God Gives the Growth

Sunday February 16th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

1 Cor. 3:1-9

Family

When I was growing up, many of my family members lived far away — some in other states — so we didn’t get to see them very often. But across the street from our house lived Aunt Ruth Johnson. Aunt Ruth Johnson was a lovely lady with beautiful curly white hair, who always sat out on her green glider on her painted green front porch, who greeted everyone who walked past with a big smile and a hearty “hello.”

Aunt Ruth was not in any way related to us, but she insisted that we call her “aunt,” and we were happy to oblige. In many ways, Aunt Ruth spoiled my brother and me. When our family took her grocery shopping, she would always give my brother and me a couple coins or a dollar bill which we could spend on whatever we wanted. Our family didn’t own a TV, so our family would often go across the street and visit Aunt Ruth so we could watch Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy, or whatever other game show happened to be on. Aunt Ruth always had some special treat or snack to share with us.

In many ways, although she was not related to us by blood, Aunt Ruth Johnson truly was an aunt to us.

It Takes a Village

There’s an old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child.” In other words, an entire community of people must interact with children in order for those children to experience and grow in a safe and healthy environment. Aunt Ruth Johnson was part of the “village” that raised me.

The “Family” at Corinth.

In his letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul is writing to members of his “family.” Although he is not related to them by blood, he addresses them as “brothers and sisters,” since they are all members of the family of God. Indeed throughout Paul’s writings he often refers to the churches he is writing to as brothers and sisters, and encouraged others believers to think of each other in familial terms as well. 

In his letter to Timothy, Paul exhorts his mentee, “Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). As members of Christ’s Church we are to think of one another as family.

Now, like every family, the Corinthians had been experiencing some quarreling and bickering. 

It seems that the church was divided into factions, with some saying that they follow Paul, who had planted their church, others said they follow Apollos, who had pastored their church at one point. Some say they follow Cephas (or the Apostle Peter), and still others say that they follow Christ. Paul, of course, wants all of them to follow Christ, but he wants them to be united as one body as they do so. 

While it may be normal for families to have their squabbles, the fighting had gotten so extreme that Paul felt that he had to intervene, and so he wrote this letter. 

Paul tells them that the quarreling and bickering and jealousy that is happening among them is stunting their spiritual growth! Paul refers to them as “infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1) who are not even ready for solid food. When Paul had originally introduced them to Jesus, he says that he had fed them spiritual milk, since they were spiritually like newborns. In other words, he made the Gospel message simple and understandable for them. He didn’t speak in abstract philosophical concepts or use bombastic theological terminology. He wanted them to grasp the beauty and the simplicity of the Christian message, and so he had proclaimed to them the pure and simple essence of the faith.

But by now they should be spiritually mature, healthy adults, or at the very least toddlers, ready to eat solid food! They should be doing the work of the Kingdom, they should be proclaiming the Word of God and making disciples. They should be bearing fruit and leading others to Christ. They should be actively working in the world to bring about God’s righteousness, justice and peace. 

But because of the “jealousy and quarreling” (1 Cor. 3:3) that is taking place among them, they haven’t really grown up or spiritually matured. They aren’t living out their faith. Instead, Paul says, they are acting like babies. 

Stunted Growth

Now this is a rather harsh criticism coming from the Apostle Paul! But let’s think for a minute about how this may have happened.

As members of the Body of Christ, each one of us has a unique role to play. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior and when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, God gives each of us a particular spiritual gift that can be used for the good of the Church. Some are given the gift of teaching, or preaching, others evangelism or discipleship, and still others hospitality or service. 

But in the fractured and fragmented Corinthian church, those gifts were not being used for the upbuilding of the congregation, but rather their wonderful spiritual gifts were being used to further entrench the divides. 

I imagine that all of the teachers, for example, were probably in the “I follow Apollos” faction, since Apollos was known for his wonderful oratorical skills. The evangelists were probably in the “I follow Paul” camp, since Paul was known for planting new churches and proclaiming the Gospel to those who had never heard the Good News. Those who were gifted in hospitality and service probably proclaimed that they were the ones who truly followed Christ, since one of Jesus’s last acts was to model servant leadership by washing his disciples feet. 

Instead of using their various gifts to help each other grow, they were tearing each other down — arguing and fighting about which of their gifts were the most important and significant.

