"he won’t be angry with you"

“Not too long ago I conducted a funeral for the spouse of a very dear friend of mine. The spouse died of AIDS. My friend moved in a very fast crowd, and the funeral service in the home was quite informal. There was a keyboard artist playing jazz and plenty of booze and balloons. The people who came to the service were not the kind of people who are generally found sitting on the front row at the the First Church by the Gas Station. In fact most of the folks who were at the service had long since given up on religion. I could understand that. I’ve almost given up myself on several occasions. I went to the keyboard artist and said to him, “Son, when you finish this piece bring it to an end because I’m going to say something religious.” When he stopped playing and there was silence, I decided to follow Jesus’ example. He would probably (judging the report of the gospel writers who chronicled his life) be more comfortable with people like this than with the normal folks who attend normal funeral services. So, after saying a quick silent prayer, I said to the folks there: 

“I don’t do many funerals with balloons and booze. But it’s okay because that’s the way [my friend] would have wanted it. The balloons are appropriate because this is not a funeral service, it’s a graduation service. Our friend isn’t here. She’s in another place where there isn’t any more pain. She’s in heaven, and I’m going to tell you why.” 

I told them about the people Jesus loved. I told them that their friend wasn’t in heaven because she was a ‘good’ person (they knew better than that) but because she knew she wasn’t and had turned to One who loved her enough to die on a cross in her place. 

“I’m here. I went on, “for only one reason. You needed someone to tell you the truth. I’m just one bad person telling other bad people the most important thing you will ever hear: God is God, and you should remember that. But if you go to him, he won’t be angry with you. In fact, he’ll love you. Our friend found that out, and we wanted to make sure you knew.”

As I looked around the room, there was hardly a dry eye. I didn’t have to tell them they were guilty. At least they had that right. They needed someone to tell them about a God who would love them and forgive them if they would only go to him.

Steve Brown, Approaching God

Are We in a Grave Story?

A series of events conspired which led me to reflect on how we view the meaning of our circumstances. Firstly, my eldest had to do a report on Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. In turn we watched the Kenneth Branagh screen adaptation. As she and I discussed the play and movie, I began to wax on Alan Jacob’s discussion of the play in the Epilogue of his book, Original Sin, and in particular, W.H. Auden’s category of Christian comedy. (To my daughter’s credit, she recognized Much Ado as a “garden story” — that is a story in which the innocents in the garden fall and become alienated. What is remarkable about Shakespeare’s garden story is the manner in which the restoration and reconciliation is effected.)
At the same time I was preparing to preach on the account of Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau from Genesis 33. What struck me in the passage was not so much the didactic messages in the passage, but rather the beauty of the story. What sorts of qualities are present for such a warm and sweet reconciliation? One of those qualities which is necessary is a “lightness” with respect to one’s own rights and privileges. And so Dr. Jacobs helped me again in that same discussion in commenting about the trap of taking ourselves too seriously. Indeed, it was for the “joy set before him” that Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame. In talking about the danger of taking ourselves too seriously, Jacob’s writes,

“Well, these are sobering thoughts, indeed, and we should take them seriously—as seriously as we can take any thoughts. The immensely difficult trick is to do so without taking ourselves seriously, because one could argue that at or near the very heart of our bent wills is a determination to uphold our own dignity. Milton tells us that Satan decided to rebel against the Almighty because of his sense of ‘injured merit’: he was the one who deserved to be named Messiah, not God’s Son who surely was chosen not because of his ‘merit’ but on account of some divine nepotism. Looked at in the proper way, this idea of Satan’s is simply laughable, which is what G.K. Chesterton was indicating in one of his wisest aphorisms: ‘Satan fell by force of gravity.’”

Alan Jacobs, Original Sin 
The patriarch, Jacob, it seemed to me, could have only received the promise and appropriately humbled himself before Esau, if he did not take himself too seriously. Therein’s a beauty.
Serendipitously, just a few days later, Dr. Jacob’s posted the Auden quote on his online common place book, more than 95 theses. Reflection upon Auden’s categories and Jacob’s commentary has proved to be fruitful soil to contemplate the meaning of the stories which make up my life and of course those things about which I am so serious.

“Comedy … is not only possible within a Christian society, but capable of a much greater breadth and depth than classical comedy. Greater in breadth because classical comedy is based upon a division of mankind into two classes, those who have arete and those who do not, and only the second class, fools, shameless rascals, slaves, are fit subjects for comedy. But Christian comedy is based upon the belief that all men are sinners; no one, therefore, whatever his rank or talents, can claim immunity from the comic exposure and, indeed, the more virtuous, in the Greek sense, a man is, the more he realizes that he deserves to be exposed. Greater in depth because, while classical comedy believes that rascals should get the drubbing they deserve, Christian comedy believes that we are forbidden to judge others and that it is our duty to forgive each other. In classical comedy the characters are exposed and punished: when the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together.”

