Monday, February 20, 2017

6. “The Temple of You”

 The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 119:33-40, Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Matthew 5:38-48, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 19 2017
I was on a youth retreat in West Virginia, and as sometimes happens, the kids were making comments about my accent being a little different to theirs. They took great amusement at the way I pronounced certain words and would say 'Say it again'. Then one of the guys looked me straight in the eye and asked “What's it like... being you?”

I have to say that I really wasn't sure how to answer. Never been asked that before, never been asked it since! 'What's it like being you?' The strange thing is, sometimes on a Sunday morning when we're here in church, it seems to be the sort of probing question that God would ask us, both as individuals and as a community. 'What's it like being you?'

I'm sure, given time for reflection, we could all come up with some kind of answer. 'Actually' one may say, 'Not to good being me right now, got a lot on my mind'. Another may say 'Couldn't be better, can't complain'. There would be as many different answers as we are different people. Maybe as a church community we'd respond; “Well weare going through some changes right now!”

'That's how you are,' God may reply, 'But do you know what you are?' “Do I know what I am?” 'Yes' says God , “Tell them what they are Paul!” At which point somebody could read for us from 1 Corinthians 3:10, “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?” Or as it appears in the Message bible “You realize, don't you, that you are the temple of God, and God Himself is present in you?

And that's what I want to talk about today. The temple of you. Because if we are temples, then there are implications to be faced. Temples need maintaining. Temples have a mission. The temple was the place for meeting with God, a sacred place, set apart and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

1. Temples Need Maintaining

Temples, be they a small pagan temple in Corinth, the grandest of temples in Jerusalem or your local Presbyterian Churches have one thing in common. They always need taking care of. I know I could invite any of our deacons or our treasurer to come up this morning and tell you what a time consuming and expensive job that can be. You have to care for a building.

This text reminds us that we also have to care for ourselves. 'You realize, don't you. That you are a temple...' Historically Christianity has often created a divide between spirit and body, as though somehow the body was profane, and only our spiritual needs were sacred.
We are beginning to re-learn that body, soul and spirit are intimately related. That not all our diseases can be treated by administering a tablet. That prevention is better than a cure, that a healthy diet and physical life results in health benefits all round.

As I was doing some reading for this sermon I came across this, which though it is written primarily for an African-American context, I'm sure you'll see applies to other contexts.

“For African-American youth, re-imagining themselves as 'sacred' would mean praying for God's wisdom to avoid the kinds of risky behaviors which leave the temple vulnerable to all manners of sickness, disease, violence and other forms of physical harm; such as (but not limited to) unprotected sexual activity, illegal drug and alcohol abuse and gun-play. Also adults need to see our youth as 'sacred bodies' and not as 'Gangstas', thugs, lost causes, future prison inmates and absentee baby-daddies. If we begin to see them as young princes and princesses, future presidents, engineers, teachers, parents, preachers and more, then they will more likely see themselves and treat themselves in the same way”

One can apply such an illustration to almost any group of people. To recognize our bodies as scared means cherishing them. It means not being taken in by the lies the media tells us that certain body types and age groups are so much more significant then others. It means recognizing that God has made you 'you', and being thankful for that unique physical creation that you are!

If God says we are temples then we need to ask ourselves, how well are we doing in the area of personal buildings and grounds! Not so we can compare ourselves with others, or compete with people different from us, but so that we can have the physical well-being God desires for our lives. Temples need maintaining.

2. Temples have a mission.

When He was 12 years old Jesus took a trip with His family to Jerusalem and we find Him in the temple debating with the teachers. (Luke 3:41-50). The temple was a place of learning. The body may well be a temple but the person who lives inside it needs more than just the physical. God gives us a body and a mind.

Presbyterians have always been strong promoters of education. There are 65 colleges and universities nationwide related to the PC(USA), 10 seminaries and 2 further seminaries in a covenant relationship. For a denomination of our size, that's a lot! And the majority have a reputation for holding to high academic standards.

There remains an emphasis within our theology that all truth is God's truth. That the sciences and the arts are just as important as the theology and philosophy one traditionally associates with religious institutions. We believe that one of our callings in life is to grow in knowledge and wisdom. We are not happy with simplistic answers, easy solutions or simply offering the comment “Well, I think it says in the bible.”

We believe God has given us a mind and expects us to exercise it. That's why in many of our churches we host nursery schools or after school programs. That's why we have adult classes and bible studies. We recognize that we all have a lot to learn!