Planting, Watering, and Building

And so Paul reminds them that each one of their gifts are important, each one of their gifts are necessary and essential in the Body of Christ. The gifts of preaching and teaching are not more important than the gifts of hospitality or service, and the gift of evangelism is not more significant than the gift of discipleship. All are essential for the health and growth of the Body of Christ.

Paul then switches analogies, just to make sure everyone can understand and relate. He moves away from this depiction of the Corinthians as infants and he switches to the image of planting and gardening. 

Paul tells the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Paul wants them to know that it wasn’t about him or Apollos. Each of them were just playing their part, fulfilling their roles. He had merely planted the seeds. Apollos had merely “watered” the church and helped tend to the young church when it was establishing its roots. But it was ultimately God who helped them grow.

Then Paul switches images again — one more image for good measure — and gives them the picture of a building. Paul tells them, “For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). Or, as it says in the Message paraphrase of the Bible, “To put it another way, you are God’s house. Using the gift God gave me as a good architect, I designed blueprints; Apollos is putting up the walls. Let each carpenter who comes on the job take care to build on the foundation! Remember, there is only one foundation, the one already laid: Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:9-11).

Jesus is our foundation, our cornerstone, the one that the Church is built on, and it is God who helps us grow.

Baptism, Confirmation, and Church Membership

In a few moments we are going to be taking in new members of our church by baptism, confirmation, and reaffirmation of membership vows. Becoming a member of a local church is sort of like gaining a whole bunch of aunts (like my Aunt Ruth Johnson), and uncles, and cousins, and brothers and sisters (like the Corinthian church). 

For those of you who are being baptized or confirmed or taken in as members today, your family is about to get a whole lot bigger!

Although we may not be related to each other by blood, we are meant to function together as a family, as a small part of the global family of God. And as a member of Christ’s family, each of us has a vital and significant role to play. Each of us are given spiritual gifts that are necessary and essential for the building up of the church. 

That’s why, when we are baptized or confirmed or become a member of a local church, we don’t just commit to following Christ individually — we commit to faithfully participate in the ministry of the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. We commit our loyalty to Christ, and to do everything in our power to strengthen the ministries of the Church.

But the Baptismal Covenant is not just a covenant made by the persons being baptized or confirmed. When you are baptized or confirmed and become a member of the church, we as a congregation make a commitment to you as well! That’s why we do baptism and confirmation here, on a Sunday morning, with the whole congregation present, rather than in a private ceremony. This is not just a ceremony that involves the people who are being baptized or confirmed. The rest of us don’t just get to sit here and watch. We are all included — we all participate, because we are family. 

As a congregation, we promise that we will surround you with a community of love and forgiveness, so that you may grow in your trust of God, and be found faithful in your service to others. We commit to pray for you, so that you may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.

Like every family, we’re going to have our share of squabbles and disagreements. And we’re going to make mistakes. We’re not always going to be loving, and there are going to be sometimes that we’re not going to want to forgive. But as a family, it’s important for us to stay centered and focused on Christ. Jesus Christ is the foundation that the Church is built on. And God is the one who ultimately helps us to grow.

So let’s be quick to forgive, so that we can help each other to grow spiritually. Let’s utilize the gifts that God has given us to build up one another, rather than tear each other down. And as we enter into our Baptismal Covenant Service this morning, let’s remember our own baptisms — and the grace of God that has been poured out on each one of us — and let us welcome these new members into our family!

With a Demonstration

Sunday February 9th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

I Cor. 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-20

An Eventful Week

This past week was a rather eventful week in the life of our country. From the polar opposite responses to Shakira and Jennifer Lopez’s half-time show at the Super Bowl last Sunday, to speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi literally ripping up a copy of President Trump’s State of the Union Address, to Senator Mitt Romney breaking with his party to vote to remove president Trump from office during the impeachment hearings, the week was not without its share of controversy! 

To me, it was fascinating to see how each of these events were surrounded by discussions about morality. Conversations on TV, and on social media, and around the water cooler centered around who was in the right, and who was in the wrong? Of course in each of these situations, parties on both sides thought they were the ones acting correctly — that they were making the correct moral decisions, which just goes to show how sharply divided we are as a country.

Even the National Prayer Breakfast, an event that is intended to be a visible sign of unity in our country, demonstrated how deep that divide is.

The Church at Corinth

The people of Corinth were also deeply divided and they seemed to want to know whose side the Apostle Paul was on — who did he think was right and who did he think was wrong, to help settle the disputes that were happening in their midst.

