Tag Archives: Paul

What’s More Important than Love?

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:12 (NIV)

Every author and storyteller knows that you leave the best for last. The “climax” of a story is where you carefully lead your readers. Paul’s letter to the believers of Corinth was not a story or a novel, but there was definitely structure to the message he crafted. After highlighting all of the fighting, disagreements, and behavioral issues within the fledgling group of Jesus’ followers Paul leads his reader to a climactic chapter about love; Arguably the most beautiful treatise on the word that has ever been penned.

But, I still count a few chapters left in the letter. What is so important that it comes after Paul’s climactic and beautiful admonishment to love?

If love is Paul’s behavioral climactic admonishment, then the resurrection is his  climactic admonishment of belief. His point is clear: if I don’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then all of my faith, religion, and altruistic behavior (including love) is in vain.

Resurrection was a hot topic in the days of Jesus and Paul. Even Jesus encountered it. Within the Jewish community there were different schools of thought on the subject of resurrection and life after death. One of the more powerful scholarly groups, the Sadducees, did not believe that there was a resurrection and even confronted Jesus on the subject (Mark 12:18). The Greeks and their philosophy had no concept of life after death. They were focused on meaning in this life.

It’s also important to remember that at the time of Paul’s letter it is likely that none of the four Gospels (the biographical accounts of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) had even been written. It’s likely that many of Jesus’ followers in Corinth had been attracted by the radically different world-view out of which the early believers acted as they broke down walls of social separation between gender, race, and socio-economic status. Believing that someone could die and come back to life, well that was a different story. Like many throughout the centuries, some Corinthian believers were taking the “I like the teachings of Jesus and I’ll try to follow them, but I’m not sure I can swallow the whole ‘risen from the dead’ bit.”

Paul leaves the final climactic ending of his letter to address that which he believed was most important: Jesus died and then came back to life. Paul claims that the resurrection is real and it is the critical cornerstone belief of our faith. He started his discourse on love by saying “If you do all these religious things but don’t have love then your religious deeds are hollow and bankrupt.” Now he’s using the same approach, saying “If you do all these things to follow Jesus but deny the resurrection, then all you’ve done is in vain.”

To that end, Paul offers into evidence the eyewitness testimony of Cephas (whom the Corinthians knew), the twelve, up to five hundred  others who saw the resurrected Jesus. Finally, Paul offers his own eyewitness testimony, having encountered the resurrected Jesus on a trip to Damascus. Paul also applies logic (death and resurrection are the natural order of creation) and reasoning (why would I torture myself and perpetually submit myself to death and persecution if I wasn’t convinced there was more than this earthly journey?).

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about our current season of Lent. The annual celebration of Easter is coming up in a few weeks. The resurrection of Jesus is the climax of the traditional church calendar year just as it is the climax of Paul’s letter. The resurrection of Jesus remains an audacious claim that requires faith. It remains the transformative cornerstone belief of those who would claim to be followers of Jesus.

I’m also reminded this morning of John’s eyewitness account of the resurrected Jesus’ words to his follower named Thomas. Doubtful of the truth of the resurrection, the resurrected Jesus invited Tom to examine the nail holes in His wrists and place his fingers in the spear wound in Jesus’ side. Tom was convinced and exclaimed, “My Lord and my God.”

You believe because of what you’ve seen,” Jesus said, then added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and believed.”

To the latter group you can add this doubting Thomas.

Pesky Pessimism & Rose Tinted Ray-Bans

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me.
1 Corinthians 9:1-3 (NIV)

Wendy and I read a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this weekend. The premise of the article was that while it’s very popular to moan, groan and wax pessimistic about humanity’s rapid descent towards doomsday (a glance at your Facebook feed or a 24 hour news channel should prove this point), a look at actual data shows that life for human beings around the globe are better than they’ve ever been.

I have confessed in previous posts to having a pesky, pessimistic spirit. Ask Wendy and she can give you plenty of examples. It’s very easy for me to slip into doomsday mode with little justification for doing so. I have lived much of my spiritual journey in a form of holy pessimism. I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I’ve typically found that my fellow believers eagerly buy-in to the notion that things were spiritually so much better for the apostles and Jesus’ followers in the first century. They saw the resurrected Jesus with their own eyes. They had all these miracles happening everyday. They were living in the socialistic bliss of their local Acts 2:42 commune. In contrast, things seem spiritually worse today than ever. We’re accustomed to hearing this regularly from the pulpit and the media, and it’s a popular mindset. We’re going to hell in a hand basket. So my preacher and the news stations tell me so.

