Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Church in Corinth, Part Four

To listen, click here. 

Epiphany 6A.  16 February 2014.


1 Corinthians 3.1-9


          Last week, we spoke about Paul’s discussion of wisdom and foolishness in the second chapter of his letter to the Corinthians.  Central to his teaching is that God reveals wisdom in ways that seem, often to many, as foolishness.  He writes that his own teaching was not in lofty words or great rhetorical power, which is somewhat ironic given that Paul was obviously a master of rhetorical power.  In fact, rhetorical power was considered necessary for anyone to gain credibility in Greco-Roman world.  But Paul’s point is that none of that power is as important as the wisdom God unfolds by the power of his Spirit.  

            And whenever I say such things, I always hasten to add that neither he, nor I, are being anti-intellectual by saying that.  Christianity has never been well served by an uncritical spirituality.  The point Paul is making is that we are always bumping up against the limits of our knowledge.  Even if all the mysteries of medicine, physics, and mathematics were unraveled, there are limits to our ability to make use of that information.  


Also, there are the variables of human behavior.  A person may have a third cup of coffee and do something they wouldn’t have done had they been less caffeinated.  (I speak from experience.)  


In our lesson today, Paul is attempting to address the Corinthians’ divisions in a way that seems to me to be very potentially hurtful, even damaging to people in that community.  And since we read these letters now as Holy Scripture, I worry that we will feel punctured by this text.

            He writes that he could not speak to them as spiritual people, but to people of the flesh--that is, people who are not yet fully enlightened by the Holy Spirit.  He writes:


“I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?”


            Paul is pointing to their quarreling as evidence of their lack of spirituality, which I can understand, but if we apply this rule too casually, it seems coercive.  If someone in the church wants to do something, and someone else disagrees, is it right to consider the person disagreeing as unspiritual, or not yet fully belonging to Christ?


            I don’t think so.  And further, I don’t think that’s what Paul means, either.  I think Paul was intentional in writing “jealousy and quarreling,” because the issue at hand, which he further develops, is that the divisions are not about ideas, but about personal loyalties.  There are factions in the Corinthian Church who feel that their spiritual father is Paul, and others who feel that their spiritual father is Apollos.  And between them, there is jealousy and quarrelling.  


 Paul has to walk a fine line here.  He has the upper hand as the true founder of the Church in Corinth, and his letter is an expression of his authority.  He is trying to lower the temperature of their arguments while still maintaining his place, and still remaining above the fray.  It’s very hard to do.


So he shift the language back to the central theme that brought them together, and keeps them together.  He writes,

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

            Paul challenges their disagreement, which is about loyalty--but ultimately about power.  It’s a very important point, and he makes it well: that what they’re really upset about is who has more power--more spiritual power.  Apollos or Paul?  Paul says, No, we are not power players.  We are servants.  Someone plants, and someone waters, but neither of us have caused your growth.  That is God’s doing.  So he brings the discussion back to God, and what God does, which they can all get behind.    


            I remember when I was newly ordained serving in my first church out of seminary, and there was violent disagreement in the vestry about almost everything.  It was very dispiriting, quite honestly.  


            The Rev. Churchill Gibson, one of the great fathers of the Diocese of Virginia, was fond of saying to clergy, “You are validly ordained, and your parishioners are validly baptized.  It should be a match made in heaven.”  


But in the situation in that church I served really wasn’t about the rector or myself, though we seemed to be lightning rods and we absorbed a lot of the anger. The disagreements had to do with two different visions about where the church could be headed.  One side wanted the church to remain small and insular.  We found out that there was a man in that group who used to go up to people who were new and say, “Thank you for visiting today.  I’m sure you will find some other church to belong to.  We don’t want you here.”  


And then there were people who wanted the church to grow and expand.  They volunteered for everything.  They came to special services; and went out of their way to greet newcomers and invite them back.  And you’d probably want to think that the difference was old guard versus new guard, but that wasn’t it.  Both sides were old guard.  The people in both sides were longstanding members.


It was hard to be a part of that church at that time.  It was sometimes hard to offer the Sacraments, because Holy Communion is a sacred meal that is intended to be shared in tenderness of Christian love.  And love was missing.  Authentic spirituality was missing.  There was quarrelling and jealousy, and people squaring off about who they belong to.  


