Grace Presbyterian Church

A Warm and Welcoming Church

Sermon: The Word Is Near You

Grace Presbyterian Church

March 6, 2022, Lent 1C

Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

The Word Is Near You

Well, here we are again, back in that season called Lent. 

You can be forgiven for being caught off guard by this. Even though Lent has arrived relatively late this year, since Easter isn’t until April 17, somehow it always manages to sneak up and arrive almost by surprise, at least to me. Conversely, one can certainly be excused for feeling as though we’ve been living through a constant state of Lent since, oh, March 2020, what with isolation and then continuing pandemic conditions and <wave arms around wildly> all of the stuff surrounding that. 

Nonetheless, here we are again, and as is always the case for Lent 1 we get a gospel reading that recounts the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, from Luke in this case. Luke’s account is a rich one, giving us the good full details of just what the Tempter threw at Jesus, who was also fasting through the experience. We are reminded of how the Tempter tried three different temptations – turning stone into bread, claiming power, and engaging in a spectacular stunt – only to be turned away by Jesus with a word from Deuteronomy in each case. Even when the Tempter tried to back up his lure with his own scripture quotes [note: one from Psalm 91, which was read in the service as well], Jesus didn’t fall for it, not for a second. 

One thing to take from this story is that, to put it almost simplistically, Jesus knew his scripture. Of course one could also point out that the Tempter knew scripture too, but here we come to the difference between knowing scripture and knowing scripture – between having a basic head knowledge of verses contained in scripture and knowing scripture as a vital, living presence within us, as we are led by the Holy Spirit in encountering it. The Tempter knew words; Jesus knew The Word.

This is a theme Paul picks up in his letter to the church at Rome. In doing so Paul, as he often does in his letters, shows off his own knowledge of scripture, drawing from Deuteronomy 30, Isaiah 28, and Joel 2 in this short excerpt of his discourse. 

What Paul is encouraging here, though, is far beyond simple Bible drill-style memorization of scripture verses or some kind of scrutinizing to “unlock the hidden secrets of the Bible” or whatever. No, what Paul is urging is a knowledge of the word that is both verbal and spiritual; one that is bound up in profession and confession of our faith and is also essential to living out that faith. It’s not about mastering the secrets of the Bible, but it’s about being mastered by God, led by the Spirit and following after Jesus through the Word given in the scriptures. 

That interplay is made all the clearer in verses 9 and 10, in which Paul engages in a bit of rhetorical flourish to draw out how both of those knowings of scripture matter. These parallel statements help us see that it isn’t an either-or, or a first-second, or even a 1a-1b situation; both confession and belief are part of what it means for the Word to be near us as in verse 8. 

Here I might suggest that we’d benefit from parsing the word “belief” for a moment. We live in a time where the word “belief” has gotten out of whack, particularly when applied to scripture. It’s not hard to find some preacher or other who will tell you to “believe in the Bible,” but when you unpack and tease out what that statement is encouraging, it turns out to be little more than that same head knowledge we’ve already talked about. Or, worse, it becomes “belief” in the Bible as some sort of magic talisman little different from whatever such object might be used to wield power in some fantasy novel or movie. Suffice to say that is not what Paul is about here.

One fairly simple way of getting at this is to think of the game that one might find done on different kind of retreats, be they youth retreats or corporate retreats or some such. You’ve quite likely heard of it, the one in which the participants are paired off and one stands behind the other in a position to “catch” the other as the other falls backward. For the one falling backward, the act of falling backward, as required by the game, goes far beyond the “belief” that the person behind is there to prevent a potentially painful outcome of collapsing to the ground; what is involved here is not merely belief, but as that game name suggests, trust. The one designated to fall is trusting the one designated to catch. 

Frankly this is a lot closer to what Paul is talking about in speaking of the one who “believes in the heart.” This is about much more than intellectual assent to the Resurrection of Jesus; put bluntly, it’s about living like one who knows Jesus to have been raised from the dead, and who knows that Jesus lives, and who knows that one day the same will be true for us. “Heart belief” shows up in action, in day-to-day living, or it’s not there, period. Talking a good game isn’t the same as that “heart belief.”

At the same time, the “talking a good game” part also matters. Paul places an equal emphasis on confession of that faith. Here “confession” is not used in reference to our sinfulness, but to our ability and willingness to say what we believe. It’s the kind of “confession” that it meant by the various statements of faith found in our denomination’s Book of Confessions. Note even how many of those are simply named as “confessions,” from the older Scots Confession and Second Helvetic Confession and Westminster Confession of Faith to the more recent Confession of 1967 and Confession of Belhar. In essence, when we do our Affirmation of Faith right after the sermon, it is one small example of how we “confess with our lips,” to borrow from Paul. You might even think of it as practice in this kind of confession. 

Part of the power of this is caught up in that statement in verse 13, the one lifted from the prophet Joel: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That’s a statement that pushes the boundaries of what we call faith; it challenges our neat little boundaries and rules to suggest that everyone who calls out to the Lord is somehow drawn into God’s salvation. It’s the kind of thing that likely would offend those with mere belief in God, but that won’t trouble too much those who trust in God. 

All of this, as yet another Lent is upon us, offers us another way to view this season so typically associated with penitence and that other kind of confession. This is a time to practice our faith, to “trust with the heart” and to “confess with the mouth” the God who has saved us and still saves us and will keep on saving us, in a way that perhaps we have lost track of in our lives. 

Lent, with all its confession and humility and even giving stuff up, is also a time to get back on track. It’s a time for getting back to the basics, so to speak, and remembering what it means to trust God with our lives and profess God with our lips, and to do so with confidence that God has saved us, and God is saving us, and God will save us when we call on the name of the Lord. When the word is near you, all of this is possible. 

For the word that is near, and all that it makes possible, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: #620, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven; #525, Let Us Break Bread Together; #481, I Believe in God the Father

Sermon: In Light Inaccessible

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 27, 2022, Transfiguration C

Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

In Light Inaccessible

For our last hymn today we will be singing a pretty familiar hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise.” The opening words of that hymn put before us an image that might seem counterintuitive, on the surface;

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,

In light inaccessbile hid from our eyes…

Think about that for a moment. Particularly in scripture or in theology or preaching, “light” is almost always about illuminating, making things seen or more clearly visible, undoing darkness in some way. Think of the prologue of the gospel of John, in which “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Or consider the image invoked in Isaiah 42:6, in which the people are promised that “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…” (an image repeated in Isaiah 49:6). Or consider a simple image like that of Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world,” after which Jesus points out that one doesn’t cover a lamp with a bushel but rather puts it on a lampstand so that it “gives light to all the house.” That’s just for starters.

Even the more general usage of our language suggests such a lean towards light as illuminating – even that word carries such a shade, not to mention such a word as “enlightened.” We speak of a whole epoch of history as “the Enlightenment” because of the supposed benefit of greater learning and reason that was attributed to the age.

So what’s with that phrase in the hymn, “in light inaccessible hid from our eyes“? 

Think of what happens when a solar eclipse comes around. The one warning you get again and again is don’t look directly into the sun during an eclipse. Frankly, that’s not a thing you’re supposed to be doing any time, but the warnings about eye damage come out especially intensely around an eclipse. 

