Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tongue Twister

As I drove a long commute yesterday I was thinking about how people talk about others. How easy it is to tarnish another person by relaying an incident nursed by our own hurt. How easy it is to judge another’s motives (when we have no idea what the other person was thinking or intending). How easy it is to bring someone else into an issue when he or she is neither part of the problem nor the solution. How easy it is to believe (and spread) the worst. How easy it is to say something that builds sympathy for ourselves by denigrating someone else.

James warns: You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.... If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

Paul gives the positive spin in the context of love: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

If we cannot build another up, can we refrain from tearing a person down? Hear the wisdom of James again:

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Doing Wrong and Being Wronged

This is sermon #14 from my First Corinthians series. The opening context is my pastoral identity of twenty years ago, but the core issue is for all Christians at all times. Perhaps I was too restrictive with the options, but Paul was writing at a time when the options were few: be radical for Jesus or deny Him. Two thousand years of church history have complicated things a bit, especially a Christian's relationship with the civil sphere. Yet we still need followers of Jesus who are radical (which is not the same as fanatical, although the world will make the accusation). I would still say today that the main point(s) here are faithful to true Christian commitment.

1 Corinthians 6:1-11


Obedience is a very important issue in the life of a Christian. Obedience has played a key role in the identity of the Brethren in Christ Church; the title of the definitive history is aptly called A Quest For Piety And Obedience. Obedience is the correct human response to God's commands. That is one clear emphasis in the Bible.

Now if the Bible gives us God's commands, and if the Bible entreats obedience, it is only natural that a people with a concern for pleasing God find those things that are commanded in the Bible and do them –– or not do them, in the case of prohibitions. That was essentially the attitude of the Brethren in Christ Church over most of its history.

A bit later in I Corinthians we will see Paul saying that the women should cover their heads, so Brethren in Christ women devised a covering. In other places Paul extended in his letters the cultural greeting of his day, the holy kiss. The Brethren in Christ made the holy kiss a practice, and defined it as such in their Manual. Jesus took the part of a servant with his disciples and washed their feet after walking the dirt roads of Judea in sandals, and he said his disciples should follow him and wash one another’s feet. The Brethren in Christ simply obeyed and turned feet washing almost into a sacrament.

Now I have said all of that to say the obvious: The clear point in this passage is that Christians should not take each other to court. Is this another simple command that is to be simply obeyed? That is as far as some Christians would take it. We might wish all Christians would simply do that much, but if that is all one sees here it is no wonder that the church has trouble with obedience.

The passage is clear enough –– there is an issue of obedience, and people in the church had best be aware of it and practice it. But again, is that all there is to obedience? Do we simply read the law and concur? A good understanding of Paul and New Testament theology will cause one to say no; simple obedience is not all there is to good Christian response.

Paul is strong in these verses. If I developed and preached this chapter with the same tone Paul is using you would feel as if I were a blast furnace. That is not to say, of course, that I am not prepared to state the truth without equivocation. We desperately need what this chapter says, but we do not need it merely as a law to be obeyed. That is not what Paul is doing; it's just that we are so far removed from the occasion of the letter that we must constantly step back to see the bigger context. Paul gets to it as he concludes, but we need it as we begin.

Go back in your minds, if not in your Bibles, to the opening words of the first chapter. There Paul identifies the people to whom he is writing this letter. He is writing to the those sanctified in Christ Jesus...and called to be holy (v2). He goes on to affirm our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you (v6). And because of that he expected certain things of them: He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (v8). Was this a confidence he had in the Corinthians themselves? No! So how could he hope such a thing? God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful(v9).

Maybe you remember the two words used to describe what Paul is talking about throughout this letter –– the indicative and the imperative. If you do not remember, an indicative states something; it "indicates" what is. An imperative statement, in contrast, is a command. For Paul (and for us, and all other Christians), the indicative precedes the imperative. The reason we obey an imperative is because of the reason behind the command, which is the indicative.

Maybe you remember a ridiculous example I gave. An indicative statement would be: All smart people eat sardines. Follow that with an imperative by a parent who wishes his child to excel in academics: you must eat sardines. The point is lost, though, if the indicative statement, "all smart people eat sardines," does not come first. The imperative makes sense only as it is based on the indicative.

Now to be sure, Paul gives a strong imperative here in this chapter –– but that is not where we begin. We should never begin with the imperative. To begin with the command is to take obedience out of its context. The Christian life is not lived by obeying laws. That is drudgery. It is defeating, for we can never obey the laws good enough to escape guilt. Turning Christianity into laws makes it harsh and ugly. It also makes it deadly, for it gives no life to those who would try to do it that way, and it turns the watching world away from us because the gospel is distorted and hidden. Before there can be any imperatives, we must understand and embrace the indicatives.

Paul alludes to the indicatives over and over. They are implicit in everything he commands. But if we are to get to the heart of obedience, we must eat, sleep and breathe the basic things that are true which make obedience worthwhile and relevant. As I said, they are implicit here, but I need to make them explicit for us.

I want to identify three things Paul says in this chapter, and show how the indicative and the imperative work in each. The three things here can be called:

I. An Avoidance of World Courts

II. An Acceptance of Wrong-suffering

III. An Aversion to Wrong-doing

In vs 1-6 we find Paul exhorting an avoidance of world courts. The whole section is written with the most biting sarcasm anywhere in the letter, and its one intent is to drive home an imperative: Christians shouldn't take other Christians to secular court. I could stop here with cries and laments over the times people in the church at large have not obeyed this, but that would not be helpful. We need more than straightforward commands.

What we need are the indicatives that give the reason for such a command –– and we need to embrace those indicatives so that they mold the way we think. The actions we choose to do are always based on our understanding of reality and truth, and so wrong actions come from a wrong understanding of what is really true. There are indicative reasons Christians should not take other Christians to court, and if we truly believe those indicatives we will not choose to take such an action. On the other hand, those who do choose to act in such a way do not really understand or believe the indicatives.

