The Greatest is Love (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

I read a great quote about love a few months ago in a book written by a friend. The quote came from a sermon preached by Dr. Haddon Robinson at a pastors’ conference, and the text was our epistle for today, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13. Toward the end of his sermon, Dr. Robinson said this: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.

I think this is exactly what Paul is trying to get at in our epistle for today. Before we dive right into it, let’s remind ourselves of two things. First, the meaning of the word ‘love’. It has many different meanings in the English language, but nowadays we mostly use it to describe an emotion. Paul, however, was writing in Greek, not English, and Greek is richer when it comes to words for love. There’s ‘eros’, which refers to what today we would call romantic or sexual love – love that is a response to beauty or goodness in the beloved. There’s ‘phileo’, from which we get our word ‘philanthropy’; in Greek its meaning is close to what we would today call ‘friendship’. There’s ‘storge’, which carries the sense of ‘love of the familiar’ – the love we have for family members or people we’ve known all our lives.

But Paul doesn’t use any of those words, and neither do most of the writers of the New Testament. Instead they use a word that they may have invented themselves; it certainly doesn’t appear in any earlier Greek literature. The word is ‘agapé’, and it doesn’t describe an emotion at all. Agapé isn’t based on affection or approval; it’s totally unconditional, coming as a free gift, not because the beloved deserves it but because the lover chooses to give it. It’s a decision of the will to act in the other person’s best interests, whether we feel like it or not. It’s getting down at the supper table and washing your disciples’ feet. It’s being willing to lay down your life to save people who don’t even care about you. It’s the way God loves us, and the way God calls us to act toward others as well.

So let’s remember this: when Paul says that love is the more excellent way, he’s not talking about storge or eros or phileo ; he’s talking about agapé. Secondly, let’s remember who this letter was written to. Corinth was a city in ancient Greece, famous throughout the world for its sexual immorality. It was also a place where the Greek mystery religions were very popular. Those religions went in for spiritual experience in a big way; the people who participated in them were used to being moved by powerful supernatural forces. They might go into a trance, or experience a powerful emotion like ecstasy, or be transported out of the body, or carry out some other strange course of action. This sort of thing was regarded as normal in the mystery religions; not only that, it was the way you knew that you were encountering something real. If you didn’t experience any of this, there wasn’t much point in being involved in that particular cult or religion.

So the Corinthian Christians liked dramatic spiritual experiences. They loved supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues and miracles and healings. But they were rather self-indulgent about them, and Paul had a suspicion that sometimes there wasn’t a lot of love in the way they used those gifts. So in last week’s passage Paul reminded them that the church is like a body, the Body of Christ. Each organ and limb has an essential part to play in the life of the body. So it is with the church; each of us has been given spiritual gifts, but we’re to use them in love, to build up the whole Body of Christ, not to show off or chase after spiritual thrills.

And so we come to this great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Let’s look at it in three parts. First, in verses 1-3, Paul teaches us that love is essential to the life of the church.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Knowing what we do about the Corinthian Christians, we can understand why Paul is using these examples. These are the things they valued the most in their spiritual lives – speaking in tongues, prophecy, understanding mysteries, having enough faith to do spectacular things. And they loved the ‘grand gesture’. There’s a story about young Francesco Bernadone, who later became St. Francis of Assisi. As a young man he had a powerful conversion experience, and in obedience to the gospel call he proceeded to start giving away his possessions. Except that they weren’t his possessions, they were his father’s! His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and when he saw what his son was doing, he dragged him before the Bishop of Assisi in the town square and demanded that the Bishop tell his son to stop giving away things that didn’t belong to him. In response, Francis stripped himself naked in front of everyone, handed his clothes to his father, and said, “There – now you have everything that belongs to you”. He then went off to live as a hermit in literal obedience to the gospel call of Jesus.

The Corinthians would have loved this story; they loved the grand gesture – ‘If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast’ (v.3). But Paul is reminding them that all of this – using miraculous gifts, performing dramatic acts of faith and so on – is worth absolutely zero if it’s not all about agapé love for others.

Well, it’s easy for us to sit in judgement on the Corinthians; after all, most Anglicans aren’t tempted by speaking in tongues or displays of religious emotion. But what would Paul say to us today? How about this:

‘If we have the most beautiful liturgy ever designed by human beings, performed by people in the most splendid robes, with music from the best possible choir, but do not have love, we are a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. And if we have the most beautiful church building, with a gorgeous sanctuary and lots of program space, and fancy offices and plush carpets, but don’t have love, we are nothing. If we produce excellent ministry plans and offer a multitude of different programs – if we have multiple services aimed at different kinds of people – if we have a high profile in the city and people are talking about our church – but don’t have love, we gain nothing’.

Yes, I think that is what Paul would say to us. Remember again the wise words of Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”. That’s exactly what Paul is trying to say in this passage. We aren’t going to be questioned about our splendid liturgy and impressive list of programs. We’re going to be questioned about love.

So Paul starts by telling us that love is essential to the life of the church. Secondly, in verses 4-6 he describes to us what love is and what it does.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As I was reading this passage over in preparation for this sermon, it became very clear to me that all the positive statements in this passage could be applied to God, and all the negative ones could be applied to me. God is patient, God is kind. God rejoices in the truth. God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. But me? I’m envious, and boastful, and arrogant, and rude! I insist on my own way, I’m irritable and resentful, and far too often, I rejoice in wrongdoing! So I have a long way to go – as do we all.

Paul tells us that those who love are patient with one another. In modern English, ‘patient’ can mean we’re not in a hurry, but it can also mean we bear with one another’s weaknesses and make allowances for one another. It’s the second meaning that Paul is using here. Those who love, know themselves well; they know we all grow slowly, fail many times, and need healthy dollops of forgiveness. This is how God acts toward us – he is infinitely patient with us – and those who are growing in love are learning to treat others in the same way.

Those who love are kind to one another. They treat each other gently and considerately, do good things for one another, give freely to one another, and treat each other as valued human beings. They always remember Jesus’ golden rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), and they do their best to practice it.

Those who love are not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Envy, boasting, arrogance and rudeness are all about competition – I’m in competition with your wealth, your popularity, your success, your good looks, your spiritual gifts, your experience of God. Deep down inside, these folks are insecure; they believe there’s only so much love and success and good fortune to go around, and if I’m not careful, someone’s going to cheat me out of my fair share. But those who love are not in competition with each other; they rejoice in each other’s blessings without wishing to have them for themselves.

Those who love do not insist on their own way. They understand that, as someone one said, ‘Everyone is an “I”’ – in other words, everyone I meet has a life of their own. They don’t see themselves as supporting actors in my play; they’re the lead actors in their own play. And gradually, as we grow together, we all learn to see ourselves as supporting actors in God’s play. It’s not about me, so I don’t always have to get what I want.

