Monday, January 26, 2009

Epiphany 3 - Year B

NB: With help from Charles Talbert (Reading Corinthians) and the preaching notes from the latest Currents in Theology and Mission.

“Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short...” Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, “...For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7: 29 & 31b)

I don't know about you but when I hear talk like that I want to change the channel or flip the page. For me, it conjures up images of nuclear threats, wars on the other side of the world taking the lives of local men and women, financial meltdowns, continents being squeezed by poverty and drought, and ice caps melting into the Arctic Ocean. And TV preachers cheering from the sidelines as life on this planet grinds to an apocalyptic halt. It's not a pretty picture. It's not meant to be.

“But I want you to be free from anxiety,” Paul continues. Yeah, right! He talks about the imminent end of the world as we know it, and we're supposed to be OKAY with it? We're supposed to go on smiling as the planet self-destructs? We're supposed to greet death with open hearts and wider arms?

At first blush that seems to be what Paul is talking about. And it wouldn't be out of line with what others have said. In fact, that might have been what the Christians in Corinth were expecting to hear.

Paul was worried that these Corinthian Christians were being sucked into the religious practices and beliefs of their surrounding culture. Corinth was like Toronto. Or New York. Or London. There were as many religions as pizza places.

The Corinthians' biggest problem seemed to be a belief that they had already gained such great spiritual insight, they had ARRIVED! - and so this world really doesn't matter after that.

The world could go to Hell on a handrail and they wouldn't care. The earth could be swallowed up by a cosmic whale and they would cheer with joy. Aliens could destroy the planet with their lazar beams and these folks would welcome the little green men (and women) with flowers and candy. It was what they learned from their neighbour's religions.

“The Corinthians wanted to split the person [and the world] into two parts, a physical part that was perishable and a spiritual part that was eternal.” From this, they “believed that their redemption in Christ made them transcend creation.” It made them believe that this world didn't matter. All that mattered was going to heaven. The fancy word for this is “dualism.” In a peanut shell, Dualism means: Material world = bad. Spiritual world = good.

Unfortunately, we see this attitude all the time among Christians. It looks like this: Heaven = good. Earth = bad. We sometimes hear well- meaning Christians say “Earth is not my home, I'm just passing through.”

That saying doesn't come from the bible or some Christian preacher. That's actually a quote from Plato. That's how Plato saw the world. He thought the world was irredeemably evil and corrupt, and that our physical bodies trapped our higher, eternal selves in the Hell of earthly life. That's dualism in action. Christians simply baptized what Plato talked about.

And that dualism was precisely what Paul was trying to confront. He knew the bible well enough to know that God loved creation. God loved EVERYTHING that God had made. The creation story in Genesis says that when God created the world, God said it was “very good.”

“Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short...For the present form of this world is passing away.”

For those looking for religious justification for abandoning the world, they wouldn't get it from Paul. Those who hear “The world is passing away” miss the point. Paul says, “The PRESENT FORM of the world is passing away.” Paul is saying the world is changing, has changed, and will change. And we are part of that change.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus are on the front lines of that change. God is changing the world from one of hostility and conflict to compassion and reconciliation, sickness and grief to wholeness and joy, from hunger and poverty to fullness and abundance, from sin and death to forgiveness and new life.

Despite Plato's best intentions, and the stories the Corinthian Christians might have heard, or even some TV preachers, God is not destroying the world. God is giving birth to a new one. In fact, if you look closely to today's gospel reading, Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). The Greek word for “fulfilled”is peplerotai meaning “pregnant.”

Furthermore, in verse 29 of today's second reading, Paul says the time is “contracting” (synestalmenos, 1 Cor 7:29). “The time is pregnant! A new day is being born! The world is changing! Give up what you think you know about the world and what your life is about. Come be part of what God is doing!”

That was Jesus' call to James and John that day on the boats, and it's the call for us as we gather as God's family.

It's the call to see the world through God's eyes and not our own. It's the call to live a different life than the one we've been given. It's the call to be different from the world.

It's a call, not to escape or abandon the world for some heavenly paradise, but a call to live more deeply in the world, but as strangers following a differing path, a path that leads away from the troubles and tyrannies of this present world, to the new world of salvation.

“Brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short...For the present form of this world is passing away.”

So, Paul was saying that the problems and pains of this world are to be neither cheered nor condemned, but seen as contractions -birth pangs - of a new world. A world that is being born around us and within us.

And today, Sophia and Chloe, through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, God is calling YOU into that new world. A world of faithfulness and joy, of justice and compassion, of comfort and wholeness. A world where sin is overcome by forgiveness. A world where death is swallowed by resurrection.

It's not an easy life. But it is God's life That is the life you're being called to live. That's the story you're going to tell with your lives.

And it's our job to help them grow into that life, as we help each other grow as sisters and brothers in Christ, following the one who calls us by name, out of the boats of the old world, and on to the path of the new world, a world that will never pass away.

