Grace Presbyterian Church
March 29,2020, Lent 5A (livestreaming)
Can These Bones Live?
I don’t know about you, but this necessity of social distancing and quarantine and staying out of reach of one another has really driven home for me the, well, Lent-ness of this particular Lent.
I mean, I’m an introvert, but not the “burrow in at home and never leave the house” type. You know how I like to start my days off on Fridays? Grab a book I’m working on – one for my enjoyment and edification, not job-related – it could be a novel or biography or anything but a biblical commentary. Go find someplace – a coffee shop, a café, whatever – where I can get breakfast or a decaf mocha or something. Settle in with whatever I get, and alternate between reading and watching the other folks. Not interacting any more than necessary, mind you, just being by myself out there. Key word: out there. So despite my introverted-ness this isolation thing is causing major stress.
Given this state of being, these two scriptures offered up for the church on this fifth Sunday of Lent come a little bit like a slap in the face (or maybe a slap in the faith). Both of them have the temerity to offer up, two solid weeks before the observance of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, stories of new life being brought to that which was dead.
Perhaps the obvious move would be to go to John’s account of Jesus’s raising of Lazarus. After all, that’s a whopper of a reading, both in terms of its sheer length (forty-five verses!) and the impact it has on the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Honestly, one of these years I might be tempted to take this story and break it up over the first five weeks of Lent; I honestly think there might be about five sermons in there.
You get Jesus dawdling about going to see Lazarus. You get both of the sisters, Martha and Mary, kind of giving him what-for over that. You get what was in the KJV the shortest verse in the Bible – “Jesus wept.” You get Martha warning Jesus that if they really go through with opening the tomb after four days, it would, well, smell, as unembalmed bodies do. You get, above all, Lazarus coming out of the tomb. So much possibility.
But in this time, I can’t look away from Ezekiel’s story.
Ezekiel is, to put it in modern vernacular, messed up. He was a priest in Jerusalem who got carried away in the first wave of exile to Babylon, when the occupying forces chose only to “cut off the head” of Jerusalem – that is, take away its leaders, including its religious leaders. The puppet king installed after this turned out not to be quite a puppet after all, and when he stopped paying tribute the Babylonians returned and destroyed the city.
This experience seems to have taken a particular toll on Ezekiel. Biblical scholars have increasingly begun to consider that Ezekiel might, in modern terms, have been a victim of psychological trauma. The outlandish nature of some of his visions (including this one), some of his behaviors that make even Jeremiah look tame by comparison, and his sometimes extreme tone in calling out his people and their kings for their sinfulness and rebellion suggest a man who would at minimum be deep into therapy in modern times, if not something more intense.
And it is to this broken, traumatized old priest that God brings this deeply creepy, and yet deeply hopeful, vision of death being raised up into new life. Actually, that’s not totally right. This isn’t Lazarus still more or less in one piece just waiting for the call. This is not mere death but destruction, dessication, disassembling, dehydration kind of death. And God asks old messed-up Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
There’s a lot to be said for Ezekiel’s answer: “O Lord God, you know.” God was clearly up to something, and Ezekiel had the wit not to get in the way. God gives Ezekiel the command to “prophesy to these bones,” and maybe only someone who had seen too much, someone as broken and hurting as Ezekiel could take such a command seriously enough to carry it out. He does, and behold, the bones find their way back to each other, they take on all the tissue and flesh that had long ago dried up and rotted away, and there are…bodies.
Not people, not yet: bodies were reconstructed and whole, but “there was no breath in them” – no wind, no spirit. It’s not quite like in the account from John, in which after Jesus called to Lazarus he was indeed alive, but still all bound up in the burial cloths in which he had been wrapped. Lazarus needed release; he still needed to be cut loose from the old trappings of death that still clung to him. These bodies in front of Ezekiel still needed breath, spirit, life itself.
So, of course, God tells Ezekiel to “prophesy to the breath.” Ezekiel obeyed, and from “the four winds” came the breath that breathed life into these lifeless bodies. As Ezekiel recounts it, they stood up, a “vast multitude,” waiting.
Where are we?
Are we Lazarus, newly alive again but waiting to be freed from the bonds of death? Are we the dried old bones, without hope? Are we the reassembled bodies made whole, but without breath, without spirit? Are we the newly living, standing ready, waiting for whatever God calls us to do?