Those who love are not irritable or resentful. They don’t get easily upset or offended by others; in fact, they choose not to take offence. They don’t hold grudges and hang on to past hurts. They’re learning that if you do that, you bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. They want to be free, so they’re learning to let go of pride and anger and embrace the way of forgiveness and grace.

Those who love don’t rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoice in the truth. In other words, their love isn’t an easygoing love. When they see people doing wrong and hurting others, they don’t just stand by and let it happen. When a word of truth needs to be spoken, they’re ready to speak it – but out of love, not out of a need to judge or control others.

Those who love bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. In other words, they don’t give up on people. Their love for one another is stubborn; it’s what the Old Testament calls in Hebrew ‘chesed’, which is translated in our NRSV as ‘steadfast love’. Eugene Peterson’s ‘Message’ translation of the Bible says, ‘Love…puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end’.

So this is what Paul means by love. Of course, it’s a tall order. I can see why some churches would rather work on splendid liturgies or efficient organization! It’s so much easier to have a brilliant website or a service for every taste than it is to put yourself out to truly love people as Paul describes it here, not holding anything back, never giving up hope, remaining faithful to the end. I have to confess, all I can think of is how far I fall short. But at the same time, the passage inspires me and challenges me: this truly ought to be our goal as a Christian community!

So Paul has told us that love is essential to the life of the church, and he’s described for us what love is and what is does. Finally, in verses 8-13 he tells us that love is the only thing that will last forever.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Many of us have probably heard this passage from 1 Corinthians read at weddings, but I have to tell you that in recent years I’ve also used it at funeral services, and people seem to appreciate it. Paul is asking his friends in Corinth is, “What’s going to last? On that day when we see God face to face, what will really be important?” Will it be our reputation for wisdom or knowledge or supernatural experiences? No – in fact, on that day, we’ll be brought face to face with the truth of how little we really knew! We might think we have a good understanding of God and the way God works in the world, but one day we’ll look back and think, “How could I have been so blind?” All our inspired speech and glorious miracles and splendid liturgies and sophisticated programming – on the day we see God face to face, it’ll all just be like child’s play to us then.

So many people, when they come to the end of their lives, regret all the time and energy they’ve spent on things that mean absolutely nothing to them on their deathbeds. Some people set great store by accumulating possessions and money; some people spend their lives trying to be a success in all they do. Some people live for the good opinion of others; their greatest desire is to impress others and to be popular and well-liked. But in the end, Paul would say to us, none of that’s going to last; it’s all going to pass away.

What will last? Only three things, says Paul – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in ‘The Message’:

But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of these is love.

So, my brothers and sisters, let’s never let ourselves settle for less than this. Let’s never forget that this is the most important thing we can work on, because without it, everything else is just noise and busywork. So let’s end as we began, with these wise words of Dr. Haddon Robinson: “Love is that thing which, if a church has it, it doesn’t really need much else, and if it doesn’t have it, whatever else it has doesn’t really matter very much”.


Reading Dante

So I’m back with Dante, reading his famous ‘Divine Comedy’.Dante

About six years ago I started the work, reading through the Inferno (about hell), and getting about a quarter of the way into the Purgatorio (about purgatory). I have no memory of the reasons why I stopped reading. I don’t think I actually quit, I think I just fizzled out.

Well, I’m back, and yesterday I passed the point in the Purgatorio where I fizzled out. And I am really enjoying Dante.

The big picture of the work is of Dante the Pilgrim (an artistic creation of Dante the Poet) being taken on a guided tour of the afterlife – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Such a tour can’t be taken without a guide, and for the Inferno and most of the Purgatorio Dante’s guide is Virgil, author of the Aeneid and Dante’s poetic hero, a ‘virtuous pagan’ who lives in Limbo, not Hell proper, because he did not have the chance to respond in life to the Christian revelation.

Apparently Dante himself pointed out that the ‘Comedy’ could be taken on both literal and allegorical levels. Taken literally, as I said, it is a journey through the afterlife. In Hell, Dante and Virgil explore the various ‘circles’ in which difficult classifications of sinners are punished, moving further and further down until they reach the centre of the earth where they find the figure of Lucifer himself, frozen in the ice (yes, to Dante the centre of the earth is cold, not hot). They then climb out to the other hemisphere of Earth and begin to climb the steep mountain of Purgatory, where, after a short time spent in ‘antepurgatory’, the place where sinners wait to begin their necessary cleansing, they ascend through seven ‘circles’ in which people are cleansed successively from each of the seven deadly sins before entering the earthly paradise, the garden of Eden, at the top of the mountain. (I say nothing about the Paradiso because I haven’t gotten that far yet.)

But at another level, the allegorical, the work describes the progress of the work of God in the lives of living human beings on earth. And at the moment (I’m at about Canto XIV of the Purgatorio) there are three things stand out for me about that . First (and I won’t go into specifics), in the Inferno the punishments sinners experience are related to their besetting sins and in fact tend to be not so much punishments as the natural negative consequences of the choices they have made. In other words, sin is itself its own punishment. That seems to me to be a remarkable insight (not unique to Dante, of course, but remarkable nonetheless).

Second, Dante assumes (along with many other medieval authors) that sins are basically disordered loves. Our fault is not that we don’t love, but that we love the wrong things, and in the wrong way. Dante would not have believed that ‘love is enough’; it needs to be the right kind of love, and directed toward the right object(s).

Third, the movement through Purgatory (which I assume to be about the beginning of the work of God’s grace in the life of a Christian) moves in an orderly fashion through the seven deadly sins, beginning with the deadliest (pride), and moving on through the other six. In other words, it isn’t a haphazard thing. Progress means learning to grow out of these deadly sins, and it can’t be short-circuited; if we don’t deal with them (or, if we don’t let God deal with them in us), we can’t move forward.

This is a progress report. I feel in my bones that I’m not going to fizzle out this time. Meanwhile, as Dante sometimes has pilgrims in Purgatory asking the folks on earth for their prayers, so I could use the prayers of my readers as I keep going!

Technical details: I’m using Mark Musa’s excellent blank verse translation; his introductions and detailed notes on each canto are very helpful. Here are the links on Amazon:




I was first attracted to Dante by reading the blog of my dear departed friend Joe Walker; his notes on Dante are excellent.

The Body of Christ (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a)

I wonder what first comes to mind when you hear the word, ‘church’?

For many people, it’s a building; when they say, ‘our church’, they’re referring to the building in which they meet for worship.

For other people, it’s an institution. There used to be a saying that when a young man – it was always a young man in those days – decided to become a priest he was ‘going into the Church’. And you thought it was faith and baptism that did the trick, didn’t you? Apparently in those days they’d forgotten about that!

A third common use of the term is the church as a community. This is usually a local thing; people talk about ‘my church’, meaning the particular congregation of which they’re a part. We want it to be a welcoming community, a friendly community, a community that has lots of activities and programs to support people through the stresses and strains of their lives.

