Your BLANK Means Nothing

 

A Reading: “The Blind Men and the Elephant,” by John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation,
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! –but the Elephant,
Is very like a wall!”

The Second. feeling of the tusk,
Cried: “Ho!–what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘t is mighty clear
This wonder of an elephant,
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, the Elephant
Is very like a snake!’

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like,
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“‘T is clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree.”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant,
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun,
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail,
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan,
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion,
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! 

 

1Corinthians 1:18-31

 

“Your _____ means nothing”

As a Christian and as a pastor, one of the most tragic things I see nearly every day is how people fundamentally misunderstand the concept of grace.

These are conversations that haunt me—that keep me up at night, after folks insist on their own self-made salvation.

“But I’m a good person.”

“But I’m active in the community.”

“But I give a lot of money to charity.”

It is hard to affirm the good work people do while simultaneously reminding them that their good work does not save them.

At the same time, it’s a hard thing to discern whether good works are the result of a Gospel-centered life, or whether good works are an attempt to circumvent the Gospel and save ourselves.

The apostle Paul is characteristically bold in attending to these challenges in today’s scripture reading.

Background & Text

The Corinthians live in a world where wisdom is prized and foolishness derided. And take care not to equate “education” with “wisdom” here—that’s not the picture Paul is trying to paint.

The Corinthians fall into that category of people who think they’re always right. Equally proud of their intelligence and ignorance, they are convinced that both make them better than others. Any question, or any problem, can be debated, discussed, and solved by human reason alone. There is nothing they cannot know.

But Paul is brutally explicit with them—all of their reason and knowing, their debates and politics, their intelligence and ignorance—all of it has failed to bring people into knowledge of and relationship with their God. They may know a lot or a little, they may have travelled far or not at all, they may be a Facebook debater par excellance, and yet none of that has translated into living and loving more like Jesus. It has only widened the gap between the gospel and those in need of Christ’s liberating love.

Class Divide

Moreover, there seems to be a class divide in the church at Corinth. Throughout most of the world (at that time) that had been kissed by Jesus’ love, converts to Christianity were more likely the misfits, outcasts, poor, and rogues of society. And in v.26, Paul indicates that the same is the case for the Church in Corinth:

“Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1Corinthians 1:26 NIV11).

And yet—as Paul begins to reveal in today’s verses—the elite of society have an out-sized role in the conflicts of the church. Throughout the letter, Paul attends to how those with more (money/influence/power/etc.) are the ones creating divisions and distracting the community from its single-minded focus on Christ. Many of the issues that Paul addresses—such as the eating of meat in 1Cor 8—are simply not applicable to everyone else, as they simply don’t have the resources to participate—meat was too expensive.

But as is still the case today, those with more will often divide and distract those with less for their own selfish gain. Thus (as commentator Harold Mare indicates), Paul uses terms here (wise, influential, noble birth) that “[give] the sweep of all that [people] count socially, politically, and intellectually important” (W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians,” in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p.196). Right here, in the first chapter of this lengthy letter, Paul wants to make sure they understand that all of that means nothing—not in the terms of Christ’s kingdom.

Philippians

One can hardly read these verses without thinking of Paul’s autobiographical confession in Philippians 3:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:4–11 ESV)

In these verses, Paul compares his story to the things others take pride in:

You’re intelligent? I’m intelligent!
You have a proud family history? I have a proud family history!
You grew up on the right side of town? I grew up on the right side of town!
You went to the best schools? I went to the best schools!
You were commended for your service? I was commended for my service!
You sacrificed? I sacrificed!
You backed that political leader? I backed that political leader!
You go to church every week? I go to church every week!
You read the best newspapers and books? I read the best newspapers and books!

But in both Corinthians and Philippians, Paul is not just crooning “Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you,” engaging in an “Annie Get Your Gun”-type competition.

No, Paul’s point is that none of this matters where it really counts.

Your intelligence means nothing
Your wealth means nothing
Your political affiliation means nothing
Your education means nothing

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:7-8a).

Nothing that the world values can put us in better standing with God.

Nothing that we do can earn our salvation or help us “slide through heaven’s back gate,” as someone once suggested to me.

None of it is worth a pile of crap in comparison, which (by the way) is less vulgar than the language Paul actually uses in Philippians 3.

The reason for all this—of course—is grace. Ephesians 2:8-9 tell us “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (ESV).

