January 11, 2021
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample Sermon: “The Child’s Leading”
Don’t you wish sometimes you could have been there, could have seen them in person? I mean the disciples and, of course, Jesus himself. You hear people say things like that once in a while. Wouldn’t it have been something to have been able to meet Peter, to shake Matthew’s hand? What if even now we could somehow go back in time to hear the Sermon on the Mount? Often when people wish for such things, the motivation seems to be a combination of healthy curiosity and the idea that maybe it would be easier to believe the gospel if we could have seen gospel events unfold before our very eyes.
But I myself doubt that latter point. I am not at all convinced that seeing the disciples would make the gospel easier to believe. In fact, seeing the disciples in person might just make it more difficult! The disciples were not, after all, from among society’s upper echelons. They were not highly educated, well-dressed, or outwardly impressive. The odds are that if you could have met up with Jesus’ band of followers, the first thing that would have struck you would have been their commonness. You would perhaps notice their dirty fingernails, the callous on Philip’s big toe, the missing teeth that were on such obvious display every time James grinned. You might be surprised at how short and stubby a couple of them were and would note the poor grammar that they often employed.
We need to forget about the illustrations from those well-meaning children’s Bibles some of us grew up with. In those pictures the disciples tended to be pretty handsome with well-groomed beards, sporting robes worthy of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In such depictions the disciples were always clean and remarkably Anglo-Saxon looking. The fashions may have changed over time, but in an era when tunics and robes were what people wore, we often visualize the disciples wearing the ancient equivalent of Armani designer suits. Probably, though, they were far more common and ragged looking. But we need to wonder if we are so very different from them ourselves. Maybe we’re not much to look at, either. But maybe that’s Good News after all.
Because somehow that rag-tag group of uneducated fishermen were in touch with the deepest truth and dearest secret of the universe. Those ordinary fellows changed history by their witness. It’s quite remarkable. In fact and as Frederick Buechner once noted, this all has a fairy tale-like feel to it.
Most everybody has a soft spot in their hearts for fairy tales. There is just something about a fairy tale’s reversal of expectations that intrigues us. There is something delicious about finding out that the frog is really a handsome prince, that the ugly duckling is the one that grows into the most resplendent of all swans. We enjoy it when the moment of truth comes for the characters in a story, as when the Hobbits discover that the scruffy-looking character of Strider, whom they never quite trusted, is actually the true king of Gondor.
Fairy tales are stories of transformation, and that’s what happened to these simple people we call the disciples. If you took the disciples and brought them all together into one room, you would never in your wildest imagination guess by looking at them that this weak-looking pack of ordinary folks could change the world. But they did. The disciples changed the world because it was to them that the secret of the universe was first revealed.
That’s why Jesus called them in the first place. If you’re going to save the world, you’ve got to start somewhere. And if in the end you’re going to save the world through humility, gentleness, compassion, and sacrifice, it makes sense to begin with a bunch of fellows who couldn’t get much more humble if they tried! The messengers fit the message. In fact, over the course of his ministry if Jesus had any significant struggles with his disciples, it was the struggle to keep them humble and ordinary-looking. Every time a couple of them started angling for power or arguing amongst themselves as to who was the greatest, Jesus slapped them back down to the street level of service.
The disciples needed to be common, ordinary, and above all humble if they were going to do Jesus any good and so change the world. Still, Jesus did need them and that’s why he called them. But in the calling process, there was more going on than we realize. Our passage from John 1 is a case in point. Jesus has already attracted Simon Peter and his brother Andrew when he calls also a man named Philip to follow him. No sooner does Philip join Jesus’ still-small group of disciples, and he runs to fetch his brother, Nathanael. Near as we can tell, Nathanael, though a follower of Jesus, did not become one of the inner-circle of twelve disciples. Yet his particular call to follow Jesus is remarkable.
