Saturday, August 6, 2011

John Stott: The most influential evangelical you've never heard of

Last Wednesday (July 27th) John Stott passed away at the age of 90 in Surrey, England. But who is John Stott and what's the big deal anyway. John Stott was ordained in 1945 as a minister in the Church of England, and has had an enormous influence on Christianity all over the world. He's written over 50 books, ranging in style from popular/devotional to academic commentaries, history and theology. He was appointed Chaplain to the Throne by Queen Elizabeth and founded numerous organizations, many of which focus on global ministry, particularly in the Global South. He spent a good portion of his ordained ministry as the Vicar of All Soul's, Langham Place in London, and was appointed Vicar-Emeritus after his retirement. Here's an article from the New York Times written about his life and death.

But what makes Stott so interesting and his death so notable, is that he represented a type of evangelical very unlike what most of the 21st century West has (sometimes rightly) grown to despise about evangelicals in general: he was incredibly gracious and humble. He was passionate about evangelism and Gospel proclamation, biblical faithfulness, and a global understanding of the church. He met with heads of state, global leaders, and people of influence for seven decades, and did so with poise, humbleness, and tenacity.

Sadly, when most people hear "evangelical" they think of 'angry, thoughless, close-minded, fundamentalist'... etc., and unfortunately they don't think of all the things that Stott embodied: thoughtful, exceptionally intelligent, faithful, gracious, and humble, while still maintaining an integrity with his convictions.

The category of global evangelical leader is often readily filled with names like Billy Graham, but, to quote the NYT, "For all his fame on several continents, Mr. Stott’s travels and appearances were remarkably devoid of pomp, befitting his simple message of reason and faith and his unassuming demeanor. Those in his ministries knew him simply as Uncle John. In his later years, he lived in a two-room apartment over the garage of a London rectory, and for many years he kept a small cottage on the Welsh coast, where he did much of his prodigious writing in longhand and, until 2001, without electricity."

I never met Rev. Stott, but I wish I had. I grew up hearing his name and have read many of his books (see below for a list of some of his more well known writings). But I know that he lead, preached, inspired, guided, and formed many thousands of Christians and Christian leaders over the better part of the twentieth century. Most Episcopalians have never even heard of him. So for one of the most remarkable and influential Christian leaders of our time, I bow my head at news of his death, and close with a quote from the President of John Stott Ministries who succinctly and simply sums up Stott's life: "He imparted to many a love for the global church and imparted a passion for biblical fidelity and a love for the Savior."

O God, who by thy Holy Spirit dost give to some the word of
wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the
word of faith: We praise thy Name for the gifts of grace
manifested in thy servant John, and we pray that thy Church
may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 197)

Some noteworthy books by John Stott:

The Cross of Christ
The Message of Romans (Bible Speaks Today Commentary Series)
Basic Christianity
The Preacher's Portrait
The Contemporary Christian
Romans: God's Good News for the World

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bad Friday?

Good Friday. What an odd title for such a day as this. For on this day the Prince of Glory was abused and suffered a travesty of justice, a farce of a trial, and was hauled outside Jerusalem like a common criminal. There on a desolate hill appropriately named The Skull he was put to the most shameful and painful death the ancient world had at its disposal. And yet we call this day “Good”. How can that be – should this not be “Bad Friday”?

In many respects it is bad, for on this day we see humanity at its worst. God finally arrived on earth as a fully Incarnate man, and the path of his life lead not to victorious glory but a painful, humiliating death. How ironic that the Good of Jesus brought out the Worst in People. Yes, when we look at the cross we see ourselves at our worst – the offense of the Cross of Jesus is that it exposes human sin. Things really are this bad. Judas asked, “Is it I?” who would betray Jesus, and on Good Friday we ask ourselves, “Is it I?” who put him on the cross?