Or as Galatians 3:26-28 puts it:

It is your faith in the Anointed Jesus that makes all of you children of God because all of you (who have been initiated into the Anointed One through the ceremonial washing of baptism) have put Him on. It makes no difference whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a freeman, a man or a woman, because in Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, you are all one. (VOICE)

It’s simultaneously reassuring and off-putting, I find. In my selfishness, I want some eternal benefit for my Christian upbringing, for the time and financial commitments of my education, and for all those other things that I was erroneously taught would “put stars in my crown.”

God’s grace lifts us up so much higher than any of us could ever go on our own. In order to be made into “children of God,” even the saints among us must be raised and transformed by God’s loving grace a thousand times more than genetics or economics or education or training or self-discipline or genetics or chance or anything else could ever bring about.

Conclusion

So fill in the blank: Your BLANK means nothing. The things we prioritize and pride ourselves for are empty and void of eternal consequence.

By contrast, the things Christ asks of us appear foolish and insignificant in terms of the world.

This is one of those Sundays where I feel a little bit like Moses in Deuteronomy 30, the text we’ll be looking at in two weeks. There, in v.18, he says:

I gave you the choice today between life and death, between being blessed or being cursed. Choose life! (Deut 30:15-18 VOICE).

Choose life!
Choose life

Pray

God, our scripture reading reminds us that you work through things that appear foolish, weak, lowly, and despised. The Gospel story itself is that of the underdog Jesus Christ–underestimated by the forces of evil from the moment of his humble birth to their supposed victory on the cross. But you, O God, have conquered even death itself, and our underdog Savior has come out on top again.

Help us to remember that our positions of power and prestige and wealth and dominance mean nothingespecially when we fail to attend to the people the world sees as foolish, weak, lowly, and despised.

Reconnect us with our faith history as recorded in the Bible, reminding us of the times

When we were foreigners in a foreign land as we walk with our Father Abraham and Mother Sarah;

When we were arrested and wrongly imprisoned alongside our brother Joseph son of Jacob;

When we were homeless and hungry as the Israelites in the wilderness;

When we, alongside the infant Jesus and his family, became aliens and refugees as we escaped persecution and fled to Egypt;

When we (through the Christian churches in Asia Minor) were persecuted by the dominant religion .

Remind us, O God, of our history. And impress upon us again the things you require of us:

to pursue justice,
to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with you, O God.

As these are the things that matter most to you, transform our sinful and broken hearts that they might be the most important things to us as well.

Change us we pray. Amen.

 

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4 Sure-Fire Ways to Undermine Gospel Ministry

 

1Corinthians 1:10-18

“4 Sure-Fire Ways to Undermine Gospel Ministry”

There may be no book of the Bible more relevant today for the church of Jesus Christ in these United States than Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

He writes to a church that is divided, that has shifted its focus from the Gospel to cultural concerns, that practices individualism to the detriment of community, that aligns itself with government instead of critiquing it, and that (to put no fine point on it) is not following the Way of Jesus.

In the opening verses of this letter, Paul offers the insight of a pastor who truly loves the flock he shepherds. Despite their failings—which are addressed throughout the bulk of this letter—Paul sees their heart, their possibility, and the promise they can live into in Christ.

In the verses we read last week, Paul offers six commendations—six characteristics of a praise-worthy church that are present-but-latent in the Corinthians. These are:

  • the church is rooted in grace
  • the church is mature
  • the church embodies its gifts
  • the church is oriented to and motivated by Christ’s return
  • the church has a sustaining spirituality
  • and the church correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice

All of these things, of course, are descriptive of what it means to be the embodiment of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose life, teaching, ministry, death, and resurrection depict for us the power of the liberating love of God.

It is important to note that Paul is not tickling their ears with empty praise so they’ll be more open to hearing his criticisms. He truly sees these qualities deep inside them, even if they are not living into them fully. Like all humans and human organizations, the church at Corinth is a study of paradox:

They are rooted in grace but do not show grace to each other.

They are mature but act like little children, unwilling to digest the meaty portions of faith.

They are deeply gifted yet fail to share their giftedness with one another

They know all about Christ’s return yet they do not allow it to drive them to compassionate and urgent action.

And so on.

We—as humans and as a church—embody the same paradoxical reality. There is light and dark in us. We cannot see the planks in our eyes while we pick the speck out of the eyes of each other. Part of the model Jesus demonstrates for us is giving others the freedom to encounter God on the terms of their own life, rather than ours. It means we do not dismiss or judge others because of what is obvious to us. We—if we will look like Jesus—have to trust God enough to believe that God is working in them……in a way that is unique to them……in order to bring us all to our knees before Jesus our Savior.

