In Process

John 3-16

No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again. – Jesus

I think it’s fair to say with a high degree of certainty that every one of us in this room at some point in history was born. In fact, most of us have some knowledge of the basic facts surrounding our birth. We know where we were born. We know the year we were born and the day we were born. Some of us may even know the time we were born. Yet even if you know the location, year, day, and perhaps even the time of your birth, does anyone here this morning remember the actual experience of being born? I mean, you were there! We’re not talking about an abstract concept or idea. We’re talking about an historical event of which you were one of the primary participants. And yet you have no conscious memory of that experience. The same could be said of the experiences of learning to walk and talk and tie your shoe.

My point is that the experience of being born and many of the crucial stages of our development are experiences we know occurred at some point in history. We know they happened because we are here today. We can talk and walk and tie our shoes. But we have no conscious memory of those things. We are not fully aware of how they happened.

In other words, we tend to think of being born as a one-time event, but it is actually a process that begins long before it is complete. It happens without our conscious effort. And from the perspective of human development, it is literally years before we have an awareness of what has happened.

What I’ve come to believe is that what is true of physical birth is often also true when it comes to spiritual birth. Spiritual birth is real. But just like physical birth, it is a process that begins long before it is complete. It often happens without our conscious effort. And it is usually some time before we are even aware of what exactly has taken place. This understanding of spiritual birth and spiritual growth is critically important, because for the last few centuries, American Christianity has attempted to define spiritual birth as a one-time event. And based on that one-time event, we have often separated people into categories. We have set up Christian spirituality as an “either/or” paradigm. Either you’re saved or you’re not. Either you’re going to heaven or you’re not. Either you’re a believer or you’re not. Either you’re born again or you’re not.

Now, don’t get me wrong, spiritual rebirth is real and it’s an essential part of what it means to follow Jesus, but I think it is more helpful to think of it as a process. And if it’s a process, we’re not always aware of what is happening. God is always working in us. God is teaching us. God is developing us. God is transforming us. But many times, only in hindsight do we look back and say, “Look at what God has done in my life.” We might even say, “How did that happen?” Because being spiritually reborn is a process. Today’s gospel reading from John can help understand what that means.

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Prove It

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This sermon is partly inspired by Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus. I am indebted to Nouwen’ insightful reflections on the temptation of Jesus. 

Every year, on the first Sunday of Lent we hear the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Now, of course, throughout Scripture, the wilderness is almost always a place of spiritual testing and spiritual preparation. But this morning in order to understand specifically what is happening to Jesus in the wilderness, we have to rewind to about seven weeks ago, which is when we heard about the baptism of Jesus. Do you remember what happened when Jesus was baptized? He came up out of the water and the Holy Spirit descended upon him and there was a voice from heaven that declared, “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” At this baptism, Jesus heard the voice of his father. Jesus heard the voice that affirmed his identity as the Son of God.

And then immediately Jesus is driven into the wilderness. We have had this seven-week gap, during which we have heard about other various events in the life of Jesus, but in the Bible the baptism of Jesus and the temptation of Jesus happen in quick succession. Jesus is baptized and immediately is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. Jesus hears the voice of God and then immediately he hears the voice of the devil, the tempter, the evil one. Jesus hears the voice that affirms his identity as the Son of God and then immediately he hears the voice of the one who calls that identity in question, the voice that says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

If you are the Son of God, why are you hungry? If you are the Son of God, then do something, Jesus! The temptation that Jesus is facing is the temptation to prove himself, the temptation to justify and defend himself. Jesus is experiencing the tension between the voice of his Father who said, “You are my beloved Son,” and the voice of the evil one who said, “If you are the Son of God, then prove it!”

Prove yourself by being self-sufficient and turn these stones into bread. Prove yourself by doing something spectacular and throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple. Prove yourself by being powerful and become the ruler of all the kingdoms of the earth.

