Sunday, April 24, 2016

"Who Are We to Hinder God?" A Sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Chuch.

"Who Are We to Hinder God?"
Acts 11:1-18; John 13:31-35

If you haven’t read through the whole book of Acts, I encourage you to do so, to get the overall narrative.  Most of the first half of the book of Acts is concerned with the Jerusalem church.  Then there’s a geographical movement in the story, away from Jerusalem, as the gospel spreads.
            In Acts chapter 8, an angel of the Lord sends Philip to a wilderness road where he ends up interpreting the book of Isaiah to the Eunuch.  When they came to some water, the Eunuch asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” According to the religious rules and customs, there was a lot to prevent him being baptized, but nevertheless Philip baptized him.
            Saul has been zealously persecuting the disciples until his life-changing encounters-- with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and then with Ananias, who laid his hands on Saul and something like scales fell from his eyes, and he was able to see things differently.

            In Acts chapter ten, Luke tells how the Roman centurion Cornelius, who was seeking God, had a vision in which an angel of God told him to send for Simon Peter…and how Peter received a vision that challenged his ideas about what it meant to be a person of faith.
            The church was growing.  But including the Gentiles brought a crisis in the life of the church.

            It’s hard for us to appreciate the intensity of the controversy that’s summarized in the story we just heard.  After all, what’s the big deal about eating pork or other unclean animals?   But to the early church, it was a big deal.   
            Jesus was a Jew...  and his first followers were Jews.  Although Jesus had challenged some of the religious traditions to the point where some in the religious establishment wanted to have him executed-- the early church really hadn’t questioned the authority of the taboos of the ancient purity and holiness laws.             
            According to Jewish tradition, it was unlawful for Jews to enter a Gentile house...  or receive Gentile guests...  or eat with them.  Peter was an observant Jew, and he’d taken these regulations for granted and observed them all his life.             But then he has an experience that challenges his understanding.   He receives some heavenly visions that forbid him from counting as unclean anything that God has made clean.             Peter’s understanding of what it means to live faithfully has been changing.  In the lesson we heard last week from Acts, we heard that Peter stayed in the house of Simon the tanner, who would have been considered ritually unclean because he worked with the carcasses of dead animals.
            The Spirit leads him to Cornelius, and he discovers that God has been working on Cornelius too.  As he shares the good news of peace in Jesus Christ, he sees the Holy Spirit fall upon all who hear the word.      
            Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have?   So he orders them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ...  and he stays with them for a while.  
            Now, the apostles back in Jerusalem and the believers in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God.  When Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized Peter, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  
            It seemed very clear to what God required of them.  For many centuries, their religious tradition had taught them that to be a “holy” people means to be separate...   and to have very clear, distinct boundaries between their community and those outside the community. 
            According to the purity codes of their tradition, something was “clean” if it fit wholly and neatly inside particular categories.  For example, in the purity laws in Leviticus 11, the people of Israel are told that they could eat “any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud.”  Camels and rock badgers and hares and pig didn’t fit into this category, so they were “unclean” and forbidden.[1]  
            The Levitical laws spelled out in detailed terms that certain things were totally unacceptable in Israelite culture, and therefore an “abomination:” things like eating unclean food...  idolatrous practices...  not keeping the Sabbath…  and magic, to name just a few.          The Holiness Code prohibited a long list of things that included the cross-breeding of animals and the mixing of grain or fibers.  The Code was equally clear that children who curse their parents should be put to death.[2]
            Those of us who routinely eat ham or multi-grain bread… or wear cotton/polyster fabric blends have a hard time comprehending just how controversial these changes were for the early church. These rules were part of the time-honored religious tradition, and for many faithful people, it was really gut-wrenching to think about breaking them.  Did you hear Peter’s revulsion when he heard God’s command?  “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.”
            Yet, in the Acts story, we hear how the church learns from the Spirit and changes.  The early church in Judea comes to accept Gentiles into the faith community.  They realize that they’re going to be in relationship with people they’ve always avoided because they believed them to be unclean.  They decide that the church should minister to them, and they send Paul and Barnabas out to work with the emerging congregations.[3]
            God had a new vision for the church and what it means to be God’s holy people.  The God who created the world is disrupting the boundaries humans constructed.  The Spirit continued to challenge some of the traditional beliefs and taboos...  as “the word of God grew and multiplied”[4] and reached to the ends of the earth.
            Through Jesus, God gave us a new commandment:  that we are to love one another, just as Jesus loved us.   Through John, God gave us a vision of a new heaven and earth, and said, “I am making all things new.”
            Before Peter baptized them, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles.  God’s spirit is ahead of us, leading us, and working in and through us, despite whatever dividing walls we may have constructed. This is good news, considering how often we get things wrong, and how often we persist in making distinctions between “us” and “them” based on race, language, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, our fears, and other differences, real and constructed.  
            “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”[5]   The Spirit counseled Peter to accept what had already been true about God:  God does not show favoritism.
            God does not show favoritism.  To be honest, we might be resistant to that idea.  Haven’t we at some point longed to be the favorite?  “I was Dad’s favorite.”  “Mom loved me best.”  Has that made us feel special?  But God does not show favoritism.  God loves all of God’s children.