There is such a thing, evidently, as too much light. It isn’t that common, but a thing can be so brightly illuminated that the thing itself is no longer visible, only the overwhelming light illuminating it. Such a phenomenon doesn’t have quite so much scriptural precedent behind it, but a telling example can be found in 1 Timothy 6:16, in which the Lord is described as the one who “alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light.” One gets a feeling that Walter Chalmers Smith might have had that passage in the back of his head in penning the words of that hymn. 

Maybe this is something we should keep in mind in approaching the two readings we have heard today. The curious reading from Exodus, in which Moses’s face glows with light after his encounters with God on Mount Sinai, provides one small glimpse. Moses doesn’t realize what’s going on until he comes down from the mountain and to the people of Israel to find that they’re all shrinking back from him in fear and puzzlement. Moses ends up having to work out a system whereby he wraps his face in a veil when among the people, taking it off when going back to the mountain. The people cannot understand that shining, and to be fair, who could blame them?

The telling of the Transfiguration of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel might also point to something about that much light. We are told that while Jesus was praying, “the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.” That probably wasn’t a sight people who routinely walked on long, dusty roads were accustomed to seeing. Then Moses and Elijah enter the scene, and we already know Moses knows something about one’s face changing appearance; the two of them appear “in glory” and are talking to Jesus about the events to come.

This is all strange enough; throw in that the disciples were barely awake for all of this, and one can almost be sympathetic to Peter’s well-intended but bungling suggestion about building festival-booth tabernacles for the three shining figures. At this, light is overcome by a cloud, a voice speaks from the cloud, and then – poof! – all of that scene is gone, with only Jesus standing there before the disciples. 

Amidst all of that shining and all that dazzling and all that light, Peter, and presumably the other disciples with him, didn’t see things right. In all that light, his eyes betrayed him. To be fair, he would have been raised with Moses and Elijah as “heroes of the faith,” so to speak, but in that moment of illumination he saw things wrong.

It is particularly telling what the voice from the cloud (we may presume bringing instruction from God at the minimum) finally says to the disciples: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Not “behold” or “see” or any of those clearly visual words, but “listen to him!” The disciples have this amazing privilege that we modern Christians cannot possibly imagine, walking with Jesus in person, and their job is to listen to him, not to get blinded by the light.

A quote from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a bishop in the Eastern Orthodox Church based in England, offers some insight, just maybe, into what’s going on here:

It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.

We could also turn to the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, which we read just a few weeks ago: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part … for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully … ” (9, 12). 

This is a challenge for we who are steeped in the post-Enlightenment ethos of learning by observation. We see the thing, we observe it, we learn from doing so. That generally works fine in a lab or perhaps in fieldwork. But our eye cannot see through all the light inaccessible, to borrow the phrase from the hymn. 

Even our typical cultural concept of “mystery” betrays us here. If you were to see or hear the word “mystery” outside of a church setting, there’s a decent chance the word might be referring to a novel, by Agatha Christie or some other such, or to endless numbers of movies or TV shows sold as “mysteries,” with the implicit social contract that the “mystery” will be neatly solved and packaged within the hour or two hours of viewing time, and with the implicit reward that if you observe carefully and follow the clues you’ll be “right” about “whodunit.” 

That’s not how the mystery of faith works. We can listen to Christ, as that voice in the cloud tells the disciples, but we’re not listening for clues; we are listening for the mystery itself, the very thing that our eyes cannot comprehend.

What the disciples saw on that mountain that day was, at least in part, a mystery. This teacher with whom they had been journeying around Judea or Galilee was far more than “just a teacher,” far more than “just a rabbi.” To contradict the old Doobie Brothers song, Jesus is way, way more than “just alright.” And this side of eternity, we’re not going to grasp it all. No preacher can preach enough sermons, no teacher can teach enough lessons to wrap the faith up neatly and package it up neatly and to tie it off in a neat bow. Any “Christianity” that promises you all the answers to life’s problems is lying to you, and there is plenty of “Christianity” being forced upon the public square right now that purports to do exactly that. 

We suffer a plague of people who know. Our public discourse is glutted with supposed “faith leaders” who have got God pegged. They can tell you exactly which parts of scripture are sacred and inviolable, and which are, well, less so. They can tell you exactly whom you’re allowed to hate and whom you must follow without hesitation. These are the ones who back “patriots” and their assaults on the Capitol, and who back dictators who launch utterly unjust and despicable wars for petty spite. 

Friends, no. That’s not how it is, and to the degree that the Transfiguration reminds us that we don’t have God all neatly packaged this is the best possible news. We know only in part; we may know more over time, but this side of eternity we know only in part; but then, only then, we will see face to face. In the meantime our only recourse really is to follow the instruction of the divine voice from the cloud, and “listen to him!” 

The disciples got just a glimpse of that ‘face to face,’ and they weren’t ready for it. The mystery wasn’t theirs to solve, it was theirs to wonder. Likewise for us. We know only in part now. The time will come, but that time is not now. For now, we can know the One who is God’s only Son, God’s chosen, and listen to him. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #156, Sing of God Made Manifest; #274, You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd; #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise

Sermon: In the Blinking of an Eye

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 20, 2022, Epiphany 7C

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

In the Blinking of an Eye

Before we get into this final message from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, in which the apostle by turns chides, rebukes, encourages, and sometimes rhetorically shakes his head at the Corinthians and their missteps of word and deed, I have a confession to make. There are times when I can, if not necessarily agree with the missteps of those followers, at least understand where they come from, and even on some occasions find some measure of sympathy for them and their processes of thought and feeling by which those missteps come.

This week was one of those times. 

Some of you, particularly those of a certain age, know the experience of which I speak. A day of “preparation” that involves drinking the foulest concoction imaginable, followed by a particular variation of “emptying yourself” that is not likely the type contemplated in scripture or theology. Then you go to your local medical facility and get sedated while they stick cameras in you to see if anything bad is happening in your intestines. Some of you know.

(The good news is they found nothing wrong. The bad news is that next time, in two or three years, I get to spend two days prepping.)

After a week like that, all of that culminating just a couple of days before I turned a Heinz steak sauce number of years old, I can understand why the Corinthians would be icked out by the idea of our physical bodies being resurrected. By Wednesday night I didn’t really want much to do with my body anymore either. 

Paul’s continuing instruction on resurrection probably wasn’t inspired by any particular physical experience, but one could see the dissatisfaction with our physical bodies resonating with what Paul offers up here. The intervening material since last week’s reading speaks of our physical bodies with such descriptions as “perishable” (v.42), “dishonor” (43), and “weakness” (43). At last in verse 50 Paul summarizes this rather convoluted discussion with the assertion that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” This would, on the surface, seem to present a problem for Paul’s whole claim of resurrection for us because of Christ’s resurrection.

Of course, Paul knows that, and knows what he’s about to add. With a bit of dramatic flourish – “Listen, I will tell you a mystery!” — Paul makes clear that the body that rises won’t remain in this precarious physical state. Perishability will be replaced with imperishability, mortal will give way to immortal. Paul even gets a little rhapsodic, borrowing from Isaiah and Hosea to celebrate how “death has been swallowed up in victory,” and taunting with “where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?

Again, some of the in-between material is helpful here. In verses 36-38 Paul summoned up the highly apt image of sowing seeds and reaping, well, something other than seeds. The seed that is planted in the ground looks nothing like what grows out of the ground. And we expect this when we are planting and harvesting or designing a garden. We’d be mighty disappointed if we planted seed and later harvested … nothing but more seed. That wouldn’t make much of a garden either.