Now, of course, the experience of Jesus is unique, but it is also a paradigm that helps us understand the temptations in our lives. In particular this temptation to prove ourselves. Because we experience the same tension and struggle in our own lives. As we grow in our relationship with Christ, we grow in our understanding of who we are as children of God. We grow in the knowledge that we are the beloved sons and daughters of the living God. We begin to hear more clearly the voice of the One who loves us unconditionally, the One who calls us each by name, the One who has made us worthy to stand before him. And yet, at the very same time, we encounter the voices of the world around us, we encounter the voices that challenge and call into question this fundamental identity given to us by God. I think you know what voice I am talking about! The voice that says, “Who do you think you are?” The voice that says, “You’re not worthy.” The voice that says, “You’ll never measure up.” The voice that preys on our insecurity and causes us to question who we are. And, as a result of our own insecurity, we are faced with the temptation to prove ourselves. The very same temptation that Jesus encountered in his own wilderness experience. Continue reading

My Lenten Discipline

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Lent is traditionally a time when Christians abstain from certain indulgences or excesses such chocolate, wine, or Facebook! The absence of these things is intended to create space and time for prayer, silence, and simply being with God. However, I personally follow the Lenten model of adding a spiritual discipline to my routine, typically something small that I can slip into my day as a reminder of my Lenten journey and the call to grow and deepen my faith in Jesus.

This year, I will be adding the discipline of reading the Baptismal Covenant every day throughout the season of Lent. The Baptismal Covenant is the set of renunciations, affirmations, and promises that form the foundation of our baptismal identity as followers of Jesus. For most of us, these promises were made on our behalf when we were an infant or small child. Through the sacrament of confirmation, we may have made a personal commitment to uphold these promises. But most of the time, the Baptismal Covenant is not central to our daily life and practice. So, this year I will be reading these promises every day as a reminder of my identity and calling as a baptized person, as someone who is seeking to model my life after the pattern and teaching of Jesus.

It only takes a few minutes each morning to renew your Baptismal Covenant. I would invite you to join me in adding this spiritual discipline to your daily routine this Lenten season.


The Baptismal Covenant

I renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God. 

I renounce the spiritual forces of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.

I renounces all sinful desires that draw me from the love of God.

I turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as my Savior. 

I put my whole trust in his grace and love.

I promise to follow and obey him as my Lord. 

I will continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers.

I will persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever I fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

I will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

I will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself.

I will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

Stop. Look. Listen.

Stop Sign

A few years ago, I woke up on a Saturday morning and I remember thinking to myself, “It’s a Saturday and I have no commitments, no meetings, no special events, no conferences – it’s actually a day off.” I began to contemplate all the things I could do. I could go shopping. I could go to the beach. I could go to the bookstore. I could go for a hike. And so, I proceeded to get up, have breakfast, get dressed, get in the car, turn on the radio, start driving. I was anticipating whatever it is I have ultimately planned to do for that day… and then my mind began to wander. All of sudden, I came to a stop sign and realized – I was driving to church, which for me meant I was driving to work! It’s a Saturday with no commitments and I was driving to work. The thing that I had actually set out to do that day was in the complete opposite direction of where I was headed. My brain had switched over to autopilot and I was following the well-worn pathways and habits of daily life. In other words, I automatically slipped into the routine that defines almost every other day of my life. Until I was forced to stop.

If you think about it, coming to a stop sign is a moment of orientation. If you’re lost and confused or if your mind just starts to wander, stopping at a stop sign gives you a moment to figure out where you are, to orient yourself to your surroundings. In those moments when I’m lost or confused and I come to a stop sign, my wife, if she’s in the car will sometimes say, “Do you know where you’re going?” And, of course, not wanting to admit that I’m lost, I’ll say something like, “Yeah, of course, I know where I’m going. I just need a second to get my bearings!” It’s a moment of orientation. And, you know, this is true even if you have driven a particular road a thousand times. When I come to stop sign down the street, I subconsciously know where I am. Stop signs are moments of orientation.

But coming to a stop sign can also be a moment of reorientation, a moment when you realize that you need to change directions. You may have been heading north for several miles, but now to get to your destination, you need to turn left and head west. It is moment of decision. It is a moment when you have to choose the direction in which you will move.

But, you know, stopping a stop sign can also be moment of recalculation. Like when you get up on a Saturday and you end up driving in the completely wrong direction. Or when Siri has a mind of her own and you end up going the wrong way down a one-way street. These are the moments when a stop sign can be a moment of recalculation. Your entire route needs to change.