Based on the external evidence alone, you’d have to say that Nathanael dove in based on little more than a kind of spiritual parlor trick: Jesus claims to have seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree even before Philip went to go get him. The fact that Jesus seemed to know that was a neat trick but not exactly the most startling thing in the world! Still, it was enough for Nathanael to sign on even as it motivated him to declare openly that near as he could tell, Jesus was the Son of God and the king of all Israel. Nathanael’s confession was pretty simple but in this story, Jesus reveals some pretty amazing things if we pay close attention to this story. Because twice in this brief passage there are very clever, very telling allusions or references to a key Old Testament figure: Jacob.
The first reference crops up in the curious way that Jesus greets Nathanael. Jesus says, “Well now, here comes a true Israelite, a man in whom there is no guile.” The NIV translated that as “in whom there is nothing false,” but that’s not quite right. The Greek word used in verse 47 is the word for “guile,” which can also mean craftiness, being tricky, underhanded. There are not too many biblical characters who are described as being full of guile, but the most famous person who was a trickster par excellence was Jacob himself: the crafty deceiver who eventually was re-named Israel. That’s why some have paraphrased Jesus’ words here to say something like, “Here is an Israelite with no Jacob in him! Here is a son of Jacob who is not a chip off the old block!”
Jacob, as you may recall, always got ahead in life by his own wits. He relied on his own cunning and craftiness to snag life’s goodies. He outsmarted dim-witted Esau, did an end-run on his nearly blind father Isaac, and then spent the better part of twenty years finding ever-more creative ways to snooker his Uncle Laban out of just about everything he owned.
For some reason, though, God liked Jacob. Once, when fleeing the wrath of Esau, Jacob had a dream of a ladder to heaven with angels ascending and descending on it. In that dream God assures Jacob that despite all the stunts Jacob had pulled, God was with him. And God would stay with Jacob, finally and quite literally wrestling him into an understanding that the best things in life come by grace alone. It’s not about the power to snag what you want. No, it’s about being humble to receive what only God can give.
“Here comes an Israel who is not Jacob,” Jesus basically said when he first saw Nathanael coming his way. It was nice for Jesus to say this, all the more so considering that the last thing Nathanael had said before meeting Jesus was a kind of sneer: “Nazareth! Can anything, or anyone, good come from that backwater town!” That’s what Nathanael said, and apparently it was an honest thing to say.
Because Jesus as much as replies, “You’re right, Nathanael: I’m not much to look at. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m the One!” Nathanael believes this, and Jesus then responds by declaring himself to be the living Bethel. When Jacob had that dream of a ladder to heaven, he declared the place where he had the dream to be “bethel,” beth-el, Hebrew for “the house of God.” Jacob was surprised to find himself at the intersection between God and this earth. And so he called the spot “God’s House,” “Bethel,” the place where God and people meet up. But in John 1 Jesus now tells Nathanael that he himself is that intersection point: if you were with him, you were in the presence of God!
It’s as though the whole story of the whole Bible is getting a re-boot, a fresh start. Jesus is founding a new Israel, a brand new people. Gone are the days of craftiness and guile when people had to live by their wits to survive. A new era of innocence has dawned, a time that requires an almost child-like, naive ability to embrace the fairy tale-like truth of Jesus. It may be yet another way of saying that to enter the kingdom of God, you need to be like a little child. And in many ways, Nathanael and the others were like children.
If you wanted to be cynical, you could say that the only reason Philip and then Nathanael were so quickly impressed by Jesus was because they were rather naive bumpkins. There is something innocent, child-like in the way Nathanael comes to faith, and even Jesus says as much. “You believe just because I told you about the fig tree!? That’s nothing! Just wait until you realize that I am the walking, talking Bethel–the place where God and humanity, meet! Just wait until you see the angels, my friend!”
But far from criticizing Nathanael’s simple faith, Jesus is commending it. This is someone who is innocent enough to believe that something not just good but something of God really did come from Nazareth. Apparently we need a little naiveté to embrace the gospel’s fairy tale-like depiction of God himself living inside the man Jesus. We need a little holy innocence to believe that in that small band of ignorant fishermen, a cosmic treasure lay hidden. The disciples, as it turns out, are the frogs who turn into princes.