But the mystery and power of God’s redemption is that, “By his blood he reconciled us, and by his wounds we are healed” (BCP p. 370, para. Isaiah 53:5). On this bad and terrible day, unbeknownst to all those gathered on Golgotha, God was actually doing something Good. Something he had promised from ages past that would undo all the sorrowful, hurtful, wrong things of this world. God would forgive sins, wash away sorrow and guilt, and begin a New Creation. The offense of the cross is that it exposes human sin – the glory of the cross is that it also washes away human sin. God did all of this out of his great love for us at our worst (not our best!). All it cost was the life of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kingdom Power

This is the final installment of our series on the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, and in the closing sermon Part 7 the focus is on verse 20, "For the kingdom of God does not consist of talk but of power." This is an interesting verse because it often either gets overlooked, or way misunderstood. On the one hand many Christians prefer a 'safe' spiritual life, where supernatural things don't really happen, and if they do or ever did, such things don't today. On the other hand is a sense that there is no propositional truth to the Christian faith, there is only experiencing God (whether Pentecostal or some sort of vague new age kind of thing). The idea here pits verbal proclamation negatively against 'power'.

In this chapter of his letter, Paul is defending his apostolic authority. There were those who objected to his teaching and the Gospel that he preached, and so to undercut him they attacked his position as an Apostle. Paul responds that he is not affraid of their attacks, because he knows that only God can judge him. Besides which, the mark of his apostolic office is that God is working through him and the Gospel with power, not just fancy talk. This is a subtle counter-attack, because he's stating that his opponents do not demonstrate the power of God and rely only on rhetoric and personal attack to establish their authority.

So what is power? Is Paul talking about being able to bench press 300 pounds? Not quite. In classical physics power is energy working over time; energy is essentially the capacity to do work, a force opperating across a distance. If you push on a wall as hard as you can, and nothing happens, no power has been exercised because the state has not changed. This is what Paul is getting at: when the Kingdom of God shows up, in power, things happen! Things change.

One of the great displays of power in the Old Testament is found in the life of Elijah, the great prophet. In one event in his life he was taken up from the world in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:1-14) - talk about making an exit! The other event in his life was the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:1-40). Ahab, the evil King of Israel, and his wife Jezebel, had led Israel astray and caused them to worship Baal instead of God. So God sends Elijah to get everyone back on the right track, and Elijah proposes a contest to see who is the real God. Two altars will be set up, and the prophets of Baal will call out to their god, and Elijah will call out to his God, and the true god will be the one who demonstrates their power by setting the altar on fire. Simple. Very definitive in the results. In fact, why any religious debate since then has been settled in any other way is beyond me.

God demonstrates his power by setting the altar on fire. Everyone saw the power of God manifest in space and time, and they were faced with a decision. They could either try to ignore it or explain it away, or they could trust God and repent and return to Him. We Christians believe that God has in fact acted in a supernatural way in space and time. God's greatest demonstration of his power is in raising his Son Jesus from the dead. You have to deal with that power - either you ignore it or you trust it. Jesus even says to his detractors, hey, you might not like me or what I'm saying, but if nothing else believe me because you've seen the miracles (i.e. the power I've demonstrated).
A lot of people think that to know or experience the power of God they have to make themselves powerful first. Our theme through this series has been to see, to understand, to realize the gap that exists between the ideal and the actual. Ideally we ought to trust God and experience his power, but the problem is that we are in fact weak, selfish, and lost. To put it another way, we want to be powerful, and can come up with pretty good technieques to help us think we are powerful, but we are in fact weak. The Gospel speaks to this weakness, not to our efforts at power. God says, "My strength is made perfect in your weakness." The power of God is for the weak.

Where in your life do you need to experience the power of God? Where do you need to know God's forgiveness? To be healed? And we do hope that the power of God can and will do something, for God whose power is at work in us is able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

Kingdom Power

1 Corinthians 4:14-20
This is the final sermon in our series on 1 Corinthians. The guiding principle we've used here is that there is always a gap between the ideal things and the actual things, and if we try to fill that gap on our own, we will shred ourselves and those around us. The only thing that can truly fill that gap is the grace of God. In this passage Paul indicates that God's grace, God's kingdom, is not simply a matter of words but of power.

I don't think Paul is merely saying here that "Talk is cheap", as if he were saying that propositional truth is useless and advocates for action only. I think this for two reasons. First, the 'words' he is talking about are those of his detractors, and he is essentially calling them out. If they are right and he is wrong, then they need to back it up with the true power of God and not play 'armchair apostle.' Secondly, we know that the Word of God is indeed powerful - God created the world by speaking it into existence; Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."