May this be so among us. Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Epiphany 2 - Year B

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (v. 19)

No, actually we don’t.

Paul wrote this letter to the Christians in Corinth, and they didn’t know what he was talking about. We’ve had this letter in our hands for 2000 years and we’re no closer to understanding what Paul was saying than the Corinthian Christians were.

Whether our problem is mis-use of sexual relationships, care for the poor and hungry, or failing to keep our bodies healthy, carrying around all this redundant protoplasm from eating to satisfy hungers other than bodily needs, Paul smacks us right between the peepers:

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?”

I don’t think we know how to talk about our bodies. I think many of us are completely disengaged from them, seeing them as vehicles to carry our brains around in, only acknowledging them when it needs something: food, something to drink, a trip down the hall, first door on your left.

And so, we get caught up in the rules of proper behaviour. We want to know what’s expected of us so that we can meet those demands. We want principles to follow, laws to guide us, steps to take, to achieve the ends that are expected of us.

Think about how Christians talk about our bodies. We’re big on rules and expectations.

People often get the impression that the church has one big “NO!” to say about sexuality, for example, that our primary focus is on limiting peoples’ pleasure, keeping it carefully confined, under wraps, behind a veil of Do’s and Don’t’s - well mainly Don’ts. And if you listen to any group of pastors chat, you’d think that sexuality was the ONLY thing we have to talk about.

What people could be hearing from us is the blessing that sexuality is; the act of creation, intimacy. Joy. Life.

And while the diet industry continues to suck in billions of dollars from chumps like me, encouraging me believe that my body is my own despite what Paul had to say in today’s second reading, offering a book entitled YOU: An Owner’s Manuel, appealing to my self-interest rather than my faith, forgetting that we are frail and mortal, and that many hungers emerge, not from lack of proper planning, but from our deepest needs not being met.

This isn’t to say that our bodies don’t need rule. They certainly do. “Shun fornication!” Paul writes. And he makes a good point. I’ve seen too many unwanted pregnancies in young people, and people pushed into unwanted sexual relationships. That rule has strength.

“Not all things are beneficial,” Paul continues, and who could argue with that? With our cancer and obesity rates continuing to soar, even as we know that we need more fruits and veggies, and fibre to help keep us healthy, we still find ourselves at the drive-thru rather than Farmer’s Market.

And yet, having rules doesn’t mean we’ll keep them. Knowing the right thing to do doesn’t mean we’ll do it, as Paul talks about in his letter to the Romans. “The things I want to do, I don’t do. And the very thing I DON’T want to do, I do.” It’s like he’s reading my mind.

“Not all things are beneficial,” Paul says. But there’s another way to translate it, Instead of saying “Not all things are beneficial,” it could read “Not all things BRING TOGETHER.” The Greek word here is sympherei, where we get our word symphony. The goal for Paul is not to regulate our lives, but to bring our lives together in harmony, as beautiful or powerful as symphonic strains, where each plays a part in creating the whole. Each unique instrument contributes to the beauty and power of the music.

Bringing us together, not just as individuals bodies, but as ONE body - the Body of Christ.

One commentator suggested that we use the world “Y’all” as they might in the southern US, as in “Do you not know that ‘y’alls’ one body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?” That’s why he could say their body was not their own, it belonged to God.

These Corinthian Christians knew temples. They knew that temples were places where gods and goddess lived. Temples were expensive to build and even worse to maintain. Temples were sacred, holy, awe inspiring places.

Paul was telling them that they -YOU - are sacred, holy, awe inspiring, because they - YOU - are temples. Or the better way of saying it: you are A temple. The Holy Spirit is dwelling within you, everyone together. That’s why you can never really be your own. You’ve been summoned into a life where you are responsible for others and others are responsible for you.

That’s the life into which Jesus called Philip in this morning’s gospel. The simple summons, “Follow me” created an earthquake within him, and he knew his life was not his own, that he was part of a bigger family, a larger community. He was - with the rest of God’s people, a temple of the Spirit of God, who calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy.

And that’s what Paul was trying to say to the Corinthian Christians, We are made in God’s image, and our bodies have been made into the body of Christ, Our lives are not to be about arrogant, self-serving freedom, demanding that our personal hungers be satisfied, but our lives are about loving and serving each other, knowing that our lives - and our life together - is a gift, that the Spirit lives and thrives deep within us, that there is not part of our lives that God does not dwell, no corner of our existence that God is not transforming. God lives in this body - a temple of the Spirit of God.

“Glorify God in your bodies,” Paul concludes. God lives in you and you live in God. So, be the dwelling place for the Almighty, welcome all into the Spirit’s Temple, swing the doors wide open and receive a broken, hurting, and sin-stained world. In THIS Temple there is forgiveness and healing. In THIS Temple life is renewed.

May this be so among us. Amen.