Archive for Division

When Bonds Are Severed

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on September 4, 2016 by timtrue

800px-Anton_Van_Dyck_-_Christ_carrying_the_Cross_-_Google_Art_Project[1]Luke 14:25-33

Today we hear some difficult words from Jesus.  “Whoever comes to me,” he says, “and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  And a little later, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

This is a hard saying.

Now, much has been made in scholarship over the word hate.  Does Jesus mean hate in the way we say “I hate terrorism” or some other evil, humanity-opposed ideology; or does he mean it more like when a young child says, “Ugh!  I hate spinach”?

So, after all the scholarship is said and done, here’s what scholars tell us.  When Jesus says hate here in the Greek, in English it means—are you ready?—hate!  The Greek is just like the English: there are many different ways to define this word.

Which isn’t really all that helpful.

So, we look at the context.

After Jesus says this hard saying about hating mother, father, wife, children, brother, sister, and even life itself, he goes on to offer a couple illustrations about anticipating the cost of some kind of endeavor or another.  Who among you would build a tower without first sitting down and figuring out how much it will cost?  Or what kind of king would run pell-mell into battle without first strategizing?

From the context, then, we see the gist: discipleship comes with a cost.  Faithfully following Jesus isn’t easy!

The Old Testament passage, from Deuteronomy, highlights this idea.  “If you obey my commandments,” God tells the people of Israel through Moses, “life will go well for you.  But if you don’t—well, not so much.”  There is a cost to being a part of the family of God.

Same goes for Psalm 1 and the book of Philemon.

Oh, Philemon!  In this beautiful letter, St. Paul writes to Philemon about his runaway slave, a guy named Onesimus.  Under Roman law, Philemon has every right to execute Onesimus.  But Paul beseeches Philemon to overlook the law and instead to take Onesimus back into his household.  Moreover, Onesimus himself has converted to the Christian faith and will be faithful, for he has counted the cost of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.

That’s the gist.  Discipleship comes at a cost.  Therefore, as disciples of Jesus, we must count that cost.

But what does this cost look like?

I once had a good friend; let’s call him Ron.  Ron was my principal; I was a second-grade teacher.  From the moment we met we got on like two peas in a pod.

To illustrate our friendship: one November morning I left for school on foot, as was my custom.  Now, this was in northeastern Pennsylvania.  It was 25 degrees when I left the house for my two-mile walk to work: cold, but not cold enough for long johns, I figured.

But by the halfway point a stiff wind had come up and, with it, a sudden drop in temperature.  When I reached the school parking lot, I wasn’t all that surprised to find it empty and the front doors locked.

This was before the advent of cell phones or any other form of instant communication at our disposal today.  I would find out later that I’d left my house just moments before someone at the school had called me to say it was cancelled for the day.

Anyway, there I stood, locked out of the school building, shivering, already chilled deeply, regretting my choice not to wear long johns, when I remembered that Ron lived just around the corner.  So I walked to his house and knocked on his door.  The thermometer on the porch read 10 degrees.

A few seconds later Ron opened his door, with an expression of dismay on his face.  He was in his bathrobe.  “What are you doing out there?” he asked.  “Come in, before you catch your death!”

So I did.  Gladly!  And he proceeded to make a pot of coffee while I called my wife to explain I might not be home for a little while but I’m okay, just gonna warm up for a bit at Ron’s.

Then, of all things, on the old VHS together Ron and I watched The Muppet Movie while we sipped our coffees and allowed our conversation to meander like that great river in ancient Greece.

Such was our friendship!

Until some years later, when I called Ron on the phone to hash out some inner theological battle I was having over the sacraments.

“Ron,” I said finally, coming to my point, “so I’ve left the Baptist church and joined the Presbyterian.  Our girls will be baptized on Pentecost Sunday.  I’d love if you could be there.”

There was only silence on the other end.  Uncomfortable, awkward silence.

“Ron,” I finally addressed, “what is it?”

And then he said the last thing I wanted to hear.  “Tim,” he said, “I don’t see how our friendship can ever be the same again.”

Turns out the vital bond holding our friendship together was our shared Baptist perspective.  Now that bond was severed.

Ron and I have exchanged some emails and Christmas cards since.  But that’s the last time I heard his voice.

