In this age of cellphones, it’s impossible not to eavesdrop on others’ conversations. We’ve all had the experience where we’re standing in line and behind us someone is having a loud, perhaps heated conversation. We can only hear one side of it, and even if we’re not paying attention, or doing our best not to listen in, we can’t avoid it. Sometimes we’re drawn in and we begin to imagine what the person on the other end is saying. Intimate details can be shared, the speakers seemingly oblivious to the fact that everyone around them can hear. Such moments can be excruciatingly uncomfortable, as we hear things that aren’t meant for us. But other times, we may be drawn in and begin to imagine the life worlds of the conversation partners. Continue reading
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is gathering in Austin, TX. It takes place every three years, bringing together bishops, lay and clerical deputies from every diocese to oversee the life of our church. It is the ultimate governing authority of the Episcopal Church, so it has the final say over matters of doctrine, governance, and even our worship.
On Friday, the House of Deputies passed a resolution authorizing comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Last accomplished in 1979, prayer book revision is always challenging, time-consuming, full of conflict. While the current timeline suggests the completion of the work in a decade or so, it may be that like our conversations and conflicts over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including marriage, will dominate our common life as a denomination for the next decade. It’s worth pointing out that for this process to move forward, the House of Bishops will also have to approve the resolution for prayer book revision.
If you are interested in these matters, I invite you to join me later this morning in the library where I will answer questions and offer opportunity for your reflections. In the meantime, I would like to ask you a few questions:
- How many of you own a book of common prayer?
- For those of you who own one, do you know where it is? When was the last time you opened it?
In my experience as an Episcopalian, lay and priest, it’s my sense that we tend to have a great emotional attachment to the book of common prayer as a symbol, and also to the language of the liturgy, but that most of us don’t engage with it in any significant way in our personal spiritual lives or with the theological perspectives offered there. That is to say, we are not “shaped” by its theology and spirituality, as we are intended to be.
The presenting issues for revision are fairly clear. Many of us struggle with the gendered language in the liturgy and in the Psalter, and we also struggle with the patriarchal and hierarchical language. In addition, there are debates about the revising the marriage rite in the BCP to make it inclusive of same gender couples. But once you begin looking at revising the text, certain theological debates will quickly explode—the atonement, for example.
So, we are going to be enmeshed in conversation and most likely conflict in the coming years as we discuss and implement liturgical revision. It’s going to be heated, both on the denominational level, and quite likely, here at Grace, and thinking about how we have those conversations, how disagree with each other, will be an important part of the process.
It’s fortunate, then, that we have before us this reading from Paul’s second letter to the Church at Corinth. For in it he discusses both his own spiritual experience and addresses the deep and bitter conflict in which he has been engaged with this little group of Christians he founded years earlier.
We are coming to the end of a series of selections from this text. I’ve not referred to it in past sermons because, well, it is a complicated text in its theology, in its underlying context, and in its very construction. Most scholars agree that it is a composite text, made up of portions of several letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthian community. They also agree that what we read in this letter is evidence of a deep and painful conflict between Paul and the community in Corinth which he founded. The conflict was personal, having to do with the nature of Paul’s authority and personality.
Today’s reading gets at the heart of that conflict. Part of what was at stake was spiritual experience and the role of spiritual experience in establishing one’s religious authority. The Corinthians, or at least some of them, seemed to believe that unless one had the sort of ecstatic experience that expressed itself speaking in tongues or the like, one had no basis from which to preach the gospel.
This is Paul’s response. It began in the previous chapter with Paul speaking ironically about boasting about his spiritual gifts. Now, he is speaking directly about his own experience. He describes a mystical experience, perhaps even a vision, or a mystical journey to the heavens, where he encountered Jesus Christ and received private revelations. But, he says, no matter how wonderful or powerful that experience was, it isn’t the basis for his proclamation of the gospel or his authority.
He then describes something else, something very different. It’s some sort of physical ailment, a thorn in the flesh, that troubled him for many years. Repeatedly, he prayed for deliverance from this affliction. Instead of healing, he received another message from Jesus Christ, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
If there is any phrase that could encapsulate Paul’s understanding of the gospel, it is this: “power made perfect in weakness.” It is central to his understanding of the cross. Paul writes eloquently about this in 1 Corinthians when he talks about the foolishness of the cross, “For God’s foolishness is s wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
This understanding, this paradox, is the heart of the good news. We want Jesus to perform deeds of power in our midst, we want our prayers answered, our lives, our world changed by the encounter with the good news of Jesus Christ. We want, yes, we do, we want to get the kind of spiritual high at church that Paul describes. And if those things don’t come, we are disappointed and disheartened.
Like the people of Jesus’ hometown, we want him to do the kinds of things among us that we heard about him doing elsewhere. And when that doesn’t happen, our faith wavers. But the cross reminds us that Jesus’ power and victory are not according to the world’s standards. The cross is foolishness and a scandal, power made perfect in weakness.
