Never Alone

The Feast of Saint Joseph

1 Corinthians 10:14–11:1

Paul has just finished arguing that the “strong” Corinthians (i.e., those who chose to eat idol meat) are not as invulnerable to the powers of idols as they might think they are.  Indeed, Paul suggests that they are in danger of incurring God’s judgment, just as the Israelites were punished by God for idolatry in the wilderness.  Thus, Paul begins this next passage by encouraging the congregation to “flee from the worship of idols,” to turn tail and run, because the spiritual dangers of idol worship are far greater than the Corinthians have imagined.  He appeals to members of the congregation as “sensible” people, which was probably one of the Corinthians’ favorite designations.  Using the example of the Lord’s Supper, Paul asks (expecting the answer to be “yes, of course”) whether the “bread that we break” and the “cup of blessing that we bless” are means by which we share in the body and blood of Christ.  He explains that the Christian community is “one body” with Christ and each other (more on that in a few chapters), because members of the community share in “one bread.”  Paul demonstrates this further by explaining that those who share in meat that has been sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem are “partners at the altar.”  It seems that these illustrations are boilerplate Eucharistic theology for the communities Paul founded; he asks all of these questions in such a way that the Corinthians probably would have nodded along in agreement.  If all of these illustrations are true, therefore, what is Paul’s implication?  Hearkening back to 8:4, he doesn’t mean to suggest that idols are real.  Rather, he is arguing that, just as eating the bread at the Lord’s Supper is a sharing in the Lord’s body, so also eating meat that has been offered to a “demon” is a sharing in that demon.  Paul argues that knowingly partaking of food that has been offered to a demon and partaking of the Lord’s Supper are mutually exclusive.  He ends this line of argument with a reference to the divine punishment that Israel had experienced in the wilderness: do you really want to make God jealous and put him to the test?

In these final verses of chapter 10, Paul summarizes the argument he has made since introducing the subject of idol meat.  Having finished warning the “strong” Corinthians, he returns to the tactic of arguing for the sake of the community as a whole by recalling the rhetorical strategy of quoting a popular Corinthian slogan and offering a counterslogan of his own.  In this case, the Corinthian slogan is, “All things are lawful.”  Paul responds twice, saying, “not all things are beneficial” and “not all things build up.”  Paul makes it clear that he is speaking of the community as a whole when he suggests that members of the community should seek the advantage of others, rather than themselves.  The next few verses are striking, because Paul essentially suggests that, while one shouldn’t knowingly eat idol meat, one shouldn’t seek to be an inconvenience to avoid eating idol meat.  Everything belongs to the Lord, so one should only avoid eating meat if someone explicitly says, “this has been offered to idols.”  Only then does Paul suggest that one should abstain from eating meat.  I think we’re meant to presume that the “other” who hypothetically provides this information is another member of the Christian community, rather than a nonbeliever.  This is consistent with 8:12; Paul clearly believes that we should be concerned with the consciences of our fellow Christians.  While our liberty should not be judged by another’s conscience, we should not wound another’s conscience with our liberty. 

Paul concludes his discussion of idol meat by suggesting that everything we do should be done for the glory of God.  Whether we eat meat or abstain from eating meat, we should be careful not to “give offense” to anyone in the community.  We should attempt to imitate Paul, who has become “all things to all people.”  In other words, we should think of others in the community before we think of ourselves.

“What is hell?  Hell is oneself.  Hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections.  There is nothing to escape from and nothing to escape to.  One is always alone.” — T.S. Eliot

I am absolutely fascinated by Paul’s conclusion to his discussion of idol meat.  The way he had been arguing, I expected him to tell the Corinthians that they should employ the strategy used by Jewish members of the community: abstain from eating meat altogether in order to avoid the risks associated with idol worship.  Surpringly, Paul relents, telling the Corinthians that they should take precautions against eating idol meat, but do not have to go so far as to stop eating meat altogether.  Indeed, Paul seems be concerned for the feelings of the potential pagan hosts of the Corinthian Christians; he enjoins his congregation “not to raise questions” about what they are eating when they visit someone’s house.  For Paul, concern for the other is not limited to other members of the Christian community, but for everyone a Christian might encounter.  Even though the Church is a “different kind of community,” part of the Christian commitment to community is tied to the acceptance of hospitality without raising self-righteous questions that might embarrass one’s non-Christian hosts.  On one hand, Paul sees this as an evangelistic opportunity; he notes that he tries to please everyone so that they may be saved.  On the other hand, being hospitable is the mark of someone who knows how to live in a community, and if one cannot function in the community of the world, one will not be able to participate effectively in the life of the Church.

T.S. Eliot observed that “hell” is embracing loneliness, forgetting the connection that I have to everyone around me and wallowing in my self-absorbed introspection.  And I think that many people regard Lent as a lonely time in the Church year.  It is easy to imagine that Lenten disciplines are solitary endeavors, individual crosses to bear, opportunities to work on my relationship with God.  The reality, however, is that Lent is meant to encourage community.  Though our disciplines are individual, we experience them in community: if we’ve added devotional time to our day, we are also called ensure that that can happen without sacrificing our relationships with each other.  If we’ve given up dessert, we are called not to let this get in the way of birthday celebrations for family and friends.  Lent is about taking on individual disciplines in community.  Walking the “pilgrim way of Lent” together reminds us that even in our darkest hours, we are not alone.

