Paul’s Story | Proper 19

1 Timothy 1:12-17

12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So he appointed me to ministry 13 even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. 14 Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15 This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all. 16 But this is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me first of all. So I’m an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. 17 Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.  (CEB)

Paul’s Story

This is, in brief, Paul’s story. It’s very personal and, in it, he reveals both his sin and his experience of God’s overflowing grace. Paul conveys to Timothy his own reflections on how and why God called him into ministry. Paul used to speak against Jesus Christ, attack Christian people, and acted violently and pridefully. Yet, even in his ignorance and unbelief, he received mercy from God. Paul, a sinner—who calls himself the worst of them all—received mercy. He tells Timothy that his story can serve as an example of the patience of Jesus Christ, and for those who will yet believe in Jesus Christ. If Jesus can show mercy to Saul of Tarsus, then we can be assured that the rest of us sinners can receive God’s mercy, too.

In our Tuesday morning Bible study, the question was asked about whether or not we would believe it if someone we knew to be a rather horrible person suddenly said they’d seen the light and claimed a conversion experience. I don’t think we quite came to a conclusion in the study, but I think we’d know the truth of the person’s conversion claim by their words and actions following their experience of God’s mercy. After all, a tree is known by its fruit (c.f. Matthew 12:33; Luke 6:43-44; also Matthew 3:10, 7:17-19; Luke 3:9). Our faith is shown by our actions (c.f. James 2:18-26). So, much like Paul’s experience of the mercy of Jesus Christ, I’d expect that we’d begin to see some recognizable changes in the person.

Do you remember Paul’s conversion story? It begins in Acts 7 when Stephen was stoned to death by the Jerusalem Council. The people who murdered Stephen placed their coats in the care of Saul (c.f. Acts 7:58). Saul approved of Stephen’s murder (Acts 8:1), and he began to wreak havoc on the church by entering house after house to drag women and men off to prison because of their belief in Jesus Christ (c.f. Acts 8:3).

Ironically, Saul’s harassment of the church forced the Christians to scatter, which had the opposite effect Saul and the Jerusalem Council wanted. The Christians preached the good news of Jesus Christ everywhere they went. Saul went to the High Priest and obtained letters that granted him permission to arrest and take to Jerusalem anyone in Damascus whom he found that belonged to the Way, as the early church was described.

During his journey to Damascus, light from heaven surrounded him, and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” (Acts 9:4 CEB). The speaker of that voice identified himself as Jesus, and told Saul to go into the city where he’d be told what to do.

The others who were traveling with Saul stood there speechless. They heard the voice, but they didn’t see anyone. They picked Saul up from the ground, but he couldn’t see. For three days, Saul was blind. He didn’t eat. He didn’t drink. He only saw a vision of a man named Ananias laying hands on him to restore his sight.

Meanwhile, Ananias was less than thrilled about what Jesus instructed him to do. Everyone had heard about Saul. Everyone knew how dangerous he was. Everyone knew what he’d done to the church in Jerusalem, and everyone knew he’d arrived in Damascus—with the authority of the chief priests—to do the same thing to believers there. But the Lord told Ananias, “Go!” (Acts 9:15). So, Ananias walked into a potential Lion’s Den, laid his hands on Saul of Tarsus, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17 CEB).

Flakes fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again, and Saul was baptized. From there, Saul went on to become one of the foremost evangelists and theologians of the church. He carried the name of Jesus “before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites” just as it had been declared (Acts 9:15 CEB).

But conversion is often a slow process of continuing to make mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Saul didn’t suddenly emerge from Damascus as the towering figure of Paul that we all think of when we think about him. No! As Dr. Mike Rynkiewich pointed out to me, look what Saul did in Damascus. We’re told he immediately started preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, declaring the truth of Jesus as God’s Son, and arguing his way across the city. He confused the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Saul had this conversion experience where he changed his mind, but his heart was lagging behind in that change. He had come to know the truth about Jesus as God’s Son, but he didn’t yet understand how to love people as Jesus teaches his followers to do. Instead, Saul went around beating people over the head with his proofs and arguing people under the table.

In other words, he was still being an arrogant jerk. He was still very much the same Saul he’d been before his conversion. The only difference was the focus of his mission. Instead of beating up Christians and hauling them off to prison for being wrong, he was arguing Jews into submission for being wrong. Saul was right. He knew he was right. And by golly, if you dared to tangle with him, then you were going to find out just how right he was and how wrong you were. I imagine Saul walking around Damascus with a shirt that said, “COME AT ME, BRUH!” and a sign that said, “DECONSTRUCTION ZONE.”

Saul was so potent and abrasive in his arguments that he caused the Jews in Damascus to hatch a plot to kill him! The Jews were watching the city gates—‘cause they weren’t gonna let this punk go—so Saul had to be lowered through an opening in the city wall in a basket.

Saul escaped to Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples there, but they were all so afraid of him that they wouldn’t let him in. Saul was so bad, he’d caused such damage to the church in Jerusalem, that the disciples didn’t believe that Saul was really a disciple! It took Barnabas to vouch for Saul and speak on his behalf to even get Saul in the door.

