Tag Archives: Holy Spirit

Growing Pains: A Sermon from the Book of Acts

This sermon was preached for Winthrop Evangelical Covenant Church on October 23, 2022, as part of a series on Understanding the New Testament. A video of this message is available here.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an honor to be with you today, as you continue your journey through scripture to discover God’s great plan of redemption. God is on a mission to redeem the world, and God is fulfilling that mission through the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, to recap the last few weeks, or bring you up to date if you are joining us now for the first time, we know that:

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Four Questions – Sermon on Acts 8:26-40

Video of this sermon from May 2, 2021

Our readings from the Book of Acts have been skipping all over the place in these weeks after Easter. Instead of a logical, sequential story line, we’ve danced all around the healing of a crippled man at the Beautiful Gate, without ever hearing the story itself. And we won’t get back to Chapter Two, where all the post-resurrection activity began, until the Day of Pentecost at the end of Eastertide.

Today’s reading is literally full of hops, skips, and jumps. At this point, you might be wondering why this whole sermon series is even called “Getting our ACTS Together.” It seems so disorganized and chaotic. Stay with me. Our story is shifting from Peter and John to Philip the Deacon. The ride might get bumpy, so hold on.

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Hearts Aflame – Sermon for Pentecost on Acts 2:1-21


It’s been fifty days since Easter. Fifty days of praying. Fifty days of anticipation. Fifty days of wondering what comes next. During these past fifty days, we’ve been reading from the book of Acts instead of the Old Testament each Sunday. In every story, the Holy Spirit has been on the move.

We’ve seen Jewish Christians become aware that Gentiles can be Christians, too. We’ve seen the established religious leaders of the day confounded by healing and preaching that they thought they’d gotten rid of when they crucified Jesus. And we’ve seen thousands upon thousands of lives changed forever by believing that Jesus is the Christ and being baptized in his name.

Last week, we went back to the very beginning of Acts, to set the scene for today’s passage. We heard Jesus say, “You will be my witnesses,” just before he was lifted into a cloud. The disciples who saw this happen headed back to Jerusalem and started praying. Whatever they were praying for, whatever we’ve been waiting for, this is it. We’ve arrived at Pentecost. Continue reading

Astounded by Grace – Sermon on Acts 10:44-48 for Easter 6B

Watch video.

Our readings from Acts during this season of Eastertide have given us a glimpse of the early church. We have seen a healing miracle provide a way for disciples of Jesus to tell others about their personal experience of Christ’s resurrection. Thousands have come to believe in Jesus. Last week, we saw the Holy Spirit nudge Philip to follow a chariot on its way to Gaza. That encounter changed Philip as much as the man in the chariot. The Holy Spirit is on the move.

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When the Spirit Comes – Sermon on John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Pentecost B May 24, 2015 (Viewa video of this sermon here.)

What happens when Jesus leaves?  

When the one on whom all your hopes were pinned is gone, what then? Last Sunday, we celebrated the Ascension, and Luke’s version of that story has the disciples skipping off to Jerusalem with great joy. It’s a nice ending to the story that began with angels announcing “tidings of great joy” to shepherds in a field outside Bethlehem. There’s sort of a “they lived happily ever after” sense that the story has come to a satisfying conclusion, at least for the moment.

But we know better, with our twenty-fifteen hindsight. We know that those disciples were about to experience hardships and persecution they couldn’t possibly imagine. We know that they would soon fall into disagreement, Continue reading

Cutting to the Chase – Into the Wilderness

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15 for February 21, 2021 Lent 1B
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Hal Roach, Sr. made a name for himself in the early years of the silent film industry, producing Laurel and Hardy movies, and the series now known as “The Little Rascals” with Spanky and Alfalfa and the rest of Our Gang. Back in that early era of film-making, most movies were comedies, and most comedies followed a formula. The climax of the film would be a chase scene. When inexperienced directors and screen writers tried to pad a film’s script with extra dialogue, Hal Roach would tell them, “just cut to the chase.”

Film historians credit Roach with coining this phrase, and using it often. “Cut to the chase,” Roach insisted. In other words, don’t keep the audience in suspense for too long, and whatever you do, don’t let them get bored. Get to the point. Cut to the chase.

Hal Roach and the author of Mark’s Gospel would have understood each other perfectly. Today’s gospel reading brings us back to the first chapter, near the beginning of the story. Mark doesn’t waste any time; he gets right to the point. In six short verses, he lays out three important scenes that cut to the chase. Continue reading

Pentecost Ponderings – “What Does It Mean?”

