Questions and Reflections

Category: 1 Corinthians

Reflection: A Crossed Shaped Life

I'm going to let you in on a little secret: the Bible texts we read on Sunday morning sometimes allows for optional verses. We use a three year cycle of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. And this cycle of readings is shared by Catholics, United Methodists, Reformed communities, Lutherans and the like. There are times when the lectionary gives us options for Sunday morning. For example, an assigned reading from the book of Isaiah might focus on the first nine verses in a chapter. But at the end of this reading, there are additional verses surrounded by brackets. These bracketed verses are not the main thrust of the reading but they can help us flesh out how the reading can make a difference in our lives. Not every church will read the optional verses. But I have a habit of including them whenever they show up. When it comes to our lectionary readings, I'm an adder. I like more. And I apologize to our lector today for adding all these extra verses to our readings.

Today's reading from 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 is a continuation of what we heard last week. The community in Corinth is divided. People have started to form teams and are refusing to even worship with other people. This division in the community is a bit surprising since the Christian community in Corinth probably numbered around 20. Yet they, like us, were working hard to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. And in their quest to be good Christians, they started to separate themselves from each other.

Much of this separation was caused by their belief that one team had to win and everyone else needed to lose. There was an inherent competition in their understanding of what it means to follow Christ. And they lived this competition out by trying to see which one of them had the best "spiritual" gifts. Instead of seeing these talents as tools they could use to take care of each other, the community in Corinth wanted to define themselves as being "the best." Paul's work in this section of the letter is to try and remove this sense of competition. He reminded them that, in Christ, none of us are more special than the others. We are all beloved. We are not here to be in competition with one another. Instead, we're called to put on the mind of Christ—and to see each other as Christ sees them.

When we put on the mind of Christ, what we're doing is letting the Cross influence our viewpoint of the world. With cross-shaped vision, we recognize the gift of Jesus Christ actually dying because he refused to let the world's sense of power and competition be what defined God's kingdom. Our actions in the world should not be a race to win against others. Rather, what we do should be defined by a love that is willing to make sacrifices for others. This sacrifice is not easy and is something we don't always want to do. But as the baptized members of the body of Christ, when it comes to being with God—we've already won. So, let's live as if Jesus life, death and resurrection actually matter.



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Reflection: Source of Your Life

One of the ways I serve the wider church is by being a member of the New Jersey Synod's Candidacy Committee. The Candidacy Committee shepherds people as they discern if God is calling them to become pastors or deacons. This process asks a lot from the people who go through it. They're required to pass background tests, undergo intense psychological exams, interviews, attend retreats, earn a Master's Degree, work as an intern, and write a lot of essays. The candidates who go through this process are diverse and unique in their own ways. They come from different places, speak different languages, and live varied lives. They also were not raised in Lutheran churches. And some were also hurt by the church itself. As they go through the candidacy process, the candidates for ministry are asked to be vulnerable. And, this isn't an easy thing to do. Most of us have learned, overtime, that being vulnerable is something we shouldn't do. We act tough, refuse to cry, and choose not to ask for help. We run away from our vulnerability because we view it as a weakness rather than a strength. Yet that's the opposite of what the candidacy process requires of our candidates. It's only by embracing their vulnerability that they are able to become the leaders God is calling them to be. We don't need pastors who appear to be emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually strong. We also need pastors and deacons who know what it’s like to see God's foolishness at work. Because the faith that God gifts to us is not a faith that serves only those who are strong. Rather, it's a faith that helps us live through our life so that we can connect to each other and discover the vastness of God's grace and love.