I remember one day the Rector turned to me at the end of something and said, “I can’t pray with these people right now.  Can you offer the closing prayer?”  


At one point, we were standing together at the Altar, and he was celebrating the Holy Eucharist, and after he broke the bread, he offered it to me, and I received, but he didn’t receive either the bread or the wine.  Instead of excommunicating them, he excommunicated himself from them.


At one point, we had a vestry meeting and things got heated again. The senior warden at the time was and is a prince among men.  He could talk to both sides, and he was a steady, even-handed sort of fellow.  And when things got to a certain point in the meeting, he said, “We need to remember who we are.”  “We need to remember who we are.”


I want to say that that marked a dramatic change in the vestry and in the church.  I want to say that it was a turning point.  Maybe it was, but on a very small scale, and for a very limited amount of time.  Things got quiet.  The torches and pitchforks were put away for a little while.  And when I think of Paul trying to pull the Corinthians together, I think of Phil, the senior warden.  “We need to remember who we are.”  


Some plant, and some water, but God gives the growth.  This is not my church; or your church.  Don’t tell him I said this, but it’s not even really the bishop’s church.  (Actually, we have a very deeply spiritual bishop, and I would imagine he would agree.)  In The Book of Common Prayer we refer to it as God’s Church with Christ as the head.  

            It is God who gives the growth.  Spiritual growth, numerical growth, personal growth.  We can do our best to foster it.  Pray, invite people, welcome them, love them, care about them.  And let them know who we are.

            We are the people whose lives have been changed by Jesus Christ. We are the people who fall and rise again. As Paul writes, “We are God’s servants, working together...God’s field, God’s building.”





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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Church in Corinth, Part Three

Epiphany 5A.  9 February 2014.


1 Corinthians 2.1-16


            Last week, our observance of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple interrupted our reading through 1 Corinthians, but we are back to Corinthians today.  Two Sundays ago we spoke about some of the cultural elements that would have been understood in Paul’s day.  His role as the head of the family—that is, the one with the right to correct the Corinthian Christians.  We spoke about how vertical society was, and how much of getting along required that one show honor to people above you.  We spoke about how a person would want to belong to others because it meant security, and so forth.  We will come back to some of those themes again next week.


            Today, we pick up with the second chapter.  For the latter part of the first chapter and into the second chapter Paul plays with the idea of foolishness and wisdom.  You may recall that the last sentence of our lesson two Sundays ago was, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”


            This begins a rather interesting little section that the lectionary writers have not included.  If you would like to turn to page 926 in your pew Bibles, I’d like to read down through it. 


For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’


So you hear how Paul plays with the nature of foolishness and wisdom, strength and weakness?  Understand that for the Roman citizen, living in Greece, these themes have cultural overtones.  I’m sure you recall that Greco-Roman antiquity is the birthplace of rhetoric—a word that has fallen from its honored place among the humanities, to now mean spin, or deception.  But rhetoric in the classical sense is the technique of persuasion—and classical Roman orators made this form of speaking an art.  There is a technique to everything you do in life—but the technique of speaking to a group of people in such a way as to persuade them, or inform them, is—even to this day—a very powerful and at times beautiful thing.


            I remember as a child being bored out of my mind every week with the sermon in church.  It wasn’t the preacher’s fault; I was too young.  But there comes an age when you begin to understand not just the words, but what is being communicated, and I began to appreciate how the history, theology, narrative, and all was seamlessly woven together, and then artfully brought into our day and time by speaking of issues facing us in the here and now.  I saw how a sermon or a talk could change people.


            Rhetoric in service of the truth is a beautiful, wonderful thing.  In a sense, if a preacher or any speaker is doing the best possible job, it almost doesn’t matter who they are, because what emerges is the truth, God, the Holy Spirit, or the change that someone needs to make. 


            But the bad kind of rhetoric is not about the truth.  It may be more about the style than the substance—or it may be more about the person speaking.  Political speech is often—I think—off putting, precisely for those reasons.  A politician uses rhetoric to gain followers, or merely attention.  A good preacher—quite often—would like to disappear entirely—hoping, praying, that you have come closer to God, and that we can just enjoy the hope that your lives are a little better for it.  That’s a bit of what Paul is saying here, and in today’s lesson.


When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery* of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.