“Mortal, can these bones live?” “O Lord God, you know.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God unless otherwise indicated): #307, God of Grace and God of Glory; #—, Rise Up
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 22, 2020, Lent 4A (livestreaming)
The Center of It All
The Revised Common Lectionary has this amazing knack for offering up a strangely appropriate scripture for particular unexpected occasions and situations. It doesn’t always happen this way, but just often enough to keep me freaked out.
For this fourth Sunday of Lent, on an occasion when the very idea of leaving the house becomes not only unthinkable but undesirable and when the basic act of a handshake or hug can be hazardous to somebody’s health, the Revised Common Lectionary offers up…the twenty-third Psalm. And as much as I might try to avoid it most years for the sheer unlikelihood of having anything useful to say about it, for this particular occasion it works, and it works because of one of the less eminently quotable parts of the psalm.
I very well know that, even while I was reading the psalm from the New Revised Standard Version that would be in our pews were we in the sanctuary, a very large number of you were totally tuning me out and reciting it to yourself in the old King James Version. The shame, though, is that we can’t read it in the original Hebrew.
Even in English, though, there is a key to this psalm that is easy to overlook, once it has become entrenched in our brains. Notice how the psalm starts: “The Lord is my shepherd…he makes me lie down in green pastures; heleads me beside the still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” Leaving aside the idea that God can be reduced to “he,” notice that all of this speaks of God the shepherd in the third person. Like many of the psalms this one is attributing to God, in this case speaking of God as the one who guides the psalmist’s life.
Also note that this is the imagery that we tend to think of as characteristic of the psalm: shepherd, green pastures, still waters, restoring my soul, right paths. These are images of safety and reassurance, but like so many such images in scripture they can be sentimentalized to the point of meaninglessness. We can get numbed to the idea of this psalm having anything to say about the darker times of life.
That’s a particularly bad trap to fall into, because this psalm is actually a product of those darker times, as the next section makes clear. Suddenly the psalmist is talking about walking through the “darkest valley.” Where did that come from? In fact Psalm 23 and others like it are actually products of those darker times. They are known as “trust psalms” or “dependence psalms” precisely because of their experience of the dark times and places, and the realization gained in those dark valleys that God can still be trusted and relied upon.
There’s another turn that happens in this middle section of the psalm. Notice what comes after that line about the darkest valley and fearing no evil: “for you are with me…”. Suddenly the psalmist is no longer speaking in the third person about God; his address is direct; the psalmist is speaking directly to God now. No longer is talking about God good enough: the psalmist talks to God.
Of course the very content of that short clause is all about how that’s even possible – “for you are with me,” the psalmist says, and such statement wouldn’t make any sense in the case of an absent God. Whatever the darkest valley was, the psalmist is now more convinced and assured of God’s presence than perhaps ever before.
For all of the lovely images and mellifluous phrases that abound in this psalm, it is this particular clause is central to everything that comes before and after. The presence of God the shepherd is implied in those first verses, and is made more explicit in the verses that follow, about preparing a table before the psalmist even with enemies all around and anointing the head with oil as a sign of hospitality and care. The psalm is, in short, dependent upon and centered on the presence of God.
As if that all weren’t clear enough, the psalmist has one more trick up his (or her?) sleeve to make that fact all the more decisively clear. Remember that wisecrack about reading the psalm in the original Hebrew? If you had the original Hebrew in front of you, you’d be able, with some care, to discover something about just how central this phrase is. You could even count the number of Hebrew words before this phrase, and then count the words after “you are with me,” and you know what? They’d be almost exactly the same. The psalmist has gone so far as to embed “you are with me” as the literally central statement of the psalm. Everything that comes before and after hinges on this basic truth that the psalmist has learned in the hard time, and it all balances on this basic truth that the psalmist has learned in the darkest valley.
I don’t know about you, but after a week of isolation this is a useful thing to remember. It can be incredibly difficult to keep in mind that even if we are holed up in our homes and cut off from most all human contact, we are not ever alone; we can with the psalmist say “you are with me.” It can be terribly difficult to feel, I know that much; it’s hard to know that reassurance in isolation or solitude or especially quarantine. But that truth never goes away. God is with you. God is with you, and you, and you, and all of you. All of us.
