Learning from 1 Corinthians

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In his sermon this week, Rich invited us to look back over 1 Corinthians and reflect on what we’ll take away from the book. He asked us what we would say if someone asked us what the book was about. What has struck me is that 1 Corinthians is a master class by the apostle Paul on how to apply the gospel to life. Here are some examples.

ImageUnity (chapters 1-4): Christians are one in Christ, and the one Holy Spirit dwells in them. Thus there is no excuse for cliques or celebrity leaders in the church. Those of us who think we know stuff need to be especially careful to keep the focus on Jesus and follow the Spirit’s lead. We are all members of one body, and that body has only one Head.

Unity and diversity (chapter 12): But unity doesn’t mean uniformity. The church, as the body of Christ, needs both unity and diversity to function. All gifts are necessary, and all people are important. This means that our value doesn’t come from how we compare with other people. It comes from the unique dignity and gifts that God has granted to each of us.

Bodies (chapters 5, 15): God cares about our bodies. What we do with them is important. We’re whole people, not souls riding around in disposable shells. Our spiritual lives have physical expressions, and our physical lives have spiritual expressions. We belong to God, body and soul, and God plans to make us truly whole in the resurrection.

Sex (chapters 5-7): Sex is good: it’s meant to be a joyful part of marriage, experienced with mutual sensitivity. Not all sexual expressions are good, though. Our sexuality, like every other part of our lives, must be submitted to Christ. Marriage is good. Singleness is good. Whatever our marital status, we need to be following Jesus.

Separation (chapter 5): Some Christian groups think the church is called to be separate from the world so that it won’t be tainted by the world’s immorality. But Paul is more practical: there’s no way to completely avoid contact with immoral people as long as we’re in the world. What concerns Paul is that we keep our own house in order. That is, we can’t afford to overlook unrepentant immorality in the church. We may have to have some hard conversations and do some hard things to get a fellow believer to wake up–and we may have to do some waking up ourselves–but if we care about one another, we need to take this responsibility seriously.

Freedom (chapters 8-11): Freedom is wonderful, and as Christians we’re free to do a lot of things. However, most of all we’re free to love. This may mean freely choosing not to exercise some of our freedoms out of love for someone else. This isn’t a license to start criticizing the behavior of others; it’s an opportunity to put the wellbeing of other people ahead of our own enjoyment.

Love (chapter 13): Anything we do has to be guided by love. Paul isn’t talking about romantic bliss; he’s talking about the hard work of getting along with people we may not even like very much. We don’t get to pick who our relatives are, even in the church family.

Hope (chapter 15): Whenever we’re tempted to get annoyed with one another, we need to remember the big picture. Our differences will shrink in light of the glorious future God has planned for us. Because of the resurrection, we know that our work for the Lord is not in vain.

What have you learned from 1 Corinthians?

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Everyday Faithfulness

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“On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come. . . . If Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am.”  (1 Cor 16:2, 10 NRSV)

Brenda Account PictureThe thing that strikes me about this section of the book of 1 Corinthians is how ordinary it is.  Following a rather exalted discussion of the resurrection, Paul deals with some items of everyday faithfulness.  The church in Corinth isn’t the only one that has needed reminding to fulfill their financial obligations and not to be too hard on a young pastor.  This is the “stuff of life,” as Rich said in his sermon this week.  It reminds me that this stuff was all real—real people dealing with real challenges and opportunities in a gifted but rambunctious congregation.

We sometimes have exalted ideas about the sacredness of Scripture that removes it from everyday life.  But evidently God cares about everyday things.  Much of the everyday life of a congregation happens behind the scenes by the people who pay the bills, make the phone calls, clean the church, and show up for property care days.  Without all these acts of everyday faithfulness, the more noticeable work of Smoky Row Brethren Church—the worship service, the food pantry, the community garden—wouldn’t be possible.

The Corinthians were addicted to showy stuff—exceptional knowledge, eloquent rhetoric, flashy gifts.  Some of them were disappointed in Paul because he wasn’t showy enough.  We’re not a particularly showy congregation.  Although gifted, we tend to be understated rather than flashy.  But even we can forget to value the everyday things and honor the people who do them.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk, is known for his little book, The Practice of the Presence of God.  He hated washing dishes at his monastery but found that he kept being assigned to that task.  His boring and frustrating experience was transformed when he decided to wash dishes with the Lord, recognizing the Lord’s presence and blessing even in such a menial task.

Let’s remind ourselves of the Lord’s presence as we go about our everyday tasks this week.  Leave some comments about what you experience!

Master of Analogy and Metaphor

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This week we heard from Pastor Rudy on 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. Here Paul talks more about our imperishable body, and works to discount the notion of a disembodied spirit present in a lot of Greco-Roman philosophy. He compares our body to seeds that we plant, and our resurrected body to the flower that springs forth, so completely different in nature and character than that from which it sprung. He then goes on to describe all sorts of heavenly bodies and their splendor, and how each is different and also wonderful.