The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare Sunday)

John 3:14-21

For as long I can remember, there has been a man who walks the streets of Boston, wearing a sandwich board that features a depiction of people being cast into the fires of hell.  Below this picture is an injunction handwritten in block letters: “REPENT!”  In addition to wearing the sandwich board, this man holds Scriptural tracts in each hand, one of which always bears the verse from our gospel reading for the day.  The really eerie thing about this gentleman is not necessarily his fire and brimstone message, but the fact that he doesn’t ever speak.  He walks silently through the Common and down the streets, he’ll appear on the subway and outside Red Sox games, and he never says a word.  I’ve always wanted to walk up to him and ask him how effective he thought this ministry was.  How many people looked at this silent sentinel, read John 3:16, and decided to turn away from their sinful ways and give their lives to the Lord?  This silent preacher seemed to operate under the assumption that if people simply saw the consequences of not believing the gospel, they would turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as their Savior.

This is often the way that our popular culture treats the famous verse from John’s gospel.  John 3:16 becomes a thumbnail sketch of the redemption given to us through Jesus Christ; we have only to read those words and be transformed.  More to the point, one who wishes to spread the gospel only has to put “John 3:16” on a bumper sticker or a sign at a football game in order to be an evangelist.  This tendency to think of John 3:16 as the “gospel in miniature,” however, ignores the fact that it describes an extraordinarily awe-filled event.  God loved the world to the point that he gave the only-begotten Son of God, the very Word of God, to live in the world, be rejected by his own people, and die on our behalf.  This is not something we simply assent to; we don’t grasp the immensity of God’s love by merely reading a single verse from John’s gospel.  The fact of God’s love should bring us to our knees, fill us with so much awe that all we can do is fall down in worship.  Moreover, just as God gave the only-begotten Son to us, we are called to give ourselves to each other.  We are called to show the world how much God loves it by reaching out to those who are in need, those who have been laid low by the evil powers of the world.  This is why the gospel cannot be boiled down to the words of John 3:16.  The very words of that verse teach us that God’s love is beyond our intellectual grasp; it is something that requires our entire being to truly appreciate it.

Today is known as laetare Sunday (from the Latin for “be joyful”).  It marks the midpoint between Ash Wednesday and Easter, and it is traditionally an opportunity to take a break from the penitential language of the first few weeks of Lent and remind ourselves about the goal toward which we are working.  It is also a chance to pause before we collectively set our faces toward Jerusalem and begin to prepare for the journey of Holy Week.  As we reflect on God’s love this laetare Sunday, I invite you to use it as a time to reflect on how much God loves you and, more importantly, how you might show God’s love to the world.

Sin and Grace

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Paul begins this passage with an interesting recapitulation of Israel’s history.  He begins by saying that he does not want the congregation to be unaware that “our ancestors” experienced the Exodus and wandered in the wilderness.  This is striking, because most members of the community at Corinth were born Gentiles.  Once again, Paul demonstrates his belief that baptism incorporates Christians into the heritage and history of Israel (cf. Romans 11:17-18).  Paul follows the story of the Exodus, referencing the pillar of cloud, the crossing of the Red Sea, the provision of manna in the wilderness, and Moses drawing water from a rock by striking it with his staff.  Notice that Paul uses the word “all” five times in these first few verses: all were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink (Paul may be using the language of spiritual food and drink to prefigure his discussion of the Lord’s supper in the next chapter).  From Paul’s insistent use of “all,” we get the sense that Israel received God’s blessings as a collective body; everyone was able to share the miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea and provision of food in the desert.  Paul’s frequent all use of “all” also adds rhetorical force to his observation in verse 5: God was displeased with “most” of the Israelites, and they were subsequently struck down in the wilderness.  While all of Israel was invited to share in God’s blessings, most of them fell away from God.

Before we continue, we need to pause and remember where we are in Paul’s argument.  Paul has been discouraging the Corinthians from eating idol meat from the marketplaces or in pagan temples.  Initially, he argued for the sake of the “weak;” while you may have the liberty to eat whatever you want, Paul said, do not allow your freedom to cause other members of the community to stumble and fall away.  Paul went on to argue that giving up one’s liberty is an important part of living within the Christian community.  In this passage, however, Paul has begun to argue for the sake of the “strong,” those who have sufficient “spiritual knowledge.”  This is a warning: you might think that you are protected from all the spiritual dangers associated with eating idol meat, but you are not as safe as you think you are!

Paul proceeds to recount some of the more dramatic stories of sin and divine punishment that can be found in the books of Exodus and Numbers.  Paul recalls the story of Israel’s worship of the golden calf when he quotes Exodus 32: “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.”  While this Scriptural quotation doesn’t specifically mention Israel’s idolatry, its context would be very clear to anyone who was familiar with the passage.  Moreover, Paul probably mentioned “eating and drinking” in order to highlight the question that is central to his argument: whether eating idol meat is fundamentally an idolatrous act.  Paul also alludes to the sexual immorality of Numbers 25:1-9 (remember that sexual immorality was often a symptom of idolatry in Paul’s worldview) and Israel’s complaining in Numbers 21:4-9.  The final reference seems to be a summary statement about Israel’s tendency to fall away from God.

Paul argues that all of these events happened in order to instruct the Christian community, those who are present to the “ends of the ages.”  He warns that those who think they are standing (i.e., the “strong” who believe that they can do whatever they please) are closer to falling than they might imagine.  The passage concludes with a pastoral note, with Paul affirming God’s faithfulness and promising that members of the congregation will not be tested beyond their strength.  Overall, Paul seeks to encourage the “strong” of the Corinthian community to be less self-assured, to understand that in spite of their spiritual knowledge, they are also vulnerable to spiritual evils and God’s judgment.