And when it comes right down to it, we know that we are no more impressive-looking, no more outwardly dazzling than those simple disciples we meet in the Gospel story. The world still thinks the church looks like a dead end, a non-starter. In recent years popular New Atheist authors like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have publicly sneered at people of faith and have used words like “immature” and “retrograde” and “child-ish” to describe what they think of people like us. Christians who go to churches on Sunday mornings are no different, Richard Dawkins has said, than people who believe in the tooth fairy, in river sprites, in spirits who inhabit elm trees.
But by grace we know that somehow, we, too, have been put in touch with the dearest truth of the universe: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. We don’t mind being child-like if that’s what it takes to believe this. And so we hang onto our faith in the gritty realities of this world. Because in fairy tales, as surely in our present situation, dark and terrible things are present; good and evil wage horrific battle, and some good things are lost along the way. But the child-like aspect of faith keeps hope alive because our willingness to embrace and believe the unlikely has given us a glimpse of Joy. We’ve caught an Epiphany glimpse of a larger world in which God is the Creator and Jesus is the true King.
And as 2021 dawns in this month of January, we know only too well how difficult it can be to maintain our faith in the teeth of grim realities. 2020 was a year like few others. It was probably a year like no other in terms of how far back anyone’s memory can stretch. There were losses on every side. And though 2021 may—may—hold out the promise of better things, in a sense it is still 2020 as the pandemic rolls on and as many of us who lost jobs in 2020 have not found anything meaningful yet with which to replace them.
Oh, we believe in Jesus, we are still wide-eyed in our wonder over him. But our eyes are open, not shut, and we see again and again the very realities that required God’s Son to become incarnate here, right in the midst of life’s struggles and sorrows. We follow Jesus but always we remember that the shadow of the cross is ever present. That cross is what it took for even God’s own Son to start setting things to right again.
It’s a lesson the disciples learned eventually, too. Through betrayals and denials and abandonment, the disciples went the distance with Jesus, finally and by grace alone arriving on the other side of that great event we call Easter.
That’s the only place you ever find Nathanael again, too. Nathanael makes just one other appearance in the Bible and it comes in the very last chapter of John. Nathanael is a kind of book-end character for John’s gospel, appearing in only the first and final chapters. By the time you get to John 21, Jesus had been killed dead in plain sight of the disciples. The shrewd powers that be looked at Jesus, asked if anything good could come from Nazareth, and concluded, “Nope,” and so they dispensed with him, crossed him out. But in the ultimate reversal of expectations, the dead one became alive again. And finally the morning dawned in John 21 when Nathanael and the others were fishing in a boat only to see some hazy figure on the distant shore, cupping his hands to his mouth and calling out, “Catch anything?”
They knew then who he was and so rowed back to the shore as fast as they could. Nobody said much. John says they didn’t even dare to ask, “Is it you, Jesus?” They felt like they were in a dream, a dream of heaven come down to earth. But you know how it is with good dreams sometimes: you don’t dare say anything for fear you’ll wake up and it will all disappear like a soap bubble wafting in the air. But they knew it was Jesus.
Nathanael knew it, too. This Jesus now looked like he had been to hell and back, bearing scars and looking somehow different, changed, but he was undeniably alive. And when at breakfast that morning he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them, there was no longer any doubt who this stranger on the beach was. He was the same man who, years before, told Nathanael that he hadn’t seen anything yet. Having now been to the cross and back, Nathanael agreed.
Back on that day when he first came to faith, Nathanael had been pretty innocent all right. But in a way, despite all he’d seen, suffered, lamented, and wept about, he was still innocent, still child-like enough to believe that the one he watched die was alive again, that the truth of Jesus as our living Bethel was no dream. And every once in a while, out of the corner of his eye, Nathanael was just sure he saw the flutter of angel wings above Jesus’ head.
And by grace, so can we. So can we. Hallelujah and Amen.
*** My thanks to Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures (Harper & Row 1979, pp. 115-117) for some inspiring help on some of this sermon’s reimagining of Nathanael.)
