Sunday, July 21, 2013

Freedom, Fees, Food and The Use Of Our Liberty for Christ (1 Corinthians 9)... One: On the road to Unity in 1 Corinthians (Part 9)

Last week we started to look at the issue in Corinth of should Christians eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Some in the church at Corinth thought it was alright for them to go and be involved at the feasts and festivals held at the pagan temples in Corinth. They thought that in Christ they were free to do whatever they wanted and after all it was just sticks and stones and food was just food. Others were wrestling with the food at the butchers being from the temples so should they even touch that. And we saw Paul began to address the issue by saying that Christian ethics and behaviour was not based solely on knowledge but on love.

Yes we are free… yes we have all this knowledge and …yes says Paul  idols are just wood and stone but we know the one true God, our heavenly Father and we have come to know that God through the one Lord, Jesus Christ, and all we do should come out of a love for the one true God who first loved us.

We know it is just food and it’s our right to eat it, but if it causes our brothers and sisters to lose their faith then it is not the loving thing to do.  we become a tripping hazard...And we saw how these principles help us as a diverse people of God to work through issues of liberty and love in our time and place.

In the chapter we had read out to us today Paul continues his argument about food sacrificed to idols. He does it by giving an example in his own life, how he had curbed his freedom and voluntarily forgone a personal right for the sake of the gospel… not demanding support from the church at Corinth…Then he talks about how he goes about dealing with food and cultural issues in his ministry… and finally before going back to address the issue of food and idols directly, which we will look at next week, he uses the metaphor of the self-discipline of athletes  to challenge his hearers about how we should use our liberty in Christ for the gospel.

One of the results of the factions in Corinth was a challenge to Paul’s authority as an Apostle, and one of the key issues about that was that Paul actually worked for a living as well as preached the gospel.  It went in the face of their idea of how a philosopher or sophist would make a living in their day. Most sophists would charge a fee for people to attend courses on their way of living… In our modern age it maybe through running motivational seminars, self-help videos and books, Christian conferences. Others would be sponsored by rich patron’s in a community, some would beg and the rear one would support themselves by working part time.  So Paul here kills two birds with one stone by asserting his credentials as an apostle and giving as an example of how he curbs his freedom and rights for the sake of the gospel by tackling the pay issue.

He starts with a series of rhetorical question which we are supposed to answer in the affirmative. He says he is free, a catch word amongst the spiritual ones in Corinth, they had been set free by coming to faith in Christ, so Paul like them was free.  Isn’t he an Apostle…  which he defends and defines in two ways.  Firstly that he has seen the risen Lord, Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road was more than just a vision in Paul’s mind. Later in chapter 15 he will place himself on the list of those to whom Jesus appeared to after his resurrection, calling himself, as one untimely born. In his meeting with the risen Lord Paul received a commission to go and preach Christ to the gentiles, he is an apostle a sent one because he is sent by Christ. Secondly, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is an apostle to the church in Corinth because they are a result of his ministry.  He had come and preached the gospel and by the Holy Spirit they had responded. Others may doubt him but how could the church at Corinth.

Recently there has been debate over whether we still have apostles in the church today and what does that mean. is it an authoritative person or is it a church planter/missionary?  some talk of a new apostolic era, with anointed leadership to help the church chart its path in a new reality, and other worry it is simply a new apostolic error, a grab for power and influence. When I was looking at placements when I came out of Knox college one church that was interested in me told me that they had just entered into an agreement with someone as their apostle, and if I came to them I’d have to work in within that relationship. They didn’t mean Apostle with a capital A as in someone that had been with Jesus and witnessed the resurrection, but would exercise a leadership relationship with the parish. My response was to look at this passage and that person and say that while I believe people can have an apostolic ministry today, that is planting churches in new areas, that I did not believe that person had such a ministry, they had never actually established a church in a cross cultural setting.  Apart from that it went against our Presbyterian understanding of leadership and polity, we look for the Spirits leading in collective wisdom rather than in a person.

Paul asserts that as an apostle he has the right like the other apostles to ask for the support of the churches he has planted. The other Apostles seem to exercise that right. They even have their wives with them. That the support that was asked for was for the family travelling together. I couldn’t help but think of the recent public outcry we’ve had in New Zealand about politicians using the public purse to take their spouses on overseas junkets.

Paul then gives a very solid defence for paying people who preach and teach the gospel. He defends it five ways. From common sense, using the example of a soldier, they get paid for their services, a vineyard owner shares in the harvest and a shepherd drinks milk from his flock. He defends it from scripture quoting Deuteronomy 25;4. Oxen that were used to turn the stones on threshing floor should not be muzzled to stop them eating some of the grain they are helping work on. While this seems to be an animal welfare law, in rabbinical teaching and for Paul it had a wider application to those who worked for the Lord: If the oxen could share in the harvest why shouldn’t those who sow and reap spiritually  receive at least some material benefit. 