So as that seed is greatly transformed as it germinates in the earth, the “seed” of the physical body is greatly transformed as it “germinates” in the earth after death. And what is raised is, like the bloom that grows from the seed, very different. It is sown small and indistinct; it is raised grand and beautiful. 

All of this is quite poetic in its way, and the passage has gained a great deal of popularity as a text for funeral services (or Service of Witness to the Resurrection, to be all Presbyterian about it). But for all of this effect, for all of this sense of comfort or reassurance, this is not really Paul’s point to this whole discussion stretching across this whole fifteenth chapter. Paul saves that last point for the final verse. You can guess that Paul’s big statement is coming when he breaks out the Greek word Ωστε (oste), which we generally translate as “therefore.”

And what’s the big “therefore” point? It’s pretty simple:

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Be steadfast.” Stand strong. Hang on. Keep at it. Keep doing the work. And that last encouragement – “you know that in the Lord your work is not in vain.”

All of this talk of resurrection and eternal union with God in Christ and transformed bodies and all of this isn’t about what is yet to come; it’s about what we do now with the lives we are given to live here on earth, in union with one another in the body of Christ, in obedience to our God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It’s about not giving up, not deciding it’s pointless or hopeless, not falling away or giving up or wavering, but keeping on and going about the work and remaining resolutely about doing that work.  

Sometimes it helps for some people to peek ahead to the end of a particularly intense novel, just to be reassured that there’s a good ending ahead. (I’d never do that, but I’m told some folks do.) That’s kinda what Paul has given the Corinthians here: a peek ahead, something to hold on to in the face of seeming hopelessness or pointlessness. 

We don’t lose hope because of the opposition of sworn enemies of God, or the opposition of God’s most zealous defenders (and these days it’s hard to tell the difference between the two). We don’t get resigned to the ways of this world because of, well, the ways of this world. We don’t despair in the face of bleak hopelessness all around or in what seems like a complete lack of progress. We don’t even despair over our own broken-down, impossible-to-maintain physical bodies that find new ways to betray us every week. We remain steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, our work is not in vain. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #369, Blessing and Honor; #—, Thanks Be to God; #750, Goodness is Stronger than Evil.

Sermon: …if Christ has not been raised…

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 13, 2022, Epiphany 6C

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

…if Christ has not been raised…

To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause—there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

–Shakespeare, Hamlet, III:1

These words from Hamlet’s famous “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, are of course broadly famous as a key moment of that character’s struggle with what to do in what he increasingly sees as a hopeless situation. So burdened is he that he is contemplating suicide. 

This particular portion of the soliloquy contains a particular phrase that has taken on a life well beyond what Shakespeare might have imagined. The phrase “shuffle off this mortal coil” has become a commonplace slang reference to death, and especially death as a leaving behind of the physical life. Note that the soliloquy contemplates “what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil“; while the body is dead, evidently the spirit is still kicking, at least enough to be tormented by dreams. 

Based on today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, we’d have to guess that the Apostle Paul would get pretty frustrated with this soliloquy, maybe even jumping up and exiting the theater in a huff. If anything is made clear in today’s verses, it is that resurrection is real, and it is not merely spiritual.

If you were wondering after last week’s reading why Paul was so adamant about providing that whole list of witnesses to the resurrected Christ, you now have your answer. 

It seems that there were some among the Corinthian fellowship who were perhaps still under the influence of certain Greco-Roman ways of thinking about the relationship between the soul and the body. In much philosophy, particularly following Plato, soul and body were separate things. In short, much of that thought saw the body as a thing to be escaped; let the cludgy old flesh die and the spirit be set free upon death. Not all Greco-Roman thought accepted this – the Epicureans and Stoics were two such examples – but a good bit of such thought held that death was the chance for the soul to be free of the body, fulfilled at last. 

It should be noted that such a philosophical bent doesn’t necessarily result in an outright skeptical or denialist position about physical life after death. It isn’t as if Corinthian objectors were necessarily getting all riled up about this talk of resurrection because it offended them intellectually; it’s also quite possible that they were offended emotionally by the whole idea. In other words, such an objection might be framed not as “that’s impossible” or “that’s ridiculous“; it might as easily have been framed as “oh, gross” or “why would you want that?” When one is conditioned intellectually or emotionally to see the body as an encumbrance, being taught that your body is part of the whole resurrection package can be a shock to the system.

It might be easy for us moderns to scoff at such thoughts or fears, but let’s check ourselves: are we that far from such attitudes about body and soul, really?

That line from Hamlet’s soliloquy, for example, and the evolved interpretation of it as being freed from the body, seems pretty Corinthian in some ways. Are our old gospel hymns and songs completely free from the whole idea of, say, our disembodied souls floating off to Heaven while our bodies remain in the grave or in whatever state they have been treated after death? Or take the whole idea of ghosts, for example – what is that spirit doing floating around all un-embodied? My current favorite TV show, a sitcom called Ghosts based on a British show, plays with all the old tropes about ghosts as disembodied – walking through walls (or even living people), can’t do things like open a door or press a button, all that. I get laughs from it, but the Apostle Paul would probably be irritated by it. 

Or if we’re not making popular-culture fun with ghosts, as disembodied spirits, we’re making horror movies about “dis-emspirited” bodies, or zombies. For what it’s worth, that image of a body in, shall we say, really rough condition, wandering the earth creating terror, is probably not that far off from what those Corinthians might have thought about resurrected bodies. 

I think, also, that there’s another way that the whole “being rid of the body” idea becomes particularly alluring: when those bodies suffer illness or pain. I know that many of you here in this sanctuary, and likely many of you on the live stream as well, have experienced that struggle, either for yourself or for a loved one or friend. We even acknowledge this struggle in the liturgy for the Service of Witness to the Resurrection, when we offer our thanks to God that for the deceased, “death is past and pain ended.” Being ready to be rid of the physical stuff isn’t that uncommon, when we think about it.

However we frame it, Paul is having none of it. And the biggest reason for Paul’s agitation is not any particular concern about disembodied spirits or dis-emspirited bodies or anything like that. No, for the apostle, the absolutely horrible thing about denying resurrection is that if you say there is no resurrection of the dead, then you are saying that Christ was not resurrected from the dead. And that Paul cannot accept.

If Christ has not been raised,” all of Paul’s work has been in vain.

If Christ has not been raised,” the faith of the Corinthians (such as it is) or of any of those to whom Paul has ministered is in vain.

If Christ has not been raised,” Paul and his fellow laborers are liars. If the dead are not raised, somehow, some way, some time, then Christ is not raised. Paul and his fellow laborers have done all this work in proclaiming Christ raised from the dead, which can’t be so if the dead are not raised, he says. 

If Christ has not been raised,” the faith of the Corinthians, and for that matter your own faith, are not only in vain, but futile, even pointless. You are still hopelessly mired in sin with no redemption to be found.

If Christ has not been raised,” the dead in Christ are not even that. They’re just dead.

If Christ has not been raised,” if our hope in Christ was only about this walking-around human life, then (in one of the most heart-wrenching lines of all scripture) “we of all people are most to be pitied.” 

But, as Paul reminds his readers, that’s not the case. But, as Paul reminds his readers, Christ has been raised. Here he comes up with the evocative phrase “the first fruits of those who have died” for Christ. And of course, if Christ is only the “first fruits,” we are led to believe there are more “fruits” to come. In case it’s not clear, that would be us, when our time comes. 

