Friday, September 25, 2009

Ordinary People?

Sermon #9 from First Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 3:1-4


A suggested dynamic-equivalent translation of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4....

Brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as people living in God's Spirit, but to people living as though there is no Spirit –– like babies (yes, in Christ, but not "full grown" [2:6]) who live self-centeredly, responding to their primal urges. I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, for you were unable to handle anything else. You are still unable, because you are still thinking and acting like people without God's Spirit. How can I say that? Because you exhibit such things as jealousy and quarreling. That is the way non-Christians behave. When some of you say "I'm on Paul's side" and others say "I'm for Apollos," are you not acting like people who know nothing of the new life which comes from God's indwelling Spirit?

There was a movie a number of years ago called Ordinary People. It was about a family with two sons. The mother's favorite had been killed in a boating accident, and it was clear to the other son that it would have been easier on everyone if it had been him who had died. His response to this was an attempted suicide. The movie was about the responses of the father, mother and son in the aftermath of those crises. The point, I think, was that profound things happen in the day to day lives of ordinary people, and it is unusual to find something other than ordinary responses. Favoritism, jealousy, hate, despair and possessiveness are not exceptional traits in the lives of ordinary people.

People in the church have not always been able to freely admit this. The assumption has sometimes been that if a person is a Christian he is automatically able to rise above such negative traits. It is only in the last decade or so, with the science of mental health affecting the church and with such books as Nouwen's Wounded Healer, that some people in the church have felt the freedom to admit that such things as favoritism, jealousy, hate, despair and possessiveness exist within the church. But out of that a doctrine of self-acceptance has begun to take root; we have an excuse for our sins.

The tension in the church between idealism and realism often surfaces in the "Dear Abby" column. Someone will write to Abby, hurt because of having suffered rejection from the church. The standard reply is to question whether the church is a museum for saints or a hospital for sinners, with the tone of the question clearly weighted for the church being a hospital for sinners. The presupposition is that the church should tolerate anyone who wants to be a part of it.

I would argue that those two choices –– a museum for saints or a hospital for sinners –– are not good ones. They force a choice between two partial truths. The church is not either a museum or a hospital (this kind of thing is a good reminder to use biblical symbols); the church is, though, a place for sinners to be made whole (not left in their old patterns), and it is a vehicle for God to display the effects of his grace (Jesus said we were salt and light, and Paul wrote of Christians being God's workmanship, remade to be able to do good works so others can see them and know what God is like). The church is a place where old people are turned into new people so that an alternate community emerges. The church, when it is fulfilling its role, is the true counter culture.

I have mentioned Dr. Gordon Fee, who has written such an excellent commentary on First Corinthians and who was also one of my New Testament professors in seminary. He once told of being in West Africa teaching a series on Jesus and the kingdom. As he lectured on the radical obedience to which Jesus calls us (it happened to be on "no retaliation"), he was challenged.

One of his listeners asked the classic question, "What would you do...?" Dr. Fee reaffirmed his commitment to radical obedience, upon which another listener said it, and said it well: "But that’s not normal!" And Fee's response was, "You've got it! You've got it! Of course it's not normal." This is what it means to be a Christian. Anyone can be normal; it takes Christ in us not to hit back. Anyone can hate. Anyone can argue and insist on his own way. But Christians are people in whom the very Spirit of Jesus has come to live.

Now this has been the long version of making the point that people who are truly part of Christ's church are called to be different. They have a reason to be different, and it is right to expect Christians to act differently than “ordinary people.”

Sadly, the Corinthians were not living up to that. Now if the Corinthian church was a mere historical anomaly, we could take a detached look at their problem and move on. Unfortunately, I do not know of a single church that cannot identify with the Corinthian church in some way (which just goes to show how timeless the inspired Word of God is). Christians sometimes think and act like non-Christians. The Corinthians did it, and you and I do, too. We need words like these from God through Paul to call us back to obedience.

First, there's the one reason to expect Christians not to be ordinary, but to be different: Christians are "spiritual." These verses make the point of application Paul has been building all along. Christians are people who have come into the wisdom of the message of Christ crucified. Christians are people of the cross. Christians are not ordinary people. God's Spirit lives in Christians, turning them from the old ordinary patterns of living and enabling them to live like the Lord in whose name they are now known. Christians have the mind of Christ.

Paul has also been clear as to how Christians are different. Christians are not like natural "soulish" people who cannot understand the things of God. People who think of life only in the here and now cannot help but respond to life in the here and now as if it it the most important thing in all the world. If this life is all I have, then you can expect me to fight for it. If this life is all there is, then my possessions are of utmost importance, for they are my security for pleasure and comfort. If this life is all there is, then what is important to me has a higher priority than what might be important to you. Those are ordinary observations, and ordinary people cannot understand any other approach to such issues.

The horrible thing is that some Christians do not seem to understand this truth that we are different. Sometimes you and I think and respond more like ordinary people than people in whom the Spirit of God has come to dwell. Paul does not call Christians who do that the same thing he calls non-Christians who live that way. For the non-Christian, the word is psychikoi, or "soulish" –– living on the basis of this life only. For the Christian he uses the word sarkinoi, or "fleshly" –– carnal, living like human nature without God. And that is the greatest tragedy: people who have initially partaken of God's Spirit living as though God is not there.