            We are living in a time of great change in our society and in the church—a time that a lot of folk experience as scary or confusing.   And yet, I’m becoming more and more convinced that following Jesus isn’t complicated.  Jesus came to came to live among us, full of grace and truth, to show us the way of self-giving love.   
            As Elizabeth Johnson wrote:  Jesus could not be clearer:  It is not by our theological correctness, not by our moral purity, not by our impressive knowledge that everyone will know that we are his disciples. It is quite simply by our loving acts -- acts of service and sacrifice, acts that point to the love of God for the world made known in Jesus Christ.”[6]
            I agree with Dr. Johnson.  Jesus was very clear what the greatest commandments are, and they’re about love.  It’s clear that we are called to show that we follow Jesus by how we love people.

            Now, it’s clear that we are called to love one another.  But nobody said it would be easy.   Look around you at the people sitting here in the pews.  Do we see any perfect people—people that are always easy to love?  People who are always perfectly loving?  No.  None of us is perfect.   We all have our little quirks...  and warts.  In this community, we have this treasure in earthen vessels.  But the vessels are imperfect and maybe a little cracked in one way or another.  God isn’t finished working on any of us yet. 
            The good news is that God has created each and every one of us in the image of God...  and gifted each of us for some kind of special ministry.  We’re not here to try and make someone else into our image of what we’d like them to be.  We’re called to love one another into being more and more fully the person God created and gifted us to be.                
I’ve probably shared this story with you before, but it’s a wise story and bears repeating.[7]
            There was a famous monastery, which had fallen on hard times.  In better times, its many buildings had been filled with young monks...  and its big church resounded with the singing of chant.  But now it was nearly deserted.  People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer.  A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts, because they could see that their order was dying.
            On the edge of the woods near the monastery, an old rabbi had built a little hut.  He would come there from time to time to fast and pray.  No one ever spoke with him.  But whenever he appeared, the word would be passed from monk to monk:  “The rabbi walks in the woods.”  And for as long as he was there, the monks would feel strengthened by his prayerful presence.
            One day the abbot decided to visit the rabbi, and to open his heart to him. So after the morning Eucharist, he set out through the woods.  As he approached the hut, the abbot saw the rabbi standing in the doorway, his arms outstretched in welcome.  It was as though he had been waiting there for some time.  The two embraced like long-lost brothers.  Then they stepped back and just stood there, smiling at one another with smiles their faces could hardly contain.
            After a while, the rabbi motioned the abbot to enter.  In the middle of the room was a wooden table with the scriptures open on it.  They sat there for a moment in the presence of the book.  Then the rabbi began to cry.  The abbot could not contain himself.  He covered his face with his hands and began to cry, too.  For the first time in his life, he cried his heart out.  The two men sat there like lost children, filling the hut with their sobs and wetting the wood of the table with their tears.
            After the tears had ceased to flow and all was quiet again, the rabbi lifted his head.  “You and your brothers are serving God with heavy hearts,” he said.  “You have come to ask a teaching of me.  I will give you this teaching, but you can only repeat it once.  After that, no one must say it aloud again.”
            The rabbi looked straight at the abbot and said,  “The messiah is among you.”
            For a while, all was silent.  Then the rabbi said,  “Now you must go.”  The abbot left without a word and without ever looking back.
            The next morning, the abbot called the monks together in the chapter room.  He told them he had received a teaching from “the rabbi who walks in the woods” and that this teaching was never again to be spoken aloud.  Then he looked at each of his brothers and said,  “The rabbi said that one of us is the messiah!”
            The monks were startled by this. “What could it mean?” they asked themselves.  “Is brother John the Messiah?  Or Father Matthew?   Brother Thomas?  Am I the messiah?  What could this mean?”
            They were all deeply puzzled by the rabbi’s teaching.  But no one ever mentioned it again.
            As time went by, the monks began to treat one another with a very special reverence.  There was a gentle, whole-hearted, human quality about them now which was hard to describe-- but easy to notice.  They lived with one another as ones who had finally found something.  But they prayed the scriptures together as seekers who were always looking for something.
            Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks.  Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks.  And once again, young men were asking to become part of the community.
            In the first few centuries in the life of the Christian church, the faith spread like wildfire, in spite of the fact that professing faith in Jesus Christ could be dangerous.  It was observed that people outside the church would look at the people inside the church and exclaim,  “See how they love one another!”   And they would want to be a part of this community of love. 
            Imagine it!  The people gathered here learning to treat one another with such love that people outside the church notice!  Imagine our reputation spreading:  “Littlefield Presbyterian Church-- that’s that really loving church—the church where everybody loves one another!” 
            Imagine it!
            So be it.