What are those indicatives? Paul gives them here implicitly. The basis of everything he says in vs1-6 lies in the different world-view a Christian has. The non-believer looks out on this world and thinks it is the sum total of reality. A Christian, on the other hand, sees this world but knows that another unseen world must also be taken into consideration, and is indeed the greater part of reality. The choice is between this present visible world and the kingdom of God. And the contrast is so great that one cannot believe and act on both at the same time.

Consider just a few of the ways the Bible describes and contrasts the two (and remember we are looking at indicatives here –– things that are):


seen / unseen

passing / abiding

apparent reality / true reality

death / life

foolish / wise

Man-centered / God-centered

material / spiritual

outer appearance / inner heart

wicked / just

lose by winning / win by losing

selfish / giving

retaliate / forgive

hoard / give

indulgent / controlled

The list could go on, but you get the idea –– there is a different perspective at work. Christians are people who believe the kingdom of God is real, so that they try to live that way.

Now Paul's point is rather simple: Why should Christians, who live out the perspective of the kingdom of God, go to secular courts which are based on the way of thinking of this present world? That is his point in v4 (where in the NIV, the alternate translation in the footnote is better): do you appoint as judges men of little account in the church?

In other words, why go to a judge who, in the eyes of the church, understands so little and makes his decisions by standards Christians abandoned when they saw the truth of the kingdom of God? In fact, if we really believe this world is passing away, the very ones who now pose as judges in the world system will be the ones who are judged by Christ and his saints (vs2,3). And how absurd it is for us who have the greater understanding to go to people who understand so little.

Now if this is a concept almost foreign to us, it only shows how far we are from the kind of understanding Paul assumed as basic for Christians to truly live as Christians in this world. But that is not the only thing that shows the need for us to understand who we are and what it means in everyday life.

A second thing that Paul encourages (or, if you prefer, commands) is an acceptance of wrong-suffering (v7,8). We must remember this imperative is based on particular facets of the indicative of the kingdom of God. The imperative (we might even be tempted to call it the idiotic imperative) is in v7b: be willing to be wronged and be willing to be cheated.

Maybe you wonder if this is hyperbole. Is Paul serious? I can tell you a story of one man who believed Paul was, indeed, serious. One of the names in Brethren in Christ history is that of a Canadian farmer, Lafayette Shoalts. According to Morris Sider, the reigning historian of the Brethren in Christ, told me this story some years ago. It seems that Farmer Shoalts had an ornery neighbor who insisted the fence bordering their property was two feet over on his side. So Brother Lafayette hired a surveyor to come and determine the right boundary. After that was established, he moved the fence two feet over on his own side. Hiring the surveyor, giving up a running two feet of property, moving the fence.... all at his expense.... Mr. Lafayette Shoalts knew what it meant to be willing to be wronged. He also knew what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus.

Some would say that just doesn’t make sense, and they would be right –– from the perspective of this present world. The reality of the kingdom of God says something different, though. The kingdom of God has what we might call here an inverted indicative.

Look at the first part of v7: the very fact that you have lawsuits means you have been completely defeated already. The reason a person goes to court is to win. The inverted indicative says if your priority is that of winning, you are already a loser. The flip side of that, the kingdom perspective, is that people who choose to embrace losing are actually the winners. It’s the way of the cross. Jesus won by losing. He is alive because he died. He knew that winning in this world is not winning because it does not last.

When the church has believed this and lived it, the world has looked on in wonder. This is a passage that strikes at the heart of our values. It puts the light of God on a love of money and materialism. The only way we can be willing to be cheated and suffer wrong without retaliation is when we see this passing world in contrast to the reality of God’s kingdom. Can we live in the reality of what Paul will later say in 7:31 –– this world in its present form is passing away.

Peter and John had that perspective when they met the cripple beggar on the way to the temple (Acts 3). Peter made it clear that material was not the priority when he said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give to you.” Representing the power of the kingdom that is unseen, Peter pulled the man to his feet and told him to walk.

People who follow Jesus with abandon believe what Jesus modeled is true –– that we actually win by losing, and they act on what they believe. This could be called an identifying indicative. What we do identifies what we truly believe. The problem with the Corinthians was that they were not acting out of the perspective of faith in the kingdom.

Instead of accepting wrong-suffering, they were committing the very thing that is the antithesis of God’s people. That is why Paul gives them a third exhortation: an aversion to wrong-doing (vs9–11). Someone in the church was unwilling to suffer wrong so he was going to court over it, and someone else in the church had caused it! Paul gives an intercepting indicative at this point ––he wants all the church to know one thing: the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God (v9).

Hear this in context. Remember all that has come before. It is not that God accepts people who do not do wicked things and rejects those who do. This is not a self-action program to get people in or out of the kingdom. Paul is not putting a performance rule on salvation. He is saying once again that the people of God will not have lives characterized by certain behaviors precisely because they are God’s people.

The list in vs9,10 is not meant to be exhaustive. It is not a full catalogue of sins. Yet the ones mentioned are clear enough. This is not the focus of this sermon, but I want to highlight briefly two things. The first is the observation that God’s Word is quite clear about homosexual behavior. In a world where even some in the church-at-large are calling for embracing this increasingly “popular” disorder, the warning stands that there is no place in God’s kingdom for such. The second thing I call to your attention are some of the other sins: greed, drunkenness and slander. People whose lives are marked by these are in the same category as homosexual behavior and other sexual immorality. Embracing sinful behavior is just that –– there is no hierarchy of sins.

But to make sure the Corinthians know how he truly sees them, Paul reminds them of an intervening indicative. Yes, once they had been among those whose lives were marked by sexual immorality, homosexual activity, greed and drunkenness, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (v11).