What’s fascinating is that the further I get in my spiritual journey and the more I study God’s Message the more contrarian I find myself becoming in these matters. I think I’ve spent most of my journey looking at the past, even the Bible, with rose-tinted Ray-Bans.

In today’s chapter Paul hints at a conflict that’s been simmering in the leadership ranks of the early church. The term “apostle” was not a title given lightly to the early believers. It generally referred to “the twelve” whom Jesus had chosen, trained and commissioned. There appears to have been some criteria for claiming the title (i.e. having seen the risen Jesus, having been sent by Jesus, performing signs and wonders, and etc.). Paul claimed to be an “apostle” in all of his letters. He begins today’s section of the letter basically citing his resume for being an “apostle” after admitting that some claim that he’s not. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul somewhat sarcastically refers to the other apostles as “super apostles.” He gives a similar sarcastic tone to the term “esteemed apostles” in his letter to the Galatians (before calling Peter out and saying that Peter “stands condemned” for his hypocritical actions).

Something smells rotten in the early church” Shakespeare might have written. I think I gloss over how hard things were for the early believers, how much conflict and strife there was, and how miraculous it is that this fledgling movement even survived.

This morning I’m simply mulling over my own natural pessimism. This past weekend I’ve been thinking long and hard about my penchant for buying into “the past was better, the present is certainly worse and getting worser” line of thinking. I’m not sure the evidence supports that notion. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a glass that’s half-full with my name on it within easy reach.

Trust me. You won’t like it,” my pessimistic spirit whispers to me.

Arrrrrghhh. Happy Monday every one.

 

The Mess of Relationships

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches.
1 Corinthians 7:17 (NIV)

My friend Matthew is a marriage and family therapist here in our small Iowa town. This is a great little community founded in 1847 by a Dutch pastor and his devout group of Jesus’ followers. After 170 years our community retains a strong culture of Christian values, and I would daresay that a majority of our town’s citizens would claim to be believers. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed over the years that my friend Matthew never ceases to be booked solid with clients. My quiet observation is that even among those who sincerely seek to follow Jesus, relationships are a never-ending challenge.

Today’s chapter reads like a modified bullet list from Dear Abby as Paul advises those who are married, those who are single wishing to be married, those who are widowed, those who are separated from their spouses, and those who are married to unbelievers. He weaves in and out of stating what he knows from Jewish laws and tradition, and what he believes in his own opinion as the first century believers struggle to determine what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in a rapidly developing faith tradition. Based on what he has already established earlier in his letter, Paul is addressing a fledgling group of Jesus’ followers from diverse cultural traditions living in what is primarily a pagan Greek town in the first century Roman Empire. Most of what the Corinthian believers knew of Jesus’ words and teaching was transmitted orally by the Apostles. It is likely that none of the Gospels had even been written when Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians.

I’m an amateur student of history, I’ve come to accept that every generation of believers in every culture have struggled with all of these relational and marital issues. Courtship, sex before marriage, marriage, sex within marriage, infidelity, separation, divorce, widowhood, sex outside of marriage and remarriage have always been challenging issues. They have always spurred intense debate and emotional turmoil for individuals, families, churches, communities, and nations. I believe they always will this side of eternity.

As I read through today’s chapter and couldn’t help thinking of real people I know in very real and very unique life situations. It spurs questions of “Yeah, but what about….” God’s Message through Paul provides a general  guide for believers, but it certainly isn’t  exhaustive and it doesn’t come close to addressing countless specific situations. Being a divorced and remarried follower of Jesus, I have grappled with my very own relational struggles and failures. I have received (both solicited and unsolicited) diverse opinions from other sincere believers ranging from grace and forgiveness to judgment and condemnation. [sigh] Life gets messy on this earthly journey.

This morning I find myself grappling with my own past. I have continuously journeyed through and studied the Bible for almost 40 years. I have sought to increasingly live as a sincere believer of Jesus, though I regularly fall short. The failure of my first marriage and all the personal shortcomings that led to it are right up there at the top of my failure list.  Yet, there are a few things Holy Spirit continually whispers to my soul when my shame rolls in like the tide:

  • First, nowhere in God’s Message does the failure of a marriage exclude a person from God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness.
  • Second, God has a long track record of redeeming and using broken people with personal failings for His good purposes.