And that never changes.
God is with you. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #803, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need; #188, Jesus Loves Me!; —, When Hands Can No More Reach and Hold
Image: James Gilmour, Dark Valley
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 8, 2020, Lent 2A
The Prayers We Make
The prayers I make will then be sweet indeed if Thou the Spirit give by which I pray;
The words of today’s anthem were penned originally by Michaelangelo Buonarrati (yes, that Michelangelo, a poet as well as a painter), and translated into English by William Wordsworth. They speak to a most basic fact about prayers and praying that we are deeply prone to forget or overlook. Prayer, when prayed with any kind of effectiveness, comes from the leading of the Holy Spirit more than from us. As Jesus’s instruction wrapped around this terribly familiar prayer shows, prayers coming from our own motivation – the “barren clay” of the “unassisted heart” of Michelangelo’s poem – can be far worse than merely shallow or meaningless. They can be exercises in vanity and self-righteousness.
Take the guy out on the street corner, probably with his own entourage of trumpets heralding his every utterance. There’s a reason that Jesus turns to that phrase “truly I tell you, they have received their award”; the gesture has no other purpose than to draw the attention of passerby to the overwhelming “righteousness” of the one doing the praying. If even one person is so moved in the crowd, the venture is a success.
One of my former hometowns had an occasional issue with street-corner preachers setting up shop on its highly popular downtown street to chastise the town for its loose morals and “unchristian ways.” As a university town it did have a lot of diversity going on in its borders, far more than other cities and towns in the state. This diversity did include religious diversity, both in terms of the number of different religious practiced (or not practiced) and in the number of different Christian traditions expressed there. At first this performance raised some hackles among the locals (the street preacher and his entourage were from a notorious church about a half hour away), but folks figured out the solution quickly: don’t pay them any attention, no matter what they say. Just walk by on your way to the restaurant. Soon enough, when the preacher and his entourage were no longer receiving their reward, they moved on.
Where, exactly, is the Holy Spirit in such a performance? Far better to go find a closet, as Jesus says, and forego the attention of adoring crowds. Attention-seeking prayers form attention-seeking pray-ers, and the guiding of the Spirit isn’t going to cut through all the noise. Quite likely, the one praying is all about showing off to others, with absolutely no concern for hearing a word from God – after all, why do you need to hear a word from God when you’ve got God all figured out enough to show it off on the street corners? It’s not prayer, when it comes down to it.
Or how about the guy with all the words? Jesus makes reference to not praying “like the Gentiles” with lots of words piling up, but such a phenomenon wasn’t completely alien to the Jewish tradition either. Check out that prayer Solomon prays at the dedication of the Temple, a small portion of which we heard in the day’s first reading. Yes, it’s a celebratory occasion and all that, but is the prayer really the place to pile up the word count? As Jesus puts it, you’re not telling God anything new; your needs are already known before you open your mouth. I suppose the challenge might be that what you need (that God already knows) might not exactly coincide with what you want, but perhaps that’s another reason not to be quite so verbose.
Then comes the prayer itself.
Now notice how Jesus introduces the prayer. He doesn’t say “pray these words” or “pray this prayer”; his instructions are “pray then in this way,” or other translations might say “pray like this.” There’s really no evidence that Jesus was trying to give the disciples some exact prayer to repeat by rote, any more than Jesus meant for the words he spoke at the Last Supper to be repeated exactly by rote every time the disciples broke the bread and partook of the cup.
It isn’t necessarily that it’s wrong to use the prayer in such a way, but there are definite risks to doing so. What happens to things we say by rote? Well, we remember the words pretty well – the same holds true for repeated sung responses like the Gloria Patri and the Doxology in the service. But no matter how many times we say them, how much do we hear them? Or do they become, well, empty words, drained of meaning or even basic comprehension in the act of repetition?