He goes on to point out to the Corinthians that the priests that serve in the temple also make their living from the temple. In the Jewish temple system  which Paul was referring to here as a scriptural precedent but and also in the pagan temples in Corinth, the priests received a portion of the meat sacrificed to idols, this is after all is the context of his argument. He also points out that the Lord  commanded it in Passages like Luke 10:7 and Matthew 10:10 where Jesus tells his disciples in their mission trips to make use of the hospitality they are given.

But Says Paul I do not use this right. It seems others were asking the church at Corinth to support them but Paul would not.  He did not want it to be a burden on them. The gospel that he had been freely given should be freely given. Why should it be only for those who could pay? If he was to make use of patronage, it would mean he was tied down to one person or one group and not free to preach where he wanted. Some scholars think that the factions in Corinth were based around the strong patrons in the Church supporting different Apostles. In Acts when Paul first comes to Europe he does stay at the house of Lydia but by the time he comes to Corinth he is supporting himself by plying his trade as a tent maker. But also says Paul he does not want to be robbed of his boast that it is all Christ. He does not want to lose his reward of seeing people come to know Jesus.

In our own time we wrestle with these issues. In New Zealand and the western world there is a great suspicion of preachers and church leaders who seem to live an extravagant life style. Like TV evangelists who always invite people to contribute while they live in mansions and wear the flashiest clothes. Million dollar mansions and private Jets damage the gospels credibility... It is interesting to see the positive affirmations the new pope has received for forgoing some of the trapping of is position.   

In our Presbyterian Church a minister is paid a stipend or living allowance to free them from worrying about finances to focus on preaching and teaching. The stipend is set on the average wage in New Zealand. 

Patronage has also been an issue that has had to be addressed. In the church in Scotland in 1843 there was the great disruption where ministers and congregations walked away from the national church over the issue of patronage. Whether the wealthy few should have the say over who the minister in a certain parish was, could they override the rights of a congregation?

Paul’s profession and example of tentmaking is significant again in Missions round the world. In many places round the world which are closed to the gospel people go as tentmakers to live in those places and share the gospel. I aways remember one the story of a man who went to the same church we did when w were in Dunedin. He was a diesel mechanic who was invited to speak to a university in Iran and the class started asking him about his faith rather than his expertise with engines.

There is also the challenge for many in ministry in the west, where the price of supporting a full time minister is a luxury that can no longer be maintained. And we are seeing the rise of bi-vocational ministers who supplement their ministry with other work. Other traditions have focused on having lay leadership to avoid paid ministers all together.

Having shown the Corinthians how he curbs his freedom for the sake of the gospel Paul then turns to talk about how he handles the food issue. How he deals with living and preaching in different cultural settings. When he with Jews he says he eats like a Jew. He goes Kosha. Not because he is bound by the law of Moses, not to earn God’s favour, but he does it to show love and be able to share the love of Christ. When he is with non-Jews, he eats as if he does not have the law although as a Jew he  is probably more akin to kosher eating.  Then to bring it home to the folk in Corinth who were causing the weak to head back to pagan idols he says when I’m with the weak I eat like the weak. I curb my freedom.

He sums this up by saying that he becomes all things to all people. The key issue for Paul which he repeats six times in verses 19-23 is that he may win people to Christ. He does not water down or change his message but is willing to confirm to certain morally free cultural differences for the sake of the gospel.  If he kept his kosher food laws and didn’t eat with the gentiles, which he had to tell Peter off about, it would stop the gospel being preached and shared. Whenever he went to a new town he went to the synagogue or place of prayer, if there was one and shared the gospel with the Jews so it meant living like them.  The big mission word is contextualisation. In my office my bible sits on my desk, next to my coffee cup, as I was writing this I noticed I had put my cell phone on top of it.  I have a friend who shares his faith with many Muslim people, and how he treats his physical scriptures is different, he has his bible on a special stand. He never east or drinks round it and definitely never puts stuff on top of it, because those are some of the ways Muslims show respect to their scripture. Christians often shun places where non-Christians congregate, yet a friend of mine says she has had some of her best conversations about Christ in the toilets of Gay night clubs, and last time I talked with her, she had turned the room that bar staff used for smoking dope into the place where they met for bible study. She never compromises her faith but is secure enough to go and share in such places. Similarly Jesus was seen as the one who would go and eat with tax collectors and outcasts, not to hang out with the cool crowd or out of some thrill of walking on the wild side, but to show love to them and share the good news that they were as welcome at God’s table as he was at there’s. The religious people used to brand him with a title which is very dear to you and I… Jesus “friend of Sinners”.

Finally Paul uses the metaphor of an athlete to demonstrate that for the sake of the gospel he was willing to go into strict training. He was prepared to restrict his personal liberty for the sake of the prize. Corinth was the town which hosted the second most important sporting event in the whole of Greece. Athletes would sign up for ten months hard physical training before they could compete; if they broke that training they were disqualified.  So Paul says for the sake of the gospel he will discipline himself, he will curb his freedom he will be careful what he eats and how he acts so that he may gain the prize.  Yes he is free to do whatever he wants but for the sake of the gospel he uses self-disciple.  In the end says Paul the prize we have is far greater than a gold medal or a world cup, yes we are free by that freedom calls us to live a self-disciplined lifestyle willing to give things up and take up good practises so we may win others for Christ.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Our Father Is Waiting... A Song A Video The Reality Behind The Incarnation.