But Saul was still going around Jerusalem getting into debates and arguing people under the table. I mean, the guy might have had a conversion experience, but he didn’t learn quickly. The Jews in Jerusalem were out to kill Saul, too (big surprise!) so the church had to shuffle him out of the city. They escorted him to the harbor at Caesarea and sent him home to Tarsus. What’s hilarious is that, after Saul leaves the region, the very next verse says, “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace” (Acts 9:31a CEB).

I mean, can you imagine this scenario? It’s like when Mom and Dad finally get the kids to sleep after grandma and grandpa got them all sugared up on soft drinks and candy, and they sit in the couch, put their feet up on the coffee table and both heave deep sighs of relief. Thank goodness that’s over!

Saul told Timothy, “I was proud” (1 Timothy 12:13 CEB). Other translations render that same word as violent, insulting, injurious, arrogant. Paul confesses that his sin was pride—the kind of arrogance that leads to violence, insult, and injury of others.

This is Paul’s story, and it’s important to remember that this is Paul’s story. Paul’s story is not everyone’s story. Other people’s encounters with God’s mercy and grace are just as potent and significant even as they are different. Paul needed to be set free from his acts of violent persecution, pride, and unbelief.

Martin Luther used Paul’s confession of arrogance, among other texts, to describe a courtroom drama where a man stands before God as the judge and attempts to attain his own salvation. Instead, the man is undone by God who reveals the man’s impotence and pride. But, instead of punishing the man, God extends mercy and declares the arrogant sinner to be righteous in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The root sin of humanity is arrogance.

Yet, this view is very one-sided. Theologians like Valerie Saiving have called our attention to the truth that some “forms of sin…have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as ‘pride’ and ‘will to power.’ They are better suggested by such terms as…distractibility, and diffuseness…dependence on others for one’s self-definition; tolerance at the expense of standards of excellence…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the Self” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64).

Paul’s story illustrates how God’s mercy in Jesus Christ exposes and condemns the violence of the oppressor. For Saul, that violence was expressed outward. For many people that violence is expressed inward toward the self. It can be active or passive violence: accepting abuse from others, self-harming behaviors, or the squandering or dissipating of oneself for others. Women and men can both have self-effacing tendencies.

I know that’s one of my own struggles. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like it when the boat rocks. And I have a tendency to sacrifice my own desires and needs just to make sure there’s no turbulence shaking the appearance of my exterior placidity. That’s my default. And it can be downright self-harming, because inside, I’m neither placid nor peaceful. My self-effacing tendencies lead to anger toward myself and bitterness toward others.

Remember Martha in Luke 10:38-42? Stephanie Smith notes that “Martha dissipated herself when she accepted the social role as hostess and denied her true need. Jesus exposed her unbelief as it was expressed in her worry and distraction and challenged her to choose ‘the better part,’ even when it defied social norms” (Feasting on the Word Year C, vol.4, 64). Jesus called Martha to stop her activity because, unlike Paul, it was her activity that was an act of violence against herself. Martha’s activity was a denial of her need for the sake of the other. Such self-denial can become the very bars of a person’s prison cell that disallow their true need from ever being met. That is absolutely destructive.

While Saul experienced salvation as a move from active violence to passive acceptance, for many people, passive acceptance is the very means of their destruction. Abnegation, in that sense, is not virtuous, but violence. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his message. “By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord answered, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.’” (Luke 10:40-42 CEB).

Saul’s story serves as an example of how even the worst of sinners can experience God’s mercy and learn to become disciples of Jesus Christ. But it is not a one-size-fits-all story. We each experience God’s mercy in different ways because we, ourselves, are each different from the other. Yet, God’s mercy can free us of our pride and our violence, whether it’s directed outward or inward.

“This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’” (1 Timothy 1:15 CEB). How that salvation works its way through our lives: how it changes our minds, how it changes our hearts, how it changes our perceptions of others, and how it changes our perceptions of our self, will be different for each of us as it takes effect. We can have confidence that God will be patient with us. So, we should be patient with others as God is patient with others. Because we’re all on this journey together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Reap and Sow | Proper 9

Galatians 6:1-16

1 Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too. 2 Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are important when they aren’t, they’re fooling themselves. 4 Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. 5 Each person will have to carry their own load.

6 Those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher. 7 Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. 8 Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. 9 Let’s not get tired of doing good, because in time we’ll have a harvest if we don’t give up. 10 So then, let’s work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.

11 Look at the large letters I’m making with my own handwriting! 12 Whoever wants to look good by human standards will try to get you to be circumcised, but only so they won’t be harassed for the cross of Christ. 13 Those who are circumcised don’t observe the Law themselves, but they want you to be circumcised, so they can boast about your physical body.

14 But as for me, God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through him, and I have been crucified to the world. 15 Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. 16 May peace and mercy be on whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel. (CEB)

Sow and Reap

Paul’s letter to the Galatians has been called the Magna Carta of Christian Freedom. It was written to an entire region of the Roman empire, Galatia, which is the central part of modern Turkey. We don’t know much about the region or even of individual churches in Galatia, but it was populated by Celtic peoples known as Gauls. Paul passed through parts of Galatia on his second and third missionary journeys. On the third journey, he “traveled from place to place in the region of Galatia and the district of Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (Acts 18:23 CEB).

When it comes to books, my Aunt Jan is one of those people whose habit is to always read the last pages of the book first. I don’t know why, but I guess she wants to know the end so she can decide whether she wants to spend the time it’ll take to get there from the beginning.