The power he is talking about is the visible power of God, manifesting in history. Take for example the Old Testametn prophet Elijah's showdown with the prophets of the pagan god Baal. The showdown was simple: the true god will be the one who sets the altar on fire. Baal guys are up first and they call out and do their mojo and nothing happens. Elijah then step up to the plate, orders some servants to put water on the altar so everyone knows there is no funny business going on, calls on the Name of the Lord...and shazaam! Fire! Lots of fire. The winner: Elijah. The kingdom of God demonstrates itself with power. This is what Paul is talking about.

The Gospel tells us that God works in history, in time with his power so that we might trust in him. Where most people fall flat is this way: they think that in order to experience God's power they have to first make themselves powerful. Jesus' power actually come to those who are weak and in need of him. God says that "My strength and power is perfected in your weakness." How often do we think that "I've got to clean myself up for God to love me." The Gospel tells us that the opposite is true - that the power of God is most present and at work in those who are in most need of him through weakness.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


We're almost finished with our series on 1 Corinthians, as Epiphany winds down. This week's sermon is Part 6. The governing big idea has been that there is always a gap between the ideal and the actual. We all know what we're supposed to do, say, think, and feel, but we never actually do, say, think, and feel them. The consequence of this gap is that if we try to fill it with our own efforts is that we will shred ourselves, and likely those around us. In this passage of chapter 3, Paul is calling out those who have criticized or doubted his authority as an apostle. He says to them that he's not worried about their judgment of him, because God alone will judge him. God will bring to light that which is hidden, and thus we ask, "By what standard will we be judged?"

The answer to this is found in today's reading in Matthew 6:24-34, where Jesus points out that you and I will not be judged by all the things we aquire, NOR by how much we strive for and/or are anxious about such things. Jesus asks, which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life. All anxiety does is indicate your allegiance to worldly provision of your needs, not to God's provision of your needs. God gives the birds of the air food and clothes the flowers of the fields in beauty - how much more so, Jesus states, will God provide for us who are worth much more than birds and flowers. Now, most of us don't wake up in the morning and struggle with questions of basic subsistence, what will I eat or what will I wear, but there are absolutely people in our community who do.

But while we might not be in a day and age that is dominated by severe matters of basic subsistence, we do know all too well what it is to be anxious. We worry about the pending results of a medical exam/test, we worry about the big presentation at work, we worry about the stability of a relationship. The reason we are anxious is ultimately because we are relying on worldly answers to present themselves, because if we truly trusted in God we wouldn't be anxious. Essentially Jesus is showing us that anxiety is sin.

But is the answer then to say, "Have you tried just not being anxious?" No! Because that certainly doesn't work! Furthermore, I don't want to make light of the serious things that keep you up at night. What we do need in the face of our anxieties is not to deny its there, but assurance. If you knew the results of your pending test results, would you be anxious. No, you wouldn't. However, God' doesn't promise full disclosure of the outcome of all our anxious issues. God doesn't promise to take away the things that cause us to be anxious, but he does say, "Do you trust me?" The answer to anxiety is faith, and Jesus will give us assurance in the face of our anxiety.

The Collect for today asks that God would save us from "faithless fears and worldly anxieties" and we ask God to help us to "cast our cares on you who cares for us." There is really no simple formulaic answer to our anxieties - perhaps it would be nice if there were. All I can do is point you to Jesus Christ, tell you to trust in him and cast your cares on him, for he cares for you.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mature Christians

Our ongoing series on 1 Corinthians continues with Part 5 . This sermon ties in closely with the Gospel reading for today, Matthew 5:21-37. Paul is talking about maturity: the Corinthians think they are very mature in their faith, but the reality is they are not. How are they immature, and what does true Christian maturity look like?

Paul uses the analogy of food to describe maturing. Babies drink milk, adults eat solid food. In the life of faith, there are the simple basics, the "milk" of doctrine, and there is a more sound grasp and growth in being a Christian, "solid food". Paul says that he'd love to treat them as mature, but he has to talk to them as infants.