That is the gospel. There is a kingdom. There is another reality, unseen by the natural eye. The entry to that kingdom has been provided by God himself. His Son has gone the way before us. He has shown that one can be wronged and things still come out right. He has shown that death itself can bring life. He has made it possible for our sins to be forgiven. He has given us his Spirit so we can understand what cannot be clearly seen. He has set us apart so that we are not like the rest of the world, and he calls us to become brand new people. All these things are already true. They are God’s intervening indicative. They make God’s people different.

That difference always carries an implied imperative. Sometimes the imperative is more than implied. Sometimes it stands out so strongly that it’s like the commandments of Sinai thundering over our heads. But behind the imperatives, whatever they are, lie the indicative truths of what God has done –– and who we are if we are his people.

What that means is that when we are given a choice in our everyday lives –– something like either doing wrong or suffering wrong –– we will choose to suffer wrong instead of doing wrong. It’s because we are people who believe in the One who won by losing, the One who died but is now alive, whose kingdom is forever.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sin in the Church!

Sermon #13 from the First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 5:1-13


Church life does not often hit the Associated Press lines, and when it does it is not usually good news. Some time ago a story appeared about a woman bringing a lawsuit against her church for defamation of character. She had been involved in an extra-marital affair, and the church she was in publicized her sin and put her out of the church. She said the church had humiliated her, and that her private life was no concern of the church's.

What should be the church's response to sin in a member's life? Some churches try to maintain a rigid standard of purity. They pull away from other Christian bodies and set up a list of rules to safeguard holiness. They are visibly conspicuous in the world, but the one thing that often stands out is self-righteousness. Years ago there was a notorious incident in Mechanicsburg where a man was shunned and his wife wouldn't eat at the same table with him. Is that what Paul is talking about here?

Other churches have decided that is not the right response. They see discipline as harsh and unloving. Any move toward discipline is stereotyped as a witch hunt. The trouble with this response is that the people of such churches are seldom different from the world at all. There is no standard of holiness, which makes one wonder how such a church is different from any other social club. What is the church, anyway?

In this fifth chapter of First Corinthians we have a record of sin in the church. We also have God's Word through Paul of what to do about it. A casual reading explains why some churches zealously go after sinning members and practice shunning, but there is more than that here.

A general observation that becomes very important is Paul's emphasis as he deals with the situation. He gives little time and space to the sin and the sinner. He gets far more exercised with the church and its attitudes. We do not give enough thought to what the church is and what we are here for. It is only in that context that we begin to understand what the response should be when there is sin in the church.

When sin is in the church how do we handle it? The answer here is, with authority. When sin is in the church, why do anything? The answer here is, for authenticity. When sin is in the church, what should be the expected result? The answer here is, a visible alternative.

How do we handle sin in the church? With authority. “Authority” has become a bad word in our culture, and it is especially suspect in the church. There is a pervasive mood that no one has a right to tell anyone else what is right or wrong, or what they can or cannot do. But in the overall context of what the church is, we need to do a better job of helping people understand that when they join the church they are putting themselves under a particular authority.

We say that in membership vows, but could it be those vows function as a mere initiatory rite –– something to be forgotten once we are "in?" Whatever the case, the authority is there, and discipline is inherent to authority. Paul is clear as to the source of the authority: I have pronounced judgment in the name of Jesus Christ (v4). The church's first identity is that of representing the actual presence of its Lord. We are to affirm or judge what Jesus would affirm or judge.

Of course there are stipulations to that, but the church today is in greater danger of under-using its authority than over-using it. This is not the only place where Paul used this language of discipline. Writing the second time to the church at Thessalonica (3:6), the authority of Jesus is named as the basis for corrective action. The question for us is to what extent we actually see the church as the physical, earthly presence of our Lord. Jesus told Peter that he was giving the church the authority to bind and loose on earth according to the realities of heaven (Matt. 16:18,19).

Still, the stipulations exist. The context for this judgment and discipline lies in the church –– not in the world. I'll say more on this later, but notice that the discipline is directed toward anyone who calls himself a brother (v11). The authority for discipline is only for those who have placed themselves under it –– members of the church. Any member of the church who persists in sinful behavior implicitly invites the disciplinary authority of the church.

And what is that discipline? Paul says it is expulsion (v2, 4-5, 7, 13). He says the same thing to the Thessalonians ("keep away" and "do not associate" 3:6,14). What does it mean when the church puts someone out?

The first thing it means is a removal from the identity of the church. The Christian church is exclusive. That is one of its offenses. Not any and everyone should have the privilege of belonging to the church. The church is a group of people who, together, find their identity in Jesus Christ. He is their Lord. Jesus is the most important person in their lives, and their expressed purpose is to follow him in discipleship. When anyone in the church lives as though those things are not true in his or her life, one of two things needs to change –– behavior or identity. If a sinning person will not change his behavior, then the church needs to change his identity. Thus Paul's word: Expel the wicked man from among you.

The second thing it means is a removal from the protection of the church. When a person is put out of the church, something else happens. With the instruction, hand this man over to Satan, the implication is that expelling someone from a church removes them from the protection of the church. Satan is called "the prince of this world" (Jn 12: 31), and when a person is put out of a church he or she is put back "into the world," which is Satan's jurisdiction.

Things work differently for people in the church than for people outside. People in the church are under the reign of God in a way those outside the church are not. The "principalities and powers" have full access to people outside the church; Christians have access to the armor of God (Eph 6). Feeling vulnerable to the full force of evil should make a person want the protection of the church, and putting a disobedient person in that position should heighten the issue of repentance and obedience.

The third thing it means is a removal from the fellowship of the church. The phrases here to imply this are "out of your fellowship," "not associate," and "do not even eat" (vs 2,9,11). This means the church should not act toward an erring person as though everything is fine. Fellowship implies approval, and people whose behavior is marked by disobedience need to sense the church's disapproval. One of the needs the church fills in our lives is a sense of belonging. The church cannot afford to give that to one whose actions deny and defy the church.