Paul’s whole letter includes all the categoric sections of typical Greco-Roman literary style. So, what we have in chapter six includes some exhortation about expected behavior (1-10) and a summary of the letter’s main points (11-16). So, if you’re one of those people who, like my Aunt Jan, always read the last pages first, you’re in luck. We haven’t read the entire letter to the Galatians in our worship service today, but the last page tells us all the main points of the letter.

We know that this stuff was so important to Paul that he didn’t dictate the letter through a scribe, but he wrote it by his own hand, in his own style. He even calls attention to his large letters so the Galatians know it’s really Paul writing a personal letter to them.

So, here are Paul’s main points. We know that Paul has opponents. Jewish Christians—possibly from Jerusalem—have followed in Paul’s footsteps and called the Gentile believers in Galatia to turn to a gospel that was different from the gospel Paul preached to them (c.f. 1:6). These Judaizers impressed upon the Gentile believers that they had to be circumcised—they had to become Jews—before they could really be saved because the promises of God were only for the Jews. The Gentiles had to become like them.

They not only tried to change the gospel of Christ into something within the confines of rigid Jewish law, but they attacked Paul’s character and undermined Paul’s apostolic authority. According to them, Paul was a charlatan who presented his version of the gospel message as a commercial enterprise for his own economic gain. They argued that Paul wasn’t preaching a message that was in accordance with the Spirit of Christ.

The Judaizers were certainly sincere. They certainly were concerned for the Gentile believers in Jesus and wanted to “save” them from what they thought was an abomination. Paul’s gospel message of freedom from the law—extrication from the framework of religious rules—was, to them, horrendous and dangerous. The Judaizers probably questioned: How can people be saved when they don’t follow the right rules? How could the freedom Paul preaches, which allows believers to ignore the very laws God provided, originate from God?

Yes, the Judaizers were certainly sincere. But one’s sincerity does not make one correct. The Judaizers are proof that sincere belief can be misguided belief. Sincerity and correctness are not the same thing. So, early in the letter, Paul defends his ministry by telling his story: how he had advanced in Judaism beyond even these Judaizers because of how militant he was for Jewish religious traditions. But God set Paul free by revealing Jesus to him and calling Paul to preach to the Gentiles. Paul’s apostolic authority came directly from Jesus.

Some of this should sound familiar to us because there are those in the church who still engage in legalism and rigidity instead of freedom. We face the Galatian dilemma every day. We want to define who can sit at the table of grace. We want to test others to make sure they believe just like us, act just like us, think just like us. It’s so tempting to turn our personal experience of truth into the singular experience of God’s truth. A.J. Conyers wrote, “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact all of human life is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego” (in Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol.3, pg. 211).

What Paul was trying to impress upon the Galatians—and upon us—is that the gospel of Jesus Christ produces a church that incorporates unity with remarkable diversity, and his ministry—the gospel he preached to the Galatians and every other people he encountered—stands in opposition to anyone who would categorize other believers and judge that they are either in or out because of some distinguishing characteristic.

Paul made it clear in chapter five that “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter” (Galatians 5:6 CEB). That statement would have been a challenge to the very Jewish religious tradition in which Paul was steeped before he encountered Jesus Christ on the Damascus Road. It was certainly a challenge for some Jewish Christians to accept that faith works through love, not through the law or cutting of flesh.

It was a radical idea then, and it’s still a radical idea today, especially for those Christians who would insist that other “potential” believers must accept the same parts of the law to which they subscribe, and Christians who would question the validity of the faith of those believers who don’t subscribe to the law as they do. We do tend to pick and choose the parts of the law we think are vital even as Paul tells us that the law is no longer our custodian (c.f. Galatians 3:25).

Paul’s counterargument to the Judaizers is that their motives are not for the glory of the cross of Christ Jesus, but for their own glory. They want to be able to boast about the Galatians’ flesh by saying, Look! Now God can save you because I’ve made you just like me! Paul’s opponents sincerely believed that they were the standard of the standardized test. Yet, Paul argues, the Judaizers themselves were unable to keep the very law to which they were insisting the young Galatian believers submit.

Paul hits his point again when he writes: “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation” (Galatians 6:15 CEB). A new creation is every believer who faith and life are known by the fruit of the Spirit. And, I want us to note that Paul does not say the fruits of the Spirit are… as if there are many fruits. We don’t get to pick through the basket of spiritual fruit and choose only what we want. No. Paul says, “The fruit [singular!] of the Spirit is [IS, not are] love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 CEB). There is one fruit of the Spirit, and that fruit is a new creation—a new life—that exhibits all of these attributes.

We can take Paul’s statement, “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything,” and fill in our own words. Being white or black. Being European brown or Asian brown or Hispanic brown. Being a citizen or a refugee. Being straight or gay. Being evangelical or mainline. Being conservative or liberal. Being male or female. Being rich or poor. Paul had his own list: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

What really matter, says Paul, is how we serve one another through love. If we can’t to that, then we’re the ones with the salvation problem. The warning that we reap what we sow is tied to judgment. The measure we give is the measure we get. The judgment we give is the judgment we receive. We can’t deny that distinctions exist, but we don’t need to make our distinctions matter. Distinctions should not lead to separation.