Friends, I would submit to you that Ash Wednesday is a critically important spiritual stop sign. We find ourselves moving through life at high speed. We find ourselves moving through life on autopilot. We find ourselves moving through life driven by all the cultural forces and assumptions of the world around us. We find ourselves moving through life driven by the forces of materialism and consumerism and self-preservation. And then we come to church on Ash Wednesday and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We come to this spiritual stop sign and we are reminded that life on this earth is finite. We are reminded that the structures of this world will all come to an end. We are reminded that our life is utterly and completely dependent upon God and God alone.

And like any stop sign, Ash Wednesday is a moment of orientation. It is the moment in our liturgical calendar when we stop and take stock of our lives through spiritual practices like self-examination. Where are we? How are we doing? What’s exactly is going on in our lives?

Ash Wednesday is also a moment of reorientation. It is a moment when we have to ask ourselves, “Where am we going?” “Which way do we need to turn?” “What changes do we need to make in our lives?”

But, of course, for some of us Ash Wednesday might need to be a time of recalculation,  a time when we recognize that we have been moving in the wrong direction and we need to complete recalculate the direction and purpose of our lives. Recalculation is about more than one or two turns; it requires a whole new route.

So, today I want to encourage you to not simply roll through Ash Wednesday, but to come to a full and complete stop. To enter into this moment as an opportunity to orient your life. Look around you.

Where are you?

What is actually going on your life?

What’s happening in your relationships

with your family and those you love?

What’s happening in your relationship with God?

How is your prayer life?

Do you feel like you are growing in your faith?

As you come to this spiritual stop sign, maybe God calling you to reorient aspects of your life. Maybe God calling you to move in a different direction. Or perhaps what is needed right now in your life is a complete recalculation. In traditional language, this would be called repentance, turning around and beginning to follow an entirely new route, a new path for your life.

And so, when you come forward in just a few moments to receive the cross of ashes on your forehead, and to be reminded that you are dust, may it not just be an external religious observance. But may you and I come to a full and complete stop. May we listen for God’s still, small voice. And then may we move with confidence wherever God’s Spirit might lead us.

Made Humble

Humility

For more than a half century, we have witnessed the emergence of what scholars have named the secular age. This is a period of human history that has been marked by significant changes in how we understand things like authority and truth and, ultimately, the purpose and meaning of life. One of the changes that has been most dramatic is the shift from the community as the primary locus of authority and truth to the individual. This movement from community to the individual has not been without consequences. Charles Taylor, a philosopher from Harvard University, wrote a book about a decade ago called The Secular Age, and he says this hyper-focus on the individual self, actually “flattens and narrows our lives;” it gives less meaning and purpose to our lives, not more; and ultimately it makes us lessconcerned about what’s happening with other people or our wider society. And yet regardless of the negative consequences, in this postmodern, secular age in which we live, the cultural momentum all around us compels us, almost subconsciously, to focus more and more on ourselves. The message that is blasting through our cultural sound system is simple and clear, “It’s all about you.”

Now there are many examples of this cultural message, but there are a few that are actually a bit alarming. One example is way in which the internet and in particular, our “smart” devices, seem to know us better than we know ourselves. The other day, I happened to have some free time and I was casually surfing the web for some new khaki pants – nothing terribly exciting or earthshattering. And yet, moments later when I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, there were pop-up advertisements from Dockers, Izod, and Men’s Wearhouse. Or think about the fact that if you’re searching for something on Amazon, a section will appear the says, “Recommendations for you.” This is not a random selection of popular items, this is carefully marketed group of items that is based on your shopping habits, which, of course, Amazon is tracking with meticulous precision. The whole online experience is meant to be a customized, particularized, specialized, individualized experience designed just for you.

Another powerful example of the postmodern hyper-focus on the individual is the way we use our Map App. If you were to pull out an atlas from fifty years ago and spread it out on your dining room table, your particular location would be but a speck in relation to the vast expanse of the world around you. But if you open your Map App, you are the blue dot right in the middle of the universe and you literally have the world at your fingertips. With the stroke of just a few keys, restaurants, theaters, shopping malls, wine bars will appear for your entertainment and enjoyment. Whether it’s Facebook or Amazon or the Map App on your phone, the message is loud and clear, “It’s all about you!”

