1 Corinthians

The Deepest Kind of Riches

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Sosthenes.

I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


Some churches seem to have everything. And yet, when they forget one thing, trouble ensues.

In writing to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul began with a joyful, thankful tone. And he was right to do so. Many blessings had fallen on the Christians in Corinth, even as they lived in the midst of a cosmopolitan economic hub full of competing ideas about religions and morality.

In particular, Paul noted, the Christian Corinthians had received “spiritual gifts,”  a subject he discussed in greater detail later in the letter, in the part we mark as chapter 12. There, we learn he meant specific abilities given to Christians by God’s Holy Spirit so we can better serve Christ’s kingdom. Paul specifically mentioned gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment and languages. Like most of Paul’s lists, this one was not meant to be exhaustive; instead, he was just highlighting some key abilities any Christian community would value.

In chapter 12, he was also quick to point out that no one Christian has all the gifts—this was in part to emphasize their need to work together. For you see, the Christians in Corinth had a basic problem. They were not working together, and often for the silliest of reasons.

Within the church, the Corinthian Christians had developed what we might call personality cults. One group would claim, “I follow this person,” while another would say, “No, I prefer to follow this guy.”

Paul himself was perceived as one of these factional leaders, even though he did not want to be one. There also was a Christian leader named Apollos, known for his eloquent preaching. Some claimed allegiance to “Peter,” presumably the Apostle Peter, and others took the high road, saying they followed Christ.

Paul’s solution was to point these Christians back to their core reason for existing. Focus, he told them, on one thing: the Good News, what he also described as “the message of the cross.”

The world around them likely would find the message foolish, he warned them. But preach it, teach it, and live it just the same, he was saying, for it is a special kind of foolishness, one designed to unravel what the world calls wisdom.

We are much like the Corinthians, living in a world where many ideas come together, and where we have access to almost anything we want, assuming we can afford it. This extravangance can be distracting, and certainly, we can be driven into factions, even within churches.

But can we not all agree on one thing—why we gather as Christians? We gather because of Jesus Christ and how he has revealed himself on the cross.

I have wondered if some people struggle with building their lives around “one thing” because they’re afraid they will somehow get bored. If that is so, it is unlikely they have truly explored the idea of Christ and the cross.

Most religions have mysteries to be explored, ideas that confound and obsess their deepest followers. These ideas require meditation and prayer to explore, and through that experience, the follower is changed. Zen riddles (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?) come to mind.

Christ’s work on the cross is our riddle, our mystery to explore. The problem is we have come to take it for granted—we have let the strangeness and the mystery of it all slip away.

In American culture, we are too quick to explain it. Often, we talk about the cross in terms of transferred punishment, with the Son of God absorbing what was meant for us. It is certainly one good way to understand the cross, but if you really take time to explore that idea, it does have its weaknesses. So God’s not satisfied until the one he calls “Son” is horribly abused and killed?

Over the centuries, other theories have been put forth. Was Christ essentially the payment of ransom to Satan, who held us captive because of sin? Did Jesus come to replay the role of Adam, providing a sort of “do over” for humanity? Did Jesus enter the realm of death so he could battle and defeat evil, winning the truly ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championship?

I have particularly enjoyed studying how views of the cross change with each culture. When the Japanese began to hear of Christ, most of the European views of how the cross worked did not resonate with them. But being in a culture where shame was the worst thing that could happen to you, Japanese Christians understood the cross in terms of Christ absorbing the shame we all share for sin.

It seems as if looking at the cross in so many ways could in itself be divisive. But however it works, the cross is an act of love, a unifying love that makes no sense. It is the act of an infinitely strong God choosing to love weak, broken beings so much that he would do anything to save them.

It also results in unyielding hope. In death, even shameful, horrible death, there is resurrection! Out of such nastiness comes eternal joy and bliss!

