Saturday, September 5, 2015

Why did Paul call the Corinthians fools? They only asked a question.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” I Corinthians 15:35)
Answer a fool according to his folly. ... Answer not a fool according to his folly. (Proverbs 26: 4, 5) 
The Corinthians had a question for Paul: what kind of a body will we have in the resurrection?  Many have asked questions like this. Will we recognize each other? Will we have a resemblance to how we look now? (Ugh!) Or will we look like we did in our late 20s? (Better!) Will we be able to get up a game of baseball and not supernaturally crash home runs on every pitch? Odd questions, some of them, but ones we want to ask.

Paul, however, answers the question with a sharp rebuke: "Fools!" (I Corinthians 15:36)

With all due respect to Paul, those questions aren't foolish at all. We want answers. Why does he call the Corinthians fools for asking a question that any of us might ask?

Understanding Paul's response to the Corinthians' question can act as an excellent example of a cardinal rule of Bible study: get the context.

The Corinthian church was a troubled church. They were blessed with many gifts (I Corinthians 12 & 14), but along with their many gifts they carried baggage from their background. Their Classical Greek culture led them to ask a lot of questions, many of which we see Paul referring to throughout this letter (7:1, 25; 8:1; 9:1, etc.) Along with this admirable quality, they were also infused with Dualism, a carryover from Greek philosophy, which manifested itself in Christianity in the form of Gnosticism. Gnosticism in all its various forms made a sharp distinction between the physical and spiritual. Paul's epistles, the General Epistles, and many of the next generation of church leaders confronted this heresy, and it's evident from Paul's frequent references to "knowledge" (Greek: gnosis) in I Corinthians that it was an issue in this congregation.

At its core Gnosticism teaches that the physical world including our physical bodies are ultimately worthless. In some iterations of Gnosticism the physical is completely evil and the creation of an evil demiurge who was the Yahweh of the Old Testament. Therefore at death our souls would be would be released from this demon-inspired physical world and freed into the spirit realm, which is of the true God.

If that is the case, why is there any need for a resurrection of the body? Why was there a need for Jesus' physical body to disappear from the tomb? Wouldn't it make sense that being liberated from the evil physical world would eliminate any need for a "resurrection"? A resurrection to what? Wouldn't his soul already in a glorified, spiritual place?

This is exactly what Paul felt a need to address in I Corinthians 15. "Now if is preached that he rose from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection from the dead?" (Verse 12). So when they ask the questions, "How are the dead raised up?" and "with what body do the come?" they likely weren't asking the question because they wanted an answer. Some of them had their minds made up and were trying to trap Paul. They wanted nothing more than to be contentious.

When you and I ask that question, I would hope we ask it because we really want an answer. Paul would have given us the answer without first calling us fools. Even then, he answered the question anyway because, as the proverb says, "Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit."

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Churches must do their job

It has been said, accurately in its substance, that after the attacks of September 11, 2001 church attendance skyrocketed, only to fall back to pre-9/11 levels a year later.

The conventional wisdom why this was so may be correct, that the emotional effects of the attacks wore off, and people began to revert to their previous patterns of behavior.

Maybe that's true, but here is an alternative thought. Let's posit for a moment that people sincerely felt a need for God in that time of great stress. Let's just suppose that maybe people really did begin to ask the big questions in life, that they realized that there is more to life than the daily pursuit of stuff and status.

Let's suppose they were attending church services because they were sincerely trying to find God. In that case what reason could there be that people would drift away from church? Doesn't it seem odd that churches couldn't satisfy the hunger of an eager, seeking audience?

Could it be that the failure to thrive was not the seekers' fault at all, but the failure of the churches to nurture? Could it be that this desire to know God is still there, lying latent in their hearts, awaiting only the correct fanning flame to ignite?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Lion in the Street

There is a lion outside! I shall be slain in the streets! (Proverbs 22:13)
Let me tell you a little story. My first employer in Kansas City was in the habit of giving out year-end bonuses, and they encouraged us to use that money to fund an Individual Retirement Account. I, of course, knew better than to invest in an IRA. This was 1978, and everyone "knew" that the world was careening into the end time. This was "the gun lap", and it seemed to me that the money would be better spent on myself there and then. Why would any rational person invest for long term growth when the economy was clearly falling apart?

A few years after that my next employer established a 401k plan with a generous company match.  I wanted that match and contributed just enough to get it, but this was the 1980s after all and all the pundits I listened to were telling me that it all was a false prosperity. Only fools and suckers would trust their money to the market. And besides the end was nigh and I would be better off sending it to some ministry or other so the gospel could be preached.