I think this is why Paul so rapidly changes gears early in this letter to the Corinthians—from its commendable characteristics to its self-defeating practices. He highlights (in our Scripture reading) what I believe are four sure-fire ways to undermine Gospel ministry—four ways of obstructing what God is trying to do through us and others—four “planks” that may be in our eyes which circumvent the advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

1. Divided (v.10)

The first of these is this: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said the reason they don’t go to church is because of how divided and divisive the church is, I’d be fairly well off. Our history—especially as Baptists—is that of schism after schism, splitting from and excommunicating one another over issues that are trivial compared to the Gospel message of Jesus’ love and redemptive power.

In my short lifetime and ministry, I have personally witnessed people breaking fellowship with one another:

because they didn’t like a song leader,

because they didn’t think people of two races should be married,

because a church dared to treat women as fully human,

because a seminary tweeted a bible verse they thought was critical of their chosen politician,

because they didn’t like the contractor the church used for building repairs,

because the pastor was too young,
because the pastor was too old,

because the music was too contemporary,
because the music was not contemporary enough

because the church did not have enough programs,
because the church spent too much on programs,

because so-and-so attends that church,

because that church reads from the wrong bible translation,

because ten or twenty or fifty years ago they had a disagreement with a pastor or church member who has long since gone elsewhere……

It may be that the only thing I have not witnessed is the proverbial conflict over the color of the carpet—though this late-70’s green isn’t going to last forever.

Why are we so divided?

Part of it is certainly that we are human and fail to allow each other to be human. But I believe a bigger piece is that division is the most powerful tool that the powers of darkness use against the cause of Christ. There’s a reason that not one but three words for division appear among the works of the flesh listed by Paul in Galatians 5: “rivalries, dissentions, divisions” (Gal 5:20).

The most effective means of disarming any movement is to divide it: a house divided against itself cannot stand, as Jesus proclaimed in Mark 3:25. From the “union busters” of the last century sent by corporations to cause fights among union members, to the rioters that emerge coincidentally with peaceful protesters today, and back again to the time of Jesus and before—the fastest way of undermining the credibility and mission of any group is to divide them.

The divisions among the Church of Jesus Christ have been sown by powers that work against his cause of love and life, and we as his followers must—MUST!!—recognize and stand against them. In this regard, I believe we are making strides forward. Just days ago, Pope Francis acknowledged that “the intention of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was to renew the Church, not divide her” (link). That is a huge step toward the reconciliation of our divisions.

But change in our world never comes top-down. It must be Christians—each of us, in grassroots efforts—who chose subversively to live in ways that unite instead of divide, that follow the Jesus who reached out to those different than himself instead of following the world that teaches us to fear those who are different.

Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided.

2. Follow Worldly Leaders (vv.12-13)

Second: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church follows worldly leaders instead of Christ.

Every four years in our country, we cast a ballot for a messiah. No, of course we don’t frame it in those terms, yet republican, democrat, green party, and everyone else argues that their candidate will be the “savior” of our nation, while the other partys candidates will drive us to apocalypse and the brink of extinction. This past year’s process has been particularly vivid in this regard.

This has also been a year where a significant dimension of American Christianity has sacrificed its moral voice on the alter of political power. Now I’m not trying to be political here—I’m trying to be a Christian and a pastor. But when we excuse and condone behaviors that are contrary to the ethic of Jesus, we have undermined the cause of Christ and further silenced the voice of the Gospel.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us that words have power in the lives of other people. When we call people names, we do a violence to them that is like committing murder. Rather than disadvantage people, he suggests it would be better to have an eye plucked out or a hand cut off.

I was reminded this week of some other ancient words, penned by a Christian writer early in our history, well before our beloved faith became the tool of an empire. He wrote:

[Christians] live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. Every foreign territory is a homeland for them, every homeland foreign territory.
(Epistle to Diognetus in the 2nd century AD)

As Christians, our most basic confession is “Jesus is Lord.” That is, in its heart, a political statement. It means Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. It means we are Christians first and whatever else second. It means our citizenship in God’s Kingdom trumps any patriotism we may feel for our home country.

The only one we follow is Jesus. For whenever we follow worldly leaders, we undermine the Gospel, and we alienate people from the liberation Jesus desires for them.

3. Complicates the Simple (v.18)

Third: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church complicates God’s mission.

This one is really tough for us. The core message of Jesus—the core reality of our faith—the essential heart of the life to which we are called—it is quite simple: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1John 4:7-8).

