Tag Archives: Paul the apostle

Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us

[A video of the service where this was preached may be seen here: https://www.facebook.com/epiphanyucc/ ]

Scripture: Psalm 27, Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

The week of prayer for Christian Unity was developed and is sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican.

This year’s theme for Christian Unity Week was developed two years ago by some German Christians, in response to conditions in Europe. But boy, I can’t imagine a better time to talk about reconciliation than right here, right now.

I started putting together the worship service about a week ago and started writing this sermon two days before the inauguration. As I wrote, I had no idea how the next few days of traditional ceremonies and parties, punctuated with protests and marches were going to unfold. But I’ve known for more than a year that our nation — our world — is heading into a crisis of divisions and discord.

I have alternated between wanting to engage in angry resistance to injustice and wanting to just hunker down and pray for release. Frankly, I am tired of witnessing people who disagree with each other descend into name-calling and worse. I’m tired of the “I’ve got mine” crowd, but I’m also tired of the “I’m so right” and “You’re a moron,” crowd too.

So when I saw that I had fallen into the Sunday in the midst of the week of prayer for Christian Unity, I was encouraged by the theme. The organizers took the title from Pope Francis, who cited Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. The Love of Christ Compels Us.

But lets start at the beginning. We began our scripture reading today with a psalm lament. Aside from it being one of the lectionary scriptures, what does a psalm pleading, “Do not forsake me” have to do with reconciliation?

I would say that reconciliation probably should begin with lament, with an expression of fear, because fear is behind so many of our divisions and harmful acts toward each other. Even greed could be traced back to the fear of not having enough, or the fear of someone else getting more than you or beating you in some competition for scarce resources. Before we can conquer our fear and reach out to someone else, we have to name and face our fear and realize the source of the threat.

The psalmist faces fear by recognizing God as the “stronghold of my life.” And with that kind of support, “of whom shall I be afraid?” he says. Indeed. In these scary times, we need reassurance. We ask,  are you with me, God?

We touched on the Old Testament reading from Isaiah in our second hymn, when we sang, that “God rescues us from fear.” “Through holy prophets, God has sworn to free us from alarm, to save us from the heavy hand of all who wish us harm.” The people Isaiah was addressing really had it tough. And a lot of them would have scoffed at the idea that God was saving them, as they were dragged off to Babylon to be slaves.

The lectionary Isaiah passage includes the verse, “the people in darkness have seen a great light.” We read this verse at Christmastime and see in it a description of what Jesus brought to the world. In fact, it’s quoted in today’s gospel reading.

But Isaiah was writing about a different event. A return of the exiles from Babylon. They’d been in darkness. In fact, many of the returnees were too young or weren’t born yet to remember their time in Israel. And many had died in exile.

Understand — they did not return from exile because they won a battle. In fact, they had just been transferred from one conquerer to another, from Babylon to Persia, who defeated Babylon. Cyrus, the Persian leader, didn’t release them because they rose up in rebellion. He sent them home, scripture tells us, because God softened his heart.

The people who returned from Babylon had been transformed. Judaism would never be the same — and that was a good thing. Defeat and exile brought them together and made them depend on God, in a way that ordinary worldly success and comfort could never do. In exile, they lost their possessions and their status and their power. All they had were their scripture, their traditions and each other, and God.

Isaiah and the prophets didn’t actually promise that the people would never experience hard times. Just that God would deliver them . . . eventually. And they would be stronger, with a stronger trust in God and a better understanding of what is important.

I’m reminded of the movie, “Independence Day” with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblume. The plot is familiar: the world is attacked by aliens and the heroes and heroines are challenged to defend their planet. The scenes that stick in my mind are the little vignettes of people all over the world — in India and Europe and Africa as well as America — first, suffering the attack and then . . . banding together to fight back. No bickering, no talk of letting the marketplace determine the winner, no ideological arguments over who is God (or where is God). They had a common enemy and a common goal.

Is having a common enemy the only way to begin to share a common goal? If that were the case, in our day and age, climate change would appear to be the kind of common enemy that could unite the world to work together. But that’s not happening so far — at least on a scale broad enough to include all of our leaders and fellow Americans.

In fact, the divide and conquer strategy, much older than Julius Caesar who articulated it, depends on people identifying others as their enemy. One group’s “common enemy” designed to bring people together could well be another group with whom they should be joining, rather than fighting.