The Bible has a radically different vision of what ultimately brings meaning and purpose to our lives, and it’s a vision of discovering ourselves through being a part of a beloved community. For the past several weeks, we have been reflecting together on Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and in this letter Paul, as their pastor and leader, is teaching the congregation in Corinth what it means to be God’s beloved community. Paul has already reminded his congregation that through Jesus God has called them to be holy, God has called them to be one, and God has us them to be wise.

But today we’re going to talk about what it means that God has called us to be humble. What does it mean for us to walk with an attitude of service and humility? C.S. Lewis once said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”  In other words, if we are going to be serious about our call to be disciples of Jesus then we have to come to grips with the fact that in the kingdom of God, it’s not all about you!

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Made Wise

Wisdom of the Cross

Throughout the course of human history, great thinkers and leaders, philosophers and theologians, poets and artists, have all wrestled with the idea of wisdom. What is wisdom? Where does it come from? How do we get it? What difference does it make in our lives? From Socrates to Jesus, from Aristotle to Shakespeare, from Augustine to Einstein, the search for wisdom has been at the heart of what it means to be a flourishing human society. If we were able to go back and walk the streets of ancient Corinth, we would likely come across traveling philosophers and teachers who would make long, well-rehearsed, elaborate speeches in the public courtyards. These professionally trained orators were often paid money to say flattering things about the city and its leaders. They would dress in extravagant clothing in order to call attention to themselves. They were slick and smooth, and large crowds would gather to hear their eloquent and lofty words of wisdom. It is quite possible that there were members of Paul’s church who would show up on Sunday morning to hear the sermon for the day and then walk down the street to hear the philosophers in the public square, and it turned out that on some occasions they liked what the philosophers had to say more that what was being preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

And so, Paul, as their pastor, writes to his congregation and says, “When I came to you, I didn’t come with a polished speech. I didn’t come with the latest and greatest philosophical ideas. I didn’t come dressed in fancy clothes.I didn’t come to impress you. And I certainly didn’t come to line my pockets with cash. But I came to tell you about one thing – Christ and him crucified. I was determined that you heard about one thing – Christ and him crucified. I really only preached one sermon over and over again – Christ and him crucified.” Why? Because, you see, for Paul, the fullness of the wisdom of God, the wisdom of the ages, has been made known to the world through Jesus and his cross. Now this is a big idea and in order for us to understand how important this is for Paul, we have to, sort of, what through his logic. And what I want to try to do this morning is summary this big idea in three words.

The first word is revelation. For Paul, through Jesus Christ, God has revealed an entirely new paradigm for understanding the world. The prophets of old had talked about centuries before. God’s people had been waiting and looking and praying for hundreds of years. The ancient Scriptures had been pointing forward to this day. But when Jesus showed up, everything changed. And it changed everything because Jesus broke the mold. Jesus didn’t come with a polished speech. He didn’t come with the latest and greatest philosophical ideas. He didn’t come dressed in fancy clothes. In fact, the culmination of his public ministry was not his own self-aggrandizement and self-congratulation. The culmination of his public ministry was death on a cross. And in light of the cross, all of sudden wisdom meant something very different. The wisdom of the cross says that power is made perfect in weakness. The wisdom of the cross says that true strength is discovered through humility. The wisdom of the cross says that love is made manifest through sacrifice. And the reason this is a matter of revelation is because according to our human logic, this is foolishness. The cross as a demonstration of God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world, but to those who believe it is the power of God.  It is a revelation of God’s wisdom!

The second word is transformationBecause the wisdom of the cross, is just information unless it penetrates our spirit and changes our lives. In other words, revelation has to lead to transformation. It has to change the way we see the world.

Think of this way. If you go in for an eye exam and the optometrist discovers a vision problem, the doctor will likely use a phoropter. That’s the machine with all the lenses and dials that the doctor makes you look through in order to determine what prescription you will need! When you first look into the machine, everything is blurry. The optometrist will try a combination of lenses and ask if you can see clearly. If not, the doctor will make an adjustment and then another and the another, until the right combination is found, and you can see clearly. Paul is saying to the Corinthians, you have been looking at the world through the wrong lenses. You have been looking at the world through lenses of power and pride and worldly wisdom. You’ve been looking though the lenses of commercialism and materialism. But when the cross clicks into place as the interpretive lens through which you see the world, everything changes. The way we see the world is transformed. We see the world with eyes of compassion and mercy and justice and humility and grace and unconditional love. The cross becomes not so much what we see, but how we see.