“The road to the promised land runs past Sinai.” — C.S. Lewis

One of Paul’s favorite topics is the grace of God.  An understanding of grace is, undoubtedly, a critically important component of being a faithful Christian.  As one writer has said, God paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, even though we had done nothing to deserve that love.  Paul’s comment in Romans 5 summarizes his attitude toward grace well: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.”  Nevertheless, we must not imagine that God’s grace has immunized us from sin.  We continue to fall short of God’s commandments and expectations, putting our own wills before God’s.  This is what the Corinthians had done; they were under the impression that their membership in the Christian community had made them invulnerable to the perils of sin.  Paul, however, warns against this mistaken assumption.  Christians are still vulnerable to sin, even though they have been incorporated into the fellowship of Jesus Christ.  Indeed, it is hard to be aware of the grace of God without first understanding our propensity to sin.  C.S. Lewis summarizes this well when he notes that God’s Law was given to Israel at Sinai before they entered the Promised Land.  We cannot truly appreciate our redemption without knowing that we are sinners, that we have done so little to deserve God’s favor.  Part of the reason we observe this penitential season of Lent is to make ourselves aware of the times that we have failed to honor God.  We are meant to use Lent as an opportunity to appreciate our need for God’s grace as we prepare for Easter and the Resurrection.  The Resurrection is a fundamentally world-changing event that is remaking all of us, and Lent is part of how we begin to appreciate the power of that transformation.

A Million Little Proclamations of the Gospel

1 Corinthians 9:15-27

Paul’s lengthy explanation of the apostle’s right to be paid would logically end with a request for funds.  One can almost imagine Paul concluding the previous passage with the promise of an apostolic tote bag for those who give at the $500 level.  Instead, Paul insists that he has made no use of his apostolic right to compensation and has no interest in doing so.  As he is explaining how he does not desire to have the right to payment applied in his case, Paul interrupts himself, proclaiming that no one will deprive him of his ground for boasting.  Paul shifts the tone very suddenly, and this usually clues us into the fact that Paul is very passionate about the topic at hand.  Paul’s interruption leaves us wondering “what is Paul’s ground for boasting?”  We might assume that Paul is boasting in his proclamation of the gospel, but Paul makes it very clear that through his apostolic role, he is obligated to proclaim the gospel.  If he were doing it of his own accord, he could boast, but he has received a commission from God and is very simply doing what God has commanded.  His boast, therefore, is that he has not drawn a paycheck for his apostolic ministry; he has not made full use of his rights in the gospel.

Before we continue, it is important to unpack Paul’s boasting in this passage.  Has Paul forgotten what he wrote in chapter 3 of this letter, when he urged the Corinthians not to boast in human leaders?  Or is Paul simply being hypocritical?  I don’t think either is the case.  We might look at Romans 11:13, where Paul says that he “glorifies” or “magnifies” his ministry.  Paul does not do this because he is particularly impressed with himself, but because he firmly believes that his glorification of his ministry will make Israel jealous and cause them to receive the redemption brought by Jesus Christ.  In other words, Paul uses his boasting to proclaim the gospel.  This is what he is doing in our passage from 1 Corinthians.  Paul boasts in his willingness to sacrifice his full rights in the gospel for the sake of the gospel because he is calling the Corinthians to do the same thing.  Paul’s boast, in other words, is part of his gospel proclamation.

This becomes clear in the next portion of this passage.  Paul asserts that he is willing to use every weapon in his rhetorical arsenal and every tool at his disposal in order to draw people into the fellowship of Jesus Christ.  Though he is free with respect to everyone, in other words, he has become a slave to everyone so that he might win as many of them as possible.  Paul goes on to list those people: Jews, those under the Law, those outside the Law, and the “weak.”  This is, by no means, a comprehensive list.  Rather, Paul mentions them because he believed that the Corinthian attitude toward these groups was fundamentally misguided.  It was, after all, the Jews and the “weak” of the community whom Paul defended in the previous chapter’s discussion of idol meat.  Moreover, Paul explains that the Corinthian concept of the “Law” was entirely mistaken.  Paul claims that he became like one under the Law to save those who were under the Law, even though he himself is no longer bound by the Law.  This is important to note, because Paul recognizes that the Law has a legitimate hold on some members of the Corinthian community.  Furthermore, Paul notes that he became like one outside the Law in order to reach those who were outside the Law, but points out that being “outside the Law” does not exclude one from God’s law.  He argues that all of us are under Christ’s law.  Paul makes this ambiguous reference to Christ’s law several times in his letters, but for now, it’s important to note that freedom in Christ does not mean that one is free to do whatever one pleases.  Paul concludes this portion of the passage with his famous affirmation that he has become “all things to all people,” so that he may “by all means save some.”

Paul concludes this passage with the metaphor of athletes preparing for a race.  This enslavement to one another that Paul urges is like the training in which athletes engage as they prepare for a major event.  The Corinthians should think of their life in community as a race they are running together.  Importantly, Paul notes that they should not do this to receive a “perishable wreath,” but rather an imperishable prize.  This striving to which Paul calls the Corinthians is not a waste of time, in other words; it is preparing them for a goal toward which they should run.  Once again, Paul is alluding to his primary purpose in writing this letter, which will become clear in a few chapters.  In the meantime, Paul notes that he enslaves his body in order that he might abide by his own gospel proclamation.