This does not necessarily mean "the cold shoulder." When Jesus gave the order for discipline (Matt. 18), he said to treat one who would not listen to the church as you would a pagan (18:17). And how should the church act toward a pagan? With love and with a call to repentance. Paul's word here, with such a man do not even eat (v11), may mean a calculated refusal to include him at the Lord's Table (Communion). It may mean as much as not being friendly and accepting at a fellowship (Agape) meal. What it probably does not mean is that the members of the church are to individually shun this man and treat him as if he has a plague. The action called for is by the church within the church, so for example, the incident where the wife would not eat at the same table with her husband at home is a gross exaggeration of the meaning here.

A fourth thing we need to acknowledge here is problems with trying to practice this at all. One problem is equity; we in the church have a problem treating all people and all sin the same. If it's a heavy contributor or the son of a deacon it's too easy to overlook the sin. Or if the sin is greed or slander, we do not seem to notice as we would if it is adultery or drunkenness.

Another problem is the fragmentation of the church. If a church does put someone out, he or she (and probably the whole extended family) just goes over to another congregation who welcomes them with open arms and asks no questions. The whole intent is then lost.

The biggest problem, though, is with the church. Churches that do discipline are seldom as hard on themselves as the ones they catch in sin. Before a church would take such a step, there should be tears and questions asking where we failed that the situation ever developed to the place it did. But to put this all in perspective, all of these former things come into focus when we start looking at how to handle sin in the church with any measure of authority.

Then there is the second question: Why do all of this? The answer is authenticity. It has to do with who a person is and what the church is.

It is right to put a disobedient person out of the church for his own sake. The tone throughout this chapter is redemptive. When the church disciplines someone, it is not giving the person false assurance. The church is saying, "You are not living like a Christian and so we cannot treat you like one." Paul implies that by saying a person in the church guilty of evil things only calls himself a brother (v11). In the next chapter he will affirm that people who do wicked things will [not] inherit the kingdom of God (6:10). The church should not give such people false assurance.

Another reason for discipline is given with the words so that the flesh may be destroyed, and his spirit saved... (v5). Some think this means a person's physical death is judgment for the sin, but that does not agree with anything in Paul, nor the general flow of New Testament theology. For this destruction to happen, the person is handed over to Satan. We saw earlier what that meant. It is to put a person in a situation where he is subject to the full repercussion of his choice. The other way to understand "flesh" here is "sinful nature" (as the NIV has translated it). Out in the world, buffeted by Satan, such a person may re-learn that, indeed, the sinful nature is death (Romans 8). If that lesson is truly learned and there is repentance, then the wayward person will again have assurance of spiritual life. Redemption is always the purpose of discipline.

Earlier in my ministry I was in a church that took discipline seriously. On one occasion a woman began to get involved with a man who had recently left his wife because of her mental illness and institutionalization. The man divorced his wife, and this woman in the church came to ask for marriage. She had been cautioned about the relationship from the beginning, and with the formal request the board said no, and that she should break the relationship. She not only ignored the counsel, she sought another clergyman and married. The church's response was discipline; her membership was revoked and announced to the church. She was invited to attend, but it was made clear that she was "out of fellowship." Within six months the man died in bed with a heart attack, and the woman returned to the church openly confessing her disobedience; she was fully reinstated. Whatever you think of the details, that has been an incident in my experience where discipline worked correctly. There was redemption for the individual.

There is another reason tied to authenticity. Discipline is necessary for the sake of the church. If discipline prevents false assurance for the individual, it helps prevent false witness for the church. The church, remember, is the physical presence of the Lord in the world. The church gives witness to who God is.

One thing the world desperately needs to know is that God is holy. If holiness is not a standard in the church, then we are misrepresenting God. If discipline seems harsh and unloving to us, it only shows how far removed we are from a right understanding about God. Most people in churches today would do well to experience a vision like Isaiah's (ch 6) where he saw God high and lifted up, with all the hosts of heaven covering themselves and only able to say, "holy, holy, holy."

Another thing the church must witness to is a right understanding of the death of Christ. That is Paul's point in verses 6-8. The crucifixion tells us what God thinks of sin. It takes the death of Christ to make us new –– and when God makes us new we cannot help but live differently. That is the distinctiveness of the church.

Christ has died for us not simply to give us passage to heaven, but to re-create us in his own image. And how horrible it is when God's people look more like their surrounding world than they do the Lord himself. The image Paul uses is a loaf of bread. The church is God's new loaf. We need to understand this word "leaven" to know what the point is. Leaven was not just yeast like we use today. Leaven was a chunk of old dough that was in process of fermentation. When mixed with new dough, it caused the whole to rise.

Sin is like leaven. It is the old rotting thing. Sin in the church is like leaven in bread; it spreads to the whole. It is like our more modern saying, "One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel." And when sin permeates the church, the church cannot truly be the church. There is no authenticity. Sin must be removed from the church, or sin will destroy the church. And to go back to something Paul said earlier:

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple (3:16,17).

Finally, do you know what happens when the church exercises its authority so that it practices authenticity? It becomes a visible alternative to the world.

Discipline gives the church internal integrity. It is then the church can be a new community. The world needs to see a new community; it needs to see there is another way. Corinth was marked by three things: sexual immorality, greed and idolatry. It should almost go without saying that we live in "Corinth." But "Corinth" is not part of the church's identity, and it has no place among the new community of God's people. That is easier said than done.

Paul had written the Corinthians a previous letter instructing them in this matter (v9). Their response was to disregard it or deliberately misinterpret it. Paul had told them not to associate with sexually immoral people; they looked at the world they lived in and decided Paul was crazy –– a convenient way to disregard his teaching.

Now Paul makes his intent clear. He does not mean the church should withdraw from the world. That is the opposite of what the church is here for. Too often the church has pulled away from the world, saying it is "too evil." Of course it is evil. There is no reason to expect anything else. But when the church has internal integrity, it becomes just what the world needs –– an external witness.