My friend's Malcolm Gordon and Jason Williamson have put together a wonderful song and video. Malcolm is a great musician and theologian and the song "Our Father Is Waiting" off his new Album "Into the Deep" (the link will take you to the iTunes store)  comes from a reflection on Jesus parable of the Prodigal Son. Jason Williamson is a talented film maker and his video for the song as well as being well crafted captures something of the profound nature of the song and the parable.

I've watched it a few times and while I'm not really a soft rock fan (my kids may disagree) the song and the  video speak to me. AS I was preparing to include it in a Sunday service here, it really twigged to me how the Malcolm and Jason's take on the prodigal son fit in with the incarnation itself.

I have been reduced to tears when I think of the Father in the parable, running to embrace his returning son, but as I watched the video and listened to the song, it clicked with me as I watched Malcolm's journey across New Zealand to be with his Family the amazing truth of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Journey of God's love for his children.

Thanks Malcolm and Jason.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Food, Idols, Knoweldge and the Ethic of Love (1 Coritnhians 8)...One:on the road to Unity in 1 Corinthians (Part 8)

Paul actually spends a lot of time, chapters 9, 10 and 11 looking at the issue of food sacrificed to idols. Maybe it’s hard for us to get our head round it being that important, but in Corinth it permeated the whole of society. In the way Paul deals with this issue, applying good theology, and basic Christian ethical principles it helps us with a raft of issues we face as we along with the church at Corinth work at coming together from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints to be one, and live as  the new people of God.


In the car park out here earlier in the year, I had a conversation which helped me to understand the issue of food sacrificed to idols.  I was talking with an Indian woman who shared that she was a Christian and most of her family and community was Hindu. When they got together for various community and family celebrations, she did not eat the food because it had been dedicated to various deities. Now She knew her culture well enough to make those decisions and she was able to use this difference as a way of sharing her faith with her people. It made things rather hard for her but now her family and community respected her Christian stance.


When Paul mentions food the key issue was meat. We are used to going to the butcher and getting meat, maybe now we are starting to ask where they sourced that meat from, is it free range is it from New Zealand, but in Paul’s time the pagan temples were the main source of meat in the market place. The animals would be sacrificed, part of it would be burnt as an offering, part of it would be shared in a meal with those who had come to the temple and a portion would go out and be sold. While the council of Jerusalem in acts 15 could ask gentile believers to abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols, as not to offend Jewish believers it wasn’t a simple matter.


You and I may go out and have a special celebration at a restaurant, or go out to a meal as part of our business. Maybe you’ll be aware of a statue of Buddha or some other deity in the corner and wonder. But in Corinth the temples were the restaurants, you’d go with your family or business guild to a temple and eat there and the meal would be part of the religious ceremony. How were Christians and in particular those who had just become Christians from a pagan background going to live in that environment. Did it mean totally separation, which was the Jewish approach… if there was enough of them living in a city they would have their own kosher butcher, if not they would be vegetarian,  or could the believers in good conscience simply be part of it all. After all were they not free in Christ to do whatever we wanted? Idols are only things food is just food. What would happen if they went to a neighbour’s house and were served that meat? What if it meant that their business or family relationships were adversely affected if they stayed away? Throw in the fact that for the poor the temple celebrations may have been their only reliable source of meat. What did it mean if you wanted to buy a nice piece of meat for the Sunday roast? Was there room for different approaches? Was it simply left up to the individual and what they were comfortable with?


As it’s such a major issue for the Corinthians Paul starts as we’ll see today by addressing it from a theological perspective and applying a  basic principle of Christian ethics. Then as well see next week in chapter 9 he discusses his own understanding of Christian freedom and asserts his authority as an apostle, then in chapter 10 he gets down to the nitty-gritty and deals with a misunderstanding of Christian communion and practical do’s and don’t concerning food sacrificed to idols.

Once again Paul starts by addressing the core issue behind what was happening, that some in Corinth thought that they were spiritual and had made it and that this meant that they were able to do whatever they wanted, even go to the temple and be involved in the meals and rituals there. After all idols were nothing by stone and metal and food was just food.  It didn’t matter what affect this had on other believers. It was their right.  In verse 1 Paul quotes their own words to them “we all possess knowledge”. They saw themselves as having become wise, but Paul affirms here that the basis for Christian ethics is not knowledge by itself but rather love. Knowledge is important but Knowledge by itself puffs up, love, says Paul, builds up.  For the Christian how we use our knowledge needs to be worked out through love for others. We can simply do what we want or what we think is our right to do, but that can have detrimental affect on the community of faith, its not the loving thing to do in Christ.