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” — C.S. Lewis

Our culture is preoccupied with authenticity.  When new authors, movie stars, or singers come along, we have a cultural tendency to wonder whether their work is true to them, whether their public persona reflects who they really are.  There was an enormous kerfuffle several years ago when it was discovered that James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, was mostly fictional.  People were astonished that this author would make up events and claim that they happened to him (to put it bluntly).  Prior to the discovery of the book’s fictional nature, it was hugely successful.  Readers were anxious to read the true tale of a person lost in drug abuse and alcoholism who found redemption in a 12-step program.  Hearing that the events of the book hadn’t actually happened, people felt betrayed and Frey became the butt of many jokes.  However, the fact that the book described events that hadn’t actually occurred didn’t really make it any less “true.”  There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people who have experienced drug addiction and have been saved by 12-step programs.  Though Frey invented many of the book’s “facts,” the book resonated with people because it described a true experience.  Frey’s book, in other words, was not “authentic,” but it was true in the broadest sense of the word.

People have a tendency to balk at Paul’s assertion that he has become “all things to all people.”  In a culture where we value authenticity, Paul’s statement rings hollow: it makes him sound like a charlatan, a shyster, a snake-oil salesman.  I think that these labels would be correct if Paul’s understanding of the Truth varied depending on who was trying to persuade that day.  But Paul’s commitment to the central mystery of the universe, the gospel of Christ, was unwavering.  He was willing to do whatever it took to bring people into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, regardless of how “inauthentic” it made him look.  C.S. Lewis was similarly motivated.  The man who is known as “the most imaginative Christian writer of the 20th century” was not particularly interested in being authentic, original, or even imaginative.  For Paul and C.S. Lewis, the only thing about their proclamation that had to be authentic was the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In the same way, we are called to use everything at our disposal to proclaim the gospel.  We cannot fool ourselves into believing that there is only one “correct” way to preach the gospel, because this would be inconsistent with the whole history of the Church.  Paul’s words encourage us to hold on to our traditions, but also to try new expressions of the gospel.  We are called to remember that our particular Christian tradition does not have a monopoly on the Truth; the Truth of the gospel transcends our denominational, liturgical, and even theological differences.  We must remember to become all things to all people, holding Jesus Christ at the very center of our lives.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Community

1 Corinthians 9:1-14

Having alluded to his liberty with a hypothetical example in the previous passage, Paul now proceeds to illustrate his willingness to give up his freedom for the sake of the gospel with a concrete example.  He begins by asking rhetorical questions about his identity: “Am I not free?  Am I not an apostle?  Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?  Are you not my work in the Lord?”  The way that the questions are framed Greek indicates that he expects the answer to be “Yes, of course” to each of the questions.  Assuming that all of these markers of Paul’s identity are true, he proceeds to explain that as a free apostle who has seen the Lord and has been charged proclaiming the gospel to the Corinthians, he has the “right” to be paid for his labors.  Apparently, there were members of the community who challenged this assumption.  After noting that other apostles had been paid, Paul offers three rhetorical examples to demonstrate the ludicrousness of an apostle working without pay.  A mercenary does not cover his own expenses, but is paid by the army who hires him.  A vintner does not plant a vineyard without expecting to reap some profit from the grapes, and a shepherd does not tend a flock of sheep or goats without some expectation of drinking the milk that those animals produce.  To underline his point, Paul quotes a passage from Scripture.  Deuteronomy 25:4 commands that one should not muzzle an ox while it is plowing a field.  Paul argues that this passage cannot simply refer to oxen, but must also apply to human beings in their various occupations.  He goes on to suggest that the one who plows should plow in hope and the one who reaps should reap in hope to share in the produce of the crop.  Here Paul is explaining the concept of “first fruits.”  The Law dictated that one had to make an offering the very beginning of the harvest, even before one knew how large that harvest would be.  It was an act of faith, and Paul is suggesting that as an apostle, he was entitled to a material share of the spiritual harvest among the Corinthians (the theme of first fruits will be recapitulated later in the letter).  Paul uses all of these examples to make the point that as an apostle he is legitimately entitled to be compensated.  He summarizes this point in 9:14, when he says, “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”  Paul, however, has refused to make use of this “right.”  In spite of the fact that he is entitled to payment as an apostle, he has not accepted any compensation.  Paul does not just pay lip service to the notion of giving up one’s rights for the sake of the gospel; Paul’s ministry exemplifies this willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests in order to build up the community.

“Free will is not the liberty to do whatever one likes, but the power of doing whatever one sees ought to be done, even in the very face of otherwise overwhelming impulse.  There lies freedom, indeed.” — George MacDonald

One of my favorite movies in high school was Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, the story of a legendary Scottish warrior named William Wallace who sought to free Scotland from the tyrannical rule of the English king, Edward Longshanks.  It is one of those movies that is incredibly exciting to an adolescent boy: there are dramatic battle scenes, lots of swordplay, and a healthy dose of off-color humor.  In one of the pivotal scenes of this three-hour long saga, William Wallace is being tortured by his English captors.  At one point during this experience, he struggles to say something.  Thinking that Wallace is going to beg for mercy, the jailer pauses.  Rather than asking that he be spared, however, Wallace shouts the word “FREEDOM!” as loudly as he can, his voice echoing throughout the castle.  The music swells, and though the jailer continues to torture him, we get the sense that Wallace was finally experiencing freedom for himself and his countrymen.

