Saturday, August 29, 2009

All Things In Jesus

I had knee replacement surgery this past Monday, so these days are rough. The following is sermon #5 from my series on First Corinthians which I preached almost twenty years ago.

1 Corinthians 1:30,31


Yesterday I looked at a philosophy text I had when I was a college freshman. Philosophy means "lover of wisdom," and its name comes straight from two Greek words: “phileo” for love, and “sophia” for wisdom. Much of Western philosophy comes out of the Greek world which pre-dated the Corinthian church, and so it's not surprising that "wisdom" was a great concern.

I understand why philosophy seems so esoteric and people think it is only something for academics to ponder and argue. In concept, it can be rather "heady," but philosophy is practical, too. Philosophy tries to give an answer to things we are all concerned about, like, what makes life good and worth living?

The answers the Greeks gave were not all that different from answers people still give today. There was hedonism, which today says "if it feels good do it." There was stoicism, which today says, "grin and bear it" or perhaps, "keep a stiff upper lip." There were several "spiritual" approaches to life, but most of them also said "material" (anything from possessions to our physical bodies) was either evil or irrelevant. All of them were mostly focused on the here and now.

Our world is all too much like the Greek world in which the Corinthians lived. We each must answer a question which has driven all the philosophers in their pursuit of wisdom and purpose, only we answer much more simply and practically: For what reason can I feel good about my life?

The wisdom of the world gives many different particular answers, but all with the same focus –– the here and now.... the seeable and touchable and attainable. For some it is possessions. For others it is influence or social standing. Some settle for such paltry things as alcohol or trying to look good at another's expense through negative criticism. There are people who live for little more than entertainment and recreation. Many try to reach the elusive goal of financial security. A few try more noble means, maybe education or successful children or good relationships.

But all of those things are limited. They are based on what we ourselves can do to make the here and now a bit more pleasant. It is an attempt to control our environment externally, and in doing so, hope that it will fulfill the gnawing we have inside for significance and permanence. We want our lives to mean something and to last (and we all feel that because God made us that way). The hard thing is that there is this so-called wisdom in our world which tries to convince us we can get what we want apart from who God is.

God has shown a different kind of wisdom in the cross of his Son, and it is a wisdom the world cannot recognize or handle. Paul's point is that wisdom based on the world's point of view is not wisdom at all, and Christians should know better than to get caught up in it. Christians are people who have realized the wisdom of the cross –– a wisdom with a different understanding of what is important.

In these two verses Paul turns to a positive statement of what wisdom really is. It is a statement that fully embraces who God is, what Christ has done, and what we truly need.

We are back to the basic question: For what reason can I feel good about my life? There is only one real reason for us to feel good about our lives, and it is because of what God has done. Anything else cannot last. Anything else denies the reality of a world which will not last. Anything else denies what we most need.

And what do we need? We need what Jesus Christ has done. What has Jesus done? He has become the wisdom we need. We do not need the prestige of expansive educations or upper social standing. We do not need the power of wealth or influence. We do not need most of what the world says we surely need. We might have some of that, and we can even use it (if we do so loosely and for service to our Lord), but we do not need it. We only need the wisdom that God has provided for us in Jesus.

But Paul does not stop there; he defines what that wisdom is. He is not saying that Jesus has given us four things. Instead, he is explicitly saying that wisdom is only one thing: wisdom is what Jesus Christ has done for us. Wisdom is recognizing our need of salvation, and that God has provided it in his Son. And then Paul spells out some of what that salvation means. He specifically names three things: righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Do you ever think about your sins and wonder how God could forgive you? Do you ever look at other people in the church and wonder how such ones could be in a church? If God is so righteous, how can he bear the unrighteousness we so flagrantly exhibit? The answer is that Jesus has become our righteousness.

The word Paul uses here is “dikaiosuna,” and it is also frequently translated justification. Jesus is our righteousness; he is our justification. The thought here is one of substitution.

God is righteous. His standard is righteousness. He created us to live righteously. When we sin –– when we fall short of God's standard of righteousness –– we violate God's character and our calling as special beings created in his image. The penalty for that is death. God cannot tolerate sin and remain true to his own character of righteousness.

And yet he loves us. He wants us to be what he created us to be. But there's our sin. He could not ignore it, so he punished it once for all in the death of his Son. Jesus had no sin. He was righteous. He had done nothing to deserve death. He died in our place. When Jesus died he took all the unrighteousness of the world with him. And for those who truly recognize Jesus' death as their own, God declares them justified. God looks at me, and because of Jesus, it is "just as if I'd" never sinned –– justified. The slate against us had been wiped clean. True wisdom is knowing and trusting that.

But is that all salvation is? Has God judged our sins in the death of Jesus, but at the same time left us to continue to live as before? Is the only difference between a Christian and a non-Christian a matter of sin not being held against one as opposed to the other? Over and over the New Testament gives a resounding "No!" to that question. The reason is in Paul's second word here: Jesus is our holiness.

Paul's word is actually “hagiasmos,” and it is sometimes translated sanctification rather than holiness. Both mean the same thing. The issue is purity and separation. Christians are different from other people. Jesus is our holiness, and people who know Jesus want to take holiness seriously.