Paul applies this ethical understanding to meat sacrificed to idols. Firstly he affirms the knowledge. The Corinthians had rightly said that idols were simply bits of wood or stone, he affirms the Corinthians belief in monotheism, that there is no God but one. The Old Testament is full of scathing sarcasm for those who put their trust in idols. In Isaiah 44 you get this withering attack on the rational for the worship and trust in such things.  A person will cut down a tree use some it for a fire and then carve the rest into a god and trust it to help them. Paul agrees that this is absurd, however as we see when we come to look at chapter 11 he says  that believers should not be involved in the temple meals because the worship of such idols is a sphere of demonic activity. Let’s leave that for now, Paul goes on to ask them to think about what it means to believe in the one true God.


Even says Paul if these gods and lords exist, be they the traditional gods or the imperial ones; that is emperors wanting to worshipped as divine, that for the believers there was one God, the Father, and one Lord  Jesus Christ, through whom we come to know God.  It’s not enough to simply know idols are not real the real question is how do we affirm and believe and live out the reality of who God is.  NT Wright puts it like this 9click for quote… “Paul wants them to think through the issues themselves, and that means thinking about just who the true God is, and what it means to love and serve him. That remains as urgent a task today as it was in the first century.”   


They may think they can go and worship at the pagan temple or be involved in other religious activity because after all behind it all there is just one true God, which has become quite a popular philosophy amongst new age folk, but says Paul, that is not the case. Yes there is one God but the only way that we can come to him and worship him is through Jesus Christ.


They may think they are free to do what they want but if they are to worship this one true god they need to do that by reflecting the nature of that God as well and that is that God loves us and calls us to love one another.


So Paul asks the believers in Corinth to realise that not everyone has the knowledge that they. That for many who come to faith in Jesus Christ, idols and idol worship was still a very real thing. They saw so called stronger Christians participating in what happened in the pagan temples; instead of being encouraged it may draw them back into that life style.


Paul introduces what is called the stumbling block principle, that we don’t want our knowledge or the way we express our Christian freedom to harm a fellow believer and draw them away from Christ. That love of others needs to be our motivation. If how we act draws people away from Christ then should we do it? 


Now in the past this principle has been misunderstood, in some older translations it said that we shouldn’t offend weaker brothers and sisters and that has led to the person with the strictest moral code ruling the roost.  We don’t do that because we may offend Brother Jo who thinks it’s wrong. The weaker brother here however is not the narrow minded legalist who wants people to keep their strict code rather it is the one for whom our actions  will lead them to do something they consider wrong or lead them away from Christ.


This does tend to fly in the face of our western understanding of personal rights and freedoms.  But Paul calls us to think communally and to  think of each other as people for whom Christ has die, so we don’t want to hurt them and lead them astray. Jesus had given some very stern warning about those who would lead his little ones away. And Paul here brings that to bear by saying that to sin against a sister or brother like that is to sin against Christ himself. It is an outworking of Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats that what we do for the least we do for Christ. 


And says Paul, using the Corinthians own logic, in the end it is just food, we are not missing out on anything of real value by giving up. He says he would rather give up eating meat than seeing a brother or sister fall into sin. The challenge for us is how this plays out in our world, in our time… here is an example which I hope helps us think this principle through.

I always remember David Stewart, who was the principle at the Bible College of New Zealand when I was there, talking about how this passage impacted on him. He was a missionary in China and one of the cultural differences amongst missionaries from different country’s was their attitude to alcohol. The European missionaries drank the American ones didn’t. It was a cultural understanding, David Stewart watched two of the Chinese people who became followers, follow the European missionaries’ example and drink and sadly they became alcoholics, David Stewart’s response was that he would no longer drink alcohol because as a Christian leader he didn’t want anyone to follow a bad example like that.


The bible has warnings against drunkenness but it does not ban Christians from drinking. Christians down through the ages have had different understanding about alcohol, the monks were the brewers and wine makers of Europe. Reformers in the 18th century encouraged beer drinking as an alternative to hard liquor (you didn't get as drunk as you did swilling gin and there was at least some nutritional value in it), conservative evangelicals have been tee total , because of the damage they see alcohol doing to society (Kate Shepherd who in New Zealand lead the call for the emancipation of women was the head of the Baptist Temperance Movement and  saw women having the vote as a way to bring abolition to New Zealand). There are others who preach and teach that we lead by our example…moderation.