Okay, so for Paul, this singular proclamation of “Christ and him crucified” is about revelation. It’s about transformation. And finally, it’s about incarnation. Which simply means it’s about the way we live our lives. For Paul, to be a follow of Jesus means we are called to live a “cross-shaped” life, what theologians have called a cruciform life. A life that is shaped and molded and formed by the value-system of the cross. A life that is characterized by mercy, grace, justice, and above all, by sacrificial, self-giving love.

And we have to ask ourselves, when the world looks at the Church, the Body of Christ, do they see a community that embodies a different set of values and commitments than the world around us? Is the shape of the church different than the shape of our culture? Have we allowed the way of the cross, which is the way of love, to become incarnate in our lives? These are deep questions. But they are questions that we have to wrestle with if we are going to be the incarnational presence of God in this world.

Paul said, I came among you to tell you about one thing – Christ and him crucified! The cross is about REVELATION, because it reveals God’s wisdom, which is very different from the wisdom of the world. The cross is about TRANSFORMATION, because it transforms the way we see the world and each other. The cross is about INCARNATION, because we are called to live cruciform, cross-shaped live that are distinct from the world around us.

My friends, we are living tumultuous times. We are divided and fearful and anxious. We are longing for healing and reconciliation and hope. What the world needs is Christians who will embody the wisdom of the cross, who will work for justice and peace, and who will walk the way of love.

Seeing God’s Salvation

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“My eyes have seen your salvation.” – Simeon 

Early this morning hundreds of people endured sub-freezing temperatures in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to celebrate Groundhog Day. They gathered to wait and watch to see if we can expect an early spring or six more weeks of winter. This evening, thousands of people will assemble inside Hard Rock Stadium in Miami and in living rooms across the country to celebrate Super Bowl Sunday. They will assemble to wait and watch to see if Kansas City or San Francisco will win the ultimate prize. But today in the church we are here to celebrate the Feast of the Presentation, to remember two amazing people named Simeon and Anna, who went to the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. And they went there to wait and watch, to see the salvation of God.

Now, some of you are saying to yourselves, I know what Groundhog Day is, and I definitely know what the Super Bowl is, but, Fr. Doug, what is this Feast of the Presentation? Well, I’m glad you asked!

Because the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which always falls on February 2, is a major feast of the church year. It takes precedent over any other celebration on this day. And it commemorates the occasion when Jesus turns 40 days old, which is significant, because according to OT law, on the 40 day, a first-born male child was to be brought to the Temple to be presented to the Lord, to be set apart and dedicated for the purposes of God. This visit to the Temple also included rites of purification for the mother who had given birth six weeks earlier. Now when Mary and Joseph enter into the Temple, they are greeted by these two mysterious figures Simeon and Anna. Both Simeon and Anna have been waiting and watching. They have been praying and looking and searching and yearning for the manifestation of God’s salvation. And when Simeon sees Jesus, he says, “Lord, I am ready to go. I can die in peace. My purpose has been fulfilled.” Why? “Because my eyes have seen God’s salvation!”

“My eyes have seen God’s salvation.” Now I want you to imagine something with me for just a moment. Simeon and Anna have been hanging around the Temple for a long time. They probably witnessed the massive and extravagant renovation of the Temple under the reign of King Herod the Great. They witnessed the great festivals of the Jewish people. They watched as Pharisees walked by. They watched as Sadducees walked by. They watched as Scribes and High Priests and Chief Priests and all sorts of religious leaders walked by. They watched as throngs of pilgrims made their way into the Temple day after day after day. But on this day, Simeon sees a poor, young teenage girl holding her six-week old baby, and he says, “Right there is the salvation of God!” Can you imagine? Simeon, moved by the Holy Spirit, sees the power and the glory and the beauty of the salvation of God in a teenage girl and her baby – oh, and they are from Nazareth, of all places.