A friend lost.  Over something as petty as a denominational difference.  Did I count the cost of this when I signed up to be a disciple?

Perhaps a better question to ask: Did I even have a choice?

This scenario brings up an interesting nuance in counting the cost of discipleship.  Ron and I no longer share the friendship we once did.  Our bond of friendship was severed over our ideological differences.  But it wasn’t my fault.  If it were solely up to me, Ron and I would still be bosom buddies today.  I was the passive party in the severing; Ron the active.

These things happen when we follow Jesus.  Our faith interferes with our friendships and family relationships.  Our faith interferes with the bonds we form with our things, our material possessions.  We need to understand that.  We need to count that cost.

But how active should we be in severing these bonds?

Let’s explore this nuance.

Jesus says that unless we hate family members, friends, and possessions we cannot be his disciple.  Does that mean, then, that I actively cut off ties with family members and friends because they don’t share the same perspectives as I do?

I’m an Episcopalian.  So, what if I have family members who are Roman Catholic?  If they visit me on a Sunday, they’re more than welcome to come to this Table and participate in Communion with me; but if it’s the other way around—if I go to visit them on a Sunday—I can’t take Communion, at least according to Catholic canon.  Thus, what does this mean for me?  Do I never attend church with them again?  Do I stop visiting them at religious holidays?  Do we agree never to talk about religion when we’re together?

So, change up the scenario a little bit.  I’m an Episcopalian.  What if the friends or family members go to one of those fundamentalist churches, one of those churches that says only born again Christians are going to heaven; and they drop continual hints that they really don’t think I’m born again?  What kinds of bonds and to what extent do I actively sever then?

Or what if a friend or family member wants to make politics a moral issue—that it is a moral imperative for me, he says, as a Christian to vote for one candidate or the other?  (The name doesn’t matter.  I’ve heard moral-imperative arguments for both sides!)

Now take it a step further.  What if my friends or family members are Mormon?  What if they’re Atheist?

It’s going to happen: I will experience differences and divisions because of my faith.  But should I be active in severing the ties that bind?

Ron thought he had to cut ties with me over a different Protestant perspective—two denominations within the same vein!

On a much larger scale, recall the ugly history of the Christian church.  In 16th– and 17th-century England, for instance, Roman Catholics burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake; and there was a lengthy civil war started and perpetuated by Protestant Puritans.

And what’s been happening in recent times?  One group doesn’t like another; so they actively break away and form their own, new denomination.

Is this what Jesus wants us to do as his disciples?  Is this what he means by hating father, mother, brother, sister, and so on?  Is this what it means to bear his cross and count the cost?

The Christian way, it seems, has been antithesis.  We see something we don’t like or that we don’t agree with and we say, well, Christ called us to hate sister and brother, so we should actively wipe the dust off our feet and move on.  We’ll start our own thing, a thing we like better, a thing more aligned with our perspective.  This has been the Christian way.

But is this Jesus Christ’s way?

Not too long ago we heard that Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him out into Samaritan villages.  Jesus knew ahead of time that his disciples would be opposed ideologically, that the mission would most likely fail.  If Jesus had wanted actively to sever bonds with these Samaritans, he most surely would not have sent his disciples on this mission.  But he did.

Christian history is replete with active division, discord, even hatred.  But Jesus Christ’s way is about reconciliation, forgiveness, giving others the benefit of the doubt, and loving our enemies.

Jesus Christ’s way is active love.

This, then, strikes me as the cost of discipleship, the cross that we are called to bear:

Be passive in hate; active in love.

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The Greater Commission

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2016 by timtrue

Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

At the conclusion of last week’s service, a parishioner asked me a question about my sermon.

To recall, in last week’s Gospel we heard that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.  In other words, he was resolute about fulfilling his mission, about completing the task God had called him to do.

With this mindset, he sent some of his disciples ahead of him into a Samaritan village, in search of hospitality.  Foxes have holes, he said, and birds have nests; but the Son of Man has no place to call home.  He and his disciples were dependent upon others for hospitality—for what they would eat and where they would sleep.

So, those disciples soon returned with bad news.  The Samaritans, it turned out, would not host Jesus and his disciples.

Now, these were Samaritans!  That is, they did not worship the same god as the Jews, but some kind of false amalgamation of a god, something kind of like the Jewish god but also kind of not.

