiritual heart that defines who we are.

If we only read our heart instead of our brain we would know this. Our truest memories are not things that we think about. They are things we relive. We laugh again. We cry again. Our blood pressure goes up.

Real memories are the stuff our lives are made of. At least one purpose for our life is to live for the creation of real memories.

In the Lord’s Supper, we sit together (with a sampling of every Christian in the world) at the table of Jesus. We hear him talk about his death and our forgiveness. We hear him talk about washing each others’ feet.

We find ourselves at the foot of the cross and we watch him bleed and die. We come to the garden tomb weeping, and we find it empty. Jesus comes to us alive again. We see him disappear into heaven and we find ourselves watching and praying for him to come back.

It is our story because we know it by relationship. We live it every day.

Or we think we do. But, maybe we only think it. Maybe we don’t see it because we do not find ourselves saying to each and every Christian that we meet, “You are Christ to me.”

We are disciples, and disciples are learners. We are still learning. Do we really show signs that we are still learning?

Paul says that we need to discern or “recognize the body of the Lord” when we eat and drink the Lord’s Supper. He means that we need to see the story that makes us all one. We need to see the oneness that makes us one; that makes us partners who need each other in some high, and deep, and mysterious way. We do not come to the Lord’s Table as a party of one, or as a party of a certain set of people.

It’s always something. If it isn’t a matter of the rich and poor, it is always something. In small towns it is often a matter of being old timers and new comers. Or it’s the matter of a personal history that too many people know about, or have opinions about.

It’s always something. Something makes us a clique. Something makes us self-absorbed, and it makes others simply invisible.

We meet our friends, and it may not be hard to say to our friends, “You are Christ to me.” But what if we meet someone we don’t know here, in this place?  Christ comes through these doors, or we go out and meet Christ there.

They are Christ to us, but we don’t act like it. They are someone who is Christ to us in a new way, with a brand new face, and we are not excited or amazed. We ought, at least, to be puzzled.

The divisions that Paul saw were the divisions created by people who saw some people as “Christ to them” and overlooked the rest. The issue of what division had received God’s approval wasn’t an issue of who God smiled at because they believed correctly. It was the issue of Christians believing without passing the test of believing.

The word Paul uses to mean approval is a word that means passing a test. This word was used for a positive result when you tested a rock to see if it was gold or silver ore.

Approval came when the test would show that the story of Jesus was written, deep upon their hearts, in letters of the finest gold and silver. The silver and the gold would pass the test in the quality of their waiting for each other, or in their patience with each other, and in their gracious hospitality to each other.

Precious ore, containing gold and silver, was pounded and crushed to a powder, and melted down with fragments of lead to a point where the lead caught the impurities and then oxidized, like a scum on the surface and could be scraped or poured away.

Reading the story of Jesus in the lives of people you don’t know means getting to know them, and this can be like going through hammers and fire. We like the people we already like because we have learned all about them from experience. We may have argued and fought with them and gotten over that.

We forget that this is work. It is work to see Christ in others (and maybe it can even be painful), the way the wounded soldier saw Christ in his nurse.

There is more to welcoming Christ as he comes to us in others than by shaking hands and smiling. It means being willing to come, and meet, and see, and listen, and learn.

Part of remembering the body and blood of Jesus was remembering the obligation of gracious hospitality; remembering that the meal was for everyone, and especially for anyone who knows they are in some essential way, a stranger and an outcast. Remembering the body and blood means that you have a commitment of welcoming and being a good host to everyone who comes to you, whoever they are.

The Lord’s Supper is the Table of Love. Just as we are each a little Christ, walking around, we are also a little Lord’s Supper for those who need it most to “taste and see that the Lord is good.)  (Psalm 34:8) There should never be any delay in our passing the test of love, like the test of gold and silver.

Samuel Rutherford was a Scottish Christian minister and writer in the sixteen hundreds. He wrote this about the story of the grace of Christ in his life:  Oh, what I owe to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus, who hath now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goes through His mill, and His oven, to be made bread for His own table.”

The truth is we all must go through the furnace and the mill to be Christ for others and to see Christ in others. In Christ, we have the knowledge of the Lord written on our minds and hearts. We meet the same story and the same knowledge in each and every one of his people.

The Lord’s Supper is a gift to teach us that we are all, one and the same, the objects of God’s amazing and gracious hospitality, and we are called to live together accordingly. Go and be Christ for others. Go and see Christ in them.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Measured by the Cross: Emancipation

Preached on Sunday August 4, 2013

Scripture readings: Isaiah 51:1-3; 1 Corinthians 7:17-24

We will all admit that life can be “messy”. But it can still get so awkward when another person (even someone we trust and love) takes it upon themselves to talk to us about the messiness of our lives, and what we ought to do about it.