The good news for my friend Matthew and his colleagues is that they will have job security as long as imperfect human beings date, get married, and seek to successfully live together in this fallen world.

Quarrels Among Us

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God….
1 Corinthians 1:1 (NIV)

All of us have certain characteristics about the way we communicate. When we’re communicating face-to-face we have particular gestures we repeatedly make. In casual conversation Wendy likes to slap her hand on something. Usually it’s her thigh or the counter and sometimes she just claps her hands. It’s her physical punctuation mark to the message she’s conveying with her words.

I will often tell people I’m mentoring in the craft of public speaking to watch a video of themselves but push the fast forward button so that it’s playing at about four times normal speed. As you watch yourself in fast forward mode your repetitive gestures, pacing, and unconscious movements are revealed. I tend to swing my arms like a flapping fish out of water and will often make this weird movement bending my knees and tilting to one side. It’s pretty comical.

Even when we write we phrase things in certain ways or repeat certain phrases. We have signatures we prefer such as “kind regards,” “stay cool,” “be good,” or “shalom” which is a particular favorite of a few friends of mine.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Paul began most of his letters with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.” To twenty-first century readers this is a stock greeting that we tend to gloss over. It’s just the way Paul begins his letters. Big deal. But this wasn’t an unconscious phrase. He used it for a very specific reason, and for the early followers of Christ reading the letter it had much greater significance and likely stirred up a simmering quarrel.

Apostle,” which is a Greek word meaning “one who is sent” was an unofficially official term for the twelve disciples of Jesus. Jesus Himself called them his “apostles.” A “disciple” was a follower, but an “apostle” was one who was sent out. Jesus message was clear. He was sending them on a mission. For the early church, then, the original “apostles” were held in high esteem and the designation “apostle” came to refer to those who had seen Jesus risen from the dead and had literally been designated by Jesus as an “apostle.”

Paul did not literally fit this unofficially official designation that had arisen among the early believers. He had been late to the party. He’d been a persecutor of Christians and was chief executioner of the first believer, Stephen, when he was killed for heresy. Yet Paul, the prosecutor and executioner of Christians, claimed to be confronted on the road to Damascus by the risen Christ. He was radically converted into a follower of Jesus, said he was sent by Jesus to preach to the non-Jewish believers in Greece.

So was Paul an “apostle” or not?

Throughout his writings, Paul seems intent on claiming that he is. He starts every letter with it. In his second letter to the believers in Corinth he refers to the “super apostles” hinting that he is not part of the club with the original twelve. In his letter to the Galatians Paul begins by saying he is an “Apostle, not sent from men nor by man” the subtext of which is “Christ called me and sent me no matter what you may have heard from other people regarding whether I’m an ‘apostle’ or not.” He then tells the Galatians that he went to Jerusalem to meet with the “esteemed apostles” (subtext: “I’m not ‘esteemed’ like they are“) and confronted Peter, the leader of the twelve, for acting in a hypocritical manner.

Conflict, quarrels, power, control, authority, who’s in, who’s out, who measures up, who is worthy of the title, and who doesn’t quite cut the mustard. These were some of the things that the early believers fought about.

And, let’s be real. These are some of the things over which we still experience conflict. People are people. Get involved with any “church” and you’ll soon see some of the same arguments about titles and offices and leaders and loyalty and membership and requirements. I’ve got almost 40 years in this journey following Jesus and I’ve seen it again, and again, and again.

This morning I’m thinking about quarrels, controversies, and concerns. It’s the stuff we have to navigate if we’re going to live together in community. It’s inescapable. Having been through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians a few times, I know where Paul will eventually end-up. I’m reminded that while Paul begins his letter addressing the conflicts (even stirring them with his claim of being an apostle) he ends by reminding us all that followers of Jesus have one leader who gave us one law: love that is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, or proud; Not dishonoring, self-centered, or easily annoyed, nor clinging to negative feelings or attitudes towards others. Not easy, even for Paul and Peter. At least we’re in good company.

If together we focus on the law of love, we can make it through the conflicts and learn to live together, honor one another, and support one another. Despite their differences, even Paul and Peter did that. So can I.