We want Jesus to be a superhero, or at least a superstar. Instead, we follow one who carried his cross to Calvary, and stumbled along the way. We want miracles, deliverance, a problem solver, a fix-it man. Instead, we have Jesus, who couldn’t work deeds of power in his own hometown.
So what’s the point, you ask. Precisely that. Scripture, the gospels bear witness to a Jesus, a Messiah, who doesn’t swoop in from outside and fix everything, a Messiah who doesn’t call on legions of angels to rescue him from execution. The gospel, Paul, proclaim a Messiah who is born like we are, frail and needy, and died just as all humans die. In that Messiah, in his incarnation and death, we see God, power made perfect in weakness.
We see a God, born like us, with our flesh and blood, with all that it means. We see a God who knows us in our frailty and humanity, comes to us in our frailty and humanity and says to us, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
Sometimes, we think we know it all. Sometimes, we think our perspective is the right one, the only legitimate one. Certainly, Paul thought that a great deal of the time. But at the heart of this text is a very different experience and understanding—that power is made perfect in weakness; that in Christ’s weakness and suffering, we see God. Paul was trying to say that what mattered most was not education, or background, or intellectual capacity, or ability to debate and score points. What matters most is Christ crucified.
It’s an important, perhaps the most important thing to comprehend as we try to grow more deeply in our Christian faith; but it may also be the most important thing to remember as we engage in conversation and find ourselves in disagreement with our fellow Christians. To be open and vulnerable to them, to recognize, like Paul, that whatever the experience and knowledge we have from Christ, there are things about it we can’t share with others, parts of it we can’t describe or name.
And to bring that openness and vulnerability as we listen to each other, as we hear their experiences, their joy and pain, may help us all of us to grow more deeply in the knowledge and love of God in Jesus Christ. I hope we experience this next season in the life of our congregation and the larger church as an opportunity for growth and building deeper relationships among ourselves and through those experiences to welcome and embrace those who seek to walk with us on this journey.
We’ve been paying close attention to Paul’s letter to the Romans this summer, taking our cues from the lectionary which includes readings from that great letter for thirteen consecutive weeks. Still, we are barely scratching the surface. The lectionary omits significant chunks of Paul’s writing, including some of his most challenging and important themes. For example, chapters 9-11, where Paul talks about the doctrine of election and seeks to explain how God includes both Jews and Gentiles in God’s providence, are largely ignored. We had a few verses from chapter 9 last week; this week we read from chapter 10; and next week we’ll hear a few verses from the beginning and the end of chapter 11. Continue reading
Proper 12, Year A
July 27, 2014
“The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
Right now I’m reading a book by Nathan Schneider called God in Proof. I first encountered Schneider’s writing some years ago through the website he began with some other young writers called “Killing the Buddha.” It’s hard to describe in a few words what they’re trying to do with the site, but at its core is the quest of young people, millennials, to explore questions of faith and spirituality in our modern world. Continue reading
What is sin? In the confession of sin that we usually use, we say, “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, things done and left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” Continue reading
There’s an interesting discussion on one of the Christianity websites I regularly visit about the role of scripture in Progressive Christianity. Now, to be honest, I’m not comfortable with the term. Too often, those who identify themselves as “progressive” Christians have more to say about national and international politics than about the good news of Jesus Christ. In addition, I find progressives defining themselves over against what they oppose than offering a positive vision and message of what it might mean to be disciples of Jesus Christ in community. Still, if I’m honest with myself, for the most part the theological positions staked out by most in the progressive camp are closer to my own positions than those of the conservative evangelical camp. Continue reading
I’ve long been interested in how our built environments, our cities, for example, reflect our deepest values and passions. You can see that clearly in a city like Madison, which was laid out as Wisconsin’s capital, with capitol square in the middle and streets radiating out from it. If you’re familiar with cities on the east coast—Boston, for example—you know that such planning isn’t always the case. In Europe, it’s interesting to see how order and power were imposed and projected on capital cities—Paris or Vienna, for example.