As you’ll probably remember, the Corinthian church was sharply divided into various camps – some claiming to follow Paul (who had founded their church), some claiming to follow Apollos (who had pastored their church for a while) and still others said that they followed the apostle Peter, or Jesus Christ himself (see 1 Cor 1:12). We don’t know exactly what all was going on in their midst, since we’re only getting one side of the conversation, but it seemed to be messy.

But rather than playing into the controversy or adding more fuel to the fire, Paul reminds them that when he first preached to them, rather than coming to them with “lofty words or wisdom,” he “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

In other words, Paul reminds them that their church was founded on the person of Jesus Christ, not on a particular set of political opinions or perspectives or arguments. When Paul started their church he wanted them to fall in love with the person of Jesus, not with Paul’s own views or perspectives. And so he said that he had intentionally “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

Nothing Except Christ

Now obviously Paul had been well educated as a religious leader and teacher of the law. In the book of Acts we find that Paul was a student of the highly esteemed and renowned Jewish rabbi Gamaliel, and that he had received extensive education in Jewish law and practice (Acts 22:3). Paul had been well versed in the most complex philosophical, ethical, and moral arguments of the day.

But Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to be a group of people who sat around arguing all day. He wanted them to be a living, breathing manifestation of the Gospel. 

And so instead of philosophical arguments and treatises, Paul had offered them first and foremost the good news about the person of Jesus — pure and simple. 

Paul told them the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, as we find out later in 1 Corinthians — “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). He told them that Christ had appeared to Peter and to the 12, then to five hundred brothers and sisters, and then “last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:8).

Even though the Corinthians had never met Jesus in the flesh, Paul wanted them to know Christ — to fall in love with Jesus.  He wanted them to look to Jesus as their moral guide and compass, not a set of dogmas or rules or principles. Paul wanted them to know and experience Jesus.

And so how did he do that? Well, Paul says that, he came to the Corinthians “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4) because he wanted their faith to not “rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5).

Demonstration of the Spirit and of power

“With a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” One has to wonder exactly what Paul means by a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Most likely he doesn’t mean miracles, since we rarely hear of Paul performing miraculous signs and wonders. 

Most likely he’s not even talking about how powerful his public speaking or preaching skills were, since he says that he came to the Corinthians “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3). In 2 Cor. 10:10 we find that the Corinthians thought that Paul’s “bodily presence [was] weak, and his speech contemptible.” And so Paul definitely wasn’t talking about his public speaking skills!

And yet, despite all of this, Paul says that he spoke to them “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). 

I believe that the demonstration that Paul is talking about here was love — love for God, and love for the Corinthians, and that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. I believe that Paul’s words and actions were infused with a deep sense of Christ’s love, which flowed out of him into the very words that he spoke. I believe that he prayed and cried over each and every word that he spoke to the Corinthian church — both when he was with them in person, and even now as he was writing to them. His words were not based on lofty, abstract concepts, but rather they flowed out of his deep sense of love for God, and love for the people at the church in Corinth.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells the church in Corinth, “I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor. 2:4).

Can you imagine if this was how Christians approached each and every conversation that we have with coworkers, and on social media about the events going on in our day? Can you imagine if religious leaders today who are called on to speak to issues of morality in our society prayed and cried over the words that they spoke? Can you imagine if our words and our lives were infused with a deep sense of love for all people – including the least and the lost and the hurting and the dying? Can you imagine if that was how we approached discussions of who or what is right and who or what is wrong?

If we were to do that, then I think we could indeed say along with Paul that our “speech and proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power”!

Powerful Words

When words are accompanied by deeds done in love, they become powerful.

In his book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christian Debate, author Justin Lee recounts his story of growing up in a conservative Christian home, and discovering as a teenager that he experienced same-sex attaction. Believing his attractions to be wrong, Justin Lee sought counseling out of a desire to change his orientation, but this did not work. He prayed and cried out to God to change his feelings, but this too did not produce the results that he wanted. Justin eventually came to accept his sexual orientation as part of his identity. Throughout all of this he never gave up his faith in Christ, despite the fact that he received extremely harsh criticism from many other believers due to his sexual orientation. 

Sadly, when Justin came out to many of the Christians in his life, they either rejected or ostracized him, or came at him armed with Bible passages to try to prove to him that he was in sin, despite the fact that he never even been in a relationship with someone of the same sex.