We should note, that part of being mature Christians means that we very regularly and readily go back to the basics of our faith, of Christ and him crucified (which we talked about last week). But this is different from never getting beyond the basics, where we never go any deeper to wrestling with the deeper questions of faith and the claims of Christians.

So what does it mean to mature in Christ and our faith? We'll answer this by looking at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus says repeatedly the phrase, "You have heard it said..." and then adds, "...but I say to you...". So, for example, he says, "You have heard it not committ murder." Here he's quoting from the 10 Commandments. Most people breath a sigh of relief, thinking, well I'm OK because I've never killed anyone. "But I say to you...whoever is angry with their brother is liable to judgement." Is Jesus making the commandment to not kill easier or harder? Jesus does the same with adultery, and applies the commandment not merely to our behavior, but to the state of our hearts.

In the Collect for today, we prayed that God would enable us to follow his commandments in will and in deed. It's good that you haven't actually killed someone, it's good that you haven't cheated on your wife, but in your sinful heart and mind you have. We need God to change and heal our hearts and wills to bridge the gap between the ideal and the actual. The law can not change our hearts, only the grace of Jesus Christ can.

So what does Paul mean by 'maturity'? If the Sermon on the Mount does anything it shows us the chasm in our lives between the ideal and the actual, and that a truly mature Christian is more aware, and not less, of this gap. As time goes on and our relationship goes deeper, we become more aware of our need for Jesus, not less.

The longer you are married to someone, are you more or less aware of their faults? More! Since it's St. Valentine's day, we note that when you first meet someone and fall in love, it's very hard to notice or imagine their faults. But as time goes on that changes. What a mature, healthy relationship requires is grace and forgiveness as a couple deals with those faults that are always being exposed. It is the same with us and the Lord. God will show to us our shortcomings, but will also point us again and again to the One who fills that gap. Grace causes the facade to come down.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Christ And Him Crucified...

This sermon from Feb. 6th is Part 4 in our series on 1 Corinthians. We've been using the concept of the gap between the ideal and the actual as we walk through this remarkable letter. The key verse we'll be looking at is verse 2, where Paul states, "I desired to know nothing among you but Christ and him crucified." Paul reminds the Corinthian church that when he first arrived and began teaching them, not many of them were wealthy, or wise, or powerful according to the standards of the world. And he did not visit with a slick, polished, "wise" message intended to wow them, but rather he came with a message, i.e. the Gospel, had a power that actually did something to them and for them. And they had forgotten that.

Paul is chipping away at their misperceptions to expose the root problem, so that he would then show them the truth. If someone can't or won't acknowledge that they have a problem (be it an addiction, or an abusive relationship, or whatever), then there's really not much you can do for them. So Paul reminds them of their weakness when he first came to them, and their need to get back to basics. Let's unpack this powerful verse.

"I desired to know nothing among you..." There's something that is extremely simple about the Christian Gospel. This simplicity is very attractive, and part of what draws us back to church week in and week out. Very few people visit with me an complain that their lives are too simple. Quite the opposite: our lives are so often way to complex and busy, and what we long for is periods of rest, refreshment, and simplicity. Paul is bringing these Christians back to the very plain and simple truth of the Gospel.

"...except Jesus Christ..." And this Gospel is not a philosophy, not a method of living, nor an system of emotional highs and lows, but it is all about a Person. Simple. What you and I need week in and week out is not to reconnect with an emotion, not an idea, but with a real, live, Person. Jesus is alive today, do you know him? Or more appropriately, does he know you? If the verse ended here, then we would have a very simple message, rooted and grounded in a Person. But it doesn't end there. The difinitive part of knowing Jesus Christ is 'him crucified.'

"...and him crucified." Why make this such a central point to Jesus. He was such a nice guy, can't we just remember his teachings, why the cross? If all we have to the Gospel is the Person of Christ and the need to be like him, then we must ask, "Just how much like him are we?" There's that gap between the ideal and actual again!

