Tuesday, May 12, 2020

God Works Through Us: Called to Be Saints

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. --Acts 18:1-4 (NRSV)

To God’s church that is in Goshen: To those who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus, who are called to be God’s people, together with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—he’s their Lord and ours, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

With just a simple tweak, this is the very same greeting used by Paul in his letter to address those in the Corinth congregation, a portion of which we will hear in just a moment. And a letter that we will be spending the next three weeks in. 

We believe that this letter was written a couple of years after Paul had left Corinth. He first arrived there in approximately 50 CE. Scripture tells us that he stayed there for a “considerable time.” It’s estimated he was there for about a year-and-a-half. At first, he was duo-vocational, meaning he worked both as an apostle and as a tent-maker along with Aquila and Priscilla, two Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome, along with others. Tent-making was Paul’s trade. We often think of him as an elite, highly educated as a Pharisee. But, by trade, he was working class. So, he began his stay in Corinth working in his trade and spreading the good news. While Paul was there, he received an offering that had been taken up by the churches in Macedonia (including from the church in Thessalonica in last week’s story). This allowed him at some point during his stay to begin preaching and teaching full-time.

Corinth was an important city. It was located in a strategic location, on a road that connected two ports on the Isthmus of Corinth. This isthmus connected the Peloponnesian peninsula with the rest of Greece. Merchants would arrive in one of the ports, unload their cargo and transport it across the land, through Corinth, to the other port. It was a preferred route, much easier and faster than sailing around the entire peninsula. Corinth was also a strategic political and military location for the Romans. It was the seat of the governor of the entire Roman province of Achaea. So, Corinth was a large, important, powerful, prosperous, diverse, busy, cosmopolitan city. And it was here that Paul settled for some time to build and pastor this young congregation.

In our Acts narrative, we see a growing, vibrant congregation. After some time, Paul left Corinth and moved on to Ephesus. In the time between his departure from Corinth and his letter in 1st Corinthians, the church in Corinth was visited by another Christian preacher named Apollos. It began to face various internal tensions and quarrels and experience much division. So, they wrote a letter to Paul asking for guidance in how to deal with these issues. Paul’s letter, and subsequent letters, are his attempt to deal with these very practical issues. But along with practice advice are deep and important theological statements. Let’s listen now to the first part of 1st Corinthians, chapter 1.

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. --1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (NRSV)

The central problem in the Corinth church revolved around status. Whether those converted by Paul were the most important? Or those by Apollos? Or even those by Cephas, who we also know as Peter. Each group wanted to be first. Most important. The highest status. This need for status was something that they had learned from the surrounding culture in Corinth, which was filled by those with “new money.” The cultural lessons were those of individualism, of self-importance, of the status one achieved by pulling oneself up by their own bootstrap. Get the picture? Sound at all familiar?

The first part of Paul’s message to the Corinth church was to remind them that they were both holy and called to be saints. To be called has the same sense as being holy. And holiness is not a quality of the individual, but a communal state into which we are placed by our baptism. Paul never uses the word “holy” in reference to the singular of the individual Christian, but always in reference to community. That holiness, that sanctification, that becoming God’s disciples happens in community. Our salvation is wrapped up together, as a community, as the broader church, and ultimately with that of all creation. Paul’s message and that of Christ is not about our individual salvation, but about the salvation of the whole community.

 It is this communal idea, then, that moves Paul to his message of the cross. Of the foolishness of the cross. That a condemned and crucified man, one with the lowest possible status in the world, would be God’s vehicle for this communal salvation. This message of the cross was intended to teach the believers in Corinth (and us) that God’s status markers are not those of the world. These markers of the world - class, wealth, wisdom, rhetorical skill, physical strength, beauty are the status markers important to the world. By contrast, God chooses and places the highest status on those whom the world despises: the weak, the lowborn, the foolish, the poor. Paul’s argument to the church in Corinth doesn’t eliminate the status hierarchy. It inverts it. It turns the world’s status markers upside down. So that the last or the lowest of the world are now the first and highest. This is how our communities are to be. Embracing the message of the cross. Embracing it’s foolishness in the eyes of the world.

What might this mean for us in our current time? As there are so many questions to think through? As the world seems, as usual, to be so divided? Are we all to agree? Is this what Paul is telling us?

I don’t think so. But, what I do believe Paul is saying to us is that even in our disagreements it is important for us to understand and to know, first, where our ultimate allegiance is to lie. It’s not with the world, or with other human leaders, even with your pastor. But our allegiance must be centered, must be grounded in Christ. Christ is our leader. Perhaps this is why God deemed it so important to come to us in human form. Because our natural tendency is to attach ourselves to human leaders. But Paul asks the question, “Was I crucified for you?” We might ask that same question of those human leaders we follow. If our answer is no - and it can only be no - then, we know where our source lies.

Then, finally, Paul calls us to embrace the logic of the cross. To, as a community, accept weakness and humility as marks of God’s favor. And that, in so doing, to seek to eliminate and end the status-seeking behavior that is taught by the world, that is so easy to fall into, often unknowingly. 

Perhaps if we do this, if we both remember where our allegiance is to lie and then to seek to engage and discern our answers to the questions and disagreements in our community, then we, as Paul reminds the church in Corinth - perhaps then, we and they, might recognize that we are already of the highest status in God’s eyes. Already rich. Already been given the gift of life and all we need through the abundant grace and love of God through Christ Jesus. 

What more do we need? 

