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A Little Sermon In A Nutshell

 

 

“Be on your guard. Stand firm in the faith. Live like men. Be strong. Let all you do be done in love.”

1 Corinthians 16:13-14 (J.B. Phillips)

Caesar is lord.” “Jesus is lord.” Both can’t be true. Both Caesar and Christ, the state and Christ, can’t have ultimate claim upon the Christian’s obedience and loyalty and devotion. Only one can finally be sovereign. Because only one could finally be sovereign, early-day Christians were never found saying, KAISAR KURIOS, “Caesar is lord.” Christians refused, on principle, by conviction, to say “Caesar is lord.” For this reason Christians weren’t admitted to the civil service. (Civil servants had to swear ultimate obedience to Caesar.) For the same reason Christians weren’t permitted to serve in the Roman army.

Think about that. No Christian could serve in the Roman army. It’s all the more startling, then, that the apostle Paul compares Christian discipleship to soldiering over and over again. Paul is endlessly fond of military metaphors. “Fight the good fight of the faith.” “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” “What soldier on active service gets entangled in civilian pursuits?” Since there was every reason for the apostle not to speak of soldiering in a favourable light, the fact that he finds admirable so much about soldiering is breathtaking. We should pay extra-close attention, then, when he compares discipleship to soldiering. Paul knew that a soldier’s lot was rigorous, to say the least: hard training, exposure to elements, relentless discipline, a measure of suffering, more than a little danger. He also knew that a soldier’s lot was rewarding: warm camaraderie, profound bonding, endless adventure, and above all the sheer privilege of serving under a superb leader. Paul knew too that soldiering produced much in soldiers themselves: courage, loyalty, persistence, resilience, dependability.

At the end of his first letter to the congregation in Corinth Paul interjects his little sermon in a nutshell. It’s a ten-second sermon. In ten seconds Paul utters five imperatives, five commands, the first four of which are drawn from military life. Remember, no Christian could serve in Caesar’s army; yet every Christian had to live like a soldier in Caesar’s army.

I: — “Stand firm in the faith.” “Stand firm.” The apostle means, “Don’t vacillate, don’t compromise, don’t capitulate, remain resolute.” We are to stand firm in “the faith”. The faith. Here Paul is not referring to an individual’s act of believing. He is referring instead to what all Christians believe, the substance of faith, the truth of God, the core of the gospel that the church of Jesus Christ has always upheld.

I know what someone is itching to say: the church of Jesus Christ hasn’t always agreed on “the faith”, as the proliferation of denominations attests. Do Baptists and Anglicans agree on the faith? Do Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals? In other words, is there such a thing as “the faith”?

Yes, there is. There is the catholic faith of the church catholic. Be sure to spell “catholic” with a lower-case “c”. (Upper-case “C” means Roman Catholic.) When the Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “one, holy, catholic church” it doesn’t mean the denomination with its bureaucracy in Italy. The word “catholic” means “universal”. The catholic faith is the substance of the faith, the truth of God, which all Christians have held at all times, in all places. When placed alongside the catholic faith, what all Christians have held at all times in all places, denominational peculiarities are radically relativized.

Take the matter of baptism, for instance. Some Christians have said that only a little water need be used; others, much water. Some have said that baptism can be administered to children as a sign that God’s promise of mercy surrounded them before they were even born, which mercy is meant to bring them to faith in Jesus Christ, who is mercy incarnate. Others have said that adult believers should undergo baptism as a public confession of loyalty to Jesus Christ in the face of an unbelieving, hostile world. But all Christians, of every era, have been one in acknowledging that the ultimate issue is baptism in the Spirit. Baptism in water points to baptism in the Spirit. Only the Spirit of God can illumine our mind and warm our heart; only the Spirit of God can move us to repentance; only the Spirit can quicken what is now dead; only the Spirit can enliven us for discipleship. Christians may not agree about the quantity of the water and the timing of its application. No matter! Christians do agree about the need for Spirit-baptism at the hand of God himself.

Think about the doctrine of the Incarnation. All Christians are one in confessing Jesus Christ to be the Son of God (or what amounts to the same thing, God-Incarnate). This distinguishes Christians from Unitarians, Muslims, Zoroastrians. All Christians uphold the Incarnation. There are no exceptions. Roman Catholics are as fervent here as Quakers.

Speaking of Roman Catholics and Quakers. These two denominations appear to be at opposite ends of the liturgical spectrum. The Presbyterian Church is more-or-less in the middle. We all know how ornate a Roman Catholic church appears to us. A Quaker meeting-hall, on the other hand, is as barren as an empty cardboard box. A Roman Catholic who entered our sanctuary on Sunday morning would say to us, “Why is the place so plain?” A Quaker, upon entering, would say, “Why is the place so cluttered?” The Quaker would also have questions about our service of worship: “Why is there no protracted silence?” The Roman Catholic would wonder about our service too: “Why is your service almost entirely oriented to what the worshipper hears, only slightly oriented to what the worshipper sees?” At the end of the day, however, the Roman Catholic and the Quaker are one on the catholic substance of the faith: Jesus is the sole, sovereign, saving Son of God.