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, I'm a big Steelers fan, and here's something a good friend of mine wrote in his blog abou the Steelers. He said he's looking forward to the game, but is reluctant to watch it at the church with his congregation becasue he doesn't want them to see what he's really like when he's in front of a Steeler's game.
We all wrestle with the idea that if peopel really know what I'm like then they wouldn't love me. And so we long to cover up what we're really like. If the Gosepl were simply, "Be like Jesus" then all we would do is be forced to further cover up what we're really like. But because the Gospel is "Jesus Christ and him crucified", it is intended for you to be laid bare to be healed. Jesus didn't come to be an example to follow, he came to be a propitiation for my sins! And by doing so I am enabled to be real with my sins, not cover them up.

That's we like to be around good friends. Because we feel like we can 'be ourselves' around them. We like to be with people who know and love us because they know our shortcomings and such grace causes us to be free, not to be bound and covered. How many of us can open up and be real with the people we are sitting with in church? How readily can you let the facade drop and be vulnerable, and confess and be healed.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Truth & Wisdom

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Last week we looked at the church and the Gospel with the concept of Foolishness & Power. In this sermon from Jan. 30th, Part 3 of our series on 1 Corinthians we build on the immortal verse: "for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but for us who are being saved it is the power of God"(1Cor 1:18) . In this sermon we'll take a look at truth and the gap/disparity between what is true and what we think is wise. Or, to be more specific, wrestling with the question, "How do you know that the things you take to be true in life, are actually true?" (FYI, the fancy-schmancy word for wrestling with this question is 'episitimology'). We make decisions and declare words or actions to be wise base on what we know to be true. In the biblical world, the Israelites determined things to be true by miracles and power - the Greeks used wisdom, i.e. philosophical wisdom, as the plumb line for truth. In Paul's letter he challenges the Corinthians on what they know and take to be true. The question sticks for us today: what plumb lines do we use to determine truth. Success is very often our plumb line today. If something is successful then the things that drive its success must be true. What are some other plumb lines for truth in our culture today? Here's some food for thought. If an astronomer tells you about some new planet in a far off galaxy that has just been discovered, you believe them, don't you. But when you go to a park and see a bench with a sign on it that says "Wet Paint", what do you do? You walk over and have to touch it, just to make sure! We don't believe the sign that simply says Wet Paint, but we do believe the astronomer who tells us something that most people have absolutely no way of evaluating/testing whether it is legit or not. Is this not a bit topsy turvey? It is, because it challenges what we know to be true. Here's another illustration of the odd and interesting ways we determine truth. Mike Brown, an astronomer, discovered in the '90s what was thought to be the 10th planet in the solar system, outside the orbit of Pluto. For years astronomers have wrestled with the definition of what is actually a planet, and at a huge international astronomers convention in Prague, the topic was to be on the table to settle the definition once for all. If the finalized definition was such that Pluto was axed from the list, then by default Brown's new planet would also be axed. Naturally, folks thought Brown would be in favor of a traditional definiting which would keep Pluto, and consequently his planet, in the list. But he supprised the international community when he published a book called "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming" in which he argues against Pluto's planethood on the basis that scientifically it is not a planet! What is really telling about this whole story (don't worry, there's a reason homing in here!) is that at the astronomer summit they passed a resolution that in fact affirmed there are only 8 planets, but then passed a sub-resolution stating that this was based on the classical definition of planets - then they put the whole thing to a vote! There's a gap here between truth (Pluto is not a planet) and the sentiment of intelligent, able scientists who like Pluto and don't want to axe it from the list. If international scientists can do that, then we certainly can do the same in our own lives. The point is this - that knowing something to be true is ultimately dependent on faith. How do you know someone loves you? Surely there are signs and actions, like buying gifts, romantic dinners, taking care of household duties, but people can also fake it. How do you really know that they love you? Ultimately, you have to simply trust that they do. If you doubt the love of your spouse, taking them to a lab to be tested is a very bad idea - it will backfire on you! So this is sound wisdom: that knowing things are true isnot ultimately based on scientific inquirey, 'touching the wet paint', but on faith. Paul points out to the Corinthian church, that when most of them came to know Jesus Christ, very few of them fit the world's "wisdom" in terms of their success, status in life, their intelligence, etc. Did they fit the world's categories of truth? No. But this is good, because if a relationship with God depended on the wisdom of the world we'd all be sunk. It is to the meek that the world will be given (Matthew 5:5). Worldly wisdom says that humble people don't get anything, they become doormats, but God says that those who don't fit the world's plumb lines are the one's that he comforts. That is why the message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, those who strive to fit the world's models of wisdom, but for those who are being saved, who trust in Jesus, the Cross is the power of God.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Interesting: "The Last Word"

This video was posted on Vimeo by a friend of a friend, who wrote, produced, directed, and even appears in this dramatic video short. I think it was a project for a film class, and I really liked it. Gritty, insightful, a tad slow-moving, but superbly scored, it really draws you in, and I love the closing statement.