The term reconciliation assumes there is a division to heal. And humanity is full of division — tribalism, distrust of strangers, patriarchy and hierarchies that elevate some over others, giving power to a few and subjugation to the rest. It happens in nations, but it happens in communities and families as well.

Even churches. Paul begins his first letter to the church in Corinth by referring to the factions arising in that small group.:

My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

How to bring light to that darkness of division? Notice, in the gospel story Jesus reacts to John the baptist being imprisoned by starting his ministry. He doesn’t rally the folks to free John or to resist the Romans. He says, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light. . . Repent for the kingdom of heaven — or the reign of God — is near.” Now, John was a charismatic leader and he was imprisoned and then executed. That’s darkness enough to dash the hopes of his followers.

So how does Jesus counter that? He says the darkness is over; the light has come. He calls followers, telling them he will send them to “fish for people,” to cast the net of love and draw people in, to gather them together, rather than divide them.

In this passage, Jesus preaches and teaches, telling “the good news of the kingdom at hand,” the gospel writer tells us, and “healing every disease and sickness among people.” Elsewhere the gospels tell us that he said love your enemies and do not return evil for evil. He urged people to seek the common good, to look out for the least — the poorest and neediest among them.

Not many gospel writers tell of the scoffers who probably said such an approach was naive and would never work, the cynics who pointed out that the powers that be would never stand for Jesus’ call for justice and kindness, that they’d probably kill him first.

Hmm. Well, they did kill him. He just didn’t stay dead. And that’s the most revolutionary thing of all. How do you defeat a person or a group of people with death threats if they no longer fear death? I believe that’s the basis of the concept that Jesus died for all of us. He died to show us that if we don’t fear death, it has no power over us.

So we get to Paul’s second letter, which is the scripture basis for this year’s Christian Unity theme.  Paul wrote,

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

And when I read that passage and many others I am reminded that Jesus told his followers more than once in many ways, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Or as Paul says, and Pope Francis reminds us, “Christ’s love compels us.” Compels us to treat each other with love, to seek the common good of all, to forget ourselves and our petty concerns for possessions or power, especially power over others.

Reconciliation is a way to acknowledge that love, by healing the divisions and tearing down the walls.

[The sermon was followed by a Liturgy for Prayer for Christian Unity ]

Paul’s Visions

Scripture:  Galatians 1:11-242 Corinthians 12:1-1

I have always been fascinated by Paul. As a kid, I studied him in Sunday School, charting his journeys around the Middle East to start churches, learning the names of his converts, like Lydia and Titus, and his companions in evangelism Barnabas and Silas. As a teen, I heard numerous sermons on Paul — I think my pastor at the time had a thing for Paul too.

The most famous scripture passages about him, as opposed to the several New Testament books written by him, are the three accounts in Acts of his journey to Damascus. You recall the story — he was knocked down by the power of God and confronted by Jesus to quit persecuting Jesus’s followers and, instead, carry Jesus’s message of love to others. In two of those three passages, the writer of Acts quotes Paul relaying his story.

But in the two passages we read today, we have Paul’s own words, preserved in two letters to congregations he started. He’s ambivalent and defensive. He struggles to rein in his ego and express humility. He doesn’t mention Damascus. He does separate himself from the other Jewish apostles and disciples who were centered in Jerusalem.

To the Galatians he says, “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,* that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

That claim was evidently as amazing and controversial in Paul’s day as it is today. What’s your initial reaction to someone who tells you they have received a direct revelation from God? Distrust? Derision? Skepticism? I’m sure most of you can recall instances when “the media” and the general public have had a field day with various predictions or pronouncements from people claiming to have a direct pipeline to heaven.

Have you ever trusted a modern-day public figure who claimed to base his or her decisions and statements on divine revelation? I can’t say that I ever have.

Evidently people received Paul’s revelations with a great amount of skepticism too. He wrote to the Corinthians:

Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.

The only specific detail in his account is that it occurred  14 years before he wrote the letter. It’s vague and mysterious, and he sort of tries to distance himself by saying it happened to a man he knows. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to figure out he’s talking about himself.

