Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Remind Me Who I Am (1 Corinthians 5 and 6)


While in Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth. He had to tackle a couple of serious issues that were not only dividing the church, but also harming their witness in the city of Corinth. Though Paul dealt with specific moral issues, his goal was far more encompassing. He wanted to say something important about life in the Kingdom of God.

Imagine (if you will) Paul taking a break after writing the first couple of chapters. He decides to meet a friend for breakfast to talk throughs some of the issues as he prepares for what is now referred to as 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. ( I should note that all the cultural details I give in this conversation are taken from some very detailed history of the Greeks and Romans culture of that time. Sarah Ruden's "Paul Among The People" provides an excellent historical background for this imagined conversation).
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“So Paul, how’s the letter going?”

“Well, I took a little time to talk about humility and pride, and how God has a way of using the unnoticed and overlooked to build his kingdom. I told them they were like a field that God farms – the dirt, specifically, that just nourishes what it’s been given. That was to bring them all to the same level. Then I told them they were like God's building – they are all still chosen and placed in the structure by God, but He’s building a presence in Corinth that provides safety and stability. I finished with the claim that they were like a temple. God’s presence and spirit inhabits them, which makes them holy. “

“I like it. Dirt’s humble, but temples are holy. Good combination. There's both a humility and honor that comes with committing to the service of Christ.”

“That's true. I hope those analogies connect.”


“So what’s the next topic?”

“Well, I told them in my last letter not to tolerate sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). They took that to mean that they couldn’t hang out with anybody who was immoral, which meant pretty much everybody in Corinth. That wasn’t my point.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saints and Temples (1 Corinthians 1)


 A United Airlines agent was rebooking a long line of weary and frustrated travelers. One angry  passenger pushed his way to the front of the line, slapped his ticket down and said, “I have to be on this flight, and I have to be in first class.”
 The agent said, “I would be happy to help you, but I need to help some other first.”
 The passenger responded angrily, “Do you know who I am?”
 The agent promptly got on the public address system:  “May I have your attention! We have a passenger here who does not know who he is!  If anyone can help him find his identity please come to the gate!”
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     Paul addresses who we are in Christ in 1 Corinthians. He begins, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we are followers of Christ, we are sanctified and called to be holy.  Ware saints.
      Paul goes on to give three analogies to help these saints further establish their identity in Christ.  After using fields and buildings to paint apicture of life in the Kingdom of God, he closes with this analogy: “Don't you know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
    We are the temple of God. Saints and temples - that sounds like a really good identity.
     It’s important to know who we are, but it may be equally important to believe it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Buildings and Fields (1 Corinthians 3)


 “
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.  For we are co-workers in God’s service. 
“You are God’s field; God’s building. 
 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,  their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. 
 (1 Corinthians 3:5-12)
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After Paul greets the church in Corinth, he begins to address the issues that are robbing them of God's grace and peace.  He uses three analogies to describe the church: a field, a building, and a temple. 

Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus at a time when agriculture flourished.  I imagine him walking through the countryside as he ponders how to explain to the church in Corinth what their role was in the Kingdom of God.  Hmmm.... "The church at Corinth is a field on which God has labored so the church would yield a harvest."  The word Paul uses for field” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament.  It refers specifically to a "tilled" or "cultivated" field.  It refers to the dirt.

Its a very down-to-earth analogy, but what does it actually tell us? What is the role of a field?
  •         Allow the farmer to get rid of weeds.
  •         Allow the farmer to add compost/mulsh/fertilizer.
  •         Let the farmer plant what he wants.
  •         Nourish what is planted.
What  can the field do to bring about a harvest? Nothing - other than nourish what it’s been given.  If someone else is not involved,  the field is just dirt and weeds. The church is God's field, God's cultivated dirt.  The dirt is important and necessary, but it’s the most humble part of the field.  People wax eloquently about "amber waves of grain"; nobody writes songs about “dirty waves of dirt.” 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tearing and Mending (1 Corinthians 1)

There were at least ten temples to ten different gods in Corinth at the time the New Testament was written. If people had a particular need (money, harvest, fertility, power, hunting, wisdom) they went to a particular god. That temple had a particular group of people, a particular kind of feast, and a particular kind of worship ritual. If that god answered their supplication, they made sure everyone knew that they had the ability to earn that god's favor.

