Saturday, February 19, 2011

God’s architecture

Epiphany 7A
February 20, 2011
1 Corinthians 3:10-23

This passage is full of things we hear repeatedly in the apostle Paul’s letters.

1. The believer as God’s temple (3:16-17)
2. The contrast between God’s and the world’s wisdom (3:18-20)
3. The illegitimacy of human boasting (3:21)
4. The conflict around different leaders in the assembly (3:21-23)
5. The architectural metaphor – “the Church’s one foundation” (3:10-15)

Now any of these subjects will preach, and each is undoubtedly an important theme in Paul’s proclamation and mission.

Yet the passage also contains an idea which is central for Paul’s apostleship, to his understanding of his role, and to his understanding of the assembly of believers. It is the “foundation” which underlies Paul’s use of the architectural metaphor.

Hierarchy justifiably gets a bad rap. But sometimes there’s no way around the fact that there is a certain order to the way things work. You cannot put the roof on if you have not yet raised the walls – or at least the support pillars. It doesn’t make any sense to put up walls if you have not prepared the foundation which supports the whole structure.

And that’s the way it is in the community which traces its membership, its discipleship, its fellowship, its practice back to Jesus. Paul says that there is a way in which each member and the whole community fits together. I take my cue from the ones who have brought me into faith, who have taught me, and more importantly still showed me with the witness of their own lives who Christ is. And the same is true of our models, and of theirs, all the way back to those first apostles who tried to incarnate the Christ they had come to know.

Of course, becoming like Christ means something more than growing a beard and putting on a robe.

The Apostle Paul is no shrinking violet. As a “skilled master builder” he is convinced that he has brought to the Corinthians the true Christ. And he would like the Corinthians to follow his example. In the next chapter, he urges them to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16). His classic statement comes later in this letter: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (11:1). This concept is explicitly and implicitly throughout Paul’s letters. (Partial list appended at the bottom of this post).

The apostle is effectively saying “be as I am and do as I do. For I am doing what Christ did. And Christ was conformed to God.” Paul is clear that this is the way faith and discipleship works. God's house of faith is built when each of us follow the plan God has given us, not so much by following a recipe or precise blueprint, but by taking the form of a servant. And yes, accepting all that comes with this vocation.

1. It’s not hard to see in this that Paul the Pharisee is simply living out the call to “be holy as the Lord your God is holy” (Lev 19:1).

2. But Paul has come to see that human wisdom is foolish, and that God’s holy wisdom requires a transformation of mindset and attitude and perspective, a conversion from the sacrifice of others to the sacrifice of self.

3. This is a call to a high standard. We are to literally be examples to others, to live as if their lives and faith depended on us. For we are not building an outhouse or a house of prostitution or a “temple” of commerce. This work is to build a temple worthy of the Living God.

4. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, it is a grand place, and we are to build it with the best we have. But this temple is grand not because of the size of its stones or the luster of its decoration. This is not a superficial resemblance, based on putting on an apostle suit or a Jesus costume, but a fundamental correspondence, achieved through God's tranformation of our lives. As we'll hear in Paul's next letter, this human temple is built of the cracked pottery of very imperfect disciples. Yet it is built on the kind of love which is poured out for others. As Christ was for us. Foundational.


The Apostle Paul on the subject of imitation/modeling/mimesis:

+ You became imitators of us and of the Lord... (1 Thess 1:6)
+ You, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: you suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Judeans (1 Thess 2:14).
+ [We] offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate (2 Thess 3:9).
+ Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5)
+ Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do (Philippians 3:16)
+ Be imitators of God (Eph 5:1).
* More generally, Paul's language of parents and children, of adoption and heirship, is I think in much the same vein, the descendants taking on the form of their forbears in faith. So too his negative example of the way sin and death have been transmitted from Adam (Rom 5).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Prayer for civic change

God of power and God of peace, your will for us has always been release from bondage, freedom, and lives of righteousness. Support the desire for liberation and strengthen your people in truth, compassion, and the practice of non-violence. Keep watch over all the nations of this world, especially Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, that movements for civic change may also change hearts and minds. Restrain any tempted by violence, and lead your people into the realization of just hope. We ask this trusting in the name of Jesus our liberator. Amen.