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Author: Stan Mast
On this Second Sunday after Epiphany, the parallels between this Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading (John 1:43-51) are obvious and instructive. Both are about calling, of Samuel and of the first disciples. Both are about God revealing himself, through his spoken word and through the Word made flesh. Both calls evoke a life changing response, as Samuel becomes a reliable prophet and those fishermen become disciples. Both are perfect texts for this season of Epiphany, because they point to the glory of God revealed to the likes of us in times like these.
“In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” It was the time of the Judges, when everyone did what was right in their own eyes because there was no king in the land. What people did was increasingly vile, as the last chapters of the book of Judges reveal. The priestly sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas, participated in the depravity of the day, stealing the choicest parts of the people’s sacrifices and having sex with women at the very gates of the Temple.
It’s impossible to know whether the word of the Lord was rare in those days because of that widespread sin or whether there was such depravity because the word of the Lord was rare. Suffice it say that even the main man of God, Eli, was so spiritually blind and deaf that he didn’t recognize the word of the Lord when it finally did come to Samuel.
“The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli.” Samuel was a miracle baby, given to the barren Hannah after her desperate prayer. In response, Hannah gave three-year-old Samuel back to God by handing him over to Eli for Temple service. According to Josephus, Samuel was about 12 years old when God called him.
For nine years he has been “ministering before the Lord.” We aren’t told exactly what that meant, but he had immediate access to the holiest parts of the Temple (the Tabernacle, actually), even sleeping next to the Ark of the Covenant. He was as physically close to the Lord as he could be, but as verse 7 says, “Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”
Thus, when the word of the Lord came to Samuel, he didn’t know what to make of it. But the Lord knew him by name from all eternity. I add that note because of the lectionary reading from Psalm 139, which celebrates how thoroughly God knows his own. Though written by King David, whom Samuel will later anoint, it is true for all of us. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me….” That knowledge is so complete that God even knows our thoughts before we even speak them. So, of course, God knows this little boy’s name. “Samuel, Samuel.”
But, as I said before, Samuel did not know Yahweh. Oh, he may have known that name. And he may have known a lot about the Lord, having served in the Temple all his life. But he didn’t know the Lord personally, experientially, intimately. To put it in contemporary evangelical terms, he didn’t have a personal relationship with the Lord. Because he didn’t know the Lord that way, it took God three tries to get through to Samuel.
In fact, it took some guidance from the blind Eli before Samuel knew what was happening. Indeed, it even took Eli three tries before he got it. The first two times Samuel came running to Eli’s bedside, thinking the old man had called him, the old man just told him to go back to bed. The third time was the charm, as the blind old man, whose spiritual lamp was flickering like the lamp of God (verse 3), realized that “the Lord was calling the boy.”
Eli gave Samuel advice that should make us prick up our ears. “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” Don’t get up and run to do your duty. Just lie there and speak to him and then listen. Sure enough, God wasn’t going to give up on Samuel just because he didn’t know the Lord yet. In his persistent, irresistible grace, God came a fourth time, calling Samuel by name. Indeed, says the text, “Yahweh came and stood there….” This is a genuine epiphany.
But Samuel didn’t see God. He heard God. As verse 21 says, “God revealed himself to Samuel through his word.” The word of God came to Samuel a fourth time and this time Samuel heard more than his name. He heard the will of the Lord, because this time he was listening. What he heard wasn’t pleasant; it was a word of judgment against the house of Eli for the sins of his sons and for his own weakness as a father. Eli accepted that word from God.
Samuel continued to hear the word of the Lord and to speak God’s word to Israel. None of Samuel’s words from God “fell to the ground,” that is, were useless and ineffective, precisely because those words did indeed come from God. Samuel didn’t make them up, as did the false prophets of Israel’s later history. Samuel simply listened. “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
It would be tempting to preach a sermon on that particular line. How many times has God spoken to us, but we didn’t know it was the Lord? How many times have we recognized that God was speaking, but we didn’t hear his message because we were too busy running to do our duty? To hear the word of the Lord to us, it is essential that we pray these words from the heart. This is true not only for preachers looking for the word of the Lord for next Sunday’s sermon, but also for every Christian as we open our Bibles in our daily devotions or attend worship each Sunday. An open ear and heart are essential to hearing God’s will for our lives.