He says he was “caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man —whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

Now, what are his readers to make of that description? The Corinthians way back when or us today, how can we possibly evaluate the truth of his vision based on such a description? “caught up to the third heaven”? Sounds like some UFO account, doesn’t it? Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or maybe, “beam me up Scotty.”

He must have been pressed for more information at other times when he had told of his vision, because he writes, twice, “whether it was in the body or apart from the body, in the body or out of the body, I do not know, but God knows.”

Well, what did he hear in this vision? “inexpressible things, things no one is permitted to tell.”

Wait a minute. He isn’t “permitted to tell” what he heard?  But I thought he said his whole ministry is based on “a revelation from Jesus Christ”? How can he not be permitted to tell it?

It’s intriguing, “inexpressible things.” He’s so defensive about it, I figure he has tried to explain it before and found that he had way more to communicate than he could possibly get across with mere words.

On a more mundane level, isn’t that the way with most ordinary dreams? Even if you try to describe them immediately after dreaming, you can’t possibly remember or explain all the details.

Paul’s visions were much more than dreams. Whether in the body or out of the body, he can’t tell, but he knows they are true. And again he struggles to explain the importance of the visions:

Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations.

Paul is very protective of his visions, his direct revelation from Jesus himself. It’s hard, he says, to tell about them in a way that does justice to the truth. And it’s hard to admit to such revelations and not be misunderstood.

Imagine, having been so privileged as to be called by God, and then be mocked and scorned for your claim. Imagine, having a vision or revelation and then have it be misunderstood as just a product of your own arrogance and ego and hunger for power. Imagine having your work in mission dismissed because you never met Jesus before His resurrection, so you couldn’t possibly be as intimate with Jesus as those who knew Him when. Paul can’t help but be resentful of those people he sarcastically calls “super-apostles” that he defends himself against to the Corinthians.

I’m thinking that the weakness that he writes about is probably just that — experiencing such revelations and having them dismissed as false or irrelevant.

A lot of commentaries and sermons have speculated on what the thorn really was, whether it was really physical or a symbol, a figure of speech. But I think it’s his struggle to understand the revelations and act on them.

I’m even thinking that the experience he describes of being caught up in the third heaven might have happened before the road to Damascus experience. What if these visions he had experienced, and these inexpressible things he had heard were what led him to persecute Christians to begin with? He seemed so certain that he was doing the right thing by those persecutions. So much that he asked Jerusalem temple leaders for the authority to go to Damascus to persecute Christian jews there.

Recall what he wrote to the Galatians: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He even said that God set him apart before he was born.

I think that’s why I identify so strongly with Paul. He was so sure of himself, so bent on doing (quote) God’s work (unquote), that he had to be knocked down and struck blind before he would listen to what God really wanted. We know-it-alls have a real need for someone to puncture our puffed-up egos.

God didn’t set Paul apart before he was born and treat him to incredible revelations and visionary experiences just to let Paul go persecute Christians.

I also think the story in Acts and Paul’s descriptions of his thorn are a good slap-back to some Christians today:  Put that in your “free will” pipe and smoke it. Paul was exercising his own free will when God knocked him down and set him straight. Sometimes God’s grace is showered, and sometimes it has to be shoved.

And evidently Paul needed more than one reminder. Back to the letter to the church in Corinth:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

Can’t you just hear Paul? “God, they’re making fun of me and my visions. They’re undermining my ministry. Why don’t you slap my opponents alongside their heads the way you did me?”

And the answer was, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

God’s power is made perfect in weakness. How many times do we have to hear that before it sinks in? Wasn’t Jesus a good enough example? I think that’s what Paul meant when he wrote so often about preaching Christ and Christ crucified.

The power of love — God’s love — and peace, God’s peace — is ultimately sufficient and made perfect in weakness. This is a difficult thing to wrap your head around.

Paul, who had been given an incredible experience — maybe more than one — of direct revelation from God; Paul, who struggled to be considered one of the apostles even though he didn’t know Jesus before His resurrection; Paul, who dramatically turned from being a know-it-all who persecuted Jesus’s followers into being one of His most faithful and prolific disciples; this same Paul also discovered how to be truly humble, one of the meek that Jesus said would inherit the earth.

Paul wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

And he can say with all truthfulness and humility even of his detractors in Jerusalem, “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.”

I might have ended my sermon right there, summing up Paul’s significance and humility and the power of God resting in weakness.