This apparently reminded two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, of a story in their scriptures of a certain prophet of the Most High named Elijah; and how he once called fire down from heaven on four hundred priests of a god named Baal, you know, a god kind of like the god of the Jews but kind of not.

So James and John said, “Jesus, how could they?  Just give us the word, and we’ll call fire from heaven down upon these inhospitable Samaritans!”

But Jesus rebuked them.  They were simply to wipe the dust off their sandals and go on to the next village.

And so Jesus, I explained, had brought us a new plow.  This new plow was not like the old plow of Elijah’s era, one that demanded an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  Jesus’ new plow, rather, was a plow of love.

Love your enemies, Jesus said.  Pray for those who persecute you.  Turn the other cheek.

This is the new plow upon which Jesus has called us to set our hands and not look back.

Anyway, that was my message from last week in a nutshell.  And the question the parishioner brought forth went something like this:

So then, Father Tim, is Jesus saying we should wipe the dust off our feet regarding followers of other religions? that we should have nothing to do with them?

It’s a worthwhile question.  For we know we are called to love others.  This is the plow to which Jesus has called us.  And loving others often results in discomfort for us.  To seek hospitality from others requires a certain vulnerability on our part.  To put another person’s needs and wants ahead of our own requires an uncomfortable level of humility.  And if we’re rejected, it requires a certain amount of self-control merely to wipe the dust off our feet and walk away rather than calling fire or other curses upon them.

But what if we’re certain—or almost certain—ahead of time that it’s a fool’s errand?  What if we just know already that our vulnerability, humility, and self-control—our self-inflicted discomfort—will simply fall flat?  Can’t we just avoid such discomfort altogether?  I mean, wouldn’t it be more productive to take Christ’s message of love somewhere else, where its objects are potentially more receptive?

Well, to cut to the chase, the answer is no.  Christ’s mission of love is for all, whether or not their minds are already made up against it—against us.

We infer this answer from last week’s text.  For Jesus in fact sent his disciples into a village he knew ahead of time to be Samaritan.

He knew ahead of time that these villagers worshiped a different god from his.  He knew ahead of time that Samaritans didn’t normally associate with Jews.  He knew ahead of time that racial animosity between Jews and Samaritans was commonplace in Palestine.  He knew ahead of time, in other words, that his disciples would almost certainly be rejected.

And yet he sent them ahead anyway.  For his was (and is) a mission of love.

But this answer is made even clearer in today’s Gospel.

For promoting Jesus’ message and ministry required the disciples to allow themselves to become vulnerable; to humble themselves; and, facing almost certain rejection, to exercise seemingly superhuman self-control.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.  The disciples were to go from place to place, preaching the Good News of Jesus, curing the sick, and accepting whatever hospitality they were offered.

And this was in Palestine, a half-forgotten province of the Roman Empire.

The religious context there went something like this: the Jews did their thing, the Samaritans did their thing, and those of a pagan bent did their thing.  Each group was content with its own religious identity, its own religious ideology.  As the woman at the well so eloquently put it, the Jews worship in their way and the Samaritans worship in their way.  One day all the differences will be cleared up.  But in the meantime, never the twain shall meet.

When it came to religion, there were established traditions and ideologies.  And these established ideologies conflicted with each other.

And now, in Jesus, something else, something new was happening.

His message and ministry seemed Jewish.  Mostly Jewish anyway.  Still, over and over Jesus had opposed the Jewish leaders—of both major parties: both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  His was a message of peace.  But, ironically, the peace he proclaimed was highly conflictive.

So Jesus’ message and ministry flew in the face of the established religious ideologies of his day.

It also flew in the face of political ideologies.

Politically, Rome was in charge.  This meant good things for the privileged classes.  If you were in an upper class, you fared well—as long as you were self-focused and pushy enough to keep yourself in your privileged position.

Rome’s way was thoroughly hierarchical.  This meant you could lose a privileged position.  This also meant others could climb social ladders, sure.  But for a place like Palestine, on the fringe of the Empire, most people were simply half-forgotten.  Most were economically challenged, i. e., lower class.  And there was nothing they could do about it.

Occasionally a messianic figure would come along and offer an uprising, a violent protest against the powers that be.  Judas Maccabeus is perhaps the most well-known example.

