Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Most Excellent Way (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13)

This passage from Paul is one we usually see in weddings, so we’re accustomed to it as a stand-alone passage. And it has a lot to teach as a stand-alone passage.

But Paul wrote it as part of an answer to the Corinthian church, teaching them about spiritual gifts. In the previous chapter, he explained how all of the gifts come from the same Holy Spirit, and how each of those gifts has a purpose for the church, the Body of Christ. Ignoring some gifts, or paying too much attention to others, he said, will leave the church unable to do God’s work.

Paul knows a bit about human nature, though, and he knows how likely the Corinthians are to still want to try to find ways to rank themselves more important than their fellow Christians. So he continues to unwrap the idea of spiritual gifts this way. Strive for the greater gifts, he says, and I will show you a more excellent way. There is in fact a spiritual gift greater than the others. In fact, without this spiritual gift, the others are worthless.

That gift is the gift of love. Not mushy feeling love, not movie-screen passion love, but the real love that God shows each of us and asks us to show him and each other. In order for us to truly love as Christ loved – which means loving the most unlovable people we can imagine – we need God’s help. At least I know I do.

The gift of love enables us to use our other spiritual gifts the way they’re supposed to be used. If my gift is leadership, for example, and I combine it with the gift of love, then I won’t lead by dominating or bullying or insisting on having my own way. I will understand that the only way to lead as a Christian is to lead the way Christ lead – as a servant. After all, remember who put on the towel and washed everyone’s feet.

Now, I appreciate Paul’s wisdom here, as well as his discernment and his clear teaching. But I also appreciate something else: He’s being real sneaky. And I love that.

Think about it. We know what people are like. We know we’re prone to want our own way, and we’re prone to forget God should be at the center of things and try to put ourselves there. We’re prone to the sin of pride. Some more, some less, but it’s in all of us.

Paul knows this as well, and he knows that the Corinthians will still probably debate and argue about the greatest spiritual gift. So he gives them one. And it’s the one that will short-circuit every prideful impulse we have. If we truly seek the gift of love, if we truly let God grow that gift in us, well, then we’ll find we don’t have much concern for things like who’s the greatest and who shows us proper respect.

If we don’t have the gift of love, then we have everyone with his or her own gift, sitting around waiting to get what we believe is our proper respect. Our just due. A bunch of Christians who hang around and wait for everyone else to notice just how important we are and to act in the proper manner. Except for the people with the gift of humility, of course, who are waiting around until no one notices them.

And as we can imagine, nothing gets done. But love doesn’t care about proper stations, and it cares a lot less about receiving honor than giving it. We noted how a loving leader looks for ways he or she can empower people to do what they’re called and gifted to do. We seek that character in all of us, and we pray that, through the Holy Spirit, it can be given to us.

Paul finishes by reminding us of what remains, of what’s eternal. Faith, hope, and love abide, he says, these three. But the greatest of them is love.

The greatest leader, the greatest teacher, the greatest preacher, the greatest servant, the greatest healer – the greatest anything we might want to label – they will be remembered for only a short time unless they lead, taught, preached, served or whatever else with love.

It goes back to the original mystery that God has given us. What we do matters, he says. And what makes it matter is why we do it. If we want to know how to make it matter the most, to make the most difference, then we need to pay attention to our Lord, to see what he’s done, and why.

He brought us good news, and he was good news. The gift of love itself.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Top of the List? (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)

I love the Corinthians. If they didn’t exist, I’d have to invent them. If there were no Corinthians, then every time I wanted to tell my church about one of our problems, I’d have to say it was one of our problems, rather than say, “Can you believe what those wacky Corinthians did this time?”

This passage is in the middle of Paul’s explanation of spiritual gifts. Since this letter is probably a reply to a letter the Corinthian church sent Paul, we can guess with some confidence they've asked him about these gifts of the Holy Spirit.

We piece together something about the Corinthians from these letters, information we have about the culture and society of the time and just general human nature. That gives us a pretty good idea about their questions as well as some of the issues behind them.

The Corinthians have probably asked Paul which spiritual gift is the best one. Which one is “most spiritual?” Which one shows the most divine favor? Paul wants to answer them, but he also wants to dig into what’s behind the question.

In the passage just before this one, he reminds the Corinthians that all spiritual gifts come from the Holy Spirit. This ought to be a no-brainer, but it has a point. He re-emphasizes it by talking about the distinct but indispensable roles of the different parts of the body.

The Corinthians seemed to want to put one spiritual gift at the top of the list, and that can cause problems. Their focus seems to have been on speaking in tongues. So if that’s the best spiritual gift, then people should try to work towards it, right? They should focus their prayers, their devotions, their study, etc., on being able to speak in tongues.

See the problem? That kind of focus could easily lead a person to ignore the spiritual gift they already had. If everyone spoke in tongues, where would the gifts of compassion or of teaching or of wisdom be? If everyone had the “top” gift, then who would serve?

A church where everyone either has or seeks the top-level spiritual gift would be a church as unable to do its work as a hand is unable to see. It would also be a church defying God’s plan, since everyone’s gifts came from the Spirit, and not from any sort of human hierarchy or scheme.