But this church believes God is still speaking. So I have one more point to make about Paul’s visions. God is not finished speaking through visions and direct revelations.

You could hear God yourself. Some of you have already recognized God’s revelations to you. I suppose we could say that everyone here has heard God’s call — otherwise we would be somewhere else on this fine Sunday morning.

God showers grace and love on us all. Some of us have to be slapped up the side of the head as Paul was. Some of us have to have more than one thorny reminder of that grace and love. Some of us get a glimpse of the “third heaven” or “surpassingly great revelations.” Some of us may have an opportunity to know someone who has been given such glimpses.

It can be hard to know what to do with these examples of the still-speaking God.

Paul tells us that experiencing the vision is not as important as using it for God’s purposes. And God’s power is made perfect in weakness.

Praise God. Amen.

Keep Your Hand Upon the Throttle and Your Eye Upon the Rail

Scripture:   Ezekial 1:28-3:1, Mark 6:1-132 Corinthians 12:2-10

Hymn reference: “Life’s Railway to Heaven”

Sermon preached at Epiphany UCC, St. Louis on July 8, 2012

Correct me if I’m wrong, but when the date was picked for installing our newly elected Council members, I don’t think anyone looked at the scripture chosen for the lectionary today. Or maybe they did. The scripture this week is full of warnings for those who are called to serve God. Scorpians, scorn, skepticism… At least we installed you before we read the scripture. So you can’t back out now.

You will probably not be surprised to learn that I could not find a hymn connected to the lectionary passages this week — especially the call of Ezekiel.

First, Ezekiel sees a fantastic vision that causes him to fall on his knees. Then the spirit causes him to rise and he hears a voice — God’s voice! — calling him to bring God’s word to his — Ezekiel’s — people. Oh, by the way God says, they are a rebellious people. And stubborn. And they don’t listen.   And they’re rebellious. They’re like scorpions, and rebellious. Walking among them is like walking through thorns and briars. Did I mention they’re rebellious?

In fact, in that relatively short passage, we find the word rebel or rebellious seven times. Hmmm. No wonder God pulled out the winged seraphs and rolling wheels and fire and all kinds of fantastic visions — before God warned Ezekiel this was going to be a very difficult task.

Then God made sure Ezekiel didn’t get rebellious himself, by literally feeding him the text of what he was to say. Then God says, “OK, go. Tell them. If they don’t listen, that’s their problem.”

So what hymn writer wants to touch that?

The same with the passage in the gospel of Mark. Even though the passage is in the lectionary as we read it today, preachers often break it up, focusing on either the difficulty Jesus has in his home town or sending out the twelve. But not usually both.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no hymn featuring Jesus’s instructions to shake the dust off their feet of any town that doesn’t welcome the bearers of good news. (snappy tune “Shake the dust off your feet…) Or Jesus’s lament that a prophet is without honor in his home town. (sappy tune “A prophet is without honor…)

These are not easy scriptures to read and embrace. I’m afraid if I had been Ezekiel, I might have at least wanted to raise the question to God:  If you can summon winged seraphs with four-part heads, and make the wind and fire do your bidding, why could’t you make the Israelites listen to you?

But God makes it clear that Ezekiel’s job is not to question, but to proclaim unpopular, uncomfortable, hard-to-hear truths — to a people who don’t particularly seem to get it even when God is being good to them.

This is not just a characteristic of the Israelites, of course. Even Jesus encounters people who won’t hear his message. And these are the people who, you would think, know him best. They hear the wisdom in his teachings, they see — or have heard about — the miracles he has been performing in the neighborhood. Instead of taking pride in a native son, or accepting the wisdom and miracles as coming from God, they ask  “Who does he think he is?”

“Mary’s son,” is a slam. In essence they’re calling into question who his father is, in a culture that assigned a person’s honor, status and place in society according to the status of the person’s father.

The writer of Mark puts these two stories together on purpose. They appear in the other gospels in a different order. But Mark has the twelve carefully chosen followers of Jesus witness his humiliation in his home town — he was amazed at their lack of faith —  They see this right before they are sent out on their own to spread the wisdom and miracles that Nazareth rejected from Jesus.

Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes. You already have a “call story” of your own — some instance of Jesus calling you away from your work as a fisherman or tax collector,  or of someone you trust bringing you to hear Jesus. You’ve left everything to follow Jesus around Galillee, and, until you get to Nazareth it’s been one exciting development after another — Jesus casting out unclean spirits; healing Peter’s mother-in-law, lepers and many others; getting the best of Pharisees in debates about scripture and sabbath rules; preaching through parables; calming stormy waters; even going across the sea of Galillee to gentile territory and casting demons into a herd of pigs.

Jesus’s homecoming should have been a triumph. But it wasn’t. Maybe we disciples should have had a clue from the way his own family treated him. While we were all out on the road with Jesus, his mother and brothers came looking to take him home, suggesting that he was mentally unstable and needed to rest.

So right after Jesus is laughed out of the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus calls us together — his closest followers to whom he has been explaining his tricky parables, we’re his hand-picked entourage, his advance men.  And he says you’re going out, two-by-two to do what he’s been doing.

“Take nothing with you but a staff and a pair sandals,” Jesus tells you. The gospel writers do not preserve what, if anything, Jesus told his disciples to say. They get no scroll fed to them with all the words conveniently digested into their very being.

And his advice is not all that encouraging: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

Some peptalk, huh. How do you think you would react?

I think I know why no hymn writers have tackled this. It’s hard to set to music the phrase that keeps coming up in my mind: “Wait. What?” ( a rap maybe.)

I’d want a handbook, something to consult when the going got tough — something simpler than scripture, which seems to prompt argument rather than encouragement. I’d want an unmistakable sign, maybe a vision like Ezekiel got. Or at least some words of encouragement to murmur when I walked into a new town and set up shop as a proclaimer of the good news. This is it? “Take nothing with you, rely on the hospitality of strangers and leave if they don’t listen”?

Sigh. OK. So that’s how I found this wonderful hymn, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” There’s no sugar-coating the difficulties here. No prosperity gospel. No assurance that the way has been smoothed for followers of the one true God. Little encouragement for you new council members.

“You will roll up grades of trial; you will cross the bridge of strife,” the hymn writer says. “Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; Never falter, never quail. … You will often find obstructions; look for storms of wind and hail.”

And this speaks to me in a way that sunshine-and-happy tunes never could. We know life isn’t easy. We know a prophet’s life is difficult. So is the life of a Christian, maybe especially council members. We know people don’t want to hear hard truths. We really don’t need demonstrations, but we get them all the time. It’s sort of comforting to know that ordinary people like Ezekiel and Peter and Bartholomew and Nathaniel knew what they were getting into when they went out two-by-two.

The readings were long already, but I almost included the Psalm for today, Psalm 123, which has these verses: 3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.4 Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. The psalmist gives the answer before the plea for mercy: To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

And I wanted to read the epistle scripture for this Sunday as well. It’s in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he writes about the thorn in his side — right after mentioning he had a mystical vision, a “call story” — Maybe it was similar to Ezekiel’s, but Paul doesn’t go into detail. Instead, he says he has an affliction, a thorn in his side.

Paul said he asked God three times to remove this thorn, this undescribed suffering, but God’s answer was: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul’s learned to boast of his weakness. He says, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Dear council members, please don’t flee for the exits. I don’t think you’re in for a particular measure of insults, hardships or persecutions. That is, not any more than the rest of us.

The message I get for all of us from these four very different scripture passages is this:  God’s job for you is not easy. In fact, it can be beastly difficult. You’re going to feel like you’re walking through fields of scorpians. You’re going to get your fill of contempt and scorn. You’re going to ask God to make it better. You’re going to feel like no one is listening. You’re going to feel like you failed.  God says, Do it anyway.

  • To Ezekiel:  God says, Don’t worry about what to say, I’ll feed you the words.
  • To the Twelve:  Don’t worry about the people who don’t listen. Leave them and move on.
  • To Paul: Don’t worry about your weakness or your suffering. My grace is sufficient for you.
  • To the hymn writer:  Don’t worry about the hazards of the journey. The road is there for you to follow. Keep your hand upon the throttle; keep your eyes upon the rail.
  • To all of the above and to us: Trust God.

God knows who is paying attention and who is being rebellious. Don’t you worry about who listens; YOU listen to God and follow. The route for your journey is already established. The rails are already laid. Your job is to keep your hand upon the throttle and your eyes upon the rails.

Praise God. Amen.