Now, I don’t mean imply that there is a direct relationship between Saint Paul and Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace.  Nevertheless, Wallace’s proclamation of his freedom as he forfeited his life is consistent with Paul’s understanding of liberty in the Christian community.  Paul spent most of this passage articulating the source of his apostolic rights (explaining where his liberty comes from), only to argue that he refuses to make use of those rights for the sake of the gospel.  For Paul, true freedom involves sacrifice; true freedom is a willingness to give up one’s freedom for a cause greater than oneself.  In Paul’s estimation, this cause is the Church, the Christian community.

George MacDonald agrees with Paul about the exercise of one’s freedom.  As he argues in our quotation for the day, freedom is not about doing whatever I please, it is about ordering my will to do what should be done.  This is, admittedly, somewhat paradoxical.  True freedom is not the ability to control one’s destiny or the “liberty” to do whatever one pleases; true freedom involves limiting one’s options, so to speak, so that one might do the rightthing.  This is a difficult thing for us to hear, especially in a country where “liberty” is generally equated with “the pursuit of happiness.”  There is nothing wrong with pursuing happiness per se, but if our sisters and brothers are injured by our pursuit, then we have not truly exercised our Christian freedom.  As Christians, we are called to pursue that which builds up the Christian community, offering our gifts and our selves for the sake of the Church.  It is only by giving of ourselves, sacrificing our time, our talent, and our treasure, that we can truly understand what freedom is.

The Perils of Being Right

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Paul indicates that this passage is a response to another question that the Corinthians had raised.  Apparently, they had framed their query about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols in the context of their superior spiritual knowledge.  Once again, Paul quotes a slogan that was apparently popular in the Corinthian community: “All of us possess knowledge.”  Immediately, however, he counters by arguing that “knowledge puffs up.”  Paul’s use of the verb for “puff up” is critically important for his argument, because it recalls his reference to leaven in 5:6-8.  Leaven is what “puffs up” the dough, and so by extension, we’re invited to equate knowledge with leaven.  The force of this analogy becomes clear when we remember that Paul enjoined the Corinthians to clean out the leaven from their community in preparation for the Passover.  In other words, knowledge is something that needs to be cleaned out of the Corinthian community.  While knowledge puffs up, Paul suggests that love builds up.  This is the first time that Paul has made reference to love within the community, and he will elaborate on the edifying power of love later in the letter.  Just to make sure his point about knowledge is clear, Paul argues that anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.  For Paul, the necessary knowledge is to be known by God.  To put it another way, it’s not what you know, it’s who knows you. 

After this somewhat dismissive preface, Paul begins to engage the question directly.  We need a little background to understand the conflict underlying this question.  Temples were the butchers of the ancient world.  Priests would sacrifice part of an animal to a god, but the rest of that animal would be butchered and sold in the marketplace.  That was how people purchased and ate meat in the ancient world; they would go to the market (or occasionally from temple to temple), where the representatives of various temples would be selling meat, and they would buy cuts that looked good, just like we would at the grocery store.  The problem, especially for devout Jews, or devout Jews who became Christians, was that this meat had already been offered to a god, and if that god wasn’t the God of Israel, then eating that meat would be idolatry.  There is, of course, no greater sin in the Jewish or Christian tradition than idolatry: putting another god in the place of the God of Israel who created and redeemed us.  So, devout Jews and Jews who became Christians would avoid eating meat from the marketplaces, just in case that meat had been offered to another god.  But, as far as the knowledgeable Corinthians were concerned, they were entitled to eat whatever they wanted, because they knew that these idols were imaginary.  Paul concedes this point: he affirms that there is only one God “from whom are all things and for whom we exist.”  He insists, however, that not everyone understands this.  There are still people in the Corinthian community who believe that food sacrificed to idols is off-limits.  When these people see their more “enlightened” brethren eating idol meat, they might imagine that honoring idols is now an appropriate thing to do as a follower of Jesus, and their conscience is thus wounded. While Paul admits that the more liberal Corinthians have it right when they say that “food will not bring us closer to God,” he also argues that they have it dead wrong when they assume that their actions do not impact their brothers and sisters in Christ.  In fact, he says to these “knowledgeable” Corinthians, “by your knowledge the weak brother for whom Christ died is destroyed.”  Paul concludes by saying he will never eat meat if it causes just one of his brothers or sisters in Christ to fall.  In other words, he is willing to give up his individual liberty for the sake of the wider Christian community.

“There is no salvation in correct opinions, neither is there damnation in wrong opinions.” — George MacDonald

One of my many faults is my tendency to correct the grammar of my friends and colleagues.  For whatever reason, I have an uncontrollable urge to remind them that the word is “whom” when it’s the direct object of the sentence.  This desire for correctness extends to other topics of conversation: I used to be known for prefacing statements with the word “actually,” as I proceeded to explain how my conversation partner was mistaken.  When people noticed that I was alienating my friends by correcting them all the time, my defense was always the same: “But they were wrong!”

On one level, this comittment to correctness is not a problem, and is occasionally very helpful.  Every once in a while, people base their worldviews on mistaken understandings of facts.  In cases like this, there is nothing wrong with gently letting people know that a misunderstanding exists.  The danger, however, is when we move from the correction of facts to the correction of opinions.  When we tell someone that their position is wrong simply because we disagree with them, we risk alienating that person and disrupting the community that we have together.  This is what was happening in Corinth.  The Corinthians with “knowledge” had spurned the Jewish traditionalists because they had a different understanding of how to be followers of Christ.  These more “progressive” Corinthians were technically correct: the gospel of freedom that Paul proclaimed had officially liberated people from paying attention to food laws.  But being “right” was causing other members of the community to stumble and fall away from God.  These “knowledgeable” Corinthians were alienating their brothers and sisters by telling them that they were wrong, and didn’t seem to care.

