The Deepest Kind of Riches

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and from our brother Sosthenes.

I am writing to God’s church in Corinth, to you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did for all people everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Some churches seem to have everything. And yet, when they forget one thing, trouble ensues.

In writing to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul began with a joyful, thankful tone. And he was right to do so. Many blessings had fallen on the Christians in Corinth, even as they lived in the midst of a cosmopolitan economic hub full of competing ideas about religions and morality.

In particular, Paul noted, the Christian Corinthians had received “spiritual gifts,”  a subject he discussed in greater detail later in the letter, in the part we mark as chapter 12. There, we learn he meant specific abilities given to Christians by God’s Holy Spirit so we can better serve Christ’s kingdom. Paul specifically mentioned gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment and languages. Like most of Paul’s lists, this one was not meant to be exhaustive; instead, he was just highlighting some key abilities any Christian community would value.

In chapter 12, he was also quick to point out that no one Christian has all the gifts—this was in part to emphasize their need to work together. For you see, the Christians in Corinth had a basic problem. They were not working together, and often for the silliest of reasons.

Within the church, the Corinthian Christians had developed what we might call personality cults. One group would claim, “I follow this person,” while another would say, “No, I prefer to follow this guy.”

Paul himself was perceived as one of these factional leaders, even though he did not want to be one. There also was a Christian leader named Apollos, known for his eloquent preaching. Some claimed allegiance to “Peter,” presumably the Apostle Peter, and others took the high road, saying they followed Christ.

Paul’s solution was to point these Christians back to their core reason for existing. Focus, he told them, on one thing: the Good News, what he also described as “the message of the cross.”

The world around them likely would find the message foolish, he warned them. But preach it, teach it, and live it just the same, he was saying, for it is a special kind of foolishness, one designed to unravel what the world calls wisdom.

We are much like the Corinthians, living in a world where many ideas come together, and where we have access to almost anything we want, assuming we can afford it. This extravangance can be distracting, and certainly, we can be driven into factions, even within churches.

But can we not all agree on one thing—why we gather as Christians? We gather because of Jesus Christ and how he has revealed himself on the cross.

I have wondered if some people struggle with building their lives around “one thing” because they’re afraid they will somehow get bored. If that is so, it is unlikely they have truly explored the idea of Christ and the cross.

Most religions have mysteries to be explored, ideas that confound and obsess their deepest followers. These ideas require meditation and prayer to explore, and through that experience, the follower is changed. Zen riddles (“What is the sound of one hand clapping?) come to mind.

Christ’s work on the cross is our riddle, our mystery to explore. The problem is we have come to take it for granted—we have let the strangeness and the mystery of it all slip away.

In American culture, we are too quick to explain it. Often, we talk about the cross in terms of transferred punishment, with the Son of God absorbing what was meant for us. It is certainly one good way to understand the cross, but if you really take time to explore that idea, it does have its weaknesses. So God’s not satisfied until the one he calls “Son” is horribly abused and killed?

Over the centuries, other theories have been put forth. Was Christ essentially the payment of ransom to Satan, who held us captive because of sin? Did Jesus come to replay the role of Adam, providing a sort of “do over” for humanity? Did Jesus enter the realm of death so he could battle and defeat evil, winning the truly ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championship?

I have particularly enjoyed studying how views of the cross change with each culture. When the Japanese began to hear of Christ, most of the European views of how the cross worked did not resonate with them. But being in a culture where shame was the worst thing that could happen to you, Japanese Christians understood the cross in terms of Christ absorbing the shame we all share for sin.

It seems as if looking at the cross in so many ways could in itself be divisive. But however it works, the cross is an act of love, a unifying love that makes no sense. It is the act of an infinitely strong God choosing to love weak, broken beings so much that he would do anything to save them.

It also results in unyielding hope. In death, even shameful, horrible death, there is resurrection! Out of such nastiness comes eternal joy and bliss!

The truest, deepest kind of riches are to be found in the Good News. Understanding this becomes our great motivation as Christians and as the church. It is only reasonable and natural we share this truth with others, not only as an idea, but in action, as we draw on our richness of spirit to help others.

And in the process, as we preach the cross, teach the cross, meditate on the cross, and continue to live the message of the cross every day, we of course find unity and strength.

A Matter of Identity

Matthew 3:13-17

Who are you?

I just asked you about your identity. You can answer the question in lots of ways. For example, I might answer by saying my name is “Chuck,” or if the setting is very formal, “Charles William Griffin III.” I also might identify myself by one of the many roles I fill: father, husband or pastor, for example.

But what about your ultimate identity? Is there something about your identity that is unchanging and eternal?

Certainly, it was an unchanging, eternal identity that Jesus established by submitting to baptism. After Jesus underwent this ritual, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Those words were all about identity. To the Jewish audience surrounding Jesus, the words brought to mind two passages of Scripture, Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. The psalm’s  “Son” reference was understood by Jews to be a reference to the promised Messiah; the expression of God’s pleasure in Isaiah was tied to the figure known as the “suffering servant” of prophecy.

So, in his baptism, Jesus gained a public identity as the suffering Christ, the one who would restore humanity to our Creator.

Jesus’ baptism also was an act of solidarity with humanity. Being both fully God and fully human, Jesus was sinless, like Adam and Eve before the fall. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths—Jesus’ baptism was in many ways his first step toward the cross.

And because of Jesus’ work, our own baptisms establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. Like Jesus, we are pleasing to God when we symbolically claim the identity God offers us. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into the kingdom of heaven.

All we’re left to do in this world is live out who we are.

It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather as children of God, remember who we are, and behave accordingly. We remain individuals, of course—I remain recognizable as Chuck, Child of God, while each of you remain recognizable as David or Margaret or Whoever, Child of God—but we find joyous unity as inheritors of perfect healing, peace, love and joy.

The word for such a gathering of God’s children is “church,” by the way. I know, church is seldom as ideal as I’ve just described it. Too often, we let our temporal identities get in the way. But the potential in any gathering of God’s children still amazes me.

Occasionally in such a setting, something truly mysterious happens. Sometimes, we’re allowed to represent God to each other in ways where our individual differences vanish, and there is nothing left visible but God’s Spirit at work.

Let me share a story, an example that might help.

In a previous appointment, I had a parishioner I’ll call Scott. He had a well-deserved reputation for knowing his Bible, and had served for decades as a deeply respected Sunday school teacher. Early on, we enjoyed each other’s company, having lively, friendly discussions about sermons and Bible lessons.

Scott’s demeanor changed suddenly. He stopped talking to me and became angry, focusing his wrath on me in particular when he spoke to others. It soon got back to me that Scott was telling people my sermons made no sense, that I was preaching subjects not in the Bible, that I might even be dangerous. He stopped attending church; his wife told me that because of the way Scott felt, I had best not visit him.

It became quite the talk of the congregation, of course. What had Pastor Chuck done to Scott? I for one was simply perplexed, worriedly second-guessing everything I had said or done in recent months.

The answer became clear in less than a year. Scott had developed a form of dementia, declining very quickly. Throughout his decline, this terrible disease caused him to lash out in fits of anger.

Toward the end, I did go to visit him in the hospital. By this time, he was usually groggy and disoriented. At some point during the visit, someone in the room said my name.

Scott roused slightly, furrowed his face and said, “Chuck Griffin? I hate Chuck Griffin.” I was sitting on the edge of his bed facing him. His wife, a polite and gentle woman, heard what he had muttered and looked as if she wanted to melt into the floor.

Scott then opened his eyes and looked me right in the face, studying me for a moment. His face relaxed, resuming a familiar cheeriness I had missed. He looked at my shirt, which had on it an embroidered Methodist cross. He then took my hand and asked me a question: “But you’ll be my pastor, right?”

The two of us sat there for just a moment, his disease stripping away both our identities, leaving us clinging only to our titles, “Children of God.” It was good—it was pure. Nothing remained between us but God’s grace.

“Of course I’ll be your pastor,” I replied. And we prayed.

We do not want to lose our individual identities through disease to have such a moment. But God’s Spirit can push aside differences, real or imagined. When we let God work, our unity as brothers and sisters in the family of God comes to the front, and we gain a glimpse of heaven.