Again, you have to tune in for one more week to get how Paul envisions all this working out. Verses 21-23 give some description: 

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being. For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

We get just a little tease there of Paul’s “big finish,” speaking of the return of Christ. But for this point, we are reminded that as Christ was raised from the dead, the same will be true for those who die in Christ. It’s worth remembering that for readers of Paul’s own time, Christ’s death was in living memory, even if the Corinthians or other recipients of Paul’s letters and ministry weren’t there to see it. It’s a different challenge for us, nearly two thousand years after the fact, to hold on to that hope, but Paul is insistent that this is our hope. 

We don’t live hopeless lives. We don’t live in vain. We are not cast off by God to be forgotten or to disappear into oblivion. Our future is with God. We have a future, our whole selves have a future, and our future is with God. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #370, This Is My Father’s World; #360, Christ Is Coming!; #265, Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun

If Christ has not been raised…what’s the point?

Sermon: How It Happened

Grace Presbyterian Church

February 6, 2022, Epiphany 5C

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

How It Happened

Let’s get back to basics here…

OK, back to square one…

Remember how all this started…

Remember your fundamentals…

In a nutshell…

We have a lot of ways to talk about the need, every now and then, to return to those things in our work or our family life or our life in general that are most basic, perhaps most foundational, to how we operate or how we live together or even to how we exist as a human being. It’s not uncommon to get so caught up or maybe bogged down in the day-to-day details of that activity that we forget why we’re doing that thing in the first place. Sometimes we really do need to get back to basics, or remember how we started, or to sum it all up “in a nutshell.” 

As the Apostle Paul draws to the conclusion of his letter to the church in Corinth, after pages upon pages of instruction and correction and chastisement and sometimes downright frustration, he apparently decides that the Corinthians need to get back to the basics and remember why they’re even a church in the first place. Today’s reading constitutes those “basics,” at least as Paul understood them; the rest of the chapter, which we will attend to on upcoming Sundays, describes how Paul concludes the Corinthians got off-track.

In this case, these “basics” are cast as the message Paul proclaimed to the Corinthians. Paul makes no claim that the message is in any way unique to his ministry; as we will see, he is quick to acknowledge that others proclaim this same basic account, and some of those have even borne their witness to the Corinthians themselves. But notice how carefully Paul casts this message before he even gets around to repeating it:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you-unless you have come to believe in vain.

That’s kind of a mouthful, but Paul is taking pains to stress just how basic this message was to the Corinthians’ very existence as part of the body of Christ. He then reiterates again that what he has taught them he taught “as of first importance,” as if he hasn’t stressed this point enough already. 

But then, Paul probably had reason to be so precise about his proclamation. There were plenty of examples of churches in Paul’s travels that had decided, on their own or through the influence of bad teachers, that other, nonessential or even non-justifiable thoughts needed to be elevated to primary or indispensable status. Perhaps the most notorious example is found in his letter to the church of Galatia, the one where Paul writes “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting…almost immediately in the letter (1:6), and later is moved to exclaim “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1). 

What had the Galatians done to provoke such ire from Paul? They had, under the influence of those “bad teachers,” decided that, for example, male Gentile converts to this community of believers should be required to undergo the rite of circumcision according to Jewish practice; in short, they had to become Jewish to become Christian. Galatia wasn’t the only place where Paul ran into this obstacle to faith – those bad teachers traveled almost as well as Paul did – but his literary outburst in that letter is perhaps most striking. In short, Paul had reason to be very precise and direct about taking the Corinthians back to square one.

The gospel in a nutshell, as Paul puts it?

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…

There it is. The basics. The gospel in a nutshell. 

The self-described “lectionary comic strip” Agnus Day takes on this passage in a humorous exchange between its two characters, sheep named Ted and Rick. Ted remarks of this passage that “there it is, the whole gospel in a handful of verses,” to which Rick, the wiser sheep, responds that “Paul doesn’t want them to forget the basics of the faith.” Then the punchline, from Ted: “Makes me wonder why I’m carrying around the rest of this Bible…“. 

This is not an invitation to toss out the rest of the Bible – there’s a lot more to be said about how this gospel came to be and what it means for us. As far as the most basic element of why we are what we are, though, it’s hard to add to this. We will echo this in our Lord’s Supper responses: Christ has died. Christ is risen.

With this basic gospel stated, Paul then engages in some “human bibliography” – being careful to cite sources for this gospel, in particular the part about Christ being raised. (Yes, this might serve as a clue to what is to come later in the chapter.) He does this by rattling off a pretty impressive list of witnesses to the risen Christ. There might be an inclination to panic over the fact that this list doesn’t necessarily correlate to any particular account of resurrection appearances in any of the gospels. Don’t panic. Remember that Mark’s gospel includes no such appearances, Matthew barely gets in any, and John flatly admits that there’s a whole lot more he could have included in his gospel but didn’t. Those gospels hadn’t even been written at the time Paul is writing to the Corinthians to boot. Nothing in the gospels gives us any reason to question what Paul has received and passed on.

Of course, the last witness Paul lists is Paul himself, referring to the dramatic scene in Acts 9. Paul is quick to acknowledge his own dark past as one who “persecuted the church of God,” but uses that failure of his past to illuminate the grace of God that made him into what he now was, even if he can’t stop himself from going on about how hard he’s had to work at this before acknowledging God’s grace again. 

In short, here’s the point, so far: Christ died and was buried, Christ was raised again (this is all consistent with scripture, Paul points out), and we have a lot of witnesses to the risen Christ, some of whom you know (it’s possible Cephas, whom we know as Peter, had visited Corinth at some point). That’s the most basic foundation of your faith, of your being what you are. 

This is a challenging topic to translate into our own modern context. Those eyewitnesses are no longer with us, after all, and the church has blundered through nearly two millenia of trying, with intent good or ill, claiming all manner of other doctrinal assertions as “fundamentals” of the faith. This has inevitably done incredible damage to the church’s witness, not to mention to those who are victimized by such assertions. 

No: the fundamental of the faith, Paul would say, is this: 

that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #485, We Know That Christ Is Raised; #441, Hear the Good News of Salvation; #649, Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound

Sermon: The More Excellent Way

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 30, 2022, Epiphany 4C

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

The More Excellent Way

One of the challenges of preaching a text like this one, which has gained tremendous familiarity over time due to its popularity as a text for weddings, is that we forget that it is not a free-standing, isolated poem unrelated to anything but itself. Even in the act of preaching outside of a marriage ceremony, seldom does all of this other stuff in Paul’s letter to Corinth get looked over and considered. We might even forget, after a fashion, that Paul didn’t write his letters in chapters – these divisions were created much later, mostly for reading convenience. There are probably quite a few churches where this text is being heard today, in isolation, after weeks of sermons from Luke’s gospel, where folks switched over for today because this is such a popular text while the reading from Luke, where the people of Jesus’s hometown get so mad at his sermon that they try to kill him, is less appealing. What gets missed in that case is all the connections between this chapter and what has come before in Paul’s letter.

To take one example, the very first verse of chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians. It would seem to be a strange place to look, given that its first words are “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols…”, which doesn’t seem like the introduction to a statement on the importance of love. Nonetheless, before we can even get away from verse 1, Paul has reminded his readers and hearers that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He goes on to add that whatever anyone knows (or thinks they know), it’s not sufficient, but one who loves God is fully and completely known to God. 

