Victory

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 15:50-57 (NIV)

Competition is a part of everyone’s life. There are all forms of athletic competitions. Beauty pageants and performance competitions are held all over the world. Spelling bees, academic decathlons and game shows test skills and knowledge. With the rise of reality television shows, a whole new form of competition has entered our society. Then there is the fact of competition in our everyday lives. Competition exists in the work environment as employees vie for positions, promotions, and raises. Businesses compete against one another for the consumer’s money. The list of life’s different competitive situations can appear to be endless. Competition is not an exclusively human dynamic either. Throughout creation competition exists for food, water, mates and shelter.

The passage which we read today from Paul’s letter to the believers in Corinth speaks of a competition. This competition is between life and death. It is a competition not just for the physical nature of humanity as much as it is for the spiritual aspect of humanity. Yes, Scripture tells us that at the point of resurrection, the physical body will be raised and reunited with the spirit just as with Christ but a person’s spirit is even more important to God. The competition was ended by Christ as he defeated death by his destruction of sin and his resurrection. Christ claimed the victory.

For you and me, being given a victory which we have done nothing to earn is amazing. Paul tells the Corinthians and us that God has given us the victory over death through Jesus Christ. We obtain this victory because death is due to sin. Since Jesus wiped away our sin through the cross, there is no need for death anymore. The victory is ours in a competition we could never win. Jesus is the only way we have victory.

United in a Meal

14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. 15 I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. 16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.

1 Corinthians 10:14-17 (NIV)

There is something almost unexplainable which happens when people sit down to eat a meal together. As they gather around a table there is a sense of togetherness which permeates the air. The divisions which may exist between them appear to break down. Language barriers are less of a concern. Strangers become connected. Conflicting views are tempered for at least a brief period of time. The sharing of a meal together can strengthen bonds which previously existed and create new bonds where ones did not exist. This is one reason that experts have lifted up the importance of family mealtimes at a table in the home. It is also why meals are incorporated into meetings of heads of state, corporations, and other diverse situations.

Today, we remember Jesus taking a traditional Jewish meal connected to the Passover celebration and using elements of it to create a meal to remember him. The Christian church used these elements from the meal in their love feasts when the church began. Even now, this is a vital part of the practices of the Church and have become a sacrament within the Church. Jesus knew that eating together was something more than just a nutritional activity.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth speaks of the transforming power of the breaking of bread. He reminds the people that in sharing the cup and bread, they are all sharing the same cup and bread. By this act, they are remembering Christ. They also are acknowledging their unity in Christ. It is the body and blood of Christ which unites us as one people.

Next time you sit down for a meal, whether at home or as part of a worship service, think about how this act impacts the relationships of those around the table. If you are sharing in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, remember Christ and the oneness which this meal creates within those who partake.

Love Undergirds

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Have you ever watched a bridge under construction? The process takes time and can be very interesting to watch. It is good that it takes time because the safety of those using the bridge is important. The process begins by laying a foundation at the base of the support pillars. Then the pillars are put in place. This is followed by ensuring the pillar top is properly cut for the bridge deck. Once those are in place, the ramps for entering and exiting the bridge are constructed followed by the placing of the decking. This is a simplified overview but you get the idea. The main point is that what undergirds the bridge is important for the safety, trustworthiness and usefulness of the bridge.

Paul writes to the believers in Corinth. His goal in what he writes is to stress the importance of love. This passage is often chosen as one of the readings used in a wedding service because it describes love in the context of relationships. However, Paul’s intent was to describe love in a context of corporate relationships. He is telling the believers how they are to love one another as members of a group of Christ followers. Paul says that whatever the believers do or say should have the undergirding of love. It is love which provides safety, trustworthiness, and usefulness within the relationships with each other.

As readers today, Paul’s words ring true for us. Since God is love, it seems natural that love should undergird our lives and relationships. Striving to live into Paul’s definition of love here is akin to living into the likeness of Christ. Every day we must strive for the attributes Paul lists: kindness, without envy or boasting, honoring others, selfless, without anger, not holding grudges, rejoicing in truth, rejecting evil, protecting, trusting, hoping, and persevering. The promise which Paul lifts up here is that love never fails.

Foolishness

18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

1 Corinthians 1:18-31 (NIV)

Over the centuries, humanity has gained all types of knowledge. We have developed systems to teach and communicate this knowledge to new generations. With an increase of knowledge, an arrogance has come into our human psyche. Many have determined that anything which cannot be explained by what we know is foolishness. This has led to the development of very concrete thinkers. Knowledge has become a power chip in our game of life. Knowledge, in and of itself, is not an issue. How we use knowledge and how we apply it to life can become a problem.

Paul is writing to the group of believers in Corinth, Greece in what we read today. Greece has long been considered to be one of the birthplaces of science and philosophy in the ancient world. The Greeks prided themselves on their knowledge. Often they considered other civilizations to be primitive and ignorant in comparison to themselves. Paul states that to many the actions connected with the cross were foolish. These people believed that Jesus dying on a cross served no purpose and was a waste. So here, Paul says that God has made them look foolish, not those who believed in Jesus’s saving actions on the cross. The wise, according to Paul, are the individuals who believed in and trusted the events of the cross. These can boast in the Lord who defined true wisdom.

Are you like the unbelievers in Corinth? What does the cross mean to you? Can knowledge and the cross beheld together in our grasp of wisdom?

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  – I Corinthians 2:2

Our Foundation

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

29 Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?

1 Corinthians 15:12-29

Have you ever watched someone lay bricks? The first row of bricks are vital to the success of the whole project. This row of bricks creates the framework and foundation for all that follows. If this row is not aligned and set in place properly, the project stands a good chance of collapsing or at least, being unsturdy and reliable. The same can be said about our faith.