Internal integrity is what sets the church apart. Christians are different; that is our very reason for existence. The church has a different standard: God's holiness. The church has a different motivation: the death of Jesus Christ. The church has a different identity: God's new human community.

That is why Paul said they were not to associate with immoral people in the church. If the church is to go into the world as a new community, then it cannot be like the very world it is trying to reach. To use the imagery of Jesus' prayer (Jn 17), the church is to “be in the world, but not of [like] it.”

Now, does this mean that only "sinless" people can be part of the church? I need to ask this –– and answer it –– or I will sound the way Paul did to the Corinthians. Of course Paul is not saying only sinless people can be members of the church. Neither am I. As I said at the beginning, some churches have taken it that way, and then split hairs and gagged on gnats while the rest of the world looks on at the camels they swallow.

We never fall back to the idea that our performance is what qualifies us to be in the church. At the same time, we do not want to say that our performance can never disqualify us from the church. That seems to put us in a quandary.

The issue here is people who persist in the very activities from which they have supposedly been forgiven and freed by the death of Christ. It is people who try to have it both ways –– trying to be a part of the church while fully living like the world. People who persist in their old ways –– who live like the world –– do not belong in the new community. This does not mean people who genuinely struggle or people who get caught in temptation and sin, and then repent, do not belong to the church. That is just the kind of people who do belong in the church, for what Christian is there who does not daily come before the Lord in humility and say, "Jesus, I'm such a poor servant; make me more like you."

Neither is this passage a focus on one kind of sin. Sexual sins are nothing special compared to any others. The issue here is not a certain sin. Yes, this man in Corinth was involved in an immoral situation, but that just became the springboard to the larger issue. Even the list in v11 is not inclusive; it is a sample. The kinds of situations in which the church needs to exercise its authority are when people are, among maybe other things, sexually immoral, greedy, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, and swindlers. The issue is the authenticity of the people of God. To be an alternative, we must be authentic, and to be authentic we must exercise the authority of our Lord in the lives of people in the church who persist in sin.

One last thing is the principle of judging which Paul gives here. It is not the function of the church to judge the world and its people. God will do that. The world has no reason to do what is "Christian." The “world” is living out of the only reality it has. The only way it will see another way is when the church shows it with integrity.

What the church is to judge is its own. We know the standard. We have the Spirit. Ours is the task.

My observation is that too often we reverse these two things. We look out and judge the world, but do nothing about the inconsistencies in the church! It's easy to judge the world. Like I said, they have no reason for doing anything other than they do. They do not need our judgment; they need our Lord. Then the behavior will change.

It's harder in the church. It is the people who have become our friends. It is the people who know our faults so well, so we find it to be easiest if no one points the finger –– if no one rebukes, if no one is put out. But in the process we lose our authenticity.

Sin in the church? It is likely a given as we live in this evil world. The issue is how the church responds to it. We can do nothing. We can do too much. Either one is easier than being God's redemptive people in the world. But only one response is really available to the church. Are we really being the church?

More on Prayer from Augustine

This is part of Augustine's letter to Proba (from today's Office of Readings). It offers a wonderful insight on the Spirit's "groan" in the believer:

We do not know what is right to pray for, but the Spirit himself pleads with sighs too deep for words...

We must not understand by this that the Holy Spirit of God pleads for the saints as if he were someone different from what God is: in the the Trinity the Spirit is the unchangeable God and one God with the Father and the Son. Scripture says: He pleads for the saints because he moves the saints to plead, just as it says: The Lord your God tests you, to know if you love him, in this sense, that he does it to enable you to know. So the Spirit moves the saints to plead with sighs too deep for words by inspiring in them a desire for the great and as yet unknown reality that we look forward to with patience. How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown? If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it; again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs, if we were able to see it.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Augustine on Prayer

The following is part of the Office of Reading from today by St Augustine:

We pray to one who, as the Lord himself tells us, knows what we need before we ask for it.
Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers.
The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Two Views of Christian Success

This is sermon #12 from my First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 4:1-21


In one way or another success is a concern for every person on earth. Children want to be successful in school. Adults want to be successful in their jobs or as parents or in marriage relationships. Some people are very concerned about success in sports ––either for themselves or vicariously through their favorite team. Businesses are defined by their success or failure. Our self-image as individuals has a lot to do with how we measure success in ourselves. Success, in one context or another, becomes very important.

Success is no less an issue within the church. Numbers are one of the ways a church is deemed successful. Other standards of success include facility and program. When those things combine with the human element –– opinion, the result is the perceived success or failure of the church.

Unfortunately, opinions can be wrong as easily as they can be right. Is a church successful as long as it has an impressive building and a professional program? Or to look at an individual Christian, is one's life obviously blessed by God if he or she is healthy and wealthy? Is happiness the divine right of every believer? And what about the person who is not healthy, wealthy or happy? Does that mean he or she is not meeting the standard of a successful Christian? Those are some of the opinions one can find in the church at large today.

When we come to this fourth chapter, we find Paul bringing his opening main point to a conclusion. He has been talking about the conflict between the world's wisdom and God's wisdom. God's wisdom offers the world a crucified Messiah. People who embrace God's wisdom become people of the cross. The world has a wisdom that promises life, but gives death; God's people follow Jesus by embracing death to gain life. Christians really do believe one can win by losing.

Paul has not been saying these things merely to engage an academic exercise. His words are not philosophical ramblings. He is applying the message of the cross to real life. The Corinthian church had an attitude much like the one described in the third chapter of Revelation about Laodicea: "I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing." And along with that self-sufficient attitude, the Corinthian church had a bad case of "opinionitis."

Using the language of today, we can certainly say the Corinthians did not have a poor “self-image.” They were children of the King! They deserved the best. They had been accepted by God, so why let sin get them down? And why should they allow their image to be tarnished by that radical fellow named Paul, who was more of an embarrassment than anything else?