The text from today's letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:18-31) is Paul's attempt, I think, to remind us what the foundation of our life is. And instead of explaining what that foundation is, I'm going to let Paul's words speak for themselves. I encourage you to not rush through our reading from 1 Corinthians today. Read through it slowly and when you're done, make a plan to read it again later. Pick it up again this week or when you're commuting or at the gym. Read Paul's writing in such a way that his words are entwined with the air you are breathing, filling your lungs with the Word of God. And then open yourself to the possibility that you are more than who you think you are. You are not limited by your physical strength. You are defined only by your health. Your struggle to ask for help is not the core of who you are. Your foundation, as a beloved child of God, rests in a Jesus who was just as vulnerable as you are. And yet he lived a vulnerable life so that we, through those same vulnerabilities, could become the loving, peaceful, and dynamic people God wants us to be.



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Reflection: Faith is More Than an Explanation

For the next several weeks, one of our readings from the Bible will be from Paul's first letter to the small Christian community in Corinth. Corinth was a cosmopolitan city and the Christian community reflected that diversity. Paul started his letter by describing how the Corinthian community should see themselves. He called them saints and how their individual spiritual gifts were needed for the community to become who God wanted them to be. Today's reading covers the next ten verses in 1 Corinthians, and it's here where we discover why Paul is writing to them in the first place. The community was divided and their division was stopping them from loving one another.

The theme of division that is depicted in 1 Corinthians is a theme that resonates with us today. If you turn on the TV, it doesn't take long before our divisions in the United States become visible. The political discourse in our country continues to grow more partisan as people refuse to listen to the each other and are instead fed a steady diet of opinions that already fit our preconceived notion. Any point of view, argument, or story that challenges us is casted aside, labeled fake, and pushed to the margins. There seems to be more joy in defending our sides rather than authentically listening to someone with a different story than our own. Even the cries for unity, such as a pledge for civility or that "we're all Americans" doesn't really work because those definitions - of what it means to be civil and who is an American - are currently under debate. Our divisions are becoming hardcoded into our individual identities.

So, we can relate to the divisions present in the Corinthian community. Different interpretations and views of Jesus were being expressed inside that church. People identified themselves by which school of thought they belonged to, some to teachers named Apollos, Paul, Cephas (Peter), and even Christ himself. All claimed that their point of view was right and that they were the true winners when it came to faith. We can speculate they believed their spiritual gifts defined how much they were loved. If they were blessed, then God was showing that their point of view was correct. And if they were winning, everyone else who didn't agree with them had to be losers who were not worth being part in their community in the first place.

So Paul, in today's verses 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, stepped in to try and unite the Corinthian community. He didn't try to find a common denominator that would support every position people expressed. Instead, he pointed them to the Cross. He directed everyone towards Jesus, the Son of God who was divine yet died; the One who had the power of God yet emptied himself of that power and was crucified by the world. Jesus, who had every ability to win when it came to the events of Holy Week, chose not to. Jesus was foolish and that's why the rest of us get to truly live.

This choice and faithfulness Jesus lived into is one that we're called to live out, too. It's not enough to just know things about Christianity, Jesus, or the Cross. Rather, through our baptism and our faith, we are brought into Jesus who still lives. And since he lived for others, we are called to do the same. It's an invitation to not let our divisions be what identify us nor to let ourselves be the ones that dictate what justice, civility, hope and love are all about. Rather, we are called to let Jesus do that. And he does, through the Spirit, by connecting us to a community of people that is, by design, diverse and full of people not like us. Because it's only when we are connected with people who are different from us when we seeing how life- giving our division-breaking Jesus actually is.



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Refection: All Y'All

As a mono-language speaker, I'm always a bit surprised that I get to read the Bible in English. When these words and stories about God and Jesus were first shared and written down, the English language didn't really exist. Jesus didn't speak English and many of his earliest followers spoke Greek. As we see in our reading from the gospel according to John, the author felt compelled to translate common Hebrew and Aramaic words because they assumed their audience wouldn't understand them. And Since most of us do not speak ancient Greek or Hebrew, we forget that the English language can sometimes get in the way of what the Bible is trying to tell us. 