It would also be very tempting to preach a sermon about being close to God in many ways, but not really knowing God in a personal way. Familiarity with the things of God, deep knowledge of the Bible, expertise in correct doctrine, and regular participation in spiritual disciplines are not the same as knowing God. No matter what ecclesiastical tradition we call home, God calls all of us to a personal knowledge of God. Paul should speak for all of us when he says, “I want to know Christ… (Philippians 3).”
Both of those approaches to preaching on this text textual and helpful, but let’s be sure that we preach the Christ that Paul wanted to know. It is God in Christ who has come and stood in our place. It is God in Christ who has called us to be his disciples whatever our occupation. It is God in Christ who speaks his word of judgment and salvation to us. It is God in Christ who has revealed himself through his word. This story is not first of all about Samuel or Eli; it is about the God who has revealed himself, not by appearing in person, but by speaking a word.
God would not appear in person for quite a while, but when he did, it would be glorious. “No one has ever seen God, but God, the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known (John 1:18).” The God who revealed himself through his word to Samuel has now revealed himself through the Word made flesh. It is fascinating, and surely not accidental, that twelve-year-old Samuel didn’t know it was God calling, but twelve-year-old Jesus, sitting in the temple, knew that he had to be about his Father’s business.
Preach an Epiphany sermon. Preach about the glory of God revealed to and in a twelve-year-old boy.
I have a ministerial friend who hears God speak all the time. He has written a book entitled, God Told Me, in which he helps people recognize the voice of God in their lives. I have heard God speak only 2 times in my life (well, maybe three if I count my call to ministry), apart from what I read in the Bible and what I interpreted as the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Both were times when I desperately needed a word from God. So, each time I stopped running, went on retreat, sat still for a long time, focused on the Bible in my hands, and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then God spoke clearly, not with a deep baritone, but with words in my head that I can quote to this day. How often have you heard God speak?
The idea that God reveals himself through his word is at the center of this text. As I pondered the power of God’s revelatory word, I recalled one of the most memorable movies I’ve ever seen. “The Book of Eli” is a post-apocalyptic tale about the rough, tough man Eli (played by Denzel Washington), who is on a mission to deliver a mysterious book to whatever is left of civilization on the west coast of America.
As he walks through a desolate world wielding his fierce sword with bloody results, Eli wanders into a violent town ruled by a sadistic man. The man learns that Eli has a book and demands to have it. He explains why in a chilling scene. “The person who has this book can rule the world.” The Book of Eli has incredible power and if this man can get it, he will dominate this ruined world.
Well, he doesn’t get it. Eli escapes all the traps laid for him and makes it to the west coast, where he finds a community of scholars on Alcatraz. Their job is to preserve the great works of civilization. Somewhere along his journey, Eli has lost his book, but the movie ends with Eli reciting the whole book from memory. He begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Book of Eli was a King James Version of the Bible, the book that revealed the glory of God and changed the world.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
An acquaintance of mine used to like to end his prayers with a half-witty, half-wry final intercession. If praying at table, his prayers were mostly typical . . . until the conclusion. “Dear Lord, we thank you for this food, for this day, for your goodness to us. Be with us as we fellowship at this table now and stay with us this evening. Slay my enemies! Amen.”
Beyond the witticism, the fact is that my acquaintance had an awful lot of Psalms on his side in praying that way. Psalm 139 is one of a handful of psalms that is lovely and lyric throughout until suddenly—almost from out of nowhere it would seem—there comes a concluding imprecation of considerable scope and violence. In truth, most of us would rather avert our eyes from such things, especially since Jesus seems to have abrogated this line of thought with his “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute” you lines. And the Revised Common Lectionary usually has us skip such passages too, as in today’s scaled-back assigned verses from Psalm 139.