God’s mission is simple: God seeks to use God’s transforming power to love the world into wholeness. Jesus himself sums up our responsibility as faithful people with the twin commands of loving God and loving our friends and enemies alike as ourselves. When we don’t know what to do, Jesus provides us with this simple test: How do I love him/her/them in this moment?

It’s a simple thing, really. But we—deceived as we are—work to complicate it.

Do they deserve it, we ask?
Does it cost me too much, we inquire?
Did I get the same breaks, we query?

And soon we look little like the Jesus who laid down his life for those who sought to kill him. As Paul says a few verses down from our scripture reading: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1Corinthians 1:27 NIV11)

Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when we complicate God’s simple mission of loving the world.

4. Pride (v.19)

Fourth and lastly: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is haughty.

Now there’s a part of me that would like to make examples of public religious leaders whose pride has undermined the ministry of the church and disadvantaged the cause of Christ. But I remember the ancient wisdom of the early Christians who suggest doing so brings the same sins and criticisms on your own head. As Jesus says in Matthew 7, the judgment we use against others will be the same judgment used against us.

So let me offer this instead: Pride is antithetical to who Jesus is, and so it should be the furthest thing from who we are as his followers.

Our Savior is one who demonstrated servant leadership time and time again, most vividly by performing the most menial of household duties in the first century—washing the feet of guests. He took towel and bowl and insisted that the only way to have a share in what Jesus was bringing into existence was to be washed and to wash each other. In fact, washing each other’s feet is one of the few times that Jesus directly tells his disciples to ritualize what he is doing. He says in John 13:14-15

“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (NIV11)

When was the last time you obeyed Jesus and washed someone’s feet?

We do not often obey this very direct instruction of Jesus to wash each other’s feet. And why? Well, feet are icky and we we feel more humiliated than humbled when we do it. Am I right?

But that also means we don’t get the benefits that come from washing each other’s feet, either. Our pride runs unchecked. We begin to think we are better than others. Then we start to think others are lower than us……maybe even undeserving of grace. And that (in turn) allows us to pat ourselves on the back for not doing a job that we think is pointless—loving someone who won’t accept it anyway. And just like that we have undermined our participation in God’s mission, and we have probably compromised someone else’s ability to do it too.

When a church is haughty—when we fall ill to the pride that Jesus says in Mk 7:22 defiles us—the advancement of the Gospel of Christ is severely impaired.

Conclusion

That’s it. Those are four sure-fire ways to undermine Gospel ministry: Gospel ministry is rapidly undermined when a church is divided, when it follows worldly leaders instead of Christ, when it complicates God’s mission, and when it is swelled with pride.

All four of these are present—and even central—to the identity of the American church. But they hold us back—and they hold others back—from the redemptive power of God’s love.

But just as Paul doesn’t give up on the Corinthians, so we must not give up on each other. One by one, as we live into God’s redemptive love—as we exchange our own ambitions and perspective and sense of fairness for that of our savior—the mission of God is expanded. The cause of Christ is advanced. The kingdom of God is brought nearer, as God’s will is done, on earth just as it is in heaven.

Six Characteristics of a Praise-Worthy Church

 

1Corinthians 1:1-9

 

“6 Characteristics of a Praise-Worthy Church”

There may be no book of the Bible more relevant today for the church of Jesus Christ in these United States than Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

That’s a big statement, but I mean it. The church at Corinth is where we find ourselves in the United States today. Their struggles are our struggles; their failings are our failings. But I also believe that their strengths are our strengths too. Listen to this—this is a description of the Corinthian church written by an author around thirty years ago. The author begins talking about how populous Christianity has become and then says:

It was full of cliques, each following a different personality. Many Christians were very snobbish: at fellowship meals the rich kept to themselves, and the poor were left alone. There was very little church discipline: a lot of laxity was allowed, both in morals and in doctrine—an all-too-common combination. They were unwilling to submit to authority of any kind and the integrity of Paul’s own apostleship was frequently questioned. There was a distinct lack of humility and consideration for others, some being prepared to take fellow-Christians to court and others celebrating their new-found freedom in Christ without the slightest regard for the less robust consciences of fellow believers. In general, they were very keen on the more dramatic gifts of the Spirit and were short on love rooted in the truth.

(David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians, in “The Bible Speaks today,” ed. John R. W. Stott, IVP, p.19).

Any of that sound familiar?

Though Christians make up over 70% of our population, the American church has been infiltrated by cancerous schisms that undermine what is common to us all: the gospel of Jesus Christ. (http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/)

Though we follow the Jesus who breaks the chains that divide and destroy us, Sunday morning remains “the most segregated hour of the week,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed many years ago. (http://www.gallup.com/poll/6367/most-segregated-hour.aspx)

Differing economics continue to divide churches from communities, as well as within churches.