Summer Vacation 2013:
Some Sights along an Irrigation Canal
The Apostle Paul has gotten into a lot of trouble with Christians, over the years, because he was not only asked to deal with some big messes in the lives of the Christians in Corinth, but he actually dared to say something definite about them. As nearly as we can tell, the people who asked Paul for his advice didn’t like what they heard.

The church in Corinth asked Paul some controversial and sensitive questions about singleness, and sex, and marriage, and divorce, and the aftermath of divorce. I think Paul realized how deep a hole he was digging for himself, and so interrupted what he was trying to say, right in the middle of it all. He backed up and wrote the passage we have just read. It has nothing to do with singleness, and sex, and marriage, and divorce, and the aftermath of divorce. But it has to do with a principle.

Here is the principle. “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him.” (1 Corinthians 7:20)

This means that, whatever your lot in life was when the Lord drew you to himself; that is where you should stay. You should be content with that.

We have to realize that this advice is more controversial and outrageous than anything Paul might have said about marriage. But there is a principle here underlying everything else that Paul wanted us to know.

Your lot in life, when the Lord called you, or drew you to himself, is not an accident. It is not a mistake. It is the training that the Lord has given you for your mission in life. It is his special calling to you for where and how to begin to follow Jesus.

This principle might seem like an actual barrier to what you think your life should be. It might seem like an obstacle to your happiness and your freedom. It might seem, in your better moments like the most absurd joke in the world.

It, also, might very well have absolutely nothing to do with where the Lord will lead you. It simply tells you where and how to begin. Your lot in life, at the time of the Lord’s calling to you, is somehow holy, and you should give this your trust.

It is somehow essential to your mission assignment. It is the beachhead from which you mount your campaign through the rest of your life. It is your primary base of operations as the unique and special servant of Jesus that you are.

Paul was just as strict on our beginning well as he was on our finishing well. This is why he insisted on so many other outrageous assumptions; like the rule of chastity in singleness and the rule faithfulness in marriage. That is how he builds his vision of the Christian life.

We won’t understand any of this unless we also understand another part of the most basic teaching of Paul. In Galatians (probably the earliest of Paul’s letters that we have) he wrote, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  (Galatians 5:1)

Learning how and why to stay put and to stand pat is the way you learn to have a freedom that has meaning. It gives you a freedom with backbone. This is why he gave this advice to the Christians in Corinth: stay in your marriage, stay in your singleness. Paul knew that what he was saying was not simple to understand and that it was not simple to do.

We also will not understand what Paul says unless we realize that Paul did not intend what he wrote here to be used for detecting sin and labeling people as sinners. If we use these instructions for the purpose of sin detection then we are misunderstanding and misusing the word of God. And yet God’s people have made this exact mistake over, and over, and over again.

There is the saying, “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” The grazing cow always thinks that getting to the grass on the other side of the fence is what freedom is all about. Paul wrote these instructions about not changing your lot in order to put a stop to that kind of thinking.

There are people who are always fretting over the situations they are in. They think their lives would be better if only that could make a certain change.

They make that change. They seem very happy for a while. Then they find new reasons to be unhappy.

I know someone who has lived in a dozen places and can find nothing good to say about any of them. When I was serving the church in Othello, this particular someone that I know stopped by to visit me, on their way to somewhere else. We sat down in the living room of the manse and he said, “This place is really ugly.” They didn’t mean the house. They didn’t mean my housekeeping. They meant the place.

I was totally shocked by that. I don’t believe I have ever lived in a place I would call ugly; not even when I lived in a town surrounded by oilfields. I have never lived in a place that didn’t have value. The grace of God was always evident in some way, even in the look of a place. There was always something to love and give thanks for.

Some people find what Paul said about marriage and divorce to be frustrating. I find that what Paul said about staying single is frustrating. I have felt this way for almost forty years.

I have never been happy with it. It is true that I really don’t know any better and, maybe, actually, that is of some help. I also find that, if I take it one day at a time, being single is do-able. But, every day of my life, there seem to be at least five or ten minutes of that day when I am not able to take it one day at a time.

What Paul is right about is that my life is not about being single. My life is about a lot of things. Most of all it is about being married to the Lord.

I wouldn’t mind committing the bigamy of being married both to the Lord, and having a wife and family. Paul says that this, too, is a perfectly good thing.

Just like any married person, I have the calling to extend the grace of God in Jesus Christ to those around me. My single life is my base of operations for that mission. If I were married, my wife and family would be my base of operations in extending the grace of God to others, and my first campaign of sharing that grace would rightfully be to my wife and family. Then my campaign of grace would reach beyond them, and through them, to others.