We notice this issue in our reading from 1 Corinthians 1:1-9. Paul had founded the Christian community in the city of Corinth and he was responding to a letter they sent him. Corinth was an old Greek city that was conquered and repopulated by the Roman Empire. It was also a cosmopolitan city, filled with merchants, slaves, and traders. The Christian community in Corinth was small but they were probably as diverse as the city lived in. They struggled, like we all do, with how they can follow Jesus in their everyday lives. The opinions of some in the community did not always match what Paul taught. And Paul found himself often dealing with situations he had never considered before. Paul needed to bring his experience of Jesus into the lives that people actually lived. 

One way he did that was by using the word "you." In English, "you" can point to an individual or a group. Yet we sometimes read Paul's "yous" as meant only for individuals. But that's not quite right. When we read "you" in Paul's writings, we need to remember he was speaking to the community. And the "yous" we see today should really be re-translated to "all y'all." Paul wanted to begin his letter to the Corinthians by reminding them that they needed each other. Faith, to Paul, is a always a team sport. We are called as Christians into a body (aka a community) that contains not only Jesus but also other people. We can't be the people God wants us to be without each other. As you look around this church or as you think about all the people in your copy of the church directory, remember that others have spirituals gifts you need and that you have spiritual gifts others need too. Without each other, we cannot be the individuals we are called to be. All y'all needs all y'all. 
 



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After Supper: Jesus' Dinner Party (Sermon Manuscript)

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Pastor Marc's sermon on Maundy Thursday (April 18, 2019) on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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There’s a moment at the start of every dinner party I try to host when I stare at a completely empty table and say - to no one in particular - “now what?” It’s sort of a code word I use to help my brain take what I want to do and turn it into reality. I have a vision of what I want the experience to be like and I hope to make that experience a reality for all my guests. And so, yesterday afternoon, as I was standing in the center aisle here at church, I looked around and said to no one - “now what?” We don’t always talk about worship as if it’s a dinner party but, on some level, it is. There’s a little food, a little drink, and special dishes we don’t use for anything else. Our worship includes a lot of words, some music, people who show up early, and others who are always fashionably late. We assume we’re already on the guestlist but we expect that some people will show up that we don’t know. And if we’ve been coming to this dinner party for awhile, we already know where we want to sit before we even step through the front door. Over the last 2000 years, the church has created a worship event that is designed to feed our connection with God and with one another. And that act of feeding and connection is really what the best kind of dinner parties try to pull off. They do not try to impose anything on you; instead, they invite you into an experience that lets you discover more about yourself and about your reality. To make that happen, a dinner party needs to know why it exists and what core essence makes it unique and different. And that’s why, in our reading from 1st Corinthians, Paul took a moment to remind the church what dining with Jesus was all about.

The church in Corinth was a Christian community that Paul founded sometime in the 40s or early 50s. He was with them for about 18 months before heading off to a new town to plant another church. The church in Corinth, like all churches in Paul’s day, was small - with maybe only two dozen members at most. Yet within this small community, there was an incredible amount of diversity. Some in the community could read while others could not. Some were rich while others struggled to make ends meet. And some who gathered for worship were free, able to move around the city at ease, while others were slaves, with no control over the violence done to their own bodies. Each one of them, had committed themselves to be part of Christ’s church. Yet this new, small, and vibrant faith community - was conflicted. They argued over many different things including who Jesus was and how their faith should inform how they live. We don’t know all the details about every argument in that church but we can infer from Paul’s letters that these conflicts were driving the community apart. Not everyone agreed with everyone else and instead of affirming or living with those differences, they chose to silo themselves off into cliques of their own choosing. They still gathered together as followers of Jesus - but they didn’t have any real regard for one another.