This isn’t really a sermon – Peter gets the honors on that one for Pentecost Sunday – but here are my reflections on the texts for the day, which will be interwoven with songs and other worship elements as our congregation worships in the park tomorrow, then stays around for a potluck church picnic. Weather won’t be an issue, since we have shelters reserved. Children made flame streamers and coffee filter doves and spinning toys on Wednesday night, so we will use these props as we tell the stories together. Here goes…

Reflection on Numbers 11:24-30

Moses was in the middle of a crisis. The people had rebelled and tested God, whining for meat in addition to the manna that had been provided for them. Moses was exhausted from leading them and arguing with them, and he also complained to God.

The key verse in this story happens just before today’s lesson begins, after Moses has wondered aloud how God can possibly provide a month’s worth of meat for over 600,000 people out in the middle of the desert.:

23 The Lord said to Moses, “Is the Lord’s power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.”

Then God had Moses gather 70 elders. 70 is an important number in the OT – perfection times 10. And God gave each of them a portion of Moses’ spirit, to help him lead the people, and they all began to prophesy, or speak the word of the Lord with authority. However 

Two who did not join the group at the tabernacle, remained in the camp, and they also received the Spirit and began to prophesy. This upset the status quo. Joshua got indignant – this was outside the box! These unauthorized prophets  should be silenced!

But Moses said, “I wish every one of God’s people would be prophets and the Lord would put his spirit on them.”

This number – 70 or 72 – comes up again in scripture. Remember the disciples that Jesus sent out ahead of him, to heal the sick and announce that the Kingdom of God is near? It’s in Luke 10 if you want to read it sometime. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). What is interesting is that, in the passage from Numbers, there is some disagreement whether Medad and Eldad were part of the original 70, but they just didn’t report to the tent of meeting with the others, or if they were two more. In Luke, some translations list 70, while others say 72 were sent.

God is not limited by our ideas of what the perfect number might be. God is always more than we can imagine. He pours out his spirit abundantly on the perfect number, and then spills it onto two more, completely unexpectedly. God’s spirit cannot be contained, even among rebellious, whiny children. Hold that thought. There’s more to come. …

Then we sing a couple of songs, and read the Gospel lesson together as a responsive reading. It’s only a couple of verses, and needs no commentary. Jesus says, “Let any who are thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Then we sing “Jesus Loves Me” as the children gather and prepare the props for distribution to the congregation.

The Pentecost Story – Acts 2:1-21

A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of the Ascension. Before he ascended, or rose up, into heaven, Jesus told the disciples to go back into the city and wait to be “clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24: 49) So the disciples went back to Jerusalem rejoicing and they praised God every day in the temple. In Luke’s second book, the one we call “Acts of the Apostles” or just “Acts,” we learn that the disciples were staying together in an upstairs room. This might have been the same room where they ate with Jesus on the night before he was crucified, and where they waited together on Easter morning. But they waited together, and that is the important part.

There was a big festival fifty days after Passover – and remember it was during Passover that Jesus was crucified – and sometimes people who lived far away from Jerusalem would come to the city for Passover, and then just stay for the festival of Pentecost a few weeks later. So Jerusalem was pretty crowded, and there were people there from many different countries, all of them speaking different languages. It must have been pretty noisy.

Then, on the morning of Pentecost, while the disciples were still together – remember the bundle of sticks from last week, and how important it is that we stick together to stay strong in our faith? – well, on that morning, the disciples received what Jesus had promised them, that “power from on high.” But no one expected it to happen the way it did. Remember in our earlier story about Moses and the elders, how God’s spirit spilled out onto Eldad and Medad, even though they stayed in the camp? Well, listen to this, and you can help me tell the story.

 Acts 2:1-21:

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. (blow pinwheels, make wind sounds by rubbing hands together)

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. (wave flame streamers, keep wind noise going, hold construction paper “tongues” over a few heads.)

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

What do you think they were saying? I wonder what it must have felt like, to be speaking a language you didn’t even know yourself, but others could understand. What do you think?

