The start of discipleship

Last week, I ran across this video by noted evangelical, Francis Chan, entitled “How NOT to make disciples.”

The money quote is “When Jesus says something,you don’t have to do it, you just have to memorize it.”  I instantly related to that line because of my days as an evangelical kid in Young Life.  To be clear, I loved my days in YL.  I credit Fletch and the gang for helping me become the disciple I am today.  I’m not saying that my YL leaders didn’t want us to follow Jesus, but I do remember feeling like Bible memorization was pretty important.  And maybe it is, but only as a beginning to discipleship.

Of the maybe four verses I actually memorized in high school, the first one was from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, which we will hear on Sunday. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has gone, the new has come!”  For a guy who isn’t good at memorizing things, I was pretty proud to have learned 2 Cor 5.17.  I knew it forward and backward, inside and out, and yet, it made little, if any impact on my life.  I spent most of my late teens, making plans for the future based solely on what I wanted to do, not asking for God’s help or opinion on anything.  I graduated from high school after a serious case of senioritis, and headed off to the University of Pittsburgh to study civil and environmental engineering.  I hated every. single. moment.

I knew that I had been made a new creation in Christ, but I wasn’t living it.  I had memorized the words, but hadn’t internalized them.  Discipleship may meaning learning, but it is much deeper than reading about Jesus.  Discipleship is about allowing Jesus to change your life, and it starts by realizing that we are a new creation.

Life is more than we can handle

Allow me a moment of confession.  With all of yesterday’s busyness, I didn’t take the time to read all four lessons for Lent 3C.  I read the story from Exodus 3, wrote a blog post, and moved on to the next thing.  So it was, with great surprise, that I realized that the Lectionary pairs 1 Cor 10:1-13, “We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” with Luke 13:1-9, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”  It will take me at least 24 hours to process how I will handle the glaring inconsistencies between Paul’s word to the church in Corinth and Jesus’ word to the anxious crowd.  I mean, yikes! Instead, today I’ll deal with the greater offense of 1 Corinthians 10: the awful paraphrase of verse 13, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

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Let’s be real clear, most of the time life is more than we can handle.  What Paul is talking about in this oft-misquoted line isn’t the sufferings of this life, but the temptations away from God’s kingdom.  If we’re honest with ourselves, most of the time those temptations are too much to handle as well, which is why the second half of that verse is the most important part.

“… with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”

When life and all of its temptations become more than we can handle, some call that Monday, God is there in the midst of it providing refuge from the storm.  “God won’t give you more than you can handle” sounds an awful lot like “suck it up buttercup.”  “God is here to help you withstand temptation and to offer grace if and when you fail” is much better news, if you ask me.  So stop with the nonsensical, guilt inducing, pseudo-supportive, Joel-Osteen-Bad-Exegesis-Self-Help-Mumbo-Jumbo, and instead share the Good news of God’s steadfast love that exists even when life is just too much to handle.

The More Excellent Way – a reprise

Last week, I wrote a post imploring preachers everywhere to find a place for 1 Cor 12:31b.  After two weeks of hearing how Paul handled a church tearing itself apart over whose gifts were more important, it seems important that we hear how he transitions for bitter infighting to his great love hymn.  “I will show you a more excellent way,” he writes. There is not shortage of memes dealing with the word excellent. Having used the classic late-80s film, Bill and Ted’s Excellent adventure last week, I decided to forego Wayne’s World as it is another buddy comedy, and will instead use a show that defined my adolescent years.

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The way that Paul shows the Corinthian church isn’t the way of greed that Mr. Burns would follow.  Instead, it is the way of love.  As I researched for Sunday’s sermon, I came across Brian Petersen’s commentary in which he writes these words: “Faith will one day become sight, and hope will end in fulfillment.  Love will still remain, however, because God’s love will not fall, fail, or falter.”  As I read those words, I began to realize that because God is love, love is an end unto itself.  Love is its own telos, and when we love our neighbor in the way that Paul describes; when we agape love our neighbor by showing patience, by acting with kindness, by eschewing envy, boasting, and arrogance, by seeking the common good, and rejoicing in the truth we are living into the fullness of God’s will for us.  We bring the kingdom of God to earth when we love one another.