Ben TrubeOur resurrected body, an imperishable body that lives without sin in a world without sin, hardship or disease, all working toward God’s glory. This can be a little hard to understand when we’re still living inside the seed of that world.

One of the questions I wrestle with regard to eternal life and our life in heaven and the new earth is whether I’ll still be a writer. It’s common wisdom that at the core of good writing is conflict. A problem is there to be solved, and over the course of the narrative equilibrium is reestablished. Sometimes these problems are solved with violence or other morally ambiguous means, but at the very least the problems are typically morally wrong. Most good mysteries start with a murder or another sort of crime.

So, in a world without sin and without crime, what do I write about? Historical novels? Or would the narrative even serve the same function for our resurrected selves as it does for us now? Writing can be seen as a morality play, taking a question or aspect of society and examining it through a story. Is this something we’ll still need to do in the redeemed world?

Here’s why it’s hard for me. I feel like writing is a gift that God gave me, both to give me personal satisfaction, but also as a means to communicate with others. I am passionate about writing. It is as near to my thinking as God, if I’m honest sometimes it’s louder. And I don’t particularly like the idea of an eternity spent not doing the thing I love doing now. I worry sometimes about not being able to get all the books I have in my head out before I die. Do I take comfort that I will have the chance in a risen body? Writing is not sinful, but so much narrative relies on a world where sin is present.

I don’t have the answer for this other than to say I don’t think God would put me in a state so outside who I am as a person, who he made me to be. Our resurrected life will be as different as the seed is to the flower, the essence is present in our lives now, but it is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Resurrected life will be in some ways practical and recognizable, and in others completely outside our current way of thinking.

That said, I’m a pretty stubborn guy. I’ll probably be writing either way 🙂

Cutting Room Floor “1 Corinthians: Chapter 5”

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From time to time we’ll be featuring “cutting room floor” posts, material that was created during the preparation of a particular sermon, but that didn’t make the final message. Today’s post is from earlier in Rich’s 1 Corinthians series dealing with the first half of Chapter 5. 

The Set Up: Ethics

We’ve established that the congregation is fundamentally immature: immature in character, immature in morals, immature in all sorts of ways. Paul is treating them like babies because they don’t understand–even though they really should by now–what it means to be an adult, in all the complexity and responsibility of adulthood.

IMG_0715 - Version 2They haven’t learned, for example, that to be a grown up isn’t to ignore rules. I mean, from a child’s perspective, grown ups can seem to have no rules. Adults just do what they want. Kids can’t wait to be grown ups, because then they can do whatever they want, too! It’ll be great, you know. But to be a grown up isn’t to ignore rules or have no rules; it’s to internalize rules.

We need to remember the three ethics we’ve talked about in the past. Ethics, remember, is about figuring out how to be “good” instead of “bad.” There are three main ways to be ethical, to seek “the good.” There’s Character Ethics, which consists of developing a consistent character, a consistent way of living in the world. What’s “good” is living a certain virtue-filled life. This is sometimes called “situational ethics,” because in many ways the situation determines how you respond, even as you seek to respond with the same, consistent character.

For Christians, our calling is a life of character ethics modeled after Jesus: we are supposed to be like Jesus in every situation, each moment. What is good is becoming like Jesus, and acting as Jesus would act, in whatever situation we find ourselves.

There are also Rule Ethics: We’re figure out some rules & live by them. Ten Commandments is a perfect example; here’s the rules, live by them. Okay. Problem is that sometimes in life rules that are made for general living don’t fit particular situations. Rule Ethics can only take us so far. From a Christian perspective, we’d say that this is why God promised to someday “put the Law within us, and write it on our hearts,” and that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh.

After this comes Ends Ethics: the ends justifies the means. If the ends are “good,” then whatever means gets us there is also “good,” no matter how terrible it may seem. The problem with this is that you don’t know if the end result is “good” until way after you’ve done all sorts of things to get you there. If you’re wrong, and it turns out the end result wasn’t all that good; you can’t go back in time.

In America, we love Ends Ethics, because it lets us make all sorts of bad choices and call them good, Rule Ethics are part of our social contract, and allow us to live a life of order rather than chaos, and Character Ethics are for idealists who we write off. For Christians this is upside down. Having our character transformed into Jesus’ is what matters. This has been Paul’s basic argument to the Corinthians: imitate me, because I imitate Christ; become like me, because all I’ve ever done is love you.