Additionally, a number of other passages earlier in the letter lay a foundation for this discourse on love by pointing to God and our utter reliance on God. God is “the source of your life in Christ Jesus” (1:30); God is “the one who gives the growth” no matter who planted or watered the seed of the gospel (3:7); God is the one “from whom are all things and for whom we exist” (8:6). The God who is this foundation and source and root and all is the one who is the source and direction of our living, and that is found in the love God loves for us, which we then are directed to love towards one another. 

For that matter, other portions of chapter 13 are also echoes of earlier discussions in this letter. Take a look at the list of characteristics of love in verses 4-7:

  • Love is not envious” (4), but the Corinthians are apparently full of “jealousy and quarreling” (3:3); 
  • Love is not … boastful” (4), but the Corinthians do (4:7, 5:6, where Paul flat-out says that their boasting “is not a good thing“); 
  • Love is not … arrogant” (4), but the Corinthians are often described as arrogant or “puffed up” (4:6, 18-19; 5:2, and the aforementioned 8:1); 
  • Love … does not rejoice in wrongdoing: (6), but some of the Corinthians have engaged in taking advantage of unjust courts to exploit others (6:7-8).

Paul has been building the case against the Corinthians throughout the gospel, and far from being cut off from that case, this chapter is very directly addressing their condition. All of these faults that have been noted in this letter point to a decided lack of love in the community.

There is something else to note about this list in verses 4-7. While those in verses 5-6 are more regularly translated actively – “does not insist…” “does not rejoice … but rejoices…” “bears … believes … hopes” – some get translated in such a way that we probably don’t notice that Paul is using his verbs here. If we were to diagram the phrases “love is patient” or “love is kind,” for example, we would place “love” as the subject, “is” as the verb, and “patient” or “kind” as the “object,” an adjective modifying “love.” That’s not how the Greek in which Paul writes works, though. What we translate as “is patient” or “is kind” is the verb of Paul’s statement; we might come closer to catching the force of his instruction if we rendered those clauses “love acts patiently” or “love does kindness,” representing how these traits are not passive feelings but actions, or even more ways of behavior rather than only of thought or emotion.

This brings us to perhaps the biggest challenge to our knowledge of this chapter, the part that tends to get most buried in marriage-service renderings: love is action. Love is not a thing that is felt; love is a thing that is done, no matter whether the feelings or emotions are there. That is indeed the animating principle behind this whole chapter, and again what the Corinthians seem to be sorely lacking, for all their other spiritual gifts they so liked to boast in.

I’ve no doubt that we can all come up with times and occasions in which we have witnessed the very people who talked the good game about loving turn around and engage in the most hateful and destructive actions imaginable, maybe even claiming to do so in the name of love. Paul isn’t having it; “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It is also this understanding that makes all those other spiritual gifts marked by Paul in chapter 12 so utterly dependent on love. While addressing multiple of those gifts, it becomes clear quickly that the business of speaking in tongues was a particular source of boasting among the Corinthians when Paul takes it on first and most elaborately in verse 1. To speak in “the tongues of mortals and of angels” without love is not merely “nothing,” as later phrases will conclude; it is the equivalent of “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Here the reference seems to be to the practices of some of the temples devoted to Greek and/or Roman gods in Corinth, whose observances were sometimes marked by the regular and prominent sounding of exactly those loud percussion instruments. It’s almost as if Paul is saying when you go off on your ecstatic utterances just for your own elevation, with no care or love or concern for your fellow followers of Christ, you’re acting exactly like the lost souls you used to be – remembering that before being added to the church many of the Corinthians had been participants in those temple rituals to those Greek and Roman idols. 

The point of this section, which gets elaborated in chapter 14, is not to dismiss those spiritual gifts; the point is that none of those gifts – not prophecy or knowledge or faith to do great things or those tongues – are of any use when not practiced in love, the love that forms the body of Christ and in which that body both lives together and lives toward the world around it. It’s even possible that such gifts practiced not in love are more harmful than good. If you can’t do it in love, honestly, you’re better off keeping it to yourself. Love is the reason any of those spiritual gifts have any value. Love, that divine love infused into human existence, is why any of those works matter.

All of this is part of why Paul could refer to love as “a more excellent way” back at the end of chapter 12, but we shouldn’t leave out the end of this chapter in that respect, either. Of all the gifts or behaviors or traits of the life of the body of Christ, love is the one that is eternal. Prophecies will end; when at last we live in eternal union with God, what is the need for prophecy? The gift of tongues, or ecstatic utterances believed to be given by God, seems rather superfluous when in God’s eternal presence, yes? Our partial and unfinished knowledge will, at minimum, be finished in the presence of God. 

Even faith and hope, as Paul describes in this famous chapter’s final and most famous verse, are secondary to love in this way. Faith and hope are beautiful. They are amazing gifts of the Spirit. But like the others Paul describes, they are finite gifts to help sustain us through this in-between time. If faith is, as the author of Hebrews describes, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” then what is the point of faith when we are in the very presence of God, seeing God face to face? What is the point of hope, or what is the need for hope, when God is unmistakably and unshakably in the midst of us, for all to see? The partial things, as Paul says in verse 10, come to an end.

But love never ends. Love is as eternal as God is eternal. 

Love. Never. Ends.

Though it is not part of today’s lectionary reading, the first verse of chapter 14 is useful, or even needful, to place chapter 13 into proper relationship with chapter 12: “Pursue love, and strive for the spiritual gifts.” 

Not either/or, both/and. 

Paul’s instruction does not mean that the Corinthians, or we, should somehow deny the gifts we have been given by the Spirit – and remember from back in 12:3 that anyone who truly confesses that “Jesus is Lord” is gifted by the Holy Spirit. Rather, Paul needs the Corinthians, and us, to understand that the care and feeding and usage of our spiritual gifts within the body of Christ and out in the larger world only works in the context of love – the love that God has shown us so that we might show love for one another and for all of God’s creation. 

Our stories of love will not necessarily be showy or dramatic. They will be heartbreaking at times. They will try our patience or our virtue. We may stumble in grief and leap for joy at the same time because of that love. But if we dare to call ourselves followers of Christ, we will love, without reservation and without qualification.

We will love because God is love, eternal and unending. We will love because God loves. We will love because Christ loves. And we will love because that’s what the body of Christ does.

For love, eternal and unending, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here in this Place (Gather Us In); #693, Though I May Speak; #300, We Are One in the Spirit

Sermon: We’re All in This Together

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 23, 2022, Epiphany 3C

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

We’re All in This Together

It was a nearly unavoidable song not that many years ago, when the Disney Channel first aired its infectious little show called High School Musical. First it was the television musical, then it became an actual high school musical, and now you can find television shows about productions of the high school musical. And wrapping it all up was the one inescapable, irresistible song that represented the show’s climax: “We’re All in This Together.”

That title happened upon a phrase and idea that has been batted around endlessly, it seems. You could go out and google dozens upon dozens of quotes that either use that phrase as a basis or comment upon the idea. While I don’t want to think about Lily Tomlin’s spin – “We’re all in this together alone” – I have to acknowledge that Johnny Cash might have put the best spin on the quote in his version: “We’re all in this together if we’re in it at all.” 

I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul was not much for song and dance, and I doubt he played the guitar or sang songs about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. But he’d be able to appreciate at least the basic sentiment found in this pithy little saying. Being the eloquent preacher and letter-writer he was, however, it befitted Paul to find a clever and illustrative metaphor to demonstrate just how thoroughly we, the followers of Christ, really are all in this together. Borrowing a metaphor found fairly often in Greco-Roman philosophical rhetoric, Paul came up with the theme of today’s reading: the body of Christ.