How do we take holiness seriously? By taking things like purity and separation seriously. If we as Christians have a different wisdom than the world –– if our values are different–– then it will show. If Jesus is our holiness, then we will find ourselves identifying with the cross instead of the power and prestige and indulgence the world offers. And when we do that, we are living a practical separation.

Many church movements in the past have gotten sidetracked on what separation and holiness mean. Certain kinds of clothes and hairstyles were equated with holiness, and others with sinfulness. Such emphasis on the outward form progressed more and more into rules and judging one another –– things which certainly do not speak of true holiness. So it seems today we are afraid of the very idea of separation, and as that happens we lose this crucial call to holiness. The thing I hardly hear about biblical holiness is that in Christ we are holy. Just as Jesus is our justification, so he is our holiness.

"But," someone asks, "If I'm already holy, then why the call to sanctification? If I'm already holy, then why don't I always feel and act like it? If Jesus is already our holiness, then why do we all sometimes see other Christians in acts and dispositions that witness more to sin than to holiness?"

Think about this: Just what is it about you that God has saved? Is it your body? No. Is it the thought processes of your brain? No. Is it anything tangible which can be readily identified? No. It's the real “you” ––something that is greater than the sum of your physical, earthly existence. That is what God has saved, and that is what is already established in holiness because of Jesus.

Do you know what else? Your body still lives in this temporal world. Your thought processes still bear the formative effects of your whole life. If addiction has been part of your past, that tendency is still there. If bad relational patterns were instilled in your life they will not go away just because you made a decision for Jesus. The core of who you are has been changed, but the Spirit wants to “extend” that into the way you live from day to day. The basis for that happening is the holiness you have in Jesus; the way that happens is through separation from the old worldly way of doing things. Instead of holding onto worldly wisdom –– the mindset of power and prestige and security, people of the cross live with a wisdom which exalts human weakness, humility, and even death. That is holiness. (No wonder some people had rather it be merely clothes and hair and other rules –– that is not nearly as threatening; one can even maintain a bit of security by retreating with others whose "belonging" is based on outward conformities.) The wisdom Jesus gives goes to the heart of our being.

There is a legitimate sense of belonging, but our belonging does not lie in outward conformity –– whether it is obviously sinful or shrouded in religiosity. Our sense of belonging is explicitly tied to the one to whom we belong. The third way Jesus is our wisdom is in being our redemption. This is market terminology. It has to do with buying and selling. If you leave something at a pawn shop, you only get it back when you pay to redeem it.

This is another theme which is worthy of its own treatment another time, but I hope it is enough to remind you that the Bible teaches that the world is for now under the control of the evil one (1 Jn 5:19). There are two masters asking for our heart's allegiance, and we must choose one or the other. Actually, Satan has the prior claim because we have all chosen sin, but Jesus has paid the price for our redemption –– we are free to switch masters.

But in switching masters –– in leaving the master whose wages are death and going to the master who said his yoke was easy and his burden light –– we need to understand the true wisdom of what we are doing. We are leaving the master who can make things appear to be so great –– the wealth, the power, the sex, the fun, the prestige, the comfort.... and we are going to a master who says we must come by the way of the cross and be people of the cross.

Still, if Jesus has truly become our wisdom, we know there is no other choice to make. We know that we have nothing anyway, so what is there to lose? And there is everything to gain. That is why Paul says if there is boasting, then it's for Jesus.

Let's go back to our philosophical –– and yet very practical –– question: For what reason can I feel good about my life? To answer it, honestly think of how you present yourself. Do you want people to know you for your attainments, your possessions, your position or any such thing? If you do, you are still living in the wisdom of the world.

But if you know above everything else that Jesus Christ is your righteousness, your holiness and your redemption, then you can also know that he is your wisdom in a way that the world will never understand –– although you should not be surprised when some recognize you are “different.”

Before we are anything else, we are people who need the righteousness, holiness and redemption of Jesus Christ. Let's live each day with that realization. Let's live so that everyone who truly knows us will not see a person trying to exalt him/herself, but instead see someone who is totally in love with and committed to Jesus. Jesus Christ is what we Christians are all about. Our calling is to let Jesus increase in us the fullness of who he is: wisdom, righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

People of the Cross

This is sermon #4 in my 20yr-old series from First Corinthians. I have to do considerable reformatting from my old word processing system to put these here. Let me know (comment) if it is worth it to you. Thanks for reading!

1 Corinthians 1:26-29


One of my daily devotional readings right now is a collection of writings by A. W. Tozer. This past week's reading had the observation that a preacher can get along with everyone if he gives a lot of objective truth but does not insist that it be applied to real life. Real preaching, he says, makes people feel the nails and the thorns.

The objective truth Paul is giving in the Corinthian letter at this point is the message of the cross, but it is not a truth without application. The cross is not merely something to believe; it is a way of life. Both are utter foolishness as far as the world is concerned.

The message is foolish because it is based on a crucified Christ –– someone who, in the eyes of the world, is a loser only trying to be a winner. And what kind of people will be attracted to that? In the eyes of the world it is the same perception –– losers.