Take a look and then I'll give you my two cents worth below.

The Last Word

So what is this short film about? Essentially about the power of love, particularly when love, as opposed to hate, has the last word. The clip from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the end was given in his "A Time to Break the Silence" speech about the Vietnam War. The partuclar line of love being the 'last word' is a quote he makes of Arnold Toynbee. Here's the broader text of that speech:

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word."

(Click here for the full text of this speech of Dr. King's, with the audio recording of it)

In this short film, the first 'word', that is the first set of scenes, is violence, fear, lonliness, and pain. The second set of scenes shows what happens when love has the last word. Violence is abrogated, lonliness is offset, fear and pain find reconciliation and restitution.

In the realm of Christian theology, there are Two Words, Law and Gospel. There is the first Word from God, that of Law, and the Second Word from God, that of Love (or Grace). The First Word of Law reveals what God declares to be right and wrong (it is wrong for a person to assault another, for example). It also reveals human behavior to be radically short of keeping that law. Specifially, the First Word exposes the violence, lonliness, fear, and pain in our world and lives for what they really are.

The Second Word, the Word of Love/Grace, speaks to the crushing weight of our plight and does not tell us what to 'do', but indicates to us what God has already 'done'. Grace shows us that God has taken upon himself the violence, fear, evil, and shame of our world. He has donel this of his own initiative, for his purposes, and as indicative of his wondrous nature, not , as L'Oreal claims, "Because I'm worth it!"

So this film, while clearly not explicitly Christian, it is underpinned by very strong Christian ideas, whether intentionally or unintentionally so. Discuss amongst ya-selves.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Foolishness & Power

1Corinthians 1:10-18 This is the second installment of the sermon series on 1 Corinthians from January 23rd. The overarching idea for this series on the first four chapters of this magnificent letter is that there is always a disparity in real life between the ideal and the actual.
On one had are the things we know we should be thinking, saying, feeling, and doing, and on the other are the things we actually do, say, think, and feel. The message of the Gospel is that the thing which fills this disparity gap is power and grace of Jesus Christ- if we try to fill it ourselves we will tear ourselves and those around us apart.

Often the way we fill the gap between the ideal and actual is with good intentions. How often have you heard the saying, "It's the thought that counts"? Now, there is nothing wrong with good intentions, but they will only get you so far, and assuring yourself with the maxim, "It's the thought that counts" really works with the odd Christmas present. In ongoing, regular life such a mentality becomes toxic.

For example, in Jurassic Park III (yes they made a third one), there is an incident when Dr. Grant's assistant Billy steals some veloca raptor eggs and consequently they are hunted by the angry dinosaurs who want their eggs back. When Grant (played by Sam Neill) discovers the theft as the cause of this hounding, he confronts Billy, who justifies his actions by claiming he thought Dr. Grant would like the specimens and that he had good intentions when he did it. To which Dr. Grant replies with the immortal words, "Some of the worst things imagninable have been done with good intentions."

And so it is for us. Good intentions will not and can not fill the gap between what is ideal and actual.

Now, with this in mind, we're going to take a look at the Corinthian church: the church with "Issues." In particular, the first Issue that Paul addresses is divisions in the church. -pause...put on shocked face-

Yes, there was once a church that didn't get along with itself. What was causing the rifts was essentially a form of self righteousness. One group thought they were pretty special because so-and-so baptized them, verses the other group who were proud to name such-and-such as their 'favorite apostle.'