But Jesus came along and said, yes, there is in fact an oppressive hand over us all; but, no, we are not to protest violently.

Do you think that this crazy message of new religion and non-violence would have been received by anyone?  It wasn’t just those of a different religious persuasion who would reject Jesus’ disciples and his message.  The disciples also faced almost certain rejection from those most like them, namely, the poor, half-forgotten Jews of Palestine.

Jesus never said following him would be comfortable, simple, or easy.  If anyone is telling you this, don’t listen.  Rather, Jesus says following him will be uncomfortable, even difficult.

This was true for his disciples in Palestine under Roman rule; and it’s true for his disciples in Yuma today.  For, at its core, Jesus’ message and ministry—a message and ministry we carry on to this day—are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, now you’ve gone too far, Father Tim.  What do you mean that Jesus’ message and ministry “is about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world”?  Jesus’ message and ministry is a personal one, about love, peace, and salvation; it’s about saving my soul from sin and eternal damnation.  No one ever said this life would be easy, true.  But that’s just Jesus’ point.  There’s nothing he could do about it; and there’s nothing I can do about it—except to make sure that my walk with Jesus is on the straight and narrow.  That’s all anyone can ever do!

And then you stick your fingers in your ears and break into song:

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away . . .

To which I say, yes, in the Great Commission at the end of the book of Matthew Jesus commands his disciples to go out into the world, making disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So, yes, there is in fact a very personal element to Jesus’ message and ministry.

But here, in Luke, we see another perspective in another commission.  In fact, in Matthew, Jesus sends out twelve; but here, in Luke, he sends out seventy.  So, arguably, the commission here in Luke is an even Greater Commission than the so-called Great Commission of Matthew.

At any rate, here Jesus commands his disciples to accept whatever hospitality (or rejection) they’re shown, cure the sick, and (whether received or rejected) proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near.

Do you see?  Doing works—i. .e, ministry—is first.  Preaching—i. e., message—is second.

And as for the message: what is it to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near but to proclaim that all that is now wrong is being made right?

Jesus’ ministry and message is to make wrongs right presently.  It has a personal element, sure.  But, maybe even more, it has a social element.

Jesus’ ministry and message are about subverting oppressive and exclusive systems in the world.

Well then, this begs two questions.  First: Do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in our world today?  This is America, after all, the land of the free and the home of the brave.  And second: If so, are we able even to do anything about them?

As to whether oppressive or exclusive systems exist in our day, hindsight is a good place to begin, for, as they say, it’s 20/20.

In relatively recent history, we see now how wrong slavery was.  But did slave owners see slavery as oppressive or exclusive in their day?

As we know, our country was bitterly divided on this issue.  Did you know the Episcopal Church was divided over it too?  On the one hand, slave-owning Episcopal bishops argued from scripture that slavery was an acceptable institution for society’s greater good.  On the other hand, parishes such as the Church of the Transfiguration—still thriving today in Manhattan—were stations on the Underground Railroad.

So, can we learn anything from hindsight?  Our nation and Church were divided over slavery back in the day.  What divides our nation today?  What divides our Church?  This is our starting point.  Then ask: Are any of these divisions based on oppressive or exclusive systems?

An elephant in the room here is human sexuality and the present debates over issues stemming from it:

Does a county clerk have the religious right to protest a gay marriage?  What bathroom should or shouldn’t a trans-woman be able to use?  Is it contrary to the authority of scripture to ordain a homosexual person in a monogamous relationship?

Another elephant, of course, revolves around the second amendment (no pun intended).

And what of all our technological opiates, the healthcare crisis, and our economy, which is founded on credit—or should I say indebtedness?

So, do we even encounter oppressive or exclusive systems in America today?  Sadly, they seem to be everywhere and inescapable.

Perhaps the most important questions in these debates should be about the dignity of all persons.  In our opinions, in our political and religious ideologies, in our constitution and amendments, in our judicatory proceedings, in our bills and laws—for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—we must fight against systems that enable one group of people to oppress or exclude another.

But, you ask, what can I do about it?  I’m simply one individual in an ocean of humanity.

True.  But so were Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus didn’t call them simply to throw up their hands in a helpless shrug.  Instead, he commissioned them to become vulnerable, to seek out the hospitality of others even though it meant almost certain rejection, to offer healing to others, and to proclaim that the kingdom has come near.