Jesus spoke of the importance of having a reliable foundation when he told the story of a man building his house upon the sand. (See Matthew 7:24-27) Here Jesus is talking about putting the teachings of Jesus into practice to create a foundation for our lives.

Paul speaks of foundations in the passage for today. The foundation which Paul is referring to is for our faith. We see here that our foundation for our faith is the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of the dead. Paul indicates that without our affirming the resurrection, we have no foundation to our faith.

If you have ever said the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed, you will recall that both of them state a belief in Jesus’s resurrection and in the resurrection of the dead. The early church clearly felt this was an important aspect of the beliefs of Christians. A belief in the resurrection affirms the Lord’s authority over all things, even death.

Applying this foundational truth to our lives is what gives us hope in what can feel like a hopeless situation. Death requires us to face the reality that we are not in control. There is nothing we can do to prevent death or undo death. Yet by believing in Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrection of all, we acknowledge that there is someone who does have control and authority—God. Knowing this truth allows us to face situations where we have no control since we affirm that God does. We have faith in God.

Planting Seeds

Having grown up in an agricultural state, I became very aware of the changing of the seasons and what those changes meant to the growth cycle of creation. Living in a Midwest state where over seventy percent of the state’s gross income is linked to agriculture, you become accustomed to seeing advertisements for seed brands, fertilizers and farming equipment throughout the winter months. All of these advertisements anticipated the early months of spring when life in a small, rural community would shift to applying anhydrous ammonia, tilling the ground, and then eventually planting the corn or soybean seeds.

Much like the farming community in which I spent the early years of my life, I anticipate spring and the planting season every year. While I do not plant crops over acres of land, this year I participated in this cycle of life by planting flowers and trees as part of the landscape of our new home. Just as farmers spend time researching seed varieties, my husband and I researched different plants which grow well in our location. We discussed what types of plants, where we would place them, and what care was necessary to help establish them. Then we went to a variety of locations searching for exactly what we wanted in our price range, purchased them along with pots for some, and brought them home to be planted.

With spring and thoughts of planting, I remembered a truth which I was told and experienced as a spiritual leader… we plant seeds which we may never see grow to full maturity. The Apostle Paul summarizes it in this way:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9

One of the most difficult aspects of being a spiritual leader at times is realizing that your work may not result in an end product. This is often due to a pride struggle and external demands. What I mean is that you want to be proud of the work which you are doing. In our world, success is often measured in a numerical sense based on observable criteria. The work of planting spiritual seeds does not always result in some observable fruition. Yet, ecclesiastical bodies and most church members look for those results in determining the effectiveness of a ministry since in the rest of the world this is how we rate an individual’s success.

The other interesting item in regard to planting seeds is that it is not the sole responsibility and privilege of spiritual leaders. Every believer is called to plant faith seeds. Jesus makes this clear in his words prior to his ascension to the Father recorded in what we now refer to as the Great Commission:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20

Here Jesus tells his disciples (followers) to go and make other disciples and teach them Jesus’ lessons. This is planting spiritual seeds. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you have received this commission and been made a planter in the world. These seeds can be planted through a variety of methods, most often without using words. St Francis of Assisi is attributed as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” St Francis refers to planting seeds as preaching but not in the oratorical sense we usually consider.

Planting time is upon us. During this time of year, we plant seeds for plants to grow. However, it is always planting time for followers of Jesus. Each of us should spend every day living in a manner which plants the seeds of God’s love and faith in that love. Just remember that you may or may not actually see those seeds spring into the fullness of life. After all, as the Apostle Paul tells us, only God makes these seeds grow. 

A Foggy Perspective

For the first three mornings this week, our city has been enveloped in fog. My understanding is that this is pretty common during the winter months in Texas. The warm, humid air from the gulf comes up north and encounters the cooler air from the north which causes the fog to develop. Yesterday, as I was looking at the fog blanket outside our windows, I was drawn to the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

As I was pondering this verse, I began thinking about the perspective through which we view life, one another, and our Lord. Much like the fog of recent mornings, our perspective is not clear. We are not capable of knowing all but instead only a part of each item mentioned above. The promise is that there will be a time when I will see each in fullness but for now I have a fog over my sight which prevents me from seeing the whole.

My vision of my life is limited to the current and to the past. I can anticipate the future, just as I anticipate turns and intersections when driving a familiar path on a foggy morning. However, the certainty of my knowledge regarding my future is limited. Like the warnings on the morning news to take it slow and to give one’s self plenty of time to navigate through the fog, I must do the same as I move forward into my future.

The view which I have of others is also limited. I only see what that person allows me to see. I do not know their backstory unless they tell me it. The burdens carried by the person are only visible to me if they choose to share them with me. Caution is again vital when determining how I look at someone else. This reminds me that my judgment of them is impaired so be careful how I judge them.

As I look to the Lord, I also must acknowledge my vision is limited. I cannot comprehend the fullness of the Lord at this time. I see what has been revealed to me, and others, through Scripture, the account of Jesus’ life, and my ongoing relationship with the Lord. Anticipating the actions which the Lord will take, the way in which the Lord views the world and humanity, the abilities and power of the Lord is almost impossible based on what I know. I can only see the broadness of the Lord such as the complete focus on love, the endless times of forgiveness, and unconditional acceptance which is demonstrated and testified to over and over in the lives of myself and countless others.

Yet the promise mentioned in the verse from 1 Corinthians remains for all three of these. There will be a day when I will see my life in its fullness and my future will be fully understandable. My view of others will be complete when I am able to see the whole of the person and their life. The perspective which I have of the Lord will be whole as I stand in the full presence one day. But for now, I walk in the fog of my limits and I must be mindful to proceed with caution and take my time.

Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.