Paul offers a blessing for those who follow the gospel he preaches. It’s a gospel where believers are no longer bound by past definitions of faith and faithfulness because something new has been brought to our attention through the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul insists on viewing religion from the inside out, not the outside in. It’s about our faith, not our distinguishing characteristics. It’s about how our faith is exhibited in the fruit of the Spirit, not how we follow certain rules.

One of the more difficult parts for us to accept is where Paul writes that we should “work for the good of all” (Galatians 6:10 CEB). The word all is so dreadfully all-encompassing; so shockingly all-inclusive. I think the reason that word all is so difficult is because we like our safe divisions. We find comfort in separation. We find safety in the wedges driven into the center of what should be our common life. Those wedges are nothing less than new nails piercing the body of our crucified Lord.

All includes people of other faiths. All includes people of other races and cultures. All includes people who are not citizens of our nation. When Paul says, we should work for the good of all he means we should work for the good of all. But the opposite of all is deeply embedded in our mentality. The opposite of all has produced some of the most appalling tragedies in human history.

Paul insists that there’s a better way, and that better way is the only way for those who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. The better way is a religious faith that transcends boundaries. It’s a faith that is moved and motivated by compassion for all—even those who are “other” from us. It’s a faith that sees all people as beloved children of God. It’s a faith that seeks to exhibit God’s love by feeding all whom we encounter with the fruit of the Spirit that God produces in us.

What matters, Paul insists, is a new creation. “May peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule and on God’s Israel” (Galatians 6:16 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

God’s Glory | Proper 10

Ephesians 1:3-14

3 Bless the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. 4 God chose us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence before the creation of the world. 5 God destined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ because of his love. This was according to his goodwill and plan 6 and to honor his glorious grace that he has given to us freely through the Son whom he loves. 7 We have been ransomed through his Son’s blood, and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, 8 which he poured over us with wisdom and understanding. 9 God revealed his hidden design to us, which is according to his goodwill and the plan that he intended to accomplish through his Son. 10 This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth. 11 We have also received an inheritance in Christ. We were destined by the plan of God, who accomplishes everything according to his design. 12 We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ. 13 You too heard the word of truth in Christ, which is the good news of your salvation. You were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit because you believed in Christ. 14 The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory. (CEB)

God’s Glory

The Book of Ephesians might not be the book to the Ephesians. The oldest Greek manuscripts of this book actually lack the words, “…in Ephesus” found in verse two. It’s possible that Ephesians was not originally written to the church at Ephesus. For one thing, there’s evidence in Ephesians that suggests it wasn’t written to that church. For example, Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” (1:15). But we know that Paul spent three years in Ephesus. He wouldn’t have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love, he would have seen and experienced it first-hand. (c.f. also Ephesians 4:21).

And, there are some possible references in other letters of Paul. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote, After this letter has been read to you publicly, make sure that the church in Laodicea reads it and that you read the one from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16 CEB). This tells us that Paul wrote a letter to the church at Laodicea, but we don’t have a letter of his that is addressed to that city. It’s possible that what we call Ephesians was originally his letter to the Laodiceans.

Either way, this letter eventually became associated with Ephesus. So, we call it Ephesians whether it was originally written to the Ephesian Christians or not.

So, that’s your little interesting tidbit regarding the history of the New Testament text. Whoever the original recipients of the letter might have been, they got a powerful letter.

Maybe the people Paul addressed in this letter had forgotten just how gracious and good God is. Maybe they had forgotten that God has a plan that includes everything in creation. Maybe they had forgotten that God is the grand designer and creator of this world, and God won’t let our shortcomings or failures get in the way of fulfilling everything God has intended to accomplish. Maybe they had forgotten that the story of salvation, itself, is God’s story. It’s about what God has done on our behalf. God is the main actor. We’re the ones for whom God acts, and we’re the ones who have been acted upon.

In this letter, Paul sets out to remind them—and us—about these things. First, we’re reminded that we have had an abundance of grace and blessings heaped upon us. Because of Jesus Christ, we have every spiritual blessing that comes from heaven. In other places, Paul lists some of those blessings.

God has chosen us in Christ to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. Paul asserts that this choosing was before the creation of the world and, if you recall that God’s original plan for creation was to have human beings living in perfect relationship with God, then this statement is a reminder that God hasn’t given up on that original plan. God made us for that purpose—to be holy and blameless in God’s presence—and even though we fell from that holiness through sin, God intends to make us holy again by restoring our holiness through Jesus Christ.

God made it, we broke it, God fixed it. Even though we turned away from God, rejecting God as our parent and the love of our lives, God still chooses us. God isn’t going to let us go. God chose to adopt us despite our rejection of God because, before the world was made, God designed us to be holy and blameless and to live as children in God’s household. That’s our purpose. That’s who we’re supposed to be. That’s the kind of relationship with God we’re supposed to have. And God isn’t about to let us not fulfill what we were created to be.

The idea that God destined—or predetermined—us to be adopted children is rooted in God’s original plan for us to be holy and blameless in God’s presence. In that sense, the word destined has little to do with the Calvinistic idea of predestination and everything to do with God’s unwavering action to accomplish that original plan for us. It isn’t about individuals, but the whole human race. We will belong to God again, one way or another, because God loves us. God will not let us go. In fact, God has worked around our sin and crushed it by sending Jesus Christ. Our salvation was God’s initiative, and God has done this because God loves us. Everything God has done for us has been for our good, which has always been God’s plan. God has nothing but goodwill toward us.