And you know what happened?  These few rag-tag, seemingly insignificant disciples went out and did what Jesus commissioned; and they returned to him with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!”

Beloved, it is the same with you.  Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!

2014 Lent 25

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , on April 2, 2014 by timtrue

Spectrum_roygbiv

I Corinthians 12:1-11

The consensus from scholars of the New Testament seems to be that Paul’s purpose in writing to the Corinthians, at least in his first letter, was to combat division.  More and more, though, I find myself disagreeing with this consensus.  (But I’m just a lowly M. Div.; is it okay to disagree with Ph. D.s?)  Instead, I’m thinking that Paul wrote this letter in order to explain Christian liberty.

Crossing the line between liberty and license, on the one hand, can certainly lead to division.  So, on the other hand, can crossing the line between liberty and legalism.

Think of it as a liberty spectrum.  What you can see on this spectrum are all the glorious shades of liberty, like the colors of the rainbow.  Go too far to the right, though, into the ultraviolet zone of legalism, and you no longer see these glorious shades.  Stay there too long, in fact, and you will get burned–unless, of course, you manufacture some formula to block out (some of) the harmful rays’ effects.

A similar thing happens when you travel too far to the left, into the land of infrared license.  Here the unseen microwaves will boil your blood, destroying you from the inside out.  You can try to shield yourself from harm, sure.  And I know many people for whom this has worked for a time, such as my recovering alcoholic friends.  But, as these friends will tell you, in the end their personal license proved very harmful, and likely would have proved fatal if they had not gotten their liberty in check.

Anyway, I think this is really what Paul is getting at in this letter.  If a group of people ends up either too far to the left or right, well, that produces a faction.  Hence the division so evident at certain points in this letter.

But division does not strike me as the chiefest theme running throughout.  For if it were, what could we make of today’s reading, where there isn’t the slightest suggestion of it?  Today’s passage is all about spiritual gifts, and how one God gives specific gifts to many individuals and then lets these many individuals use them according to who they are as individuals for the one God’s glory.  No, there’s no division here.  Rather, today is about liberty in Christ.

The same could be said for several of the previous passages we’ve encountered, including the very first chapter.

Not legalism, then, and not license–which cause division–but liberty!

2014 Lent 20

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 27, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 9:1-15

“O-oh we’re halfway there, / O-oh living on a prayer.”

These words of Jon Bon Jovi are a tribute to all of us who’ve embarked on some kind of Lenten discipline this year.  Yep, today marks the halfway point.  Hang in there!  You can do it!

But what’s Bon Jovi got to do with today’s passage?

I’m sure Jon Bon Jovi didn’t go into music thinking he’d make a lot of money at it–though he has.  I’m sure it wasn’t some sort of enslaving obligation for him, some drudgery that he hated facing day after day, practicing guitar and singing only to fulfill a sadistic obligation foisted upon him by a cruel music-teacher-tyrant.  Rather, he got into music because he loved it; he felt some sort of passion for it, a conviction that it was somehow the right thing for him to do.

Well, the apostle Paul did the same thing.

No, I don’t mean he learned the guitar at a young age, skipped a lot of school, and played and sang in dimly lit clubs, doing whatever work he could find to get by.  But he had a similar passion and conviction–for promoting the good news of Christ.  And he did in fact do whatever work he could to get by.

For Paul is was making tents.  It was seen as demeaning work to some.  But it paid the bills and allowed him the freedom to take the gospel with him wherever the spirit led.

One of the places he took the gospel was Corinth, the Las Vegas of the ancient world.  And, lo and behold, people there believed the message and an assembly of believers soon formed.  This must have been exciting for Paul, something like Jon Bon Jovi experiencing his first song to play on the radio, “Runaway” (in 1982), becoming an overnight local hit.  But still he sought no pay for his work–Paul, that is, not JBJ.

But, unfortunately, the Corinthians apparently turned Paul’s philanthropy against him, saying (something like) that he asked for no pay because he himself knew he deserved no pay, that he was something of a fraud.

Don’t you hate that!  You do something nice for someone and they use it against you!

But Paul had personal liberty to do make tents, right?  He could continue his demeaning, lower-class work (very likely how the Corinthians viewed it) for the sake of the advancement of the gospel if he wanted to; just as JBJ had liberty to sweep his cousin’s studio while pursuing a career in rock and roll if he wanted to, which he in fact did.