The Lectionary also skips the middle part of this psalm and I am not sure why. In what follows I will basically include verses 7-12 in my reflections. But first one last note on the closing imprecation: I do agree that praying (or singing) such sentiments is inappropriate for followers of the Prince of Peace. Of course, Jesus himself had quite a few warnings about coming judgment and the like (and alas, the RCL usually cuts those out too) but there was always the sense that these were matters best left to God alone to sort out in the end. Still, in poems like Psalm 139, it almost seems as though the more lofty and awe-struck the psalmist’s thoughts about God get to be, the less tolerance this same poet has for those who mock God with their lives. There may well be a vital connection between the lyric parts of a poem like Psalm 139 and the imprecatory conclusion after all. And there may be a lesson there that we could ponder even if we resist (as we ought) wishing such violence on others ourselves.
But back to the main part of Psalm 139. Years ago Tim Keller had a sermon on this psalm in which he compared a certain perspective on these words with Frank Kafka’s novel Das Urteil or The Trial. If you have ever read this book, you know that the main character finds himself existing in a world where someone in authority seems to be able to track his every movement. Every single thing he does is known, tracked, recorded, and in the end the protagonist feels as though his whole life has become a kind of extended courtroom-like trial. He is on trial for his every decision and action and word.
Or in a more pop culture vein, think of the John Grisham novel and then later Tom Cruise movie The Firm. Mitch McDeere is a hotshot, newly minted lawyer who gets hired by a prestigious law firm that showers him with gifts and encouragement. They even buy Mitch and his wife Abby a new home. But soon it becomes clear that The Firm is involved in shady business and eventually Mitch learns a terrible truth: their entire house was bugged with hidden microphones everywhere to track Mitch’s every move. Every conversation, every sigh while making love, every private thought they shared together had been listened in on by The Firm. When Cruise whispers this to Abby, she becomes momentarily unglued, fleeing the house and running as fast as she can.
Who wouldn’t? The scenarios in The Trial and in The Firm are almost everyone’s definition of “creepy.” In his sermon, Tim Keller noted, however, that this is what the psalmist says is true of God. God knows everything. God sees every move. What’s more—in the part of Psalm 139 the RCL technically skips—you cannot do what Abby does in The Firm: you cannot run away or get away from the microphones. Go high, go low. Go wide, go deep. Walk in the daylight or try to hide in the darkness of the night. It doesn’t matter: God is there.
But, of course, in Psalm 139 this is not creepy. It is affirmed as a supreme good, in fact. The psalmist finds comfort in this all-encompassing knowledge and all-capacious presence of God. Why? How? There can be only one reason: only God can be trusted to have such knowledge about us. Only God is wise enough, compassionate enough, forgiving and gracious enough to know all of our dirty little secrets and hidden faults and yet still be able to be our faithful God.
In a remarkable line from verse 6 the psalmist even says that this level of knowledge—even about one’s own self—is “too wonderful” for even us to bear! In short, God knows us better than we know ourselves! That is downright remarkable! But once more it is testament to the trust this psalmist has for God. God can handle knowledge about ourselves that even we might find difficult to bear.
In other words, Psalm 139 is in its own way an ode to grace. It is a celebration of that #1 trait of God’s for which the psalms give the most consistent praise: God’s chesed, God’s lovingkindness. Take that away and the sentiments expressed in the 139th Psalm go back to being creepy. But given God’s native lovingkindness toward us, these sentiments end up being comforting in the extreme.
And in the end—despite the major hiccup of some of the concluding imprecations against the psalmist’s and God’s enemies, it is as though after verse 22 the psalmist comes to a full stop, takes a deep breath, moves away from worrying about other people and says to God, “But tell you what, Lord: you just search and know me, find what is wrong with me, and then help me become a better follower of you down the paths of life everlasting.” Yes, we can fret others all we want but finally God has enough work to do on each one of us to re-cast us better into that divine image God has desired us to bear since the very beginning. And since God knows each of us better than we know our own selves, God knows just what to do. Trust this God.
I have long thought that the little classic children’s picture book The Runaway Bunny makes for an excellent children’s sermon or even regular sermon illustration in connection to Psalm 139. A little bunny decides he is going to run away from home but his mother will have none of it. He can go anywhere he pleases but the mother bunny will always be there waiting for him.