The problem is, we became captives to sin—and in some ways we still are. But we also have forgiveness for our failures because of God’s overflowing grace. The blood of Jesus Christ has ransomed us from that captivity to sin. Paul writes that God’s grace has been poured over us with wisdom and understanding, which means we have the God-given ability live into God’s plan for us. We can choose good over evil because of God’s grace. While the fullness of salvation is a future event, the effects of what Jesus has done for us are real, now. We can choose to love because of God’s grace. We can choose faithfulness to God and to each other because of God’s grace.

We have the example and teaching of Jesus, who came to reveal God and God’s design for our salvation to us. Again, the plan for our salvation was initiated by God because of God’s goodwill toward us. And God intended to accomplish the plan through Jesus Christ.

One way we can look at sin is as though it’s an infectious disease that we all contract simply by being conceived as a human being. The Greek words for saved and salvation, in their normal sense, mean healed and healing. Sin is the disease, God’s salvation through Jesus Christ is the cure.

According to Paul, this plan of God’s is universal. “This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Eph. 1:10 CEB). God’s great plan will come to its climax when all things are brought together in Christ.

All things, Paul writes. It’s reminiscent of what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will drag all things to myself” (John 6:32, my trans). Jesus told us that in his crucifixion, he would drag us to himself. That word drag is not a soft word. It’s often translated into English as a softer word, such as draw. But it’s not a gentle word. Jesus is going to drag all things to himself. It might require some hog-tying, but Jesus isn’t going to be denied any little part of all things.

That word, all, which is πάντα in Greek, leaves no room for exclusion. There is nothing that exists outside of God’s power, and if God wants all things, then God’s gonna get all things. Some people become aware of our identity in Christ, others might not become aware of it in their earthly lifetime. But not being aware doesn’t mean that person isn’t equally loved, equally desired, equally precious, and equally hoped-for as a child of God. What Paul’s telling us is that getting all things together in Christ is exactly the climactic finale of God’s plan. All means all. And God will accomplish it.

That idea is pushed further by Paul’s mention of an inheritance in Christ. Once again, Paul says God destined us according to a plan. Again, that plan points back to God’s original intent for humanity in creation: that we should live in perfect relationship with God and stand in God’s presence as holy and blameless children. It isn’t that only a small number of people are predestined to salvation. That idea completely ignores the truth of God’s intent “to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth” (Galatians 1:10 CEB). God will accomplish everything according to God’s design, and God’s design includes all.

Those of us who are aware of our place in God’s design are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We, who hope in Christ and who know the good news of salvation in Christ as truth, are called to be an honor to God’s glory. We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit because we believed in Christ. In fact, Paul tells us that “The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of God’s glory” (Ephesians 1:14 CEB).

This is to say that our inheritance is to become family with God. Our inheritance is to become a part of God’s household. Children inherit. Our inheritance is the very thing that was originally supposed to be ours—the thing for which God had destined us before the world began: that we would be God’s children, that we would be holy and blameless, that we would live in God’s presence.

The down payment of the Holy Spirit is for our sake. It’s meant to reassure us that God is taking care of things, that God’s plan for the human race and for all things will, indeed, be accomplished. Our redemption by Christ, and our living as redeemed people, results in the honor of God’s glory.

If we want to honor God’s glory, if we want to glorify the God of our redemption and salvation, then we live as redeemed people. We love as those who know the love of God so deeply that we can’t do anything else but love others as we have been loved. As children of God, we have a purpose and a call.

The fullness of salvation, which is life with God as a family, is a future reality. But it’s when we begin to live that way, now, as people who live and love as Christ lived and loved, that we bring glory to the God of our salvation. It’s then that we bring honor to God for the grace and blessings we’ve received.

We’ve been given the grace to do so. What remains for us is to choose how we’re going to live in the light of that grace, and in the light of those blessings.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Foolishness | 3rd in Lent

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

18 The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. 19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent. 20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called– both Jews and Greeks– Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (CEB)

Foolishness

This text about the foolishness of the cross follows Paul’s appeal for unity in the church. It begins an extended meditation on the meaning of the cross, and tries to show that prideful confidence in human wisdom is antithetical to the deepest logic of the gospel. The fundamental theme in this part of First Corinthians is the opposition between human wisdom and the lo,goj, which is the Word of the cross.

Paul diagnoses the root causes of the conflicts and rivalries within the Corinthian church by showing that they glory in superficial human wisdom. People are boasting about their own possession of wisdom and rhetorical eloquence—or at least they’re infatuated with leaders who possess these qualities. In a cosmopolitan city like Corinth, strong rhetoricians were the pop-stars of the day. It hardly mattered what was said, so long as it the speaker had a convincing argument or strong emotional appeal.

Paul wasn’t necessarily an excellent speaker. He was laughed at in Athens after attempting a speech there. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 10:10, he writes that he knows what others are saying about him: “I know what some people are saying: ‘His letters are severe and powerful, but in person he is weak and his speech is worth nothing.’” (CEB). Paul wasn’t a gifted orator. So, he used this fact about himself as an example of the very point he was making. God’s message to human beings doesn’t necessarily come wrapped in pretty packages. God’s true nature is revealed in weakness, not in the powerful and mighty and strong, which is what most of us would expect.