No doubt, that is a more excellent way.  It is a way that brings heaven to earth.  It is a way that, if only for a moment, brings the not yet into the already.  It is a way of realized eschatology, an apocalyptic vision of the age to come that isn’t full of firey skies and tribulation, but is a model of the perfect love that has existed within the Trinity of God from before creation.  This way is prefect.

The Extreme of Love

In yesterday’s post, I posited that as Paul laid out some of the more extreme ways that people have chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, he had in mind only one real extreme: the extreme of love.  While 1 Corinthians 13 gets regular airplay at wedding ceremonies, the sort of love that Paul is talking about here isn’t the gooey romantic love of the wedding day.  It is more the ongoing, life-giving love of every day that follows.

During wedding rehearsals, as we go over the questions and vows that the couple will engage, I note that television shows and movies are fairly comfortable with the Episcopal marriage rite, but that they have missed a key part of the liturgy.  During the betrothal portion of the service, the Officiant asks the couple “Will you have this man to be your husband; to live together in the covenant of marriage?  Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?”  The pop culture answer to those questions is “I do,” but the truer answer is “I will.”  “I can get you to agree to anything on your wedding day,” I say to the couple, “but I’m much more interested in the life you’ll live after the event is over.”

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Paul’s extreme of love is focused on a lifetime of living in community.  The love that he describes to the Christians in Corinth is a “more excellent way” than the bitter disputes that have been dividing the community heretofore.  This love, if it is going to change the world is a love that must be patient and kind.  It must be a love that doesn’t seek its own gain, but rather cares for the greater good.  It must be a love that doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and endures even when the times get tough.  This love which can never end can come only from the Creator of the Universe, the inventor and perfecter of agape love, who showed us that love in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his only Son.

The extreme of love is impossible to accomplish on our own.  Human beings are incapable of the sort of patience, kindness, and endurance that the true agape love Paul describes requires.  While still in our mortal bodies, we can only see that love through a mirror dimly, but in Christ, we know it is possible.  Through Christ, with the help of the Spirit, we grow into that sort of love more and more until that day when we see fully and are fully known.  Paul lays out of the Corinthians a more excellent way, a way of extreme love.  Give us grace, O Lord, to love as you love us.

1 Corinthians 12:31b

As I noted in my sermon on Sunday, the Corinthian church is perhaps most famous for fighting about everything.  Paul spends most of the first twelve chapters covering a laundry list of topics he would really rather not cover.  This coming Sunday, we’ll hear the final correction to a church tearing itself apart: “you are the body of Christ.”  In the midst of a teaching on spiritual gifts, Paul makes a short aside to remind the Corinthian Christians that above all, they are members of a community of faith and unless they can figure out a way to live together, they are failing to live into their identity as members of the body of Christ.

Sunday week, we’ll hear the antithesis of this argument in Paul’s great Love Hymn.  He’ll show them what life in Christ, united in love to the Trinity that overflows with love, looks like.  Between here and there, however, there is a key phrase which the RCL has decided we do not need to hear.  Epiphany 3C ends at 1 Cor 12:31a.  Epiphany 4C starts at 1 Cor 13:1.  In between is 1 Corinthians 31b.

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“I will show you a still more excellent way.”

The Greek word translated as “excellent” is “huperbole” which is basically hyperbole without the exaggeration.  According to my handy-dandy Bibleworks Lexicon, huperbole means surpassing greatness; outstanding quality; beyond measure, utterly, to the extreme

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This way is certainly better than the conflicts and tensions of the Corinthian community. This way far surpasses the way of self-interest and greed.  This way is more extremely awesome than Vanilla Ice’s hair.  What way is this?  The way of love.  The way of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The way that seeks peace, that calls us to pray for our enemies, that invites us to seek to be forgiven and to forgive.