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 24, 2016

[1]Lev. 13; 14:33-57.
[2]Lev. 20:9
[3]Acts 11:21-26
[4]Acts 12:14; 16:5; 19:20
[5] Acts 11:12
[6] Elizabeth Johnson, “Commentary on John 13:31-35.”

[7] I’m not sure of the source for this particular version of this story.  It appears in slightly different versions in various places.  I think the first time I heard it was years ago in an early edition of M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (1978).

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Big-Picture Look at Paul's Letters to the Corinthians

INTRODUCTION TO SECOND CORINTHIANS STUDY:  “Reconciling Paul” by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty

I was asked to speak to the Presbyterian Women of the Presbytery of Detroit, to do the annual introduction of the Presbyterian Women Horizons Bible Study for the upcoming year.   What we didn’t know when we scheduled this:  the book wouldn’t be published by the time I would be giving the presentation.  So I found out what I could about the author and her perspectives and focus and did some general research on Second Corinthians.  What follows is my notes for the presentation in 2014.

            When I was asked if I’d do an introduction to the new PW study on Second Corinthians, we didn’t know that the study wouldn’t be available until afterward the meeting date.  So—full disclosure—I haven’t seen the book.  I’ll just do some background for you on Second Corinthians and how we might go about interpreting it.  It’ll be a big-picture approach, and I’ll highlight a few things.
            As I started looking at what kind of resources I had on Second Corinthians, I was reminded of some conversations I’ve had recently with one of our newer members, who’s been excited to hear a different approach to biblical interpretation than what he’s been used to.
            If you check out commentaries and other biblical resources, you’ll see some very significant differences in some of what's been written during the past thirty years or so and much of what was   written before then.  For one thing, almost all the biblical and theological scholars we read earlier were European or European-American white males. 
            That was changing when I went to Princeton seminary back in the late 1980’s.  In my Introduction to Theology Class, we were required to read Latin-American, African-American, and Asian liberation theologians, as well as feminist and womanist theologians, and we were challenged to read the Bible through the eyes of third-world and marginalized peoples, and not only through the eyes of those who are more privileged. 
            In studying the Bible, it's important to understand the literary genre of the particular biblical text and the historical and cultural context.
            So that’s how I approached what I would do today, since I couldn’t read the new Bible study.  I found out what I could about the author, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, who is chair of the Department of Theology at Bellarmine University, associate professor of theology, and co-director of the university’s program in peace studies. The advance information tells us that “her passions in life and her research interests include social gospel theology, Christianity and social justice, wealth inequalities, poverty issues, and theologies from the margins.”  So that gives us some idea of her hermeneutical approach to Second Corinthians. 
            An important part of faithful Bible study is learning to ask good questions of the text.  So…let’s begin:     


The City of Corinth was an important and relatively wealthy city in the first century.
            Corinth had a strategic location on the shoulder of an isthmus that stands between the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf.   To avoid shipping all around the coast of southern Greece, which was a long and dangerous trip, goods were carried overland from one gulf to the other, across the Isthmus of Corinth.  All overland trade had to pass through the city and the surrounding land it controlled. 
In 146 BCE, Corinth had been sacked and destroyed after a battle with the Romans. 
Julius Caesar re-founded the city as a Roman colony in 44 BCE.  It seems that veterans of the Roman army and an overflow of Roman freedmen settled there.  The city’s success in commerce and arts, such as bronzes and pottery, attracted other immigrants. 
In the first century, Corinth enjoyed great status, as the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.  At the time of the founding of the church in Corinth, it was a bustling, important city with people from many lands and ethnic groups, and a long Greek history, now with an overlay of a Roman upper-class.