It also means we often hold to different positions on a whole variety of issues. This led to somebody quipping; “What do you get if you put two Presbyterians in a room together?” Answer? 'A disagreement!' Our Presbytery meetings can become quite volatile when opinions are strongly and deeply held.

Yet, for much of our history we have agreed that although we differ, we can still travel together. That the truth is so much greater than any of us can ever fully discern, and that sometimes we are the ones that need to listen, rather than those who have the answers. Sadly, there are times when peoples differences cause them to separate, but often when historically those situations are viewed retrospectively, we wonder why they were such a big deal!

Where I'm going with this is to say 'Keep asking Questions'. Keep your mind in gear. Never be afraid to think outside of the box or look beyond the confines of ones own comfort zone. Having said that I would also encourage you to make that journey of inquiry in tandem with God, and make the best use of the insights Scripture can offer. Bear in mind of course that in order to know what they are... you are going to have study the scriptures!

I like the way the Message Bible transliterates verses 18 and 19. “Don't fool yourself. Don't think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times. Be God's fool—that's the path to true wisdom.Temples have an educative component to their mission.

3. The Temple was THE place for meeting with God.

a. The temple was the dwelling place of God. The Jews believed that God dwelt in the temple, took possession of it and resided in it.Don't you know” asks Paul in verse 16 of our reading today “That you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?

I remember as a young person being invited to “Ask Jesus into my heart.” A little confusing if you take that image literally! What is actually meant by such a phrase is that we invite the Holy Spirit to be a central force in our lives, invite the power of resurrection to invade our time constrained existence, invite God to make a kingdom perspective the lens through which we view everything else around our lives.

Notice as well that this verse is both individual and corporate. “God's Spirit dwells in your midst”. Our lives individually and the life we share together as a church community are an arena for the activity of the living God. In Matthew 18:20 teaches His disciples “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.". The temple is a dwelling place of God.

b. The temple was set apart from common use for a holy purpose. Our call as Christians is not to be the same as everyone else and go along with the crowd. Jesus invites us to be in the world, but not of the world. (John 17:14) We are set apart for God's service, to live for God's glory and bring glory to God's name. How that works in our life and within our experience is something we work at with God!

c. The temple was a sacred place. This brings us around full circle to where we began talking about looking after our bodies and nurturing our minds. Just as the temple was sacred to God, so our lives are sacred to God. Sacred enough to send His son Jesus Christ to die on the Cross for us. Sacred enough to be a place in which God wants to accomplish the work of the Kingdom, within and through and all around us.

Returning to the question I was asked at a youth camp. 'What's it like being you?' Let's rephrase it and ask ourselves “How are we doing at being a temple?”

Being a temple requires a number of things. It takes maintenance. We need take care of ourselves physically. Exercise, diet, health, these are important. Being a temple means we have a mission and a mind to discern what that mission is. Being a temple means that our lives are a meeting place with God. We welcome the Spirit's presence and activity. We recognize that the call to be a disciple is a high call and a great privilege. We see our life in it's totality, body, soul and spirit as a sacred trust.

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?

May God help us to live into our calling!
And to God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 13, 2017

5. Solid Food

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 119:1-8, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 12 2017

I'm sure as you were growing up your parents said it to you when you were in the midst of a squabble, and I'm sure if you are a parent you have at some point had to say it to your children. The phrase “Why don't you just grow up!”

Such is the tone of our reading today in which Paul tells the church in Corinth to stop their quarreling and grow up. As the first verse reads in the Message Bible: “Right now, friends, I'm completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You're acting like infants...” He says of the teaching that he has given them; “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”

He chastises them for the infantile way they have lined themselves up to support a particular preacher. 'One says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos,” (1Co 3:4) Didn't they realize that Paul and Apollos were on the same team, about the same task and served the same Lord Jesus Christ? “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1Co 3:6 )

His concern is that of a father in the faith to them. He calls them friends and sisters and brothers. He's not bullying them or disparaging them. Rather his love for them compels him to speak out.

Most concerning of all is that he discerns that they are not acting in a way consistent with spiritual growth. They are behaving according to the spirit of the world rather than the Holy Spirit of God. By their jealousy, by their partisanship, by their quarreling, they were betraying the trust placed in them as recipients of the great and good news of the gospel.

This gospel was a message that had been sown in their hearts through his work, and through the work of Apollos. Both had been reliant on God's grace. They needed to move forward, not be stuck in the midst of senseless quarrels and disputes that prevented them from receiving sound teaching. They needed solid food.

