1 Corinthians 1:3-17 – Proclaim Good News

Jesus de Greatest, statue in Nigeria

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore, you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (New International Version)

The Apostle Paul clarified the foremost mission of Christianity to the Corinthian church: Preach the gospel. 

Everything else Paul did – from healing people to gathering offerings for others, and from making tents to journeying around the Mediterranean world – he did with the central focus and aim of proclaiming the good news of God’s grace in Christ.

Unfortunately, the Corinthian believers had lost sight of this urgent and needed imperative of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Instead, they hardened into opinionated groups. Disunity amongst them was rampant and rancid. In short, the church made secondary matters of first importance. So, Paul wrote to correct this situation, which had gotten completely out of hand.

The proclamation of the gospel in Word and Sacrament needs to be at the core of every church and every believer’s life. When it isn’t, there are factions, special-interest groups, and condescending attitudes which fill the vacuum left in the center.

There are some things, maybe most things, we can agree to disagree with. Yet, when it comes to the good news of forgiveness and grace in Christ, we are to be of one mind. It is imperative we agree together that the heart of Christian mission is the gospel.

Unity around the gospel won’t happen if everyone is listening to competing voices.

Some believers have their favorite pet preachers. They follow that person and listen to them. That’s fine – to a degree. Yet, problems will inevitably arise because some practices happening within a particular church or faith community may not sync with the pet preacher or teaching. And if several individuals have different folks they follow, it can get messy in a hurry.

Following one person over another, Paul insists, is not the real issue in Christianity. Rather, it’s proclaiming the gospel – and not some person or their ideas. Believers need to put a whole lot more energy into using their spiritual gifts, rather than putting a crown on some worm of a preacher.

People can disagree on a lot of things, and that’s okay. But, in the church, there ought always be agreement and unity in building ministry around the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Everyone in the church, without exception, has a role to fulfill, a gift to exercise, in proclaiming good news. For me, I enjoy teaching Scripture to unbelievers and answering their questions, as well as mentoring believers in the cardinal doctrines of faith and practice. 

Others proclaim the gospel through hospitality, or partnering with others, or even inviting people to events and bible studies. In all the myriad ways God has gifted us, whether it is in serving or speaking, we are to use that gift not to advance a personal agenda, but to preach the gospel.

In this season of the Epiphany, Christians celebrate that the gospel has come to Gentiles and not only Jews. The light shines on all people, not just some. Therefore, followers of Jesus are to let their light shine, as our Lord exhorted us:

“You are the light that shines for the world to see. You are like a city built on a hill that cannot be hidden. People don’t hide a lamp under a bowl. They put it on a lampstand. Then the light shines for everyone in the house. In the same way, you should be a light for other people. Live so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, ERV)

Blessed Father, Son, and Spirit, you are One God, perfectly united and in continual harmony. You have loved humanity to such a degree that you orchestrated a great deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Help your entire church to resolve petty differences and fix a gaze firmly and graciously on proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

Ephesians 1:3-14 – We Are Blessed

Hallelujah by Mike Moyers

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (New International Version)

God has blessed us. The word “blessing” comes from the same word for “giving thanks.”  So, when, we consider the ways God has spiritually blessed us, it leads us to effusive gratitude and praise.  And this was exactly the case for the Apostle Paul.

In writing these words, Paul was so excited to share with the church at Ephesus about the blessings of God that he could not stop. In our English translations we have broken these verses up into several sentences and two paragraphs. But Paul originally penned this as one sentence!

More than anything, Paul wanted the church to know the wonderful blessings of God to them. Throughout the book of Ephesians, Paul’s constant theme to the church is reconciliation and restoration. In fact, that is the end game for God. God has cares about reconciling people to himself, and others. The Lord deeply cares about restoring the entire world to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

To accomplish this gigantic feat, God intervened into humanity by giving the church three main blessings: election, redemption, and inheritance.

Election 

The word “chose” and “chosen” in some English translations is the Greek word ἐκλεκτός (eklektos) or “election.” This is where it all begins for us. Even before the creation of the world, God had the end of the story in mind. Divine decisions were made about outcomes and results. 

This approach, by the way, is how we are to engage ministry in the church. That is, we begin with the end in mind of what we want to accomplish. Then, we gather the people and begin making the needed decisions to see that end purpose realized. Too often, churches begin with a group of people and wonder about what they should do – which is backwards from how God does it. 

In eternity past, in love, God predestined us to be adopted as his children. You and I are so loved by God that we were special to him before we were even ever born! Election means God has a purpose for us. On the human level, we elect candidates so that they may serve the common good and put their energies into accomplishing some noble cause. 

Likewise with God. We were not elected or chosen by God solely to go to heaven when we die.  Although that is true and shall happen, the reason we were chosen by God was for us to be holy and blameless, to be for the praise of God’s glory. We are not in some sort of holding pattern on earth, impatiently waiting for the afterlife. Rather, we are to be active in accomplishing God’s purposes for our election. And what is that purpose?