So my point comes in the form of a question: why use someone’s liberty against him?  Why be like the Corinthians and turn a person’s choice–generated from a spirit of philanthropy and generosity no less!–into an opportunity for division?

2014 Lent 19

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by timtrue

Weizenbier

I Corinthians 8:1-13

As I’ve been slogging through St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this Lent, I’ve been trying to keep the idea in mind that Paul’s intent here is to combat division.  That’s what I’ve heard for years is the gist of this letter.  And it fits with the stuff we’ve already encountered regarding getting immorality out of the church.  It fits too with something I know is coming, around chapters 10 and 11, where the rich are excluding the poor in the congregation from communion.  A pox on social injustice!  But what about chapters 6-8?

For the past couple of chapters Paul has been discussing marriage and, by extension, family; now, in chapter 8, he moves on to discuss eating habits.  Both of these discussions are very personal in nature.  So, I’ve been asking myself, “Self, what’s all this got to do with division?”

Well, to answer briefly, I’m still not sure.  I’ll still be asking this question in the days ahead, in other words.  Maybe I’ll figure out a reasonable answer in the next few days; or maybe I won’t.  That’s part of what keeps me coming back to the New Testament, by the way: it poses many riddles to me, some of which I will never be able to answer, surely.  It’s challenging.  But, at the same time, it’s rewarding and it immensely shapes my view of the world.

Nevertheless, today I’ve found a foothold, a place to grab onto this particular riddle, rest for a bit, catch my breath, and think.  For today Paul actually uses the word liberty.  Do you see it?  Right there in the middle of verse 9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

The particular focus is on eating meat formerly used in sacrifice to idols, probably pagan, certainly not to the God of the Jews or to Christ.  Some of the Corinthian believers had no moral scruples about eating such meat, apparently, while others did.

For something similar in our modern-day, alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos come to mind.  Some modern American Christians, especially of the fundamentalist stripe, have real problems with these things, in some cases even calling the use of them sins.  (“Jesus didn’t turn the water into wine as we know it,” I’ve heard a preacher say, “but grape juice.  That’s why it was called ‘the best wine’: the best wine wasn’t fermented!”)  But, on the other hand, many other Christians have no problem morally with having a beer, enjoying a glass of wine, sipping a whisky on the back porch at sunset, lighting up a stogie, or covering vast portions of the body with permanent art (or kitsch if you prefer).

Anyway, perhaps this eating of meat sacrificed to idols was causing something of a division in the Corinthian church, that “stumbling block” Paul mentions–just like alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos cause division today.  (One wonders where trajectory will take us with the legalization of marijuana, yeah?)

But what if we look at the flip-side?  What if we look at it from the perspective of liberty?

Then maybe it’s the ones who have the problem who are being divisive.  Seriously, if someone I work with has a problem with the way I tie my shoe, is that my problem?  So this person confronts me: “Um, Tim, I notice you don’t make two loops before making your knot.  Instead, you do this weird thing to make your second loop–I can’t even explain.  It just bugs me!  So stop doing it that way.  Please.”  Really, should this become my problem?

So extend it to a beer.  If I happen to stop by Trader Joe’s on my way home from work and pick up a six-pack of oatmeal stout, then go home and enjoy a few with a fish-and-chips dinner, why is it suddenly my problem if a friend, a relative, or a parishioner doesn’t like it?

Etc.

This is my foothold, by the way.  Paul is dealing with division in the Corinthian church, so I’ve heard.  Fine and well.  But he’s also dealing with liberty.  The Corinthians were free to marry or not to marry, as their consciences and circumstances allowed.  They were also free to eat meat grilled with pagan spices.  Just so, we are free to drink a beer brewed in a brewery owned by an atheist.  Why should these actions lead to division?

So I’ll have to think this through.  Maybe Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is more about liberty than division.  If so, those exercising liberty should use prudence, sure.  I’m not going to hang out with a recovering alcoholic at the local microbrewery.  But the flip-side is just as important: those who are wired in such a way that they look for division, or even cause division, should be slow to confront and quick to examine their own hearts–to look at the plank in their own eye, as Jesus put it, before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.