Such is the context of this fourth chapter of Corinthians. But writing with the authority of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul responds not only to his defense, but to the very heart of the gospel and its application. To use this issue of success that affects us so much, Paul gets behind the “opinionitis” that forms our ideas of what success means in the church. The fact that this letter is almost 2000 years old only shows how timeless God's Word is.

The first question to consider is the issue of judging. We must be careful here. The meaning of the opening verses is clear –– the church is not the judge (v5). That seems simple enough, and consistent with what Jesus said, Do not judge... (Matt. 7:1). But we need to hear that in tandem with other commands and occasions which say the opposite. In the next chapter Paul will tell the church to judge a man. A bit further in the same chapter Jesus said to judge the character of false prophets by their actions –– by their fruit you will recognize them (Matt. 7:20).

What is it we are not to judge? First, I will say two things that are not excluded from our judgment: acts of sin and the character of a person who persistently sins. I will say more about that as we come to the next chapter.

So what is it we are not to judge? In the context of this first paragraph, the church is in no position to judge the style of a minister. The job Paul was doing was not the concern of the Corinthian church. Yes, he was one of their apostles. Yes, his stated objective was to be their servant. But they had no right to judge.

Now this has implications for today, but first I need to admit my discomfort as I give this particular point. Even as I tell you it is not your place to judge your minister (and there are reasons that is true), I will jump ahead and tell you that is conditional upon the person’s sensitivity to a higher standard than any other thing on earth. I will say more about that.

First, though, look at the reasons others in the church should not judge the minister or other Christian workers. First, they are servants of Christ (v1). Yes, the service is given to the church, but the service belongs to the Lord. He is the master; the servants and their actions belong to him. Second, the Lord is the judge (v4b). Paul does not care what the church's opinion of him is, or anyone else's. He goes on to say it is not even what he himself thinks of his ministry. That is because the only opinion that matters is the Lord's. He is the judge.

There are reasons implicit in the Corinthian church why it should be that way. When the Lord judges, it is always just. The standard is high, but it stands without bias. When we judge one another, our hidden agendas come into play.

The Fall has given all of us the tendency to have high opinions of ourselves and low opinions of others. And when we judge one another's performance in the church, it is often with a "stacked deck." It ends up with us saying, in principle, "I am good at this particular thing, but you are not." Or we imply something like this, "Well I see what needs to be done here; can't you?! Of course any of us could legitimately say those things in a given situation, because each of us has strengths where others have weaknesses. It takes no great person to point out another's weakness alongside a personal strength.

But even in their strengths, followers of Jesus should remember one basic fact: No one is personally responsible for his talents and strengths. Paul's words in v7 should be like a splash of cold water in the face for any of us who feel as though we do pretty good: For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

In this case, the Corinthians looked at Paul and saw an unimpressive man. Tradition says he was physically unattractive. He himself admitted earlier in the letter that his coming to the Corinthians was not marked by eloquence or superior wisdom (2:1). His message was simple and unimpressive –– a crucified Messiah.

On the other hand, the Corinthians used the gospel to better themselves. For people who had not been influential or of noble birth (1:26), they seemed to have done pretty good by the world's standards. Mimicking their claims (v8), Paul says they have all they want, they have become rich, and see themselves (as the NIV translates it) as kings. That is a poor translation; the idea is that they have looked ahead at the promise of the kingdom's consummation and have decided they have already begun to reign with Christ. The way some say it today is, "I'm a child of the king," and then they proceed to think they deserve the best house, the most expensive car and clothes, nor should they have to do hard work to have those things. They just wait for "God's blessing."

As if that were not bad enough, many of those same people, while professing Christ, both disclaim and look with disdain on anyone else who might be too radical, too fundamental, too evangelistic, too emotional or too simple in faith. That was how the Corinthians saw Paul, and their opinion of him was plain: he was an embarrassment.

Do you know people who are ashamed of being publicly identified as a Christian? Or maybe people who would not be caught in public with a person who might say "praise the Lord" or pray too loud in a restaurant? Do you know people who want the church to look impressive in the eyes of the world's values, and want to belong only to such a church? The Corinthian problem did not stop with the first century.

Paul had an anointing of the Spirit to see distortion in the church. As an apostle he had a distinctive authority for the church's judgment. Paul was applying the gospel in his life. He met the one requirement of one who would minister in the name of and unto Jesus Christ –– he was faithful (v2). He was faithful to the content of the gospel; he was one of those entrusted with the secret things of God (v1).

But the gospel is not just a concept to which one gives mental assent. The gospel is not something to be pulled out at "heady" moments so we have something religious to contribute in a discussion. The gospel is a way of life –– the way of the cross. Paul knew that, and he lived it. And when one looks at what living the way of the cross can mean, it is little wonder that even Christians try to find a different way to gauge success.

For Paul, successfully following Christ meant things like going hungry and thirsty, dressing in rags, being brutally treated, homeless, and doing menial work just to tell others about Jesus. It meant living non-resistantly and not just talking about it, so that when he was cursed, he blessed. When he was persecuted, he endured (instead of running or fighting back). When he was slandered, he responded with kindness. He lived with the realization that much of the world considered him the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world (v9,11-13). That is discipleship modeled after the weakness of Christ. That is how Paul successfully witnessed to a crucified Messiah.

When I look at my own life, and the attitudes and values of the American church at large, I see much more of Corinth than I do of Paul, much less Jesus. And at such a time I am thankful that our salvation depends on God's grace and not our performance. But grace is not our ticket for indulgence. Understanding our need for grace is to also understand our need to reject the opinions of success which make us so unlike Jesus and this apostle who followed him so faithfully.

Faithfulness is a tall order for a Christian. The standard of faithfulness is Jesus himself, and his obedience to the Father. I am very much aware of that standard as I give myself in ministry. I live in the consciousness that he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts (v5). My style may not always match your taste. You will surely see some things that I could do better –– and I welcome loving criticism. But I remind you today that my service will be judged successful or not by the Lord. He will judge.