I was one of the fortunate ones because I figured out sooner than most what Jesus meant in the Olivet Prophecy -- that the Son of Man is going to come at a time when we don't expect, and that a faithful and wise servant will be blessed if he finds us "so doing". I know people who were so frozen into end time lions in the street that they cashed out their retirement plans and spent it all, or mortgaged their houses and sent the money off to the prophet du jour, or spent every dime they could earn or borrow (eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die), and today they are struggling on a a barely adequate Social Security check if they are lucky.

Now I'm no pollyanna by any means, but I have been around the world of economics and finance long enough to have seen every type of forecast. Some have been accurate, I admit. But I can tell you that pundits and prophets have called eleven out of the last two recessions. I am not overly exaggerating about that. Every time the stock market takes a hit, someone is claiming that this is The Big One. One day someone will be right, but I am sure you have heard about that broken clock being right twice a day.

That cheshire lion in the street freezes people into doing nothing. People perceive too much danger to take risks for the future. Consequently they hunker down in their bungalows and hide with blankets over their heads.  I know this happens because if I had taken advantage of my first Kansas City employer's admonition to fund an IRA with my bonus and my second employer's 401k to invest at the very beginning of the longest bull market in American history, I would be sitting on the beach right now with a cold drink in my hand instead of preparing to go to the office in the morning. But those were youthful mistakes made by an inexperienced hand.

Here is the thing that distresses me about today's doomsday prognosticators. I used to say that if you want to get an American's attention, kick him in the pocketbook. I hate to say this about my countrymen, but when we in many American churches think about the end times, we think in terms of a stock market crash. Once I visited a church and someone from the pulpit announced that he knew when the stock market was going to crash. He actually gave a date. I knew where the date came from because it coincided with one prognosticator's calendar calculations about the end time melded with normal business cycles.  Imagine the Apostles basing revelation on business cycles! I can assure you that Christians in much of the rest of the world have radically different concerns.

My point is this. If we think of the end times in terms of a dollar crisis, what is our god? Does it not imply that we are looking to mammon for our security? Think of Christians in persecuting lands whose very freedom and maybe even their heads are at stake. I think they would view the end times in terms other than pocketbook issues. 

So here is my advice. Fear not the lion in the streets. Don't let anyone steal your joy and sink you into despair. Enter the streets and do your work. Let your Master find you so doing when he returns, because he will return at a time you think not, and that time might be more in the future than what you first thought. 

Most of all, look not to mammon for your deliverance and safety, for Someone else has that job.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Centurions

No, the centurions were not a 1950's Rock and Roll band, at least not as far as I know. Centurions were Roman military officers who were commanders over military units of about 100 men each. They were ubiquitous in the Holy Land during Jesus' day because, after all, Judea and its environs were occupied territory.

Yet there is something curious about each and every centurion mentioned in the New Testament. Let's take a quick survey of these men and the accounts about them.

Luke 7:1-10 and Matthew 8: 5-13 -- A centurion sends word to Jesus, begging him to come and heal a servant who is paralyzed and near death. Jesus agrees and offers to go to the servant's bedside. As Jesus is on his way the centurion sends word to Jesus, stating his own unworthiness to have the Lord "trouble" himself to "enter under his roof", and instead just say the word, knowing that his servant would be healed. Jesus marvels at his faith and heals the servant from a distance.

Mark 15:39 -- After seeing signs (a darkened sun, an earthquake, and the temple veil being torn), a centurion recognizes that "truly this man was the Son of God."

Acts 10: 1-48 -- The centurion Cornelius, "a devout man and one who feared God with all his household", and "who gave alms generously to the people", and "who prayed to God always" receives a special revelation from God to send for Peter for instruction in the way of God. God chooses this centurion and his household to be the first of the Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit.

Acts 22: 25-26 -- Paul is delivered to the soldiers to be scourged even though there is no basis for it other than unfounded accusations by a small politically-driven religious class. Paul addresses a centurion who was standing by and reveals his Roman citizenship, which meant it was illegal for him to be scourged. The centurion prevents the scourging and appeals Paul's case to the commander, who rescinds his previous order.

Acts 24:23 --  A centurion at the command of the governor Felix allows Paul liberty.

Acts 27 -- A centurion named Julius is charged with the transporting of Paul as a prisoner to Rome. He treats Paul in a "kindly" way by allowing Paul to go ashore to receive medical care. Later (verse 43) he saves Paul's life as the ship was about to break up.

I take a lesson from this, though I am sure there are many more than just one. First Century Rome was an extremely corrupt place. Its empire was corrupt, its morals were corrupt, its people were corrupt, its officials were corrupt. In spite of all this there were still men of honor who were a part of the Roman system. It is the same today. It is tempting sometime to paint everyone in the government employ with the same wet brush. But that just isn't fair, as the stories of the centurions show.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Required Reading for Supreme Court Justices: The US Constitution

I am no fan of the death penalty for the simple reason that I don’t trust the criminal justice system. On the other hand, one cannot rationally claim that capital punishment is unconstitutional when the Constitution addresses it in the way that it does. The fact that a Supreme Court Justice prefers not to understand the English language is at the heart of the problem with SCOTUS. If it is time to abandon the death penalty, then let’s have an adult discussion about it. Is it that we are beyond the ability to have adult discussions? Are we no longer able to rule ourselves and therefore need the robed few to rule over us?

The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: 

 “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer:

"Rather than try to patch up the death penalty's legal wounds one at a time, I would ask for full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution." 

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Imperfect Christian

The Book of Acts is one of the rosiest books of the Bible. Yes, there are some false imprisonments and unwarranted persecutions, but in general Luke paints a picture of a small but growing band of believers who faithfully took the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, the very seat of pagan power.

In a way it’s almost beyond credulity that things could get on so well:  A few believers with minimal conflicts among themselves and few resources preach the Gospel to both commoner and high officials, with the churches supporting them selflessly.

Luke writes a spirit-filled narrative, one that might make us feel inadequate to the cause.

But then we get to the epistles, both Paul’s and the General Epistles that follow. It is here where we get much needed balance. We find in these epistles that we read of churches rent with disagreements and arguments.

In Galatia we see Paul confronting Peter to his face for hypocrisy.

In Philippi we see Paul imploring two women to stock bickering with each other.

In Thessalonica we see people who refused to work leaching off other brethren, using as an excuse what they thought was the soon-coming end of the world.

In Corinth we see a party spirit, an instance with incest that went uncorrected, brother suing brother in courts of law, and people getting drunk and gluttonous on the Passover bread and the wine.

Those epistles illustrate the other side of the First Century church, and actually it should be an encouraging one. The people in those churches that Paul addressed were every bit as Christian as we are and every bit as flawed. The fact is, we all make mistakes, and some of them are egregious mistakes. In spite of all of that, we are still children of God, forgiven upon repentance, and offered eternal salvation. It’s both comforting and inspiring to think of those people, flawed though they were, accomplishing amazing work in the name of God.

Odd as it may seem, when seen in the context of the book of Acts, the epistles are both a balance to Acts and an encouragement to those of us who are not yet perfected. We too can accomplish great things for God in spite of ourselves.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Play Like It's October

The past few years the Kansas City Royals have been a fascinating clinic on changing how the game is played. What is it that has turned a consistent losing team into a fun to watch winner and contender? After catching bits and pieces of the Royals vs. Yankees series this weekend, I know at least part of the answer.

I spent enough time in the outfield during my ball-playing days to know that sometimes those lazy loopers just over the heads of the infielders can be a challenging judgment call for outfielders. An outfielder can choose to charge toward it in an attempt for a shoestring or diving catch, but that’s a risky proposition. If he failes to catch the ball, it can slip past his glove, get behind him, and the base runners can run forever.

Given that risk, many if not most outfielders, even in the Majors, will take the safe play and let the ball drop for a single, settling for minimal damage and hopefully reducing the risk of the opposition having a big inning.

In fact, that traditional approach is exactly the way I saw the New York Yankees play the outfield this weekend. As a student of the game I have seen this at all levels of baseball as a sort of unstated standard operating procedure. Baseball has a long, grinding season, after all, and why risk injury and energy on one play in one game in a 162 game season?

But then October happens. The playoffs and the World Series host some of the most exciting defensive plays of the season in large part because the talented athletes who make it that far turn it up a notch. Each and every game, each and every play, could spell the difference between a World Series ring and a plane ticket home.

And then I watched the Kansas City Royals play defense this weekend -- and not just this weekend. They are taking those chances on those lazy loopers, full out diving when necessary. Even with runners on base they risk an error on a fully stretched-out dive, and most often that extra effort results in a catch inches from the ground, a hat tip from the pitcher, and a batter throwing his hands up in frustration.

The Royals have been playing like it’s October. Why shouldn’t they? In the Majors every day does count, and that one game, that one play, could be the reason they make or miss the playoffs.

Clearly there is a life lesson here. In all you do, play like its October. You owe it to your teammates, and you owe it to yourself.