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Sermon – June 26, 2011 – To Us the Ministry

Sermon for June 26, 2011    The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
To Us the Ministry

2 Corinthians 5: 16-21, Matthew 10: 40-42
The kids at Vacation Bible School learned about some Jewish festivals and what they meant originally and the significance they had for Jesus and eventually for Jesusʼ disciples. Keeping religious festivals was a way deliberately to identify oneself as part of a people of God, and remind oneself of what God had done to make oneʼs people Godʼs people, and to recall what God expected Godʼs people to do. Paul sums up the task of the people of God represented by followers of Christ as delivering Godʼs message of reconciliation, and to get at that I want to back up before Christianity, and ask you to remember those old movies they used to make about pagans.
A lot of those movies were Bible movies. Back when showing dancing girls in filmy costumes couldnʼt be staged in a modern setting, the publicʼs taste for anything which might be considered edifying in a religious way meant that moviemakers could make big spectaculars based on Samson and Delilah or the death of John the Baptist or the choice of Queen Esther, and throw in a banquet scene with dubious-looking dancing, making it look not too fun and clearly the kind of wickedness which the faithful were going to ban when they were delivered into power. Thereʼd be the wicked pagan rulers lounging about the periphery, leering, smacking their lips over bunches of grapes offered by yet more dancing-girl types– you know, in the original Star Wars movies, the whole scene at Jabba the Huttʼs court was a kind of homage to these old B-pictures– anyway, that image of shameless, wanton, selfish, appetitive, degraded humanity is what I want us to remember.
Thatʼs what the Corinthians were like. Corinth was a big port, with lots of commerce, strangers coming and going, money changing hands. If any moral fiber once might have been conveyed by the old Olympian gods, it was watered down by the addition of all kinds of cults from around the Mediterranean, and just like now, religion that got mixed up with money and privilege sometimes strayed pretty far from ethical and moral emphases.
Being a commercial center, Corinth had its Jewish colony, and there were synagogues. Those pagans who werenʼt finding themselves fulfilled by the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die” approach to life used to hang around the synagogues, attracted to the idea of a universal God who, sooner or later, guaranteed rewards for being good and punishments for doing wrong. This crowd rarely became Jewish, but when a newer message began to be delivered in the synagogue community about God saving the world through raising a special messenger from the dead, and these people were permitted to stake their souls on that, they came in. It wasnʼt, especially in Corinth, the established synagogue community which composed the new church. These pagan hangers-on became the core of the new Christianity.
They were tent-meeting converts, self-aware enough to recognize themselves as the sinners being invited to the front for baptism, but not disciplined enough to harness the opportunity really to change who they were. Well, some of them did. Others, however, didnʼt get Christianity exactly right, and thatʼs the reason that we have, in our New Testaments, at least two letters and perhaps part of a third letter included in Second Corinthians, all to the same wild church in Corinth.
They were going wrong in a churchier way than formerly. There were no dancing girls at the banquets they had by way of celebrating communion, but what did happen there is that the more aggressive participants ate everything up while others went hungry, and some got drunk. This wasnʼt Methodist or Baptist communion, obviously, because you can make yourself feel uncomfortable by drinking too much grape juice, but youʼll still be sober. Not in Corinth.
The whole Christian church owes its scriptural formula for understanding the communion ritual to the Corinthians, because one of the many things Paul had to straighten them out about was this. They werenʼt to approach the meal selfishly, but mindful of the whole body of the church, and they were to emphasize the connection between the ritual and the Last Supper, which put a more solemn face on it than the alternate possibility, which was to celebrate it as a reenactment of the disciplesʼ Easter day feast with the Risen Lord.
Iʼve gone on a bit about the Corinthians because weʼre always reading bits of scripture and this morningʼs lesson is no different. Paul tells them that believers no longer regard anyone from a human point of view, and that if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. Thereʼ are two reasons Paul puts it that way. One is to commandeer the attitude of those Corinthians whose experience of speaking in tongues has convinced them that they are more spiritual and closer to God than their uncharismatic church mates. There is an elevated consciousness from which to regard things, but itʼs not having a big head– itʼs lining up your perspective with that of the Christ who embraced the lowly–and Paul is speaking from that. The other reason Paul speaks this way is to assert that the elevated consciousness of true Christian reveals that anyone in Christ–whether a speaker in tongues or someone whose tongue just says “I believe”–is a new creation in Christ. The old has passed away– the old including habits of pride, self-regard, competitiveness– and the new has come. In other words Paul is, in this very good and familiar teaching about the impact of Christ, working his theme that the Corinthian church members who are proud should smarten up and realize they are no better than anyone else and focus on every believerʼs task, which is to echo Christʼs humbling work reconciling the world to God.
How do we do that? Itʼs going to be by love. Itʼs going to be by serving others, caring about them, caring for them. Itʼs going to be by becoming a community which has God at its heart, a community of people with God in their hearts– and making that group more and more open, more and more inclusive. Itʼs not just the grudge God may have had against the world which is resolved in Christ–and thatʼs often the way the New Testament formulates it, that there was something unacceptable about Creation which has been resolved by Jesusʼ death and resurrection. Thereʼs also the grudge the world has against God, the impatience with the whole notion of God borne partly of alternate spiritualities but created largely by brands of religion, including Christianity, which havenʼt moved beyond the human point of view at all– preaching and practice which are prejudiced, proud, fearful, anxious about appearances, self-justifying and other-demonizing, shallow, unsympathetic, and two-faced. The new creation– thatʼs us– the new persons we are are going to be, by our being in Christ, by our standing in this legacy of identity and sharing this work–we wonʼt be the kinds of Christians that make God look bad.
That means that we reconcile everyone else in the world to God by not misrepresenting God. God has larger views than human views, and so must we. God doesnʼt care about oppressing, or depressing, or impressing others– God doesnʼt have to become any bigger by making anyone small. God aims to do big things for the weak, and God will spend down the privilege and power God possesses to rescue the weary and those the world sees as worthless.
Thatʼs how Christ reconciled the world to God, and thatʼs how we will reconcile the world to God. The things the children learned during Vacation Bible School– the lessons about caring about others and caring for others–are the core of Christianity. If you grew up in the church thatʼs what you were taught. This week employed catchy songs and fun crafts and an entertaining script to reinforce the lessons, and make them likelier to stick. What the curriculum used as its springboard–the Bibleʼs great public festivals–tied in with its theme of preparing food.
Every Sunday is a festival, every first day of the week a commemoration of Easter. Every worship service is part of a pilgrimage to a place associated with God, and every after-worship lemonade is a party, a time of refreshment for the whole people to enjoy. The lessons about who God is and therefore who we are that we learned as children fade over time and are blurred by competing values, but here we sing, and say, and once more hear the story, of a God whose desire it is to be close to each person alive, and to see every human knowing justice and living in peace, not only with each other, but each of us with the God who has given us life.
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