And it’s clear from today’s passage that the Corinthians have tossed away some rules. This is good, in so many ways. There’s an immaturity inherent in a rule-based life, a lack of nuance and understanding about how complex the world can be. One of the reasons we fail to connect with other adults–don’t “get” them, can’t respect their choices, their ideals–is often simply because they are rule-based people in a world that we see as complex or nuance-filled. No healthy adult looks to children to meet their relational, emotional, spiritual needs; they don’t view the world the way adults do. There’s an incompatibility between the way the adult and the child views the world, something that gets in the way of authentic relationship.

But the Corinthians have failed in replacing the rule ethic that guides them with a character ethic based in Jesus’ way of life and what he taught. They’ve replaced their rules with whatever feels right, and that is way, way worse. Take the rule, you know? In fact, maturity is proven in our ability to retreat to rules when we find a situation so complex that character ethics or our own stress is disabling our ability to act. We don’t just toss reason to the wind and praise the Church because we allow folks to hook up with their stepparents.

And that’s what’s going on in today’s passage, so let’s talk about it.

5:1-5: Credit Where Credit Is Due

I appreciate, by the way, that Paul doesn’t condemn the woman here. I mean, the step-mom isn’t without sin, right? But in such a society, where men held positions of privilege and power, it’s the man that he orients his punishment toward. I think that’s significant. For years in America prostitution has been more severely punished than soliciting for prostitutes, even though almost always prostitutes are enslaved or children or threatened with violence by the pimps who treat them like property. We are very good at blaming victims for the sins that they are caught up in. Paul–while clearly condemning the relationship–condemns the person with the most power in the relationship. This is significant for how we deal with sin in our situations or even in the world, I think. It takes two to tango, but only one of them leads, you know? And this guy is clearly, as far as Paul is concerned, the leader.

5:1-5: An Irony

A deep irony, and the devil’s deep pleasure, is that so often when people are mad at or hurt by other Christians they just…leave the Church, stop gathering with those Christians that they’ve spent so much time sharing life with. And this is ironic because all their choice does is put them in the way of spiritual enemies that only want them more antagonized, more hurt, more unforgiving. Leaving doesn’t heal a hurt. Time may heal all wounds, but only if you acknowledge them and the ones who have caused them.

~Post written by Pastor Rich

Gag Order or Gospel Opportunity?

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“(As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.  Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only ones it has reached?)”  (1 Cor. 14:33b-36, NIV)

Brenda Colijn photo smallAs an ordained woman who preaches in our congregation, I thought I should reflect on these verses.  They’re a weird side comment in Paul’s argument about how prophets should behave in the worship service.  The most recent NIV translation indicates that by putting parentheses around them.  It’s also weird that Paul should base his counsel on the law (“as the law also says”), since he argues forcefully elsewhere (in Romans and Galatians) that Christians are not under the law.

This weirdness has led some scholars to decide that these verses weren’t written by Paul.  Somebody who was copying the manuscript of 1 Corinthians made this comment in the margin, and a later copyist, thinking it was a bit of Paul the earlier copyist had crammed in the margin, copied it into the text.  I like this explanation.  The only problem is that these verses appear in all the manuscripts of 1 Corinthians we have.  So, as Rich said in his sermon, we can’t just cut it out of the Bible and ignore it.

So instead, I’ll point out a couple of things in the passage.  One is that Paul is basing his argument primarily on what’s customary in his churches.  That’s clear from how he starts out (“As in all the churches of the saints”) and how he ends (with pointed questions showing that the Corinthians, by themselves, don’t get to make the rules).  My second point from the passage is that Paul says it’s disgraceful for a woman to speak in church.  Disgrace (shame) is not the same thing as sin.  Sin is something that goes against God’s will.  Disgrace is something that lowers your reputation in the eyes of others.  Nowhere in the New Testament is the speaking or leadership of women called sinful.

I’m not saying this so that we can disregard these verses.  I’m saying it for two reasons:

  • Shame is determined by cultural standards.  Something that’s shameful in one culture isn’t necessarily shameful in another culture.  So if the point is to avoid disgracing the church, we need to consider what would disgrace the church in our own context.
  • Evangelicals on the “restrictive” side of this debate have defended their views with such passion that you’d think it was one of the essentials of the faith.  The heat generated is way out of proportion to the importance Paul gives it.  The reasons for this, I think, are not biblical or theological.  Anything to do with gender or sexuality creates enormous anxiety for many Christians.  Anything that threatens gender roles in the church or the “traditional” family (traditional since the industrial revolution in the 19th century) is frightening in a society that is becoming less Christian-friendly.  Evangelicals regard the nuclear family (another modern invention) with enormous reverence, so change is threatening.  Finally, I’m afraid that some people who currently have power don‘t want to share it.  Interpreting the Bible isn’t going to make these fears go away.  All we can do is to live into what we believe is the intention behind these verses and pray that the Spirit will someday bring unity.