 

Letters, Numbers, Part and Whole

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
    against the man who is close to me!”
    declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered,
    and I will turn my hand against the little ones.”
Zechariah 13:1, 7 (NIV)

I am currently leading a team of teachers among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers as we share messages from Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth. [My kick-off message in the series on YouTube if you’re interested]

One of the first things that I did was to take the text of 1 Corinthians, strip it of all headings, footnotes, text notes, cross references, along with chapter and verse numbers. Then I put the text in a hand written font and handed it out to my team. “Here is Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth,” I told them. “Put yourself in the shoes of a member of the Corinthian believers and read it as if you just got it out of your mailbox.” The process has been transformational.

It’s amazing how the simple act of separating original, ancient texts into chapters and verses can alter our reading and understanding. I’m sure there are some readers who don’t even stop and consider that the Bible wasn’t originally written with all those numbers. They were added by scribes centuries later, and in doing so they sometimes detract from the writers’ original works.

Take today’s chapter for example. In yesterday’s chapter I mentioned Zechariah’s word from God  in which God speaks of the people looking upon Him, “the one they have pierced“, and mourn as mourning for the firstborn son. It’s a prophetic foreshadowing of Jesus on the cross, pierced by the Roman soldier’s spear, as they sky darkens, the earth shakes, and His followers look on in disbelief. Then I got to the end of chapter 12 on this chapter-a-day journey and stopped reading.

Today I picked up with chapter 13 as if it’s a completely new section or thought and read the first verse:

“On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

This verse is a continuation of yesterday’s vision that foreshadows Jesus’ death, but in my one chapter a day habit it’s easy to think of this verse in my daily time capsule existence independent of yesterday’s chapter. But it was all one vision, one thought, one piece of writing. The death and piercing and mourning were all about God cleansing the people of sin and impurity. If I don’t connect the two chapters as one text I miss a crucial understanding of the whole thing in the same way that reading a hand-written letter as a bunch of independent verses and chapters loses its original intent as a personal letter from Paul to his friends in Greece.

Zac’s amazing prophetic roll continues today, describing the “shepherd” who is “struck” and the flock is scattered. Two-thirds are decimated and one-third survives but is “refined” by the process. Once again I find an uncanny description of the events of Jesus and  His followers in the first century. After Jesus’ death His followers scatter in fear for their lives, but instead of snuffing out the movement Jesus started it actually gains momentum. This momentum eventually sparks terrible persecution from the religious and Roman establishment. Jesus’ followers are hunted down, fed to lions in the Roman circus, stoned to death, impaled on pikes and burned alive to light Caesar’s garden. Many of them were wiped out just as Zechariah’s vision describes but it did not destroy the faith of those who survived. It refined their faith and made it stronger. Eventually, a few hundred years later, even Caesar becomes a believer.

This morning I find myself once again mulling over parts and whole. The first verse of today’s chapter doesn’t make sense apart from the previous chapter. Jesus’ death and the events of believers in the first century are made more meaningful and poignant when seen in light of Zechariah’s prophetic words penned 500 years earlier. In the same way people across the centuries have taken individual verses from the text of the Bible both to make inspirational Pinterest graphics and to justify all sorts of horrific acts of judgement, prejudice, violence, hatred, and persecution.

Some verses have incredible meaning in and of themselves, but I’ve come to understand that meaning should never be separated from the context of the author’s work and the Great Story that God is revealing across time, space, history and creation.

Encouragement Needed

This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’
Zechariah 8:9a (NIV)

In just a month or so, Wendy and I will be celebrating three years that we’ve lived in the house we built here in Pella. This morning I was thinking back to those months between August 2014, when we broke ground, and the end of February when we moved in. It seemed like an eternity. I was not prepared for all of the decisions that had to be made and the endless fussing and fretting over the most seemingly insignificant decisions.

The process did seem long and endless at the time, but the truth of the matter is that the building of a complex, multi-level, multi-room structure in six months would be nothing short of miraculous to those Zechariah was addressing when he wrote today’s chapter sometime around 500 BC. The “remnant” of exiles who returned to rebuild Jerusalem with its crumbled walls and broken down Temple were looking at not months, but long years – even decades of painstaking, back-breaking toil.

The rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple began in 536 BC but was abandoned two years later. It was picked up again fourteen years later and went on for another five years before it was eventually rededicated. The rebuilding of Jerusalem would continue for another 70 years.

Today’s chapter reads like a message of encouragement to the people facing the arduous task of continuing the work while in the depths of frustration at the rebuilding process. Through Zechariah, God encourages the people to imagine how great it will be when the work is completed and families of all generations are filling the city streets from children playing freeze-tag to old people leaning on their canes and reminiscing about the “old days.”