That was how they rose to the top - they earned the grace and favor a a god. That's how they knew they were somebody. That's what made them matter.

Perhaps this dynamic from the old way of life was the reason Paul had to address the issue in chapter 1 of letter to the Corinthians:

     "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.  My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas (Peter)”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?" 
  
It’s obviously true that Christ is the one we as Christians are to ultimately follow.  Paul’s not disputing that. Paul's main point is that one can follow Christ and follow a representative, spokesperson, or ambassador for Christ too. They were all on the same team.

The people in the Corinthian church had too narrow a vision of the Kingdom of God.

Christianity was not like the pagan religions, whose gods were in competition with each other. God is One, and those who serve Him are on the same team. This claiming of allegiance to one person was not a sign of serious discipleship. It was a a lingering effect of the Corinthian search for power, reputation, and control.

Perhaps you've experienced something similar. You've been in a conversation about a passage of Scripture, and you hear, “Well, Mark Driscoll says this… Beth Moore says this….Billy Graham said…Ravi Zacharias…John Piper...James Dobson…Kay Arthur…Bill Hybels...” Finally someone says, I don’t listen to other people’s opinions, I just read the Bible.”   

Or you've been in a conversation where one person focuses on Israel, another on politics, another on end times prophecy, another on baptism, another on apologetics, another on the gifts of the Spirit, another on church models, another on marketplace ministry.... And they all think that the others are missing the boat because they don't have the same passion for this particular part of the Kingdom of God as they do.

Those kind of conversations can end badly. The problem is not the people or topics who are cited; there are many solid ambassadors for Christ who preach, teach, and live in a way that should be admired and emulated. The problem is that we can begin to build our personal worth and identity by the people or causes we follow – and question the worth (and wisdom) of others by the people they don't. If we are not careful, we will judge the character and content of another person’s heart because they don’t build their knowledge of and relationship with God and His Kingdom in the same way we do.

Paul says that mindset is divisive - schismata in Greek, which means “tear, or rend. ” This is what happens when someone tears a calf muscle or an ACL. I have done that twice playing softball (which is kind of sad, really), and let me tell you, it was no fun at all. It felt like someone hit me in the back of the leg as hard as they could with a bat. I could actually run my fingers through a ditch in my calf muscle.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “That’s what’s happening in your church when you divided your unity in Christ. That's what's happening when pride and sectarianism fragment the Kingdom of God.”

Instead, the church was to be united. The Greek word carries the idea of “joined together,” a medical word used to describe the mending of bones or joints that have been fractured. The variety of people, gifts, and skills in the body of Christ are meant to join us together, not tear us apart. The church may be full of broken people, but the grace of God enables us to find unity, peace and wholeness in the midst of our diversity.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Letter to a Corinthianized Church

About 2,000 years ago, Corinth was a financial, religious, and cultural mecca.
  • It was a major commercial hub located on a four-and-one-half mile wide isthmus of land. Sailors wanted to avoid the danger of sailing around Malea, so they would move their ship across the isthmus on a series of log rollers. If the ship was too large, the cargo was unloaded and loaded onto another ship on the other side of the isthmus.
  • “Corinthian brass” (a mixture of gold, sliver and copper) was widely renowned. 
  • Athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games - second only to the Olympian Games - were held at the temple of Poseidon in Corinth every two years. 
  • Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Serapis, and Asclepius, among others, had temples to their honor in Corinth. It was common to have feasts in those temples – they were very much a center of community.
  • Aphrodite had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes and priestesses) in her service. The present museum in Corinth boasts a large number of clay emblems offered to Aphrodite for healing of a particulular part of the body ravaged by sexually transmitted disease. 
  • The name “Corinthian" had become synonymous with sexual immorality and drunkenness. Aelian, a Greek writer, noted that Corinthians in Greek plays were always drunk.
     Gordon Fee summarized it well: "All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world: Intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”
     They had money, business, athletic prowess, temple worship involving sex and free food – it was just one big party in Corinth.
   The book of I Corinthians was written to a church living in a culture similar to ours. When the Apostle Paul wrote to them, their primary problem was not persecution. They were a church in lap of luxury, full of people who had been Corinthianized from birth, but who were now trying to begin a new life in Christ.
     Why am I not surprised that, only five years after he left, the Corinthians wrote Paul a letter asking for advice.