In the previous passage we ended with a choice to be made between two commercials. One billboard offered what the world calls "the good life." It is the world of nice things and beautiful people –– a world where anyone can make it if only he can break into the circle of education and poise and power. The other billboard offers a lonely man who claims to be the king of the world, only his crown is made of thorns and his life seems to have ended in failure. Christians are people who believe the man who died on the cross is really the winner. For what other reason would we identify with him?

Now that much is well and good, but Paul is adamant that it does not end there. The way we prove that we really believe the man on the cross is the winner is when we turn from the values of the other billboard and embrace the values of the cross. And that, obviously, is sheer stupidity in the eyes of a world whose whole perspective is molded by the billboard showing the good life.

If this sounds threatening to you, then good –– you are hearing it rightly. There is a sense in which you and I are asked to choose such things as weakness, losing and death for Jesus' sake. How can we dare do such a thing?

The first thing is to believe that what the Bible tells us happened at the cross is true. Jesus won. A whole new world order began –– the kingdom, and although we can only now see it by faith, we believe that Jesus and his kingdom is the lasting reality. It is what will remain when the world as we presently know it is gone. That is part of what Paul is talking about in these rather abstract statements: "the things that are" and "the things that are not." "The things that are" are those things in our present world which are readily recognized by our senses. "The things that are not" are things in our world which are either unverifiable (like resurrection), or devalued (like losing). That was the point in the preceding paragraph where Paul exalted "fool's wisdom."

There is a second reason, though, that Paul gives for choosing the cross over the good life. It is the point of these verses today, and it deals mostly with how this foolish message applies to us as we live in a world that cannot comprehend the cross. Yes, the message of the cross is foolish to the world, but the other thing is that the people of the cross are also foolish to the world. You and I are fools. Can we live with that?

Paul asks us to think of three things which will help us to be willing to be fools who live by the message of the cross. First, think about your past (v26). Second, notice God's pattern (vs27,28). And third, understand God's purpose (v29).

It is a good thing to think back in our own lives. Think back to when Jesus came into your life. (Maybe you cannot pinpoint an exact date, and that's okay. But if you cannot recognize that Jesus has radically altered your life you would do well to make sure he is in your life.) We need to think about what we were before we knew Jesus.

For the Corinthians it meant recognizing they were not wise, they were not influential and they were not "well-born." That is why they were open to the gospel. They were hungry for something, and Jesus seemed to offer it. And even for those people who (in the eyes of the world) were wise, influential or well-born, if they are Christians it means they recognized that those things were no real advantage after all.

I'll illustrate with my own life. Before Jesus came into my life, I was a loser. It was not so obvious, maybe. After all, I was only fifteen, and I came from a Christian home. How bad could it have been? I will tell you –– it was bad. In my heart, I already knew I hated God –– if he was there, and I tried to convince myself he wasn't. All I knew was that I did not want any part of what my parents (and their church) stood for. I also knew what appealed to me. The two big things at that time were sex and luxurious possessions. I didn't know how to get either, but deep inside I knew I was willing to do anything it took. That would be happiness.

The reality, though, was that I was not happy. I was nothing special in school. I was just discovering that "underground" pornography existed. I remember making a couple of bets with a young bookie in the high school to get money. (I heard years later he had been killed as result of gambling debts.) I was part of the crowd of guys you still see standing near the corner of the school yard, smoking, maybe being obscene, but trying desperately to be "cool" –– whatever that means. As I look back, apart from what Jesus did in my life, I would have never gone beyond my hometown, never accomplished anything worthwhile, and probably would have wound up in jail or dead.

Yet here I am today –– I'm a pastor (of all things); I have graduate degrees; I have a good family and a nice home; I have a bit of influence in my church, and I'm even recognized for having wisdom. But do you know what? I'm still a loser! These external things people see do not mean a thing apart from the possible witness they give to what Jesus can do in a person. Any recognition I might draw, and certainly all the blessings I enjoy, have their source in Jesus Christ. It all began those years ago when the Holy Spirit made me see that I would do far better by giving my life to the one who died on the cross instead of trying to reach the mirage the world offers.

And with all due respect, what is true of me is true of each of you, just as it was with the Corinthians. No, our stories are not the same, but at the core of each of us –– if we truly belong to Jesus –– is the realization that apart from him we are still losers. Either you had nothing even by the world's standards, or you had some of its advantages. In neither case does it matter. The ground is level at the foot of the cross; not a single thing that any of us possesses gives us an advantage with God –– not brilliance, clout, achievement, money, or prestige.

Now maybe some of us know to say that in terms of our salvation, but how many of us know how to live life out of that perspective? Yes, we know (at least some of us do) to not seek brilliance, clout, achievement, money, or prestige in a ”worldly” way, but how many of us do not seek to "baptize" those things in the church? And I ask this personally –– how do I handle the influence I have in the church? How do I present the "wisdom" which comes out of my mouth? How shall I view the blessings God has allowed me to enjoy –– an education and a home and a social standing I would never have had apart from Jesus coming in my life? Then think of any "advantages" you have according to world values. Do we truly live from day to day with the realization that things like that do not count? When we have trouble there, Paul says to think about the past.