In the meantime, I hope I can invite you on a journey. It is a journey into success, but a success unlike anything the world knows as such. It is a journey because I need to be on the road with you. I cannot give a success record like Paul's in following Jesus in suffering and death. I cannot, with the same degree of faithfulness, say with Paul, to imitate me (v16).

I can, though, say with Paul that the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power (v20). I can talk for years and not grow in faithful application of the gospel. A church can do all kinds of things that say "success" in the eyes of the world. We can do all kinds of things and not have the witness of the kingdom's power.

How shall we measure success? Do you know what really matters? It is the things that will have made a difference for Jesus' sake years from now: the way we judge.... the way we promote ourselves.... the way we live from day to day.... These things tell whether we are still stuck in Corinth or whether we are on the path of the cross with our Lord.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Regular" People

I'm in an airport, on stand-by because an earlier flight was terribly delayed. So my wife and I had an "airport dinner" –– a slice of pizza apiece and a shared salad and soft drink. When I got to the table she remarked how "cheap" the bill was, and then noticed the young fellow had failed to charge for the salad.

I went back over to the counter and said, "You didn't charge me for a salad, and I do not want to cheat you."

He looked at me, astounded, and said, "People don't do that."

I replied, "I belong to Jesus, and He would want me to pay you."

It's often in the little things that we can be distinctive for our Lord. I do not want to be like "regular" people. I want to be like Jesus.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


This is sermon #11 from First Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 3:10-23


Robert Fulghum tells a story set in the Middle Ages during the construction of one of the great cathedrals. A nobleman was walking among the workers asking about their labors. He asked a stone mason what he was doing, and the mason tried to explain the care involved in raising a plumb wall. The man asked the glass worker what he was doing and was shown the detail of a leaded glass picture. Then the carpenter told about the wooden frame which provided the support for the whole building. Finally the nobleman spotted a peasant woman with a broom and a bucket going around cleaning trash. He asked her what she doing and she said, "I'm building a cathedral for the glory of God!"

What makes a church impressive? To look at the cathedral at Notre Dame one might say it is indeed the combination of leaded glass, intricate carving in stone and colossal structure. Does it make any difference whether a church building is a Crystal Cathedral in California or a cinder-block rectangle with a thatched roof in Zambia? Paul tells the Corinthians what a church is made of does make a difference.

This part of the Corinthian letter could have been listed in the Early Church Seminary catalogue as "Church Architecture 101." It gives the basics for the crucial question of how to build a church. There's one detail we need to get straight, though, before we start any construction. When we think of building a church we usually envision something with a spire, maybe even a Crystal Cathedral if we are on the extravagant side, or perhaps the cinder-block rectangle if we are involved in some way with the world missions office. But when Paul talks about building a church, he is referring to people in a local congregation.

The imagery is certainly that of bricks and mortar, and good construction practices apply. In fact, there are four basic principles here which every local congregation needs to keep before them all the time.

The first one is found in vs10,11: the foundation will affect everything else. The foundation of a house is often built on a concrete footer which is over a foot wide and a couple of feet deep. The eight inch foundation blocks are then laid on the concrete footer. One might think that with several extra inches to spare it would not be crucial that the footer be exactly square. Or maybe someone might think that if the ground is especially firm, the footer might get by with less concrete. But if you want a secure house with ninety-degree corners in your rooms, your foundation had better be right.

When it comes to building a church, there is only one foundation. True churches are not established because of issues or doctrinal frivolities. If a "church's" main reason for existence is to promote pre-tribulation dispensationalism or a lifestyle of peace and social justice, or whatever, it is not really a church. The church exists when the foundation is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ and him crucified is the reason for everything else a church believes and does –– if it is indeed a church. If anyone would add or subtract anything from the centrality of Jesus Christ the result is not a modified foundation; the result is an unacceptable, faulty foundation. God's Word is clear: No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.

A second principle is in vs12-15: do not cut corners. Back in the mid-1970s I worked as a carpenter for a small, family-run construction company. John was the controlling owner, along with two of his brothers. These men were then around sixty years old, and they had been carpenters for forty years. I learned the meaning of craftsmanship from them. From the beginning, a house was built right. The foundation was square. The framing was square and the frame walls were plumb. This meant when it was time to do the finish work, forty-five degree cuts fit the corners. If something was not right, it was scrapped and done over. I cannot think of one instance where those master carpenters had to calk a joint. They did not cut corners.

Contrast that with a story I once heard about another contractor who had spent most of his life building for one developer who had not been the most generous with salaries. One day the developer came to the contractor and simply told him to build the nicest house he had ever built. The contractor was to spare no expense. He was to take his time –– build it solidly and even extravagantly. All he needed to do was turn in the bills.

The contractor decided this was his one chance to get ahead. He bought inferior material and billed for the best. He cut corners everywhere he thought it would be hidden. Finally the house was ready, and it was outwardly a masterpiece. The developer went over the finished product with the contractor, and then told him, "I know I have not paid you well over the years. My success is partly due to your work for me. As appreciation for all you have done, this house is yours."

That seems a bit farfetched to really happen, but it certainly illustrates the point: The way we build the church will come back on us. How do we build a church? We have a choice to make. We can do everything with integrity, or we can cut corners. To use Paul's words, we can build with gold, silver or costly stones, or we can use wood, hay or straw. Does that mean a Crystal Cathedral is more pleasing to God than a thatched hut? The answer is YES –– if we remember we are not talking about literal buildings. The Scripture is talking about what God's people do to establish and grow a local church.

The main point with this list of materials is durability. Put gold or silver into a fire and it is not consumed, only purified. Put wood or hay into a fire and it burns up. For each of us in the church, the fire is coming. Just as the church belongs to Jesus, one day those in the church will answer to Jesus. It will be a time of trial by fire. (The image John gives us of Jesus in Revelation is appropriate here –– his eyes were like blazing fire, 1:14.) What will the fiery gaze of our Lord reveal about our work in the church?