There is an incredible amount of blowback on pastors and churches who attempt to speak about moral issues, and God have mercy on any pastor who teaches against what someone learned on the History Channel or what they think they were taught 30 years ago as a child in Sunday School. Such actions typically lead to personal attacks and smear campaigns as their authority (or any authority) is challenged.

Humility and consideration for others are qualities that are no longer associated with those practicing the Way of Jesus. Quite the opposite: we are seen as arrogant, self-righteous, and self-involved—unconcerned with the plight of anyone but ourselves.

Christians attack other Christians with a ferocity that is unmatched by unbelievers, while the faith of each is considered such an individual affair that no concern for community or building up of one another is even considered.

We have become very big on our displays of self importance and very weak on demonstrating love rooted in truth.

Welcome to the Roman Empire, citizens. This is Corinth.

 

And yet somehow—proving (in my book) once and for all that Paul really does have a pastor’s heart deep down inside somewhere—he also looks at the Corinthian Christians and sees the foundation of a tremendous church, a great church, the best church.

Because he (like any good pastor) truly loves this church, Paul is able to see it through the eyes of Christ. And after the description I read a moment ago, this might feel jarring—but it’s true. Despite the massive failings, self-sabotage, and undermining of the message of Jesus Christ that is going on at Corinth, there are six characteristics that they already exhibit that can save it. Six characteristics of a praise-worthy church that the church of Corinth—and these United States—needs to live into in the coming months and years.

(these start in v.4)

1. Rooted in grace

First: the church is rooted in grace.

This is the first and most important of these characteristics. As Christians, the grace of God available to us because of Jesus Christ is to be the cornerstone of everything we are and of all that we do.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of the grace we have received, nothing we try will succeed.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of how that grace has changed us, no one will hear.

If we are not rooted in an awareness of why we need God’s grace, we won’t just fail to be a praise-worthy church—we will fail to be a church at all, regardless of what is on our sign or in the phone book.

The church of Jesus Christ is rooted in grace—grace is at the heart of the gospel, so grace must be at the heart of who we are.

2. Is mature

Second: A praise-worthy church is mature.

This is a place where our American church fails—we are (to use Paul’s language) like 30-year-olds who are still drinking milk out of sippy cups and bottles. We never matured. We never grew up. But the Christian life is something that matures.

For too long, churches and pastors in this country have thought our job was to “get people saved.” Everything we did—missionary work, evangelistic outreach, worship songs, emotionally manipulative sermons, alter calls—everything was focused on getting someone to say a prayer, get baptized, and join the church. After that, they were SOL.

We didn’t expect their growth; we only cared about church growth—statistics.

We didn’t watch for the endowment of gifts or their expression.

We wanted the credit for their name ending up in the Book of Life, and once it was there we moved on to some other poor soul.

No wonder so many became restless with the bottle-fed milk of spiritual immaturity that we were forcing on them.

No wonder those who remained began to think worship and church was all about meeting their own needs.

No wonder the church has little voice of consequence in the public arena.

If we do not nurture and grow our Christian faith—if the Christian churches of this nation cannot ditch the bottles and diapers—then no one will take us seriously enough to consider that we might have something of importance to offer.

3. Embodies its giftedness

Third: a praise-worthy church embodies its gifts.

Did you know in Greek the word for gift is connected to the word for grace? These spiritual gifts are “graces.” I find that really ties all this together.

The gifts we are given are graces that we are expected to share in community—we are to embody them for the benefit of others.

Think of the Parable of the Talents. That’s weird, y’all. God gets all harsh on the dude who plays it safe. It’s the polar opposite of how most of us live out our faith. But if there’s one thing that’s clear it’s the moral of the parable: God wants us to use the talents we are given.

Later on in Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul stresses that we are gifted uniquely so our unique gifts may be shared to edify the community of faith. That is their primary purpose. When we insist on only using our gifts outside the church, or when we do not pursue the necessary discernment, prayer, and conversation to discover what our gifts actually are, we handicap God’s community, God’s mission, and God’s kingdom.

One further reminder here: Paul is not speaking to individuals but to a church—a community. No individual will “be enriched in every way” and “not lacking any spiritual gift.” It’s just not possible for an individual person. But it is more than possible for this to be the case within a group who are sharing their graces with one another—this is the way God designed us and this thing called “church” to work.”

4. Is oriented/motivated by Christ’s return

Fourth: a praise-worthy church is oriented to and motivated by Christ’s return.