            Early in the year 50 CE, some 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and perhaps seventeen years after his own call to become an apostle, Paul arrived in Corinth and preached the gospel, and a community of believers developed.  Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half, nurturing the church.[1]   In the late summer of 51, Paul crossed the Aegean to Ephesus, where his mission prospered.  (1 Cor 16:9)  
            The congregation at Corinth was a cross-section of the socio-economic and religious makeup of the city—and probably much of the Greco-Roman world.  A few wealthy people were on top of the social pyramid   and enjoyed some financial and social stability.  Most were poor.  There was no middle class as we know it. 
The Christian community in Corinth contained slaves and freed-persons as well as free people, and perhaps some Roman citizens. 
Most of the Corinthian believers were Gentiles.  Paul describes the Gentile Corinthians as having been devoted to idols (12:2).  They wrote to Paul about food offered to idols (8:1) because they had earlier been free to take part in the religious festivities that were part of Corinth’s more than two dozen temples, altars, and shrines. 
There were probably some Jews as well.
We learn from First Corinthians that some of the Corinthians would act boastful and haughty over what they considered to be their superior wisdom or spirituality.  They could sometimes be condescending, or inconsiderate and thoughtless.


I really appreciate Dale Martin’s description of the differences in social status as context to what was going on in the ancient church.[2]   For instance, ancient dinner parties were generally conducted in ways that emphasized differences in social status.  Those of higher status could expect to be given better seats, closer to the head of the table.  Different kinds of food and a different quality of wine would be served to different groups of people:  the “friends” of the host, those more his “equals,” might be served better dishes and wine… the “clients” of the host might be served something else, and those further down the social pyramid would get food ad drink of still worse quality.  None of this would have been considered strange to most people of a Greek or Roman city.  It was just how things were done.[3]
            From what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11, the Lord’s Supper was not the sharing of a sip of wine and a tiny morsel of bread the way we celebrate communion, but rather it was a full meal.  In the midst of the meal, at some point, the  “words of institution”[4] from Jesus would be quoted and some prayers would be offered, followed by the distribution and sharing of bread and wine.  But that ritual was surrounded with a full meal that may have been something of a potluck, or may have been largely provided by the wealthier Christians.   
            So Paul had complained in First Corinthians that different groups were eating and drinking their own private dinners:  “Each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”  (1 Cor 11:21)   

            Most laborers in an ancient city, whether they were slaves or other manual and skilled laborers, would have owed their full days to their employers.  Most of the time, they couldn’t have attended a church meeting until the sun went down unless it happened to fall on a holiday.  So Paul is describing a situation in which the wealthier Christians, who enjoyed more leisure and freedom, were arriving early at the church meeting, probably bringing food and drink for themselves and their households and friends.  The poorer people, unless they were members of the household of a richer church member, were arriving late at the meetings, after others had begun to eat.  So one of Paul’s solutions to this was to tell those who were able to arrive early to “wait for” the rest.  (1 Cor 11:33)
            Paul’s main objection to the way Corinthians are observing the Lord’s Supper is that they were doing so divided by class and privilege.  The “haves” are ignoring or despising the “have-nots.”  So, according to Martin, when Paul says that they must “discern the body” before they eat and drink, he isn’t referring primarily to the host of the body of Jesus in the bread.  Rather, he is referring to the entire church as the “body of Christ,” as he names it elsewhere in First Corinthians (6:15-20, 12:12-31).  Paul says that those who have been slighting and humiliating the poor by showing no concern for their desire to eat and drink have thereby been despising the body of Christ himself. 
            Now, we can be pretty sure that the “haves” wouldn’t have seen things this way at all.  They were just maintaining the cultural traditions.  Those of higher status enjoyed the privileges that came with that, as it had always been.  The poor shouldn’t expect to be treated equally.  So Paul is turning the status expectations of the Greek city upside-down.  He insists that poor people need to be treated with special honor and regard, precisely because God “chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are.”  (1 Cor. 1:28) 
            Paul follows a similar strategy in dealing with the problem of eating food sacrificed to idols.  Meat was a precious commodity in an ancient city, and most people couldn’t afford to buy it in the market.  The main time they would eat meat would be at a sacrificial festival provided either by the city or more often by a wealthy individual who paid for the festival and its expenses out of his own pocket, in return for the honor he and his family would gain.  The sacrifices would be made, some of the materials would be burned for the god—that’s “god” with a small “g”.  Some would be given to the priests or other cult officials, and then the rest would be distributed to the people for their own feasting with their families and friends.   But participation in these sacrificial festivals was what Jews and early Christians considered idolatry. 
            What’s at stake here is that the poor Christians of Corinth would have had to attend a sacrificial festival in order to eat meat, and it would have been meat that had been sacrificed to a deity. 
            Even meat sold in a marketplace could have come from some kind of sacrificial practice.  The officials or cultic priests who were given portions of the sacrificed animals had the choice of making a bit of money by selling their portions to a butcher, who would re-sell it to people.  So—if you weren’t rich enough to buy an animal and have it butchered—you could scarcely avoid eating meat that had been part of a sacrificial ritual.  If you were poor and you wanted to avoid eating meat that had been part of ritual sacrifice, you wouldn’t be able to eat meat at all. 
            So that’s some of the context from First Corinthians that can help us to understand Second Corinthians. 