That Paul chooses the body as a metaphor for the interworkings of the people of God is striking and informative in ways that the apostle himself might not even have imagined. 

As noted just now, it wasn’t uncommon for teachers and writers in the Greco-Roman world to use such a metaphor to describe communal life, though no other biblical author makes use of it. Philosophers and political figures were particularly fond of the body metaphor in that culture. For a politician, for example, the metaphor of the body might well be used to suggest that every member of a society had his or place to fill. A body needs a head; that place was to be filled by the “elites” of society – the wealthy, the military elite, those in power. A body also needs hands and feet; here pretty much everybody else in society, those charged with the hard or dirty or dangerous work of society was to fulfill his or her role.

Paul, though, takes a different angle on this metaphor. For Paul, what matters is the utter interdependence of the body – the degree to which the body needs everything in good working order. Parts of the body that might be regarded as weaker, or less “respectable,” are treated with greater care and covered or protected more carefully. In Paul’s scheme of the body, no part can claim to be independent of all the other parts. The eye can see all it wants to see, but without feet and legs to move, or hands to hold or to pick up, the eye is powerless. The head is useless without the rest of the body.

Many of us know what it is for our physical bodes to fail us or betray us. We see what needs to be done but we just aren’t capable of doing it physically. If one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers with it. And so it is with the body of Christ, the church; when one member of this body suffers, we all suffer with that member.

Paul wants us to understand, in verse 13, that in being baptized in Christ we are baptized into this one body, no matter the differences between us. Indeed, following on the first part of this chapter we heard last week, the differences we bring to the body are not accidental; they are necessary, both in a given local congregation and in the church universal – we need all those different experiences, all those different backgrounds, for the body of Christ to function rightly and bear witness to the good news.

This is where it gets tricky, though. We are not always good at dealing with difference. We don’t always care for diversity, even as we need it. New Testament scholar Brian Peterson puts it bluntly in noting that “We often confuse unity with uniformity, because it is much easer to gather with people who are like ourselves than it is to reach across the divisions which mark our culture.”[i] We are more comfortable with a church where everybody looks like us, talks like us, is about the same age as us, reads the Bible in the same way as we do – or for that matter, votes like us, goes to Gator games like us, and all sorts of other things that may have very little to do with the life of the church. It’s a natural inclination, but it isn’t really all that Christlike. 

In verse 13 Paul refers to two of the great divisions he knew to be at work in the church – “Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” Admittedly, “Jew or Greek” is not a huge dividing line in the modern church, and while slavery certainly does exist in the modern world still, such a dividing line doesn’t run through the modern church in quite the same way it did for Paul’s Corinthian readers. We do, though, have lots of dividing lines among us in the church today:

Black or white, or Asian, or Hispanic, or Native American…

Or how about Democratic or Republican?

Maybe rich or poor?

Native-born, naturalized citizen, immigrant waiting to be citizen?

Straight or gay?

How about married or single?

Progressive or mainline or evangelical or fundamentalist?

How are we, as the church, the body of Christ, at truly living in the diversity that makes us work? Or are we still inclined to hole up in like-minded enclaves of homogeneity?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, when any part of the body of Christ suffers, whether they look like us or think like us or sound like us or have anything in common with us other than Christ, we all suffer, and we don’t bear witness to the gospel the way the body of Christ is meant to do. And to the degree that we stand by and let that suffering continue, we are complicit in damaging the body and its witness.

Having worked through this body metaphor, Paul now returns to the diversity of spiritual gifts, or manifestations of the presence of the Spirit, that he had discussed earlier in this chapter. Again the list is incomplete, but Paul now places those gifts in the context of the church as God appoints people to contribute: apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of powerful deeds, healers, helpers, leaders, speakers of various tongues. And just as the body would look rather ridiculous if it were nothing but an eye or a foot, so the church becomes rather ridiculous if it consists of nothing but apostles or preachers or teachers. 

But as Paul closes this thought, he actually “teases” us with something even better, a better, “more excellent” way for the church to live or for the body of Christ to function. The diverse and distinctive appropriation of gifts is characteristic and even needful in the church, and the diversity of members matters profoundly as well.

And yet, there is something else that matters more than all of these, or more precisely is the very thing that makes this distinctiveness and diversity work. What is it that makes the body of Christ what it is meant to be? What is it that brings all those diverse gifts and abilities and manifestations of the Spirit together in a way that enables us truly to bear witness to the Christ we say we follow?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #733, We All Are One in Mission; #318, In Christ There Is No East or West; #306, Blest Be the Tie that Binds

[i] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a,” Working Preacher (, 24 January 2016 2nd reading), accessed 21 January 2016.

Sermon: Just as the Spirit Chooses

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 17, 2016, Epiphany 2C

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Just As the Spirit Chooses

Last Sunday the internet humor site Unvirtuous Abbey posted an image that suggested the Apostle Paul at work writing one of his letters to the various churches under his care. The captioning of this image, however, took a creative slant: the imagined text of the letter under construction began thus:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, to the churches of the United States of America – grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ: I don’t even really know where to begin with you guys…

It’s a funny line, and easily evocative of just how far much of the church in this country have strayed from being Christlike in any discernible way. The truth is, though, this isn’t that far from how the actual Paul began some of his actual letters, and how he was compelled to speak to the churches in other letters even when he was able to keep his opening more cordial. For example, in the letter to Galatians Paul barely manages to get through a fairly doxological opening statement before turning to chastisement in verse 6: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…”. Things were evidently that bad.

As for the letter we are reading today and in the forthcoming weeks, Paul actually manages to get though not only the formal greeting, but a nice blessing as well, before turning to the matter at hand at the beginning of this letter: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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 in the same purpose.” Paul elaborates that the Corinthians have apparently devolved into factions around one leader or another in the larger church – Paul, Cephas (or Peter), Apollos (the evangelist introduced in Acts 18), or even – in a super-self-righteous move – Christ. Paul quickly admonishes the Corinthians for this, but the correction of this division will go much deeper and in fact constitute the bulk of this letter. There are many things going wrong among the Corinthians, and Paul is setting out to address them.

Paul’s work in his travels was frequently made more challenging by the difficulties of churches made up of diverse groups of people and the disputes, disagreements, or contests that too often arose between those groups. For example, by the time Paul is making his travels, the congregations to whom he preaches and writes are usually composed of both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity. At times the Jewish party would contend that the Gentiles needed to take up practices associated with Judaism (most notably the act of circumcision for males) before they could be fully accepted into the fledgling group of Christ’s followers. To put it more briefly, they felt that Gentiles should become Jews in order to become Christians. Paul, despite his own thoroughly Jewish heritage, argued against that claim, agreeing with those who called that an unnecessary burden.

The conflict Paul addresses here in today’s reading is a different one, not necessarily based on Jewish-Gentile dividing lines, but one that caused tremendous strain in the church at Corinth no less. In this case, this local church was struggling with the effects of spiritual pride and even a kind of competitiveness, in which some claimed that their specific and distinctive spiritual gifts made them spiritually superior to others. This kind of spiritual elitism never ends well, and Corinth was no exception.

After much chiding and critique earlier in the book on this and other matters, Paul now turns with chapter 12 to address “matters pertaining to the Spirit.” “Spiritual gifts,” the term you see in verse 1, is certainly part of the matter, but not the full extent of what Paul wants to address. 