Opposition supporters wave roses during an anti-government protest in Sanaa, Yemen. Photograph by Khaled Abdullah/Reuters.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

You are not ready

Epiphany 6A
February 13, 2011
1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Hard words to hear.

Maybe we’ve heard them from someone denying us an opportunity – “You’re not ready for this job, come back when you’ve got more experience.” Maybe it’s meant as a slam – “You’re just a kid!”

Sometimes I wonder about the Apostle Paul. It sounds like he’s right in his assessment of the folks back in Corinth. They don’t sound spiritually mature. And that may be understandable, given the newness of Christ’s revelation, the world-confounding nature of the cross, and the confusing pictures of faith being presented to them from many different sources: Rome, Jerusalem, Paul, Apollos, Cephas...

But for someone who wants to be seen as their “father in faith” (1 Cor 4:14-16), calling them babies might not be the best approach. “You are like babies as far as your faith in Christ is concerned. So I had to treat you like
babies and feed you milk” (3:1b-2, CEV). While logically consistent, it is emotionally charged. This kind of argument has seldom worked on me, and never worked for me!

The problem as Paul identifies it is quarreling rooted in jealousy (zelos: zeal/jealousy). It sounds very similar to the struggles in the synoptic gospels over which disciples are greatest. Whose group is best? (The same kind of issue will arise later in the letter in Paul’s concern over who eats first and best, chapter 11; conflicts over spiritual gifts, chapters 12-14; perhaps also in who exercises judgment over church members, chapters 5-6.)

Paul seems initially less concerned about the substance of the debates than the divisive character of how they are being conducted. This envious strife is proof that Christ is missing from their fellowship. Yet it may well be that Paul’s intervention excites that conflict. Later in the letter, the apostle recognizes that “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are beneficial” (10:23a, NRSV). He may be right on the merits – but his second letter back to Corinth is a pretty good indication that things have not gone well.

While Paul, the imperfectly reformed zealot, knows that this divisive quarreling is sinful, when we face conflicts in our relationships we might take a step back and ask what is going on. There are all kinds of reasons why we might act “like babies,” and if we are to “grow up” in faith, it helps to know how we need to grow.

We might tolerate milk but not meat due to pain. Have you ever had dental issues that made it impossible to chew? Pain can make even mature adults act “like babies.” Have you ever known someone who had surgery and needed a liquid diet to recuperate? And some among us avoid meat for ethical reasons.

It is so difficult to diagnose from afar!

When the name-calling doesn’t work, when the metaphors break down, perhaps the best we can do is treat the symptom.

Now we know why Paul spent so much of the previous chapters speaking about boasting. There is, I fear, no cure for jealousy and quarreling but to simply lay them down. “What is Apollos? What is Paul?... God’s servants, working together...” (3:5,9). It is best to step aside, for this is not Paul’s business, nor Apollos’ kingdom, nor Peter’s project. It is God’s.

This congregation, this people, this great good news of Jesus Christ are not objects to be fought over. No church member and no apostle owns this mission field. It is God’s. It is God’s, and all who labor in this field have a common purpose. We might not see it today, in the midst of our strife. But we should.

When will we be ready to belong to God, and follow that foolish, cross-illumined path that is salvation?

The Spirit searches everything

Epiphany 5A
February 6, 2011
1 Corinthians 2:1-16

Paul spends so much time making complicated arguments, we may forget that at heart he is a mystic, who lives important parts of his life outside the domain of reason. In his letters to the Corinthian assembly, though, we get many indications of a charismatic, Spirit-possessed Paul.