In the end, the little bunny realizes he has it pretty good right where he is given how much his mother loves him. And in that little tagline to the book is hidden a lot of solid theology!
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Author: Doug Bratt
Christians sometimes assume people’s souls are the only places where God works. God’s people, however, who add Christian freedom to that assumption sometimes end up with unbiblical notions about our bodies.
Of course, Jesus Christ graciously freed his adopted siblings from having to earn our salvation by obeying God’s law. Yet that leaves the question of how Christians use our freedom in Christ. How, quite simply, do God’s beloved children live in obedient gratitude for God’s gracious gift of salvation?
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson Paul grabs his audience’s attention by talking first about food, then about sex. To quote Will Willimon, in just a few verses the apostle manages to talk about “mastication, fornication and prostitution.”
So those who assume 1 Corinthians 6’s proclaimers will just talk about spiritual things may be disappointed. Paul, after all, calls God’s people to also consider physical things. He reminds his letter’s recipients that while God gives God’s adopted children much freedom to responsibly respond to God’s grace, not everything we do is “beneficial” (12). Some things Christians have the freedom to do aren’t helpful to either the people around us or to us.
What’s more, Paul adds, while God has given Jesus’ followers much freedom to appropriately respond to God’s grace, some of our actions may, in fact, actually serve to recapture us. Our new freedom may begin to dominate our actions, thoughts and words, leaving us are little freer, in one sense, than when we were slaves to Satan.
Thankfully, then, Paul helps his readers to think about Christian freedom in a perhaps slightly different light. Though we might expect him to reject sexual sin because it’s immoral, he doesn’t say that. Instead the apostle makes the perhaps startling and certainly mysterious claim that Jesus’ followers’ bodies are somehow part of Christ’s (15).
Who in their right minds, then, he goes on to ask, would use their freedom to participate in immorality with a part of us that’s also part of Jesus Christ? To defile our bodies through things like improper eating or sexual immorality is to somehow defile the God living within God’s adopted children.
The apostle’s view of the body and sexuality is far higher than our culture’s. While society sometimes uses crude language for sexual intimacy such as “scoring,” Paul insists that those who are sexually intimate do something far more profound than “hook up.” They do something, he suggests, that changes their very lives. When Christians join bodies, we become one with the people with whom we’re sexually intimate.
God’s adopted sons and daughters believe in the resurrection of the body, both Christ and ours’. So we profess that God didn’t just raise Christ as some ghost or spirit, but in his body. While Christ’s resurrected body was clearly somehow different from ours’, it was still a body.
In the same way, Christians profess that when Jesus Christ returns, God isn’t going to raise Jesus’ adopted siblings as some kind of wispy ghosts either. While they will be somehow different than the ones we have now, it’s still our bodies God will graciously raise.
So Christians believe that after age has done its worst to our bodies, God will raise them when Christ returns. After death has done its worst to our bodies, God will lovingly transform them at the end of measured time. Even after decay has returned God’s dearly beloved people’s bodies to the dust from which God created our first parents, God will lovingly reunite them with our souls in the new creation.
God isn’t just concerned with God’s adopted sons and daughters’ souls, as we sometimes assume. By God’s Spirit, after all, God makes God’s home in our bodies. That means that Christians’ bodies are just as much instruments of our obedient response to God’s amazing grace as our souls.
So our bodies are just as important to Christians as they are to any of our culture’s fitness or sexually obsessed people. Yet Jesus’ followers don’t necessarily care for our bodies for the same reasons as our society. After all, while our culture often takes care of its bodies to look livelier, feel better, or live longer, Christians care for them primarily in order to honor God.
People in our culture are, for example, sometimes sexually intimate just to experience pleasure, assert power or hijack affection. Christians, however, aren’t intimate with our spouses just in order to procreate and experience pleasure. We’re also faithful in order to honor God.
Our bodies, like the Holy Spirit who lives in them, are, after all, gifts from God. The Lord bought them with the steep price of the life of God’s only natural Son, Jesus Christ. So God gave God’s adopted children bodies, just like he gave us minds and souls, to honor God.