It was interesting to note that there were also other clashes over moral issues amongst the missionaries as well. The American women missionaries wore makeup and some of the European missionaries thought this was decadent and vain behaviour. The different nationalities had a different understanding about smoking as well.  I remember a friend of mine talking about peoples different approaches to media as well. He went to a conference where one well known international speaker had encouraged the young people not to simply go to the latest greatest movie, as they may have their thinking and worldview tainted by the movies, the next speaker used film clips and made references to various pop culture movies. There are lots of issues that this principle helps us to deal with, both small and big issues. Even things that in the end are the grey areas or amoral… Now Paul will make some hard and fast ruling s about food sacrificed to idols in chapter 10, But the key factors for us is that we mediate our behaviour by asking How am I worshipping God in this and am I doing no harm to my brothers and sisters whom Christ died for. We will need to be prepared to curb our freedom for the sake of love. For some areas that will mean we do have different approaches, different understandings. And in that we will need to remember these words which I have heard attributed to various Christian leaders from Augustine to count Zinzindorf

In the essentials unity

In the non-essentials liberty

In all things love

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Relationships and Serving God Where You Are Planted (1 Corinthians 7:1-40).... One:On The Road To Unity in 1 Corinthians (part 7)

We are working our way through Paul letter to the Corinthians to help us see how we like them as a diverse group of people from different backgrounds cultures and understandings can be the new people of God that we have been called to be in Christ.  How can we live that out in the relationships and situations that we find ourselves in.

Today marks a shift in Paul’s letter, up to now Paul has been dealing with issues that have been reported to him, disunity, squabbling about status connected to Christian leaders, sexual immorality and lawsuits.  Now he moves to address questions that the Corinthians had bought up with him in a letter.  It would be great if we had the whole paper trail but we don’t. However from now on in 1 Corinthians Paul will start new sections with the words ‘now about’ he does it twice in this chapter as he deals with the issue of sex, celibacy and spirituality and it seems appropriate to do so as it flows on quite naturally from what he had been dealing with in chapter 5 and 6. Then again in chapter 8 ‘now about’ as he deals with food sacrificed to idols. ‘Now about’ in chapter 12 dealing the use of spiritual gifts…‘Now about’ in chapter 15 as he deals with the issue of the resurrection and ‘now about’ in chapter 16 concerning a collection for the church in Jerusalem.

In contrast to what Paul has been dealing with previously, in this passage the issue is asceticism, some in the church had seen the slogan “it is good for a man not to touch a women” not being about sexual immorality but about sex as a whole.  The people in Corinth thought they were spiritual; they had arrived and were living a heavenly existence now on earth, for some that meant that Jesus teaching about there not being marriage or being given in marriage in heaven applied to them here and now.

Being spiritual means that they didn’t have anything to do with physical stuff like sex even in marriage. Being celibate was seen as being the spiritual thing even to the point that some were contemplating divorce. Those pledged to be married would be in a real quandary over what to do, as would people who were widowed..  Also this maybe why some were going to prostitutes because there physical needs were not being met at home, or their wives thought this the lesser of two evils.

Jewish thought and writing is often presented as a chiasm. That is that the core issue is often at the centre with parallel thoughts leading in and out of it. This chapter is chiasm. Paul deals with people who have been married in verse 1-16. Then in verses 17-24 presents his core reasoning… That we should remain in the situation that God has called us, when we were saved. He illustrates that by applying it to being Jew and gentile and whether one is a slave or free.  Then in v 25-40 he applies the principle to those who are betrothed and unmarried.  In the midst of that Paul puts in his preference for being single.

The central issue is that while we are the new people of God and we live this new way of being human, we live it within the boundary of the world’s structures. Yes Christ has transformed us and made us new but we are called to serve God where we are. In fact Paul says it three times so we get it.

For those who are married Paul says we serve the lord in being married, in all that being married means. It’s not better to be celibate if you’re married.  Paul had quoted Genesis 2:24  in the previous passage that the two become one flesh and here he applies that to people who are married.  That sex within marriage is a good thing, at its core it has to do with belonging and communication. The bible is not anti-sex , it values it so much that it should be expressed and treasured and celebrated  in the confines of a lifelong committed relationship between a man and a woman.

Paul has a high opinion of marriage. One of the things that comes through very strongly in this chapter is the idea of mutuality in marriage. As you read through the passage did you notice the way Paul is at pains to address both men and women in every situation. In fact Paul addresses both men and women as equals. It is not the idea of the man as the boss or that in things sexual, sex is a man’s privilege and a women’s obligation. It’s not simply lie back and think of England. He talks of sacrificial and mutual love, that a married couple belong to each other.  Even in his hypothetical example of where abstinence for spiritual reasons maybe useful he focuses on mutual consent.

While Paul’s focus here is sexual love, the reality is that Paul’s application of married people not being their own applies to all areas of life. Not only do we find our need for sexual love met in marriage, but also our emotional need to be loved and cared for, valued, companionship, security, and support.

Many think that the Christian understanding of marriage is the husband is the head of the household, that he’s the boss, but that is not the case. Partnership and mutual giving and loving and serving is the Christian understanding.  People who would want to argue differently often point to Ephesians 5 and they don’t realise that that passage is about the roman household code: The Roman ideal that a man was responsible for keeping his wife, children and salves in order. Which Paul turns on its head by applying the same understanding of serving the Lord where you are planted, in this case a cultural understanding of a household, by saying submit to one another, it’s not about power and control it’s about love and service.  It’s not top down it’s about mutual Christ like love.