The truest, deepest kind of riches are to be found in the Good News. Understanding this becomes our great motivation as Christians and as the church. It is only reasonable and natural we share this truth with others, not only as an idea, but in action, as we draw on our richness of spirit to help others.

And in the process, as we preach the cross, teach the cross, meditate on the cross, and continue to live the message of the cross every day, we of course find unity and strength.

Advertisements

Red Meat

Pattersons,_Mayfair,_London_(7313808984)

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

What does advanced, mature Christianity look like? Well, sort of like advanced eating.

That is Paul’s metaphor, not mine. In his first known letter to the church at Corinth, Paul drew a clear distinction between those who have advanced in their relationship with God via the Holy Spirit and those who have not. His critique of the church was harsh; despite having had plenty of time to grow in their Christian faith, they remained mewling babies, unable to handle anything except the most basic spiritual food.

The evidence underlying Paul’s accusation was straightforward. The church in Corinth suffered from disunity, breaking into factions and rallying around human leaders rather than Christ and the world-changing message of the cross.

It’s a brilliant metaphor, one that can be stretched far without breaking. Most of us have seen how children grow from milk to mashed food to an eventual desire for nourishment as complicated as red meat. (I’ll just go ahead and apologize to the vegetarians now; feel free to visualize raw kale and radicchio instead.) Many children even exhibit a strong desire to move from one type of food to the next, demanding what they’ve never had when they first see it.

We’re called to hunger in the same way spiritually, moving from the basic, comforting message of the cross to more challenging concepts. Just as it would be sad to see an adult unable to stomach anything except milk, it should sadden us to see people 10 or 20 years into their Christian lives who have not moved beyond a beginning Christian’s understanding of the cross.

C’mon, Try a Bite

With all that in mind, I want to put a spiritual sampler platter before you. If you haven’t tried some of this, you should.

Advanced Bible Study. I’m not just talking about being able to distinguish Noah from Moses. Can you dive into God’s word and tease out the big, overarching messages of Scripture? For example, there are recurring themes like creation and holiness, the brokenness sin brings, God’s overwhelming love for us, and the tremendous gifts of grace granted us. Can you then use those concepts to keep the more complicated or troubling points of Scripture in context?

Do you know what it means to study the Bible inductively, to let the Holy Spirit work through Scripture to shape you and change you? It’s a much better approach than letting your human thoughts and emotions blind you to God’s revealed truths.

You do not have to go to seminary to learn all of this. Every good church offers you the opportunity to learn such things. This church offers you such opportunities.

Advanced Prayer. It’s good to pray the Lord’s Prayer and to take time to pray for your family and others around you. But we can go so much further in prayer.

Ever heard of contemplative prayer? Everyone talks about meditation these days, usually from the perspective of yoga practice or Buddhist teachings. Christianity has its own form of meditative prayer, designed to help us better understand God’s will in our lives.

Ever tried praying Scripture? Using the Psalms as a basis for prayer is particularly helpful and enlightening. We’re going to make it possible for you to learn more about praying the Psalms during Lent this year.

Our goal should be to turn our lives into a walking prayer, to “pray without ceasing,” living in constant union with God. Are we there yet? I’m not, but I know I want more!

Living through your spiritual gifts. Remember last week how I mentioned that God continues to pour out grace on us, in part by granting us new spiritual gifts? Do you know what your gifts are? I continue to be astonished by Christians who don’t know how they are gifted.

The gifts we are given tell us specifically how God is wanting to use us in this world now. Knowing these gifts lets us be more effective as we help God build his kingdom. There also is great satisfaction in developing these gifts.

Portrait of a Healthy Eater

If you’re not trying all the possibilities God has placed before you, maybe it will help if I give you a picture of what a mature spiritual eater looks like. We become spiritually svelte, holy and attractive to God.

In particular, I look to another of Paul’s writings, the letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul listed what he called the “fruits of the Spirit,” the result of deep engagement with God.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patience), kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” Paul said. Who would not want to be described by others as such a person? And as Paul knew, such people have little trouble understanding God’s will and how to live in unity.