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 

Remember that there were people there in Jerusalem from many different countries, and they all spoke different languages. So there must have been at least a dozen different languages happening at the same time. Do you remember the story in Genesis (11) about the people who were trying to build a tower to heaven, so God “confused their speech” by giving them different languages, so they couldn’t understand each other? Right, it was the Tower of Babel. Well, this was just the opposite. Now, because the disciples were speaking in so many different languages, everyone had a chance to hear the good news in a way they could understand it. But it probably sounded pretty noisy from far away. Let’s try an experiment. Adults, I want you to think of a song you like to sing in church, maybe your favorite hymn. If you don’t think of yourself as a singer, you can use a kazoo (redistribute kazoos, if necessary). Now, the children are going to count to three, and on three, would you each please start singing your own song? While the adults sing, we are going to listen from over here first, to see if we can understand any of them. Then I’d like the adults to spread out away from each other, but keep singing. I’d like each of you children to go stand right in front of someone who is singing, and see if you can tell what their song is. Ready? One, two, three, sing!

Did you notice that it’s easier to hear just one song if you are standing right in front of the singer, while the other songs are in the background? I think that’s what happened here at Pentecost. Suddenly, the disciples aren’t hiding away in the upper room any more. Suddenly, they are out in the street, or maybe the temple square, where everyone else can hear them. And as they spread out, it makes it easier for the people who were there from other places to hear and recognize their own languages.  Let’s see where they were from:

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 

People came from all over to Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. In fact, the places that are mentioned here have been grouped according to where they appear on a map. (Show Bible map) The Parthians, Medes, Elamites and Mesopatamians would have come to Jerusalem from the east, the Judeans were the people who lived right around Jerusalem, the Cappadocians and people from Pontus and Asia, Phryigia and Pamphylia came from the north, the Egyptians, Libyans, Romans and Cretans came from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea west of Jerusalem, and the Arabs came from the south. But the word of the Lord was not just for foreigners, it was also for the people who lived right there in Jerusalem, in the middle of Judea. And it wasn’t just for the Judeans, it was for people from as far away as Egypt and Rome. The good news is for everyone.

For the disciples, that meant Jews AND Gentiles from different places. For us today, it might mean something different. What are some ways we think of people as being different from each other now? Poor, rich, smart, not so smart, shy, popular, bullies, victims of bullying… but the good news is for everyone, even people we think are not like us at all – especially for people we think are not like us at all.
Let’s find out what happened next.

12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my servants, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;

        and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
    and signs on the earth below,
        blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood,
       before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

This is the good news: everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Some may laugh and make fun of us for believing in Jesus, just like the people who accused those disciples of being drunk at 9:00 in the morning. But there will always be people asking “What does this mean?” and we have an answer to give them.

The Holy Spirit is here among us. The Holy Spirit gives us power to speak boldly so everyone can hear and understand that Jesus is Lord. The Holy Spirit cannot be contained, but spreads out and overflows. Sons and daughters will prophesy – they will announce God’s good news with authority. Many signs and wonders will let us know that the day of the Lord is coming, and all who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. That’s what it means to have rushing wind, tongues of fire, and every known language spoken at once. It means that God’s Spirit is filling the world, filling the church, filling you and me. But that’s not all. There’s more! God has given us so much, we need to give back to God. We have one more reading from the New Testament, and it will tell us what living in the spirit means for us.

Offering time, then an introduction to the Epistle reading for the day:

What have we learned so far, as we heard the story of Moses, and the story of Pentecost? God’s spirit is not limited by our ideas of how things “ought” to be. God’s spirit is poured out on all people who call on the name of the Lord, no matter what they look like, where they come from, how smart they are, or whether they are rich or poor. We need to trust God to do more than we can imagine, knowing that God will pour out his Holy Spirit on us, giving us power to do the work of the Kingdom of God.

In order to do that work, we need to recognize how the spirit acts in each of us, giving each of us particular spiritual gifts, to use for the building up of God’s Kingdom. Hear the final reading for this day of Pentecost, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians,  1 Corinthians 12:4-13.

Then we close with a Pentecost prayer, which will include a prayer distributed at the recent Minnesota UMC Annual Conference  Session for God to unleash us as a fearless, spirit-led church, and we sing a final song before blessing the food that follows worship, sharing a benediction to be sent out as spirit-led, spirit-filled, spirit-gifted people of God. Come, Holy Spirit, come!

So, what does your Pentecost party look like?


