Category Archives: 1 Corinthians

The Church – the Body of Christ

A conversion is incomplete without Jesus in central place in our life, Lord of All. And second, conversion is incomplete if it does not bring us into the full fellowship of the Church. Who believes it these days? Fewer and fewer – at least in our country. For more and more people, the church is not for them – an anachronism, the butt of ridicule. Doctor John White, a well-kent figure in church in his day, preaching at an open-air meeting was heckled continuously. One heckler shouted at him, “Why should I go to church? It is full of hypocrites!” “Correct”, Dr White threw back at him, “but there is still room for another!”

There is more room than ever today for hypocrites and whosoever will belong. If we cannot arrest the spiralling decline in church membership by 2040, we are informed, only 0.5% of the population will belong to church. Enough said! There are many reasons given for people ignoring the church, apart from the absurd idea that we are all a bunch of hypocrites, or that we have not moved with the times. I am certain a lot of our friends have voted with their feet because of what they consider to be the entrenched stance of the church over matters of personal morality. And it seems to me that, in this respect, the voice of concern and protest in regard to family planning and contraception has, for the time being, given way to matters relating to same-sex marriages.

Why is the Church in decline? It is not! Maybe in the UK and Europe – yes. It is a different story in Africa and South America. World-wide the church is growing, most certainly giving expression to their commitment to Christ and Faith. A young woman being interviewed as a prospective candidate for the church’s ministry was asked what she would most like to see in the church during her ministry. She replied immediately, “Full churches”. Would not we all? The pessimistic streak in me thought “poor girl”. In a different mood, the prospect of a dying church and the adverse impact on the ministry and mission of Jesus, the vision I have of a church on its last legs is not as bleak.

We began this essay with the bold statement that our conversion is incomplete if our embrace of faith takes no account of the Church. Here we are about to enter to the realm of controversy – Is that opening assertion written in stone? I am not so certain. I do not hold with the view that all of those folk whom we would love to see in church do not share with us a spiritual hunger or are not impressed by the story of a Saviour’s life, his mission and ministry and the breadth of his love. I believe (there will be those who disagree) the many folk who assure us that they have no ambition to commit themselves to the church, that they have found faith and love Jesus without the restricting hindrance of the church. I have a lot of sympathy for that point of view and find myself on occasions asking, might they not be in the sight of God, Christians, entitled as much as you and me to be named disciple? My friends may be relieved that, so far, I have returned to orthodoxy! I still hold that a conversion is incomplete until we embrace the full fellowship of the Church. For a number of reasons – I shall mention two briefly.

First: the journey of Christian faith is far too hard for any one of us to go it alone. We need one another, a helping hand as we stumble along the rough path of faith, a shoulder to lean on, and the wise counsel of those who have “been there – got the T-shirt”, a guide who is heaven-sent. Secondly, God needs the church, which is why it is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). The Body of Christ to preserve and proclaim the stories of Jesus and of the love that passes all our understanding, to seek out and bring women and men into the embrace of a Heavenly Father’s love. God still needs the church; still uses the church.

The body of Christ

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

St Paul: Bartolomeo Montagna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

You are the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27 ) –  the hands to do his work, the feet to lead folk in his way, the voice to tell them how he died; for Christ has no help but our help to lead folk to his side.

So says a verse – a familiar, well-worn verse that tries to put Paul’s concept of the Church in context for us. A. J. Gossip once said that Christ’s aim for this world was to produce a race of Christs. Not a phrase I very much like, although when Jesus said I have set you an example, you are to do as I have done for you, the invitation is to be like Him. If people want to know what Jesus is like, they ought to be able to see Him in us, His body! Really! Just think of it, our body, unfit, crippled frail, slow, ageing.

It is a folly to sing of Gentle Jesus, meek and mild; folly to go to the other extreme; folly to impress on Paul’s picture an Atlas type figure. Paul presents a different image: the Church – the Body of the Risen Christ – a crucified body: the body broken for you, for me, for the world’s salvation.

Three things to remember:

First, Paul does not doubt that the contribution of the weaker parts is valued.

Second, when the church is under pressure God does not write her off.

Third, we cannot be in the company of Jesus without personal cost.

A followers prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ in our weakness may we find your strength, In our failure , your forgiveness, In success, your humility, In all things, your peace.

Unlikely lads

Ghirlandaio: Calling of the Apostles Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Ghirlandaio: Calling of the Apostles
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Jesus spent the whole night praying to God, When day came, he called his disciples to him and chose 12 of them, whom he named apostles. Luke 6: 12-16 (GNB).