1 Corinthians 12:31b is an important moment of transition, and it would behoove the preacher who is tackling 1 Corinthians to give it a nod either this week or next as we follow Jesus on his most excellent way.

Our Epiphany of the Spirit

Continuing on the Pray, Worship, Serve, Share theme from a few weeks ago, our vestry will gather this Saturday for a half-day retreat.  We will try to use these four gifts to God to model our time together while also looking to see how the elected leadership might help lift up these four practices in the congregation.  One of the ways we can get about this, in a healthy and effective way, is to find out which of these four areas has the strongest pull on our lives.  It is true that every Christian should be engaging in each of these four practices: praying daily, worshiping weekly, serving regularly, and sharing for the up-building of the Kingdom, each of us is also better suited for one over the rest.  Some find it easy to sit for an hour in contemplative prayer, while others find it easy to share the Good News with

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, Paul calls these various skills and abilities, spiritual gifts.  Many are familiar with the idea of spiritual gifts, especially the miraculous ones that seem to cause fear, trepidation, and the occasional fit of envy like healing and speaking in tongues.  Paul’s list, at least the version found in 1 Corinthians, is fairly innocuous: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, and tongues and their interpretation; however it seems clear that there has been some struggle in the community regarding these gifts.  Paul seems to need to tell the Christians in Corinth that no gift is better than another and that nobody has all the gifts.  He is very clear in saying, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  Let’s break that down a bit.

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To each – that means everyone. Every. Single. Person. Has received gifts from the spirit.  No one should be excluded for what seems like a lack of spiritual gifts.

The manifestation of the Spirit – this one is interesting. Thanks to the Sermon Brainwave crew at WorkingPreacher.org, I know that the word translated as “manifestation” is from the same root as Epiphany.  It literally means that the Spirit discloses herself by way of the gifts.  Our using the gifts given to us in baptism is the means by which the epiphany of the Spirit happens in the world.  The flip side of that is that when we refuse our gifts, when we sit on our hands and don’t exercise our God given talents, then we are holding back the work of the Spirit in the world, which sounds awfully close to the unforgivable sin to me.

For the common good – These gifts aren’t given to make us famous (contra Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, etc.).  These gifts aren’t given to make us seem like better Christians (contra some Pentecostal teachings on tongues).  These gifts aren’t given to make us jealous, what seems to be a part of the struggle in Corinth.  No, these gifts are given for the common good to build the Kingdom of God.  When each of us is exercising our gifts, the Spirit is made manifest in the world, and the Kingdom of God comes one step closer to being on earth as it is in heaven.

Paul’s Epiphany for the Ephesians – a homily

We did it!  We survived another Christmas season.  At least until we all have heart attacks when the credit card bill comes later this month.  Still, surviving the roughly 47 day secular holiday season from the first Christmas carol plays on Lite Mix 99.9 on November 9th through to Christmas Day is a feat enough, but add to that the Church’s 12 Days of Christmas, and you’ve really done something!  Now here we stand, on the Feast of the Epiphany, ready to celebrate a new season when what do we have, but those pesky Wise Men from the East, who have been paying homage to Jesus in Christmas crèches for months now.  Thankfully, we heard their story on Sunday, and having already preached on the Magi[1], I don’t feel compelled to go back to Christmas and rehash it all, so instead, I’m going to try to make sense of Paul’s convoluted message to the Church in Ephesus.

The Ephesian Church is like every other church that has ever existed, it has had its struggles.  No one knows for sure what all the conflicts in Ephesus were about, but certainly the question of how to integrate Gentiles into a largely Jewish community of faith was one of the bigger ones.  This letter, then, is intended for those Gentile Christians who have made it through the hard times, and are looking for what God has in store for them next.  They are in need of an Epiphanic Event, hoping that God will reveal his will for them. Here in the third chapter, Paul encourages them to not lose heart, and to look at the example of his life.