The return of Christ is a polarizing thing among Christians. For many, having a proper understanding of an “end times” timeline is fundamental to salvation—at least that’s what I’ve learned the many times I was told I wasn’t saved because I didn’t believe the right things.

But, you know? I just don’t see too many Christians motivated to action by this though. Their complicated manipulations of the biblical text don’t just lack an appropriate regard for context—they also fail to help people live more like their Savior Jesus.

In contrast, a praise-worthy church is one that orients its mission toward Christ’s return. Their focus on the coming of Christ leads them to deeper and more passionate engagement, as they sense an urgency in the work that has been entrusted to us. Genuine belief that Jesus is coming back drives such a church into more and more radical displays of grace and love as we enact God’s justice here on earth—the justice that lifts up the lowest and least of our world, remembering that “just as you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.”

5. Has a sustaining spirituality

Number 5: a praise-worthy church has a sustaining spirituality.

More than ever before, Christians are burning themselves out and destroying their faith communities in the process. Churches, to be honest, bear a big part of the blame for this—it has been we who manipulate and guilt-trip people into overcommitting, serving far outside their giftedness and calling, and (all the while) expecting more than ever before.

I have known many Christians who flat refuse to join a church as a matter of self-care. Their experience of joining a church involves guilt-laden commitments, a burden on their family’s schedule, and a host of other unhealthy realities. So they self-censor these things from their lives by never joining.

I have known countless others who aren’t even sure they’re Christians anymore. They have witnessed selfishness, divisive behaviors, greed, and hypocrisy to the point that they have become disillusioned, unsure that there even is a God if even God’s own people can’t do better than this.

In both groups, these people have become burned out or they’ve been burned as others flame out. Involved are people who were never taught that Christian spirituality is one that sustains, not drains. The model for our lives is to be Jesus, yet Jesus has no problem repeatedly taking retreats and times of prayer to balance out those public engagements and challenging experiences. This pattern is seen over and over in his ministry, yet we as his followers are overcommitted, stressed beyond belief, and running on fumes.

The praise-worthy church knows its members can’t burn a candle at both ends for long—that is not the way of Jesus, and it is not to be our way. Our way is a way of embodied and sustaining spirituality that nurtures, heals, and unites.

6. Correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice 

Sixthly and lastly, a praise-worthy church correctly discerns and practices Christ’s justice.

While I know from a broader reading of 1Corinthians that this is a sixth and vital characteristic of a praise-worthy church, I admit it is a bit of a stretch here. But when Paul says in v.9 that “God…has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” this is considerably more involved than being Facebook friends.

If God has called us into “fellowship” with Jesus, God has called us to be co-laborers with Christ, participating fully with him in the advancement of God’s agenda of grace and love. That agenda—that mission—involves being in active pursuit of the same justice Jesus pursued:

justice for those on the margins of society

those who are sick—and who are preyed upon because of illness

those who fall between the cracks of bureaucracy

those who do not have enough

those who are without hope

those who are victims of themselves or others

those whose only way out they can see is in a body bag

and those for whom everything is just that much harder.

When the Bible says “justice,” it isn’t talking about the kind of elementary school fairness where everybody gets a candy bar. It’s talking about upsetting the entire system—taking food from the rich kids and giving to the ones who only get peanut butter sandwiches, punishing the bully and encouraging the bullied, nurturing students instead of boosting test scores.

The testimony of the Bible is that God loves an underdog. And if we are going to be a praise-worthy church, we’re going to get pretty raucous in pursuit of God’s kind of justice too.

Love

The funny thing about all of this—when we really think about it—is that it all comes down to love. Everything has a way of doing that, when we talk about God. In fact, while I was writing this sermon my oldest daughter wanted to help. So I had her get out her Bible and read the verses a few times to herself, I told her to listen really, really hard for what God might be trying to tell us. Listen for what God might want someone else to hear. After a few minutes of uncanny quiet and still, she replied: “Dad, I think I heard God, and what he wants us to hear is “I love you.”

The grace in which we are rooted is on account of God’s love.

Our spiritual maturity grows because God loves us enough to engage us in friendship.

We embody our gifts because we have been loved by God and know the responsibility we have in passing that love on to others.

The Incarnation of Jesus came about because of love, as will the Return of Christ our King.

Our sustaining spirituality was modeled by the Jesus who loves us so, and who continues to be our friend.

And God’s justice is intrinsically rooted in the love God has for us. I made the claim some time back that it is actually God’s mercy—what some translations call God’s “lovingkindness” that drives God’s pursuit of justice for the lowest and least in our world.