When Jesus called the Twelve he had at least a twin purpose in mind: he invited them to go with him and He chose them for friendship. Most of us, I suspect, have come to value the companionship and influence of friends – friends and friendships are an integral part of life. In choosing the Twelve, Jesus was hoping to insure the future of the mission and ministry He exercised by divine appointment; a movement that was to become the early Christian Church. The story begins in the New Testament – Acts of the Apostles. A movement of the Spirit of God described as turning the world upside down. A movement in which those whom Jesus named apostles would be close to the heart of it. I hazard a guess but I think, and may not be far out in suggesting, that many who actually knew the Master’s men wondered what Jesus was thinking about when He recruited those Twelve. When Philip, one of the chosen, the new recruit, set out to find Nathanael to tell him all about it, Nathanael’s response was far from encouraging or complimentary – ‘Nazareth’ he exclaimed, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ I think it quite possible that when it became known who were to be specially close to Jesus the cynic might have been heard to say, ‘it’s a funny selection but it’s what you might expect from a Nazarene?’ And might there not be others, more sensitive and less prejudiced, who would be asking, ‘What on earth was He thinking of when He appointed this small ‘covey’ of unlikely lads?’

There is another side to the story and it is interesting to note how they acquired the reputation of being a motley crew and, more importantly, why He chose this odd assortment of human characters. Let’s take a closer look at one or two of them and let us begin with Peter.

Four of them were fishermen, one of them being Peter: rough, strong, hard working and, maybe not unused to a bit of colourful language; Peter, impetuous, a rough diamond..

There is Matthew, a tax collector, a cheat and a quisling and much hated. Simon was a Zealot, a fanatical nationalist pledged to kill any quisling or any Roman he set eyes on – probably a terrorist.

John, the disciple Jesus loved (John 21:20). Did Jesus just love one; have a favourite and was he treated thus? Does not our Lord love us all equally – with a generous and undeserving love? Warts and all? John – a likely lad?

Then there is Judas Iscariot who betrayed his Master for 30 silver coins. There is Thomas, realist and feet on the ground and Simon, brother of Peter; the two other brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee nicknamed by Jesus, Boanerges (sons of thunder) lads with a temper! We’ll let the others speak for themselves! No famous or brilliant or obvious leadership talent, just ordinary folk.

When I was about to take on an appointment with extended responsibility I had a telephone call from a wise and respected senior minister. He rang to wish me well and said something for which I was grateful and have never forgotten, ‘ Be yourself; don’t try to emulate your popular predecessors, it is you who have been chosen – chosen for who you are and for what gifts God has given you and the Church believes to be right for the job.’ Another source of encouragement over the years – words of the Apostle Paul. “The folly of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. My friends, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are wise by any human standard, few powerful or noble birth. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts folly, and to shame what is strong, God has chosen what the world counts weakness.” So no place is left for human pride in the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 1:25-29 (REB).

Encouraging isn’t it, when we think of the colossal task the Lord has chosen to share with us?

Welcome Eastertide

Judy Garland – remember her?  If you are a certain age, you will!  And – the song?  “Put on your Easter bonnet, with all the ribbons on it …. and join the Easter Parade.”   Easter is special in the song; the occasion for a grand parade.  Join the crowd, follow the band, dress up with your Easter Bonnet and all the ribbons on it.  But that was a film made in Hollywood!  When do you see women in hats with ribbons these days?  Or, for that matter, without ribbons?  At a wedding – maybe – but at Easter!  Well, hat or no hat, Easter is a happy festival occasion, a time for celebration in Church.  A time for ”euphonium, trombone and big bass drum”.  Although I didn’t always appreciate it when I was rudely aroused from my slumbers at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning; woken by the Findochty Salvation Army band parading past my bedroom window, flag a-flying, big drum beating, heralding the event, proclaiming the good news,” Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!”

The Way of the Cross at SunsetSource: Wikimedia Commons

The Way of the Cross at Sunset
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fred Pratt Green, the Methodist 20th Century hymn-writer gives his hymn, ‘This joyful Eastertide’  the refrain: Come, share our Easter joy, That death could not imprison,  Nor any power destroy, Our Lord who is arisen.’  But it wasn’t much like that at the dawn of the first Easter morning.  When news of the Resurrection broke, we can only imagine the anger and consternation it must have caused those who engineered the events of Good Friday. Even the close friends of Jesus were disturbed and perturbed by it.  Their response to the news that Christ was risen was slow, almost reluctant.  The women who visited the tomb were distressed, terrified, completely at a loss.  Mary was in tears.  There were many bizarre ways to explain the disappearance of a dead body – resurrection the least likely.  Thomas, the disciple, was not with his friends when the Risen Jesus was with them.  When given the news, it was all too fantastic for words – to be taken with a pinch of salt.  Later still, the Apostle Paul doing a stint of open-air preaching on Mars Hill in Athens must have been disappointed if he expected a rapturous reception.  The crowd listened respectfully at first – until he mentioned the resurrection, then a section of his hearers began to mock him.  Paul also found it difficult to convince the Church of the mystery and glory of the resurrection.  But, preach it he must; he is convinced that, “ If Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.”  (strong stuff! 1 Corinthians, 15.14)

Good News BiblePaul, anxious to communicate and share the joy and assurance of Easter, acknowledging the need of some further explanation, writes in his correspondence with the church at Colossae – if you think of your baptism you will begin to understand the significance of resurrection and penetrate its mystery. ( Colossians 2.12; cf also Romans 6.4.)  In Paul’s day baptism would probably be mostly by total immersion in water The candidate would step into the water, probably a river and an Apostle (or some other) would plunge the convert completely under the water. In fact ‘to baptise’ is the translation of a Greek word meaning ‘to plunge.’  Paul’s linking of baptism with resurrection is simply that, apart from it being the rite of admission to the church, baptism was symbolically like dying and rising again. To be plunged under water was like being buried In the grave; when you rose out of the water – like rising from the grave.