Paul is trying to explain that what they came to believe—when they first believed in Christ through his teaching—was not simply the product of good salesmanship, as if they were caught at weak moment and bought two dozen Ginsu knives. I don’t know what the latest thing is anymore; we go to bed at 9:30.


            Paul is saying that what they came to believe is the truth, and that they came to believe because God gave them the grace to believe it.  This is a major component in Paul’s theology, by the way, this issue of grace.


            Paul preached and evangelized many, many people; but I am sure there were far many people who heard him and did not believe at all.  And if this Gospel is true—and if God himself is behind it—the only way you can figure out why anyone at all would reject it, is that they simply haven’t been given the grace to see it.  That doesn’t mean they won’t get it eventually, they just don’t believe right now.


            It’s something I occasionally wrestle with myself.  Why would anyone not believe? 


            Years ago, I was—I don’t know how old.  I was a teenager.  I had gone to church all my life.  I was attending a school where we had chapel every day, but you know.  Usually the Christian faith is lived in quiet little disciplines, and precious few mountaintop experiences.  Anyway, a handful of my father’s students at Bridgewater College put on a production of Godspell.  For those of you who may not know or remember, Godspell is essentially a musical version of the Passion. 


            The language is contemporary, and the biblical references are updated with modern day situations—parables are retold.  At the intermission we were encouraged to have a snack of Saltines and grape juice.  It was meant to be like Communion, but very informal.  And at the very end, after Jesus was crucified, his disciples start to carry him away, and they start to sing the words of John the Baptist, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” 


            And folks, at that moment, I believed in Jesus Christ in a way that I had never believed before.  I believed that he rose from the dead.  I believed that he loved me.  I believed that he was and is the Son of the Living God.  And something in me knew in a way that transcended everything that the rest of my life was going to be about his life. The angel said that Mary was filled with grace.  I felt filled with grace—the grace to see Jesus, crucified and alive again. 


            Now, you can preach a million sermons, but you can’t create that moment in your life, and you can’t create that moment in someone else’s.  Believe me, if a human being could create that, I would do it.  I would create that moment for my children.  I would be out there at Wal-Mart doing it.  Because I would love to fill every single church on the planet—especially ours. 


            I would like to run out of bread and wine each Sunday.  I would like mold to start growing the baptismal fonts, because it’s impossible to keep them dry.  Do you understand what I’m saying? 


            But I can’t create that moment in someone’s life.  It is given only by God.  And it’s utter foolishness if you don’t have the grace to perceive it.  I’m not being anti-intellectual here.  You know me—you know that my devotion is grounded in scholarship, but even Paul understood that wisdom and scholarship serve to help us better understand what is ultimately a gift of God.  He writes: 


We speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 


The Corinthian Christians heard Paul’s proclamation and through the grace of God became followers of Christ.  The same was true for you.  Your experience of that grace may be like mine, but it may be very different.  Sometimes the Gospel comes over you like a spiritual baptism—you feel it all at once, it fills your senses, and makes you know God beyond the confines of your head and heart. 


            But the grace of God comes as God chooses, and in ways that are as unique as people are.  Paul is—in this language—and really throughout his letters—encouraging them to receive that grace afresh, and to be renewed by the Holy Spirit. 


            That’s my same prayer for our church.  Renewal doesn’t come through lofty words, or through human wisdom.  It comes as God’s gracious gift to those who seek after him. 


            I pray that God would sweep over all of us in ways that profoundly deepen our experience of God.  I pray that the Spirit of Christ would confirm his resurrection in us, and make us all missionaries of the Gospel. 






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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Things done and perhaps left undone

The Presentation.  2 February 2014.

The Very Revd Alexander D. MacPhail


Luke 2.22-40



            Today is a rare and special feast: The Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ at the Super Bowl.  Wait…  Sorry. 


            Let me back up.  February 2nd is an immovable feast in the liturgical calendar, combining and celebrating two events in the life of the Holy Family: the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple.  


            In high church tradition, this is observed also as Candlemas, and the way Candlemas is now observed—in very few churches—is by blessing all of the candles that will be used to illuminate the church for the year to come.  The theme is derived from Simeon’s words to the Holy Family in the Temple, that Jesus would be a light to the Gentiles—that those who are unaware of God would have light to see God.  So the blessing of candles and lighting of candles are a visual depiction of that. 


            If you were to go to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on K Street in Washington, D.C. this evening at 6, they will have a Solemn Evensong with the candles blessed for the year, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. 