You might recall that prior to his conversion, Paul was not a big fan of Jesus and his disciples.  We first meet Paul in the seventh chapter of Acts as he holds the coats of those who stone Stephen; looking on approvingly.  From there, with the blessing of the Jewish leadership, Paul began a harsh persecution of the church, dragging men and women to jail for following the Way of Jesus.  Two chapter later, while en route to Damascus to inflict more damage there, Paul is struck blind by Jesus himself.  In the hours that followed, Paul’s eyes were opened, figuratively and literally, to the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s epiphanic moment came when Jesus chose to personally reveal himself to him, and from that moment on, Paul couldn’t help but seek to continue to reveal Jesus to everyone he met.  Because Paul had a revelation, he spoke a revelation, and every time someone heard the Gospel and believed, Paul passed on the responsibility of revealing God, of sharing the Good News of Jesus to the new believers.  Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus as a steward of the Gospel, compelled to share the Good News of God’s love for everyone and everything God has created.

Paul’s words to the Ephesian Christians are just as important for us today.  We continue to live in a world that doesn’t fully know the saving power of Jesus’ love.  For Paul, it is the church’s primary responsibility to share the almost incomprehensible mystery that God loves his creation so much that he sent his Son to restore everything to right relationship.  As stewards of the Gospel, the Church corporately, and each of us individually should feel compelled to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with everyone we meet.  As followers of Jesus, we’ve already had our epiphany; we’ve come to know the power of his grace.  Our job now is to share that epiphany, so that others might be able to have epiphanies of their own.  This isn’t necessarily easy, of course. Paul ended up in jail because he couldn’t not tell the Good a News of Jesus.  We might risk embarrassment and rejection, but as stewards of the gospel, that risk is well outweighed by the rewards of helping a lost soul find their place in God’s never failing love.  May this season be an opportunity for you to share the love of God with a world that so desperately needs it.  Happy Epiphany!

[1] https://draughtingtheology.wordpress.com/2016/01/04/pray-worship-serve-share-a-sermon/

Powers and Principalities

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, SHW, the kids, and I joined some friends for Worship on the Water at the Florabama Lounge.  It was one of my sabbatical goals to worship there, but to be honest, I found it disappointing.  I didn’t drink a beer during church, though I suppose I could have.  The music was entertaining, but nobody was singing along, even when they sang Amazing Grace.  The theology was what you might expect, conservative and evangelical, though with a healthy attitude toward outreach, especially to those battling addiction.  What I found most disappointing, however, was the sermon.

The founding pastor preached.  I’d heard good things about him, his ministry, and his preaching ability, but it was really quite flat.  He told good stories and he had a few good punch lines, but he was sprinting the entire time.  Maybe it was the heat, but he left us with no chance to laugh at the jokes because he was already on to something else.  You didn’t come here for a review of Worship on the Water, however.  You came here to read something about the Bible.  Coincidentally, the sermon preached that morning was the last in a series on the armor of God that Paul writes about in the lesson from Ephesians appointed for Sunday.

While battle imagery has gone out of fashion in most Episcopal congregations, this image of being strong in the Lord is one that is vitally important, especially as we’re already 6 years into a 4 year presidential election cycle with another 15 months to go!  The call to be ready to stand against the wiles of the devil and his “rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil” are perhaps even more crucial today then they were in the first century because if there is one thing the media is good at, it is hyping up what the King James’ version of the Bible calls “powers and principalities.”

For those who are sure how these different dangers all fit together, I found this handy chart.

Whether it is Hilary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, or Ben Carson, the key to primary presidential politics these days is building and allaying fears.  Immigrants are bringing drugs and taking your jobs, but I’ll deport them.  Republicans want to leave the poor to starve to death in the gutters, but I’ll feed the masses.  Hilary can’t be trusted with national security, but I’ll keep you safe.  Liberals are spending us into slavery to China, but I’ve got a plan to cut taxes, stimulate growth, and remove all entitlements.  The power and principality of fear is alive and well in our culture, and if we aren’t careful, if we aren’t strong in the Lord, we will easily succumb to its wiles.

Let’s put on the full armor of God and take on the fear that threatens to overwhelm us.  Let’s place our trust in the LORD, not the rulers of this world.  Let’s follow after the will of God and see about changing the world.