Simeon doesn’t look to the wealth and wisdom of the world He doesn’t look to the religious establishment of his day. He’s sees salvation in what the world would often ignore.

And so, you see, what seems like a fairly straight forward story, suddenly takes on a deeper meaning, because we are going to see this same pattern over and over again in the ministry of Jesus.  It seems that when Jesus is around, you can be sure that the salvation and power of God are going to show up in the very places the world would rather ignore!

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Made One

Made One

* This sermon was meant to be preached on Sunday, January 26, in preparation for our Annual Parish Meeting. Due to illness, I was not able to be present to preach this sermon, but I am posting the text for those who wish to read it. 

Nearly 1700 years ago, a group of early Christian leaders gathered together to discuss and debate some of the most basic elements of faith. Who is God? What is relationship between Jesus, the Son and God, the Father? Who is the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to be the Church? These were nothing less than history-making decisions. After over three months of prayer and deliberation, this gathering of leaders issued a statement, a summary of what we believe as followers of Jesus. That statement has been passed down to us as the Nicene Creed, which, of course, is what we proclaim every single time we gather here on a Sunday morning. And as part of that statement, we declare our belief in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We stand up every Sunday and declare that there is one church. But I have a confession this morning. My confession is that there are times when I feel a bit awkward or even embarrassed by this proclamation of unity. Because every Sunday as we recite these words, there are people gathered around the world who represent nearly 41 thousand different Christian denominations, organizations, and fellowships. 41 thousand!

Now it can be argued that there is a certain spiritual unity that connects the body of Christ throughout the world, but when it comes to the visible unity of the church, what the world around us actually sees, we are sorely lacking. We proclaim to BELIEVE in one church, but our ACTIONS frequently reveal a fragmented and divided church. There is a disconnect between what we BELIEVE and how we BEHAVE. And it is in this context that we hear the opening line of today’s reading from First Corinthians, Paul says, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

Now remember, Paul is seeking to teach the Corinthians community what it means to be a spiritual community, what it means to be God’s beloved community. And one of the greatest obstacles to living as a spiritual community is disagreement and discord.The Corinthians congregation has personality differences, they have theological disagreements, there is conflict over worship and which spiritual gifts are more important. And this might come as a shock, but in the early church they were actually fighting over things like politics and money and power! The reality is that almost all the sources of conflict present in the early church are still present today. Not much has changed.

But Paul says, I appeal to you, I urge you, I beseech you in the name of Jesus, to be in agreement, that there be no divisions among, that you be united in mind and purpose.

We might think to ourselves, “You know, Paul, you are being a bit idealistic.” I mean, if you put human beings in a room together for any length of time, you are going to have conflict, you are going to have disagreements, you are going to have discord. How can Paul say, let there be no division among you?

Well, first we have to understand that Paul is passionate about unity. Almost every letter we have from Paul – Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians – in all of them, Paul talks about the power of unity. And the reason Paul is so passionate about unity is because, for Paul, the unity of the church is ultimately about the witness of the church. The unity of the church is our witness to the world of the reconciliation and restoration that God has accomplished through Jesus Christ. 

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Made Holy

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To those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints! – 1 Corinthians 1:2

This morning we begin by traveling back in time to the ancient city of Corinth in the year 49 AD. The city of Corinth was a wealthy and thriving Roman colony. It was located in southern Greece and because it was a port city, Corinth was a center of trade and commerce in the ancient world. Sailors, merchants, and tradesmen were continually passing in and out of the city. Corinth also had a bustling entertainment district with courtyards surrounded by shops and theaters and other public amenities. Now since the Corinthians lived 2,000 years before Netflix and HDTV, their idea of entertainment was quite a bit different from ours. In fact, one popular way to pass the time was to go and listen to professional orators and speechmakers who would travel from city to city, and people who pay to listen to long and elaborate speeches. Can you imagine people today actually paying money to listen to sermons!?!

CorinthIn addition to its thriving business and entertainment sectors, Corinth was known for its cultural and religious diversity. Throughout the city, there were temples and shrines dedicated to various gods and goddesses and Roman citizens from throughout the empire would come to the city of Corinth for wild parties and festivals and celebrations. In America, we have the expression “what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas.” In the ancient world, they probably would have said, “what happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth!” In the year 49 AD, Corinth was a solidly pagan Roman city and almost nobody had ever heard of the man called Jesus of Nazareth.