First, Paul is compelled to remind his readers – a great many of whom in Corinth were Gentile converts to The Way – that all of them had been equal in ignorance before following Christ. The lot of them had been, as Paul describes, duped worshipers of powerless, speechless idols. Even as followers of Christ now, Paul challenges them to understand that they have much to learn, particularly about the Holy Spirit.

For example: no one who is speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit could ever utter the phrase “Let Jesus be cursed!” You can’t do it. [To be sure, there are times when even we followers of Christ speak decidedly not under the influence of the Spirit! But that’s a different story.] Similarly, but not quite the same way, one cannot make the claim that “Jesus is Lord” except by the power of the Holy Spirit. Even being able to make the confession “Jesus is Lord” is evidence of the work of the Spirit. 

Understand what it means: anyone who confesses “Jesus is Lord” is doing so by a gift of the Spirit. There is no one who confesses Christ is Lord that is not gifted by the Spirit. If that’s the case, no one has any business claiming that any other believer has no spiritual gift. We all do. That’s how we can even be followers of Christ at all, by the gift of the Spirit. You didn’t think you earned your salvation, did you?

With that understanding, Paul turns to the issue of differences in spiritual gifts and other workings of the Spirit. One of the common threads of what Paul has to say is that difference or variety or diversity is inevitable, and indeed is “baked into” the way that the Spirit “gifts” the followers of Christ. Each of us receives different abilities or talents or gifts, and that itself is a very intentional work of the Spirit. 

Paul sketches out a few of these possible gifts or abilities in verses 7-10. By no means is this a complete list, but Paul mentions the speaking both of wisdom and of knowledge; faith; healing; miracles; prophecy; discernment; and the speaking and interpreting of tongues. And as Paul notes, the Spirit allots these gifts to the children of God quite according to the Spirit’s own choosing, and nothing other – “just as the Spirit chooses,” as verse 11 puts it.

Paul here is urging the Corinthians to understand that this dispersal of the gifts of the Spirit was absolutely no cause for pride. There is no basis for any claim that having any one spiritual gift made you in any way superior to or more important than any of your sisters or brothers in Christ. 

I have been called as the pastor of this church almost exactly seven years now. I believe I do have some gift for the speaking of wisdom or knowledge, perhaps a way of describing preaching. Hopefully those three years I spent in seminary helped develop that gift to some degree. But if I were ever tempted to think that this specific gift was somehow “more special” or more important than other gifts, … well, let’s just say that many weeks or even months in this vocation have really caused me to wish I had a gift for healing or miracles instead. 

What Paul needs the Corinthians (and us) to understand is that we need all the gifts. This church can’t survive on preaching alone. Nor can it survive on any one of the gifts the Spirit might bestow. We need them all, both our own church here and the greater church around the world. And when we turn inward, when we start failing to welcome others into our church, or when we start drawing lines to keep some out and include only certain people – “folks like us” – then we are cutting ourselves off from some of the very gifts or manifestations of the Spirit that we absolutely need to survive, for the common good.

And it’s not even about our surviving, in the end. Our church, local or universal, is not put here on earth to serve ourselves. These flourishings of the Spirit that are made manifest in us are here to show God’s glory to those all around us. We are here to bear witness to the gospel, to be the vessel by which that good news is given to all the world around us. And those gifts of the Spirit are scattered out among us for that very end; giving glory to God that the world might see.

Beyond the matter of not indulging in pride over one’s spiritual gifts, there is also the matter of not dismissing what one contributes to the body as somehow being unimportant or not really mattering. If everybody in a congregation is determined that because their gift isn’t for preaching or prophecy it isn’t important, the church misses out on those less flashy gifts like faith or discernment and suffers for it. All the gifts are needed. 

This is part of the church “being an epiphany,” participating in showing Christ to the world. When we all pull together using each of our distinctive gifts for the work of the kingdom of God, we become a revelation of God to the world, through the working of the Spirit. We show Christ to the world. We show the world what it looks like when the Spirit is working among us. Or, when we start elevating some gifts and demeaning others, when we start indulging in pride about our own spiritual abilities, or when we cut ourselves off from the gifts we need in the church because we don’t like the people who have them? Or when we hold back the gifts God has given us for whatever reason? We fail to bear witness to God’s Spirit, and in fact do damage to that witness among the larger church.

Right now, all things considered after the weirdness of the last two years, our congregation is doing alright. We’re not overflowing with people, which considering ongoing health and safety considerations is at least good for facilitating social distancing. But it is taking every spiritual gift that is present among the people of this congregation, and then some, to keep things going. We don’t have space for anybody to decide that their gifts or abilities don’t matter; we need them all. There is no one whose gifts or talents or abilities don’t matter. We need them all.

The abilities we bring to the body of Christ are not an accident. The Holy Spirit is working in us, each of us, all of us, so that we might bear witness to God and to the gospel of Christ to a world that desperately needs to be reminded of that story and to hear that witness. Being prideful about some gifts or dismissive of others is failure to show Christ to the world. We have no margin for error; we need all those manifestations of the Spirit to do our job in the world. 

For gifts of the Spirit, and the opportunity and obligation to use them together, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #385, All People That on Earth Do Dwell; #292, As the Wind Song; #282, Come Down, O Love Divine

Sermon: Through the Waters

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord C

Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Through the Waters

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

Those words from the prophet Isaiah were probably familiar, at least a little bit, to many (not all, necessarily, but many) of those who had made their way out to John in the wilderness to be baptized. All the prophets and their words mattered, of course, but sometimes it seems as if Isaiah’s words mattered a little bit more. And this is a passage of comfort and protection, unlike many of the oracles recorded in the books of the Hebrew prophets, with words of judgment and promises of doom. So it’s not at all unlikely that someone among those being baptized, in being called into the water by John, might have had those very words on their lips:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you

We might want to remember that the experiences of the Hebrew or Israelite or Judean peoples with waters was a bit mixed. One of the most ancient stories in their tradition was that of Noah and the great flood, wiping away all those on earth not on Noah’s ark. Also remember that one of the great obstacles to the Exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt was the Red Sea, and only divine intervention got them through that. A similar experience got their descendants across the Jordan River when it came time to enter the Promised Land. There’s some trauma in this history with great waters. 

The Israelites were not largely a seafaring people and could sometimes be vulnerable to those peoples who were. Even the seemingly less hazardous business of fishing on what came to be called the Sea of Galilee was still fraught to peril, vulnerable to the intense localized storms that could develop out of nowhere on that body of water. You might remember a story or two in the gospels where Jesus and his disciples encounter such things. And while the Jordan River was not a prime candidate for, say, whitewater rafting, you could still get carried away and drowned if you weren’t careful.

In short, Isaiah’s prophetic oracle here touches a particular nerve for his hearers and readers. To a great degree, “waters” represented peril. To be blessed with that reassurance above – that God would be with them as they passed through the waters, and that rivers would not overwhelm them – was far more than a poetic image; it was direct, earthy, and practical. Indeed, it’s not at all implausible that some of those coming down to be baptized by John had those very words on their lips: 

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you

It’s doubtful, however, that anyone in that crowd that day expected that old prophetic oracle to take quite such a … literal turn.

After all the people had been baptized, some were probably trying to dry off; others might have been making small conversation or possibly watching to see what John would do next or praying. That’s where it happened, to one man, about thirtyish, who was praying. See how carefully Luke has to say it: “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” You can imagine somebody getting all flustered trying to describe what happened later. 