God has revealed in Jesus Christ a kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of the world. God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and helpless death of the crucified Jesus. If the crucifixion is the revelation of the deepest truth about God’s character, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned up-side-down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross. Paul takes the central event of the Christian story and uses it as a lens to bring what we know and see into focus so that everything—what we see and assume to know—is viewed afresh.

Much of the controversy among the Corinthians may have stemmed from the tendency of those Christians to regard Paul, Apollos, and Cephas as competing for public approval and attention alongside other popular—and probably pagan—philosophers and rhetoricians. The wisdom that Paul refers to is both the possession of divine knowledge, and the ability to express that knowledge in a powerful, eloquent, and rhetorically polished way.

Here, Paul forcefully argues against the idea that the gospel is just another kind of human wisdom, and reframes the debate into different categories. The gospel is placed into a category apart from the wisdom of this world. The gospel, the Good News of salvation offered through Jesus Christ, is not a secretive or mysterious body of religious knowledge. It’s not a slickly packaged philosophy. It’s not a scheme for living a better life. It’s not a handy self-improvement course. Instead, it’s an announcement about God’s intervention in the world for the sake of the world.

The perspective of God’s radical intervention to bring about something new, is signaled by the way in which Paul describes the encounter between the world and the gospel in verse 18, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (CEB). As the word of God—the word about the cross—breaks into the world, it divides all of humanity into two groups. The present participles that describe the two contrasting groups, those who are perishing and those who are being saved indicate, significantly, that Paul sees the judging and saving activity of God as something that’s underway right now. Paul describes the church not as those who are saved, but as those who are being saved. That distinction is important, because Paul will continue to insist throughout the letter on the not-yet-completed, still-in-process, character of salvation in Christ.

Part of the trouble with those who claim to have wisdom is that they suppose they’ve already arrived, already are in possession of the full truth. But for Paul, the power of God is presently stirring, presently occurring, presently percolating, presently on the move in the world through the gospel, bringing both destruction and deliverance: destruction to those who are willfully blind to the truth of God, and deliverance to those who believe.

Paul is saying that the books are not yet closed; God’s final verdict for our lives has not yet been rendered. Thus, as the power of God is at work in the world through the proclamation of the gospel, members of the church find themselves on a trajectory toward salvation, but they cannot unqualifiedly claim salvation at the present time. Salvation, at least in this instance, is described as something we work on throughout our lives. We can have confidence that God will achieve salvation for us in the end, but it only comes through the unmerited grace of God.

Paul’s also making another point. Simply put, Christians—those who are being saved—should see the world differently than those who are perishing. The fixation of the Christian church on a crucified Lord seems to be the height of absurdity to those who are perishing. To them, the word of the cross is not wisdom, but foolishness. The Greek word used there is μωρία (moria), and the root of that Greek word is found in our English word “moron.” The way the rest of the world sees it, we who believe in the power of the cross are a bunch of morons. But we who are being saved see the supposed foolishness of the cross from a different perspective.

The Christians of Corinth, who were celebrating their own wisdom, were celebrating something other than the gospel. It revealed that they still viewed the world from the perspective of those who are perishing. Those who are being saved, however, recognize the cross as God’s power.

This perspective changes the way we understand everything. This is Paul’s great paradox, and he sees its truth revealed in the Old Testament. He quotes from Isaiah 29:14 when he says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent” (1 Corinthians 1:19 CEB). Isaiah’s verb ἀπολῶ (apolo) I will destroy is echoed by Paul’s reference in 1:18 to those who are perishing ἀπολλυμένοις (apollumenois) which literally means those who are being destroyed. According to Isaiah, the thing that God is going to annihilate is the wisdom of the wise, precisely the thing that the Corinthians were prizing.

Therein lies the Corinthian problem. They were relying on human wisdom, which God is going to thwart and destroy. They talked about possessing Godly wisdom, but their behavior of quarreling and causing divisions revealed something else entirely. They made a show of honoring God with their lips, but their behavior toward each other revealed that their hearts were far from God.

When you read the whole of Isaiah’s oracle from which Paul quotes one line, you see that that is what Isaiah was talking about as well. The people of Judah honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God. The message is that talk about God is cheap. Honoring God with the way we live is what ultimately matters. The Corinthians stood under the sentence of divine judgment which would nullify their professed wisdom and unmask their professed piety as a sham.

Having stated his paradox about the word of the cross and supporting it by a citation from Isaiah, Paul cranks up the tension of the passage even higher by developing a series of contrasts between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the cross. The four rhetorical questions of verse 20 pose a direct challenge to the philosophers, scribes (who were experts in Jewish Law), and debaters of the world (the pagan orators). They all belong to this age. In apocalyptic thought everything of this age will be swept away, or simply made to appear ridiculous when the new age is inaugurated. The wisdom of this world will be revealed as foolishness by God’s strange way of revealing grace through the cross.

In the ancient world, rhetorical eloquence was highly prized. Powerful orators received the same sort of acclaim that today we reserve for movie stars and professional athletes. But Paul now regards all this acclaim as utterly negated by God. “Where are they now?” Paul asked rhetorically.

