February 2007 Archives

Our Hope for New Life

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Our Hope for New Life

A sermon on 1st Corinthians by Debbie Humphries

The text we read this morning was from First Corinthians (1st Corinthians 15:12-19).  This is a letter that Paul wrote to the members of the church at Corinth.  He had visited Corinth some time earlier, and stayed for a year and a half to establish the church at Corinth.  Paul mentions that he had received at least one letter from the church at Corinth, and had also received messages from members of the Corinthian church with questions and concerns.

The epistles to the Corinthians from Paul that are in the New Testament are one side of a correspondence.  This morning I'm going to share one way the other side of that conversation might have gone, in an epistle from the Ministry and Counsel committee of the church at Corinth to the apostle Paul, following the receipt of what we now call the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians.

To our beloved Paul, called to be an apostle.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  We send to you with gratitude for the love you have shown us.  You came to us and brought God's message of hope, the message of Christ Jesus that invites us to enter into the kingdom of God.  We lived in the world, as part of the world, knowing not the reality of God's world.  Your teaching has brought us to be infants in Christ.

You taught us of gifts of the Spirit.  We see in our community people with many gifts of the Spirit.  There are those with gifts of wisdom, whose insights open our understanding.  There are those with gifts of teaching, whose lessons we try to live.  There are those with gifts of music, where we hear the eternal in their songs.  There are those with gifts of generosity of heart, where we feel God's love through their actions.  There are those who care for our children where we watch our children come to feel God's love.  There are those who care for our building whose work supports and holds our community together.  We see so many gifts among us.  You remind us that all of these gifts come from the same Spirit.  That there is much work to be done in building God's kingdom here on Earth, and it requires many different gifts.   And we have each been given some of those necessary gifts.   You caution us about eyeing the gifts of another, and lusting after those gifts in our hearts.  You tell us that all of our gifts are needed.   We give thanks for your teaching.

And you taught us of love, telling us that the most precious spiritual gift we should aspire to is love.  That without it we are nothing.  That whatever work we do in this world, however beautiful our music, our art, our writing, our teaching, our food, that if we do it without love, we are but a clashing cymbal.  That if we give shelter to the poor, food to the hungry, care for the sick, give away everything we own to the poor, but do not have love, we have gained nothing.  We give thanks for your teaching.

We cannot describe all the ways our lives have changed because of your work among us, as you shared with us the power of the Spirit as it calls us to be more wholly God's people.  Before your journey we did not know that every day the Spirit invites each one of us to listen, to come to know that Spirit at the center of the universe, that holds each one of us.  And through your preaching you have brought many to that center.  We give thanks for your teaching.

But we must also speak plainly, and seek to settle our disagreements with you directly, as you have taught us.  Parts of your most recent epistle have led to dissension among us.  As ministry and counsel we have struggled with your message, and with how best to help our community understand that message.  In your letter you remind us that when you came to us you came in weakness and fear and much trembling, and your message and proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power.  And we heard and recognized the spiritual power in your message.  That power is what brought us together with you in Christ.

But in your writings to us on the resurrection you give us subtle arguments:  You say if there is no resurrection, then Christ cannot be raised.  This is true.  If there is no resurrection then no one is raised from the dead.  And if there is no resurrection, as you and some of us have said that God raised Christ from the dead, then we have lied.  That is also true.  If there is no resurrection those of us who have said there is, have lied.  And then you go on - If Christ has not been raised, then empty is your teaching and our faith, and our faith is in vain, and we are still in our sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.   We so value and trust your guidance that we hesitate to speak.  But we struggle to understand this message. 

Within our community there are many different understandings of this resurrection from the dead.  Some say there is no resurrection after death, that when we die that is the end.  And they say that the stories of the sayings of Jesus speak to a new life now.  That they can live as Christians, believing in the teachings of this Jesus, without saying there is a resurrection after death.

Others say there is a resurrection only of the just, and for the unjust, death is the end.  They say that when we die, those whose works of righteousness outweigh their sins, will rise again into eternal life with God.  They believe that the teachings of Jesus call us to works of righteousness, so that we may come into eternal life in the company of saints when we die.

Still others say there is a resurrection for all.  That God's love for each of us, as demonstrated in the love his son, Jesus Christ, has shown us, could not rest with anything other than the resurrection of all.

Among those who say there is a resurrection, whether of the just or of all, some say it will be a resurrection in the Spirit - that our spirits will continue to exist in some manner after we die.  Others say it will be a resurrection in the flesh - that our bodies and spirits will be reunited after we die, and our bodies will be renewed into an eternal flesh. 

There will be a resurrection.  There will not be a resurrection.  There will be a resurrection for some.  There will be a resurrection for all.  There will be a resurrection in the Spirit.  There will be a resurrection in the flesh.  These are very real differences and when we come together to convince each other of the truth of our own beliefs about the resurrection, it leads only to dissension and argument.

But when we sit together and listen for the wisdom and power in your message and in the living Spirit that guides us, we know that how the living Christ has come to be is a mystery.  Whether it is by resurrection of the Spirit, resurrection in the flesh, or some other way, we do not know.  Perhaps as infants in Christ we are not ready to understand the mysteries that you write of.

We also know that even if Christ has not been raised, the teachings and path of Jesus called Christ, shown to us by you and other teachers, are not empty.  Your teaching is not empty, our faith is not empty, and our faith is not in vain.  We speak of that power that brings us to new life every day, as we heed the promptings of the Spirit. 

What we believe and share together, is an awareness of how our lives have been made new through your ministry.  We have been taken from our lives as natural men, and shown a new vision of the world.  We are come into a world where love is the first movement in our hearts to our brothers and sisters.

There was a man, a shopkeeper, who worked each day seeking to get the greatest advantage for himself in every sale or purchase that he made.  He worried that he would not have enough to care for himself in his old age.  His days were full of arguments, anger and jealousy as he worked to be sure that whatever happened, he came out ahead.  And then one day a child came to his shop, a child who shared her story of need with such gentleness, hope and love that the shopkeeper's heart was touched.  His eyes were opened to the emptiness in his own life.  And his heart was moved and his life changed.  So, also, are our lives changed when we are touched by the love and grace of God.

You say that if our hope in Christ is only for this life, then we are a most pitiable people.  And yet we find that our hope in Christ is realized in this life, when we find our lives made new, through the gentle workings of the Spirit in our hearts.  Our hearts are touched, not through the arguments, but by the transforming power of love and of the living Christ.

We testify to you of how our lives have changed.  Each one of us has stories to tell, how once we would have responded with angry words and bitterness, and now we can respond with love.  Stories of how once we would have argued, and now we can listen humbly, and hear the good in the hearts of those with whom we disagree.  We know that their hearts are human and frail as our own, and they too can be brought to rise again through the Spirit that calls us all.  We have stories to tell of the forgiveness that we find in our hearts for those that have harmed us, of the love that we feel through the power of the Spirit that you led us into.

We know that we are yet infants in Christ.  That every day we fail to live up to your teachings.  And every day we fall short in living what we have heard of the teachings of Jesus.  And yet every day we try again, resolved anew with each daybreak, to hold in our hearts the love and life shown to us by the power of the Spirit.  And we hold tightly to our hope that our lives will continue to be made new, through the transforming power of the living God.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. Our love to you in Christ Jesus.

This was a sermon given at Allen's Neck Monthly Meeting, located in Dartmouth MA on February 11, 2007.  It was reprinted in Quaker Life in May/June 2008.