At any rate, after all the years of repetition the words are at least familiar to us. We can note that it is Matthew’s version of the prayer that uses the words we use – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We should understand that the reference here really is a financial one; we are to forgive the debts of those who owe us money. It was a radical enough message in Jesus’s time, when being owed by others was a tremendous source of power in the Roman Empire. It’s an echo of the “year of Jubilee” evoked in the Torah, in which such debts were forgiven under the instruction of the Law every seven years. So here’s a pretty strong example of how the repetition of the prayer over the centuries has numbed us to the rather radical notions it espouses for us to live up to, isn’t it? Honestly, if we’re under God’s instruction to forgive the debts of others, we might as well really not engage in loaning money to others. Just give it to them with no expectation of reward. Again, pretty radical implications of this prayer.
There is one more little tag-on after the prayer, and it’s a bit chilling – if you don’t forgive (as the prayer promises that we will do), the consequences are cosmic and devastating. Again, a deeply uncomfortable thought.
Here’s the thing about this prayer, whether we take it as a literal prayer to be repeated exactly or as an instruction to “pray this way”; far from being about getting what we want from God, it is so much more about being formed into followers of Christ – forgiving those debts; forgiving even more generally; relying on God to know our needs daily and beyond; seeking after God’s guidance to stay away from evil and to conform to the good.
Again, like the poem and anthem has already taught us, “of good and pious works thou [God] art the seed…unless thou [God again] show us then thine own true way, no one can find it! Father, thou must lead.” We rely on God to be able even to offer up the words to pray, and then those words in turn form us into those followers of God, into the body of Christ even, by their unceasing call upon us and our choices and actions.
In short, it is a deeply important call to be very discerning and obedient to the Holy Spirit even in the act of praying, for whether it is this model prayer or any other, the prayers we make…make us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #465, What a Friend We Have in Jesus; #435, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy; #—-, Our Father In Heaven, All Glorious Above; #543, God Be the Love to Search and Keep Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2020, Lent 1A
It Is Written…
When was the last time anyone dared you to go up on top of the tallest building in town and throw yourself off to prove that God loves you so much – that you are #blessed, so to speak – that God wouldn’t possibly let you get hurt?
Has anyone ever challenged you to turn a bunch of decorative garden stones at Home Depot or Lowe’s into bread to feed all the people at St. Francis House or Family Promise or Grace Marketplace?
Or have you ever been tempted to sell your soul to some billionaire in order to get bankrolled for a run at public office – maybe even the highest office in the land?
As familiar as this story is – we do read it once a year from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke – one of the things we often don’t think about is that the particular temptations Jesus faces here are not really that relatable for most of us, even in more modern equivalents. And truth be told, it’s just as well. We struggle enough with the far more mundane temptations with which we are confronted on a regular basis.
I could go through a whole laundry list of temptations any one of us might face on a regular basis. A typical preacher might toss out some manner of temptation to some financial misdeed, possibly, or a more sexual temptation perhaps, or the temptation to make like the Houston Astros and cheat our way to whatever “victory” we desire.
I wonder, though, if the most insidious temptation we face on a regular basis – so common, in fact, that we probably don’t even recognize it as a temptation – is what might be called the temptation to ‘let it slide.’ It’s the temptation that comes of seeing a thing that is wrong, and knowing that it is wrong, but choosing, for whatever reason, to ‘let it slide.’
This temptation works a lot of ways. Let’s take what we might call a global example. The world’s economic food system is in many ways riddled with all manner of corruption, abusive or exploitative practices towards workers in the supply down to and including slavery, widely unethical pay practices, environmentally degrading agricultural practices, and a whole load of other such wrongdoing. The practices in question implicate an awful lot of the favorite food brands people, particularly in the USA, buy most often. Now there are in some cases particular brands or companies that take into account and seek to avoid or eliminate such practices; you might see labels such as “fair trade certified” or “rainforest-safe” or something like that on the packaging of such foods or goods. Still, you know, those brands tend to be a bit more expensive and harder to find. And, you know, you really like that particular chocolate bar, or can’t function at all without that particular cup of coffee in the morning. And then comes the defeatist argument: what difference can one person make, anyway?
And so, we … let it slide.
But let’s get more immediate, or more personal. You know something is wrong with the couple next door. You don’t see him, unless he comes tearing in late at night, often with a lot of noisy shouting or arguing. She’s turning much more withdrawn, less approachable, and when you see her she’s clearly trying to hide something and is clearly more fearful and on edge. You have suspicions. You know something is wrong but you don’t know anything. And you can already hear the voices telling you to ‘mind your own business.’ And after all, if he’s willing to be that violent to her, who’s to say he won’t be that violent towards you?