The Song in your Heart

There is quote, attributed to Lucy from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon, that goes like this:

Like the prayer attributed to Saint Francis, I’m doubtful that Lucy’s character ever actually uttered these words.  Unlike the prayer of Saint Francis, I hold this opinion because this sentiment is so out of Lucy’s character.  Lucy is know for being somewhat rough around the edges.  She’s the one who is always pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown at the last minute.  She gave him the nickname, “blockhead.”  Her temper is notoriously hot and her fuse is equally short.  She doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who carries around a song in her heart.

Of course, most people probably don’t think of Saint Paul as a guy with a song in his heart either.  He was a bit arrogant.  He could be prickly.  He may or may not have killed a few Christians prior to his conversion, and yet, in Sunday’s lesson from Ephesians we find him admonishing the disciples in Ephesus to “sing and make melody to the Lord in your hearts.”  I appreciate the “in your hearts” piece because I am an awful singer, but the real important part is the kind of song Paul calls us to carry within us.  The Greek for “sing and make melody” is actually just two different Greek words that mean “to sing,” the second of which literally means to “sing praise.”

One of the hardest struggles for Christians of all ages is to change that initial reaction to a hardship or frustration.  We are often slaves to our emotional reactions to things. Think, for example, about the last time you got cut off in traffic.  What was your immediate reaction?  Because I’ve not yet found a way to have a song of praise in my heart at all times, my reaction usually looks something like this:

Imagine how different the world would be if Christians could find a way to take Paul’s advice.  How peaceful and loving might our environments be if the 70% of Americans who self-identify as Christians could make room for the Spirit to fill their hearts with praise rather than the muck that takes up so much space?  Through the Daily Office, daily prayer, and daily Scripture reading, and with God’s help, we can make room for a song of praise in our hearts, but it takes time.  So be patient with yourself, but keep on striving for toward the goal of carrying a song in your heart at all times.

Sealed for the Day of Redemption

If you’ve hung around this blog for even a short period of time, you probably know by now that I am an unabashed church nerd.  I love our liturgy and I love to study liturgy.  I love our history and I love to study history.  I’m not big on vestments, but I love to know the theology and history behind them.  In The Episcopal Church, there is one service that stands above all the others when it comes to church nerdery at its finest, the Ordination of a Bishop.  Here in the Central Gulf Coast, we had the opportunity to celebrate just such a service a few weeks ago, as we welcomed our Fourth Bishop, the Right Reverend Russell Kendrick.  For all the pomp and circumstance that went on during the more than two-and-a-half hour service, the piece that I find most intriguing happened hours earlier and for the most part, went totally unnoticed until the official pictures were posted today.

Photo by Cindy McCrory of Blue Room Photgraphy.

The Signing and Sealing of the Ordination Certificate is, for me, one of the coolest parts of an episcopal ordination.  It signifies that new bishop’s place in something much larger than the particular diocese two which they have been called.  The wax seals, made with the ring of each bishop in attendance, shows that the new bishop is part of a bigger church, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that encompasses every denomination and every Christian since the disciples stood, staring slack-jawed at the bottom of Jesus’ feet on Ascension Day.

It also signifies the seal that every disciple of Jesus wears upon their forehead, the seal that Paul speaks on in his letter to the Ephesians that we will hear read on Sunday.  We who have been baptized are sealed by and with the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption.  We are marked as belonging to the tribe of Christ, the family of God.  We wear upon our foreheads the sign and symbol of the redeemed, the same seal worn by Peter, Paul and Priscilla; Augustine, Francis, and Teresa; William Reed Huntington, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The seals on Bishop Russell’s ordination certificate should remind each of us of the seal we wear upon our foreheads, the seal that sets us apart as sinners restored and disciples of Jesus Christ.  The seals should remind us of our place in the Church catholic throughout the generations.  The seals should remind us of the work to which each of us has been called, reconciling the human beings to God and to each other through the love of God, the mercy of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
The Book of Common Prayer, page 308