It may be that there are such things as “correct” and “incorrect” opinions.  But, as George MacDonald points out, opinions are not a matter of salvation.  Indeed, my opinions, no matter how correct they may be, are secondary to the Christian community.  If I somehow disrupt the fabric of the community and alienate other members just so that I can make a point, I have lost sight of my role in the community.  All of us are called to build each other up.  All of us are called to think of others before we think of ourselves.  Our positions may be important within the community, but we must do our very best to ensure that we build up the Church, rather than tearing it down.  We were made and redeemed not for our opinions, but for each other.

Being Present to Eternity

1 Corinthians 7:32-40

As we noticed yesterday, Paul’s primary purpose in this chapter has been to articulate how the Christian community ought to behave in response to the nearness of God’s coming reign.  These eight verses essentially summarize Paul’s point.  Paul is concerned that the pressures of marriage might distract members of the Corinthian community from focusing all of their energies on the Lord’s will.  Nevertheless, Paul is more concerned with those who remain unmarried and yet burn with passionate desire.  As far as he is concerned, marriage is appropriate in these circumstances.  Paul summarizes his point well in verse 38: “he who marries his fiancee does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”  Both marriage and non-marriage, therefore, are acceptable states in the Church.  Members of the church, however, must understand that their attachments in this world are temporary when placed in the context of the new creation that God is bringing into being.

“God has no history.  He is too completely and utterly real to have one.  For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future): in fact having nothing but the tiny little present, which has gone before you can speak about it.  God forbid we should think God was like that.  Even we may hope not to be always rationed in this way.” — C.S. Lewis

We have (finally) come to the end of Paul’s prolonged discussion about marriage and sexual ethics.  These eight verses essentially rehash the argument that Paul has been making throughout the entire chapter: while our relationships and human attachments are important and worth maintaining, we should remember that they are temporary, in light of the fact that the present form of this world is passing away.  The fact that he hammers this point home so insistently indicates that Paul expected the Lord to return at any moment, certainly within his lifetime.  The last 1,960 years of history, however, seem to fly in the face of Paul’s expectations.  The Lord hasn’t yet returned, and this leaves us with two unappealing possibilities: 1. Paul might have been a little delusional, or even worse, 2. God doesn’t keep God’s promises.

Neither of these options, however, takes into account the fact that God does not have the same relationship to Time that the world has.  Last night, those who attended the Curate’s Study at Heavenly Rest had a lively discussion about the God-view of Time.  The conversation centered on C.S. Lewis’ reflection on Time in Mere Christianity (which is where our “quote of the day” comes from).  Lewis affirms that “God is not in Time; Time is in God.”  God does not “exist” in the way that human beings and other creatures exist.  God does not move sequentially through Time, experiencing moments as we experience moments.  Lewis uses the example of prayer: if there are millions of people praying to God at any given moment, God does not have to assign people a number and hear these prayers in sequence.  Rather, God experiences these prayers in eternity; God’s “existence” is completely beyond Time.  Indeed, all of the history of the universe, past, present, and future, is contained within God.  Thus, what we do in 2012 and what Paul did in 50 are both present to God.  To paraphrase Aslan’s remark inThe Last Battle: God’s ‘moment’ contains all moments.

In this “God-view” of time, the return of the Lord continues to be imminent; the world is still on the very cusp of redemption.  This is not an easy concept to grasp, by any means.  C.S. Lewis invites us to “leave it alone” if it’s not something that is helpful to us.  Nevertheless, it is important for us to remember that we are called to be in touch with eternity.  All of history is eternally present to God; we are called to allow the eternal to be present to us.  We must be aware, as one New Testament commentator has put it, that we have been given “bodies with a future,” that our lives, while currently Time-bound, are ultimately made for eternity.

Life in a world that is passing away…

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

In the next passage, Paul indicates that there were not any references to virgins in the earliest Jesus traditions.  Clearly, this issue had been on the Corinthians’ minds, and Paul says that though he does not have a “command from the Lord,” he is able to give his opinion as one who is trustworthy by the Lord’s mercy.  Paul then recapitulates the argument he had made in the preceding passages, indicating that it is well for virgins (and for others) to “remain as they are.”  If they are virgins, they should remain unmarried, but if they are married, they should not seek to separate from their spouses.  He makes this suggestion “in view of the impending crisis,” the coming of the day of the Lord, which Paul believed could be imminent.  Paul’s main reason for suggesting that the Corinthians remain as they are is that those who change their marital situation are likely to “experience distress in this life.”  Paul, in other words, does not want people to complicate their lives unnecessarily, in view of the imminence of the Lord’s return.  Paul carries this further when he says that those who are married, or are mourning, or are rejoicing should behave as though none of these things were true.  Those who are forced to have dealings with the world should behave as though they have no dealings with the world; those who buy should behave as though they have no possessions.  Why does Paul encourage this attitude?  Because “the present form of this world is passing away.”  Paul believed that the arrival of Jesus Christ has completely changed the world.  Indeed, the arrival of Jesus Christ has inaugurated an entirely new creation: the old world is passing away and a new world is being brought into being by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Thus, Paul believed that those who are in Christ should surrender all of the trappings of this world.  Paul believed that we should not be tied to this world that is passing away.  This is the primary reason that he suggests that people should “remain as they are.”  Our ties to this world are essentially null and void, because our citizenship is ultimately in the world that is being brought into being by God in Jesus Christ.