There’s some truth in all three of these common ways of thinking of the church – the church as a building, as an institution, and as a community – but they all fall short of the image that Paul uses in our epistle for today when he talks about the church as a body. And not just as any body, either – as the body of Christ. In other words, the Church is not just here because of human initiatives: the Church is the primary way that Jesus Christ has chosen to be present and working in the world today.

Let’s remind ourselves first of the context. Paul is writing to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, a church that seems to have been full of the Holy Spirit, with many great strengths but also many problems and weaknesses. If you read through this first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, you find exciting things about supernatural gifts – speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles and so on. Corinth wasn’t the sort of church where people get bored and fall asleep half way through the service! People came together with a lively sense of expectation that they would meet God and see God do spectacular things.

But there were also weaknesses. In 1 Corinthians we read about sexual scandals, and about disagreements about whether you should eat meat offered to idols. We read about divisions in the church, with people splitting of into little cliques grouped around their favourite charismatic leader. We read about disruptions in the fellowship meals, with some people eating more than their fair share so that others had nothing. Paul is very concerned about these things. People seem to have lost their sense of purpose; they don’t know what church is about, and they’ve come to think that it’s all about me. I want to have an exciting time when I come to church; I want to have a thrill, and I want to be seen and noticed and have people admire me for being such a spiritual person. I doubt if anyone in Corinth would have expressed it as blatantly as all that, but when Paul scratched below the surface, that’s what he saw.

To address these issues, Paul comes up with this image of the church as the body of Christ. It’s as if he’s saying to the Corinthian Christians, ‘You folks have forgotten what the Church is for. You need to ask yourselves why God needs a Church in the first place. What was in the mind of God when he looked out over the earth one day and said, “I know what that place needs – it needs the Church of Jesus Christ?”’

The answer is that Jesus needs a body. When he walked the earth as one of us, he had a body, and he used it to do God’s will and to love God and other people wherever he went. He used his legs to walk around and go to new places to share the good news and heal the sick. He used his hands to heal people and to touch the untouchables. He used his ears to listen to what his Father was saying to him, and to listen to the needs of the people he met. He used his mind and voice to proclaim the gospel and teach people how to live into the Kingdom of God. And ultimately, he offered his body as a sacrifice, allowing nails to be pounded through his wrists and feet and a spear to be thrust into his side, showing everyone that there is a price to be paid for doing God’s will, but if you are faithful to God, in the long run God will be faithful to you as well.

So you see, Jesus’ mission during his three years on earth was very physical; without his body, he couldn’t have done it. But Jesus’ physical body is no longer on earth; he has ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of the Father. So how is he going to heal the sick and touch the untouchable and hug the lonely and spread the good news and teach the ways of God to the people of the world?

The answer is that the Holy Spirit is gathering a new body for Jesus – a huge organism made up of millions of limbs and organs and members – each of them a living, breathing human being. It’s you – you are the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul says, ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it’. When he says, ‘members’, a better translation of the Greek might be ‘limbs’. We aren’t ‘members’ of the body of Christ in the same sense that we are members of the Elks or of a political party. There is an organic connection between us Christians that isn’t present in any other human society.

What is that connection? Look at verses 12-13:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

What is the connection? The connection is the Holy Spirit. By the work of the Holy Spirit we have all been baptized into one Body, and we have all been given the same Holy Spirit to drink.

This is important, because this Body of Christ is actually a very diverse group. Paul names here two of the strongest social divisions he can think of in the world of his day – the division between Jews and Greeks, and the division between slaves and free. In the Body of Christ Jews and Greeks, slaves and free met together as equals, all loved by God, all saved by Christ, all filled with the Holy Spirit. And the same is true today. In our church we see people of different ethnic backgrounds, different political opinions, different ages, different theological viewpoints. But we have all been brought into this Body by the Holy Spirit and we have all been given the same Spirit to drink.

In other words, what we have in common is that the Holy Spirit is quenching our spiritual thirst. In John 7 Jesus says,

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).

And John adds the comment,

‘Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (v.39).

It’s interesting that in that verse Jesus says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water”. If Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit quenching our thirst, you’d have thought he would say “into the believer’s heart”. But no – it’s as the Spirit flows out of us that our thirst is quenched. In other words, true Christian spirituality isn’t about ‘me, me, me’ – it’s not about me getting my spiritual needs met. Rather, it’s about me taking my place in the Body of Christ and using the spiritual gifts that God has given me to help Jesus in his mission to the world.

In this mission everyone is important and everyone has a place. Paul goes on and on at great length to drive this point home to us, riding his illustration of the body for all it’s worth. He says that just because a foot isn’t a hand, that doesn’t mean it’s not a member of the body, and just because an ear isn’t an eye, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a member of the body.  If the whole body were an eye it would be in trouble when it comes time to listen to people! And if the whole body were an ear, it would be in trouble when it came time to smell your food! No – our bodies have many different types of limbs and organs – some are up front and some are hidden, some are beautiful and some look rather odd! But they all make up one body, and if one part suffers, the whole body suffers with it. It one part is honoured, they all rejoice together.

The church is like that. Look at Paul’s summary in verses 27-31:

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts.

Every member of the body of Christ is important; everyone has a role to play; everyone has been given a gift by God that they can use to help further the work of Christ. Some of those gifts are up front and obvious: preachers and teachers, musicians and worship leaders and so on. Others are less spectacular, but equally important: administrators, those with the gift of listening and caring for others, those who fix broken furnaces and serve in food banks and build houses with Habitat for Humanity and so on. But all work together for one end – to build up the strength of the Body and to serve the world in the name of Jesus.

So Paul doesn’t see the church as a school bus with a driver up front and a whole bunch of passengers. Rather, he sees it as a team, with a coach or coaches at work helping everyone to discover their gifts and use them to serve the church and the world in Jesus’ name.

So let me close with a few words of application for us today.

First, let’s remember what it is we have in common. Paul says that we have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was at work in our baptism, joining us to the Body of Christ and putting the life of Christ in us. But it doesn’t end there; Paul also says, ‘We’ve all been given the Holy Spirit to drink’. Baptism is once for all, but drinking is not – we need to drink again and again, or we’ll get thirsty again. And in the same way, none of this Body of Christ stuff will work unless each of us goes on and on being filled with the Holy Spirit. So pray every day, and keep on praying, that God will fill you with the Holy Spirit and quench your spiritual thirst. That’s the first thing.

Second, let’s discover our spiritual gifts. What’s your place in the Body? What is God challenging you to do in his work in the Church and in the world? Are you a talking person or a doing person? Are you a listener or a teacher? Do you have an artistic mind or an analytical mind? Are you a good musician or a good carpenter? Do you know how to be a friend to the friendless, or are you a thinker who loves to study the Bible and share what you’ve learned with others?

Every gift is vital. To have a healthy Church Jesus needs accountants and fix-it people; he needs Sunday School teachers and musicians; he needs people who can lead public prayer and preach and administer the sacraments; he needs visitors and counselors and people who just know how to be a shoulder to cry on. He needs people who can raise huge amounts of money to help the poor, and he needs people who can get involved in the political process and try to change unjust structures in society. He needs people who can share the gospel with others and help them become his followers. No one person has all these gifts. In the Bible, all Christians are ministers, all willingly sharing their gifts so that God’s work can go forward.