As I say sometimes during communion, the table is set. Come, partake.

God’s Big Secret

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

As we move further into 1 Corinthians this week, Paul begins to talk about spiritual maturity and mystery. He has been talking about the message of Christ crucified, but we begin to understand there is deeper knowledge to pursue.

I’ll begin with a word of caution. The idea that there are deeper mysteries to be explored in our faith is true, but it’s also an idea that has been severely abused throughout history. One of the earliest heresies of the church was the gnostic movement, which claimed there were secret mysteries available to only a select few.

We’re not talking about spiritual elitism, however. The deeper aspects of our faith spoken of by Paul are available to any thinking person tuned in to what the Holy Spirit is constantly trying to reveal to us. Your baptism initially opened you to these deeper revelations, and your continual faithfulness to God opens you further and further.

Let’s go back to the basics for just a minute. Salvation is relatively simple. Through Jesus Christ, God intervened so our sins cannot destroy us. Jesus’ death on the cross cancels out the power sin has over us. All we have to do is believe the story is true.

We don’t even have to fathom how the cross works—we just have to believe that it does. This is why children are able to understand the message well enough to have a renewed relationship with God.

We’re called to go beyond the basics, however. In fact, once the Spirit is at work within us, I don’t see how we cannot want to go deeper. We are invited to take on the mind of Christ, at least as much as humanly possible.

Here’s what I believe is the key to going deeper. We develop our understanding of the meaning of the word “grace,” and then we begin to apply that understanding to every situation we encounter.

The definition of grace is pretty simple. Grace is love you receive even though you don’t deserve it. We talked about the cross just a few minutes ago; it is the great act of grace. We are sinners, but despite not deserving eternal life in the presence of God, the cross provides this glorious joy to us.

Eternal life is just the first gift, though. There are other gifts we receive in this life. We simply have to accept them, holding out our hands through prayer and worship. The Natural Church Development program lists 30 gifts available to Christ’s followers; it’s a thorough, useful, biblical list. And of course, there are the fruits of the Spirit, a new outlook on life we can receive.

You would think that after the first experience of grace, we would receive those other gifts with open arms. Grace can frighten us, though. First of all, it implies a need to change, and a lot of us don’t like the idea of change.

Grace also complicates life by interfering with strict systems of rules. Grace is wonderful wherever it appears, but it also brings us into conflict with the comfort we find in rules. Christianity, properly understood, is subversive, constantly asking, “Yeah, that’s the rule, but what about grace?”

Rules can be important, of course. God spent thousands of years interacting with the Jews through the law for a reason. Sin blurs our view of right and wrong. God’s laws are the corrective lenses.

But we’re also a people saved by grace and called to show grace toward others, especially sinners. One of my favorite biblical examples is the story of the woman caught in adultery.

A more modern example would be the issue of homosexuals in the church. Some denominations have what is essentially a “do not enter” policy for homosexuals. On the other end of the spectrum, there are denominations who do not call homosexuality a sin, ordaining and marrying people in active homosexual relationships.

My denomination’s position is nuanced and takes a moment to explain. We follow the Bible, saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” but at the same time we welcome all people into worship and fellowship, believing the life-changing and sustaining grace of God should be available to anyone seeking it.

Certainly, we don’t want to condone sin, but at the same time, we never want to stand in the way of God’s powerful grace. And when we balance the two, we find ourselves occupying some difficult middle ground.

It’s also simply not in our best interests to help the church or any other institution act as if certain sinners are cut off from God’s grace. If any of you are, to use an old Methodist term, “perfected,” I’ll apologize in advance, but the odds are that the vast majority of you struggle with some kind of sin from time to time.