“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting.  Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” — T.S. Eliot

If it seems as though Paul is belaboring the point he has made throughout this chapter, that is because he is.  One of Paul’s fundamental assumptions is that members of the Church must understand their life in terms of the return of Jesus Christ.  All of their relationships with other people and their interactions with the world must be framed within the context of the world that is being brought into being, rather than the world that is passing away.  Paul points out in 2 Corinthians that those who are in Christ are part of a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17; cf. Galatians 6:15).  The challenging part of Paul’s instruction is that we do not know exactly what the new creation looks like.  We are called to live with the knowledge that this world’s days are numbered, but we have no idea what the coming world will look like.  We are called to imagine that we live in the world that God is bringing into being, even though we can only guess at what that world might look like.  T.S. Eliot describes this perplexing situation well: we are called to wait, allowing God to reveal his purposes to us.

When we hear that we are called to “wait” for God to reveal his purposes to us, it is easy to imagine that Christians are called to function within an insular community and forget about the world around them.  There are certainly some denominations of Christianity throught history who have interpreted Paul’s instructions in this way.  As T.S. Eliot might have observed, however, this represents “hope for the wrong thing” and “love for the wrong thing.”  Indeed, while we are waiting for the day of the Lord, we have been given a clue about God’s purpose.  In sending Jesus Christ, God has hinted that his purpose is to reconcile the world to himself.  Through Jesus Christ’s willingness to die for us while we were yet sinners, we can surmise that God’s will is for all people to be brought into unity with God.  As members of the Church, therefore, we are to live our lives as agents of God’s reconciling love.  We are called to proclaim the gospel to those who have not heard the good news of Jesus Christ.  We are called to reach out to the homeless and hungry, showing them that there are no outcasts in God’s kingdom.  We are called to heal relationships with our enemies and those we love, so that we can live as emblems of God’s reconciling love to the world.  As we wait for God to reveal himself to us once again, we must exercise our privilege to participate in God’s mission of reconciling the world to God.

The Third Sunday in Lent

John 2:13-22

When I was growing up, I had a children’s bible that paired passages with some really beautiful artistic depictions of the stories’ events and characters.  One image that I remember very clearly is the picture of the Temple incident that we hear about it John’s gospel today.  The painting was crowded with livestock and birds running every which way, people ducking for cover behind overturned tables, and Jesus at the center, swinging a cat-o-nine-tails and looking very grumpy indeed.  In some ways, this story is very familiar: I think that most people who have heard the story of Jesus are aware that he “cleansed” the Temple.  In other ways, this story is very perplexing to modern readers, even though it appears in all four gospel accounts.  Why did Jesus, who was usually peace-loving and far less demonstrative in his teaching, feel the need to make such a dramatic scene in the Temple precincts?

Here’s something that’s even more perplexing to us: if we were reading the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, or Luke (also known as the “synoptic gospels,” because they can be “seen together”), the answer to our question would be different than it is today.  For the synoptic evangelists, Jesus’ Temple tantrum was a necessary part of the way he would fulfill his mission.  As we heard in our gospel reading from last week, Jesus knew that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).  In order for this to come to pass, Jesus had to make the religious authorities angry enough that they would hand him over to death.  For the synoptic gospels, in other words, Jesus’ actions in the Temple were the incidents that precipitated his death.  In some ways, the reasons behind Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple were less important than the consequences of Jesus’ actions: in the synoptic gospels, the Temple incident caused the religious authorities to hand Jesus over to death, so that he could fulfill his mission.

The location of Jesus’ Temple tantrum in John’s gospel, however, indicates that the incident had a very different meaning for John.  Rather than inaugurating the Passion narrative, as it does in the synoptic gospels, John places the Temple incident at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  At the beginning of chapter 2, Jesus famously acts as the sommelier for a wedding at Cana in Galilee.  Immediately afterward, he causes this ruckus in the Temple.  While the Temple incident is essentially the capstone of Jesus’ public ministry in the synoptic gospels, it functions as Jesus’ debut in John’s gospel.  Jesus makes a big splash when he arrives on the scene, and invites those who witnessed his debut to ask who he is and what he has come to do.  The reaction of the crowd is telling.  After watching him make an enormous mess, the onlookers do not respond as we might expect.  Unlike the painting that adorned my children’s bible, the crowd did not cower in fear, nor did they angrily chase after Jesus.  Instead, they asked rather calmly, “what sign can you show us for doing this?”  It is a surprising reaction, but tells us that the crowd was ready to believe that Jesus’ actions were justified if he were able to show some sign of his prophetic authority.  Jesus’ response, however, disappoints the crowd.  He proclaims, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  In a classically Johannine example of Jesus and his audience talking at cross-purposes, the crowd thinks that he is talking about the Temple in which they were standing, but, as the evangelist points out, “he was speaking of the temple of his body.”  After this moment of confusion, the scene ends.  The crowd does not seek retribution; the authorities do not demand that Jesus clean up the mess he made.  Everyone wanders away, bewildered and wondering who this person could possibly be.