But all of that was about to change. Because right around the year 49 AD, give or take a few years, a man named Paul came to the city of Corinth along with some of his partners in ministry. And Paul began to teach and preach in the name of this man named Jesus. Now it’s important to know that Paul didn’t come in on a Friday night to do a three-day tent revival, take up an offering and skip town. Paul lived and worked in the city of Corinth for no less than a year and a half. We know that Paul was a tentmaker or “working of cloth” by trade, and for 18 months, Paul set up his tentmaking business on the streets of Corinth and started telling people about Jesus.

After then 18 months, having established a worshipping community in Corinth, Paul decided it was time for him to move on and so, he so he sailed across the Aegean Sea to the city of Ephesus. A few years went by and Paul decided to check in on the church he had planted in Corinth. And what he discovered was that although this community had certainly heard the gospel that was proclaimed to them, they had come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, they had received the basic message of the Christian faith – but their thinking, their mindsets, their behavior, their interactions with their surrounding culture had not significantly changed.  Although they believed in Jesus, the way they lived their lives was still very much influenced by the cultural and social reality of the world around them. And this lack of transformation resulted in division and animosity and outright conflict within the church.

And so, Paul begins to communicate with the church in Corinth by writing letters.  One of these letters has survived in the form of First Corinthians. This is not a book or a sermon or an essay. It’s a letter written by a pastor to his congregation. In this letter, Paul is teaching the Christians in the city of Corinth how to live together as a spiritual communityhow to be God’s beloved communitya community not shaped by the values and principles of the world, but shaped by the values and principles of the Kingdom of God.

And so, during this season of Epiphany, we get to listen in on this conversation between Paul and his congregation, we get to listen in on this dialogue about what it means to be a spiritual people, what it means to be God’s beloved community. Are you ready?

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Burn the Ships

The following music video by For King & Country partially inspired this sermon.

Just over 500 years ago, the famous Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortes, left his homeland and sailed for the new world. Cortes and his crew endured the perils that came with a voyage across the dangerous Atlantic. They survived disease, dissent, and possible destruction. Cortes finally landed on the island and Hispaniola and then sailed on to Cuba. But ultimately, Cortes and his men were commissioned to explore and conquer what is now present-day Mexico. They sailed their ships west and landed on a new continent – a new land, full of new possibilities and new adventures, as well as new risks and new dangers.

Now Cortes knew that his men would be tempted to turn back to the safety and security of Cuba. He knew the human tendency to return to what is known and what is familiar. And so, to prevent this backward movement, Cortes ordered his commanding officers to burn the ships, to destroy the only possible means of escape. His men had no choice but to move forward. They had no choice but to enter into a new day and to embrace a new future.

Some historians have suggested that Cortes likely sank his ships rather than burn them and today we certainly don’t celebrate all the means and methods that Cortes employed during his mission. But this particular demonstration of leadership and his legendary command to burn the ships have stood the test of time as an example of what it looks like when we are called upon to let go of what was in order to embrace what will be.

This morning, in our Old Testament reading from the Isaiah, we hear once again the promise of God’s covenant, the promise of renewal and restoration, the promise of healing and reconciliation. What we don’t hear is the fact that these words of promise are being spoken to the people of Israel while they are in exile. They are separated from their homeland. They have witnessed the destruction of their Temple, their city, and their homes. They have endured unimaginable loss and trauma in their lives. And yet, God says, “I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and held you. I have given you as a covenant to the people. I made you a light to the nations.” And as for the former things – they have all come to pass. They are finished and over with. You can’t go back there, because I am doing a new thing and it is about to burst forth into the world. In the very next chapter of Isaiah, God says the exact same thing, but even more clearly. He says, “Forget what lies behind you, because I am doing a new thing, do you not perceive it?” God knows our tendency to go back to what is safe and predictable, to go back to what is known and familiar. And so, God says to his people, “Forget what lies behind you. Let go of the past.  Burn the ships. The former things have come to pass. A new day is dawning. A new light shining. A new life is starting. “

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