READINGS: 03/24/2019 ~ Third Sunday in Lent ~ Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9 ~ Note: 1 Corinthians 1:18-28 Added.
“…the message about the cross is foolishness, complete absurdity, to those who are perishing, headed for ruin, but to us who are being saved, experiencing salvation, it is the power of God.” — 1 Corinthians 1:18.
Many of you know this. I’ve probably said it hundreds of times. I am a proud graduate of Bangor Theological Seminary, Bangor, Maine. I have often said one of the very positive things about attending Bangor Theological Seminary was, before I was called to the be the Associate at a five church cooperative in Waldo County, Maine, I got a chance to do a lot of preaching.
The reason I got that chance is twofold. First, I a took a course in preaching which qualified me to be on a list of supply preachers kept by the Seminary. Second, Bangor Seminary, the city of Bangor itself, is in a rural area of a rural state.
Therefore, especially in Northern Maine, there are many, many small churches in many, many tiny rural towns— crossroads really— churches which accessed the Seminary preaching supply list. They relied on Seminary students for Sunday fill-in when necessary. Some of those churches used only that supply list Sunday to Sunday.
Hence, in the two years before I accepted the call to the Waldo County Cooperative— 104 Sundays— I preached 47 times in 23 locations. Obviously, 47 Sundays is nearly half the number of Sundays in the course of those two years. And that this supply work happened in 23 locations tells you I was called back to the same churches a lot. (Slight pause.)
So, have you ever been to Aroostook County, Maine? Aroostook is the largest county by area east of the Rocky Mountains. And early one Sunday morning Bonnie and I were on a long drive headed north to a church up in “The County” as it is known locally. I had a supply assignment.
She was driving and I was reading a text book. It was a theology text book. I had an exam the next day. Have you ever read a theology text book?
If you think the writing of Paul is dense, you have never read a current theology text book. One paragraph struck me as being particularly dense. So I turned to Bonnie and said, “Let me read this paragraph for you and please tell me if you understand what the author is getting at.”
And I did— I read it out loud to Bonnie. And when I had read it to myself or when I read it out loud for Bonnie to hear, she was not and I was not able to understand what the author was getting at. And indeed, whether we are talking about the Apostle Paul writing on theology two millennia ago or a current writer of theology, theology is, by its nature, is dense, hard to understand, hard to comprehend.
I was reminded of that incident of reading a paragraph to Bonnie a couple of weeks ago when I was mentoring a young pastor. That pastor told me Seminary taught them it was their duty to preach the Gospel. I took exception to that statement.
The work of a pastor, said I, is not just preach the Gospel but to help people understand the Gospel. If it’s your duty to preach the Gospel and no one understands what you say, that’s not going to help them or you. (Slight pause.)
I would be the first to say sometimes I am successful at helping people understand the Gospel, sometimes not so much. I also would be the first to say helping people understand the Gospel is something I try to learn and to do afresh every week. (Slight pause.)
And these are words found in the work known as First Corinthians: “…the message about the cross is foolishness, complete absurdity, to those who are perishing, headed for ruin, but to us who are being saved, experiencing salvation, it is the power of God.” (Slight pause.)
Well this is evident: Paul has a message to convey. (Quote:) “…the message about the cross…” But how are we to understand Paul’s message about the cross these two millennia later?
Perhaps we need to ask ‘what was Paul’s message?’ Was it as radical as Paul seems to be claiming in this passage— (quote:) “Has not God turned the wisdom of this world into folly?”
Indeed, how radical is Christianity? Our resident theologian, the one who makes things sound so complex, is the Apostle Paul. And certainly, what is clear amidst the complexity is this: a central topic in this passage is salvation.
But what did salvation mean to Paul? This seems to be evident: salvation meant one is saved from the powers which destroy— the powers which destroy— that’s commonly referred to as sin— one is saved from the powers which destroy and the consequences of the powers which destroy.
Now, there is something we need to remember here, something I have said numerous times. The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews. Paul was a Jew. Jesus was a Jew.
What was salvation for the Jews? For Jews salvation refers to the redeeming action of God in saving the people of Israel from their various exiles.
However, that salvation is not limited to the ancient exiles of Israel. Salvation also includes the present exile— an exile from God. Hence, coming back to that thing so many call sin, one is saved from the powers which destroy… now.
One is saved from this exile, an exile from God not in some afterlife but now, right now. (Slight pause.)
I know: all that sounds like theology. It teeters toward the complex, not easy to understand. So let me try to untangle that just a little. (Slight pause.)
Is the love of God absolute and unconditional? There are obviously different ways to speak of divine love but salvation always comes down to that question: ‘is the love of God absolute and unconditional?’
A plethora of biblical passages from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures can be invoked to support positions which say God’s love is unconditional. Equally a plethora of biblical passages from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures can be invoked to support positions which say God’s love is limited, conditional. But the important question is not the biblical texts we cite.
The important question is ‘which texts are to be given priority?’ So, within the expanse of Biblical revelation we have to ask what vision governs our reading of Scripture?
If we believe the love God offers is conditional, limited, then we’ll read Scripture one way. If we believe the love God offers is unconditional, unlimited, then we’ll read Scripture another way.
So the question here is not the texts or how many we cite to support one position or the other. That is simply not relevant because there is an obvious logical, to say nothing of theological, problem with claiming the love of God is wrapped up in conditions.
The problem is to read the texts in a transactional way turns God into a broker, a salesperson, a banker, an divine entity who makes deals. Conditions do not address love. Conditions turn love into a mere transaction.
Therefore one simple question needs to be asked: is God the very God we Christians claim God to be? Or should God be described as a divinity who deals in reward and punishment? Here’s another way to put it: is God that radical, so radical that God loves unconditionally? (Slight pause.)
Let me tell you who often deals in the kind of transactions we think of as reward and punishment. Let me tell you who often deals in brokering.
That would be us— homo sapiens, humans. Do we want God to be God— or do we want God to be human, just like us?
You do know the old joke line: God created us in God’s own image and we returned the favor. We need to stop returning that favor. We need to stop turning God into us.
And, if truth be told, we humans are transactional. We too often deal in a kind of love which can only be labeled as transactional. There is no doubt about this: we humans make all kinds of deals around relationship.
And I think, at least in part, that’s Paul’s point. God is so radical that, when it comes to love, God does not deal in transactions.
And yes, that is hard for we humans to understand. But I hope I helped a little with some understanding in these last minutes. If I didn’t I apologize and I shall give it another try next week.
That having been said, I don’t care how complex Paul or any other theologian is. It really all comes down to just this: God loves us. God loves us and wants to be in covenant with us.
Are we ready to accept a God Who is that radical? Are we ready to accept a Christianity which is that radical? Amen.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “A couple minutes ago I said ‘God loves us and wants to be in covenant with us.’ That can be labeled as covenant love. And it is a radical idea. God also wants us to be in covenant with one another. That can also be called covenant love. And that can also be labeled as a radical idea. So, this is the bottom line about theology: it doesn’t have to be as complex as we make it out to be— talk about a radical idea— because it is this simple: love God; love neighbor. And let’s check in with that radical idea once I awhile and try to keep it as un-transactional as possible.”
BENEDICTION: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Let us live our days offering thanks to God who feeds our souls. Let us go on our way with Christ as our companion. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.