Now, in the first faith communities, eating together mattered. When they came together to worship, their prayers, conversations, and songs also included a potluck meal. We can imagine they came to church carrying not only their version of morning coffee but also a Roman casserole dish with something for everyone to share. Except - sharing was something the community in Corinth wasn’t doing. And, in fact, the people  weren’t even gathering together at the same time. Those who were financially secure had a little more freedom in what they could bring to worship and when they would show up. Those with money would show up to church first, uncover their hotdish, and start eating. While those who needed to work long hours just to survive would arrive in the worship space a little later only to discover that worshipped had already started without them. The wealthy would have already eaten, leaving nothing for those who could bring only a little. In that communal space, people ended up creating a private meal and worship event only for themselves. In Corinth, being late meant that you were poor. And there was nothing fashionable about having to show up after the event had already started. Those with any kind of financial security started things when they wanted and they could bring whatever they had. They were dictating and creating a church that matched their lifestyle, point of view, and experience. And it was obvious, in that worship space, who was elite and who was not. Worship wasn’t really about spending time with Jesus. Instead, it was becoming another opportunity for the social divisions that mattered in the wider community to manifest themselves even around Jesus’ table.

So Paul reached into the traditions he was given to remind the church that, because of Jesus, we live with a different set of values. In this, the earliest written record of Holy Communion that we have, Paul laid out the essence of what Jesus’ dinner party is all about. The “now what?” of Jesus’ table wasn’t focused on the design of the dishware, the menu, or the look of the centerpieces. The Lord’s table, instead, is an inclusive event that does not distinguish between rich and poor* nor does it let our divisions get in the way of what Jesus has already done. As followers of Christ, as those with faith, and as those who have been baptized - Jesus has already made a place at His table for you. Our seat doesn’t depend on how much money we make, on what food we can bring, or even if we believe we truly belong there. The “now what?” of knowing Jesus is all about sitting with him and making sure we don’t get in the way of anyone Jesus’ calls to sit by our side. We live this way because: Jesus once gathered his friends and took bread, telling them this was his body and they should eat. Jesus also took a cup, gave thanks, and told them to drink.* Paul reminded the community in Corinth, and he reminds us, that the essence of the dinner party Jesus throws is one where God’s love overcomes the social divisions we love to perpetuate. When we gather around His table, our “now what?” isn’t to keep the barriers between us up because we are not here by ourselves. We are here with God and everyone Jesus calls. We are to be with each other - because that’s how we become the diverse, loving, inviting, empowering, caring, loving, and united people God has designed us to be.

Amen.

 

* Melissa Florer-Bixler. Christian Century. Sunday’s Coming - Email sent on April 10, 2019



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Reflection: It's a Mystery

When Stephen Hawking died last year, I noticed a debate surrounding depictions of him in the afterlife. Regardless of his personal beliefs, people chose to depict him walking in heaven. Since Professor Hawking used a wheelchair due to ALS (otherwise known as Lou Gehrig's disease), he was now, in death, shown walking again. It's a normal instinct, I think, to imagine the afterlife in this way. Even the book Heaven is for Real (which was popular a few years ago), imagined heaven being the place where we are our "best self." This "best" is usually described as meaning we're physically on point while in the afterlife. If we wear glasses on earth, than heaven should be a place where we all receive the best laser-eye corrective surgery. If we suffer physical ailments today, heaven is the place where those ailments no longer limit us. And if we are confined, disabled, or struggling in this life, eternal life should be the opposite of that. We imagine heaven being the place where we are physically whole and this wholeness, we say, cannot include the limitations of our human life.

Paul, in today's reading from 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-57, was addressing questions about the nature of the Resurrection. In last week's reading, Paul wrote that our faith and hope rested in the reality of Christ's Resurrection. Without it, the followers of Jesus might be following a great guy but they are not following a savior. Today's reading continues by expanding on why the Resurrection should matter to each of us. Through our baptism and faith, we have been united with the new thing that God has started in the world. As I often say in funeral liturgies, we have not only been baptized into his death but we also have been united into Jesus' Resurrection. Our experience of the human story is no longer the limit. God has another chapter planned for each of us. And that chapter is rooted in the Resurrection that involves, on some level, an actual body.