Which sin are we next going to condemn as unforgivable, as unrepairable by God? Lust? Dishonesty? Greed? Pride? If we start erecting barriers for sinners, the church will soon be an empty place, and useless as a wellspring of God’s life-changing grace.

Next week, I’m going to explore further what it means for your life if you choose to dwell in the deeper mysteries of faith.

Being There

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Successfully telling people about Jesus Christ depends a great deal on “situational awareness,” the ability to pay attention to what’s going around you and think creatively as circumstances change.

I first heard the term while studying martial arts; since then, I’ve heard it used in other areas like business or aviation. (Airplane crashes sometimes are blamed on a pilot’s lack of situational awareness at a critical time.)

In my own life, I can look back and see moments where a particular success or failure in my life could be tied to my own situational awareness. Back when I worked in Atlanta, one of my worst moments involved a rare peregrine falcon.

Peregrine falcons are small, swift birds. In nature, they do well living on high cliffs. A subsidiary of the company I was working for, Southern Company, was breeding and releasing these rare birds from the tops of the tall buildings downtown. It was a successful program; the population of peregrine falcons was increasing, and thanks to their presence, the too-abundant pigeons they ate were decreasing.

Sometimes, the falcons would get hurt or lost, and recovering them was a priority because of the limited gene pool. One day, while out on my lunch break, I came across an unusual sight—a homeless man nervously sitting with a peregrine falcon on a rolled up newspaper. He was feeding it tiny pieces of hamburger. The bird seemed injured, clearly unable to fly. A small crowd was gathered around looking at it.

Peregrine Falcons, by John Gould (public domain)

I decided to walk up to the nearby police station and get an officer to come back and take control of the situation. Of course, by the time we got back, the man had vanished with the bird. Several officers searched the area but could not find him.

It was only a few hours later, while digging around in my pocket, that I remembered I had about $30 in it. And that’s when it hit me: “You idiot!” Why didn’t I just give the man some money in exchange for the bird? I could have stood there with the bird until one of the company ornithologists arrived.

In this case, poor situational awareness likely equaled dead rare bird.

As I studied 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 and the surrounding texts this week, it struck me that Paul is recommending situational awareness to make the spread of the gospel more effective. Know who you’re with, he’s saying; then, adapt to the situation so you have the best chance possible of helping someone accept Jesus Christ as his or her Savior.

Are the people you’re trying to reach legalists, wrapped up in how to follow rules to please God? Then you had better learn how to speak the language of the law, Paul is saying. That should open the door to talk about the freedom that Christ gave us at the cross.

Would the people you’re trying to reach call themselves free-thinking libertines? Well, you had better learn to tolerate at least in the short term some lifestyles you otherwise might find offensive. It’s the only way you can earn their trust, and eventually the right to share with them the message of salvation.

Of course, reaching out to people who have trouble distinguishing sin requires spiritual maturity. You don’t want to slip into sin yourself; the trick is to maintain your own holiness without being holier-than-thou.

Situational awareness is particularly important at what we might call the initial point of contact, a moment where there’s an opportunity to establish a relationship that could allow us to tell someone about Christ. Again, I’ve been known to blow such opportunities.

In fact, I wonder if I may have blown one last Monday morning. I had stopped at McDonald’s for an Egg McMuffin, and as I was entering, a man who was exiting asked me if there was another McDonald’s nearby. He had no cash, just his debit card, and the card machines at this particular McDonald’s were broken.

I gave him directions, sending him toward Colonial Heights. A few minutes later, as I fished a $20 bill out of my pocket, it once again hit me: “You idiot!” Why didn’t I buy that man breakfast? He clearly had time to sit down and eat, and I might have gotten to know him well enough to learn about his relationship with Christ.

I don’t know what might have happened, but that’s the point. Now I’ll never know what might have happened.

Be aware, Christians. Be very aware, looking for those subtle opportunities to draw people to Christ. You won’t have to feel like an idiot later, and you might make a new friendship, one that lasts for all eternity.