How to Have an Argument

The season of Epiphany this year gives us a continuous reading from the book of 1st Corinthians.   Our Sunday morning bible study is using that as a springboard to study at least some of that letter a bit deeper.  The context of at least the first four (4) chapters of 1 Corinthians are divisions or arguments in the church.  And I’m not writing this up because I think or feel coming a great argument within Mt. Zion.  I’m writing this up because the time to think about arguments is when you aren’t having one.  When you are having them, all we sinful humans think about is winning them.

What Paul does in the first two chapters of First Corinthians is make a clear distinction between how arguments in the world take place and how they should take place within the church.  How they take place in the world is that we run to various forms of power.  We make appeals to authority: “I follow Paul…Apollos…Cephas…Christ.” And in making appeals to authority, we seek to trump whoever else has been claimed.  But in our claiming of these various authorities, we assert that they would disagree with each other.  Within the church this is out of bounds.  Paul does not disagree with Christ. We might not yet understand how they actually agree, but the fault is with our understanding, not the scripture or the apostles.  “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?” The answer is no.  The task is to understand why, repent and reform our lives together.

Anselm would call that “faith seeking understanding.” Paul in 1 Corinthians would just call it life under the cross. In the world, if we do not have an authority to invoke, or if all authorities are hopelessly corrupted, we would turn to a couple of other arguments: reason and practicality.  “Jews demand signs and Greeks wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”  Now signs could be demands for miracles, but they are also just the pragmatic question “does it work?” If it does you should be able to show me something.  Likewise, we should be able to reason together.  The problem with these things in spiritual matters is that we are sinners and our vision is hopelessly clouded.  What is wisdom to us is foolishness to God.  Our natural ways will never bring us to God.  “No human being might boast in the presence of God.” Instead “we boast in the Lord.” Anything we know spiritually comes first as a revelation of Jesus Christ.  And the greatest revelation is that cross.  “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.  God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” Strength usually works. Wisdom is a good thing. But in spiritual matters? They will fail you.  Lean not on your own understanding, but have faith that Christ is the way and the truth.

Why is this the case?  Because “the natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God.”  The indwelling of the Spirit is necessary.  Which you have from your baptism.  Faith is a prerequisite to arguing with each other correctly in spiritual matters.  Why? Because we then share the same Spirit.  We then “have the mind of Christ.”  If we are worldly, what we want to do is win the argument.  And the ultimate way to win is to destroy the other.  If we are spiritual we want together to receive the gifts that Christ has given us.  You have received the Spirit from God such that under the cross we might together remain reconciled to Christ and to each other.  Reconciliation, which is foolishness to those who have the Spirit of the World.

That basically brings you up to where we are in our study.  I’d invite you to join us on Sunday morning after snacks.

Learning Repentance

Biblical Text: Matthew 4:12-25

The text is the calling of the first disciples from Matthew’s Gospel, two sets of Brothers – Andrew and Peter, James and John. And right before that calling you have Matthew’s summary of the Preaching of Jesus, at least in the days in Galilee, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” So, the sermon’s main concern is the idea of discipleship. What does it mean to follow Jesus? And a big part of that answer is to learn the meaning of repentance. This particular sermon walks through what I tend to think is the modern church’s biggest problem – worldliness.

Three Points and a Poem

The old, by today very old, cliché about preaching was: three points and a poem.  I haven’t researched it, I’m too lazy to really establish it, but having read a lot of old sermons it strikes me as gaining its form in the late 19th century – a time when poets were still an important part of life.  And not just to egg-heads like me or emo-theater-kids, but the Psalms from the King James, and the Romantics (Byron and Shelley), and the occasional line from Virgil or Homer (or if you were more naughty from Martial’s epigrams) would be part of the common man’s existence.  They didn’t have TV to distract or the NFL to take away the day the church used to own. Those 19th Century divines, mostly Anglican, the Lutherans were still in German which I can’t read, would preach for an hour and wrap it up with a poem.  The form became the cliché in the mid-20th century.  By which time the preachers no longer had as much poetry memorized at their predecessors nor did they have a willing hour in the pulpit.  That and the demands of the parish itself were changing. Even if they were given an hour, the study necessary for that was no longer available.  The reasons are numerous, and we live after the deluge.