Reading between the lines in this passage we can see how Paul, whilst chastising them for being milk drinkers, is also offering them solid food, by teaching them what spiritual ministry looked like, using himself as an example. As we move forward as a faith community, we do well to take note of Paul's teaching about the nature of Holy Spirit motivated ministry.

1. Spiritual Ministry is Servant Shaped.

Verse 5a “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe-- “ Paul uses the Greek term 'diakonos' to describe both his own ministry and the ministry of Apollos. It is from 'diakonos' that we derive our term 'Deacon'. The traditional role of the deacon is one of service and the offering of care and support. From Paul’s perspective we are called to be 'deacons' ...'servants'... to one another.

If you have ever watched Downton Abbey then you will have observed what it was like to be part of the staff of a large country estate. When the Earl of Grantham or any of his family tells them to 'Do something', they do it. They don't argue. They don't complain that it's not their task or that it's not convenient right now. They don't say, “Sorry I have other plans this weekend.”

If Mr. Carson, the chief butler, suspects any quarreling or dissension in the ranks downstairs, then he nips it in the bud. They either shape up and get on with doing what they are meant to be doing or they are out of a job.

Being a Christian is not a job, it is an assignment. It is a spiritual task. Essential to the nature of the task is the attitude that we are not part of a church community to simply get out of it what we can, but that we are called to give what we can, sometimes sacrificially. Our pattern is that of Jesus Himself, who gave His life for us on the Cross, in order that we may be freed to serve others. We serve because that is the right response to make to Jesus who died for us. We love because He first loved us. Continuing with verse 5...

2. Spiritual Ministry is Task Orientated

“… the Lord has assigned to each his task.” (1Co 3:5b). Or as the Message Bible has it, Paul describes the servant ministry of himself and Apollos by saying “We each carried out our servant assignment.

Congregations are made up of people with different gifts and talents and abilities. Stewardship is determining how we are going to use our particular gifts and influence to enhance the spiritual community God has invited us to be a part of. We sometimes speak of stewardship as being about money. But what's the point of having a bank balance that balances if nobodies actually moving from being babies in the faith to mature believers?

Staying with the Downton Abbey imagery, everybody has an assignment. Be they in the kitchen or a personal maid or a butler or a gardener... everybody has a job to do. If any one of them fails to function effectively then the whole thing becomes out of balance and you find jealousy and quarrels erupting, precisely the ailments that were so troubling Paul about the church in Corinth.

It can be hard to find exactly where you fit in. Sometimes we can feel like a square pin in a round hole. Sometimes we become frustrated because we can see what needs to be done but we are not asked our opinion. Sometimes we observe that people occupy positions that are beyond their capabilities, but there's no way they are letting go of those positions because they have too much of themselves invested in that task or that position.

Do you know why that is? It's because God doesn't call us to be a business or an enterprise or a corporation or a company. God doesn't call us to be the staff of a country house. God calls us to be a family. “And there ain't no dynamics quite as curious as family dynamics.” There's our working relationships, there's the relationships we have with our friends and then there's the relationships we have with our families. There are times when it seems that we can get along with everybody, except those we were actually born to get along with.

Family relationships take all the grace, patience, understanding and tolerance that we are given... and then some. Loving people we don't know is a piece of a cake. Loving those God calls to be our spiritual family and with whom we share a space we describe as our spiritual home, that's another story.

Such is the reality we deal with and can only travel through with prayer, with lots of deep breathing and by focusing on each others needs more than our own. Yet, please be assured, there is room for us all at the table. There will come those moments when it makes sense and falls into place. It takes time. Things that matter always do. Solid food has to be chewed. You can chug a bottle of milk, but if you eat a steak dinner to rapidly is that you risk the chance of choking and get indigestion.

We are invited to center on the things that need doing and bring to them what we can. Spiritual ministry is always task orientated.

3. Spiritual Ministry is God Focused

I Corinthians 3: 7 in the Message Bible reads;It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.”

Growth requires the planting and the nurturing. There have to be people in place to faithfully accomplish the assignments God has given them. But at the end of the day, we cannot predict the outcome. It is 'God, who makes things grow'.

Spiritual ministry is servant-shaped, task orientated and focused on what God can do. We build upon the heritage that those who have gone before us and we recognize that we are not alone in the task. We have each other and we have God to lead us and guide us. If it were entirely up to us, I don't think we'd have a hope.

Thankfully God promises to be with us and encourages us to go beyond spiritual infancy, to go beyond being in a place where we are nourished on milk alone and move to a place of being fed with solid food, the meat of God's Word, the knowledge of God's ways that allows us to take risks and make mature judgments.