We are to participate with God in the grand scheme of reconciling and restoring all of creation back to the original design. Therefore, every act of forgiveness, grace, love, and kindness; every overture of faith and communication of the gospel to others; and all steps of obedience are small movements toward the great restoration story God is writing. 

For example, the book of Acts ends on a dramatic note with no resolution to it. That’s because the story is still being written. We are chosen to be a part of it.

Redemption 

To be redeemed means to be delivered by a payment of a price. In the ancient world, slavery was an entrenched part of the society. The picture of the slave market provided a means for Paul to communicate a spiritual blessing: We have been redeemed from the slave market of sin through the payment of Christ’s blood, and so now, we enjoy the freedom from and forgiveness of sin. 

This is not just redemption from something (sin, death, and hell); it is also redemption to reconciliation and restoration. God elected us to receive redemption so that the grand design of bringing all the earth under the lordship of Christ will happen. God has and is creating a new society, the community of the redeemed, that will realize the original design of unhindered connection with God and others. 

Inheritance

We are receiving an inheritance. It will be put into effect when God’s timing and purpose is accomplished – and Paul spells the purpose out: To bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, Jesus Christ. 

Here is how Paul envisions what is coming: The chosen and redeemed of God will one day die, then they will go to be with Christ. But that is not yet the end because the entire world still needs redemption. This is why the preacher of Hebrews could say about the great heroes of the faith:  

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40, NIV)

There is not just life after death; there is life after life-after-death. All those people of faith, including our believing friends and relatives who have gone before us to be with Jesus, are waiting. They, along with us, have not yet received all the promised blessings of our inheritance. 

We are waiting for the reconciliation and restoration of all things, a new heaven and a new earth in which we will be together as sons and daughters in the kingdom of God with Jesus as King over us. The possession of the Holy Spirit is the guarantee that this is the case, and it will happen. 

Conclusion

Our blessings of election, redemption, and inheritance are all activated by faith. Belief is the switch that turns on the blessings to us in a real and actual way. The electricity is there in the person of the Holy Spirit. The light bulb is there, and it is us. 

So, the question for us today is: Are we turned on and shining brightly, or is the switch off?  We must access our blessings by belief in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.

God is on a mission to reconcile and restore the world. Our salvation is part of God’s plan to make that happen. God is a missionary. The Lord has chosen us to be emissaries to a world that needs redemption and restoration. 

The church is like no other institution on earth – existing for the life of the world, and not for itself. Like a mighty army, we are to train ourselves for godliness so that we can engage an invisible enemy and see the kingdom of God come and the will of God done here on earth as it is always done in heaven. 

The camaraderie we enjoy as fellow soldiers is not the end purpose – restoring enemy territory back to its original government is. So, we care for our wounded and do everything we can for them. There are yet more spiritual battles to be won and hearts captured for King Jesus. 

May you and I, then, give thanks with grateful hearts for the great spiritual blessings of election, redemption, and inheritance so that God’s benevolent and merciful rule might spread everywhere to everyone.

God our Savior, you desire that none should perish, and you have taught us through your Son that there is great joy in heaven over every sinner who repents: Grant that our hearts may ache for a lost and broken world. May your Holy Spirit work through our words, deeds, and prayers, that the lost may be found and the dead made alive, and that all your redeemed may rejoice around your throne, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Corinthians 3:10-17 – Being a Holy Temple

Albi Cathedral in Sainte-Chapelle, France

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (New International Version)

God is holy, pure, beautiful, and completely separated from all that is evil. 

However, there is a problem; but it isn’t with God. 

Ever since the fall of humanity into guilt, shame, and impurity, people cannot be near or approach a perfect Being. Just as we will surely go blind by looking directly at the sun – or be totally disintegrated by getting too close to it – so humans cannot be with such a holy God.

In the Old Testament, God graciously devised a system whereby people could approach the divine. A temple was built. It had very detailed and strict prescriptions about how it was to be built. There needed to be curtains, walls, and borders everywhere to shield the people from being destroyed by the sheer holiness of God.

Entering the New Testament, Jesus is the exact representation of God’s holy being and presence. In Christ, God became intimately close to people. Through the redemptive events of Jesus, humanity is delivered from the vexing problem of being far away from God. 

If that were not enough, God the Father and Son sent God the Holy Spirit to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth. 

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul tells us that, as the church, we are a holy temple which is graciously, patiently, and with great care being built into a spiritual house that can be the place where God meets with humanity.

The triune God has conspired and gone out of the way to be with us. The Lord has bended the arc of history for good purposes to be with us. Like a lover separated from his beloved, God has pulled out all the stops to make us holy so that we can abide with him in divine holiness.

From the solid foundation of Jesus Christ as the chief cornerstone, we take care to build a spiritual infrastructure worthy of holiness.

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16, NRSV)

God’s will is for you to be holy… God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. (1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7, NLT)

Some Christians mistakenly believe that holiness means to exclusively separate as far from everything and everyone who is impure. Any hint or smell of unsound dogma or nonconformity with established rules results in separation. Yet, this predilection for separation is really a form of division – which is contrary to the holiness of God. Because the Lord bends over backwards to accommodate the sinner’s ability to approach the divine presence.