Paul goes on to address the unmarried and widows, again there is a mutuality here, as unmarried probably means widowers, as in Greek there is no such word for widower. Its good says Paul if they can stay single if they don’t want to then that’s OK as well.  There is nothing wrong with people who have been widowed getting married again. Here we may have some insight into Paul’s situation because he puts himself in this category and says Hey I’m cool with the way I am. 

Then he addresses those contemplating divorce. Paul again emphasises the importance of marriage that it is not to be thrown away lightly. That Christians are about reconciliation and forgiveness. Now, this passage always needs to be taken in the context of the issue Paul is dealing with. That of choosing to be celibate rather than married, Paul is saying that should not happen and if it does then the women or man should stay single, or be reconciled to her husband it is not freedom then to change her mind and find someone else. This is not teaching on divorce and remarriage per sae, which is often the way we want to look at it. Paul here says that he is applying Jesus commands, Jesus teaching about marriage and divorce. Jesus did allow for divorce on certain grounds. The issue here as Christians we are called to be about forgiveness and reconciliation so divorce is a last resort.

Paul then moves on to address a new category that of people married to non-believers.  People have often thought that when Paul says ‘this is what I am saying rather than what the Lord had said’, that he is simply giving his advice, but in actual fact he is dealing with an issue here that Jesus did not give any teaching on, so he is using his apostolic authority to address it, and it is helpful for us to see how he does it as we too have to deal with many issues that Jesus did not address. 

It seems that some had become believers who were married to non-believers. So Paul addresses them specifically. He says that they should remain married.  The talk of a partner being sanctified has always been something that people wrestle with. My mum was a Christian and my dad wasn’t and she would often quote this passage. It maybe that Paul is countering the idea that the ascetics and spiritual ones would have had that maybe by being married to a non-believer they would be somehow tainted. But Paul says it’s the other way round that the grace and the love of God was present in that family and maybe the spouse would see their partner and children become followers of Jesus. I always remember a woman in our home group in Titirangi coming bouncing in full of Joy. She had become a Christian and her husband was not, and he had been antagonistic for years about her faith, she was over joyed that night because he had become a Christian, he even waited a few weeks after the fact before he told her just to make sure it was it was real so he wouldn’t disappoint her if it wasn’t real.

Paul goes onto say if the non-believing partner wants to divorce because of the faith then the person is free. It is sad and a difficult situation to go through and Paul does not want to see the person in that situation being tied up by legalistic stuff.

Paul also deals with those contemplating marriage. “Virgin” is seen as a technical term for young women who are betrothed to be married. Again he deals with men and women. They both should be free to marry, they are not doing anything wrong.  

Marriage is a serious step and Paul encourages those who are betrothed to consider whether it is the best thing for them. Form Pauls perspective it’s easier to serve the lord if you are single. Because once you are married you have to think of your partner.  For Paul he saw time as short, that the Lord’s coming was imminent so he would rather be about God’s business. But also there was a famine about the time of Pauls writing and he gives sage advice about thinking about the times before getting married. It may not seem that romantic but in the end Paul says if you are mad about each other get married, if you are not then don’t.  because in the Christian understanding it is a lifelong commitment, you are no longer your own you belong to each other.

The assertion that it’s good to be single, also needs to be heard, historically the church has oscillated between affirming singleness like in Corinth as being more spiritual and over emphasising marriage, leaving little room for single people. But Paul leaves room for both, to affirm both as being ways in which we can serve the lord. Neither is more spiritual that the other, they are rather different gifts, different callings. Warren Wiersbe  says that the church was probably the only assembly in the roman world where slave and freeman, men and women, rich and poor could fellowship on an equal basis… and the hope is that it is a place where both single and married can be one as equals as well, were we are valued for where we are.

Ok we need to finish up here.

Probably the best way to do that is by focusing on the core principle Paul has been applying… then to apply it to the here and now… The core principle Paul was applying is That we serve God where we have been called… He uses the illustration of circumcised and non-circumcised, Jew or Gentile, our culture is who we are and God calls us to serve him in that culture, in our multi-cultural world. But these cultural markers are not the end all be all rather it is that we keep the Lord’s commandments.

He goes on to use the other social identifier of his day salve and freed. He says if you are a slave don’t let it worry you, you’ve been bought with a price, your status in Christ is free, if you are a free person don’t laud it over others, you’ve been bought with a price so you are a slave of Christ. Serve the lord where you are. Now some have wondered whether Paul is pro slavery, he is not, and the answer is Paul does encourage slaves to become free if the opportunity arises.

The key thing is that we should not be anxious about these kinds of things, our culture, our status in society be it socioeconomic or marital should not be seen as a burden to change, rather they should be seen as different ways and situations in which we are called to serve the Lord, so let’s serve the Lord and encourage each other in that.

Monday, July 1, 2013

More Hot Potato Issues... litigation, Sexual Immorality, Freedom and Our Identitiy in Christ (1 Corinthians 6)...One On the Road to Unity in 1 Coritnhians (Part 6)

I'm not sure if I should start with a disclaimer but I'm going to...This is one of the hardest sermons I think I have written and I was not totally happy with preaching it or publishing it. I hope that in my wrestling with this passage that there are some insights that will help people understand the passage.