Toward the end of his book, Justin Lee tells the powerful story of what happened when a famous preacher came to speak on his campus. Justin was excited to meet him because even though the speaker held a conservative theological viewpoint on same-sex marriage, he was known for being compassionate towards those in the Gay community. Justin walked up to him, mentally rehearsing what he was going to say to the speaker, but all he was able to say was “I’m gay,” before the speaker reached out and embraced him with a hug, saying “I’m so glad that you’re here.” The speaker then sat down with Justin and listened to his life story, without judging him and without attempting to offer trite remarks or easy answers.

What stuck out to Justin was that when the speaker gave him that hug, he didn’t know that Justin was a Christian, that he was celibate, or that he had agonized for years over his sexual orientation. None of that mattered to the speaker. He just wanted to let Justin know that he was loved, that he was welcome, and that he was glad Justin was there.

Friends, I believe this is what it looks like for our proclamation of the Gospel to come “with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” We can have the most wonderful, well-articulated arguments, or the most seemingly air-tight conclusive evidence that our perspective is right, but do our friends, and our neighbors, and the people we interact with on social media know that we love them, and that we care about them? More importantly, do they know that Jesus loves them utterly and unconditionally?

In Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, he tells his disciples to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:15). So let’s let our lights shine! This world is desperately in need of truth and moral guidance. But rather than using lofty arguments, let’s let our words be accompanied by deeds done in love. Let’s use our words and actions to point people towards Jesus, the One who loves the whole world so much that he was willing to give his life for us. Let’s love the world with God’s love, and let’s let our proclamation of the Gospel come with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power!

Consider Your Call

Sunday February 2nd 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

1 Cor. 1:18-31

James Lawson, and the Tuesday Evening Bible Study

In 1958, the Rev. James Lawson was a seminary student at Vanderbilt University, pursuing ordination as a Methodist Minister, and leading a Bible study for a small group of college students in the basement of a church. Lawson had been born in Ohio in the year 1928, the son and grandson of African-American Methodist ministers. After college, Lawson had spent 3 years in India as a campus minister and teacher, where he was introduced to Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent direct action. 

After returning to the United States in 1957, James Lawson accepted an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr. to come to the South to train others in nonviolence. Lawson traveled around teaching for a while, and eventually landed in Nashville, where he enrolled as a divinity student at Vanderbilt. And it was there that James Lawson began leading weekly Tuesday evening Bible Studies for a small group of ten college students in the basement of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church.

During those weekly Tuesday Evening Bible Studies, Lawson and the students studied Jesus’s teachings about loving your enemies found in the Sermon on the Mount, and they learned practical approaches to loving and forgiving those who had wronged them. One of the nonviolent tactics that Lawson taught the college students was to imagine their enemy as an infant. Exercises such as this helped them to have compassion for those who might try to hurt them, and helped make them less prone to retaliation. 

As more and more college students began attending the meetings, Lawson began leading workshops for the students, where he would have them role-play various scenarios. One of Lawson’s innovative teaching techniques was role-reversal: White students would play the role of Black demonstrators, and Black students would play the role of white law enforcement officers.  

U.S. Representative John Lewis was one of the original ten students in Lawson’s Bible Study. Looking back on those trainings and exercises, Lewis said, “it was strange – unsettling, but effective, and very eye-opening as well.” The students practiced nonviolence until Lawson felt sure that they would be able to endure violence without retaliating.

The “Foolishness” of the Cross

In 1 Corinthians 1, the Apostle Paul tells the church in Corinth that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), and Paul goes on to say that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25).

The nonviolent methodology of Rev. James Lawson and his small group of Bible-believing college students was the exact opposite of human wisdom. But it was indeed the way of the cross. And it ended up being a very effective way to bring about social change.

During the trainings and workshops that James Lawson led, Lawson would talk with the students about the various issues and problems facing the African-American students in their community, and what could be done in response.  One young African-American woman highlighted that segregation in downtown department stores disproportionately affected women. She told the group,

You men don’t really know what life is like in segregation. We are the ones who shop. When we go into downtown Nashville. There is no place that we can stop with dignity and rest our feet…There’s no place that one could sit down and have a cup of coffee.

Hearing similar sentiments from many other African-American women in their community, Lawson and the students decided to focus their efforts on desegregating the lunch counters in the downtown department stores. Lawson and the students eventually launched a successful and peaceful sit-in campaign during the Spring of 1960, which resulted in the eventual desegregation of the lunch counters all over the city of Nashville.