Sure, we should improve ourselves in all areas of Christian life. If I don’t have the “spiritual gift” of compassion, I don’t get a free pass to act like a jerk. I may need to work at it harder than those who seem to have such a gift, but it’s still my responsibility to live out that aspect of a Christian life. Even so, there’s no overlooking the reality that each of us has these different spiritual gifts.

Now, Paul says later on in this letter that he himself doesn’t see speaking in tongues as the most important spiritual gift. But he wants to make this point clear first, because it wouldn’t do the Corinthians much good if they switched one top gift for another.

There is a “top” gift, but Paul describes that later, and it’s the kind of gift that belongs on top because it can be there without unbalancing a Christian or the community of believers.

For now, Paul reminds the Corinthians that in the case of the body, we show our “less honorable” parts greater respect and attention. Think of a woman’s unending search for the exact pair of slacks that won’t make her look fat, or a man’s undending search for the precise arrangement of hair so that no one will know he has that bald spot.

Maybe speaking in tongues is a showier, flashier spiritual gift. But it has its proper place, Paul says, or else the church is unbalanced. Maybe compassion is the quieter, more reserved gift. But it must never be forgotten, or the church can’t be the church.

If the church ignores any of its spiritual gifts, it will find itself blind, deaf, mute, crippled and helpless. In such a case, of course, we’re thankful God is always a healer.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Wise Men and Kings (Matthew 2:1-12)

At last, our wise men show up. Although our manger scenes usually include them, we can see from this passage they probably don’t arrive until Jesus is several months old. They meet him, Mary and Joseph in a house in Bethlehem and give their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Then, because they’re warned in a dream, they slide out of the country on the down low and avoid Herod the king. I just wrote that because I wanted to write “on the down low” in a sermon. But they do sneak back home, even though Herod has invited them back so he can join them in worshipping the new king.

What exactly is the warning? Is it explicit about Herod’s plans, or is it a more general caution that the king isn’t playing straight with them? Either way, the wise men decide to trust the apparently divine warning they receive, and be a little bit more skeptically about the human promise Herod gave them.

Obviously, that makes sense when you’re dealing with a murdering psycho like Herod. You want to keep him at arm’s length, and you’re willing to add a few thousand miles in for good measure. Herod’s agenda is evil because Herod’s evil. But it’s different because he’s the king, not a worshipper like the wise men.

We as the church and as Christians have a clear agenda for what God wants us to do – in the Methodist church, we phrase it in our mission statement as “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.” We say this because we think that a lot of the other things that Jesus calls us to do are taken care of by our being disciples and helping other people become and live like disciples as well. The poor and hungry and sick will be cared for and the gospel will be preached.

That’s our agenda. Nobody else’s. No one else is called to do it. Groups that help folks out are doing good work, but it’s our job as the church to help folks out as a part of our Great Commission.

See, those groups – businesses and media and such – they aren’t the church, so they have their own agendas. So do other groups and agencies, like our government and our schools. Our schools are supposed to educate children so they can learn how to take their place in our society when they’re on their own. Government is supposed to…well, there’s no way to say anything here without starting a fight, so I’ll let you make up your own mind.

These groups and agencies and institutions have their own goals, and some of these goals are good. Education, for example, is a high and worthy calling. But it’s not the same as proclaiming the gospel and worshipping God, and it isn’t supposed to be.

As Christians, we take our faith into the different places we go in our lives, and we hope it governs how we act as businesspeople, students, citizens, etc. We hope it governs how we act, though. It won’t always govern how those institutions act, though, and sometimes there are consequences.

Think about the respect paid to former President Gerald Ford in his memorial services, when people remarked on his honesty and decency. People focused a lot of attention on his pardon of Richard Nixon, a very controversial decision at the time.

This is just my opinion, but I see that pardon as one of the most Christian acts ever taken by a modern president, both in its character and its impact. I think it parallels the pardon God offers us.

Richard Nixon didn’t deserve a pardon – he probably wasn’t guilty of everything everyone said he was, but he had his hand in enough of it that he didn’t deserve the get out of jail free card he receieved.

Neither do I. I have sinned, against God and God’s people, and I can’t claim otherwise.

The machinery of government was winding up to get ready for full-scale investigations and trials of Nixon’s misdeeds. Months, maybe years spent digging and getting dirt, making sure that Nixon got gotten, but good.

The pardon put an end to all that. No trial. No revenge. No punishment. We had no choice as a nation except to move forward.

God deals with me similarly, except I might be a little better at confessing my wrongs than former President Nixon was. “I goofed, God. I did wrong, I broke your laws, I hurt your people, I disrespected you.” God says, “I know. But I pardoned you, so now what do you want to do? Keep talking about the past, or move forward?”

A Christian act, done by a man in public service, using his faith to inform how he should do his job.

And he lost the election. The political agenda of retribution clashed with the Christian agenda of forgiveness. It almost always will, and so thanks be to God that he has chosen to live out that agenda, to offer us what the world can’t.