January 15, 2017

The Fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord

Passage: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11 1, Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Service Type:

God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The idea of time travel fascinates many today. It is the premise of television shows Quantum Leap and Once Upon A Time. Do you ever wish you could be transported to another place and time? Snapchat Spectacles are camera-bearing sunglasses that purportedly records events as you see them. The company website boasts that with this device “you could go back and see a favourite memory the way you experienced it.” Time travel of a sort, I suppose.

In some sense reading historic documents transports you to another era. I have found that reading theologians who lived in other centuries helpful. One of the things that stands out are their assumptions about life because they are so different from mine. It helps me to see my own assumptions that shape the way I see the world. If someone from another century were transported to today and were exposed to media as we are it would not take long to get the impression that our culture believes the important things in life happen in politics, entertainment, and business.

1. Corinth was a very busy city in the Roman Empire. Its strategic location as a crossroad with an eastern seaport on the Aegean Sea and a western seaport to the Ionian Sea made it a hub of commercial activity. It was a prosperous city and because of the flow of trade goods you could buy anything the prosperity and power of the Roman world offered. It was the site for the Corinthian games—a bi-annual sports extravaganza. The people of Corinth saw themselves as prosperous and self-sufficient. Indeed politics, entertainment, and business commanded much cultural attention.

In either 53 or 54 AD (CE) the Apostle Paul writes this first letter to the Corinthian church; a church that we know had many problems which Paul will address. In the first ten verses of the letter the name Jesus Christ appears ten times. It was one of the early church fathers John Chrysostom who noted that nowhere in any of Apostle Paul’s other letters does the name of Christ appear so continuously.

Listen again the five verses of those first ten in 1 Corinthians 1 we read today. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So why is Paul emphasizing the name of Jesus Christ in this continuous way among the Corinthians? At the time when Paul writes this letter Christians are viewed by the Roman authorities as a sect of Judaism. Judaism had secured legal religious status in the Roman Empire and so Christians enjoyed the protection that this legal status secured. This would all change in 64 AD (CE), ten years hence, when Nero would choose the Christians as a scapegoat to blame for the burning of Rome. But for the present time as Paul writes this letter Christians could worship in relative freedom of assembly.

The Corinthian Christians were, of course, influenced by the minsdet of the self-sufficient culture in which they lived. They had an air of superiority that manifested itself in how they regarded their spiritual life. They thought they had this spiritual thing under control; they excelled in “speech and knowledge” with regard to the gospel; think erudite. Indeed now that they were thriving in the spiritual life the story of Jesus was getting left behind. Jesus, thank you for setting us on a good course—we can handle it from here. So much so they were diminishing the importance of the cross of Jesus Christ. “We live after the resurrection now so we can put all that nasty cross business behind us;” this was the spirit of their thinking. So much so it will prompt Paul to remind the Corinthian church that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

The reason for the Apostle Paul’s continuous naming of Jesus Christ in his letter is because he is writing to a church whose trajectory is an emphasis on their spiritual experiences; it is a trajectory that forgets the name of him whose life was given for the sake of the church and whose name the church is charged to bear witness. I spoke with a woman not long ago who said she had grown up in the church, sung in the choir, but had moved away from the church in favour of something she called “spirituality.” As in Corinth, within the church today are those who style themselves as progressive theologians (even Christians) calling people to move “beyond” the Biblical story into what they deem a more inclusive spirituality.

Christians have sometimes responded to this cultural fondness for “spirituality” with an “us too” approach. As if to say, ‘look over our way we Christians have a really cool spirituality; if it’s spirituality you want we have it in spades.’ But the gospel has never been an offer to come join us because we have the very best spirituality you can find. When people say that they experience something spiritual when the gaze upon nature from breathtaking mountain top vista or glorious sunset at end of day, I am not surprised. The bible teaches that the world is shot through and through with spirit.

But the gospel is not about being spiritual primarily. The gospel is Jesus Christ. It is the announcement of relationship with God in Jesus. Perhaps you have noticed when we say the Apostles’ Creed we say much about Jesus. One half of everything we confess in the creed is about Jesus. This is by design; a design to which the gospels bears witness. A design that reflects the gospel affirmation that Jesus is the manifest face of God. Whenever the church drifts towards forgetting Jesus a rereading of the Apostle of Paul’s emphasis in these first ten verses of his first Corinthian letter is in order. O let the name of Jesus Christ resonate in the church.

Brad Melle is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto doing research on First Nation Christianity in Canada. He made, for me, an astute observation about how the gospel of Jesus Christ gets cobbled together with radically different (an even opposing) metanarratives in a way that feels awkward and sometimes contradictory. Examples are Gnostic Christian disdain for the physical world, the conquering military Church-state of the high Middle Ages, and the modern prosperity gospel promising God’s material blessing to those who invest the little they have in high-risk faith bonds. These narrative mixtures, so obviously out of step with the Kingdom announced by Jesus, continue to reformulate into confusing hybrids. One of the most powerful hybrids in recent history was the 19th and 20th century conflation of “civilization,” racial hierarchy, and the good news of Jesus Christ. Melle goes on to point out that the residential school experiment arose from this conflation of gospel with that which is not gospel.