Love Is Stronger than Hatred

Human wisdom would tell us that “might makes right,” that those with the most power should be the ones to make all the decisions. Human wisdom would tell us that if someone disgraces us or disparages us, we should come back at them with force or a display of power that puts them in their place. Human wisdom would tell us that violence is the way to solve the world’s problems.

But the message of the cross of Jesus Christ is that love is stronger than hatred, that the most effective way to conquer our enemies is to love them, and that the path to greatness is through humble service.

Consider Your Own Call

As an example of how God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, the Apostle Paul encourages the Corinthians to “consider your own call” (1 Cor. 1:26). Paul says, 

Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor. 1:26b-29).

If God chose only to work through the wealthy, the powerful, or the elite – they might think that they did it on their own strength. And so, most often, God chooses to work through average, everyday people. God chooses to work through seminary student like James Lawson who lead Bible studies in church basements, and through small groups of young adults who study the teachings of Jesus and decide to commit themselves to loving their neighbors across racial and ethnic lines. God works through everyday average people who accept the call of God on their lives and open themselves up to be used by God in whatever way God sees fit.

Now, I’m sure some of you were “straight A” students, or star athletes, or the prom king or queen in your high school. Some of you excel at everything you do, and everything you touch just turns to gold!

But most of us are probably prone to wonder whether God can even use us at all? And if so, how? How could we possibly make a difference in the world? What special purpose or unique role could we possibly serve?

But the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to be powerful, or wealthy, or elite in order for God to use us. All we have to be is available. Available to be used by God, available to be molded and shaped into Christ’s image, available for God to work in and through us. 

As the Apostle Paul goes on to say, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).

Blessed Are…

In the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 5, Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount, in which he said, in part, 

Blessed [or “happy”] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:3-12).

According to the wisdom of Jesus, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are “poor in spirit” and those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” The meek will inherit the earth, and the peacemakers are the children of God. Those who extend mercy to others will receive mercy, and those who are pure in heart will get to see God.

This is not the wisdom of the world. This is the way of the cross.

These are beautiful promises for those of use who wonder how God could possibly use us, who worry that we’re not good enough, and who feel like we’re just not that special. 

It’s good news, because you don’t have to have a lot of money to be poor in spirit! You don’t have to be strong to be meek. You don’t have to be powerful to be merciful. You don’t have to make straight A’s to become a peacemaker, and you don’t have to be perfect to be pure in heart. 

But you do need to be willing, open, and available. Willing to be used by God, in whatever way God sees fit. Willing to follow Christ’s example of self-sacrificial love. Willing perhaps even to look foolish for God. 

Some might look down on us or ever despise us. Some might even persecute us or revile us. But in the end, Christ promises that we’ll be blessed if we do these things. We’ll be blessed if we’re meek. And we’ll inherit the earth! We’ll be blessed if we hunger and thirst for righteousness. And we’ll be filled. We’ll be blessed if we are merciful. And we will receive mercy. 

This is not the wisdom of the world. But it’s the life that Jesus has called and invited us into. Consider your own call. It’s a way that may seem foolish to many, but in the end it’s the only way to true and everlasting life.

We Belong to Christ

Sunday January 26th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

1 Cor. 1:10-18

Ravens Fan Club

I do a little bit of traveling to other parts of the U.S. with my college campus ministry job, and frequently when someone finds out that I am from Baltimore, they will say, “oh, so I guess you are a Ravens fan, right?”

For anyone wondering, of course I always answer in the affirmative! Yes I am a Ravens fan.

The truth of the matter is that I really don’t watch a lot of football. It’s difficult for me to sit still for long periods of time, and I just don’t have the patience to sit in front of a TV for three hours to watch an entire football game. I’d much rather watch a live sports game, or get outside and do something active. But I do indeed root for the Ravens, and I am very sad that we’re not going to the Superbowl this year. 

I remember the last time the Ravens were in the Superbowl. It was so fun to be in Baltimore! It felt like the whole city was decked out in purple. One thing I learned during that time is that wearing a Ravens jersey on a Sunday morning counts as dressing up for church!

One of the reasons that people ask which football team you root for is that they want to know where your loyalties lie. Are you a team player who roots for your home team? Or are you someone who refuses to “jump on the bandwagon” and wants to be different from everyone else? If you live in Baltimore but don’t root for the Ravens, perhaps you moved here from another city, and still root for your hometown team.  