Third, let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the gifts we use inside the church building are necessarily the most important gifts. They are certainly very visible, but they are no more important than the others. God needs Christians in working world who will be faithful in living as disciples of Jesus, going to work and running businesses in ways that honour God and promote God’s kingdom values. God needs people who will organize to help refugees and find ways of providing housing for the homeless. And God needs witnesses and evangelists who aren’t afraid to talk about their faith with others and invite them to become followers of Jesus. God is at work out in the world bringing blessing and transformation, and he wants to use you and me to help make that happen.

Fourth, let’s work hard to make our Sunday services reflect this ‘Body of Christ’ image. Years ago, church services were led by a paid minister and an organist; they did everything up front, and everyone else sat and listened. Our buildings are actually still structured that way; I’m standing on a raised platform in front of you right now, and you’re seated in rows facing me, as if I was an actor and you were the audience in the play. But how does that reflect the truth that the Church is a Body, with everyone participating in its work?

Fortunately, nowadays that sort of thing is less common. In most churches, members of the congregation are coming up to do scripture readings. Lay people are leading the prayers of the people and assisting with serving Holy Communion. We have greeters at the back making people feel welcome at the beginning of the service, and people offering special prayers for any who ask for them during communion. And we have lay readers who help lead worship and who preach regularly as well.

And this is as it should be. Of course, at our nine o’clock service we still have a long way to go in making that a reality, while at ten-thirty we’ve gone further down that road. But we need to go further yet. If you read the New Testament you will discover absolutely no reason why one person should stand at the front and do everything during a church service. As far as we can tell, worship was a group activity in the early church. And so it should be today.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, Jesus needs a Body. We, his Church, are that Body. There is no other plan. So let’s joyfully take up the challenge, pray for the Holy Spirit’s help, and then move out in faith, using the gifts God has given to us to make a difference for Christ in the world.

Gifts from the Holy Spirit (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11)

For many Anglicans, reading Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians chapters twelve to fourteen is really like visiting a foreign country; it’s as if we got lost on the way to St. Margaret’s and wandered into a Pentecostal church instead! These chapters talk about supernatural gifts – speaking in tongues, prophecy, healings, miracles and so on – things that we tend to associate with more emotional and sensational forms of Christianity. We Anglicans don’t tend to ‘do’ this sort of thing; our favourite verse of the Bible is the one that says, ‘All things should be done decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:40)!

Well, interestingly enough, that verse comes right at the end of these three chapters in 1 Corinthians, and so apparently Paul didn’t see any contradiction between using supernatural gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy and healing on the one hand, and doing everything decently and in order on the other. And so perhaps we need to get over our phobia about things that aren’t traditionally Anglican, and ask ourselves if there are gifts that God has given to other parts of the Christian family that we can learn from, just as there are things we have to teach other parts of the Christian family as well.

Let’s begin today by reminding ourselves about the people Paul was writing to. Corinth was a city in ancient Greece, famous throughout the world for its sexual immorality. It was also a place where the Greek mystery religions were very popular. Those religions went in for spiritual experience in a big way; the people who participated in them were used to being moved by powerful supernatural forces. They might go into a trance, or experience a powerful emotion like ecstasy, or be transported out of the body, or carry out some other strange course of action. This sort of thing was regarded as normal in the mystery religions; not only that, it was the way you knew that you were encountering something real. If you didn’t experience any of this, there wasn’t much point in being involved in that particular cult or religion.

But now these Corinthians have left all this behind. They’ve heard the good news of Jesus, they’ve believed it, and they’ve been baptized into Christ. As they stood at the waters of baptism they proclaimed their Christian faith in the words, ‘Jesus is Lord’. They used this word ‘Lord’ in full awareness of its significance. In the Roman world it was one of the titles of the emperor. In the Greek version of the Bible it was used commonly as a translation of ‘Yahweh’, the name of God. To say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, then, was to testify to your belief that in Jesus, God has come to visit this world, and that he is supreme over all other gods, over the Roman emperor and any other civil authority, and over every possible cosmic principality and power.

What a huge change has happened in the lives of these people! On the one hand, they’ve left behind their belief in the power of the mystery religions, or their belief in the divine Caesar, Lord of the universe. On the other hand, they’ve come to belief that there is only one God and Father of all, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God’s anointed King! What could possibly bring about such a change? Paul is quite clear about this; he says, ‘No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ (v.3). He’s not just talking about saying words; he’s talking about the heartfelt decision to commit yourself to Jesus in baptism and to consciously accept his Lordship over the universe and over every part of your life. This is what the Holy Spirit does; he works in people’s hearts and minds, leading them to the place where they can accept that Jesus is Lord.

But how does Jesus exercise his Lordship in the world today? After all, we can’t see him, and he certainly doesn’t seem to be in control of the world in any political sense. So how can we claim that God has made Jesus the Lord of all, when the world doesn’t seem to submit to his Lordship in any tangible way?

It’s a fair question, and in answer we need to remember how Jesus exercised his Lordship when he walked the earth as one of us. He consciously chose to reject the political and military model, and take the way of humble service instead. In John chapter 13 he gets up from the supper table and washes his disciples’ feet – the job the servant was supposed to do when people came in from walking on dusty roads. He then says to them,

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-14).

And in another place, Jesus says to his disciples,

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

So in the Bible there’s this strange paradox: God has exalted Jesus and made him the Lord of all, and yet he chooses to exercise that lordship, not by controlling the world, but by serving it. Apparently he is not interested in changing the world by political campaigning or military action or coercion of any kind. He is the servant king, and he calls his followers to follow his example.

So Jesus continues to exercise his lordship over the world by serving it. The difference is that today, unlike the days when he walked the earth, he serves the world through the members of his Church. It’s through his Church that Jesus is present in a physical and tangible way in the world today. In next week’s passage in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 Paul is going to use the illustration of a body; it’s as if Christ is the head, he says, and we are all limbs in his body. Each of us is a particular limb, with a particular job to do so that Jesus can continue to serve the world through us. No one among us has all the gifts necessary to do this job; no one of us can be Christ-like all by ourselves. Only a community can be Christ-like, because only a community can exercise all the gifts that Christ exercises.

And this is how Paul chooses to work his way into his discussion of spiritual gifts. The purpose of spiritual gifts is so that the members of the Body of Christ can serve each other and serve the world in the name of Jesus. It’s important to say this, because so often people exercise the gifts that God has given them, but they do it as a way of showing off and bringing glory to themselves. There’s a long history in the Christian church of musicians playing their music to their own glory and not to the glory of God. There’s a long history of preachers who want to make a name for themselves as great speakers rather than lifting up Jesus. None of this comes from the Holy Spirit.