If you hear nothing else this morning, hear this: The voice of God, echoing in your innermost being: “I love you.”

Recovering the Mystery

 

Matthew 3:13-17

 

Recovering the Mystery

Some time ago, I came across a great comment best paraphrased as “Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.” Living in mystery—sounds intriguing.

What might that look like? Through our Scripture Lesson today, we are brought (in spirit) to the shores of the Jordan to contemplate in wonder of Christ’s baptism by John.

Throughout the ages, the voices of Christian wisdom testify that the Baptism of Jesus Christ is a great mystery that eludes our comprehension but demands our contemplation. When we read closely, the sparse details in Matthew seem idiosyncratic and incomplete, begging our questions and offering few answers. It seems to me that there are three mysteries regarding the baptism of Jesus that demand our attention and contemplation.

The First Mystery: Jesus Does It

The first mystery is perhaps the most obvious. It is the mystery that Jesus himself submits to baptism at all. We read that John’s baptism was “for repentance.” But yet Jesus Christ, the sinless savior of the world, submits himself to it. So if Jesus is not in need of repentance, what then is the purpose of Jesus’ baptism?

A quick scan through history reveals that Christians have struggled with this mystery for as long as there have been Christians. The fourth century Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, best known for his superb skills as a theological orator, ruminates on this mystery in one of his sermons. After struggling out loud with the mystery for some time, and after proposing several solutions that prove inadequate, St. John Chrysostom eventually asks, “For whom was He baptized, if this was done not for repentance, nor for the remission of sins, nor for receiving the gifts of the Spirit?” He ends up in the simple place where his questions started.

But our mystery goes beyond this incongruity—the idea of a sinless participant undergoing baptism of repentance. There is a greater metaphysical mystery at play as well. Through the baptism of Jesus, “we have an amazing thing before us. He who created the waters submits to being baptized in them. He who created the heavens and the earth and saw that it was good and not evil, submits to cleansing in waters. He who regenerates our flesh, Who is the Regenerator, He descends in the flesh into regenerating waters.” It is a mystery indeed.*

Of course, there have always been people who have tried to eliminate the mysteries of our faith, attempting to contain their magnitude in neat, little, bumper-sticker sized boxes. One popular answer to this mystery, especially with preachers throughout the centuries, is that Jesus was modeling behavior for us. This explanation has ticked a lot of boxes for us Baptists in particular, as we are a people whose identity is intrinsically linked to how we understand baptism. For us, as well as many other denominations, Jesus provides here the model for carrying out the command issued at the Great Commission to “baptize.”

In a variety of ways, St. John Chrysostom and many others throughout history, have come to believe that Jesus’ baptism functioned as a sort of “coming-out party” through which the people of the region might take note of his presence and upcoming ministry. As is the case in the biblical narrative, his baptism is where Jesus emerges onto the stage of history in an active manner. From here on, he will play a major speaking role.

But while this and other explanations may be logical, it seems incomplete. The mystery remains. As it will forever remain……in this world.

The Second Mystery: The Symbolism

The second mystery of Jesus’ baptism has to do with its symbolism. This seems to be the mystery that enraptures commentators and authors from the apostle Paul through those of the present day.

Paul began our infatuation by locating within the event of Jesus’ baptism a symbol of death and regenerated life. In Colossians, for instance, Paul states that we have “been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12).

This is outlined in detail in the New Minister’s Manual, a handbook for the rituals of ministry:

Before a person becomes a Christian, he/she is dead in sin. When a person is dead, they are buried. The water represents a grave. As a person is lowered into the water it symbolizes that they are being buried.

A person who becomes a Christian receives new life from Christ. The person being lifted up out of the water symbolizes being raised to walk in newness of life.

The Book of Common Prayer prescribes similar words in a thanksgiving prayer:

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

Baptism is clearly understood to be an image of death and life. The church says it over and over and over again. When we descend into the waters, we die. Our “old man,” to use Paul’s language, dies in the water with its lusts. When we ascend out of the waters, we are reborn a new creature. This is a hard thing to understand. [Just like Nicodemus,] we cannot fathom it. We do not know how a person is reborn of water and the spirit, we just know how we are told to begin the Christian life.*

But the symbolism of baptism extends beyond merely death and rebirth. The most sacred rituals—the ones that transcend time, space, geography, culture, and language—they incorporate all our senses in the experience of symbolism.