Melle’s research points out that Christian imperialism isn’t the whole story. Others sought a contextual approach, promoting native leadership and the use of native languages as an effective agent of preaching. Native Christian leaders have risen inspiring a new confidence and pride in Native identity among indigenous Christians as a God-given good. “Whenever Mark MacDonald, the National indigenous Anglican Bishop of Canada, gives a public lecture, he is always asked: “Why would any indigenous person choose to be a Christian today given everything that has come before?” Bishop MacDonald says the answer is simple: Jesus.

Bishop MacDonald sounds the same note as the Apostle Paul in the face of the gospel being conflated with other ideologies. Jesus Christ.

2. Towards the end of first century, some 35 or 40 years after Pauls’ letter to the Corinthians has been written and read, the Apostle John takes up the task of writing his gospel. Much has changed for Christians. Christians no longer enjoy legal religion status in the Roman Empire. They are subject to “on-again off-again” persecution depending on the whim of the local Roman official. The madness that Nero unleashed against Christians, the madness that cost Apostles Peter and Paul their lives, continues to reverberate throughout the empire. Additionally, the church has experienced the infiltration of ideologies contrary to the gospel (Gnosticism); the first letter of John is written to combat the influence of this ideology.

We read today the Apostle John’s recounting of John the Baptist’s memory of Jesus’ baptism. (John the Apostle had been a disciple of John the Baptist.) Did you notice where the emphasis is placed in John’s gospel account? The next day he (John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! …And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God. The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ John’s gospel reveals the same emphasis as the Apostle Paul’s Corinthian letter: Jesus. Everywhere we are pointed to Jesus.

When the Apostle John recalls the Baptist’s assertion that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world he is looking back through the prism of the cross. The story of Abraham and Isaac informs us in how God provides the lamb so Isaac can live—so too God provides what we need so sinners can live. Israel’s sacrificial system points; it points us to understand that the cost of redemption is beyond our ability to pay—it will cost life in our place. When the Apostle Paul writes that in Jesus Christ the believer is rendered blameless at that coming judgement day he has in mind the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The just judge bore our judgement in himself and declares us acquitted.

The Apostle John is likely over seventy years of age when he writes his gospel. He has seen a lot of change for the church he leads. He knows the danger the congregations face; the congregations he now serves as bishop of Ephesus. He is fully apprised of how the false teaching arising from ideologies conflated with the gospel can set the church on a trajectory counter to the gospel. He knows that the world’s emphasis on politics, entertainment, and business weighs on the people of the church. And so he writes pointing his people to Jesus.

Marina Nemat was a political prisoner in Iran where she was tortured, kept in solitary confinement, and narrowly escaped execution. She is a Christian and has written two books Prisoner of Tehran and After Tehran. She was kept in the same prison in which Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was tortured and died. In a recent interview published in the Convivium journal Netmat spoke about being imprisoned with God. She said;

“I think the only way I can understand the way the world works is if God is an actual, active part of it—not a bystander, completely immune to all the suffering that we go through. … I cannot say how that works or how that can even be. I guess it’s a mystery. Everything is a mystery in a way, but in the personal Jesus, I can totally understand it. For God to say, “You know what? I created the world, and it has turned out to be a rather difficult place. I’m going to go in and I’m going to walk with my people; and I’m going to show then I’m with them. They are not alone.” In the person of Jesus, it just comes to perfection. … This is a God I can relate to, because when I was being tortured in prison, I would have had no respect for a God who has never been tortured.”

It is remarkable that Marina Nemat joins the voices of Apostles pointing us to Jesus Christ. Her witness in an instance of another emphasis of the Apostle Paul in these opening lines of his Corinthian letter. We saw how continuously Paul spoke of Jesus Christ, and rightly so. Now go back with me and note his other emphasis, an emphasis on “you.” He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In relationship with Jesus Christ you are being kept and preserved—this is the implication of being strengthened for that future “day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When you think about the trauma of torture that Marina endured you know that such wounds change a person. But just as Jesus who suffered is the same Jesus who is raised to life he preserves you in all things. Jesus knows the real Marina in the essence of her being and preservers her as he does us in all we face.

I spoke with a man not long ago whose illness had prevented him from getting to church. He said he was determined to get back to church because he missed being here. He told me that being in church prepared him with courage for the week ahead; there were no words to adequately describe what he felt but something in his heart happened in worship and he knew it.
I think about how each week we are bombarded with those often conflicting messages from politics, entertainment, business; each calling for attention; each demanding top importance. Today we have lifted the name of Jesus Christ and find something akin to having our compass reset so we can navigate the week before us. Illness, disappointment, unemployment, bereavement; these traumas and others leave their mark on us; in the presence of Christ we find ourselves strengthened by the one who is completely for us and able to preserve each of us.

God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.