Philosophers, Torah scholars, and popular orators—all the most esteemed pundits of Paul’s day—failed to understand what was really going on in the world. All their wisdom had failed to grasp the truth about God. Paul notes the irony. He says it is “In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching” (1 Corinthians 1:21 CEB).

Why? Because God’s ways are not our ways. God’s ways are contrary to what our fallen minds would call common sense. In contrast to this age God has blown common sense away by revelation “through the foolishness of preaching.” That Greek word, μωρία (moria), suggests the utter craziness of the gospel message by the standards of common sense wisdom. How can the humiliating death of Jesus on a cross be the event of salvation for the world? One would have to be a fool, a moron, to believe it!

I guess that makes us fools for the Gospel.

Paul’s language throughout this part of 1 Corinthians reveals the paradoxical twists of God’s grace. But this isn’t just Paul’s version of worldly wisdom and rhetoric. The fundamental theological point is that if the cross itself is God’s saving event, all human standards of evaluation are shaken up and dumped up-side-down. The outlandish message confounded Jews and Greeks alike, who quite understandably sought evidence of a more credible sort, either “signs,” which would be empirical demonstrations of power, or “wisdom,” which would be rational and persuasive argumentation. But Paul offers neither signs nor wisdom. Instead Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (c.f. 1 Corinthians 1:23 CEB).

The scandal of this message can be a little difficult for us Christians of later eras to imagine. In Paul’s day, to proclaim a crucified Messiah was to speak nonsense. Crucifixion was a gruesome punishment administered by the Romans to make an example out of rebels, insurrectionists, and those who would otherwise disturb the Roman peace. It was a horrible form of public torture and execution, designed to demonstrate that no one should defy the Empire. Yet, Paul’s Gospel declares that the crucifixion of Jesus is somehow the singular event through which God has triumphed over Rome and all other worldly powers. Rather than confirming what the wisest minds already knew, the cross confounded the knowledge and wisdom of the world.

Those Corinthians who had been converted to Christianity under Paul’s preaching ought to have known this, because his whole message was “Christ crucified.” This proclamation of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and absolutely nuts to the Greeks. But for those who are a part of the church—made up of Jews and Gentiles together, those who are called at Corinth and elsewhere—the mind-warping paradox is God’s power and God’s wisdom.

To enter the world of the Gospel is to undergo a conversion of the imagination. It’s to see all values transformed by the foolish and seemingly weak death of Jesus on the cross. God doesn’t do things the way we expect. Human wisdom is subverted by the power of God which is revealed in weakness. And the seeming defeat of death gave way to the victory of resurrection.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Genuine Christians | Proper 17

Romans 12:9-21

9 Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. 10 Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other. 11 Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic–be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord! 12 Be happy in your hope, stand your ground when you’re in trouble, and devote yourselves to prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home. 14 Bless people who harass you– bless and don’t curse them. 15 Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. 16 Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart. 17 Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.

18 If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. 19 Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord. 20 Instead, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head. 21 Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. (CEB)

Genuine Christians

When I was in Middle School, back in the late ‘80s, New Kids On the Block was on the radio, and Jams shorts were the choice of clothing for all the cool kids, both girls and boys. For those of you who don’t remember them, Jams are surfer-style shorts with colorful and flowery Hawaiian patterns. They’ve been around since the 1960s, but they were all the rage for a few years in the mid to late ‘80s.

Oh, there were knockoff Jams, too, but everyone knew if you had the genuine Jams or not. Fake Jams were not cool. Wearing knockoffs of the real thing meant you were just a poser, who was trying to look cool, but you clearly didn’t have the genuine Jams that actually made you look cool.

Alas! I have to admit that I was a poser. My mom bought me fake Jams. Real Jams were too expensive. Paying that much for shorts was “ridiculous,” if I recall her wording correctly. She clearly didn’t realize this was an investment in my Middle School social life which stayed rather stagnant, I’m sure, because I lacked genuine Jams. So, I did my best to act like I was “Hanging Tough,” as New Kids On the Block sang, while wearing my knockoff shorts into social ignominy.

In this text from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he offers some direction about love that is genuine. Paul’s words here actually look similar to his famous description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, “Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (CEB).

Paul’s description in Romans differs somewhat in that he talks about the things that make Christians and the Christian Church different, even distinctive, from the broader culture in which we live. “Genuine love hates evil and clings to good,” is another way to translate verse 9 from Greek.

That word used for genuine in this text means without hypocrisy. Did you know that the word hypocrite comes from Greek, and it’s the word that was used for stage actors? It wasn’t an insult back then, it’s simply what they were called. Actors were hypocrites because they pretended to be something other than their true selves. They weren’t being genuine. They were posing as someone or something else, kind of like me with my knockoff Jams shorts. Genuine love—love that is without hypocrisy—is the thing that distinguishes us as Christians. Paul’s definition is expansive, and it’s not easy for any Christian to conform one’s life to it, let alone accept it on even a theoretical level. Yet, if we want to be the church as we ought, then we can’t ignore or gloss over what Paul tells us about genuine love.