Think for a moment of communion. Our sense of hearing is involved in the ritual through the words and prayers that are spoken. We see, smell, touch, and taste the elements—the bread and the cup. We speak responses and sing songs. We use our entire bodies, our whole selves, in order to perceive the Divine.

Baptism is no different, particularly in the case of the baptismal candidate. Words of scripture are read, prayers are offered, songs are sung; we bear witness of the ritual with our eyes and ears; we incorporate our bodies as we stand, sit, and speak.

But for the candidate, there is also the sight of the water as you enter the pool. There is the heavy dampness that your sense of smell cannot ignore. There is the cold wetness that seems to seize your very heart in its icy grasp. And yes, there is even the salty taste of the water mixed with your own body as some inevitably penetrates your sinus cavity. You feel yourself go weightless as your body reaches its lowest point and time seems to stop. In that fraction of a second, there may even be an experience panic before you experience the additional g-forces of fighting the weight of the water as you are pulled back through the surface.

There are many mysteries to be found in the symbolism of baptism. Symbols are, by definition, a partial revelation of a complete truth. We cannot ever grasp the whole through its symbolic representation. But the mystery can be wrestled with, and so baptism provides ample fodder for our contemplation until the end of the age.

The Third Mystery: Acceptance

To me, the greatest mystery is that of the acceptance that comes through baptism. At Jesus’ baptism, Matthew tells us that Jesus experienced the affirmation of God in a remarkable manner: “The heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him, and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased'” (3:16-17).

I think the mystery here is perhaps best expressed in the question, Why was God pleased with Jesus? 

Was God not pleased before? —I don’t think so.

But why is God expressing his pleasure now?

I don’t think it is because now Jesus was somehow more holy because of his baptism.

I don’t think God is pleased with Jesus because Jesus throughly marked off all the appropriate prophetic check-boxes on his “Messiah to-do list.”

In fact, I don’t think it has anything to do with a theoretical change in the substance or essence of Jesus.

Just as Christians of centuries past answered the first mystery by saying Jesus was baptized “for us,” so those very same Christians argue the same here. They claim that the voice was more for John or the crowd than for Jesus himself.

But I disagree. The pronouns in the baptism accounts are notoriously difficult to sort out, and one is largely left wondering whether Jesus or John alone witnessed the affirmation of Jesus as God’s son. In addition, Jesus is a human being, and all human beings—regardless of depth of spirituality or self-esteem—we all require external affirmation in some form and frequency.

I don’t think Jesus was any different. The baptism of Jesus is located at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry—it is called the Theophany (the appearance of God) by the classical authors. We, who know what is coming in the story, know that Jesus is about to be whisked away to the desert to be tempted. After surviving those trials, Jesus begins his own ministry of preaching and healing.

The words of God, “Behold my servant” are an affirmation of Jesus; at this particular point in time, they serve to motivate and empower Jesus to endure temptation and begin an uncertain ministry in Galilee. Christian author John Eldredge points this out while talking about the affirmation needed by every human. He says,

Even Jesus needed to hear those words of affirmation from his Father. After he is baptized in the Jordan, before the brutal attack on his identity in the wilderness, his Father speaks, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased” . . . In other words, “Jesus, I am deeply proud of you; you have what it takes.”

If Eldredge and others are correct, than this is truly a great mystery. The Son of God required affirmation to face the life ahead of him. It doesn’t really make sense to us. But then again, it is a mystery.

But one thing that is no mystery is that all of us need affirmation. We all need someone outside ourselves to recognize those good things about us. But most of us do not receive enough affirmation. From the youngest to the eldest, we are so starving for acceptance that we will try all sorts of unhealthy things in pursuit of it.

This is actually the entire point of Eldredge’s book: to live the kind of healthy, vibrant life that God designed us to live, we must pursue only the affirmation of our Designer.

When we seek validation through our occupation, we will become burnt-out shells who are alienated from everyone we once loved.

When we seek validation through our spouse, we are subject to their whims and emotions.

Seeking validation through hobbies, friends, social organizations, and any other venue is just as feeble. The fleeting impression of validation we receive from these agents is but a dim reflection of the real deal. Ultimately, pursuing validation through any of these is a tumultuous and unrewarding prospect, as each is subject to the variances of feelings, business fluctuations, economics, and dozens of influences that are outside our control.

But there is a stable and true source from which we can find validation in our lives—God. He is our anchor. His steadfast love for us endures forever. We would all be better to remember the words of the old hymn, “Be very sure, be very sure, Your anchor holds, And grips the Solid Rock.”

 

*Portions of this sermon were taken and adapted from a sermon delivered at the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, TX