Some people place a lot of pride in the football, or baseball, or hockey team that they root for. It becomes a part of their identity, who they are, and no matter where they live or how much other people pressure them, they refuse to switch teams. 

Cult of Personality

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a favorite sports team that you root for, and there’s nothing wrong with loving and supporting that team until the day you die. 

The problem is that some people bring that same mindset into the church! They view religious leaders sort of like their favorite football teams. They swear their allegiance and loyalty their favorite preacher, or author, or podcaster, or religious guru. They rush out to buy that person’s latest book, they’re always quoting or retweeting the latest things that person said, and they take everything that person says at face value. Part of their identity becomes wrapped up in following that particular leader. 

Today there are whole churches, organizations and religious institutions that have been built around charismatic and dynamic leaders. People devote their whole lives to that particular leader, and seem to do whatever that leader says. This is what we might call a “cult of personality.” 

This is essentially the situation that was happening in the church at Corinth when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. The Corinthian church had been divided up into factions, with some claiming that they followed Paul, who had started their church some years prior. Others claimed to follow Apollos, who is described in the book of Acts as “an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24b) and seems to have pastored the Corinthian church for some time (see 1 Cor. 3:6). Others claimed to follow Cephas (the Apostle Peter), and still others claimed to follow Jesus.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that as followers of Christ we are to give allegiance and loyalty solely to Jesus Christ! Not to the pastor who baptized us, or the denominational leader we most admire, or the Christian author or podcaster that speaks to us the most. We are to place our faith and trust in Christ alone. Pastors, religious leaders, and teachers should point us toward Christ. And although there’s nothing wrong with having a favorite author or speaker or leader, they should not be the objects of our devotion. That role is reserved only for Jesus Christ.

We Belong to Christ

Now there were some in Paul’s day who proudly proclaimed “I belong to Christ.” But rather than commending them, Paul reprimands them along with everyone else! Why was that, you might ask?

Because of the singular pronoun that they were using: “I”. “I belong to Christ,” as if the other members of their congregation didn’t! As if they were better than all of their other brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul was not willing to stand for any sense of division in the church — even from those who claimed to follow Christ — if in doing so they were attempting to put down their fellow believers.

The only proper way of thinking about all of this is to use the plural personal pronoun “we.” We belong to Christ. And for this, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church and to us today, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we be in agreement and that there be no divisions among us, but that we be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 10b).

“Same mind and same purpose.” For those of you who might pride yourself in being an independent thinker, in not jumping on the bandwagon and rooting for the same team as everyone else, that might rub you the wrong way. Perhaps you like to stand apart from the crowd, to march to the beat of your own drum. 

But Paul wasn’t asking the Corinthians to all dress alike or think alike, or even to act just like everyone else around them. But he is asking them to put their divisions aside, to have the same mindset, to remember the reason why they were there, to be united in one mission and one purpose, and to remember that their allegiance is to Jesus Christ, above all else. It’s only through Jesus that the Corinthians could be saved, and the same is true for us as well.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

After all, as Paul points out, neither Paul, nor Apollos nor any of the other religious leaders that people follow today have not been crucified for us. Christ is the only one who died on the cross for the sins of the world. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they were not baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas. They were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as we are today.

As Paul says in the book of Ephesians, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6).

One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. This is the mindset that Paul wanted the Corinthians to have, and this is the mindset we are called to have today as well. 

We — not I, not you, but we — belong to Christ. We ultimately belong not to the individual church or denomination we’re a part of — even though we do have membership in our local church or denomination. We belong not to the pastor or religious leader that we love to listen to. We belong not to a favorite sports team or political party. Not to an employer or a company or a bank or educational institution. We Belong to Christ.

The “Foolishness” of the Cross

As Paul acknowledges, all of this sounds rather foolish to outsiders. To those who have never experienced Christ’s saving grace, it seems crazy to worship someone who was put to death on a cross.

After all, crosses were instruments of torture and death reserved only for the lowliest of criminals. Slaves who committed crimes, rebels, and traitors were hung on crosses. Roman citizens who committed even the most heinous of crimes were not hung on crosses to die. The Romans used crosses to publicly shame and humiliate anyone who dared try to revolt against the Roman Empire. It was Rome’s way of demonstrating the power of the empire and the weakness of those who tried to revolt. 