What Paul is saying directs us to the very heart of the Easter message; when we are baptised we die with Christ and we are raised to new life with Him!  We are not meant to take it literally – we cannot go back in time or go through the awful pain and agony of crucifixion or put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ friends standing at the entrance to an empty tomb that first Easter morning. One more thing that ties the two together – baptism and resurrection:  in the first days of Christendom baptism was usually associated with a personal confession of faith.  Interesting as it may be to speculate, to debate, to posses a shelf full of theological tomes, the Easter message is to be believed rather than talked about.   Easter faith is not the preserve of one day in the year only, it is the faith in which Christians daily live. We are the Easter people.  Let us rejoice as Fred Pratt Green’s hymn  invites . . . . . . . . .  share our Easter joy!

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome Eastertide
Source: Wikimedia Commons

An inestimable privilege

If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting.  For necessity is laid upon me.  Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel. 1 Corinthians  9. 16  (RSV)

Sermon on the Mount (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is boring; it puts you to sleep;  it is – THE SERMON!  In 65 years preaching, I will undoubtedly have bored a fair number of folk and those nodding heads in front of me tell their own story.  I am amazed that I cannot recall hearing one snore! There was a time when, in the tradition in which I was nurtured, preaching  was one of the most important activities that happens within  Church worship. The pulpit was placed conspicuously at the front and centre, “the preacher six-foot above contradiction”.  The sermon, the climax of the service although the AMEN was deferred until the final rousing hymn, attempted to raise the roof – our response to the message in the preaching.

I recall a story that did the rounds once upon a time, a story about one of the great scholars and preachers of a former generation (annoyingly I have forgotten which one it is), a tale he told against himself. He arrived at the church where he was to be the visiting preacher that morning; a church with a steep climb of  steps from pavement to church porch.  An elderly lady was stood at the bottom perturbed by the prospect of the ascent.  The preacher, true gentleman, hastened to her aid and helped her up the steps. At the top she  thanked her “Good Samaritan” and asked him who  was preaching that morning: “ Dr. So-and-So” he told  her. “Oh dear,” she said, “would you kindly help me down those steps!”

In student days, whenever opportunity occurred, my pals and I were a bit choosy about where we worshipped on Sunday, our goal: the church with the  good preacher. There were some around, not all of them among  the “star” performers. Those were the so-called good old days and unlikely to return. The traditional sermon doesn’t feature as highly in training curriculums. They don’t preach any more as once they did. In many churches the pulpit is either removed or standing redundant, a step taken to lessen the gap between preacher and congregation and create a more friendly and intimate relationship within fellowship. At the same time, it is an indication of the status now accorded the traditional sermon.  Now we  speak of “The Message” rather than “The Sermon”.  In what is known as “Fresh Expressions of being Church” we aim to make Church more attractive and relevant – new ways for a new generation of Jesus followers.

Like the Apostle Paul, quoted above, our Calling is to share the Gospel of Jesus.  It is all too evident today that change is inevitable, and surely no preacher will deny that or think themselves excluded, his/her gifts no longer required.  Granted, there are times when all the signs are that PowerPoint, and the like have taken over entirely from the pulpit.  The method and style of proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel may of necessity change with the times; shorter sermons, story telling rather than erudite essays, drama, visual aids, video, dialogue, whatever. There are many ways of doing it.  Among the books about preaching on my shelves, one by Dr. H.H. Farmer entitled Servant of the Word pleads for “the rediscovery of preaching” as long ago as 1941. I would hope and pray that “New Ways of being Church” will lead to a rediscovery of preaching in its remit.  I believe there is still a place within the overall ministry of a church for the type of sermon I, as a Servant of the Word, was called to preach all those years ago. I hold firmly to the view that God still works through what Saint Paul calls “the foolishness of preaching.”  It happens in those places where there is renewal and growth, that a prominent place is given to testimony and the preaching of The Word. I return to Paul – he sees the task of preacher as of divine appointment and the passionate discharge of a trust.  More than that, and because of that, it is an inestimable privilege.  I like the way the Revised English Version translates 1 Corinthians 9.16; “It would be agony for me not to preach.”  The Message is equally interesting, “If I proclaim the Message, it is not to get something out of it for myself, I am compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t.” You cannot think of this immense privilege without reference to the awesome responsibility that goes with it – can’t have one without the other. Remember Paul was not addressing himself to preachers and evangelists alone. He has concerns over happenings in Corinth, he writes, “To the church of God which is in Corinth, to all who are called to be God’s holy people, who belong to him in union with Christ Jesus, together with all people everywhere who worship the Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.”

Who said it?  Memory fails me!  But I have never forgotten the saying which defines our task, yours and mine, as “one poor beggar telling another where to find bread.” A tremendous  responsibility ….. an inestimable privilege!

Who, having been called to be a preacher, would stoop for a King? (Thomas Carlyle)