People will always find ways to commend themselves over and against each other, and try to do so with God. This is what Paul calls foolishness. It makes sense to the ones doing it, but their 'wisdom' is in fact foolish, because there is really nothing that we can do to commend ourselves to God.

What Paul does care about, is their trust in the cross of Jesus Christ. Is is Jesus alone who has the power to commend us to God the Father, and we are in him by virtue of our trust in the power of his shed blood to cleanse us of all self-righteousness (i.e. sin). Thus Paul says, "I desired to know nothing among you but Christ and him crucified.

On the cross God did something very foolish. Foolish in the eyes of silly little humans like us. He died for the unworthy. When God came to the earth he didn't show up to open a self-help shop, he didn't come to raise an army of bedraggled volunteers to 'eat the rich' (Aerosmith), he died. That's not what we want our cosmic blessing pinata to do. We want God to fix stuff for us. We want God to be cosmic IT support. We want him to have Sith lightning and dazzle us. This is human 'wisdom'. But Jesus died. That's not what we expect. But Paul sets us straight and says our view is foolish, but God is his wisdom, demonstrates his love for the ungodly.

God poured out his grace not to help and validate the righteous, but for those who were dead in sin. As the hymn so beautifully puts it, "Here is love vast as the ocean, loving kindness as a flood; when the Prince of Life our ransom, shed for us his precious blood. Grace and love like mighty rivers, poured incessiant from above; and heaven's grace and perfect justice, kissed a guilty world in love."

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Distance between Ideal and Actual

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 This sermon from January 16th marks the start of a new series on the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians, which we'll be studying through to the end of February. The governing idea for this series is this: there is always a distance between the ideal things and what actually is. There are always the ideal expectations that we have for all kinds of things, there are always ideal demands on behavior and on systems and governments. Think about campaign time in politics. We vote leaders in primarily based on the ideal platform that they present, and then spend the next few years frustrated at them because what actually happens is not what was promised. Think about relationships, especially marriage. When I counsel couples who are preparing to get married, the number one issue that we have to address is expectations. All married couples enter into the covenant of wedlock with very different and sometimes extremely high expectations about what their marriage will be like and what their spouse will be like. Sometimes the distance between the ideal adn the actual is huge, sometimes it is small. But is is always there. What about Christians. Why is it that some of the rudest, most difficult people you will meet are Christians? Ideally, Christians are to be loving, joyful, faithful, generous, kind, gentle, and excellent. In actuallity, Christians are rarely anywhere close to this (here's an interesting trailer for a documentary called, "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers.") If ever there was a Church that had a huge distance between the ideal and the actual, it was Corinth. According to St. Paul, they did stuff that even the pagans didn't do! Corinth sat on a major overland trade route that connected the Aegean and Adriatic seas. It was weathy, ecclectic, big, and debauched. It had, to use a therapeutic term, "issues". Like, issues with a capital "I". Like George Costanza type issues. And yet, when Paul writes to them he begins his letter by calling them, "the saints in Corinth...who are sanctified in Christ." What's going on with that?! How can such aweful people be addressed in such a way. Was Paul delusional adn pollyanna-ish, or was he ignoring or downplaying their issues? Certainly not, because he lets them have it for 15 chapters. The Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks to this distance between the ideal, that is our justified/righteous status through faith in Christ, and the actual, that is our struggle against sin and the very subjective state of our day to day holiness. Luther referred to this reality in the phrase: simul iustus et peccator - 'at the same time righteous and sinner.' So what fills the gap between the ideal and the actual? What fills the void between what we ought to do and what we don't do. Certainly, if we try to fill that gap on our own we will destroy ourselves. There are people who are driven to perfection: they see the ideal and they want it. And they will step on or push aside anyone to get it. Sometimes this pursuit of perfection is all about money. Sometimes power. Sometimes sex. And the list goes on. And the first thing that will be damaged if you try to pursue the ideal on your own is your family, because they will always fall short of your ideal. And so you will get frustrated and angry and squash them. No, it's not ourselves that fills the gap. It is only the grace of God which fills that gap between the ideal and the actual. Paul says that he gives "thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus." God's love of the unworthy, the people who are trapped in actual, comes through his gracious gifts and his power to sustain them through their lives and be presented to God in the end as blameless.