What do the cities of today say about our values? On the one hand, there are cities like Detroit, that have collapsed economically, demographically, and politically and have become laboratories for experiments in creating new ways for people to come together. On the other hand, there are cities like San Francisco where gentrification is running amok, with housing prices again going through the roof, and forcing lower income and working class people to relocate. Madison is closer to the latter than the former as we are seeing a boom in the construction of upscale apartments across the city but especially downtown. We’ve been learning about the consequences of such economic growth—increasing inequality, growing gaps between rich and poor, white and black. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul these past few weeks. Our second reading throughout the Season of Epiphany comes from I Corinthians, a letter I have found fascinating since my first undergraduate course in Paul more than thirty-five years ago. I was also engaged with Paul because of the recent screening and conversation at UW of the Film “The Polite Bribe.” I’m not sure why, but in January, I also began reading N.T. Wright’s new 2-volume work on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Let me confess right now, this is the first scholarly work of Wright’s that I’ve read. I’ve avoided him because of his reputation for being on the conservative side of Pauline scholarship, and because as Bishop of Durham, he contributed to the difficult relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Still, I had read some early reviews and thought it might be worth taking a look at. I’m glad I did. Continue reading
On January 29 at 7:00pm at Union South, there will be a screening of the new documentary Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. More information about the screening is here. It’s an innovative documentary in that it avoids the usual techniques of biblical and historical films. There no shots of intrepid scholars walking through ancient ruins and no actors in bathrobes and sandals depicting scenes from the New Testament.
Instead, film-maker Robert Orlando makes effective use of animation to tell the story but much of the narrative is carried by New Testament scholars. What’s perhaps most interesting is that he weaves together the words of scholars from very different perspectives to create a coherent story.
It’s a story that rarely is given a central place in the scholarly treatment of Paul (although I remember that when I took an undergraduate course on Paul many years ago, we began with the collection). In his letters, Paul mentions a collection he is taking up for the church in Jerusalem (eg I Cor. 16:1-4). In Acts, Paul brings the collection to Jerusalem where he is arrested. Orlando interprets the story of the collection that Paul brings to Jerusalem as an attempt to preserve the unity within earliest Christianity, his effort to maintain relations between the predominantly Jewish Christian community of Jerusalem, and the communities of largely Gentile Christians that Paul was creating in Asia Minor and Greece.
Mark Goodacre, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School reviews it here. He writes:
I was impressed by the way that the film manages to weave a story that scholars know well into a narrative that would be comprehensible and compelling to those with no knowledge of the field. It’s certainly something I would enjoy using in the classroom, but I suspect that those who will enjoy it most will be those who are unaccustomed to reflecting critically on Paul’s biography.
I honestly cannot think of another single documentary film about the Bible which has such a wide array of the very best and best-known scholars from around the world in it. The movie would be worth watching just to hear those scholars speak, even if they only spoke in the proportion that is common in documentaries. But scholars speaking makes up the vast majority of the film’s verbal component. And in addition to hearing scholars speak clearly and compellingly about Paul, you’ll also get to hear Ben Witherington do an impression of a mafia godfather.
I had a chance to watch it a couple of months ago and I was struck by the wide range of scholars who were interviewed, by the depth of the scholarship behind the film and conveyed by it as well. I was also intrigued by the film’s overall perspective. Having taught Paul in Intro to Bible and Intro to NT classes many times over the years, I know that the collection never played a significant role in the story of Paul that I taught even if it had in my own undergraduate introduction to Paul. Was it a bribe? Who knows? Was it at least partly Paul’s attempt to smooth over relations with the Jerusalem community? Undoubtedly.
The evening at UW a talk by Orlando, a panel discussion by UW faculty, as well as the screening. I hope a lot of people turn out. More information is available here.
This week’s reading from Acts is the story of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6). It’s a story that has come to define Christian experience especially in Evangelical Christianity. It’s not just the importance of conversion but the importance of a dramatic conversion, a complete reversal. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” describes it in one way, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” In Evangelicalism, even that can’t describe how dramatic conversion is expected to be, a turnaround from a dissipate life to a life in Christ.
Luke describes Paul’s experience in these terms. There are two versions in Acts, the one in chapter 9 and also a version put in Paul’s mouth in Acts 22:3-16. It is from the former account that the interesting details come: the road to Damascus, the blindness.
Interestingly, Paul also gives accounts of his story. One of the most important is in Galatians 1. There, Paul offers a different account of what happens after the encounter than that given by Luke. More importantly perhaps, he also uses different imagery to understand his experience. For Paul, it’s not a conversion but a call:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16)
Paul uses language that draws on call narratives of Hebrew prophets. Compare Jeremiah 1:5:
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
Paul’s experience as constructed by Luke has shaped Christianity as well as popular culture. Christians have sought to understand and construct their experience to conform to the model of a dramatic conversion and if they’ve never experienced Christ in that way, they wonder whether their faith is truly authentic. And if they’ve never lived a dissolute life, if they’ve been raised in Christianity and consistently attended services, it’s pretty hard to have an evil past from which to convert.
Conversion is real for many people, but it’s not the only, nor even the normative category for thinking about the Christian life. If Paul understood what happened to him as God calling him in a new direction, so can we. There are times when Paul looks back on his past and sees evil but he can also boast about who he was:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)
This week’s reading, and Paul’s experience, invite us to think about how we understand our own lives in Christ and to explore imagery that helps us name that experience and invites us into deeper relationship with the One who knows us and calls us by name.
(I’ve previously reflected on Paul’s conversion here).