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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Epiphany 1/18/2015

For the better part of 18 years now I’ve made it a habit not to preach on the second lesson which most often comes from the “letters” section of the New Testament, most of those letters written by the apostle Paul. The two main reasons for that are that the second lesson often times just kind of hangs out there by itself, unconnected to the other lessons which makes it harder to tie in, but even more than that, I confess that I often have found Paul a little hard to take. It’s from him that we get the theology of justification by grace through faith, not according to works of the law, which is the cornerstone of Lutheran theology but then so often in his writings Paul gives us lists of do’s and don’ts and vices and virtues with the don’ts and the vices sounding like law that grace can’t possibly penetrate. On top of that his writing can be kind of convoluted and hard to follow; many have said that what he needed was a good editor.

On the other hand, Paul was without question integral to the development of Christianity. Christianity as a religion wouldn’t have happened, or at least it would look very different apart from Paul’s single-mindedness in traveling the ancient world, forming churches and preaching the gospel as he understood it, putting up with significant hardship and persecution along the way. Apart from Jesus himself, for better or for worse, Paul is probably the most influential individual in the history of the church.

For better or for worse, for me and for you, my resolution for 2015 is to stop avoiding Paul and with that to better incorporate what he has to say in my preaching not every week necessarily, but at least some of the time. You know of course that most New Year’s resolutions don’t last very long so we’ll see what happens.

One of the problems in trying to preach Paul is that without adequate background information what he has to say doesn’t make much sense and can easily be misinterpreted. That’s true of other parts of the Bible as well but it’s especially true with Paul. What that means is that at least in part any sermons that I do that include reflection on Paul are likely to have an element of Bible study about them in order to get at the issues and what exactly was on Paul’s mind. For some of you it may be review for others it may be new but either way I’ll try to provide some insight without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

In general though, it’s important to know that Paul traveled and taught and formed churches and then left. Then, through letters and conversations he would hear back from those churches and communities about what was going on and in his own letters he would respond to the issues. Some of his letters wound up included as part of the New Testament, some were lost, but even with the ones we have, we’re still talking about one side of a two sided correspondence. Determining the issues Paul addressed usually involves some reading between the lines but in many cases the issues had to do with disputes and divisions within the community, be they spiritual, theological or social.

What becomes eminently clear though as you read Paul is that while he was one of the greatest theological thinkers in the history of Christianity, he also had very clear ideas concerning the kinds of behavior that should accompany faith in Jesus; he had those lists of do’s and don’ts, virtues and vices. Here’s my concern though: if we become too preoccupied with the behaviors that bothered Paul does it degenerate too easily into holier than thou finger pointing at other people while failing to look at ourselves and the ways we may be failing to live out our faith? In other words, in interpreting Paul for our time, focusing too much on the specific behaviors he addressed can become a distraction, more of a hindrance than a help. His specifics might not be our specifics and we need to be aware of that. As Paul understood, the faith we profess should be reflected in the life we live, but the behavioral issues and concerns of his time might not be the most relevant ones for our time. They might be the same so we don’t want to totally dismiss what Paul brings up, but they might not be.

In today’s verses from First Corinthians the presenting issue seems to be that there were those in Corinth who were interpreting freedom in Christ to also mean freedom in sexuality so Paul has fornication and prostitution on his mind and with that I was ready to skip over this reading and break my New Year’s resolution before it even started. As is often the case though, interspersed among those verses that one might prefer to avoid are verses that express the timeless truth and thought that represents Paul at his best.

In today’s reading you get a few examples of what I’m talking about. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” For any of us, there’s a verse that’s worth thinking about both on an individual level and on a collective level especially in a country where freedom and rights are valued very highly. “All things are lawful but not all things are beneficial.” But…if I was then to start in with a list of “Here are some of the things that are lawful but not beneficial” the verse could easily lose its effect being reduced to finger pointing rather than self reflection. Better to let the statement stand on its own so each of us can consider what kinds of things are lawful but not beneficial for us as individuals as well as for the common good of the wider community because certainly there are such things.

“Do you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” Do you think about your body that way, as a temple of the Holy Spirit? Probably not very often. We talk about how in baptism we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, that we are a new creation, that things are no longer the same, that our identity is changed but Paul with this image of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit brings that all together very nicely. It’s an image, if taken seriously, which would make us think about a lot of things relative to how we live and how we take care of ourselves. Like the previous statement, if I continued with “So because of that here are some things you should and shouldn’t do” it loses effect. You already know what kinds of things are relevant for you as you think about your body as a temple for the Holy Spirit and the point is to stop avoiding thinking about them. Sometimes saying less is saying more.

“You were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body” provides a phrase that ties the others together. “Therefore glorify God in your body.” What does it mean to glorify God in your body? If you think about your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and if you understand that all things are lawful but not all things are beneficial it’s going to impact how you think about glorifying God in your body. More room for reflection.

During the season of Epiphany, following the Baptism of Jesus there are always two Sundays that have gospel stories of Jesus calling disciples. The verses from First Corinthians aren’t intentionally linked to today’s gospel, as I said the second reading isn’t usually connected. But when Paul wrote to his churches, discipleship and being a follower of Jesus was quite often the subtext and that is the case today. There is an ethical and moral component to being a disciple of Christ, it’s not just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk.

In his letters Paul could be very specific in talking about what he thought discipleship looked like and it can be his obsession with those specifics that can make him come across as someone we don’t like very much. In his defense, those were the issues he was presented with and he had to respond. In many cases his specifics are still relevant, but still, they need to be reconsidered and reinterpreted as times and circumstances change.

One way to do that is to do what I’ve done today and filter the specifics and let Paul’s timeless statements that surround the specifics stand on their own as a vehicle for reflection. When we do that, we get closer to the real wisdom of Paul and the ways that he provides guidance in putting faith into practice. We get closer to what makes Paul appealing rather than appalling.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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