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.

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