And so, we…let it slide.
All creation suffers, peoples around the world are ground into dust by unrelenting poverty, women are abused constantly and even killed, and we…let it slide.
Perhaps this is where Jesus’s temptation meets ours after all. The Tempter’s challenges to Jesus are a direct attack on Jesus’s relationship to God the Father. Who does Jesus serve with his power for miracles? Does Jesus glorify God, or himself? Who is worthy of worship? Jesus lets none of these challenges slide, to say the least.
And also, Jesus doesn’t get into great theological arguments with the Tempter either. Each temptation is swatted aside, you’ll note, with a statement that either begins with or includes the phrase “It is written…” In this case, all three of these answers are written in the book of Deuteronomy, that great recapitulation of the Law that finishes the Torah.
We do have that resource at hand, you know. We also have a lot more “it is written” resources as well, law and prophets and writings and psalms and poetry and letters and apocalyptic visions and most of all the very acts and deeds of Jesus himself, written that we might have Jesus’s witness in our minds, our hearts, and our lives, that we might know temptation when we see it and might be prepared to rebuff it at every turn. As it is written in John 20:31, “these are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
See, not giving into temptation isn’t about the do’s and don’ts, the “gotcha”s and the finger-pointers. It’s about life; life in Jesus’s name, life in God’s good created world, life in the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It’s about the choice, again and again, to live into our baptisms and our confirmation promises and the commitment we express every time we come to this table. It’s about life in the Jesus who chooses again and again to live for God and for us.
For all this, we have to say Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #167 Forty Days and Forty Nights; #—, God, You Wrap Your Love Around Us; #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2020, Transfiguration A
See More Clearly
The text of the anthem we heard from the choir earlier in the service is indeed claimed to be taken from a poem attributed to one Richard of Chichester, a thirteenth-century clergyman who served most notably as the Bishop of Chichester in England. According to legend Richard uttered the words as part of a larger utterance upon his deathbed. While many divergent versions of this prayer made their way into circulation, some of which bear little resemblance to the words heard here, the popularized version seems to have appeared first in the early twentieth century, first as a poetic prayer and then as a hymn. While that version circulated in some church circles, the most broadly popular adaptation of the text happened in 1971, set to music by Stephen Schwartz and included in his musical Godspell, which finally appeared on Broadway in 1976.
There’s no evidence to suggest that Richard of Chichester had the subject of today’s readings in mind when he put together his poem. (For that matter, I’m pretty sure Godspell doesn’t attempt to include the Transfiguration.) Nonetheless, it might make sense to look at one and see or hear the other; for those disciples who went up the mountain with Jesus, what they saw there showed them Jesus in a far different way than they had known before. It seems fair to say that the event did cause the disciples to see Jesus more clearly.
The event is included in the three synoptic gospels, though not in John. As is often the case the three gospels cover the same basic material but each from a distinct perspective and distinct point to make about it.
For Matthew, maybe the most distinctive touch comes near the end of the account. The basic narrative is familiar; the three go up the mountain with Jesus; Jesus is transfigured, displayed in glory and dazzling brightness, with Moses and Elijah appearing and talking to him; Peter, as usual, puts his foot in his mouth suggesting that they build tabernacle-like shelters for the three figures; the light becomes blinding, driving the disciples to their knees, and the voice from heaven pronounces Jesus as God’s beloved Son – echoing the voice heard after Jesus’s baptism – but with the added imperative “Listen to him!”
To this point one could find a lot of similarity between this story and the one read from Exodus, about Moses’s encounter with God on Mount Sinai. Matthew’s narrative also seems to echo language found describing particular visions of dazzling glory found in prophetic literature such as the book of Daniel, chapter 10 in particular. This is a new thing in the experience of the disciples themselves, but they’ve probably been taught a few lessons about similar, or at least similar-looking events.
But what comes next brings a different touch; the disciples are still cowering in fear on the ground (quite justifiably so, I’d say) when comes a touch on the shoulder, and a few gentle words: “Get up, and do not be afraid.” They look up and see no dazzling light, no transfiguring glory, no Moses or Elijah. Just Jesus, saying it’s time to go.
