January 31, 2010
4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." 6 Then I said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." 7 But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD." 9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
1 In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
2 In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3 Be to me a rock of refuge,
a strong fortress, to save me,
for you are my rock and my fortress.
4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the grasp of the unjust and cruel.
5 For you, O Lord, are my hope,
my trust, O LORD, from my youth.
6 Upon you I have leaned from my birth;
it was you who took me from my mother's womb.
My praise is continually of you.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
1 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 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. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" 23 He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" 24 And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
For Christians who genuinely pursue spiritual growth, sooner or later there is the experience of rebirth. Some call it being “born again.” Some call it being saved. Some call it being “born from above.” It is the joyful sense that one has come into relationship with a living God, an authentic deity beyond one’s own internal psychology or philosophy, something truly new and fresh that can only be described in human terms as new birth.
The sign of this event is baptism, the full immersion of the whole body in water. Emerging from the water is very much like emerging from the womb.
Some Christians experience this new birth outside the church. This is not as infrequent as you might think. Particularly when someone’s life goes in a profoundly wrong direction, and every effort to correct the direction seems to fail, that someone will call on a God he or she may have never really known at all. And God, as Peter said in Acts 8, shows no partiality. These people often do indeed get zapped with the sense of newness and rebirth. They float along on what Alcoholics Anonymous members call “the pink cloud.” Everything is beautiful. Everything is wonderful. Everything is new.
But rebirth is very much like ordinary birth. One comes out a spiritual infant. It is tempting, very, very tempting—so tempting most people are completely unable to resist the temptation—to want to stay in the high chair, happily staring about and burbling nonsense while God the Father spoon-feeds their infant selves the mashed peas of a simple gospel.
Infants are charming and delightful, and so it is with infantile faith. It can be so cute, so warm and fuzzy. Plenty of far more successful pastors than I have figured this out and make sure to keep on dishing up the cute and cuddly, the hearts and the flowers and the little baby angels.
But infants can also be pretty obnoxious. They can be selfish, demanding and imperious. Paul had that problem at Corinth. Everybody there was competing for attention, competing for power. “Look at me, I’m the cutest.” “Pay attention to me, I’m the hungriest.”
In chapter three of this same letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
1 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human?In his teaching on the evolution of faith, Disciples’ founder Walter Scott did not put baptism at the end of the list of things that happen to believers. Not even next to last. After baptism, as we see so many times in the scriptural descriptions of faith development, came reconciliation with God and the rest of humankind, and then, and only then, came the greatest gift from God, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is this gift that grows a spiritual infant into a spiritual adult.
Paul’s famous chapter 13, read at so many weddings, has nothing to do with getting married. It has to do with spiritual maturity. It has to do with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the many manifestations that gift takes in the lives of disciples of Jesus. Every gift listed in the text has to do with the mission of the church: teaching the gospel, preaching the gospel, Spirit-inspired insight into cosmic truth, interpreting the gospel to other cultures, sacrificing one’s life for the gospel. The infantile Christians at Corinth are fighting each other over which one is more important, which one entitles its bearer to the most attention, the most power. Paul is saying, “Grow up.”
Lest we fall back into the huggy-wuggy, mushy-gushy, kum-bah-yah spirituality the word “love” always seems to inspire, let’s remember that real love, agape love, real community, real communion, is the hard work of forming and being faithful to real relationships. Spiritual growth and maturity emerges from the hard work of study, prayer, forgiveness, and intentional and ongoing collaboration with other Christians in communion. It is embracing a communal life that cannot be imagined until it is embraced. The love of the Holy Spirit entails a real re-ordering of priorities, excruciatingly truthful self-examination and repentance, the giving up of many dearly-held beliefs and sometimes the giving up of material possessions, enjoyable pastimes, social popularity or even one’s life.
This sermon Jesus gave at his hometown synagogue is his first sermon in Luke’s gospel. Luke puts it there because, for Luke, and this is probably true of the other evangelists as well, the chief problem Jesus faces in his ministry to Israel is convincing them that their blessedness is not for their own sakes. To put it in blunter, more crass terms, Jesus must tell them, “this is not about you.” And to put it in even more offensive terms, Jesus must tell them, “Put on your big boy pants and grow up.”
Jesus is not bringing a new religion to Israel. Rather he is bringing its true religion, a religion that is perfectly obvious in the Old Testament, but which Israel had almost entirely forsaken. The whole point of choosing Abraham, making the promises, giving the people the land, sending the prophets and everything else God had done for Israel was in order that Israel would become God’s very presence in the world, God’s fount of blessing to all nations, God’s grace poured out to a world that had forgotten him.
Yes, you are blessed, Jesus is saying, yes, God has chosen you, yes, God loves you passionately, yes, God will be faithful to you forever. But this is not so that you can sit in your high chair and be fed pureed bananas. This is so you will rise up and shine the light of God into the darkness of the world. You have a purpose, and if you don’t want to embrace it, I will have to offer the gift to someone else.
Jesus came to save the world, but in the midst of his saving work, there is judgment. It is a very specific judgment however. It has nothing to do really with whether you’re decent or moral or ethical or pious, whether you’re a good parent or spouse or whether you take good care of your mother. It has to do with whether you are willing to bear the fruit of God’s kingdom or not, whether you’re ready to grow up into God’s purpose, whether you’re ready to love the world the way God loves it, whether you’re ready to pour out God’s blessings on the worthy and the unworthy, the deserving or the undeserving, whether you’re ready to speak truth to power, no matter what it will cost you. Jesus is saying, “Get with the program or you will be left behind, and the gifts you have been given will be given to someone else.”
This is the week of prayer for Christian unity. The divisions of the church, be they the petty squabbles in a congregation or the doctrinal splits between denominations, all boil down to the same problem. Everyone remains in their high chairs, demanding attention and status. Everyone wants to be more important to God than everyone else. To move toward unity is to grow up. It is to embrace our common purpose, which is the same purpose no matter how we do communion or dress for church or sing our songs. It is to collaborate together, to share the gifts that God has given each individual, and each tradition, for the one great purpose, the one great calling, the one great apostolate: to love this troubled world with the gracious and bottomless love of God.
The congregation says to Jesus, “Charity begins at home. Do for your own family and community what you did out there in Capernaum.” And Jesus says, “No. Grow up. Get with the program. We’re here to bless the world and not ourselves.”
Jesus says this, and the congregation is so shocked and offended that they try to throw him off a cliff.
He goes on his way, as Luke tells us. And so it will go even when he is arrested, tried, murdered and buried. He will still go on his way.
Such is the power of the Spirit.