Look at verses 4-7:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

That’s the purpose of the gifts of the Holy Spirit: ‘the common good’. Jesus is building up his Body so that it can serve the world, and he does it by giving its members the gifts they need to serve one another and serve the world in his name.

What gifts? Well, Paul gives us a list of nine in verses 8-11. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, by the way – he gives another list at the end of chapter twelve, and another one in Romans chapter twelve, and while there’s some overlap there are some differences as well. So it’s not likely that he’s claiming there are only nine gifts of the Spirit – there are more, but he’s chosen a few to make a point.

Why has he chosen these nine? Well, it seems to me that he’s especially emphasizing here what we might call ‘supernatural’ gifts. Not all of his gift lists do that; some of them have a balance of the supernatural and the more ordinary. But the Corinthians seem to have been especially interested in supernatural gifts – they were sexy and exciting and all that – and Paul wants to point out how these gifts aren’t an end in themselves, but fit into Jesus’ plan to serve the world. That’s why he mentions them here.

So what have we got? He starts by talking about ‘a word of wisdom’ and ‘a word of knowledge’ (v.8). Sometimes people seem to know just the right thing to do in a given situation, or seem to have access to knowledge they couldn’t possibly have had by their own natural investigation; that’s the Holy Spirit at work. Rikk Watts, who teaches New Testament at Regent College in Vancouver, told a story about this at a conference I attended. He went to a healing service and went to the front at the end to be prayed for, and the person who was praying for him – who was a stranger to him – prayed through his whole life, mentioning details it would have been impossible for her to know in any natural way. This stuff happens, and sometimes it’s really amazing.

Paul goes on to mention special ‘faith’. We’re all called to have faith, of course, but some people seem to have it in a supernatural way; they can step out confidently, just knowing that God will be there to do what needs to be done. Sometimes that involves the next two things Paul mentions – healings and miracles. Modern western rationalism would like to dismiss these things as impossible, and of course there have always been charlatans and deceivers, but even today there are stories from around the world of God healing the sick and doing miraculous things, and I know some of you could tell a few of them yourselves.

Paul goes on to mention ‘prophecy’ – delivering a message from God to an individual or to a community. He talks about ‘the discernment of spirits’ – the ability to know when the Holy Spirit is at work and when it’s some other kind of spirit, one that we wouldn’t want to encourage at all. He ends by mentioning ‘various kinds of tongues’ – the ability to pray or to deliver a message from God in a language you don’t know – and ‘the interpretation of tongues’ – the ability to interpret what has been said by the person who was speaking in tongues so that everyone can understand it.

Almost all these things are related to the ministry of Jesus in a real way. We know from the gospels that Jesus healed the sick and performed miracles. We know that he sometimes knew things about people that he wouldn’t have been able to know under ordinary circumstances. We know that he ‘prophesied’, in the sense of delivering a message from God to the people. We know that he exercised great faith, speaking a word of healing in the absolute confidence that his Father would hear him and grant his request. We know that he exercised discernment of spirits, being able to detect when the powers of evil were especially at work in people’s lives.

Notice what Paul says about how these gifts are distributed: ‘to one’ is given through the Spirit a certain gift, ‘to another’ is given another gift by the same Spirit. This means that every Christian is a minister and every Christian has a gift to share. And this also means that some of our traditional Christian understandings about the role of priests and pastors are dead wrong. Paul does not expect that the leader or leaders of a congregation will be the only ones to exercise spiritual gifts. He doesn’t expect, for instance that the person who preaches will necessarily be the person who prays for the sick, or that the person who has supernatural wisdom will also be the person who has great faith. I myself know that God has given me the gift of preaching, but faith is difficult for me; I find it really scary to be in a situation where I have only God to depend upon, whereas some people, who have that spiritual gift, would revel in it!

Let’s close by facing the big question: where are these gifts today?

The answer is, they are still present in the Church of Jesus Christ, when the Holy Spirit leads his people to desire them and to exercise them. But because through the last three centuries or so the western Christian tradition has tended to emphasize the rational element of Christianity and neglect the emotional and the supernatural, we western Christians have found it harder to have the faith to exercise these gifts. We like to be in control; we like to know when the service is going to start and when it’s going to end, and we like to know what’s going to happen in between. We want God to touch our lives, but not in such a way as to make us late for our Sunday lunch!

But we do a great disservice to the mission of Jesus Christ by our neglect of these spiritual gifts. Paul seems to be suggesting to us here that this is one of the ways in which the Church is called to be Christ-like. Jesus healed the sick and did miracles and spoke words of prophecy and knew what he needed to know to be able to help people, and he did all of this by means of the Holy Spirit’s help. And the world needs the Church to be like Jesus here, as in so many other areas of its life.

Next week we’ll think some more about the great analogy of the Church as the Body of Christ, the way Christ embodies and shares his love with the world. And the following week we’ll focus on Paul’s great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, where he describes what he calls the ‘still more excellent way’. But before I finish this morning, I want to refer you to 1 Corinthians 14:1, where Paul says, ‘Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts’. Let me ask you to make that your prayer today. This verse reminds us that spiritual gifts aren’t about seeking thrills or causing sensations; they are ways of loving one another and loving the world that Jesus loves.

And this is relevant for us today, whether or not we find ourselves exercising the more supernatural gifts. We might find that sometimes we have hunches about situations that turn out to be true – what Paul would call a ‘word of wisdom’ or a ‘word of knowledge’. We might find that God has enabled us to preach sermons that challenge and inspire people. We might find ourselves praying for sick people and seeing what look suspiciously like answers to our prayers, or we might find ourselves playing music in a way that helps people to worship God. We might find ourselves praying in a language that we don’t understand, that just seems to flow from us, or we might find ourselves gifted with a special sympathy for others that makes us good at listening, caring and compassion.

Some of these gifts we call ‘natural’, some ‘supernatural’, but in the end they’re all about the same thing – loving one another and loving the world God loves. It’s possible to preach and lead services for the glory of God and the love of God’s people, and it’s also possible to preach and lead services for our own glory, or because we have a need to be loved and recognized by people. Outwardly it may look the same, but one attitude builds up the Body of Christ and the other does not.

So, as Paul says, let’s all ‘pursue love and strive for spiritual gifts’. Let’s pray that God will help us to grow in love for one another, and also that he will give us the faith to exercise these spiritual gifts in such a way as to cause his kingdom to come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. Amen.

‘He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ (a sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

For some reason I was never a big fan of the character of Superman. I never read his comic book adventures when I was a boy, and I never went to see any of the Superman movies, even though they were very popular and got a lot of attention. But I know the story, of course – the story of how he was born on the planet Krypton and was sent to Earth in a rocket by his scientist father, minutes before Krypton was destroyed. On earth he was brought up as Clark Kent by a farming family, but as he grew up he was gradually seen to have what we would describe as supernatural powers. At a young age he decided to use those powers to benefit the whole of humanity, and the rest, as they say, is history – or, at least, comic-book history!