Indeed, holiness involves a separation from all that is evil so that we can attach ourselves to God and others. Holiness isn’t simply an end in itself. To be holy means we are prepared and ready to engage in the highest of aims: Love.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:22-23, NIV)

Holiness without a clear trajectory toward love is like putting a new collar on a dead dog. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Yet, too many folks have put a leash on that shiny new collar and are dragging the deceased around – much to the chagrin and revulsion of the world – who rightly sees this behavior as both downright crazy and plain stupid.

Paul would say that kind of behavior will be shown for what it is: Building on the wrong spiritual foundation.

It’s really all about Jesus. Christians bear the name of Christ because we (ideally) center our entire existence – past, present, and future – on the redemption provided through Jesus.

And that’s what this Christian season of the year is about: We celebrate the birth of Christ, God’s breaking into this world, to bridge the great divide between divinity and humanity.

The incarnation of Jesus Christ is our foundation.

Being a holy temple means being a sacred space large enough to hold love for all people.

From that strong support, there is no limit to the breadth and height of God’s kingdom. So, may you, along with the Apostle Paul pray:

I’m asking God to give you a gift from the wealth of his glory. I pray that he would give you inner strength and power through his Spirit. Then Christ will live in you through faith. I also pray that love may be the ground into which you sink your roots and on which you have your foundation. This way, with all of God’s people you will be able to understand how wide, long, high, and deep his love is. You will know Christ’s love, which goes far beyond any knowledge. I am praying this so that you may be completely filled with God. (Ephesians 3:16-19, GW)

Amen.

Acts 28:23-31 – Focused on Mission

Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev

They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:

“‘Go to this people and say,
“You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

“Therefore, I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (New International Version)

The Apostle Paul took quite a licking throughout his Christian life. Incredibly, Paul not only physically survived whippings, beatings, stoning, arrests, shipwreck, and imprisonment – he also came through it all with a robust spirit and a dogged determination to live his life with purpose and mission.

Acts 28 is the final chapter in the book. Paul is in Rome under house arrest. Even in this situation, he kept finding ways to engage others. Since he couldn’t go to them, he had others come to him – lots of them.

Paul described to the visitors his own experience of encountering the risen Christ. He reasoned with his fellow Jews and vigorously debated with them from the Scriptures. It was always the deep desire and hope of Paul that his own people come to faith in Christ, just as he had. Although some did, most didn’t.

Many decades ago, my grandfather was approached by one of his friends about investing in a new insurance company startup. For a lot of reasons, grandpa ended up not participating in his friend’s venture. So, the friend asked others. Eventually, the startup happened and steadily grew. Today, Nationwide Insurance has over 250 billion dollars of assets. Good old gramps just didn’t know what he was rejecting.

The good news of Jesus Christ, I believe, is worth infinitely more than an insurance company. Christian mission, I believe, is worth investing my life into. I’m glad the gospel was proclaimed to Gentiles because I am a recipient of such grace. And I’m grateful that Paul tenaciously kept interacting with people for the last two years of his life under arrest.

Despite, and even because of, Paul’s sufferings and his house arrest, the message of faith and forgiveness in Christ was confidently and consistently presented to a steady flow of people, including the highest heads of state. Difficulties are no problem for God. The Lord bends all circumstances to divine and good purposes, creating new avenues of faith, hope, and love that wouldn’t be possible under “normal” times.

“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

Jim Eliot

In fact, Paul endured five years of imprisonment: two in a Caesarea jail; two under house arrest in Rome; and nearly a year in transport between the two cities. For a personality like Paul, we might imagine this would drive him nuts. Yet, several letters to the churches, now contained in the New Testament, were written during that time.

Whether we like it, or not, nothing proves, affirms, and grows our faith quite like our willingness to endure suffering for the gospel. Witness, suffering, and martyrdom are inextricably bundled together in God’s economy. When suffering is viewed as a necessary means to an altruistic and noble end, then, although the pain is no less real, there is the opportunity for both willing endurance and genuine joy.

Paul was willing to labor on behalf of people who were very different from himself. His concern was for all people everywhere – both his own people, the Jews, as well as Gentiles. Paul never gave in and never gave up. He had a magnanimous spirit and even greater spiritual gifts. He willingly and gladly used that spirit and gifts for the benefit of humanity.

In 64 C.E. Paul was condemned and executed. Before his death, he wrote that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. Now, the next generations of new believers must follow in his footsteps and continue the work

This is precisely why the book of Acts ends so abruptly, with no resolution, no tidy conclusion – because the work is still being done and will carry on until Christ returns.

Gracious and loving God, you work everywhere reconciling, loving, and healing your people and your creation. In your Son Jesus, and through the power of your Holy Spirit, you invite each of us to join you in your work. We ask you to form us more and more in your image and likeness, through our prayer and worship of you and through the study of Holy Scripture so that our eyes will be fully opened to your mission in the world. Then, God, into our communities, our nation, and the world, send us to serve with Christ, taking risks to give life and hope to all people and all of your creation, through Jesus Christ our Lord.. Amen.