The second thing we need to do to live in the foolishness of the cross is notice God's pattern. Whenever we are tempted to shift our allegiance back to the world of the flashy billboard, we need to remember what that means. It always puts us in the position of God's antagonist; he always chooses against people who give priority to the advantages of the here and now.

We cannot get around it: God chooses the foolish things (and people); he chooses the weak and the lowly and the despised. Why? The answer is given in three purpose clauses ("henna" clauses in the Greek): to shame the wise, to shame the strong and to nullify the things that are (which means to make void the things the world thinks are so important). We can always expect God to work that way.

That means if any of us has the chance to personally look smart.... if we have the chance to exercise some influence –– to throw some clout, we need to remember that God does not work that way. We could accept it so much easier if the world did not work that way –– but it does. And sometimes the world invades the church.

You and I forget. We think if we can force this or that issue then things will be so much better. Or maybe someone else does that (I've heard of clout and power blocks more than once in the past week). Can we believe that when that happens we are most like Jesus when we do not retaliate in kind? Do we truly believe God can get the most glory through weakness and losing? The Bible shows that to be God's frequent pattern.

If God chooses the foolish, the weak and the lowly, then we align ourselves with God when we choose the same for Jesus' sake. Now I will be honest and say I do not always know what that means. Does that mean Christians should avoid everything that would suggest privilege or power or position or possession? I think not, and in another sermon someday I may be able to elaborate on my reasons why. And yet.... I certainly do not want to say that privilege or power or position or possessions are squeaky clean. The most cursory reading of Jesus says something else. The things the world uses to get ahead are at best only to be used loosely. At worst, they are a trap.

But who is to say when we cross that line from using loosely into the stage of grasping and clinging? One clear way to tell is when we start using those things as a way to judge others or use them for ourselves in order to look good or get our own way. We would do well to ponder these words from Gordon Fee in his commentary on I Corinthians: "Every middle-class or upper-class domestication of the gospel is a betrayal of the gospel."

There is a reason for that, and it is the third thing we need to do: we need to understand God's purpose. But first let me say this –– I'm aware that this whole subject is one where almost any of us could feel targeted, and all of us can feel guilty. I do not say these things to scold; I say them to remind us (and that includes me) of what it means to follow our Lord. In preparing this sermon I saw the issue so clearly, and I felt the struggle with all that I have, from this world's point of view, so acutely.

Why does God not let any of our worldly advantages count? Paul tells us in v29–– so that no one may boast before him. But what does that really mean?

The first sin was an act of independence from God. The promise of the serpent was, "You don't need God. You can do it by yourself." That has been the attitude of sinful Man ever since then. We still hear it today: "We can eradicate all our societal evils with enough education." "Poverty is a social disease to be cured." "Crime is a mistake people make until they can be rehabilitated." "Sin is not sin at all. We should not think in terms of right and wrong; think instead of healthy or unhealthy patterns of behavior we have learned." "We control our destiny."

The verdict of the Scriptures is that we are losers. Given a good world, we only botch things up. Given a chance to do wrong, we'll take it. By ourselves, we only see this world. This life becomes the highest priority, and we'll do anything to make it, in the words of last week's sermon, comfortable, pleasurable, prestigious, and secure. And as long as life is going in those directions, we think we have it under control. The truth is, life lived that way is certain death because it leaves God out, and God created us to have life through him.

Our situation is so bad that only God can change it. And our self-deception is so great that as long as we think we're still pretty good or have a little something to offer God on our own, we cannot believe what God says about us.

So what has God done? He has made salvation available through a most ridiculous plan, humanly speaking. He wins by losing. He shows his wisdom by proving human standards of wisdom wrong. He exalts what we count as worthless, while at the same time declaring as worthless what we respect the most. And then he invites us to choose all of that over what seems to be the sure thing the world is parading all around us.

One thing is sure: if we actually do what God says –– if we accept his ways, we will not be able to take any of the credit for the things in our lives. We will know God does not accept us or use us because of our wealth, our education, our social standing or anything else. And if we really believe that, we'll not try to use any of those things to make ourselves look good.

What does this mean for us? It means we will not use a position to wield power over others. It means we will allow others to do that to us if they dare, because we know God will turn the tables. It means we will not use vain things to promote our church and the gospel; we will best serve God if we are known for simply and even naively obeying the one who frustrates human wisdom.

It means we will see each other as people who God equally loves.... as people he desires to be made over in the image of his Son. We will see each other as having equal access to God's grace, and we will know that one of us needs it as much as the other.

It means we each seek to always remember that God's grace needs to begin with ourselves. I have nothing to offer him but a needy sinner.... a loser, that only he can make into a winner. And even then, it may not look like winning from the world's point of view.

The message of the cross seeks people of the cross. This is a bit of what it means, and I commend it to you today as I try to understand more and more of what it means for myself.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ancient Words of Wisdom

The following selection from St. Augustine was in the Liturgy of the Hours Office of Readings for Wednesday. What if all who say they follow Jesus lived out of this perspective?!

Whenever we suffer some affliction, we should regard it both as a punishment and as a correction. Our holy Scriptures themselves do not promise us peace, security and rest. On the contrary, the Gospel makes no secret of the troubles and temptations that await us, but it also says that he who perseveres to the end will be saved. What good has there ever been in this life since the time when the first man received the just sentence of death and the curse from which Christ our Lord has delivered us?