Superman can do amazing things because he’s not from earth and he’s not really one of us – he comes from ‘Another Place’. And I think a lot of people see Jesus in the same way. He comes among us as a human being, but he’s not really a human being – he’s the Son of God, a divine character. So it’s possible for him to do all sorts of things that we can’t do – he can work miracles, he can read people’s minds, he can live a perfect life without sin, and so on. In fact, he has an unfair advantage over us, and so he’s not actually very useful to us as an example, and all the biblical themes about the imitation of Christ aren’t really very helpful. How can we imitate Superman, when we weren’t born where he was born and we don’t have the same sort of nature as he does? And how can we imitate Jesus when he’s not a real human being with the same struggles as we have?

But the problem here isn’t with Jesus – it’s with our ideas about Jesus. Real Christian theology stresses that when God decided to become one of us in Jesus, he wasn’t just play-acting. He took on a real human nature, with all of the limitations of that nature. For instance, he didn’t start out knowing all the stuff he was going to be taught in school; he had to grow and learn, just like other children. Luke emphasises this aspect of Jesus’ life; in chapter two of his gospel we read that ‘The child grew and became strong’ (v. 40) – in other words he didn’t start out strong, he grew strong with time, as other children do. And later on in the chapter we read that ‘Jesus increased in wisdom and in years’ (v.52). Once again, he didn’t start out perfectly wise – he increased in it as the years went by.

The story of the baptism of Jesus, which we read this morning, continues this theme. It’s interesting to me that when Luke tells the story he doesn’t actually give a lot of attention to Jesus’ baptism itself. In fact, he doesn’t tell the story of the baptism at all; he tells us what happened after the baptism. Look at Luke 3:21-22:

Now when all the people were baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”.

It’s interesting to me that in his story of the baptism of Jesus, Luke doesn’t actually tell us the story of the baptism of Jesus: he just mentions it in passing. This doesn’t mean, of course, that water baptism is unimportant; we know that Jesus commanded his followers to baptize new disciples in water, and we know that the early Church followed that command. But in this story, Luke is not stressing the water baptism. What interests him is something else: the fact that after Jesus was baptized he received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Luke has set us up for this. Earlier, in the first section of today’s gospel, he says that all sorts of people were asking whether John the Baptist was the long-promised Messiah, but John denied it, pointing out that there was a crucial difference between him and the Messiah who was still to come. Look at Luke 3:16:

John answered them all by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”.

The Greek word ‘baptizo’ means to submerge, or fill, something. A ship that has sunk and is sitting on the bottom of the sea, surrounded and filled with water, has been ‘baptized’ in the literal sense of the Greek word. So what John is saying is, “Yes, I have the power to plunge you down under the water as a sign that you have repented of your sins, but the real Messiah will do something even more wonderful than that – he will plunge you into the Holy Spirit until you are completely immersed and filled with the Spirit’s power”.

But before Jesus can do this for us, he has to experience it for himself. And so after he has received John’s baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him and fills him, and from that moment on he is completely dependant upon the power of the Holy Spirit. The next thing that happens is that he goes out into the desert for a time of testing, but it isn’t just his choice to go there and it isn’t just his own human resources that help him get through that time. Luke 4:1 says, ‘Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil’. And when the temptation is over, the Spirit continues to fill him and lead him. Luke 4:14 says, ‘Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee’.

Do you see the picture Luke is giving us here? It isn’t Jesus as Superman who can do amazing things because he comes from ‘Another Place’. It’s Jesus the first Christian, the model disciple, the truly human one who has come from God but who nevertheless needs the help of God to be able to do what he is called to do. So God sends the Holy Spirit to fill him and equip him, and because of the Holy Spirit he’s able to do what God asks of him on a daily basis.

And because of this, Jesus really is a useful model for us. He shares our human limitations, and so before he attempts to do anything for God, he first of all prays and is given the supernatural help he needs in order to do it. And this is where we must start in the Christian life. If Jesus is the model disciple, then we need to follow that model. If Jesus needs the power of the Holy Spirit, then so do we.

“Well, that’s all very well for Jesus”, you say, “but obviously God gave him the Holy Spirit because he was special, because he was the Son of God. How does that help me? I’m not the Son of God, so God isn’t going to give me the Spirit, is he?”

Ah, but he is! That’s exactly what Luke is saying here! Remember what we read at the beginning of the section, when John said about Jesus, “I baptize you with water, but… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v.16). This is the special characteristic of Jesus’ ministry: he is the one who takes his followers and plunges them into the Holy Spirit until they are completely filled and immersed in the Spirit’s power. In fact, the gospel of John goes so far as to tell us that during his lifetime Jesus didn’t actually baptize anyone in water, although he commanded his followers to do that. Human beings can baptize people in water, but there is only one person who can baptize someone in the Holy Spirit, and that’s the only baptism he administered to anyone.

Luke continues this story after the resurrection of Jesus. He says in Acts 1:4:

While staying with (the disciples), (the risen Jesus) ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This”, he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now”.

And in verse 8 he goes on to tell them,

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”.

How was this promise fulfilled? Acts chapter two takes up the story:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability (Acts 2:1-4).

The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts were both written by the same author, who we know as Luke – possibly Luke the doctor who travelled with Paul in the later chapters of Acts. Luke has told the two stories – the story of Jesus and the story of the early Church – in the same way. Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and given the power to do and say amazing things. His mission meets with success as many people hear him and follow him, but he is opposed by some powerful people. Eventually he is arrested, and then follows the story of the Cross and Resurrection.

In the same way, the early Christians in Acts 2 are filled with the Holy Spirit. They are ordinary people like us – Luke stresses this, telling us a few stories of their doubts and failings and character flaws – but the Holy Spirit gives them the power to do and say amazing things. Even though most of them are uneducated, nonetheless they travel around spreading the gospel and planting churches. Luke is especially interested in Paul; he too has a conversion experience and is filled with the Holy Spirit, and becomes the great missionary to the Gentiles. His mission is successful as people turn from idols to worship God in Jesus, but he is also opposed everywhere he goes by people in power. Eventually he is arrested in Jerusalem, just like Jesus, and when the story ends he has been taken to Rome to be tried before the Roman Emperor.

So the pattern Luke gives us is that you don’t have to be ‘from somewhere else’ – you don’t have to be Superman – in order to follow the teaching and example of Jesus. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus also fills us today. The difference is that the people in the Book of Acts knew it. They knew they were totally dependent on the Holy Spirit’s power. They had no organisation, no salaried employees, no sophisticated business plan, no huge advertising budget. They had no reputation in the community to build on – no one knew who they were from a hole in the wall. All they had was a message full of hope that had changed their lives, and a vibrant experience of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. And apparently, that was more than enough.