So back to Paul’s intention.  I talked about a few things in the text; now I’ll mention a couple of things in the context.  Paul has been telling the Corinthians to get their worship service in order.  If women are “babbling” or calling out questions to their husbands during worship, it isn’t likely to add to the experience for other people.  We’ve seen before in 1 Corinthians that Paul is urging them to give up some of their freedom in Christ for the sake of building up others; this is another example.  Christians should use all their gifts, including their freedom, for edification, and be guided by love.

Also, Paul has been pretty definite that the Corinthians should act in ways that will honor the gospel instead of dishonoring it.  His discussion of head coverings in chapter 11 was framed in terms of honor and shame, too.  By the way, in that chapter he says that women should cover their heads when they pray and prophesy in worship—another clue that he may have something more specific in mind in chapter 14 than forbidding all women to say anything in worship, or forbidding women to prophesy.

So I’d say that the take-away from these verses is that we should act in worship in ways that would advance the gospel rather than hinder it.  We should respect cultural norms, even in worship, for this reason.  We should be willing to give up some of our freedoms if it will build up someone else.  We shouldn’t do things that will bring shame to the gospel in our context.  On the last point, I have often wondered how many modern American women will not be in the kingdom because they find more respect in secular culture than they do in the church.

I’m very grateful to be part of a congregation that welcomes my gifts and affirms me in my calling.  I was taught the restrictive view of women’s roles in college, and it took the encouragement of a number of men, including the man who became my husband, to convince me to use more of my gifts for the Lord.  I didn’t have any female mentors, because there weren’t any female leaders in my context at that time.  I’m delighted that our congregation has a number of gifted women leading in different areas, from more “traditional” areas to more “nontraditional” ones.  I’m also grateful to the men in our congregation, who affirm women as partners with them in leadership.  I’m not saying that all women have to be leaders.  I just wish that all women could be allowed to follow God’s call on their lives, whatever it might be.

For the younger members of our congregation, this may be a non-issue.  I hope it is!  Unfortunately, that isn’t the case in a lot of churches.  What has been your experience?

Welcoming Prophetic Preaching

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This past week, Rich Hagopian preached on I Corinthians 14:1-25.  I was challenged by his take away point of, are we exercising our gifts to encourage, strengthen and comfort others such that people who encounter our congregation say, “God is among you.” In particular, Rich emphasized that we are an “embodied word” people who through our gifts of helps, compassion and other forms of service, live out the truth of the gospel. We tend be a people who do the truth, rather than talk about it, which is probably a good place for someone who is like me to be. In an academic world like Ohio State, we can often think that to simply talk about something or even to think right about it is enough. But talk doesn’t feed the hungry or comfort and heal the sick or provide transportation to those who need it.

Bob Trube2At the same time, I was struck by some of Rich’s earlier comments on the nature of prophetic speech as “forthtelling” and how this is a form of speaking God’s word that lays bare the secrets of our hearts, that brings conviction of where we’ve missed the mark, and that even expands the church as those who do not believe hear a word from God in a compelling way. In some circles, this is called going from preaching to meddling!

I hear lots of messages in my work. It is easy to get into a “been there, heard that” mindset. One of the things I’ve appreciated about Rich (and others who preach at Smoky Row) is that it is apparent that he has sought to really listen to the text to hear what God is saying for our congregation. I am surprised by how many times on a Sunday I am surprised by new insights and challenges Rich brings to us. I’ve found I have to go home and do business with God. Sometimes I’ve found myself chewing on things all week. I think we see in such preaching a “prophetic” element.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:1 encourages the church to desire this gift. One of the things I wonder is whether part of desiring such a gift is welcoming its expression, which means welcoming the Spirit of God to meddle in our lives through the preached word! In the African-American church tradition, it is thought that the effectiveness of the sermon is as much the congregation’s responsibility as the preacher’s. Here are a few of my thoughts of what it might mean for us to desire and welcome prophetic preaching in our midst:

1. It means we pray for whoever is preaching, for their preparation, for their protection from attack and distraction, and that God would make clear to them His word for us. It seems this is something to pray for whenever we pray for our church.

2. It means praying for ourselves, that we would have open ears and tender hearts and enlightened minds to receive what God has for us. It might mean that on Saturday night or Sunday morning we spend time asking the Lord to help us with this.

3. Sermon time can often be day-dream time (or even nap time–true confessions!) for me. What do I need to do to come attentive to hear what God might say through the message? Maybe it means getting adequate sleep. I’ve started using the outlines to take notes–that helps me listen. For others that could be a distraction.

4. The other issue for me is whether I keep reflecting, keep thinking about what I’ve heard after Sunday morning. Re-reading the scripture text and going online to read or listen to the sermon again can help. Reading (and writing!) these posts can help. Our “going deeper” discussions in life groups are especially important in becoming accountable to each other for what God is saying.

It strikes me that God will likely not give what we don’t welcome. In our welcome of prophetic preaching, we also position ourselves to be a community where others may say, “God is among you.”