Personally I can’t imagine trying to create three points. As a homiletics prof said in an unguarded moment, “all we can handle is one.” And my stock of poetry is even less than my mid-century peers. I was only forced to memorize two poems in all my schooling plus the scattered verse I’ve assinged myself.  But I do have this stack of poems that I’ve saved along the way.  Saved dreaming of putting together a collection. But making no claim to being from a wide choice.  Most poetry, like most creative works, has meaning to you, your mother and maybe your wife. Editors of lit mags have favorites and favors to repay and sinecures to grasp hold of.  And my taste and desires are decidedly not the current lit mag editor’s taste. But a Dana Gioia, or a Mary Karr, or especially an A. E. Stallings occasionally passes through the filter simply on the power of their verse. 

And what is that power?  I’d say the same as the power of Scripture, capital T Truth.  Luther in his Heidelberg theses posits, “A Theologian of the Cross says what a thing is.”  He contrasts that theologian of the cross with a “theologian of glory” and the defining trait of the theologian of glory is to “call the bad good and the good bad.”  Why did poets fade from importance?  I’d say the same reason as pastoral theologians.  They stopped being vessels of truth.  They became masters of a colloquial phrase: polishing a…oops, I almost didn’t receive the call over things like that.  They put forward very pretty lies, because their faith in the Cross, and their faith in their audience to hear it, wavered.

A cry of the reformation was “Ad Fontes” – to the sources. To Luther and the boys that meant scripture and the original languages which they felt had been obscured by the pretty words of Philosophers and Scholastics and Prelates more concerned with paying for St. Peter’s than preaching the gospel.  I’ve spent more time than I’d like to say pondering what we’d say stands in our modern way.  What pretty lies do we tell ourselves?  And are we willing to grasp our cross, and call a thing what it is?  Or does the recently departed Christine McVie still have the anthem of the age, “Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.”  Or as an old poet said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

The Logic of Sacrifice

Biblical Text: John 1:29-42a

John the Baptist points at Jesus and says “Behold, the Lamb of God.” This sermon meditates on the meaning of that phrase. First thinking about the logic and meaning of sacrifice, which oddly has both left our world and in coming back in all kinds of ways. It thinks about how that logic of sacrifice doesn’t really work, at least not with how God has provided the lamb. The last point it contemplates is what happens when we find what we are seeking and it is the lamb of God.

Solar Array (An Object Lesson)

The house that we bought had installed a rather large solar array.  Unfortunately, we learned about a month after moving in that something was wrong and it wasn’t working.  We learned this when the new electric bill came and there was a zero on produced electricity.  The frustration was doubled when the supposed fix was delayed for another month when the scheduled repairman bailed out on the initial date.  Other than the occasion to sin as several words got taken in vain over that time, it was also an occasion to learn a few things.  I did manage to learn that the installation was still on warranty, who the company was and how to contact them.  I learned that they provide both a website and a phone app that monitors and reports on solar production, to which I am now addicted checking the status.  I also learned a bit about the actual physical installation which I think is a possible if flawed object lesson in two types of righteousness or the righteousness of the law and that of the gospel.

I’ll say the solar array has three parts: the panels up on the roof, the wires and gauges, and something called an inverter. The panels produce direct current (DC).  The electricity that comes from APS is alternating current (AC). The DC produced has to be converted to AC to be used.  That is the purpose of the inverter. What was out on my array was the inverter.  So, when I got access to the reporting app, I could see Watts being produced by the panels, but it all went nowhere.  They were being sent into a non-working inverter.