Ethnic and cultural diversity.  Economic inequality.  Difficult personalities. Conflict.  Does this sound familiar?

            In what we know as First and Second Corinthians, we find the most detailed record we have of the apostle Paul’s enduring relationship with a particular church.  They give us a window into the life of one of the early church and Paul’s continuing affectionate and sometimes troubled relationship with its members. They show us that the early decades of the Christian church weren’t an ideal time of perfection and harmony, but a time of conflict among followers of Jesus, as they struggled to discern what it meant to follow Jesus and his way.[5]
            By the time Paul wrote First Corinthians from Ephesus, he had known the believers there for more than three years.    He had written them an earlier letter, presumably now lost, about how to maintain holiness, and they had written him, asking about several issues.   At that point, the Corinthians still value his opinion, and he is still their father in the faith. 
            After that, some new teachers had come to Corinth, and these outside agitators  had threatened Paul’s leadership and teaching.
            Second Corinthians offers a real-life window on a strained relationship between a church leader and the people whom he loves.   Paul's relationship with the Corinthian congregation has deteriorated.  As Carolyn Osiek wrote in her introduction to 2 Corinthians in The New Interpreter’s Bible:  “the honeymoon is definitely over, and all the problems of a long-term relationship are evident.  The Corinthians have even said of Paul—and it has gotten back to him—that his letters are strong, but his appearance is unimpressive, and his speech is definitely a loser.”  (10:10)
            In various part of 2nd Corinthians, Paul is writing in order to mend a broken relationship with the church and to urge them, even though they are currently hosting teachers who disparage Paul, to remain loyal to Christ, to Paul, to the gospel Paul preached, and to the promise they have made to provide for the church in Jerusalem.         
            After Paul had left Corinth and was living and working in Ephesus (see 1 Corinthians 16:8), he exchanged a series of letters with the church at Corinth.   Most scholars agree that Second Corinthians is not one single letter, but a combination of several letters and letter fragments.  The community in Corinth preserved these letters, and later edited and combined them into the one text we know as 2nd Corinthians.
 There isn’t a consensus among scholars about the original parts, but the most common divisions are:
Chapters 1-7, 8-9, and 10-13—but not in that sequence.   [See hand-out]
            One of the most jarring transitions is from 6:13 to 6:14, while 7:2 picks up exactly where 6:13 leaves off.  And 7:5 seems to follow immediately from 2:13.
            Chapters 8 and 9 look like one or two “fund-raising” letters to encourage the Corinthian Christians to be generous in supporting collection for the Jerusalem Christians. 

            The tone of chapters 10-13 is very different from what went just before.  It sounds very defensive.   
            In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul is advising the Corinthians to avoid immoral persons in the church—those who are sexually immoral or greedy, or idolaters, revilers, drunkards or robbers, and not to eat with them.   The only section of Second Corinthians that some scholars question was really written by Paul seems to be related to that section of First Corinthians chapter 5, and it’s the passage that’s advising the Corinthians “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers” in the section that seems to be pasted in awkwardly.  
            If you have your Bibles opened up to 2 Corinthians, let’s take a look at chapter 6.  Paul is exhorting the community to open their hearts to be converted.  In verses 12-13, Paul writes, “There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.  In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.”
            If you read on, verses 14 and following, you bump up against what looks like a seam, where it looks like there’s been a cut-and-paste, as we hear:  “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers…”  
            But if you jump over to 7:2, it seems to follow from 6:13:  “Make room in your hearts for us; we have wronged no one…”    [Do you see it?]
            Chapters 10-13 must have been written immediately after the painful visit.
            Most of chapters 1-7 may belong together, in spite of various theories that divide them, and are probably later at least than chapters 10-13. 
            When the letters and fragments are arranged in chronological sequence, they portray Paul’s relations to the Corinthians and show the range of good times to not so good. 