So we must not grumble, my brothers, for as the Apostle says, Some of them murmured and were destroyed by serpents. Is there any affliction now endured by mankind that was not endured by our fathers before us? What sufferings of ours even bear comparison with what we know of their sufferings? And yet you hear people complaining about this present day and age because things were so much better in former times. I wonder what would happen if they could be taken back to the days of their ancestors –– would we not still hear them complaining? You may think past ages were good, but it is only because you are not living in them.

It amazes me that you who have now been freed from the curse, who have believed in the Son of God, who have been instructed in the holy Scriptures –– that you can think the days of Adam were good. And your ancestors bore the curse of Adam, of that Adam to whom the words were addressed: With sweat on your brow you shall eat your bread; you shall till the earth from which you were taken, and it will yield you thorns and thistles. This is what he deserved and what he had to suffer; this is the punishment meted out to him by the just judgment of God. How then can you think that past ages were better than your own? From the time of that first Adam to the time of his descendants today, man’s lot has been labor and sweat, thorns and thistles. Have we forgotten the flood and the calamitous times of famine and war whose history has been recorded precisely in order to keep us from complaining to God on account of our own times? Just think what those past ages were like! Is there one of us who does not shudder to hear or read of them? Far from justifying complaints about our own time, they teach us how much we have to be thankful for.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fool's Wisdom

The following is #3 in a series of sermons based in First Corinthians. They were written about twenty years ago, so some of the cultural allusions may be dated.

I Corinthians 1:18-25


I have been thinking about marketing. Do you ever pay as much attention to the television commercials as you do the program, and with a critical eye? TV commercials reveal our cultural values. They show us how we think.

How would you mount a successful ad campaign? What is it that commercials try to touch in us when they are wanting us to think a particular product is important? It seems to me that the motivation behind every advertisement is one (or a blend) of four things: a promise to help us find comfort, pleasure, prestige or security.

Take four random commercials. A heat pump will make you more comfortable. You will experience more pleasure if you eat a Wendy's hamburger; it supposedly has more 100% beef. Driving a BMW will give you prestige. Your investments will be more secure with Merrill Lynch (or whoever).

Now the reason I bring this up is to ask this question: How do we market our faith? What is it we capitalize on to draw people to our church? Is it comfort –– air conditioning, padded seats and accessible parking? Is it pleasure –– beautiful music or stimulating sermons? Is it prestige –– having the nicest facility or most programs? Is it security –– the pastor is always there if you need him or maybe it's a church that manipulates people into emotional dependency. What is it that is at the base of who we are and what we most hold on to in the church? That is what Paul addresses in this passage.

The one we need to see immediately is that Christians do not think like non-Christians. Christians do not have the same values as non-Christians. And the reason for that is at the very heart of our faith.

In v17 Paul concluded his last thought by saying that human wisdom takes away the power of the cross of Jesus Christ. Now he wants the Corinthians to know exactly what he means, and we need to understand it too. I am not a good mathematician, but I will give you the foundational thought here using a mathematical formula: the full wisdom and power of God equals the cross plus nothing. If we try to add anything to the message of the cross of Jesus Christ to make it better and even more attractive, all we do is destroy the very essence of the message.

Our Christian faith recognizes the existence of two mutually exclusive polarities. On the one hand there is human wisdom and on the other is what God has done through the cross of Jesus Christ. We have a choice to make: we either embrace human wisdom or we embrace the cross; it is impossible to do both. I want us think about why that is so by looking at three questions.

First, what is wrong with human wisdom? In the context of which Paul is speaking, human wisdom leaves God out. It is based on the limited human perception of reality. It deals with life in this world as though that is all there is. Two cultural characteristics help illustrate this.

I mentioned earlier the priority human wisdom puts on comfort and pleasure. That is why our culture is so entertainment crazed. Among other things, we watch television to escape from a real world where we cannot control comfort and pleasure; we enter a false world where they can be guaranteed.

Another priority human wisdom has is security. In the aftermath of an airliner crash there were interviews of some people involved in the rescue. One of them lived in a nearby affluent neighborhood and worked on Wall Street, one of our ultimate symbols of security. This man admitted being shaken by what he had seen. He even said that suddenly even Wall Street did not seem so important. Human wisdom is inadequate when we are taken beyond the realm of our earthly existence. What good is Wall Street to the people who were killed in the crash?

The ultimate farce of human wisdom is that it always results in death while offering life. There is no guarantee for comfort, pleasure, prestige or security. We will all die. We will not carry our possessions with us. We have little to say about whether our end will be painless or painful, and what others think about us will not matter so much when that time comes.

Paul's phrase for people who live from the perspective of human wisdom is in v18 –– he calls them those who are perishing. And not only does that encompass people who are humanly religious, it is explicitly directed at them. Paul divides a human approach to religion into two categories: one is those people who see God as Power and the other is those who see God as Reason.