If I had been married in an enduring marriage from before I ever became a pastor, I would never have served any of the churches that I have served. All my options and choices for service would have led me somewhere else.

And so I would never have come here. Being here is one of the blessings of being single. Then I honestly ask my self: is it worth being single to have spent twenty years here? But I would rather not think of it that way!

I think that Paul’s dealing with a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever helps us understand almost everything that Paul says about singleness, and sex, and marriage, and divorce, and the aftermath of divorce. It has to do with the capacity, the calling, the gift that a believer has to extend the grace of God to others.

Paul said that, “The unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:14) Paul doesn’t mean that the unbelieving spouse will automatically come to know Jesus. Paul does mean that the unbelieving spouse becomes one with a person who is one with Jesus. They are resident aliens within the boundaries of the kingdom of God. They live in a place where the love of God in Jesus lives and works. They benefit from the grace of God in their spouse.

But not everyone wants grace, just as not everyone wants to be happy. The Christian is living presence of grace personified. This is the principle of Christ being in you. In marriage, if grace is rejected, so is the spouse, so is the marriage itself. It is not a marriage except in the sense of being a rejected marriage. The grace that you extend is not loved. It is not wanted.

Paul knows this. Paul allows for it. He says so. Through Paul’s word, the word of God allows for this. When your mission to extend the grace of God is rejected, God generally calls you elsewhere. You have a new calling.

Even though Christians are the hands, the feet, and the voice of Christ only Christ is fully and truly Christ. We are not in charge. We can’t save anyone by our own power or by our concentration of will. Only Christ can. If you are to recognize what you can’t do, and that Christ alone must take hold of it, then your faith and obedience requires you to let it go.

We cannot make another person receive the grace of Jesus through us. Only Jesus can win them by showing himself to them, in his own way and his own time.

Even Christians can behave like unbelievers. They can reject and invalidate the bond, the promises, the covenant, the relationship that brings them grace.

Even though you have promised to share God’s grace with them, when they show by their words, or by their actions, that they are saying “no”, then, perhaps, you are being called elsewhere. You are being called to another base of the operation of God’s grace.

Paul said to not seek to change your lot, but God called Paul to change his lot. Paul was moving all the time. You might never willingly change your calling, but God does change it.

God has designed time itself to change your calling. God leads us through changes of his own choosing all the time, but those changes that are brought by God do not end the mission of holiness, to live at one with Jesus, and to extend his grace to others.

Paul wanted us to see that following Jesus doesn’t make us so spiritual that our actual, nitty-gritty circumstances become unimportant. Believing in a real God of grace means that our actual, nitty-gritty circumstances and relationships are places where we can find the God of grace. They are not obstacles to the grace, and power, and love of God.

Even if you have been sent elsewhere to be a grace giver, there is no place, no set of circumstances, no situation where the grace of God cannot come. That is how we are to live. That is the meaning of living by faith, and hope, and love.

Your marriage, your role as parents and children, your family, your church, your community, your nation are always holy in the sense that God’s callings are always solid things. If anything is real, it matters.

God blessed and confirmed the holiness of real and solid things by becoming a solid part of our world. He became a baby and there are few realities more demanding than a baby. God became a member of a family, and took his responsibility for his family seriously when Joseph died. He became the carpenters son and the man of the house for his mother. He became the member of a nation (the occupied nation of Israel) and he was faithful to that nation, to the death, on a cross. He was misunderstood, underestimated, and rejected, and yet he gave more and more grace than ever.

In the end, he gave to this world that killed him the grace of becoming a new world in the kingdom of God. He gave to a human race that killed him the grace of becoming the children of God, in the kingdom of God, for ever and ever.

This happened because God himself took stubborn, worldly reality seriously. He made real circumstances and real relationships his base of operations in the giving of his grace.

So we come around, again, to the cross. We have callings in this world that are not of our own choosing. In each of those places, in each set of circumstances, we are to look exactly there for grace.

We are to extend that grace wherever God may call us. We must be prepared to stay if we are called to stay. We must be prepared to go, if God calls us to go. God chose for himself a passionate calling to us; to identify with us so completely that he could look at us and see his grace in our circumstances.

It is human nature to run away from the cost and the consequences of belonging to the Lord, but his cross (which is the physical proof of his infinite love) cries out to us. The Christ of the wounds claims us. Paul said it. “You were bought with a price.” (1 Corinthians 7:23)

That is where we must begin, in order to begin well. That is the kind of grace where true freedom begins.