In the '80s two books were published that rocked the business world. In Search of Excellence and A Passion For Excellence were reminders that companies which excel have people who set excellence as a standard. Can a church offer Jesus Christ anything less? When we worship it should be our best that we offer our Lord. When I prepare a sermon it should be the best I can do. When we are asked to do a task, we should choose what we can do best.... and then do it. In our interactions in the church, we should be giving each other the best –– the best we can love and the best we can serve –– as unto our Lord.

Anything less is cutting corners. Anything less is to offer Jesus that which will be consumed by the fire of his gaze. The standard of the work of the local church is Jesus himself. We represent Jesus. If he is our foundation, then everything we build on that foundation should be consistent with it. It would be unheard of to put a $25,000 dwelling on a $40,000 lot. It is just as incongruous to try to grow a church claiming Jesus as our foundation while at the same time offering our Lord our pettiness, our leftovers and other vestiges of selfishness.

That brings up the third principle in vs 16,17: remember what you are building. That is what the peasant woman was doing in the opening story. She was not merely cleaning up the trash; she was building a cathedral. We are not merely meeting and singing songs. I am not merely giving a "talk." The groundskeeper does not merely cut the grass. The organist does not merely play the organ. I think you get the point. We are here to build a church in the name of Jesus Christ.

How do we do that? We do that by being here and taking our identity as God's people seriously. We are called to be people of the cross. We are people who have chosen to give Jesus Christ first place in our lives. We are people in whom the very Spirit of God has come to live. At least those things are true for each of us who are reborn by God's Spirit so that we truly are Christians.

Now when that happens, something else becomes true: we become God's temple. But we need to understand what the Bible actually says here. First let me emphatically state what this passage does not say. It does not say that we each, individually, become God's temple. This is not talking about our physical bodies; it is not referring to the Holy Spirit living in each believer (which he does). What this says is that the local church is God's temple. The second person pronoun (you) is a plural. (The old KJV, with its "ye", has an advantage here.)

In the Old Testament God lived in a temple made with human hands. The inner sanctum of the tabernacle, and later the temple, was the place where the glory of God resided. This was the glory that was Israel's; this is what set Israel apart. But, in a final act of judgment, God's glory left Israel's temple.

The next time we read about the glory being on earth was when Jesus came: We have seen his glory (Jn 1:14). Later Jesus said that if the temple would be destroyed, he would raise it in three days. And then the explanation is given: But the temple he had spoken of was his body (Jn 2:21). Of course the cross did destroy that temple, and it was raised up in three days. That is the basis for everything else we are and do.

Then there is a final shift, a new development as the New Testament closes. Jesus ascends; he is no longer here physically. And yet he is. Wherever a local church exists, his Body is there. The temple of God is still housing the glory so the world can see. Where is it? Look around. You and I are the reasons it is so important for the church to be established and grow by God's standard of excellence. As a congregation, we are God's temple. What the world sees in us, it will attribute to God.

It's no wonder then that v17 goes on to say If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. This is the strongest warning in the New Testament against those who would take the church lightly. It is because the local church is the dwelling of God like nothing else in the world. Yes, the Spirit is in each believer, but when the believers meet as the church gathered, it is then that the Body of Jesus Christ is the temple of God unlike anything else.

Do you think about this church in that way? I cannot think of any higher calling we could have as a congregation than what Paul is teaching us here. When our congregation comes together it is the Body of Christ that is meeting. This local church is the temple of God –– a holy of holies, like the inner room of the Old Testament. If we believe that, it will affect our worship. It will affect our work. It will affect our goals. It will affect our relationships. And if it does not, we become guilty of destroying the temple of God.

How is the temple destroyed? That brings up the fourth and last principle of constructing a good building in vs18-23: don't get sidetracked by frills. A house can have all the extras one might think of –– dishwasher, disposal, central vacuum, central air, electric garage door openers, jacuzzi, etc. –– but what good is the house if the roof sags and leaks, the foundation has a major crack, and the general structure is plain shabby?

In the same way, the church can begin to promote itself on the basis of its programs or its staff or its facility. Churches can try to draw people through entertainment or pop psychology. They may try to be successful through the most current management techniques. Now I am not saying the church can never learn anything worthwhile from these peripheral activities, but I do say that the Scripture warns that our message and our methods must be centered on one thing: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

If we start looking to frills to enhance our message, we end up without the message. If we center on personalities, like Corinth was doing, or if we try to merely “manage” our church into prominence, we will destroy the very thing we say we are. It is the world's wisdom to appeal to flash and show. It is the world's way to rely on human strength and natural ability. It is not the way of the cross to use power plays and deceit. As Paul has already made it clear, any old sinner can be ordinary. It does not take God in us to be divisive. The one thing all of that does, though, if it happens in a church, is to destroy the temple of God.

God's temple is effectively destroyed if our building –– our work and behavior ––provides no viable alternative to pagan society. Being God's temple means that the world looks at us as a church and sees something radically different than what they are accustomed to seeing in the world.

The main thing a community should hear about a local church is the way the people love Jesus Christ. And the way to be known for a love for Jesus is to keep his commandments (Jesus said this himself). It can be in the most ordinary of circumstances. It can be in a simple act of service. It can be through one of the church's ministries. It can be in the way we react to whispers and innuendo. In all of those things, and countless more, we can show that we are building with integrity on the one true foundation.

And when that happens.... if you ever find yourself involved in service, or if you find yourself responding according to the cross in the face of worldly thinking, so that someone asks, "What is it about you?" will be able to say –– at least to yourself: "I am helping build a great cathedral to the glory of God." That is the kind of Crystal Cathedral our Lord would love for us to erect for him –– a local church that can be God's temple with honor and integrity as we build on the one foundation that is already laid, that of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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