What about the atonement, the Good Friday achievement of our Lord? Christians may disagree as to whether one should “cross” oneself when entering church or when receiving Holy Communion, but all Christians agree that our Lord’s cross is that divinely-wrought act removing all impediments to our access to the Father. The atonement has brought unholy sinners into the orbit of the all-holy God, with the result that nothing now inhibits us from responding to the gospel-invitation and finding ourselves “at home”, “at one”, with the Father. The Pentecostal in his 4,000 seat auditorium and the Mennonite in her horse-drawn buggy agree without qualification or reservation.

Some Christians think we should forego meat during Lent as an exercise in self-denial. Other Christians think self-denial should assume another form. Yet all Christians agree that Lent ends with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead – vindication of our Lord himself and of his people too.

Paul urges us to “Stand firm in the faith”, for the catholic faith is the anchor which keeps the ship (the church catholic) from breaking up on jagged rocks when the winds of heresy howl upon it. The catholic faith is the ballast in the ship’s keel without which the first tempest will capsize the ship for sure. The catholic faith is a fort that unfailingly repels all would-be invaders, whether they are frontal raiders or sneaky commandos. “Stand firm in the faith”. The catholic faith of the church catholic is the only place where we can stand. Then stand we must, without vacillating or compromising or capitulating.

II: — “Be on your guard”, the apostle continues. The Greek verb for “be on your guard” means “be watchful”, “give studied attention to”, “take heed”. “Be on your guard.” It doesn’t mean we are to be anxious or suspicious or paranoid. It doesn’t mean we are to go looking for threats or imagine assaults. Nevertheless, it does mean we should be ready, equipped, whenever genuine threat is detected or genuine assault is unleashed. “Be on your guard”. It means “Don’t be caught lounging; don’t be caught drowsing; don’t be caught unprepared.” It’s another military term.

A few years ago a conference was held in the USA where God was re-named “Sophia”. At this conference Delores Williams, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture at Union Theological Seminary (a prestigious institution, and Presbyterian as well), New York City, said, “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all.” (Plainly she has no grasp of sin.) “Atonement has to do so much with death…. I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.”

Let me say right now: the atonement is the heart of the gospel. Peter cries, “He bore our sins in his body on the tree.” If our Lord hasn’t borne our sins in his body on the tree, then we are condemned before God now, without hope of reprieve. According to Ms Williams, however, the heart of the catholic faith is now no better than “weird stuff”.

Then it was Melanie Morrison’s turn to speak. “What does it mean for us to be in solidarity with lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual women in this decade? And how can we together re-imagine our churches so that every woman may claim her voice, her gifts, her loves, her wholeness?” Is the bisexual or multisexual woman whole, from a Christian perspective? (I’m not denying a psychological perspective, or social or legal; neither am I denying human rights. I am, however, speaking from a gospel-perspective.) Is the transsexual whole, from a Christian perspective? Transsexualism is surgical alteration rooted in gender-confusion, gender-dysphoria and self-rejection; and it is accompanied by a horrific incidence of suicide.

Does any love legitimate any relationship? No. The fact that Mr ‘xy’ loves Ms ‘ab’ in an adulterous relationship never legitimates an illicit relationship.

The United Church of Canada endorsed the Sophia conference and sent 47 delegates to it. The Presbyterian Church, USA, managed to send more than a few delegates as well. Then the second Sophia conference was held. Same story. Once again major denominations sent their delegates to the conference. It is plainly a frontal assault on the faith of the church catholic. Then is it, or an updated version of it, a spiritual threat to this congregation? I like to think this congregation is well equipped theologically to recognize and repudiate all such assaults.

Then need we never be on guard? If we are wise we shall admit that being on our guard, being watchful, is rarely as easy as Sophia suggests just because spiritual threat is rarely this stark; more often spiritual threat is much more subtle and therefore much more likely to undo the saints in any congregation.

The verb “be on your guard, be watchful”, occurs in many different contexts in scripture. Peter maintains that sin is so relentless in its approach and so alluring in its appeal that we must be watchful without letup. Jesus rebukes the drowsy disciples in that during his worst hour of spiritual torment (Gethsemane) they couldn’t so much as “watch” with him for one hour. (In other words, spiritual discipline must not relax.) Paul uses the word in Acts as he warns the congregation that smooth-talking teachers will infiltrate the congregation and seduce it with false doctrine and corrupt practice.

We must never forget that it is our Lord himself who urges his most intimate followers, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Temptation is subtle. If we can’t be tempted to say outright that theft is good, we are tempted to whisper to ourselves that the little bit of creative bookkeeping needed to get past the cash-flow-squeeze isn’t wrong. (Even though Canada Revenue Agency insists it’s wrong.) If we can’t be tempted to say outright that self-indulgence is good, we are tempted to whisper to ourselves that at our age we’ve paid our dues and need not respond to any claim upon us whether for time or energy or money or prayer. (Even though anyone looking at us would say that our selfishness reeks.) “Be on your guard”, says the apostle, “be watchful.” He doesn’t mean we are to be anxious or paranoid. But he does mean our spiritual antennae are to be tuned in to genuine spiritual threat, whether frontal or subtle.