            Luke’s Gospel does not give much detail about the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, likely because Luke did not know much about either the purification of women after giving birth, or the ritual presentation of “firstlings” or first born.  If he had, we might have had a much more interesting text to read.


            You see, what the Holy Family actually offers when they sacrifice “a pair of turtledoves,” is the lesser offering for Mary’s purification.  After a woman had given birth to a male child, she was ritually unclean for seven days, and then afterward she would undergo purification for thirty-three days.  If the child was female, the time was doubled.  So if the child was male, she was unclean for forty days; and if the child was female, she was unclean for eighty days. 


            During purification, mothers were not permitted in the Temple or near anything consider holy.  So when the Family comes to the Temple, it is understood that sufficient time has passed.  By the way, that’s why this is a fixed day feast, because it is exactly forty days after Christmas Day. 


            The offering she gives is the lesser offering, likely because the Holy Family could not afford the greater offering, which was a lamb.  Let me stop there and let the symbolism sink in.  The lesser offering reminds us that Jesus was from a very modest, very average background and family.  I think of it as a kind of echo from the birth narrative—that he was born in very humble conditions, placed in a manger, no room in the inn.


            And I am sure the symbolic irony is not lost on any of us that the greater sacrifice—which was not made—was a lamb.  Jesus is the Lamb of God; no other lamb is offered.


            But even more fascinating is the ritual presentation of a first born child.  You see, according to the Law, all first born—whether human or animal—where presented as an offering to the Lord.  You were allowed to keep them, but they were to be presented.  If the firstling was human, they were offered to the Lord, and then the parents were to redeem the child. 


            Now the word “redeem”…  Quite honestly, this whole scenario, sends chills up and down my spine, because for Christians, we understand the sacrifice of Christ as an act of redemption.  If my family were first century Jews, we would have taken Peter to the Temple, and ceremonially offered him—presented him—to the priests.  It would have been our way of saying, Peter belongs to God.  And then, we would have immediately redeemed him back—that is given money in place of our son. 


            The price of redemption was five silver sheckels, and that’s Temple sheckels, so it’s twenty gerahs.  Five sheckels per month of the child’s age, so if Jesus is going on two months, the price might have been five sheckels or maybe a little more.  Does anyone have a calculator? 


            I did the math.  If you divide five by thirty, that’s .17, so 40 days equals 6.8 sheckels, or 26.8 gerahs.  So that’s what they paid. 


            Except that Luke doesn’t record that they paid anything.  Could they not afford it?  Did Luke not know about the redemption fee?  Or did he simply leave it out, because everyone knew.  Of course Jesus was redeemed back...  Or maybe he wasn’t. 


            Maybe Jesus was ceremonially presented in the Temple, and Mary and Joseph—knowing what they had been told by the angels, by the wise men, by the shepherds from the fields the night he was born—maybe Jesus was offered to the Lord, and it was fitting to leave it at that. 


            As they left the Temple, Simeon—who had been told he wouldn’t die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah—said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Lord, you can take me now; I’ve seen your salvation in this little baby.”  He told the parents, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel—he will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.  A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”


            There was also an eighty-four year old prophet in the Temple named Anna, and when she saw the child, Jesus, she began to praise God and speak about him to all who were looking for a sign of hope.  (Pause.)


            Luke writes that, “When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.  The child grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”


            Now that you know what you know about the purification of Mary and what was and perhaps wasn’t done for Jesus at his presentation, does it change anything for you?  If we read it through the lens of Luke’s original hearers, it might sound a little more familiar—perhaps a bit more comfortingly ordinary.


            Were he born in this day and age, perhaps it could have read that he went to W.W. Robinson Elementary School, and played in the snow.  Soccer in the fall, Little League in the Spring.  He liked grilled cheese sandwiches at the Ben Franklin, and snow cones, and Lincoln logs.


            But in the holy place—and among the truly devout and holy people, they knew who he was.  They had an eye on him.  There was something about him. 


            And one day, perhaps working in his father’s shop, amidst the sawdust and the awls and the mallets, the Spirit moved.  And Jesus, a man like any man, but unlike any man, said a prayer, lifted the apron over his head and folded it up and laid it across the bench.  Said good bye to his sheep and donkeys. Kissed his mother.  Hugged his father.  And said, “There is something I need to do.”




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