This is the touch that’s missing from the accounts in Mark or Luke; after all the glory, after all the terror, it’s just Jesus, telling them not to be afraid. It is an immediate reaffirmation that the same Jesus with whom they have been traveling, the one they have seen performing miracles and teaching and praying, is the same one they just saw glorified by God above, in the company of the two leading figures of their faith tradition.
The disciples have seen Jesus in a way they had not seen him before now, but they are also seeing that this glorified and transfigured Jesus is Jesus, their teacher and companion. This final touch, this final word of casting aside fear and getting back to work, seals that connection and that realization – that really was Jesus, that really was our Teacher, glorified and talking to Moses and Elijah up there on that mountain.
How does this kind of event implant itself in your memory?
Especially in a situation like this, one in which you’ve been strictly forbidden to talk about it “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” how does your mind hold on to what you have seen and heard here? What does this show you about Jesus and how does this new sight stay with you?
For the most part we can’t really know; we don’t have James or John or Peter directly on record saying anything about this in the gospels – they apparently did follow Jesus’s instructions after all. Not even as the book of Acts follows the disciples after Jesus’s ascension do we get a particular recollection of the Transfiguration. The only possible hint we get is in today’s second reading, from the troublesome and difficult epistle near the end of the New Testament known as 2 Peter.
This is a troublesome book, for real. It carries Peter’s name (actually, Simon Peter’s name), but it is almost impossible to reconcile the apparent circumstances of its writing with what we know of Peter’s life. In fact, it is entirely likely that 2 Peter is chronologically the last of the books of the New Testament to have been written, possibly not even until the early second century (well after Peter’s death); at any rate it’s late enough that Paul’s letters are already starting to take on the status of scripture or something close to it (see 3:15-16). There are parts of the letter that frankly feel out of place in the New Testament.
Quite possibly it was written, however, by a student or disciple of Peter, using the medium of the letter to convey what his (or her?) teacher had passed on in his final days, in the midst of already turbulent times for the nascent church. In other words, it probably wasn’t written by Peter but it may well contain Peter’s message, albeit somewhat filtered and secondhand.
Written in the face of increasing difficulty with cynical opposition to the church’s witness, this letter puts forth the eyewitness accounts of Peter (and other eyewitnesses) as a defense against the claim of some that the gospel witness was nothing but “cleverly devised myths.” It is interesting that with all the potential things that Peter saw and conveyed to these students, the one that the final author chose was not something like the Crucifixion, the risen Christ, or the Ascension, but rather this Transfiguration – the “Majestic Glory” of God, the sound of the voice from heaven, the message “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”; these did make a distinct impression on Peter’s memory, it seems, that he conveyed to those who took after him and that they in turn pass on to the readers of this epistle.
But what is it that the Transfiguration seems to show to Peter?
One of the frequently found liturgical formulas of the church in reference to Jesus is to speak of him as the one “who was and who is and who is to come,” an echo of a formula found in the first chapter of Revelation. What Peter seems to have grasped and conveyed to his followers is that this Transfiguration event showed him not just the Jesus who was or who is, but the Jesus who is to come – the one who will come again in glory, the one who will reign as our judge and our redeemer and our king for eternity. In the midst of the long journey to Jerusalem and the final end of Jesus’s earthly ministry, Peter and James and John saw in the transfigured and glorified Jesus nothing less than the eternal Jesus, the one in whom all our hopes are secured for now and the age to come.
This is perhaps a useful thing to remember, as we have come to the end of the season of Epiphany and approach the season of Lent. Indeed, Peter’s understanding as suggested in the epistle is an epiphany unto itself – a seeing of Jesus so much more clearly, in a way he had not imagined possible. And in the days before the church now, with the marking of the ashes to come this Wednesday and the slow journey to the cross and the grave, it’s good for us to have this epiphany, this fleeting yet indelible reminder of the one who was and who is and who most assuredly is to come, in whom is our hope and our safety and our eternity itself.
What a thing to see more clearly. And when we see Jesus more clearly in this way, how can we not love Jesus more dearly and follow Jesus more nearly?