W. H. Auden

And, after Christmas, I will celebrate Twelfth Night by watching a play entitled the same. In Twelfth Night one finds one of the gravest of Shakespeare’s characters, Malvolio who is the virtuous rascal classified by Auden.

(HT: Alan Jacobs)

All in All: The Message of 1 Corinthians

Rather than spend a lot of time introducing 1 Corinthians, I thought I’d comment on a few things about the setting of the letter as well as to help give you a good pair of lenses by which to view the letter.

Concerning the Corinthian church…
The apostle Paul planted the church in Corinth on his second missionary journey which you may read about in Acts 18:1-17. One of the things we learn from Acts is that Paul had a hard go of it. In fact it was difficult enough, that he may have considered abandoning the effort. However, we read in Acts 18, that Jesus appeared to Paul to comfort him, saying, “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack or harm you, because I have many people in this city.” Though this may not have been all Jesus told Paul, it was significant and encouraging enough that Paul remained, and in the midst of more opposition, continued to preach. Eventually, Paul was publicly charged with sedition by the Jews before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia. Though Gallio dismissed the charges, Sosthenes who was both a convert to Christianity and the synagogue ruler was beaten before the town.

Concerning the occasion and content of 1 Corinthians…

Paul, at the writing of 1 Corinthians, is living in Ephesus. He had written an earlier letter which they misread, and have both written back to Paul and sent members of the church with the letter of questions regarding the current circumstances. In addition, Paul has received verbal reports of trouble and unrest in the Corinthian church. Both to answer their questions and to deal with his own concerns for them, Paul has written the church. 
In 1 Corinthians, there are a number of questions and issues which Paul raises and speaks to that may sound very obscure, outdated, irrelevant, or just ridiculous such as his discussion on gender roles and head coverings. As you read, resist the urge to discount what he is saying. Reflect on the context of the circumstances into which he is writing, understand, and then seek to apply it to today. Just because he is speaking to a specific circumstance does not mean it is irrelevant. Indeed there is much in 1 Corinthians which could’ve been written today.
Among those questions which Paul addresses are the following:
  1. The ongoing denial and refusal to confront or repent of sexual sins,
  2. Division and bi-partisanship (Peter, Paul, Apollos, Christ…),
  3. How a Christian is to handle conflict, 
  4. Spiritual-gift snobbery; super-apostleship, elitism, giftedness,
  5. Idolatry and compromise with the culture,
  6. Significant confusion about their view of the people especially as how their view relates to the dignity of the human body.
Lastly, Concerning what you need to need to know about Corinth and the church in Corinth…
There are peculiarities to the specific situation which, if we understand them, we will better be able to apply the letter to our lives. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Corinth is a CROSSROADS. The city is situated at the isthmus which joins the southern half of Achaia with the European mainland. At this point the isthmus is 3 miles wide, and narrow enough that dragging your cargo ship along a causeway from the Aegean to a gateway to the Adriatic was thought to be a brilliant idea which of course they did.
  2. Corinth is NEW. It had recently been destroyed in the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean and rebuilt as a Roman colony.
  3. Because of there was not a long-standing social order. Corinth was a city of serious OPPORTUNITY. Corinth had been repopulated by Roman citizens and freedmen and so, it did not have time to develop an established noble class. Because the social order was determined more by merit than by class, Corinth was a place of great potential for an unconnected Roman citizen or a freed-man.
  4. This new city of great opportunity attracted many who were DRIVEN TO SUCCEED. Achievement and notoriety become extremely important for multitudes of achievers who need to set themselves apart from other gifted achievers. This is a kill or be killed, entrepreneurial city.
  5. Because of the urgency of opportunity and success, Corinthian culture was all about the IMMEDIATE. ‘Right now’ is the most important time and consequently the immediate is more REAL than any long-term commitment or discipline this leads to financial, relational, and moral blindness and compromise as its citizens are driven to ‘get it while you can’. 
  6. All this money and opportunity grew an AFFLUENT AND EXCLUSIVE society. Corinth was highly focused on the outward appearance and both the display of your material wealth as well as your social connection demanded that you work your relationships to your advantage by getting into some circles while keeping others out of yours.
  7. Lastly, Corinth was a PROMISCUOUS. society. As  a center of opportunity and affluence the society was decadent. In fact, to Corinthianize became a bi-word for the decadence of the wealth and moral permissiveness which worked in its citizens.
  8. All of these traits were being brought into the church.

I hope this helps. You can read 1 Corinthians in 45 minutes. Take some time and do that while keeping these thoughts with you. See you Sunday!

All in All: The Message of 1 Corinthians was originally published on Grace Presbyterian Church