On the one hand, the Temple incident is at its most dramatic and violent in John’s gospel (John is the only evangelist who mentions a whip of cords).  On the other hand, the ending of the story is somewhat anticlimactic.  The chief priests do not use this as an opportunity to plot against Jesus; the crowd doesn’t even seem particularly perturbed about the mess that Jesus made.  Instead of the image from my children’s bible, I like to imagine Jesus standing in the Temple precincts, holding his whip limply against his side, staring as everyone walks cautiously away from him.  This story is less about what Jesus did in the Temple and more about the fact that the crowd could not understand who he was.  They had been given an chance to encounter the reality of the Resurrection, to understand that they had come face to face with the Word made flesh, and they had squandered the opportunity.

It’s easy to sympathize with the crowd that was gathered in the Temple on the day of Jesus’ debut.  Resurrection is not an easy concept to comprehend.  When we look around us, at a world that so often seems wasted by pain and grief, it is easy to despair that there is any kind of hope for the world we live in.  It is easy to assume that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that hope for a better world is just a pipe dream.  We are called, however, to use this season of Lent as a time of preparation, as an opportunity to do the hard work of understanding that Resurrection has been promised to this world through our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are called to imagine a world that has been redeemed and is being renewed through our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are called to come face to face with the Word made flesh, and not to squander the opportunity.

“Remain as you are…”

1 Corinthians 7:10-24

This next passage begins with Paul quoting from the early Jesus tradition; prohibitions against divorce seem to have been part of the Church’s teaching from the very beginning.  Notice that Paul gives both the man and the woman agency in the situation.  He states that the woman should not separate from her husband, and the man should not divorce his wife.  This is a surprising thing to say in a very patriarchal society, and demonstrates that Paul is not as much of a misogynist as he is often portrayed to be.

Paul then turns his attention to interfaith marriages.  There were, evidently, men and women in the Corinthian community married to pagans, people who were not part of the church.  As far as Paul is concerned (he is careful to stress that this is not part of the early Jesus tradition, but his own advice), these interfaith couples should make every effort to stay together.  Indeed, he suggests that the unbelieving member of the married couple is made holy through his or her Christian spouse.  Paul then makes a strange reference to the children of an interfaith couple being holy rather than unclean.  No commentators have been able to provide an adequate explanation of this rather confusing non sequitur.  Despite encouraging interfaith couples to stay married, Paul does say that if the non-believing member of the couple decides to leave the marriage, then the believer should be at peace.  Nevertheless, Paul notes that a believing wife might well bring her husband into the fellowship of the church, and vice versa.

The next section of this passage is one of the more problematic in Pauline literature.  Using the examples of circumcision and slavery, Paul insists that those who have been brought into Christ’s fellowship should remain as they are.  Thus, those who are circumcised (i.e., those who were born Jews), should not seek to remove the marks of that circumcision, while those who were born Gentiles should not seek to be circumcised.  In the same way, those who were slaves when they became members of the church should not seek their freedom.  These verses were historically used to justify the institution of slavery in Europe and the United States.  Those who used this passage to justify slavery fundamentally misunderstood the context in which Paul was writing.  Fully one-third of the people in the Roman Empire were enslaved in a form of indentured servitude.  Slavery in the Roman Empire, while not pleasant, bore little resemblance to the chattel slavery that existed in the United States for almost three and a half centuries.  Moreover, Paul’s point has much less to do with the institution of slavery and more to do with one’s identity in Christ.  He makes an important rhetorical point: those who were called to the Lord as slaves are free people belonging to the Lord, while those who were called as free people are slaves of Christ.  In other words, everyone belongs to the Lord, whether they are slaves or free people.  A person’s identity, therefore, is not tied to one’s status in this world, but rather to one’s status as a person who belongs to God in Jesus Christ.

“Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates.  But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Paul’s overall argument in this passage is “remain as you are,” which might seem to be the most obvious position for Paul to take.  After all, the Church has always been biased toward permanence, especially when it comes to marriage.  This, however, ignores the Christian assumption that the Christ event changed the world in an irreversible and dramatic way.  Indeed, other parts of the New Testament seem to indicate that being a follower of Jesus should completely reorder one’s human relationships: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26).  This line from Luke’s gospel deserves further analysis at some later date, but for the moment we should notice that the author’s assumption is that Jesus has reordered human affections to the point that the old categories of “mother,” “father,” “husband,” and “wife” no longer apply.  There is no doubt that Paul and Luke regard the Christ event to be similarly earth-shattering, but for whatever reason,  Paul draws the opposite conclusion.  Rather than nullifying our human connections to one another, Paul argues that we should reaffirm those connections in light of the Christ event.  Again, this is a fairly progressive view.  Rather than completely abandoning our attachments in this world, Paul suggests that Christ calls us to live knowing that those attachments have been fundamentally transformed.

Though J.R.R. Tolkien was not particularly well-qualified to give marriage advice (he was a lifelong bachelor who was enraged when his friend C.S. Lewis married Joy Davidman), his sentiments about marriage seem to capture Paul’s attitude well.  It is easy to look at a marriage or any other relationship and wonder how it might be different if different people were involved.  Paul, however, hints at the fact that deeply committed relationships transform the people involved to the point that removing one of those people would be like removing part of the other person.  This is partially why Paul does not believe that the Christ event has nullified our human attachments.  When we separate from someone, part of our self is destroyed.  And God sent Jesus Christ into the world not to destroy, but to transform our selves.  At the beginning of Lent, we observe that God “desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.”  In other words, we are called to “remain as we are,” not because God wants to maintain the status quo, but because God is transforming us and the world around us.