Luther would talk about moral and civil righteousness.  Moral righteousness is that vertical standing with God.  Civil righteousness is our standing with each other. The only way we receive moral righteousness is by faith in what Christ has done.  The reason we can stand is because Christ has given us his righteousness that covers all our sin.  Civil righteousness works much differently, and it has some interesting quirks.  Civil righteousness is active.  We do it.  The real question is if what we are doing is truly righteous or just what we or our society think is righteous.

The law of God, like those solar panels, makes use of the light given.  The law is good and wise and tells us what is truly righteous.  But like those panels, the law by itself has no ability to produce usable power.   And what it does produce can be wasted.  We know what is right, but we don’t feel like doing it, or worse we twist it to support what I want to do.  By ourselves we are like those DC solar panels.  The light of the law wasted.  A direct current to nowhere good.

It is only by the indwelling of the Spirit creating faith in the work of Christ that creates something usable. That inverter is able to make two useful things out of the law. First is it able to make us aware of our sin.  When we look at the cross we become aware that however we have been counting righteousness, it doesn’t work.  Our righteousness with God is something that only comes through Christ.  The second thing it can do is start to move what we receive from God into the right directions with our neighbors. Without faith in Christ we might be producing a lot of DC current, but it does nothing.  It is only by that great inverter that the light of the law can be turned into righteousness.  We receive passively the moral righteousness of Christ, and we are then empowered, producing the right current, to love our neighbor.

Like all object lessons, it isn’t perfect.  I could pick it apart and probably declare myself heretical. But it does strike something core: “One thing is needful”. And without that faith everything is lost.

Let It Be So For Now

Biblical Text: Matthew 3:13-17, (Romans 6:1-11)

The occasion on the church calendar is the baptism of Jesus. If we stop and think about it, the baptism of Jesus doesn’t make sense. It is one of those moments that just feels wrong. Even John the Baptist gets this in his reply to Jesus. Jesus replies in two ways: a) let it be so for now and b) to fulfill all righteousness. This sermon explores how and why Jesus undergoes a baptism of repentance through his answers to John.

A Gifted Star (Epiphany)

This is an Epiphany sermon. It riffs on the idea of “wise men”. The fact is that in the story there are a lot of men who would be considered wise, but are fools for various reasons. It is only when we are gifted stars to guide – the wisdom of God – that we wind up at the manger.

A Faintly Burning Wick He will Not Quench

There are these series of “songs” in the book of Isaiah often called the servant songs.  The most famous is the one most associated with the passion in Isaiah 52 and 53.  “Behold, my servant…shall be high and lifted up…he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows…”  Our Old Testament Lesson for this week (Isaiah 42) is another one of the servant songs.  And it contains one of the most fascinating descriptions in the Bible of the way that God will operate with men.

The first thing it does is make sure that we understand who and what we are dealing with.  “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”  There are three unique things here that we should absorb.  The first is that the mystery of our election is tied up in the mystery of the Trinity.  The son is the only-begotten of the Father.  This is the one in whom the soul of the Lord delights – soul here meaning being or essence.  The delight of the Lord being with his people has always been tied up with his people being connected to the only-begotten son.  And from where does this delight come?  The choosing. This one is my chosen.  And this chosen has chosen his own.  As John says at the start of his gospel, “given the right to become Children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Jn. 1:13 ESV),” And for what have they been chosen?  They are servants of the most high.  Now it is the paradoxical nature of this God that he raises up his servants.  And the one who is the servant of all now sits at the right hand of God.  The church is the servant of Christ, his chosen, and the delight of his eye in an analogous way to the son and the Father.

How is this made known?  “I will put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.” The Spirit was placed upon Jesus in his baptism.  There is a long-standing fight between the Western and the Eastern churches over the Nicene Creed.  The Eastern one confess that the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone.  The Wester adds: and the Son.  The Spirit placed upon Jesus in His baptism then proceeds from the Son to us in our baptism.  He took our baptism, so that we might receive his.  Just as Jesus was anointed by the Spirit for his service, we have been anointed by the Spirit for our service. And what is this service? To make known to the nations what the justice of the Lord is.