Christians often think of honoring God with our praise, mostly through our music. What might it mean, however, for us to honor God with our bodies as well? Might it mean, as Willimon asks, showing gratitude to God for giving us our bodies by not abusing them?
Unhealthy activities like smoking, over-eating and abusing alcohol don’t just raise our risks in the eyes of the medical and insurance industries. Paul implies that they also dishonor the God who God fearfully and wonderfully creates bodies. God promises to one day raise our bodies from the dead.
While some care for bodies is an exercise in narcissism and selfish obsession with appearances, Paul encourages his readers to think of our bodies as gifts from God and responsibilities God gives us. Our bodies, according to the apostle, are a glorious work of God that we should enjoy, preserve, and improve for God’s glory. So even getting enough sleep and exercise may not be just a physical, but also spiritual issue for Christians.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s message, however, also affects the way its proclaimers and hearers view those around us. As Christians have done mission and other outreach work, we’ve historically often thought of Christianity as just a matter of the soul.
We’ve sometimes worried only about the salvation of people’s souls while paying little attention to their bodies’ well-being. Or Jesus’ followers have cared for peoples’ bodies largely as a way to get their attention so that we can get to their (more important) souls.
Paul, however, reminds us that our bodies are so important to God that God is going to someday raise and redeem them. So we thank God for Christian agencies that minister to peoples’ bodies and souls. I thank God for colleagues who are doing things like improving needy people’s farming techniques, literacy rates and health care in Christ’s name.
Our text, however, also reminds us that God’s adopted sons and daughters also need to view our world as God’s creation just as much as we view our bodies as God’s work. I sometimes wonder if Christians haven’t avoided environmental debates because we think the spirit is somehow more important than the material creation.
God’s dearly beloved children understand that when God said “Let them rule” over the creation, he called our first parents (as well as their descendants) to care for God’s creation because it’s God’s handiwork. So care for God’s work includes not only caring for our bodies as God’s temple, but also our world as one of God’s homes.
Julie Jones was overweight for more than twenty years of her first forty-something years. Though she tried every diet under the sun, she couldn’t control her weight. Even when Ms. Jones managed to lose some weight, the pounds always crept back.
Then, according to an article in Christianity Today, Jones, using language some reserve for Jesus, says, “I found Gwen [Shamblin] … I opened The Weigh Down Diet, and I knew then and there that it was going to change my life forever.”
What made The Weigh Down Diet so much more successful than other diet plans? Jones answers, “Shamblin tells overweight women what we want to hear: you don’t have to starve yourself to lose. Overeating is a problem of the soul. Put your spiritual life in order and you will lose weight, without cutting out the foods you love from your daily diet.”
Shamblin insists people shouldn’t be obsessed with food. However, she also claims that counting calories can be fully as obsessive as compulsive eating. The real problem, she says, is spiritual. Your figure will improve, she insists, when you get right with God, when you stop trying to fill your God-shaped hole with food.
Shamblin herself struggled with obesity when she was a college student. However, she says she finally lost and kept off weight when she came to think of craving food without being hungry as a call to read her Bible or pray.
Shamblin’s Weigh Down Diet is part of a Christian dieting industry that may annually be worth as much $1.5 billion. She owns 30,000 Weigh Down workshops across the world and has authored at least three popular books.
While Shamblin’s approach to Christian dieting avoids many diets’ strict rules and regulations, another other popular Christian dieting approach, the “3D” (dieting, discipleship, discipline) approach that’s the brainchild of Carol Showalter, advocates careful measuring of caloric intake. It promotes losing weight through a disciplined lifestyle of prayer and eating. Showalter likes to remind people that “self-control” is one of the fruits of the Spirit.
Those like me who struggle with obesity are in no place to criticize efforts to help people to lose weight. I’m far more critical of Shamblin’s sometimes-loose theology that includes a fairly explicit rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, I’m thankful for the efforts of Christian dieters to remind us, however unevenly, that God is fully as interested in our bodies as in our souls.