            There’s a lot we don’t know.  We don’t know if chapters 1-7 in 2nd Corinthians were a single letter, but we do know that their tone and content are very different from chapters 10-13.  There’s none of the combativeness, no anger.  Rather, as Marcus Borg points out, “we find some of the most radiant and luminous language in all of Paul’s letters.”[6]
            They are about the collection that Paul is taking up for the Christ-community in Jerusalem.  As in chapters 1-7, the tone is completely different from that in 10-13. 

            There is no scholarly consensus about the sequence of the letters that were combined in 2nd Corinthians, but many scholars think that chapters 10-13 are earlier than the rest.   In these chapters, Paul defends himself against teachers who have come to Corinth and tried to undermine him and his message.  Some of the Corinthian Christians had been persuaded by them and became critics of Paul.
            Chapters 8-9 seem to be yet another letter or possibly two letters.  They could have been written anytime in the sequence of letters combined in 2 Corinthians.  Their subject matter is the “collection for the saints” that Paul referred to at the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul was raising money from his largely Gentile communities for the impoverished Christian Jewish community in Jerusalem, both as a sign of solidarity and to meet their need for help. 

            The first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians may have been written last.  Though they do reflect a situation of conflict, it seems to be in the past and more or less resolved. 

            The introductory flyer for “Reconciling Paul” observes that we’re living in a world that is experiencing a great deal of change.   Encounters with peoples representing a variety of perspectives and cultures—all are aspects of our daily lives.  To quote Dr. Hinson-Hasty: “We can’t avoid seeing the divisions forged between nature and neighbor and also between neighbor and neighbor along lines of race, class, gender, and nation.  These divisions impact representation in decision-making bodies, support exploitation of the earth, exacerbate the unequal distribution of wealth, and limit access for many to the natural resources we all need to survive and flourish.”
            So… this Bible study on Second Corinthians--  Reconciling Paul-- is meant to guide us to learn about the young church at Corinth and their struggles, about Second Corinthians and that church’s struggles, as well as Paul’s theology and ideas and his struggles to live and minister faithfully and authentically.   The hope is that we will gain insights that relate to our context, in our time.
            An essential task for us in the church today is to figure out how to be the church in our time and place, in this time of great change.  Like Paul, we need to wrestle with and question our faith as we try to live as authentically as possible.  
            The concepts of shared partnership, power in weakness, healing, reconciliation, love, and a new apostolate all figure prominently in the author’s reading of Paul.  Dr. Hinson-Hasty says she hopes that participants engaged in the study will find their own voices among the larger community of interpreters, discerning together the meaning of these ancient passages for the world in which we live today.
            I’m looking forward to reading the 2014-15 Horizons Bible Study.  It is sure to challenge us all to read Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians afresh in light of the current issues and events.
Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.  Harper-One Publishers, 2012

John Fitzgerald, Introduction to Second Corinthians, in The Harper-Collins Study Bible.  Harper Collins, 2006.

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Reconciling Paul: A Contemporary Study of 2 Corinthians.  Horizons Bible Study, 2014-2015. 

Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature.   Yale University Press, 2012.

Carolyn Osiek,  Introduction to Second Corinthians, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.  Abingdon Press, 2003.

Mary Hinkle Shore, Second Corinthians.  Enter the Bible website from Luther Seminary.

[1] Acts 18:11
[2] Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature (Yale University Press, 2012), p. 224.
[3] Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature (Yale University Press, 2012), p. 224.
[4] 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
[5] Marcus J. Borg,  Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.  Harper-One Publishers, 2012,   p. 102.

[6] Borg, p. 101.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

"Resurrection Abundance." A sermon from Littlefield Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Easter, on April 10, 2016.