In Paul's day it was the Jews who saw God as Power. Over and over they asked of Jesus, "Show us a sign" (Matt. 11:38,39; Mk 8:11; Lu 11:16; Jn 6:30). Their premise was this: Show us you are who you say you are; validate your Messiahship. They were looking for God to do for them what he had done for Israel in Egypt at the Exodus. They had figured God out (they thought); their own wisdom dictated what God needed to do, and how it was to be done.

By the same token, the Greeks were infatuated with their own brilliance. Reason, understood in a human context, was ultimate. So for both Jews and Greeks, the ultimate idolatry had been committed on the basis of human wisdom –– insisting that God conform to our prior views as to how "the God who makes sense" ought to do things. Such is the nature of human wisdom, and such are the reasons there is something wrong with human wisdom.

If human wisdom is not the way to go, then there's a second question: Why is God's wisdom foolish? This is one more way to see why human wisdom is so wrong. The folly of human wisdom is that it calls God's wisdom foolish, when in fact it's just the other way around. And again, why is God's wisdom seen as foolishness? The answer is one of the great themes of the Scriptures –– the great reversal.

Jesus put it this way in a prayer recorded in Luke's gospel: I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children (10:21). There is a spiritual barrier in the lives of people who do not know God so that the senses and the material become the standards for judging reality. Or, in the words Paul will use in the next section, God uses the things that are not to nullify the things that are.

What are "the things that are?" They are the things we see, things we recognize as being important in this world –– things like comfort, pleasure, prestige and security, and the particular things which promise them. And "the things which are not?" Well that is harder to explain because we are then trying to see and understand the very things the world says are foolish –– the things which do not even appear to be true.

There is one example which I think proves the point, and it is such a good illustration of God's foolish wisdom that even many Christians fail to see it. It's the practice of nonresistance.

You see, the world's wisdom says that if you want to live, you sometimes have to kill. What Paul presents as fool's wisdom –– which comes from God –– says if you truly want to live, you sometimes may need to be willing to be killed. The world's wisdom promises what looks like life, but is really death; God's wisdom calls for us to embrace what looks like death in order to find life. The world says "you're a fool" if we live for what God says is the ultimate wisdom.

That brings up the third question: What is the issue of fool's wisdom? The short answer is: life and death; being saved or perishing. It is the message of the cross.

Let's go back to our marketing analogy. How do we present our faith? With all due respect, how do we "sell" the church? One perspective on our answer might be to ask, how did God show his wisdom? What did Paul understand the message to be?

His answer is in v23 –– but we preach Christ crucified. When God needed to show his ultimate wisdom he did not give mighty signs or enter a debate with the best minds on earth. God has more power and wisdom than we can fathom, but when God did his ultimate act on earth, it was something that any human reasoning would call sheer stupidity.

God's wisdom –– and our message, if we are in tune with God –– is Christ crucified. Maybe we have heard that so much we have lost our sensitivity to what it means. To use the illustration Gordon Fee gives in his commentary, "Christ crucified" makes as much sense as "fried ice."

According to human wisdom, one either has a Messiah or a crucifixion –– not both. Having a Messiah means power, splendor and triumph. A crucifixion means weakness, humiliation and defeat. Human wisdom says why not have a salvation.... why not preach a message that will attract the sign seeker? the lover of wisdom? or the one who wants comfort or pleasure or prestige or security more than any other thing in this world? To ask that question is to miss fool's wisdom.

To embrace fool's wisdom is to take an awful risk. It is to turn away from everything that our ties to this world would tell us are most important. All we are left with is the essence of faith. We either trust God, believe that life can come from death and so be saved, or we keep our pretensions and perish –– pretensions that this world, our place in it, and the things we have are somehow immune from the death that is already all around us.

Before we are anything else, if we are indeed Christians, we are people who both follow and model our lives after a man who died a criminal's death in public execution. It is only by faith that we call that a victory; the unbelieving world certainly does not see it as such.

When we each live our lives in the world, and when we base our church life on that same model, people without fool's wisdom will see us as people possessed with a madness. But that is what we are offered today –– either the way of the world with its outward respectability, or the way of the cross with a call for us to come and die. That is the wisdom God offers. Which are you choosing?

We are in a marketing war for our very souls. On one billboard there is a collage of pictures; they show life as a well ordered experience with libraries, nice homes, shop-ping malls and restaurants, and happy people. On another billboard is a lonely man who claims to be the king of the world, only his crown is made of thorns and his life seems to have ended in failure. To this day it looks like the world on the other billboard is actually winning. I only ask you this one thing: Whose commercial are you believing?

Friday, August 7, 2009

Unity and Diversity in the Church

The following is sermon #2 from my 1989-1990 series in First Corinthians. Many of the examples reflect my Evangelical identity at the time, but I am editing very little of my original work.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17


Maybe you have heard this little story. It's about a young boy whose mother asked him what he had learned in Sunday school that day. He decisively said, "The disciples had a Honda." Now obviously this was not an answer the mom expected, so she pushed the issue a bit. "The disciples did not have a car, dear," she said to the blossoming scholar. "Oh yes," said the boy, "the Bible says the disciples were all in one Accord!"

That may have been the last time there was unity in the whole church. Before the book of Acts is well under way, the church has divisions of rich with poor, Greek-speaking Jews with Aramaic-speaking Jews, plus all Jews with Gentiles.