But there was more:

And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.

There he was – there he had been along – the only Son of God, being baptized, just like the rest of us. Even waiting in line to be baptized.

Other gospel accounts differ here; Mark’s rendering of Jesus’s baptism suggests that this opening of the heavens and Spirit descending was visible only to Jesus – nobody else saw such a thing. Matthew’s account seems to agree with Mark’s. Luke doesn’t suggest such a qualifier; the way he tells the story that opening of the heavens and descent of the Spirit was there for all to see. How does one possibly describe such an experience in person? 

Luke, of course, is writing “from a distance,” so to speak; he is the one gospel writer who admits up front, in the very first verses of his gospel, that he had to “do his research” to write this account for the mysterious Theophilus. It’s a lot easier to be dispassionate in such an account. Sadly, we don’t get to know how all those other folks responded to this dramatic display and epiphany. 

Yes, I said “epiphany.”

Every year in the lectionary cycle this Sunday, marking the baptism of the Lord, follows immediately after the cycle that begins with Advent, runs through all of Christmas, and concludes with Epiphany, which happened this past Thursday. One of the results of this placement is that it becomes clearer just how much this event, Jesus’s baptism, resounds and echoes with themes we hear in those seasons and observances. 

Clearly we can say that as Luke tells the story, Jesus’s baptism is itself a kind of epiphany. Out of nowhere, one person out of many, praying, probably still dripping, is descended upon by the Holy Spirit and called the only Son – the Beloved – of God. If that’s not a revelation of Christ, I don’t know what is.

But also, remember words like “Emmanuel” and “incarnation,” words from Advent and Christmas. “Emmanuel” – God with us; incarnation – God as one of us, remember? And indeed this is revealed to the surprise of those still drying off from the waters of the river. God – right here with us! Waiting in line to be baptized with us! Not far off in heaven somewhere, but right here with us! It is Advent and Christmas and Epiphany all in one. God among us, one of us, baptized among us as one of us. 

Perhaps the challenge for us, then, in this time after Epiphany, is to ask ourselves what we do with this. What does this mean for us? How do we respond to this unveiling, this revelation, this pointing toward Jesus? And even more significantly, how do we become part of it? 

What does it mean for us to show forth Jesus? What do our lives look like, individually yes but especially together as a congregation, as this one small outpost of the body of Christ on earth, if we are to show Jesus to the world? 

The challenge becomes all the greater in a time like ours, when “Jesus” gets appropriated in all sorts of ways that would probably make the actual Jesus puke. The rank displays of racism, misogyny, homophobia, nationalism, and other un-Christlike behaviors being passed off as “Christian” in our society and imbibed by large numbers of people as “what the church is”; all of these make a clear and faithful witness to Christ all the more challenging, and all the more needed. 

This is what we’ll explore in the next few weeks, in the unofficial “season of Epiphany.” What does it look like when the church, the body of Christ, is truly being the body of Christ? What does it look like to be a witness to Christ in not just words, but actions? What does it look like to be faithful in a time when faithlessness is rampant both inside and outside the church? 

This event, Jesus’s baptism and the revealing that followed, is our starting point. Let’s explore what it means to be part of an epiphany. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #475, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing; #163, Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice; #840, When Peace Like a River

Sermon: The Light Shines

Grace Presbyterian Church

January 2, 2022, Christmas 2C

John 1:1-18; Matthew 2:1-12

The Light Shines

I’ve been wondering a lot this season of Advent and Christmas about the particular thing we, and who knows how many other churches, do on Christmas Eve. You know the bit. Whatever else is planned for the service is done, then the organist or pianist starts playing “Silent Night,” candle-lighters get their flame from some main source, and candles are then lit up all over the congregation. Finally, the sanctuary’s lights are dimmed or turned off altogether. 

I had begun to wonder just how this practice became quite so widespread. Churches have dramatically different services on Christmas Eve. Some are quite large and ceremonial; some are full of pageants and children provoking “ooh”s and “aww”s from the congregation; some are quieter and simpler. Nonetheless, somehow all of these different varieties of service seem to culminate with this same candle ritual. I started to wonder if it was mandated by some obscure provision in our denomination’s Book of Order

I have no explanation, but perhaps the ritual connects, subliminally or subconsciously even, to what we read in John’s gospel today, particularly in verses 4 and 5.

There are a lot of different images that flash by in this reading – Word, life, word became flesh, and maybe most tellingly light, particularly light not being overcome by darkness. Maybe there’s something in that, as to why those candles in the dark are so affecting and compulsory. 

Perhaps it’s also not an accident that light plays a prominent part of the stories around the Nativity in our gospels. Remembering that Mark includes nothing about the birth of Jesus, we see in Luke’s gospel how, when the angels appeared to the shepherds in the field, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” In Matthew’s gospel, the event marked under the name Epiphany (it’s on the liturgical calendar this Thursday and is summarized by the last four stanzas of that first hymn we sang this morning) is provoked largely by the appearance of an unusually bright star that catches the attention of Magi located in Persia, most likely, who take to the desert to follow that star to what it portends. Light, particularly light not being overcome by darkness, can provoke the strongest responses from people. 

It’s all appropriate for one for whom John says “what has come into being in him was life, and that life was the light of all people,” The Word, the one who was “in the beginning,” is also Light, Light that cannot be put out by any darkness. 

In fact, one could argue that darkness only accentuates the light. That candle-lighting ritual on Christmas Eve would not have quite the same effect without the lights of the sanctuary being dimmed, would it? While the rest of the room might seem overwhelmed with darkness, the light of those candles only stands out all the more.

And isn’t that how it is? In the bleakest and most uncertain times, those moments of light that do come – the brightness of a smile, the sound of a particular note or chord of music, the smell of freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies – stand out all the more brightly against that seeming all-pervasive darkness. 

John’s poetic prologue stands out in the Advent and Christmas cycle, particularly against narratives of long, arduous journeys taken by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, or the Magi to find the king they sought. It resonates also with the human experience of light and darkness – it’s hard to move around in total darkness, for example, and malevolent actors are more able to conceal their deeds in darkness. At the same time, darkness is sometimes a necessity. To borrow a line from the song “The Gift,” by singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, “May your life be filled with light/except for when you’re trying to sleep.” In the scheme of nature, darkness has its place. Anything from movies in theatres to fireworks displays to candle lightings on Christmas Eve gains power from darkness. 

And yet, for all the power of these images of Word and Light, we humans have a long and repulsive history of turning, for example, that image of light against darkness into an excuse to be cruel to other human beings. When the light-vs-darkness image is surreptitiously inserted into discussion of whiteness and blackness, when it becomes an excuse to equate “black” with “darkness” and therefore with evil or corruption or whatever we want to claim to oppose, we are behaving, ironically, in the manner of the very “darkness” we claim to hate. And if you think that metaphor hasn’t been used that very way many, many times in history (the justification of enslavement in Western European and US history, for example), think again.

Let’s not twist this image, shall we? Let us understand what Light is here – that which illuminates, shows us the way forward, shows us the Word, the one who “gave power to become children of God” to those who believed. Can we do this, can we hear this passage in its elaborate and elegant wholeness, testifying to “the Word became flesh,” the one who bestows “grace upon grace”? Can we see Light for what it is without turning darkness into what it is not?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless indicated otherwise): #147, The First Nowell; #—, In the Beginning was the Word, #134, Joy to the World