The truth is that whether we’re ancient Hebrews facing years of toil to rebuild our capitol city or a modern day couple standing in Lowe’s wondering if the project will ever be completed, we all sometime need encouragement to keep pressing on. The Apostle Paul consistently told the followers of Jesus, to whom he wrote the letters making up most of the New Testament, that he was writing to encourage them. He told them to encourage one another and reminded them  that their love, prayers and gifts were a tremendous encouragement to him. Paul was carrying out the task of building the church, not a building made of wood and stone, but a much messier task of building a living, breathing organization of diverse, flesh-and-blood people into a cohesive whole.

This morning I’m reminded that we all need encouragement on this life journey. It’s an important ingredient to any project, relationship, or process. Even God knew that the people of Jerusalem needed a shot in the arm, and today’s chapter is a record of the encouragement He sent through His prophet, Zechariah.

From time-to-time we all need others to encourage us and we, in turn, need to be on the lookout for those who could use a dose themselves. Encouragement is simple gift to give: a kind word, a postcard that takes you five minutes to write, a thank you note, a prayer, or a hug and sincere “Hang in there.”

Need a little encouragement today? Consider your reading of this post a divine appointment. Hang in there, my friend. Press on. Keep going. I know it may suck right now but I believe that your faith and grit are leading to good things ahead.

A Sacrifice of Aroma

The Lord said to Moses, “Give this command to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Make sure that you present to me at the appointed time my food offerings, as an aroma pleasing to me.’”
Numbers 28:1-2 (NIV)

I remember as a young child taking a school field trip to the Wonder Bread bakery in Des Moines. I can still remember the overwhelming aroma of all those loaves baking in the industrial oven. Pardon the pun, but it was a little slice of heaven to me. At the end of the tour each of us were given a mini-loaf of freshly baked bread still warm from the oven. The simple joy of that experience is still fresh in my memory almost fifty years later.

There is, perhaps, no aroma more pleasing to my soul than that of freshly baked bread. Over the past few weeks, between baby shower and Thanksgiving celebrations, Wendy has made multiple loaves of bread at home. The aroma wafts up the stairway from our kitchen into my office. I don’t know whether it is the nostalgic memories of my mother baking in the kitchen or something more innately human that connects my spirit to the smell of something so basic to life. It fills my spirit in a way that’s almost impossible to describe or quantify.

I find it fascinating that God prescribed to the ancient Hebrews sacrifices of aroma. In my experience we rarely, if ever, connect the spiritual to our sense of smell. Yet we depend on our olfactory senses in such basic ways. When the deli meat has been in the refrigerator for a while Wendy asks me to smell it to discern whether it’s still good. I have cologne in my bathroom cupboard that I refrain from putting on when Wendy and I are going on a date because I know the smell turns her off.  Quite often one of us will stop and say, “I smell something rotten” because our sense of smell has determined there is something amiss.

In his letter to the followers of Jesus in the city of Corinth, Paul makes the point that they are the “aroma of Christ.” I’ve always been attracted to that word picture. I’ve blogged about it multiple times. When I’m on site with a client today will my spirit, my attitude, my words, and my actions be a pleasing aroma to those around me? Just as my soul smiles at the smell of Wendy’s freshly baked bread, will there be some sense in which my clients will think, “I always like it when Tom shows up.”

Conversely, it is perfectly possible that I might possibly “stink up” a place. When my life, my mind, or my soul are slowly rotting from the effects of fear, anxiety, judgement, anger, hatred, envy, bitterness, pride, conceit, or the like, others can “smell” it in the air when I’m present.

In another letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, Paul tells them to  offer themselves as “living sacrifices.” I’ve never connected the two, but this morning I’m thinking of my “living sacrifice” being a sacrifice of aroma just like God asked from the ancient Hebrews in today’s chapter. Today I want my life and actions to be like the aroma of freshly baked bread in God’s nostrils. I want my presence on-site with my client today to be a similarly pleasing spiritual fragrance for them.

In order for Wendy to produce the aroma of freshly baked bread in our home, she has to actively preheat the oven, mix the recipe in the kitchen, let the dough rise, and bring about the conditions in which the bread will bake and the aroma will be unleashed. Similarly, I’ve got to consciously put together the recipe of intention, thought, words and actions to produce a pleasing aroma for God in my day today.

Of course, in order to produce a stench I don’t have to do a thing. When a living thing sits long enough in stagnation the rot will eventually, naturally happen on its own.