Today the church of Jesus Christ is so fragmented we can hardly conceive of it being any other way. We are fragmented by theology and traditions. We are fragmented by nationalism and racism. We are divided by issues. We are divided over personalities.

There are divisions even in a local congregation. There are those who want the service to be informal; others prefer formal. Some people want choruses, while others like gospel songs, and that is in contrast to the ones who desire stately hymnody. Some people like one pastor to the total exclusion of the other. On and on it goes.

The church is divided by issues: women in ministry, capital punishment, the homeless and refugees, abortion, nuclear deterrence, medical technology, public education, homosexuality.... in all these issues and more, we can find parts of the church at large in turmoil over such things throughout society.

Look around a local church on a Sunday morning and you will likely see a few people who are not sure why they are in the same church as so and so sitting over there, with whom they seemingly have nothing in common. One thing is for sure: look around the congregation and you will find no one else whose feelings and perceptions and pilgrimage are exactly like yours. What is it that binds people together in a church?

Some people would say that individual congregations should be built on homogeneity. That is a big word that means everyone is basically alike. There is a Protestant church growth principle which says a church should cater to either rich, middle-class or poor whites, or rich, middle-class or poor blacks, people who have a lot of education or those who do not. Whatever the category, you choose it and build a church around that trait. But how is such a bond different from a country club or a street gang? Isn't the church more than that?

Well, okay, the church should be able to surmount social barriers. What binds the church together, others say, is a common understanding –– a shared conceptual framework. Does that person or church have the same philosophy of Christianity that I do? Do they give the "Christian" answer to social problems or family issues? Do they believe the right thing about the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

This kind of assessment seems to be more on target than a mere evaluation of whether other people "fit" my sociological strata, but when we begin to understand what Paul is saying to the Corinthians, we find that theological similarity is little better than sociological homogeneity. So what is it that binds us together in the church? Paul gives the answer.

First, though, we should consider the ideas of unity and diversity more closely. What does unity mean? One way to answer that is to see what it does not mean. What does diversity mean? Again, one way to understand diversity is to see what it does not mean.

Paul's wish for the Corinthians is that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought (v10). Does this mean everyone in the church is to appear to be a clone of the others? No, one thing unity does not mean is uniformity (and this will be made perfectly clear later when Paul talks about the body). Unity comes out of a fundamental consensus.

In another letter Paul used some of this same language, and it can help us understand how we should be alike. Writing to the Philippians Paul said, make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose (2:2). And what was the one spirit and purpose? He told them in the next paragraph, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus (2:5). Our unity comes in Jesus Christ. That is the obvious and simple answer, but what does it mean for us? Again, Paul gives the answer.

If unity does not mean uniformity and we do not have to all be totally alike, that means it is right to expect diversity. We are not all alike. But how is legitimate diversity expressed? Do not expect the contemporary doctrine of multi-culturalism. Our first concern is to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through Paul in his First-Century setting.

So, diversity does not mean divisiveness. The Corinthians were divisive, and Paul makes it clear that is wrong. In fact, in other places Paul puts divisiveness in the same list of sins where he puts things like murder, sexual immorality, drunkenness and idolatry (e.g., Gal 5:19f).

How do we view divisiveness in the church? If we hear someone stirring up dissent, if we know of a movement to promote one particular person (or discredit one particular person) or if there is an issue which creates anger and people taking sides, can we really believe such a thing is just as odious to God as murder or adultery?

Often the excuse for divisiveness is the claim of "standing up for what is right." Did you know our allegiance is not to what is "right?" Our allegiance is not to any concept. Our foundation is not a "system of belief." We do not merely own a "faith" which, if we are intelligent and disciplined, gives us a world view. I'm not saying none of that happens; there is value in those things. It's just that such an understanding is not the essence of what it means to be a Christian.

This was one of the mistakes the Corinthians made. The Greek (or Hellenistic) world was filled with a thirst for knowledge. One of the early heresies in Christianity was called Gnosticism, and it was a perversion of Christian teaching through a mixing of Greek philosophy. The Corinthians were not into heresy, but their motivation and behavior was the same kind of thing that gets people totally away from Jesus and into wrong beliefs.

The Corinthians were falling out with each other over an intellectual isolation of Christianity. Knowledge had become the focus and the person perceived to best take one further into knowledge was the hero.

For some it was Paul, who planted the Corinthian church. For others it was Apollos who came to Corinth after Paul. Apollos was from Alexandria, a city of great intellectual activity which was known for its own school of thought. Perhaps some of the Corinthians were impressed by Apollos, and felt his style was more conducive to spiritual development (which for them came through the mind).

Paul mentions Cephas (who was Peter), and also the circle who proudly said they followed only Jesus. But the focus of all this was wrong and the spirit was deadly. The unfortunate thing is that such patterns did not end with the Corinthians.

I have seen it in churches and seminaries: people whose focus is on mere knowledge. At first it seems such a noble thing –– to learn all one can about the Bible. Then it becomes so important to declare one's self based on the new knowledge: "I am a Calvinist." "I'm Wesleyan." "I'm Mennonite." "I believe in pre-tribulational premillennialism." And the objective becomes merely proving one's self right and the other person wrong.