2014 Lent 8

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , on March 13, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 2:14—3:15

Before addressing divisions in the Corinthian church directly (cf. 3:3 ff.), Paul rounds out his thoughts regarding the spirit.  If Paul is indeed being sarcastic here, as I suggested yesterday, then the following verse in particular takes on a different meaning than many Christians want it to:

“Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny” (2:15).

Many Christians wear the word spiritual from this verse as a sort of badge of honor.  Their argument goes something like this:

Premise 1: I’ve been at this believer thing for quite a while.

Premise 2: Thus, I am plainly and simply more spiritual than almost everyone else around me.

Conclusion: And so I am subject to no one else’s scrutiny, as Paul states (or at least only to the scrutiny of those more spiritual than I, and there aren’t many).  Hey, it’s biblical!

We’ve all known Christians like this, yeah?  It’s especially problematic when church leaders adopt this mindset.

But read the verse again supposing that Paul is writing with a sarcastic tone:

“Those who are spiritual” (like the deluded Gnostics) “discern all things” (or at least that’s what they think they do, but we all know that they don’t really, for their so-called wisdom is founded on a false foundation; but for the sake of argument let’s humor them), “and” (here’s the real problem with this sort of deluded thinking) “they are themselves subject to no one’s scrutiny.”

If this passage is indeed sarcastic, as I suppose, then Paul is using a logical technique called ad ridiculum to show just how ridiculous this sort of thinking is.

Contextually it makes a lot of sense to me.  For Paul continues, addressing division within the congregation and rebuking the Corinthians for partisan thinking: some of the congregation said they were following Paul, some said they were following Apollos.  But the church is not Roman politics!  Partisan thinking has no place!  If there is to be any personality cult at all, let it be only the cult of Christ!

Looking around today’s church—Lord help us!—things seem not to have changed much in this regard.  “I’m an Episcopalian,” we say; or, “I’m a Baptist,” etc.  And within our individual congregations it’s no better.  “I like traditional worship,” someone says, “so I go to the 11:00 service”; when someone else says, “That’s no place for me; I go to the casual, contemporary, come-as-you-are 10:00 service.”  And, effectively, two congregations have formed within the same church.  (I’m not saying here that it’s bad to have two significantly different types of worship services; just that what people do with this scenario is all too often divisive.)

On the other hand, Paul goes on to say that he planted, Apollos watered, but Christ gave growth.  This idea anticipates Paul’s wonderful words to come later in the epistle about the church being one body made up of many parts.

We each have particular talents, gifts, and skillsets we bring to the community.  Let us therefore put them together, collaboratively, as we strive for unity, not division.  This striving for unity should be especially true of church leaders, yeah?

Get off this competitive kick, then, to be the most spiritual, to be somehow subject to no one else’s scrutiny!

2014 Lent 5

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , on March 10, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 1:1-19

The lectionary today offers passages about beginnings.  There’s this one, to which I will turn my focus in a moment, the beginning of a letter written to the first church at Corinth by St. Paul.  There’s also the first thirteen verses of the Gospel of Mark; and the beginning of the story of Joseph in Genesis (37:1 ff.).  This theme of beginnings strikes me as serendipitous: I am writing from a Panera in Conway, Arkansas, where I have just enjoyed breakfast with my high school senior.  We’re here for the next eight hours to visit Hendrix College, one of several colleges to which she’s been accepted and which are waiting on her now to decide.  A child about to graduate high school and transition from adolescence to adulthood?  New beginnings!

As for Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, I peeked ahead in the Prayer Book lectionary and saw that the entire book of I Corinthians has been laid out over the next few weeks.  This excites me, for I’m a systematic thinker; and this should allow me fodder from which to write in a systematic way over the next several weeks as I read, mark, learn, inwardly digest, and otherwise think my way through the letter.  Also, a key theme in this letter comes out in today’s selection; namely, division.

Yeah!  There was a great deal of division in the Corinthian church, despite the fact that it had been recently begun by someone so holy as St. Paul!  Factions abounded (suggested today); social injustices occurred regularly; immorality was somewhat commonplace.

So why does this division excite me?  It’s actually unity that excites me.  I’m all about factions, injustices, and immoralities ceasing and instead people binding together for the common cause of Christ.  Reading through this letter and thinking through these issues and penning some thoughts should help me understand Christian unity better.  Perhaps it will help you too.