Part of the problem is the challenge of how large or small to make the sections that we look at each week. How long or short do you make a series on a book like 1 Corinthians. On TV here in New Zealand this last week a documentary series called 'New Zealand from above" has begun to air. It explores regions of this country by using aerial and satellite photography occasional dropping down to make contact with the people who live in that landscape. I found that was a helpful metaphor to the approach I am taking with this series.  Both from above as we see the big patterns and vista and from the ground as we tread through the whole landscape up-close and seeing all the details, we can grasp and understand and see the beauty and grandeur of the landscape and the Spirit is able to speak to us a we endeavour to remain faithful allowing people to explore and apply the Word of God.
About six month before Kris and I got married my mum went to the doctors because she was worried about a metallic taste in her mouth. Now our family doctor was really wonderful because my mum was often worried about little things like that but he took her seriously and ran some tests and sent her off for scans. It turned out she had bowl cancer. About six week before our wedding she went into hospital and had it operated on.  She was a bit wobbly and sore at our wedding but was there and despite a re occurrence of bowl caner about twelve years later, which was diagnosed and dealt with again, she lived to be eighty five.

As we are working our way through the book of 1 Corinthians we see Paul dealing with a whole raft of symptoms that are presenting themselves, that speak of some deeper issues in the church.  The church has thought they were spiritual and healthy, they boasted about their wisdom but Paul is able to tell by what is happening; division and squabbling, not dealing with Church disciple and in the readings from today lawsuits and people visiting prostitutes that things were not right. These were outward signs of false understanding of the gospel that needed to be dealt with, Issues that reached to the very core of who they and we are in Christ, their identity and ours as the new people of God and how we embody and live that identity out. 

Greek society was known for their involvement in the courts, they were a litigious society. The Greek playwright Arisophanes has one of his characters look at a map and ask where Greece is located. When it’s pointed out to him, he replies that there must be some mistake-because he cannot see any lawsuits going on. Some in the church were continuing to take each other to court. Paul challenges their going to those outside the church for judgement as it was a bad witness.

Paul says if they are wise and spiritual why are not able to deal with it themselves.  One of the theological problems in Corinth was that they thought they had already arrived, that they were reigning with Christ. So Paul picks up their understanding of what that meant and asks in a series of rhetorical questions,  if they are to be involved with Christ in judging the unrighteous, even fallen angels how come they can’t deal with these trivial matter.  If they are to judge the unrighteous how come they take matters before the very people they will end up judging? Isn’t it better to seek reconciliation themselves? It’s full of sarcasm as Paul asks them…isn’t anyone wise enough to do that?

Now Paul is not saying the roman court system was bad or corrupt, In Acts 18 when Paul was in Corinth the Jews had tried to have him arrested and punished the proconsul Gallio deals quite justly with the situation. Civil courts and the justice system are to be respected and honoured the challenge is how do we as believers deal with these kinds of disputes. We need to live differently that the world around us.

A lot has been made of Paul’s eschatology here that is his understanding of what will happen when Christ returns. Can I just say two quick things about that? Firstly, if we focus on that we can miss the challenge to live as the new people of God here and know, just as the church in Corinth were, and secondly while what Paul is saying here comes out of an understanding of Daniel 7:22 I wonder if Paul isn’t using the Corinthians own misunderstanding and words to challenge their behaviour.

 Paul goes on to say that by simply having this dispute that both sides have actually lost, they’ve been defeated, it’s game over. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount had showed that we should love one another even when we are wronged, and not seek retribution. Paul will later sum this up in Romans as not returning evil for evil. That’s hard for us handle, particularly in a society where we value our rights and our dignity and that is almost as litigious as the Greek. Gordon fee points to the fact that by enduring undeserved loss the plaintiff enters into the true meaning of the cross.  If Paul stopped there it would sound so unjust, that the plaintiff was at fault but Paul goes on to challenge the guilty party by saying that we should not behave like this, that we are called to live differently than the society round us.

Paul gives a list of lifestyles or identities constructed round particular behaviour as being outside the Kingdom of God. Paul uses the same list that he had used in chapter five, sexually immoral, greed, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers, and you can see how some of those would have been pertinent to the situation in hand and again we get the idea that no sin is worse than the others. He adds four new categories… Idolaters we can understand. Adulterers is significant as Paul will go to talk about prostitutes and in the next chapter marriage.  Thieves, fits in with what the law suit is about, it’s about property or a shonky business transaction,  and of course the one category that is most contentious in our society, what the NIV translates as men who have sex with men.

I need to focus on this briefly, firstly  there are two words used in Pauls’ list one which means a male prostitute, usually a young man who sells their bodies for sex to other men, a rent boy. The other is the person who takes advantage of such young men. There is some debate whether these words actually are meant to mean all homosexual behaviour or refer specifically to that unequal exploitive relationship.  Paul’s Jewish background would make him see all such behaviour as abhorrent, and we are left to wrestle with questions about did the ancient world have an understanding of sexual orientation like we do and is this something like slavery that our attitude has been changed about, by the Spirit, over time. By saying that some of you were once like this infers that the church has had to deal with issues of sexual orientation from its earliest days. 