And all of that brings us to the toughest verses.  How is this done?  Can we bring this justice to the nations by brute force? What about by the wisdom of the world?  “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”  All of the straightforward ways of power and authority of the world are to be shunned.  The gospel proceeds by “left-handed” ways. It is not that the gospel denies truth and justice.  No, “he will faithfully bring forth justice.  He will not grow faint or be discouraged.”  This is the same God who “created the heavens and stretched them out.” His law stands.  But that rule is to be accepted and longed for.  “The coastlands wait for his law.” Because Christ will not have the might of the law crush the weak. Christ has chosen us and his election is sure.  That “left-handed” way is by faith.  The Servant has chosen us and the will of God will not be confounded.  Our faith is not in vain.   The One who made all things, will make them all new in due time.  “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.”

God operates with us by telling us exactly what he has done.  By giving us His servant “as a covenant for the people.”  And all those who have faith in this covenant are the chosen, those in whom the soul of God delights.

Companions of Christ (The Holy Innocents)

Biblical Text: Matthew 2:13-23

This is a Christmas Season sermon. The Christmas season is not something that stops on Dec 25th. It is also not something that came for universal hygge or general comfort. It came for peace on earth, and the world is not going to give that peace without a fight. This is a serious sermon about a serious topic which only finds its resolution is one place, the resurrection.

A Christmas Season

“Love sought is good, but given unsought better.” – Olivia, Act 3, Scene 1, Twelfth Night

That line is from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, otherwise known as Epiphany. You might have been forced to read it usually as a sophomore.  The play has two themes that play on Epiphany.  The first is wisdom and foolishness, or what is wise and what is foolish.  The second – like most of Shakespeare’s comedies – is about the true nature of love.  Olivia thinks she is being wise playing a “courtly love” game which ends with her foolishness of falling in love with a woman dressed as a man.  And it is all played as a farce. Shakespeare’s comedies have all kinds of troubles today.

I guess I blame Reformed Protestantism.  If you followed Calvin or Zwingli, they more or less ditched the church year.  Every Sunday was the Lord’s Day.  Elevating any day as a Holy Day was Judaizing (using Paul’s term from Galatians.) And while they have a point, every Sunday is a little Easter, life is not quite that flat.  Romans 14: 5-6 should have solved that.  But the United States was largely a Reformed Protestant project, so we get Christmas Day and grudgingly Easter (although that is disappearing into Spring Breaks not always around Holy Week), but we’ve lost the seasons.

The season of Christmas is twelve days, Dec 25th – Jan 5th.  The carol The Twelve Days of Christmas is an echo of that.  It might also be a Roman Catholic crypto-polemic against the Reformed erasing.  And the entire 12 days were often something of boozy hazy time ending with a big party on Twelfth Night when gifts were exchanged.  After all, it was the coming of the Magi that brought the gifts.  Hispanic Cultures still maintain a bit of this as Tres Reyes.  The Protestant Work ethic couldn’t imagine 12 boozy days, so we pack up the tree the day after.

But that’s enough dissembling, or maybe I’m just in a Christmas Season mood and can’t think straight. Olivia’s middle of the play statement captures something about the Christ child and the love of God.  It is good that we love God.  For God has sought our love.  But the better is that he has loved us unsought. When we were lost in darkness, God sent His light.  Whether that light is the fuller light of prophetic revelation, like “out of Egypt I have called my son” which ties the entire story of Israel to this Israel reduced to one, or a light given in a star to a bunch of foolish astrologers, God sought us out wise and foolish, while were all in the dark.  He gave us His love unsought.  When we were still sinners, Christ loved us.

The church built in a season, and then a fuller Epiphany season, to absorb the immensity of that truth.  She can proclaim the reality in an hour.  Your head can hear the message.  But the heart doesn’t always work on the same timetable. And lots of wisdom and foolishness happens as love moves from head to heart.