Then another person comes along who sees part of the truth; they understand we do not find our identity in another person, even a great Christian teacher, and so they say "We are just Christian." The trouble is their pride –– the way they come across as so superior if they happen to meet a Wesleyan or a Lutheran or whatever. It's still divisive.

In another of his writings Paul says something which applies here as well: "always learning, but never able to acknowledge the truth" (2 Tim 3:7). What good is Bible knowledge, what good is theology, what good are great Christian teachers if, in our learning of such, we are not actually changed? What good is it if one has a perfect understanding of Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection, or Calvin's Institutes or the Summa of Aquinas if Jesus Christ is not an increasing part of that one’s life so that the result is becoming more and more like him?

For all the good that great men of faith have done for Christianity, it is still not them whom we follow. Calvin and Luther and Wesley and Menno Simons and Aquinas are not our saviors. And when people join a church shaped by one or more of them, it is still into Jesus Christ we are baptized. Jesus is our identity; we are followers of Jesus Christ.

Today in the greater Christian community we see not only theological teachings shaping the church, but issues as well. One aspect of that could be good –– a recognition that theology is not just academic exercise, but a call to do something. On the other hand, the call to do something is becoming for some the foundation of the gospel. So we have witnessed Liberation Theology, Black Theology, and Feminist Theology. And in that process the centrality of Jesus Christ has gotten buried. Then the question is not who is Jesus and what has he done, but things like: Are you working against capitalist imperialism? Are you for affirmative action? Do you use inclusive language and sometimes call God "Mother?" Paul is clear that truly being the church is not mere knowledge and issues.

What is it then that binds us together in the church? How are we all alike? Paul's answer is in v17 where he gives a negative and a positive insight.

First, our unity and our identity is not based on words of human wisdom. Paul is going to talk a lot about "wisdom." (In fact, he uses the word 44 times in his first ten epistles, and 28 of them occur in 1 Corinthians, and 26 of the 28 occur in chs 1-3!) Paul's concern is with the gospel, and he wants to be more than plain that the gospel is not based on, nor does it depend on, human wisdom. Being intellectually impressive is not what our faith is all about. (Yes, it is impressive when we are given eyes of faith to see, but that is not its power.) High sounding words and deep ponderable thoughts are not the things we use to commend the gospel. Neither are weighty theological tomes or chic theologies built on issues popularized by the spirit of the age. Those things can generate a lot of intensity; they can entice us and make us think we are doing something, when maybe it's all fluff.

So what is the positive that binds us? It's the thing that is so quickly left behind when human wisdom tries to make its contribution. It's the cross of Jesus Christ.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the great leveler. If you and I are part of the church today it's because we came by the way of the cross. One can be a pastor, but he needs the cross just as much as anyone. Paul needed the cross in his life. Apollos needed the cross. John Calvin is not great today because of his Institutes; he is great because he knew his need of the cross, and out of that wrote his thoughts. John Wesley was not great because of his holy living; he is great because the cross of Jesus Christ stirred him to disciplined (“methodical”) holy living.

The cross of Jesus Christ tells of something human wisdom does not want to hear: we are sinful and needy and lost apart from the cross. We are not self sufficient. We are not able to figure out the mysteries of life. We cannot find our own way. We all have that in common.

And for those who, as Paul initially described the Corinthians, are part of God's church, sanctified and called to be holy, we can never forget, with one another, that we all come to God and we all stand before him on the same ground –– the cross of Christ.

That is where we find wisdom. That is where we are reminded that it is not my idea or your idea that matters. That is where we realize we are not here to build our own kingdom. We are here to be united on the one great eternal truth that each one of us needs so badly: that Jesus Christ is our hope, our forgiveness, our life, our wisdom. It is not what I think or what you think. It is how much we are conformed to the character of the Son of God.

There's one fundamental question: Are you in the church because of who Jesus is in your life –– because you know the reality of his cross in your life? That is the identity of the church. That is our unity. And if that is true, there is no other diversity that can overshadow how it is we are here. The cross in my life and yours is the cure for divisiveness.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration. I wrote about it last year in an entry called "A Brief Picture of Reality." Check it out in my archives under 2008: August (second to the bottom).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Reason to Hope

I have a crucifix on the east wall of my study. The vertical part of the cross is about 24" high, so the corpus is not "tiny" but rather large enough to show a bit of the ugliness of death. I look upon this portrayal of my Lord in His hour of "defeat" and am reminded that He faced the worst that the world could do.... and still He triumphed.

Christians believe that when Jesus died that awful death He took upon Himself the sin of the world –– my sins and yours. When Jesus died, death died with Him. When Jesus came back from the dead, He was showing that the life of God is greater than the death of sin.

The promise of God is that those who follow Jesus in His death can have the hope –– a realistic hope, given the resurrection of Jesus –– that we who follow will also be raised to eternal life, in spite of physical death.

I am not facing the worst this fallen world can throw at me (at least not right now, and I pray I'll never be tested to that extent). Yet the things I am facing now (and have already gone through) could be crushing things.... except there is a reason to hope.

Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.

Site Meter