At the commencement of our reading Paul appears frustrated by the Corinthian Church. “For goodness sake, grow up!” As we dig deeper into the passage we realize he is expressing parental concern and offering solid guidance as to what it takes to be a Holy Spirit centered congregation.

That it takes the willingness to be servants of each other, in genuine and realistic ways. He uses the term 'deacon' to describe that servant relationship he had with them and prayed they would have the desire to be 'deacons' for each other.

He reminds them that being a family could be hard. People had to find their place and do what needed to be done Spiritual maturity required time and effort and focus upon the tasks at hand.

He also, in his own unique way, reminds them at the end of all things, it wasn't about what they could do or be, but rather about allowing God's love to grow within them and minister to others through them.

Though this passage in Corinthians Paul invites us to grow in faith, in love and in hope; to grow up into Christ, into being people shaped less by the attitudes and shallow perceptions of our every day world and be transformed by the values of His Kingdom, where everybody matters and the little things we do count for a lot... and where the bottom line is always love.

Keeping in mind the Downton Abbey imagery I shared earlier, I leave you with Paul's words, as transliterated in the Message Bible, 1 Corinthians 3:7-9;

It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes it all worth doing is the God we are serving.

And to God's name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 6, 2017

4. The Deep

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 112:1-9, Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 5 2017

One of the biggest movie hits of the late 1970's was about a killer shark called 'Jaws'. In an effort to capitalize on it's success numerous follow ups were made including a lavish production in 1977 called 'The Deep'. The Deep was about a young couple who discovered a World War II wreck, called Goliath, that not only has a valuable cargo, but lays over a Spanish galleon with an even more valuable cargo upon it.

Not surprisingly other people, of dubious character, find out and are out to get their hands on the available wealth, and what with the presence of mutated sea creatures, the action becomes deadly. The posters advertising the movie contained the phrase “Is anything worth the terror of the Deep?”

In our bible reading today we heard Paul speaking of ' “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” – the things God has prepared for those who love Him... The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God ' (1 Corinthians 2:9)

There is however no terror involved in the deep things of God. On the contrary, the deep wisdom of God is pictured as a treasure to be highly desired, and available to all those whose lives are being recreated by the action of God's Holy Spirit.

The only terror expressed in our passage comes through Paul himself, who explains to the Corinthians “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling”

We sometimes picture Paul as a fearless, bold, extrovert of a guy; on a mission from God and afraid of nothing. Yet here he pictures himself as a stumbling and not-very-gifted speaker. As Christians, one of our duties before God is to share our faith with others. But often, even the thought of speaking about we believe, paralyzes us. We feel insecure, we feel inadequate. We are worried about doing more harm than good.

Maybe then we can take comfort from the fact that even Paul felt ill-equipped for the task God had laid upon him. He claims to have no power, other than that which the Spirit of God blessed him with, to present the gospel message. “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” (1 Cor 2:1)

In the last chapter he spoke about the 'foolishness' of the gospel and how it's power didn't lie in words or dazzling philosophical insight, but was something that people would witness as they observed the church in Corinth practicing love and hospitality towards each other, crossing boundaries of culture and tradition, breaking down centuries old practices of exclusion and privilege and seeking to be One in Christ. That went against the spirit of the age. Still does.

He rejoices that the good news of God's love is delivered through cracked and damaged vessels. That's how he felt he was. Later in his letter he writes We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2Co. 4:7)

'Jars of Clay'. We, who are nobody special, just fallible and frail humanity like everybody else, are commissioned by God to be the good news for others. Those whom God calls, God also equips with the blessing and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We are called to do God's work, in God's way and in God's power. That way, glory goes to God and our service becomes an act of worship.

But how do we do that? “Is anything worth the terrors of the Deep?” How do we find the sterngth and courage to go deep?

It is interesting to note that Paul never describes people who put their faith in Jesus as being 'Christians'. In the Book of Acts we do read that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26). But most scholars suggest that the term was used in a derogatory way and not meant as a compliment. Rather like calling them 'Jesus Freaks' or 'little christs.”

Only later in church history did the word become associated not just with individuals but a phrase that carried sociological, cultural, and political, as well as religious meaning. Only later did the word have worldly status and become a positive.

For Paul a disciple of Jesus is a 'spiritual' person. But he makes a distinction between being spiritual, in some vague sense of the word, and a person whose life is being molded and shaped by the action of God's Holy Spirit. In verse 12 he writes “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.”