What Paul goes on to say then is helpful as he says that we are not trapped in identifying ourselves in all these old categories. Many of you were like that he says but in a wonderfully Trinitarian formula he redefines who we are and invites us to live out that new identity. We are washed   made clean by what Christ has done for us, we are ‘sanctified’ set aside for the use of God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and justified made right before God.  This is the identity that should influence our behaviour; we are not locked into other definitions of who we are. To the people involved in disputes and suits this is the basis of working the issue out. 

Paul then moves on to correct a misunderstanding of freedom that had developed: that freedom in Christ is licence to do whatever they felt like. Paul even quotes one of their slogans ‘ I have the right to do anything’, and Paul challenges that by saying yes you are free to do anything but are all things beneficial and yes also while you are free to do anything you want- don’t let your freedom lead you back into bondage. William Barclay sums this up by saying ‘Yes Christ has set us free from sin, not free to sin’. 

Paul moves on to explain that in terms of another issue in the church at Corinth…Visiting prostitutes. Corinth was a city that has a reputation for its prostitution, it was a port city, but also dominated by  the temple of Aphrodite, and there were well over a thousand temple prostitutes, male and female, dedicated to her.  It was simply a way of life in Corinth, but Paul again calls the believers to be different.

He sees this not only being an issue of freedom and different cultural standards but an issue that comes from the Corinthians misunderstanding of what it is to be human. The Corinthians had a saying that food was for the stomach and the stomach was for food and God will destroy them both’… basically our bodies are made for sex so it’s ok…That our bodies do not matter in the scheme of things, what was done with the physical body did not have an impact on spiritual life. Greek philosophy and in particular Plato held this duality between the body which would pass away and wasn’t really important and the soul which would carry on and could know an ultimate reality beyond the physical. In the Jewish understanding of what it was to be human, there isn’t that split. We are so used to the Greek philosophical understanding that we think it’s a Christian understanding. We often talk of the human being, being made up of body, mind or soul and spirit. We talk of God saving the soul to the point that often people have focused on that and left dire physical needs go unaddressed.

But in the Jewish and biblical understanding of what is a human being  body and soul are not separate, the body is not the throwaway casing, like a banana skin. We were created in God’s image, the complete package. Salvation and peace are formulated in terms of shalom, or wholeness. Our physical bodies, as part of the wider body of Christ are the temple of the Holy Spirit, God dwells within us. Paul affirms that our bodies will be raised with Christ a theme continued in chapter 15.

This then forms the basis for Pauls’ teaching on sexual immorality. Paul says what we do with our freedom in our body actually matters. The Corinthians might have thought that sex simply had to do with a physical part of them, but Paul says it affects all of us. He uses the words of genesis that the two become one flesh. The biblical view of sex is that it is wonderful and great, it was created as the physical expression of the deepest communication between two people; it was to be expressed and treasured in a man and women committed to forming a new family unit.

Paul’s instruction then for the church at Corinth is that they should flee from sexual immorality, and to honour God with their bodies. For me the picture of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife comes up when I hear that term. Joseph wants to honour God so runs away from Potiphar’s wife advances. I turned up to visit a friend who was a policeman one day and was asked to council a Christian young man in the interview room. He had been with his mates when they had broken in to a school and robbed it. He hadn’t gone and done the burglary with them rather he had stood at the school gates and waited for them, basically acting as a look out, and after they had done the job, he accepted some of the stuff they had stolen and of course got caught with it. He was devastated by the fact that his witness with his mates had been ruined. I told him how he dealt with that lapse would be equally a witness to Christ,  and suggested that next time he adopt the Joseph method of avoiding immorality and simply high tail it away from his mates. That is good practical advice for dealing with things that tempt us towards immorality of all kinds.   

Again Paul uses a Trinitarian formula to finish his argument. He points out that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, that God sent that spirit and that while we have been given freedom from sin, that Christ paid a high price for us, to buy us free. There for we should honour God in our bodies as they belong to him.  In our society today we are coming to understand this idea of honouring God in our bodies not only applies to moral issues but how our physical well being has a huge impact on our spiritual lives. As I searched for images to go with this text for the service it was hard to find any that didn’t include running or other exercise. And I have to say that I find that challenging. How am I honouring God in my body if I’m over eating or not exercising enough?  I need to some more fleeing.

Let me finish with two quotes from NT Wright who always seems to put thing so succinctly…

Because Christianity means freedom nothing is allowed to give me orders. Not my appetites, not my habits, not the surrounding atmosphere of my culture with its hardly noticed pressures towards certain styles of life… “


“ if you spend lots of money on a house you don’t go spray painting silly patterns on the door” you don’t graffiti it. In the same way those who have been bought at a tremendous cost must remind themselves of what special people they are and live accordingly.”