Preached May 10, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 5
Readings: Mark 9:34-35; Psalm 54; Acts 18:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

God Works Through Us: Turning the World Upside Down

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our lectionary makes a big leap today. Last week, we heard in Acts chapter 3 the story of Peter and John, who, after receiving the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, began their task of sharing the good news.

Today, we jump 14 chapters in Acts, to the 17th chapter. The chapters in-between describe the spread of the Jesus movement from Jerusalem into Samaria and Asia Minor. This geographic movement corresponds with a shift in audience, as well, from a Jewish mission to one that becomes predominantly Gentile. This movement toward the Gentiles in mission is a result of God’s direct guidance. It is not just the story of how the known world was eventually converted to Christianity. But, it is particularly about how the early church had to push beyond its own boundaries. To set aside racism and sexism to become faith to the gospel message. One contemporary theologian says it best: The church is being made to convert, even as it seeks converts.

Our focus today in Acts chapter 17 reading turns to Paul. If you know anything about him, you know that his birth name was Saul. He was both Jewish and a Roman citizen. Trained as a Pharisee, a legal expert in the Torah. We first meet him in Acts 7, where he is identified as a persecutor of the earliest followers of Jesus. But, perhaps the most famous story of Paul we find in Acts 9, where we hear of his conversion from Saul the Persecutor to Paul the Christian missionary. On the road to Damascus, Jesus appears to Paul and then sends him. Eventually, he will travel throughout the Roman empire on three different missionary journeys. It was on his second missionary journey that he arrived in Thessalonica, which is where we find our story located today. 

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go. --Acts 17:1-9 (NRSV)

Paul and Silas, his partner, travel from Phillippi to Thessolonica, located in Macedonia. Which is present-day Greece. Thessolonica was one of the major cities of the Roman Empire, located on the Egnatian Way, which was the main road that connected the entire eastern part of the Roman Empire with its capital city, Rome. It was an important military and commercial port. Early on, in return for its support for the Roman empire, it had been declared a free city. So, its relationship with Rome and especially Roman patronage of the city was very important.

Jews, during this time, had spread from Jerusalem throughout the empire. Wherever they went, continued to practice their faith and to gather in synagogues. This was the case in Thessalonica. So, when Paul and Silas arrive, it was natural and their custom to go to the synagogue.

Our text says that, for three Sabbaths - or three weeks - they remained at the synagogue, arguing. Really more like being in dialogue with those in attendance, trying to explain and to convince them that the Jews had been misinterpreting scripture, that Jesus was the Messiah. And that the Messiah the Jews expected was not who this Jesus was.

In this short time, Paul and Silas have some small success. A few of the Jews, some of the devout Gentile Greeks and a few prominent women are convinced. 

But, imagine if someone came into our church, into our worship, week after week, trying to convince us that our entire belief system was wrong. That we had misinterpreted Scripture. That, this Lutheran thing was all wrong. Well, you can imagine what might happen.

It was no different in the synagogue in Thessalonica. The Jews became angry. Then they gathered together some thugs hanging out in the local market. And formed a mob, making a huge uproar in the city. They went to the home of Jason, one of Paul’s converts who had taken Paul and Silas in. They went to his house to find Paul and Silas. And when they couldn’t find them, they dragged Jason out of his own house and took him to the local authorities, shouting: “These people. They are turning the world upside down!”

These people! They are turning the world upside down! 

But, isn’t this what the good news of Jesus Christ does? Turn everything upside down? When we least expect it. Or sometimes when we least want it. The good news in Jesus begins to work through the power of the Holy Spirit. And, then, look out! Everything changes! 

Paul and Silas were able to escape. And, in time, Paul would write a series of letters to this upstart community in Thessalonica. The first of these letters, likely the oldest text in the New Testament, written only 10-20 years after Jesus’ ascension, is a testament to this young community of Jesus’ followers. To their faith. And their love. And their hope. 

We read from 1st Thessalonians, the first chapter.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. --1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 (NRSV)

It may feel, in this moment, that we, like the early community in Thessalonians are being persecuted. We are experiencing suffering and loss. Deeply. Throughout the world. Whether it is health-related, economic, or the fear and anxiety we feel that keeps us from sleeping at night, so many are suffering in our world today.

Yet, like the church in Thessalonica, we continue to do our work of faith. Our labor of love. To live steadfastly in hope. To turn this dark world upside down. All in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We, like the church in Thessalonica, are an example to our own community of faith, love, and hope. Known because we serve a living and a true God. And our neighbors as ourselves.

This past Wednesday, we received a text message from one of our pantry members that attests to this. I’d like to share it with you now. “OMGosh! Just when I think you guys couldn’t possibly do more for us, you all go on and continue the drive thru pantry, not only in masks, but in the pouring rain! How can I begin to thank all of you for this? I hope you know how much it means. You all make a world of difference in so many ppl’s lives. Thank you. ❤️

It makes a difference, what we do in our little church. Whether we are apart from each other or not, what we do as a community of faith in our little area of Kentucky matters. What we do as followers of Christ in our own little corner of the world matters. Just as the community of faith in Thessalonica and what they did mattered. 

Because this is who we are and who we are to be, as people of a resurrected Jesus. Even in the midst of suffering. Even in the midst of fear and darkness. Even in the midst of a grieving world, we do what matters. We turn the world upside down in a way that matters. We do this because what Jesus did matters. 

So, I give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in my prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. May you continue to be an example to all the believers. That through you, our Lord Jesus Christ might be made known. Amen.

Preached May 3, 2020, Online with the community of Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Easter 4
Readings: Acts 17:1-9, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Mark 13:9-11; Psalm 16