It’s often been said that if you took the Holy Spirit away from the Book of Acts you’d have nothing left; everything the early Christians did was totally dependant upon the Spirit’s power and guidance. When they wanted to have an outreach event to share the gospel with the city, what did they do? Answer: they prayed that God would give them boldness to proclaim the message, and that he himself would stretch out his hand to perform signs and wonders in Jesus’ name, and this is how God answered their prayer:

When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

In Acts 13 when the early Christians were planning new evangelistic work they didn’t have visioning meetings or hire specially trained evangelists; they fasted and prayed together, and while they were praying the Holy Spirit guided them:

While they were worshipping the Lord and praying, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them”. Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).

But the power of the Holy Spirit doesn’t only have to do with the proclamation of the gospel; it also concerns our efforts to live the sort of life that Jesus asks of us. Paul tells us about this in Galatians 5:16: ‘Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh’. In verses 22-23 he goes on: ‘By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control’. He calls these things, ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. In other words, it’s the Holy Spirit who plants them like seeds in our lives, and it’s the Holy Spirit who helps them grow.  It’s not a matter of gritting our teeth and trying to be like Superman by our own unaided strength. It’s a matter of being filled with the same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus and who helps us to live as Jesus lived and do the things that Jesus did.

Is this for real? Does this sort of experience of the Holy Spirit still happen today? Yes it does, although it happens with incredible variety. Some Christians experience dramatic ‘baptisms in the Holy Spirit’ with deep emotion and perhaps miraculous signs like speaking in tongues. Others have quieter and more gradual experiences, but you can tell by the way that they live their lives that the Holy Spirit is truly at work in them helping them to live out the message of Jesus. What they all have in common is a deep awareness that this is not about human strength or skill. The Christian life is not difficult; the Christian life is impossible, unless the power of God fills us and gives us strength and wisdom. But on the other hand, this means that we’re not limited to our own puny wisdom and strength. Church history is full of stories of seemingly insignificant people who were used by God to do amazing things, despite their weaknesses.

So this is for you and me today. Luke tells this story because he wants us to be included in it. The same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus at his baptism can also fill us and set us free. He can grow his fruit of love and joy and peace in our lives and he can help us do the work Jesus calls us to do.

How do we receive this gift, and how do we grow in our daily experience of the Spirit? There is no human program for it, no infallible formula. There are no magic words. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit is like the wind – he blows where he will, and you can’t control him. Yes, he works through water baptism and through our faith, but he’s not tied to those things. He doesn’t come in answer to a magic spell, like at Hogwarts.

We can’t control the Holy Spirit, but we can ask for him. Let me close with these important words of Jesus:

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13).

So let’s ask him, and keep on asking, until we receive the gift the Father promised. And when we have received him, let’s pray daily that he will fill us, and then let’s consciously walk in step with him, so that God can work through us to bring salvation and blessing to the world.

A few things to be working on for the new year

‘Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting. You must relieve the lot of the poor, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing.

‘Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge. Rid your heart of all deceit. Never give a hollow greeting of peace or turn away when someone needs your love. Bind yourself to no oath lest it prove false, but speak the truth with heart and tongue.

‘Do not repay one bad turn with another. Do not injure anyone, but bear injuries patiently. Love your enemies. If people curse you, do not curse them back but bless them instead. Endure persecution for the sake of justice’.

Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 4.

There’s a lot more where this came from, but this is enough for now, I think!

A Tale of Two Kings (a sermon on Matthew 2.1-12)

The Christmas story is one of the best known stories in the world, and I’m sure all of us here know it quite well. It’s been presented to us in dozens of movies, played out in church pageants with children wearing bathrobes and towels around their heads, portrayed in Christmas cards – well, sometimes! – and retold in dozens of books for children and adults. Also, preachers have preached on it every Christmas for the last two thousand years. So you might be forgiven for settling back into your seats this morning and getting ready to have a nap. “Coming of the three kings, blah blah blah – he preached on that one last year, nothing new to say…”

Wait a minute – did you say ‘three kings’? There’s a problem with that. Yes, it’s true that we’re going to sing ‘We Three Kings’ a bit later on in the service today. Furthermore, tradition has filled in all sorts of details about them – that they came from three different regions, that their names were Melchior, Casper, and Balthazar, and that one of them was black. Also, in Christmas pageants they usually arrive at the stable in Bethlehem a few minutes after the shepherds, giving the impression that on that first Christmas morning both ordinary people – shepherds – and great people – kings – came to visit the baby Jesus.

The problem is that none of this is actually in the text. The Bible doesn’t say that they were kings, and it doesn’t say that there were three of them. It does mention three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – but that doesn’t mean that they were brought by three people – could have been more, could have been less. Furthermore, it doesn’t say that they visited the baby at a stable: it says in verse 11: ‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother’. A little later on in Matthew 2 we learn that they had been following the star for about two years, and because of these details the church has always celebrated the coming of the Magi at a different time from the rest of the Christmas story – on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. We’re celebrating it today, the Sunday before Epiphany, because we can’t seem to get many people out to special midweek services these days!

Notice also that I didn’t call them kings; I called them ‘Magi’. That’s the Greek word that Matthew uses, and it’s traditionally translated as ‘wise men’. It can mean magicians, astrologers, or experts in interpreting dreams, portents or other strange happenings.

The most likely translation seems to me to be ‘astrologers’. The ancient world paid a lot of attention to the night sky. The stars weren’t dimmed by streetlights as they are today; they shone bright and clear, and seemed very close and connected to life on earth. Many people, especially in the countries east of Palestine, had given a lot of time to the study of the stars and planets and had given to each one a meaning of its own. They believed that the world was a whole – earth and heaven were all connected, and if something particularly important was happening on earth you could expect to see a sign of it in the heavens. Vice versa, if you saw something remarkable happening in the night sky, that must mean that some important event was happening on earth as well, and the symbolic meaning of the individual stars and planets involved might give you a clue as to what that event might be.

Since Matthew concentrates on the star that they saw, it seems likely that the wise men were in fact astrologers, and that something they had seen in the sky had led them to believe that something significant was happening in Palestine. What was it that they saw? Probably not a moving star as in the Christmas pageants; it seems more likely that it was a more traditional astronomical event. Halley’s Comet appeared in 12-11 B.C., but that seems a bit too early for this event. A more likely proposal is that they saw a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which happened three times in 7 B.C. We know that the medieval monk who calculated the date of the birth of Christ got it wrong by a few years, so it’s possible that this conjunction might have been at the right time to alert the wise men to the coming of Jesus. Since, in their symbolism, Jupiter was the royal planet, and Saturn was especially connected with the Jews, the conclusion that a new king was about to be born for the Jews was an obvious one.

We don’t know if this was what the wise men saw, but even if it wasn’t – if there was some other astronomical event that got their attention – it’s very likely that thoughtful astrologers in the ancient world, seeing something unusual in the heavens, would go out of their way to find out what it was all about. This stuff was taken very seriously in those days! In fact, the Magi took the star far more seriously than Herod’s scribes took their Jewish scriptures, which told them clearly where the Messiah was to be born – in Bethlehem – but apparently didn’t command enough respect to persuade them to go and see him, as the wise men did.