For this glimpse of the glorified Christ, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #634, To God Be the Glory; #662, Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies; #193, Jesus, Take Us to the Mountain; #11, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud
Grace Presbyterian Church
February 16, 2020, Epiphany 6A
I Belong To…
If, back in the 1980s or 90s, I had mentioned to you Thomas Road Baptist Church, you might have looked at me blankly. If I had then added that the church in question was in Lynchburg, Virginia, you might have wondered why I was bringing it up. But if I had mentioned the name of its pastor, you’d likely have experienced a jolt of recognition. Of course, the pastor of that church back then was Jerry Falwell.
This is actually not that uncommon a thing. There are some churches which, whether unintentionally or by their own doing, become so heavily and pervasively identified with their pastor that they almost lose any sense of their own identity. At best such an identity obscures the work that the people of the congregation actually do for themselves; at worst the church becomes little more than a personality cult, all power and decision-making centered solely in the man in charge (and it almost always is a man in such cases) and with the congregation devolved into nothing but devoted, passionate, and maybe sometimes obnoxious followers.
Needless to say, that’s not a good situation. Nor, apparently, is it a new one, if we might guess from the reading this morning from Paul’s first letter to Corinth. While the setting of the Corinthian church is rather different from its modern counterparts, Paul’s lessons to them are still applicable as the church collectively or individually seeks to follow Christ’s teaching and example more closely and bear truthful witness to the good news. So what exactly is going on in Corinth that gets Paul so agitated, and who is this Apollos fellow anyway?
This chapter three opening is actually the culmination of an argument that Paul has been developing for the whole letter so far, going all the way back to 1:10 and its instruction to the Corinthians “that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” It turns out that Paul’s been hearing from some of his contacts that the Corinthians have been “taking sides” and showing favoritism for one or another of the particular leaders that have been involved in some way with the founding and nurturing of the church there.
Paul had, in his many travels, played a large role in the establishing of the church in Corinth. Apollos, on the other hand, had come through Corinth later, and been an important figure in the growth of that church from those initial roots. Apollos first appears in Acts 18, showing up in Ephesus as a Jewish-born believer who had been instructed well in the Way of the Lord, if not quite completely. The evangelists Priscilla and Aquila took him under their collective wing for some continuing education, and thereafter he continued his travels with the endorsement of the believers in Ephesus, traveling to Corinth to pick up after Paul when Paul moved on to Ephesus.
So Paul and Apollos both had clear connections to the church in Corinth, but their names weren’t the only ones being tossed around in the division of that church. Back in 1:12, while some were saying “I belong to Paul” and others “I belong to Apollos,” there was also a faction making the claim “I belong to Cephas.” It’s not necessarily clear why Cephas (the fellow we know as Simon Peter, or “Rocky”) would come up here, but he apparently (and quite unwittingly) has his own faction in the Corinthian congregation attaching themselves to him above others.
To be clear, there is absolutely no indication that any of these individuals have done anything to cultivate these cult followings, aside from, well, doing their jobs. The taking-sides game is strictly an invention of the Corinthians themselves. Certainly leaders have been guilty of fomenting division and cultivating particular followings at various times in the church’s history, but there’s no indication at all that anything like that is going on here.
On a human level, one could point to reasons for different members to admire each of these individuals. Paul was the founder. His preaching and instruction was a key factor in the church finding its footing in Corinth, a challenging city in its cosmopolitan and somewhat elitist way for a fledgling group of believers in a foreign deity to get its act together. If Paul planted the church, as he describes in 3:6, then Apollos was the one who watered the newly-planted church, following Paul’s work with the ongoing work of teaching and encouraging. Also, pretty much all the descriptions of Apollos make much of his rhetorical eloquence and prowess at debating. He was probably a handsome fellow too, in contrast to the likely short, unimpressive, and maybe even funny-looking Paul.
To be clear, neither Paul nor Apollos was a “pastor” to the congregation in the modern sense of the word; both were itinerant preacher-evangelists, traveling from city to city, sometimes to plant new churches and sometimes to encourage or support existing ones. It’s not clear that Peter even visited Corinth (though it is possible), but in contrast to Paul and Apollos he was one of the Twelve, one of the original followers of and eyewitnesses to Jesus, which would carry its own particular appeal. He had also been first among those twelve to recognize and speak up for God’s obvious welcome to Gentile believers after his encounter with the Gentile military man Cornelius and his family (Acts 10). Again, on a human basis, there were reasons to prefer each one.