III: — “Live like men” is his next imperative. Please don’t bristle; he isn’t urging us to live like males rather than like females. He is urging us to live like humans rather than like — rather than like what? rather than like subhumans? But there are no subhumans! Hitler and others have thought there to be, but as long as all men and women are created in the image of God there can be no subhumans. Still, while it isn’t possible to be subhuman, it’s possible to live like a subhuman.

You must have noticed that we never say to an alligator, “For goodness’ sake, be an alligator!” An alligator can only be an alligator. An alligator can never live like a sub-alligator. It is as much an alligator right now as it will ever be. But we do say to someone whose behaviour is less than exemplary, “For goodness’ sake, be a man!” If someone is acting maliciously we often say, “Show some humanness!” But we never say to a mean dog, “Show some dogness!” Dogness is all a dog can show. We know, however, that human beings can show everything but humanness. We have all read of too many human beings who haven’t seemed human. They have appeared savage because evil; or they have appeared stone-like, frozen by fear or laziness; or they have appeared animal-like, governed by instinct. When the apostle says, “Live like men”, he means at the very least, “Live like and look like what you are!”

The only issue to be decided, then, is what we are. We are the noblest item in God’s creation. Then we are to live nobly. At the same time the apostle certainly means more than this. When he says, “Live like men”, undoubtedly he has in mind what it is to be a man in Christ, a woman in Christ. It’s not enough that we live like noble humanists (preferable as this is to living like subhumans). We are to live like what we are: men and women whose Spirit-birth has plunged us into a new world. We are impelled by a new motivation, draw every day on new resources, eagerly move toward a new future, see the world with corrected eyesight. We know that the kingdom of God is the rule of God through the truth of God superimposed on a world that rebels against the rule and contradicts the truth. Christians live precisely where the kingdom of God collides with this present age. We are citizens of the kingdom (this is our identity); but we are mere sojourners in the world (this is where Christ’s soldiers have to campaign for now).

Live like men.” Minimally Paul means, “Don’t even flirt with the subhuman.” Maximally he means, “Live like what you are: citizens of that kingdom which cannot be shaken.”

IV: — The last of Paul’s military metaphors: “Be strong.” What is it to be strong? It isn’t to be superhuman. Merely to try to be superhuman is to make oneself sick. Then what is it to be strong? Scripture understands strength chiefly in terms of steadfastness. The Roman armies of old weren’t noted for their capacity to crush the enemy at one blow. (The capacity to do this is a function of size; any army can crush another army that is much smaller.) Roman armies of old were noted rather for their steadfastness, their resilience, their persistence, their dependability. To be steadfast is to be immovable, not given to flight or frivolity. To be steadfast is to be resolute, not able to be intimidated or routed.

The peculiar sort of strength that scripture upholds is known as meekness. Meekness is strength exercised through gentleness. In classical Greek the word “meek” was used to describe a wild horse that had been tamed but whose spirit hadn’t been broken. Because the horse had been tamed its strength was useful; because its spirit hadn’t been broken its strength was relentless.

Christians are never called to be strong in the sense of strong-armed, coercive. We are called to be strong in the sense of steadfast, single-minded, unflinching, unswerving. In short, as we uphold the kingdom of God before the world we are to be resistant and resilient, consistent and constant. “Be strong.”

V: — Paul is finished with his four military metaphors; still, he isn’t finished. The last word can’t be from the military; it has to be from what is uniquely Christian. “Let all that you do be done in love.” The apostle knows, at the end of the day, that if anything we do isn’t done in love, then so far from exalting our Lord it contradicts him and his kingdom.

Yes, we must stand firm in the faith. But unless we stand firm in love as well, our contending for the catholic faith will degenerate into contempt for those who appear to undermine it.

Of course we must be on our guard, be watchful. But unless love soaks us we shall soon ridicule those who succumb to the temptations we think we have resisted. (I say “think we have resisted” in that plainly we have succumbed to the worst temptation of all, pride.)

There is no one here who doesn’t wish to “live like men”, to “be strong”. But unless we are also living in love our strength is little more than grim determination to outlast those who disagree with us. “Let all that you do be done in love.”

It’s a sermon in a nutshell. It seems to come out of nowhere in the midst of Paul’s anguished correspondence with the congregation in Corinth. Really, it’s a ray of sunshine, an encouragement to the parishioners in Corinth, a tonic.

The nutshell sermon makes use of four military metaphors (startling, since military service was forbidden Christians in the first two centuries). The fifth exhortation concerning love is not startling, merely costly. For to do all that we do in love is not going to cost us less than it cost our Lord. Nevertheless, the cost isn’t greater than the reward, for our Lord’s sacrifice has issued in a fruitfulness which no one can calculate now, just as no one will be able to deny it on the day of his glorious appearing.

Victor Shepherd               September 2016