You see, the way we live is the acid test of our faith. Christianity is not just a matter of our sins being forgiven. "Christian" is not one other thing we are; it's not something extra in our life that we do. Being a Christian means Jesus is in us, and if he is in us it's because we are inviting him in and humbly admitting we cannot handle life without him. This means our whole approach to life is based on a new perspective –– the perspective of Jesus in us.... the perspective of the cross. The cross of our Lord comes into every decision, every relationship and every value.

This means, as William Barclay pointed out in his little Daily Study Bible, "you can tell what a man's relations with God are by looking at his relations with his fellow man." Paul looked at the Corinthians and knew they had a spiritual problem –– in spite of having initially believed in Jesus. And how did he know that? He saw them having petty jealousies and quarrels. God help all of us.

I said earlier that all churches can identify with this Corinthian church in some way, but today I am not preaching this passage in all churches; I am declaring the Word in the place where I am called, and this part of God's Word is for us. On the basis of God's words to the Corinthians I call each of us today to respond to one another honoring the Spirit of Jesus which is in us –– the Spirit who lives in us to give us the mind of Christ so we will be people of the cross.

This means our personal opinions and wants are not the first priority. This means we embrace a serving Spirit rather than a demanding spirit. It means that power and influence and control, the things ordinary people ordinarily want, are things to be guarded against rather than sought. It means being humble and careful on issues that would invite us to take sides.

What is your response to negative talk? During the week before and in the weeks after an associate pastor's resignation I heard more than a little about negative talk. It sounded much like Corinth. Back then it was "I am on Paul's side" or "I'm for Apollos," but now it's "I'm for Pastor “Jones” –– why can't he stay?" or it's "I'm glad Pastor “Jones” resigned." And the reasons are mostly opinions. I wish I was hearing more questions like: "What does God want to do in our church?" or "What is best for Pastor “Jones?" or "How can we affirm one another right now?"

I digressed. What is your response to negative talk? Do you challenge it? Do you question the authenticity of what is being said? More importantly, do you question the motivation behind what is being said –– do you try to understand the person's real concern? Do you encourage the person who is obviously at odds with a brother or sister in the church to go to them and get it straightened out? Are you willing to go with them if necessary?

And if you do some or all of those things without a satisfactory result, what do you do then? Do you get irritated at the person, so that you end up with a problem, too? I have been made aware of enough of that to know we have some patterns of handling our opinions and frustrations that are too ordinary –– any group of people could respond that way. But we are Christians.

There will always be a variety of opinions in a church. I am not saying we need to be robots. I am saying, though, there is a power-driven, underhanded and control oriented approach, and there is also an open, honest and straightforward voicing of our concerns.

But even if we are honest and straight-forward, there is no guarantee of everyone's concerns being handled to please them. In fact, I can promise the opposite: there will always be some people whose opinion or idea is not accepted –– when two people disagree, the settlement cannot go 100% in both directions. The test of character comes when our opinion or idea did not carry the day. That is where we have an opportunity to be people of the cross. The power person says, "There is next time," and he goes off to enlist his supporters. The bitter person goes off to spill his bile over all who will listen. And to that I say, anyone can do that. It does not take God in us to act like that.

On the other hand, a person can say, "I take, O Cross, thy shadow as my abiding place," and then say "If my concern is from God, he will take care of it; if it's not, then I'm thankful for the wisdom of the Body in seeing something I could not." But on no account should there be a building of sides; on no account should there be a deviousness that smiles on Sunday mornings and then commits character assassination on the phone on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.

The question, though, is how to translate all of this into real life. First, and I underscore this again, we must be partakers of the Spirit. There is no way to live the life of the Spirit if the Spirit of Jesus has not come to live in us. But even then, there must be development.

The word Paul wants to use for the Corinthians is pneumatikoi, "spiritual"–– which means that the dominate force in one's life is the Spirit. For the spiritual person, the guidance of the Holy Spirit is sought for every decision, every relationship and every value that person embraces. In the life of a spiritual person, the Spirit affects the way others in the church are treated. The Spirit affects the way we talk and the way we make and respond to decisions.

If you are tempted to say, "I'm not so bad, I'm spiritual; after all, I'm a Christian," then look long and hard at Paul's words to the Corinthian Christians. They were babies, and babies need to grow. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that one cannot simply go on being a decent ordinary egg; we must be hatched or go rotten.

More than that, the one way to have assurance that one has, indeed, partaken of God's Spirit is to live according to the Spirit. Claiming to have the Spirit but acting like a non-Christian may mean you are fooling no one but yourself.

This is not the time to be thinking of someone else. I want each one of us today to hold this mirror of God's Word up to our own face. Look straight into your own eyes and answer this question: Am I acting like any “ordinary” human being, or are my actions marked by the indwelling Spirit of God? Think back through the past weeks and listen to your words. Have they been divisive, or have they been marked with the love of the One who chose the cross over his own will? Anyone can belong to the crowd of ordinary people, but it takes the life of the Spirit if we are the people we say we are.

Who are we?

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