It might help us to consider, for a moment, what the church is. Our English word, church, has a complicated and uncertain origin. The best possibility is that church is related to similar-sounding words in other languages (including Greek, Latin, Scotch, and Welsh) that all have the meaning, circle. Our word church doesn’t seem to be related at all to the Greek word found in the Bible, which is ʾεκκλησία (ecclesia). That word means a gathering of people, assembly, or congregation, and it’s a compound word that means summoned out of.

Are you still with me? I know, I’m a total nerd (which might have had more of an influence on my Middle School popularity than my lack of genuine Jams shorts). So, what we call the church is a group of people that has been called out of the world to be a different kind of community from the world. For Paul, the church’s distinctive characteristic is that we love God, and we love every person, even our enemies.

Paul bases all of this on our worship of God. In Romans 12:1, Paul writes, “So then, I urge you, sisters and brothers, through the compassion of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable worship” (my translation). Worship is so much more than this public event we’re doing right now in this sanctuary. Yet, for some reason, we’ve created a dichotomy that separates worship on Sunday mornings from our every-day actions. For Christians, our worship of God does not end when we leave this room or this building. The entirety of our life is worship. Everything we think, do, and say, says something about us as a people who worship God. A tree, after all, is known by its fruit (Matthew 7:15-20).

There’s a symbolic reason why acolytes typically carry the light from our worship candles out of the sanctuary after the benediction. The symbolism is that we are taking our worship out into the world. Our worship of God becomes our actions out there. The way we treat other people, how well we love and honor others, is our worship of God. Our actions toward others reflect either the hypocrisy or genuineness of our love for God and each other.

By describing genuine love, Paul essentially defines what the church’s relationship should be with everyone. The church might be an alternative community called out of the world, but we still relate to the world and its people. So, how do we live as an alternative community and how do we relate to the world? Paul tells us exactly how we can accomplish these things. The answer is genuine love. Love without hypocrisy or pretending.

If we wanted to, we could set up Paul’s words here as a church covenant and agree that this is how we’re going to deal with people. Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this? What if we really loved each other as a family? What if we loved each other so much that we all tried to outdo each other in showing honor? Who among us would earn their varsity letter in Honorableness? What if we gave each other the benefit of the doubt before drawing conclusions? What if we could still honor each other while holding vastly different opinions? What if I could wear my fake Jams and still be accepted as one of the cool kids? Showing honor to others comes from love that is without pretending. The thing is, if we don’t love each other as family and honor each other, then we can’t serve the Lord. Indeed, we aren’t serving the Lord because our actions toward each other are part of our worship.

What about enthusiasm and being on fire as we serve the Lord? Do we get excited about how the love we can offer to others can make the world a better place? Are we so enthusiastic in our service to God that people pause and say, Dang. You’re kind of zealous there, aren’t you? People can see that kind of enthusiasm, and it’s contagious!

What about rejoicing in the hope we have in Jesus Christ? Do we do that? Are we happy to call ourselves a Christian? When trouble comes around, as it inevitably does, do we stand firm in our faith or fall away? Is our love of God genuine or is it contingent on things going well for us? Do we pray as we ought, seeking that connection with God, those small moments of worship?

Right now, I’m in the middle of a little experiment. My phone has alarms set for 9:00, noon, 3:00, 6:00, and 9 p.m. I’m trying to stop what I’m doing so I can pray at those hours. That’s in addition to my morning prayers when I wake up, and my meal-time prayers, and my nightly prayers when I go to bed. Most of the time, my prayer at those hours is simply a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer. Sometimes I pray for my family, or the Barnabas Ministry student I have, or a congregation member. Devoting ourselves to prayer is one of the ways we show our love of God to be genuine and without pretending. I invite you to try something like my prayer experiment, or find another way to devote yourself to prayer.

I’m sure that most of us give a portion of our finances and time to our church and other needs, but have we considered that our motivation for what we contribute to the church stems from our love for God? And, how we offer hospitality to others is important. Showing hospitality is more than an act of kindness or welcome. It can also mean seeking justice for others. Offering hospitality in the sense of charity offers people crumbs from our table. But hospitality in the sense of working for justice on behalf of others offers people a place at the table.

Then, somewhat reminiscent of the Beatitudes of Jesus, Paul reminds us of love’s reach. His instruction is not easy to hear, and it’s not easy to do. Nevertheless, these are the marks of Christian people. These are the characteristics of genuine love, love that doesn’t pretend: “Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status.” [In other words, go hang out with the kid wearing fake Jams because that’s all his mother could afford] “Don’t think that you’re so smart. Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good. If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people” (Romans 12:16-18 CEB).

Paul continues by quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 when he tells us to feed our enemies when they’re hungry and give them something to drink when they’re thirsty. Although we would like it to be otherwise with our enemies, Paul is not literally telling us to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies. Too often, we come awfully close to that kind of interpretation and application. That’s what the world would have us do. In this case, the burning coals are the remorse of our enemies for their past mistreatment of us as we lovingly meet their needs. That remorse is the seed of repentance that can lead to their salvation.

The only appropriate way for Christians to act toward other people is with genuine love. None of us can fake our way out of it. None of us can raise valid exceptions that Paul, himself, wouldn’t shoot down. If we genuinely love God, our only option is genuine love. We don’t overcome evil with evil. We overcome evil with good. The way Christians defeat evil, injustice, oppression, and every other enemy we face is by loving it to death.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher