*Given at Midtown Christian Community, Jan. 21, 2006*
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 7:17-23
Our texts for this week portray a drama. Or, we could say that they are written from a drama, or out of a drama. They’re written from within a story. The story that these texts inhabit, and from which they spring, is the story of God’s pursuit to restore his broken creation. God longs to reclaim and redeem the nations, to bring people into his love so that in him they might really live, move, and have their being.
This is God’s big deal, the thing he thinks about all the time, the thing he has set himself to accomplish. And this is what he’s called us to—we have been redeemed and rescued from wrath so that we might be the agents of God’s reclaiming and redeeming love to the world. We are not simply redeemed by God, and that’s the end of the story. We are redeemed with a purpose, with an end in mind—and that end is to manifest to the world, and to each other, the love and grace of God—the God revealed in a man who walked on this earth, got his toe-nails dirty, got splinters, initiated conversations with drunks, prostitutes, women of questionable character, inmates, and religious leaders. The God who weeps when people refuse his love. That’s our purpose, to enjoy the love of God, to share it amongst ourselves in all its healing and redeeming power with the aim of having it overflow into this neighborhood, reclaiming lives and bringing life. We can see this ultimate aim in our Gospel reading and in the last few lines of the Jeremiah text.
What we also see in the texts for this week is an identification of some obstacles to the people of God playing their role in God’s scheme to redeem the world.
In the Jeremiah text, the people of God would rather imitate the nations—they wanted to be like the nations rather than a light to the nations. They had gone to worship other gods.
Now it’s pretty easy to look down our New Covenant noses at our Israelite forefathers and think that they’re not nearly as spiritual as we are. But the temptations to idolatry were a whole lot subtler than we realize—there were always apparently good reasons for doing what they did. You can imagine their leadership meetings: “Look, if we’re going to have any impact for the one true God in this world, we’re going to have to be respectable. We’ve got to meet the nations on their terms. We can’t be some backwoods, two-bit nation of sheepherding knuckleheads—we need a king. We need an impressive bureaucracy, a stable government, progress, a free media and a television in every home, and a nice shiny monarchy that people can understand–that they can relate to. We can’t be a bunch of freaks! Now, I know that this may involve bringing in some other statues, religious imagery, and that sort of thing, but hey, we’re Israel, God understands, we’re his people, he knows our hearts, everything will be fine—making these moves will ensure our long-term success.”
Well, you know the story. In becoming like the nations, Israel no longer had anything to give to the nations—they no longer were the distinctive people of God whose one trait was that they lifted up the name of the one true God who had the power to humble mighty Egypt before a backwoods two-bit nation of sheepherding knuckleheads.
The obstacle facing Israel was the temptation to be like the nations. In doing so they prevented the life-giving love of God from flowing to the nations. So, in our Jeremiah text, God calls on them to turn from their trust in dead pieces of wood and stone and to turn back to the genuine source of life so that they can truly be a blessing to the nations.
In our passage from the epistles the temptation is very much the same in origin, but slightly different in manifestation. The Corinthian church was infected by the triumphalist Greco-Roman spirit. In a Christian community made up of a handful of slaves, a handful of freed-persons who lived in poverty, and some others who were perhaps well-off, those who were slaves were tempted to seek to gain their freedom. While this is understandable, Paul tells them to remain in the status and station they were in when they were called. Why? Why does he tell them to do this? Why is it wrong to scheme and strategize in order for people to gain their freedom—to loose themselves from situations that undoubtedly brought hardship, humiliation, and considerable difficulty?
After all, this is also quite understandable. “Look, I can’t very well be part of the Corinthian evangelism ministry, or visit believers in jail if I’m enslaved to Big Festus at the end of the block. It’ll be better for our collective ministry if I try to buy myself out of slavery, or if I pull a few manipulative strings in order to force my master into a position where he has to write me papers of freedom.”
But Paul says don’t do it. Why? Because what matters is obeying the commandments of God, not a person’s status. That is, if a slave were to make it his goal to gain his freedom, all his efforts and energies would have been invested in personal vindication, personal advancement. The way he would have conducted himself in the Christian community would have been determined by how the Christian community could advance his goal of upward mobility. Such a pursuit would keep him from being a part of the mission of God to reclaim the world. That is, God’s mission to reclaim the world now takes a second place to my mission of upward mobility. So, my object of worship becomes a higher status, a better station in life, and not serving the fearsomely loving God who humbled mighty Egypt and who sent his Son to bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
That this is Paul’s point is seen in the paradoxical statement at the end of this section: “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters.” He’s saying that to pursue personal advancement and freedom is to actually become a slave of a human master, since you are ruled by what you pursue, what you worship. If you embrace your identity in the Lord—which you do by considering yourself most basically as a participant in the mission of the people of God as agents of God’s reclaiming love—then you are truly a freed person belonging to the Lord, no matter what your position in the world. If your aim in life is to be upwardly mobile, freeing yourself from some situation of hassle in order to arrive at a status-level that suits your own opinion of yourself, then you sell yourself, thereby, into slavery.
Let’s situate ourselves in the trajectory set by these texts. What do they have to say to us? How do they reconfigure how we conceive of things?
This. Here. Midtown. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is what matters. Not our jobs, our dreams for the future, or whatever else. At the most basic level, this community is the most important thing in our lives—this community that God has called into being in order to be a place of healing, of acceptance, of rejoicing, of worship, of laughter, of life.
It’s very tempting to consider other facets of our lives as the most basic thing about us—the thing that stands at the center of our lives, around which everything else is ordered. Just as Israel faced certain temptations, along with the Corinthians, so our temptation is to define our lives by our jobs and careers, our neighborhood, our publication record, our resume. But we are primarily and most fundamentally parts of this group of people in service of the one true God manifest in Christ—and the rest of our lives must revolve around that.
There are obstacles to our effectively being the people of God whom the Spirit uses to heal one another and this neighborhood. They involve—for some of us, at least—our own temptations toward easing our present pains and present difficulties—at least that’s how the Scriptures struck me this week.
And what’s the solution? How do we find the way forward? Our Psalm. “Wait on the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; for with the Lord there is forgiveness; for with the Lord there is plenteous redemption.”
Discussion: How else do these texts reconfigure how we think, and how we conduct ourselves?