But for Paul and for us, the cross represents the power of God. Because in submitting to death on the cross and in rising from the grave three days later, Jesus conquered sin and death and hell and the grave. Jesus went to the cross willingly, not out of weakness, but rather because of the strength of his love and commitment to us. Jesus willingly laid down his life for us and willingly endured the shame and public humiliation of death on the cross on our behalf, so that we could be made right with God, so that we could be born anew. Jesus did that for us. 

And because Jesus willingly gave his life for us by dying on the cross, we can have peace with God and with others. 

Cross-Shaped Love

You see, although the cross may seem like foolishness to the world, for those of us who have experienced Christ’s love, grace, and mercy, even the shape of the cross has special significance. The cross has both a vertical and a horizontal element. 

The vertical beam of the cross points us upward to God, and we are reminded that in Christ, God came down to us, to reconcile us to God. The cross demonstrates God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness flowing down towards us, and because of Jesus’s death on the cross we can be made right with God. 

The horizontal beam of the cross reminds us that the cross also reconciles us to one another. When Jesus stretched out his hands and allowed himself to be nailed to the cross, his arms were stretched out in love to welcome anyone and everyone who acknowledges Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Through the cross we are united not only to God, but to every other person on the face of this earth who claims the name of Christ, every person who looks to Jesus as the source of their hope and strength. We are united not just with each other here in our congregation, but with every believer around the world, in every church and congregation, throughout time and history. Those who lived before us, and those who will come after us. 

This is the power of the cross. This is the power that raised Jesus from the grave! This is the power of the Gospel! And this is what it means when we say that We Belong to Christ.

You Are Not Lacking

Sunday January 19th 2020

Pastor Galen Zook

Isaiah 49:5-7; 1 Cor. 1:1-9

Performance Evaluations

Imagine with me that you are about to receive a performance evaluation at work.

Or for those of you in school, that you have been called to the principal’s office, or told to stay after class to meet with your professor. How would you feel?

Many of us probably dread such occasions. It’s scary to get feedback on how we’re doing, especially when we have no idea what our employer or instructor is going to say.

Now, there are good ways and there are bad ways to do performance evaluations. The ideal scenario is that negative feedback does not come as a surprise, and that a performance evaluation is a summation of things that have already been communicated by the employer or instructor on some prior occasion.

The worst performance review that I’ve ever heard of happened to a friend of mine who was the principal of a school. The chairperson of the school board did not notify my friend that she was going to be getting a performance review, and simply sent the review to her in the mail — completely out of the blue. When my friend opened the letter containing her performance review, she discovered that the evaluation consisted of a collection of feedback — positive and negative, but mostly negative —  from various members of the school board, teachers, and parents of the school. The feedback was given in no particular order with no context as to why it was being given. It contained no personalized note from the sender. It was sort of like getting Yelp reviews, or comments on a YouTube video, sent to you in the mail from your boss! Not a very fun experience, and probably not the most helpful way to give feedback.

Good supervisors or teachers, on the other hand, generally begin by stating the positives, building trust with the employee or pupil by stating some of the wonderful things that they have done, before moving on to present opportunities for growth in ways that are affirming, but also clear, so that the person being given the feedback can improve their performance. Good bosses and teachers want those in their charge to improve, and so giving critical feedback is important and significant. But it matters how that feedback is given.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

The book of 1st Corinthians is essentially a performance review sent from the Apostle Paul and someone by the name of Sosthenes to the church in Corinth. Paul had planted the church in Corinth some years prior, and Sosthenes was most likely the former chief ruler of the synagogue in Corinth that we read about in Acts 18:12-17 who had been seized and beaten by the mob in the presence of the Roman governor, when he refused to proceed against Paul. Apparently Sosthenes is now a follower of Christ, since Paul refers to him as “our brother” (1 Cor. 1:1), and perhaps Sosthenes came to visit Paul and give him some news from the church in Corinth.

As we will see later on in our study of 1st Corinthians, the Corinthian church has some critical areas where they are in much need of improvement — which is why Paul is writing. The congregation seems to be divided, and some people seem to be placing pride in their own particular spiritual gifts, holding themselves up above others in the congregation, among other things, and Paul wants to give them guidance and correction.

Introduction

Paul, as a good supervisor or instructor, begins by stating the positive qualities of the Corinthian church, extolling their virtues and acknowledging the good things that they are doing, before moving on to the areas where they are in need of improvement.