"Resurrection Abundance"

John 21:1-19

We’re now two weeks past Easter Sunday.  But for a lot of folk, Easter already seems long ago and far away.   For some, great joy and hope have given way to the routine of daily life:  family responsibilities…health issues…work concerns.  In the midst of it all, what does the Resurrection mean?  What difference does it make?  Has it changed anything?
            In the last chapter of John,  we hear how, after the Resurrection, the disciples’ lives don’t seem to have changed.  They have seen the risen Jesus.  But they’ve gone back to the same old thing they used to do.  They’ve gone fishing. 
            The disciples had given up everything to follow Jesus.  But he’d been crucified and buried.  They’re grieving…frustrated…confused.  They don’t know what the Resurrection means. 
            True, they knew that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  But what did that mean?  What difference did it make? 
            So they go back to something familiar—what they’d been doing before Jesus came into their lives.  They go fishing.  They fish all night.  But they don’t catch anything. 
            Yet, as the disciples return to the way things used to be, the risen Jesus seeks them out once again.  He comes to them in their ordinary lives, and he blesses them.  He appears on the beach—but the disciples don’t recognize him at first.  He calls out to them,  “You don’t have any fish, do you?”
            “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some.”
            The catch is so great that they can’t haul it in, because there are so many fish.  Then John recognizes Jesus, and says, “It’s the Lord!”
            Once he recognizes the Lord, Peter leaps into the water and swims toward Jesus.  Jesus knows how deeply Simon Peter needs to be forgiven for the three times he denied his relationship with Jesus on that awful night before Jesus was crucified.  Jesus says, three times:   “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” 
            Peter responds with an affirmation of his love, saying, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  Three times.  “Tend my sheep.”  “Feed my sheep.”
            Instead of praising his declarations,  Jesus tells Peter that one day he will stretch out his hands    and someone will take him where he does not wish to go.   Feeding lambs and tending sheep can cost us—even cost us our lives.  It is work that will link our lives to pain and suffering.  It will lead us many places we don’t want to go.  If we love Jesus, our relationship with him will change us.
            On this third Sunday in Eastertide, the lectionary gives us two stories of conversion.   The stories we heard are about two great saints of the church, Peter and Paul.  In  the book of Acts, we encounter Saul, who was introduced in chapter 7 as the young man who was present when the angry mob stoned Stephen to death.  Luke tells us that Saul took care of their coats for them, that he approved of their killing Stephen, and that he was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women believers, and imprisoning them.[1]
            In the story we heard today, Saul is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”  He has gone to the high priest and gotten letters of authorization to the synagogues of Damascus, so he can look for followers of the Way and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.
            Now, Saul was well-educated and devout.  He was someone who had his faith and values all figured out.  His mission in life was to stamp out the movement of those who followed the risen Jesus on the Way.  Saul was very certain that he was right—and they were wrong.
            So far in Acts, Saul is described almost entirely in terms of his certainty and his violence.   It is this violence that Jesus addresses when he speaks out of the heavenly light, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
            By identifying himself as the one whom Saul is persecuting, Jesus identifies with the believers in their suffering, and he makes Saul’s violence a central issue of his conversion.
            The voice of the risen Christ intrudes and devastates Saul’s self-confident journey.  He opens his eyes, but he can’t see.  He has to be led around by the hand, and he doesn’t eat or drink for three days.   Saul, who knew so much about religion, about God…who could quote chapter and verse of the scriptures, is rendered helpless by the blinding light on the road to Damascus.  He needs to be led by the hand, healed, and instructed by the very ones he’d planned to round up and bind and drag back to Jerusalem to face the religious authorities.
            What happens to Saul on the road to Damascus becomes a transformative moment.  

            Now, relatively few of us are likely to have spiritual experiences that are as dramatic and vivid as the one Saul had on the road to Damascus.  And yet, I believe that every real Christian transformation has some things in common with what happened in Saul and Peter.   For one thing, Saul and Peter weren’t called by abstract, intellectual teachings or doctrines or laws.   Rather, they were called into a personal relationship with Jesus.  In responding, they recognize that Jesus, the Crucified, is now alive and addressing them in a very personal way. 

            I believe that’s true today.  The Christian faith isn’t a religion about Jesus.  It’s about following Jesus on the Way of Love.   It's about how God’s love is revealed to us through Jesus on the Way and as we live together as a faith community.
            When Paul encountered the risen Christ, he was blinded by the brightness of the light of Christ    and transformed-- from a man committed to aggression and persecution of those who were different, those who challenged what he believed— to one who was lost and struggling.  In the process of his conversion, Paul learns that the agenda he set for himself was futile, and that God’s plan is the only plan that matters. 

            Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ helped to transform him from someone who was afraid to admit he even knew Jesus—into an apostle who was empowered to jump out of his familiar boat into waters that were over his head     and walk bravely into the world with resurrection power and hope. 
            In this third resurrection appearance, we hear Peter getting a new chance,  as he experiences Jesus’ resurrection power in a quiet way over breakfast.
            Three years before, Peter was called away from life as he had known it—an ordinary life of a fisherman.  Now again, in an ordinary place and meal, the disciples receive a kind of re-commissioning.  They are reminded who they are and what they were called to be and do. 

            Easter is about living out our identity and calling as if we truly believe that Jesus has overcome sin and death.  It’s about living as if we trust in his gift of abundant, eternal life.    It means following Jesus, embodying Jesus’ love. It means being with Jesus as we gather together to hear the good news… and in the places we are led to serve.
            “Do you love me?”  Jesus asks us.
            Then feed my lambs.
            Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.  Yet we know all too well that the compelling call of human need often feels like it is taking us to places we don’t want to go.  Our ability and willingness to go there will be a testimony to the clarity and passion of our Christian discipleship.  Our ability and willingness to follow Jesus is a sign of how we have changed…of how we are being transformed.
            The first disciples huddled behind locked doors, or went back to their old familiar routines.  They struggled with fear about how Jesus calls his followers to go places where they don’t want to go.
            When I get impatient with myself for my lack of courage, or my reluctance to go some of the places Jesus might call me to go in his name, I find comfort and hope in the conviction that God isn’t finished  with me yet.  God isn’t finished with any of us yet.
            Part of the good news is that we are in a continuing, evolving relationship with our Lord and Savior, who loves us with a love so amazing, so divine—that he gave his life for us. 
            We have Christ’s promise that he will not leave us alone.  He will be with us, to help and to guide us…to provide for our needs…and to comfort and care for us.   The One who commands us to embody his love and light in the world   promises us that we will be given the power we need through the Holy Spirit.
            Again and again, when it seems impossible to counteract the grim reality of sin and brokenness in our lives and in the world, Christ reaches out in love to restore us.   Again and again, Jesus asks us, “Do you love me?”   This is no cheap grace Christ offers us.  Again and again, Jesus calls us:  “Follow me.”
            Do you love me?  Jesus asks.
            Feed my lambs.  Tend my sheep.  Feed my sheep.
            Just as Jesus met with his first disciples at dawn on the Sea of  Galilee, Jesus comes to us.   The dawn is breaking on new chances,  the  new life Jesus promises us.   Jesus keeps coming to us to teach us and to lead us to places where we’d never have thought to go.  
            The gospel reminds us that God can make a way where there is no way, bringing abundance where there is emptiness, and joy where there is only sorrow.   Jesus’ resurrection gives us the promise of life after death, and the assurance of God’s healing and restoration in this life.

Today, in this time and place, as long ago, Jesus does many signs in the presence of his disciples.   We have the witness of the gospel, which was written “so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…and that through believing, we may have life in his name.”
After the Easter flowers have been carried out of the sanctuary and attendance is back to normal, Jesus keeps coming back.  Jesus meets us where we work, where we despair, or where we question or doubt. Whether we’re still feeling “up” from Easter or feeling let down, Jesus keeps coming to us.
            Jesus meets us in in our friends or in strangers.  He challenges us with a task to do—caring for his people.  He gives us work that truly satisfies us, and invites us to make him more and more the center of our lives.  One way or another, Jesus comes back and calls us to himself and to his new life. 
            Do you love me?  Then feed my sheep.  Tend my lambs.
            As individuals and as a congregation, we often fall short of being the loving, compassionate, generous, welcoming people God created us to be.  We don’t always follow through.  Sometimes we even fall away for a while and go back to whatever felt familiar before we recognized the Risen Christ. 
            But Jesus doesn’t give up on us.  After each time we fail…or forget… or are overcome by our fears, Jesus comes to us again and invites us to try again, providing encouragement and nourishment, and calls us to put our love into action, caring for the world God loves.  If you love me, show it through your actions.   “Feed my sheep.”
Jesus comes to us today, this morning, starting again Easter-fresh with each of us, saying, “Follow me.”
            Thanks be to God!  Alleluia!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 10, 2016

[1] Acts 7:58 – 8:1