Which brings us to Herod. I find it interesting that he never appears in Christmas pageants! Instead we have an entirely fictional character, the grumpy old innkeeper, who sees that Mary is nine months pregnant, but hardens his heart and won’t even consider making room for her in the inn, banishing her to the stable out back. As I said, he’s a fictional character; he isn’t mentioned anywhere in the scriptures, and in fact there might not have been an inn at all. As I’ve said here before, many modern scholars believe that the Greek words traditionally translated ‘there was no room for them in the inn’ would be better translated as ‘there was no guest room available for them’. And that would make sense: if Joseph’s family was from the Bethlehem area, why wouldn’t he plan to stay with relatives when he got there? And, given that the whole world was on the road for the census, it would be no surprise that all the rooms in all the houses of his relatives were full – except for the room at the bottom of the house where the animals were brought in at night. That’s where the manger was found, and that’s where Jesus was laid.

So there is no grumpy innkeeper, despite the fact that we’ve made him the character everyone loves to hate in the Christmas pageants. But the real guy who refuses to make room in his world for Jesus, the murderous tyrant who is so addicted to power that he will mercilessly slaughter all children under two in Bethlehem to make sure he’s taken out this little Messiah before he can do any damage – this guy gets left out of the Christmas pageants. Maybe it’s because we’re in love with the gentle magic of Christmas and we can’t stand the thought that the story took place in the real world, where real people sometimes do despicable things in order to hang onto their own power and wealth. It happened in Herod’s day, and it happens today too.

Did you notice the word that Matthew uses to describe King Herod’s reaction to the arrival of the wise men? We’re told that they arrived in Jerusalem – which of course would be a logical place for them to go, if they believed that a new king had been born: where would he be but in the royal palace? So they asked, ‘“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage”. When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him’ (vv.2-3).

‘Frightened’; that’s a strong word to use for a powerful king who was used to getting his own way. Herod doesn’t come across to us from the pages of history as a man who would be easy to frighten. He was not a full-blooded Jew, and there had always been people who questioned whether he was fit to be the King of Judea, especially since everyone knew that it was the Roman state – the hated enemy – that kept him in power. Throughout his long reign he was vicious in eliminating anyone he suspected of plotting against him. He slaughtered the last remaining members of the dynasty that had preceded his family. He executed more than half of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He killed three hundred officers of the court out of hand. Even the members of his own family were not safe; when he suspected them of treason he executed his own wife, Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, and his sons Antipater, Aristobulus, and Alexander. And when he lay dying, he remarked that he knew no one would weep for him, but he was not going to die without any tears being shed, so he arranged for the leading citizens of Jerusalem to be rounded up and killed the moment his death was announced.

This is the figure who now appears in the story of the birth of Jesus, and he is ‘frightened’. Why frightened? He was frightened because of the word ‘Messiah’. It’s true that this word is not used in the story as Matthew tells it, but it certainly appears in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus, and we can be sure that some of the people in Jerusalem were joining up the dots. The Magi claimed to have seen a star in the heavens, a sign that a new king was being born. But there was already a king in Jerusalem. It could only mean that God was displeased with this present king – something many people in Judea had suspected anyway – and had decided to send a replacement for him. And the word ‘Messiah’ was close at hand for that replacement – the anointed one, the good king like old David, the one God was going to send to rescue his people from oppression and injustice and lead them into the golden age that had been promised by the old prophets.

You can imagine why that sort of story would strike fear into the heart of an absolute ruler like Herod. It meant not only rebellion, but rebellion sanctioned by religion, and all absolute rulers know that’s a powerful combination. There was only one thing to do: the messianic pretender must be eliminated and the rebellion nipped in the bud. So Herod craftily goes along with the story the wise men told him. “A king, you say? Yes, our old scriptures say the same thing – down in Bethlehem, where old king David was born. Tell you what, why don’t you go down and have a look for him? And if you find him, come back and tell me, because I’ll want to go and pay my respects as well”.

But God outsmarts Herod; he sends the wise men a dream, and after they find the holy family and give their gifts, they go straight home, without going back to Herod. When Herod hears of this he flies into a rage, and orders every baby boy in Bethlehem under the age of two to be slaughtered. This has gone down in history as ‘the slaughter of the innocents’, and it’s another detail that doesn’t usually make it into Christmas pageants.

So here, once again, we have two different ways of being a king. On the one hand, we have Herod’s way: you seize power and you do whatever it takes to hang onto it. This is a common story, even today. All around the world there are dictators who will stop at nothing to maintain absolute power in their countries, and the cemeteries are full of the bodies of the people they’ve murdered. And even in more democratic countries like our own, there are still politicians who will go to any length in order to gain power and hang onto it.

How do you defeat those dictators? How do you get rid of those evil rulers? The wisdom of the world is that you have to meet power with power. God is on the side of the big battalions, and so if you want to be free you have to be stronger than the forces of evil. And maybe along the way you might have to commit some acts of evil as well. Maybe you’ll have to firebomb some cities and slaughter some innocent children, just like Herod did, but we’re the good guys, after all, so for us the end justifies the means. It’s what we have to do to live in the real world.

We know from the Old Testament prophets that God is just as concerned about injustice and oppression as we are – far more so, in fact – but he chose not to meet power with power. Instead, he chose to come among us in weakness, as a helpless baby, born in a poor family. True, he was a descendant of King David, but David had lived a thousand years ago and he probably had thousands of descendants in Judea in the time of Jesus, most of them living in humble circumstances, like Mary and Joseph. God decided to change the world not by changing governments but by changing the lives of ordinary people. Instead of using brute force, he taught us the power of love. Instead of killing our enemies, he taught us to love our enemies. And he embodied that way himself, by going to the cross and allowing his enemies to kill him rather than calling on twelve legions of angels to protect himself.

Jesus never pretended that his way would be easy or risk-free. After all, he called it ‘taking up your cross and following him’, and in the ancient world people who took up their crosses were usually on their way to be executed by Rome, the great slaughterer of the innocents. Jesus doesn’t promise that if we follow him, our story will always have a happy ending – at least, not in this life. His own story had a happy ending, but he had to go through death first in order to reach it.

This is our God, the servant king;
He calls us now to worship him.
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the servant king.

Matthew is offering us a choice. We can give our homage to Herod, the king who lives in the real world where it’s either kill or be killed, or we can give our homage to Jesus, the king of love, who gathers his people around him and teaches them a new way of living, the way of the kingdom of God. As we go into 2016, let’s choose the way of Jesus, the king of love, and pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the courage and strength to be faithful to him.

‘We come at last to the dark…’

The fifth in a series of poems by the great Wendell Berry, from his collection ‘This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems’.

We come at last to the dark
and enter in. We are given bodies
newly made out of their absence
from one another in the light
of the ordinary day. We come
to the space between ourselves,
to the narrow doorway, and pass through
into the land of the wholly loved.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2002 (III)