No one really knows what Paul meant by "spiritual body." Paul did not believe or teach that we have an immortal soul that is separate from our human body. Paul, instead, believed that our identity as human beings is always embodied. We are who we are because of all our thoughts and experiences. And these experiences are generated, recorded, and handled by a real body. The Resurrection, to Paul, wasn't about gaining a new body that is perfect. Rather, Paul wrote that the next chapter of our story will be a brand new reality. Paul had no idea what we'll look like in the afterlife or during the Resurrection (the only model we have is Jesus as described in the gospels who is still wounded). But Paul knew that we will be living eternally as only God can imagine us to be. Heaven, the afterlife, and the Resurrection isn't about living as our best selves. Instead, it's about becoming fully who we are because we will be experiencing Christ's love fully face-to-face.



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Reflection: How Can You Say?

We're at the point in our Confirmation class where we invite our 7th and 8th graders to ask themselves: what do I believe? We frame this through the Apostles' Creed. A creed is a list of things that a community of faith teaches. They can be short (like the Shema Yisrael for Jews which is only 1 verse long) or long (the Athanasius Creed, which we don't recite often, is pages long). We spend each class period going through one section of the Apostles' Creed. We spend time with God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sanctifier (aka Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and how these statements of faith help frame all the questions we might ask. The Apostles' Creed isn't, I think, designed to provide us answers. Instead, it's a framework to help us see how our faith is central to who we are and where we are going.


Paul's text from 1st Corinthians 15:12-20 today is part of that wider question of "who we are" Rarely do we, I think, spend time thinking about the Resurrection of Jesus. We name it, celebrate it, point to it at funerals, and use trumpets to announce it at Easter. But do we, in our everyday life, think about what the Resurrection means to us? For Paul, the act of Resurrection is fundamental to what it means to follow Christ. Without it, we are merely listening to the words of some beloved teacher. With the Resurrection, we see the beginning of a new creation that God is bringing about. The Resurrection is more than just what happens after we die. The Resurrection is God's way of saying that a new life is possible right now. Even though we will die, we will be embraced by an endless God and an endless love that will not leave us. And, we will be joined together with all who are caught up in that love. Without the Resurrection, Jesus is a good man who was executed for what he believed. With it, we see that God acted through Jesus to create a new world that invites us to see God's love that's all around us.



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Reflection: Love Does

To understand 1 Corinthians 13, we need to read 1 Corinthians 12:31: "But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way." Paul, in this passage, is getting in touch with his inner Bill and Ted. He is showing the community a way for them to be more "excellent" together. And that "excellence" is centered in love. We have to remember that love in the Bible is never a noun; love is a verb. Love does something and that love always has someone it interacts with. Love is the one thing (compared to faith and hope) that we can't do on our own. For Paul, love needs a beloved or else love isn't present. That is probably why we read this passage often in weddings. But when Paul wrote this text, he wasn't thinking about two people getting married. He was writing to a community in conflict. He was showing them how to love and take care of each other. I wrote last week that Paul understood faith as a team sport. We need each other to fully believe in the God who is already with us. But a team that can't love each other is a team that cannot feed the faith God gives us. A community is a life-giving community when it loves. And when it can't, faith and hope fade away.

When we read 1 Corinthians 13 today, remember that love isn't a noun. Paul isn't writing about what love is; Paul wrote about what love does. Love practices patience. Love isn't rude. Love doesn't assume it is the only expert in the room. Love works with others. Love is open to possibilities. And it's love that helps us serve, listen, and carry each other's burdens together.

Love, then, is the foundation for the life of a community. As followers of Jesus Christ, our faith is what makes us distinctive. Without our faith and without our hope in a God who keeps promises, we are not Christians. But we can't be Christians unless we have a community that loves. The community is called to love us and we are called to love each other in our community. This does not mean that we'll always like each other. But we can promise to hold each other in prayer, to help each other thrive, and to be a Christ to one another. The more we love each other, the more we can love the world. And the more we can love the world, the more we can discover the Jesus Christ who has saved it and us.