Paul found his strength, not in any vague notion of spirituality, but in his Hloy Spirit relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

There were many in the Corinthian community to whom Paul wrote, who could rightly describe themselves as 'spiritual'. Corinth was one of the broadest minded, eclectic cities in the whole Roman Empire. If Corinth had a theme tune it could have been “Anything goes” - and that applied to their religious life as well as their cultural life.

So Paul is quite specific in stating that what he had in mind was not any vague notion of 'spirituality'; “What we have received is not the spirit of the world”, but a spiritual nature formed by a persons relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and in tandem with the work of the Holy Spirit. When Paul speaks of 'Going Deep' he does not visualize the process as some individual quest for meaning, but tells us in verse 10 that 'The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.'

“Is anything worth the terror of the deep?” declared the movie poster. In the movie 'The Deep' in order to plumb the depths and reach the treasure, those who desire the prize have to work at it, to put on their diving suits and search for it. Paul is in no doubt the gospel is worth diving for. In verse 7 he speaks of the gospel as 'A mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began' . At the end of verse 9 he talks of the things “God has prepared for those who love Him”.

His whole emphasis is that there are things about life, about ourselves, about each other, about God, that we have yet to discover. That we cannot afford to stay as we are but need to go deeper and deeper and deeper in our discovery of the love of God.

If there was anything to be feared, it was staying as we are. He cautions us that if we fail to go deeper, we will stagnate, we will fail to appreciate just how greatly God loves us, we will become disconnected from each other and from our church communities and even from God,

Just as a diver has to reach different levels in order to discover what they are looking for, Paul envisages spiritual life as a quest, and a journey of discovery that involves all of our senses.

In verse 9 Paul speaks of the deep things of God being perceived by our sight, “What no eye has seen', by our listening 'what no ear has heard' and by our thinking 'What no human mind has conceived.'

So here is what Paul invites us to.

We are invited to a deeper vision. We know that we see ourselves in certain ways. But we also know that another persons perception of our lives can be entirely different. Paul takes it one step further and tells us that God's perception of our life is something different again.

If only we could envision God's perspective on our relationships, on our problems, on our finances, on our worries, on our temptations, on our struggles as a nation and as individuals, on our hopes and dreams.... well things would look different. Bear in mind that God looks at us as people whom He loved enough to send His Son Jesus Christ to die on a Cross for. That God’s love is so powerful that Christ was raised from the dead. How we need to see that resurrection perspective over and above our narrow visions of what can and can't be!

We are invited to listen. Through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah 28:23 God addressed the people: “Listen and hear my voice; pay attention and hear what I say.” In John 10:27 Jesus, the Good Shepherd, describes His relationship to His people in this way; “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

But how do we hear God? Matthew's gospel suggests we hear God's call when we witness the plight of the hungry and homeless, the naked and the prisoner and decide to take action. That's what separated the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:32)

We hear God when we approach Scripture in an attitude of prayer and humbly seeking God's guidance. The Holy Spirit is with us to interpret the written words in a way that they become the Word of God to us.

We hear God in worship as we open ourselves up to the music and the hymns and the words and the giving and the fellowship. We hear God when we actively engage in listening!

We are invited to understand 'What no human mind has conceived.' When we have an uncomplicated trust in God we witness unexplainable things happening in and around and through our lives. I can't put that into words. I can't explain it. But I do understand that God's love is so much greater than we dare imagine. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “What no eye has seen,what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” the things God has prepared for those who love Him”.

This passage has taken us a few places this morning.

Firstly, that we have no need to fear that we are not good enough, or clever enough, or ideally suited to share with others the treasure of the gospel. God promises that such is the work of the Holy Spirit. We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Secondly, that we are invited to dig deep into our heritage of faith. We are prompted to dive deep and discover hidden treasures within the love of God. Though being aware and involved in the struggles of others, though scripture and prayer, through opening our hearts in worship

Finally, let us recall that for Paul a disciple of Jesus was somebody, not spiritual in any vague sense of the word, but one who was being changed and inspired and renewed by the action of God's Holy Spirit.

Today there's football game. First time I ever attempted to play football was with some of the youth in Fayetteville, WV. I was standing there and one of them shouted “Go Deep, Go Deep” I had no idea what they were talking about. They explained that if went deep, I could catch the ball and maybe get it over the line before somebody pulverized me. “Is anything worth the terror of the deep?”

With the help of the Holy Spirit may we travel deeper and deeper and deeper into an understanding of the love of God as a treasure that changes everything. Here around a table laid with bread and wine is a great place to do that! And to God's name be the glory. Amen.