In the first few verses, Paul refers to them as “sanctified” and as “saints” — rather high praise! Of course, the word “saints” is not quite what we imagine it to mean today. The words “sanctified” and “saints” here refer to people who have been set apart, chosen for a particular purpose — not necessarily people who are perfect or completely righteous, as we might think. Paul reminds that they are set apart, chosen, for a particular purpose. 

Paul also gently reminds them that they are part of the global body of Christ. They are “called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). 

This is Paul’s way of saying, “you are special and unique, just like everyone else!” They are indeed chosen, set apart, unique, and special, but they are not better than everyone else, and in deed they are part of God’s church throughout the world, made up of people who are special and unique just like them.

Paul goes on to say, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:4). Paul is really good at encouraging people without flattering them. He isn’t puffing them up, so much as reminding them that the source of their goodness is Christ. Their good qualities have been given to them by Jesus.

Speech and Knowledge

Paul then goes on to acknowledge their gifts of “speech and knowledge of every kind” (1 Cor. 1:5). Apparently the Corinthian church was full of expert speakers, and they found a lot of pride in their great speaking abilities. This was especially significant in their culture because the famous Isthmian Games were held only about 10 miles away from Corinth. These games had been held every two years starting back in the 6th century B.C. In addition to foot races, wrestling, boxing, and chariot racing, there were also contests for music, poetry, and rhetoric (public speaking). The Corinthians were knowledgeable on a variety of topics, a trait that was highly valued in their society. “Knowledge was associated with philosophical wisdom or the ability to speak extemporaneously [impromptu] on any topic.” 

Of course later on in this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul will remind them that wonderful speaking abilities and vast amounts of knowledge are worthless without love. He will tell them, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1,2).

And so in these first few verses, Paul is laying out the positive traits of the Corinthian church. He is extolling their virtues, and building them up, but reminding them that their good gifts come from Christ, so that they will be more open to his gentle rebuke and correction later on. They are indeed wonderful speakers, and they do indeed have a lot of wonderful knowledge, and those gifts have been enriched in them through Christ. But their wonderful gifts and traits must be exercised in love for one another.

Not Lacking In Any Spiritual Gift

And then Paul goes on to speak words over the Corinthian church that are so beautiful and profound. Paul tells them “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7). 

“You are not lacking.” Imagine if you heard those words during your next performance review or meeting with your teacher! “You’re not lacking. You’re good to go!” “You have what it takes — you don’t need anything else!” That would be pretty amazing, wouldn’t it?

But of course the “you” here is plural. Paul is not saying that any individual person in the Corinthian church has all of the spiritual gifts, but rather that collectively, together as a community, they have been given everything that they need in order to function. Together as a community, they are not lacking anything.

We Are Not Lacking

Now, although these words were written about 2,000 years ago to a church community on the other side of the world, if Paul were writing a letter to us today here at Hampden United Methodist Church, I believe he would tell us the same thing. God has given us all of the spiritual gifts that we need right here in this room. None of us individually has all of the spiritual gifts — and that’s OK! We don’t need to all be great at everything. But we have everything we need right here, as long as we work together as a community. 

The truth is that it’s easy for us to focus on what we don’t have, or perhaps to pine for what we used to have. Perhaps you remember the days when our church was bursting at the seams, when it was difficult to find a place to sit in this sanctuary. Perhaps you remember the days when we were overflowing with volunteers, or when our church coffers were full. 

It’s easy for us to look around, and to focus on what we don’t have, on where we feel that we as a community are lacking. But I believe that God has called and equipped us to minister in this time and in this place. God has called us and given us what we need in order to minister, not in the world and neighborhood as it once was, but in the world as it is now. 

Our neighborhood and our city are changing. Hampden is not the same as it was 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago. And although a lot of people may have come and gone since then, I believe that God has given us exactly what we need to minister in this time and in this place, to the people who are out and about in our community right now. There are people right outside our doors who are in need of love. Encouragement. Hope. People who are longing to be set free, people who are longing to connect with God. 

We may not be able to solve every problem in our community, but we can point them to the One who can! God has given us exactly what we need in order to accomplish the mission that God has for us right now.

And so I’d like to read these verses to us again — this time from The Message paraphrase, since I think this is how Paul’s words would sound if they were written today. And I’d like us to hear these words spoken, not as words spoken to some distant community in ancient times, but as fresh words spoken over us today here at Hampden United Methodist Church:

Every time I think of you—and I think of you often!—I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There’s no end to what has happened in you—it’s beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives. Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that. 

— I Cor. 1:4-9 MSG