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Reflection: Team Sport

I usually write a longer reflection but in the rush and busyness of this week, I’m finding myself writing this at the last minute. I typically have a lot to say but I’m grateful that this passage from 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a says more than I ever could. I invite you to read it and then read it again. Take your time with it. Read it slowly. Make sure to follow Paul’s grammar and logic in its fullness. Pay attention to the connections. Notice what Paul doesn’t say. And after all of that, listen to what he’s saying to you. You, right now, are essential. You, right now, matter to the church. And the church can’t be the body of Christ without you.

For Paul, faith is always a team sport. Rarely does he write about belief in terms of what individuals do or think. Instead, faith is always centered in a community and without that community, faith doesn’t exist. We, I think, don’t speak of faith in that way. We focus on what “I” believe, what “I” think, and what “I” say about God. Faith is personal, private, and ours. But faith, to Paul, finds its fullest expression when we’re with other people. Faith is how we trust that God loves us and how we realize just how important other people are. Faith connects us to God and helps us see how we need other people to do the things we can’t. We need their prayers. We need their attention. We need others to point out the ways we are trapped in sin. And we need others to help us live. Jesus calls us to be his church and that church needs you and me. Because without each other, we can’t truly love the world like Jesus loves us.



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Foodies. Negotiating Faith and Life.

If you don't take a picture of every meal you eat, did it really exist?

I know this is a silly question but if you spend any time on social media, you know people love taking pictures of their food. And I love taking pictures of my food too. When I go to a great restaurant, I want to showcase their skill. When I visit a friend’s dinner party, I want to showcase their gifts of hospitality. And when my kids bake cookies, I want to share their hard work. But there’s are food events I don’t take pictures of. You won’t see a picture of lunch leftovers on my instagram and you won’t see the bag of chips I "accidentally" ate for dinner last night. One of the great things about social media is that we get to choose what we share online. But This is also a problem. We usually only share the experiences making us look like we are living our best life. When we showcase the meal at the trendy restaurant, we are doing more than highlighting the skills of the chefs. We're also letting everyone know that we have the wealth, status, time, and "coolness" to visit this kind of place. 

Social Media is an obvious example of what we do constantly: we curate our own life. We choose what to share and what we don't. We choose what to tell our friends and what to keep to ourselves. We make the choice to present a pleasant, happy, rich, and strong side of ourselves. We project a certain kind of image for others to see. And this image is developed through a constant negotiation with the world around us. We identify what the culture values and we try to match it. We negotiate what we can share and what we can't. We struggle with a world that expects us to be a certain way. We want to be ourselves but this constant negotiation means we sometime see wonder if we can. 

In our reading from 1st Corinthians 8:1-13 today, Paul is writing to a community struggling with this kind of negotiation. In their world, animal sacrifices are normal and expected. Animals are killed in various religious temples and the meat is given, or sold, to people. Meat in the ancient world was extremely expensive. For many people, the meat from animals sacrifices was the only meat they would ever eat. Christianity, as we know it, wasn’t a major religion yet. The followers of Jesus in Corinth were small and the only ones in the area. They are learning how live, share, and curate their new Christian identity. And that, even today, isn’t an easy thing to do. 

Paul, I think, is inviting the community in Corinth to be intentional in everything they do. They need to know the truth about who they are, whose they are, and what their wider community is like. They need to know that people will watch what they are doing and they need to know why they do the things they do. They need to negotiate with their culture but always begin that negotiate in, and through, Jesus. Jesus, when he deals with the world, thinks of the other person first. And Jesus always offers a love that is rooted in a God who will never give up on the world.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for the 4th Sunday After Epiphany, 1/28/2018.
 



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