But there was one more factional claim. Beyond “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” Paul’s sources were also hearing “I belong to Christ.” But really, what’s the problem with that? Isn’t that, you know, the right answer?
Well, it depends on how you say it. You know how some people can say things that are absolutely true and correct and right, but say them in a way that makes you seriously consider a life of evil just because of how they say it? There’s a big difference between “I belong to Christ” and “I belong to Christ,” and the Corinthians were all about the smug self-righteousness of the latter.
Having thus laid out his complaint against the Corinthians, Paul seems to go off on a different subject in the rest of chapter 1 and all of chapter 2. In one of the most striking passages in all of Paul’s writing, he draws in sharp relief a contrast between worldly wisdom and the foolishness-but-really-wisdom of God exemplified in the crucified Christ – “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23). Paul continues to explore this contrast between worldly wisdom and divine wisdom, wisdom that the world simply cannot understand or comprehend. Only those who are themselves tied to Christ, whose wisdom is subsumed to the wisdom of God, can begin to understand.
Now when chapter 3 opens with our reading today, Paul’s listeners and readers were probably caught off guard when he started talking about them as not spiritual people, but “infants in Christ,” having to be fed with milk instead of solid food. But the hammer drops in verses 3-4:
…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? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?
Remember how I kept saying that one could understand how the Corinthians might be inclined to be a Paul fan or an Apollos follower “on a human level” or “on a human basis”? It turns out that this is exactly the problem. Preferring Paul or Apollos or Peter on any of these bases – Paul’s primacy as founder, Apollos’s charisma and eloquence, Peter’s high status – is no more spiritual or Christlike than the average debate y’all Gator fan types might have over whether Steve Spurrier or Danny Wuerfel or Tim Tebow is the best quarterback in UF history (and if your mind immediately went off debating that question, it’s kinda proving Paul’s point about how ‘human’ such thoughts are).
But this cheerleading and side-taking is off the mark not necessarily for the reason you might think. It’s less about Paul or Apollos being equally important so much as their being equally unimportant, in a way; as Paul puts it, he planted the plant and Apollos watered it, but only God caused the plant to grow.
The leaders of churches – whether the itinerant evangelist/teacher types of Paul’s and Apollos’s time or the more settled pastors of today – are nothing but servants, laborers in God’s field, the church, this church. As Paul puts it, “you are God’s field, God’s building.” Rick Palmer and other pastors who came before me here had their tasks in this field or on this building as given by God; I have mine; and whoever comes after me will have hers or his. None of us can claim to be more or less important in God’s eyes than any of the others. If anything, we are all flawed and fallible human beings – goodness, I know I am. Anyone who gets to cheerleading for Charles Freeman is inevitably – and probably quickly – going to be deeply disappointed.
No, I’m not significant, and neither is Rick Palmer [note: immediate predecessor] or Henry Reaves [note: first pastor] or any of the other distinguished pastors who have occupied this pulpit. The only one worthy of your allegiance is God and God alone. We are all laborers on this task, nothing more. God is the one to whom your allegiance is owed, not any one of us nor any to come.
You’ll find that not all branches of the church are terribly good at remembering this. Thomas Road Baptist Church – you remember, Jerry Falwell’s church – is far from the only one to get utterly subsumed under its pastor’s identity. You may not know the name Marble Collegiate Church, for example, but you probably have at least heard the name Norman Vincent Peale. No matter how good (or otherwise) the work of the super-famous pastor may be, such an identity isn’t really helpful in that it obscures both the congregation that is God’s field or God’s building, and the God who (if the church is doing it right) is the one giving whatever spiritual growth may happen there (and remember never to assume that numerical growth and spiritual growth are the same thing).
In short, a pastor like me, like Paul and Apollos before, is only the hired hand, the field laborer, the construction guy working to shore up the foundation of the building. No more than that. You are God’s field, you are God’s building. But it is God and only God who gives any growth to the church. Never let any personality distract you from that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #321, The Church’s One Foundation; #61, Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect; #63, The Lord Is God; #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life