Wind like a freight train, like a tornado –
not just a breeze whistling around the corner of the house –
but a full-on roar!
How did those tongues of flame stay put,
in all that roaring, rushing wind?
Breath of God, blow through us.
Knock us over with your power.
Fill us.
Come, Holy Spirit, come,

Can I Get a Witness? – Sermon on Luke 24:44-53

Artwork from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What do The Rolling Stones, the Temptations, Dusty Springfield, and Marvin Gaye (with the Supremes singing back-up vocals) all have in common? At some point over the span of a year, they all recorded “Can I Get A Witness?” – a gospel-style hit that got its start in 1963. While the song didn’t have remarkable lyrics, and the melody only consists of about three notes, it put Marvin Gaye on the Billboard 100 top songs list. The hook that inspired such popularity was the refrain that sounded like a revival preacher’s chant, repeated over and over: “Can I get a witness?” In other words, can anybody out there affirm that I’m telling the truth? Are you with me here? Can I get an Amen? Will you say it with me, over and over? Can I get a witness?

As Jesus talked with his followers in the days after the resurrection, he found himself repeating the same words over and over for them, too. As we heard a moment ago, in the story from Acts, they still didn’t fully understand how his reign was supposed to work. “Okay, Lord, we get it that you had to die, and be raised from the dead to prove that even death has no power greater than yours. We get it that you came to offer forgiveness of sins. That’s great. But now that you’ve done all that, isn’t it about time for you to overthrow the corrupt Roman oppressors? Can we get on with the revolt, Lord? Isn’t it time for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The disciples were still trying to make Jesus into a military hero. They still didn’t understand that Jesus had come to save the whole world. Time was growing short. Jesus knew he would not be with them much longer. But the only way to help them see the truth was to tell them again and again, over and over. So, just as he had done before, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus started at the beginning.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:44)

Last week, as we witnessed our confirmands declaring their faith, and as we welcomed them into the full life of the church, we recited the ancient words of the Apostles’ Creed. The creed is organized around God’s identity as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the central part of that creed focuses on the work of Jesus Christ, from the moment of his conception through his ascension and heavenly reign. As often as we say those words, I wonder if we really pay attention to the mystery they describe. I wonder if we realize how each element of the life of Jesus affirms both his divine and human natures, how each phrase we repeat when we say, “I believe” connects the earthly life of Jesus to everything that had come before, and everything that would follow. That narrow band of time when Jesus walked on earth was the turning point of salvation history, and this final moment Jesus shares with his disciples falls into a similar pattern: a narrow band between what was, and what will be.

First, Jesus repeats what he has been telling them – and us – all along: since the beginning of creation, God’s plan has been clear. Jesus is the culmination of the whole story up to now. Every bit of his life and ministry is the answer to Old Testament questions, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises. It all comes down to this: Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world.

Like the disciples, we might say, “Yes, Lord. So what now? Now that you have topped every miracle in the history of God’s people, now that you have even defeated death itself, what are you going to do now? Are you finally going to restore the kingdom?”

But Jesus lifts up his hands as Moses did when he blessed Joshua as the one who would lead God’s people into the promised land. He lifts up his hands in blessing, as Elijah did when his successor, Elisha, asked for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic spirit. Jesus lifts up his hands, with the marks of the nails still showing, and he blesses his followers. Then he says, in effect, “It’s up to you. You are going to be my witnesses.” And he’s gone.

I don’t know about you, but if I had been standing there, looking up at the soles of Jesus’ feet disappearing into the clouds, my gut reaction would probably have been something like, “Wait a minute! What?! How can we possibly do that?” Just like Thomas in last week’s reading, when he blurted out, “We don’t even know where you are going! How can we possibly know the way?” I would be dumbfounded. How could Jesus expect so much of me, when I am so clueless?

But that isn’t what the disciples did.

Instead, “they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (vv 52-53).

Every time I read this passage, I wonder about the transformation that happened to the disciples between Easter morning and the ascension. They have become completely different people. This is even more amazing when you realize that in this version of the ascension, Luke still has us gathered with the disciples on Easter night, not 40 days later, as we find in the Acts version of the story (Acts 1:3). We have scarcely made it back to the room where the disciples have gathered, we have only just heard Cleopas and his friend, who encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We have barely just seen Jesus reappear in our midst and ask for a piece of fish to prove he isn’t a ghost.

Now I know this version of the story doesn’t agree with the other gospels, or even Luke’s own later writing, and scholars can’t agree on why Luke might have collapsed all the events between the resurrection and the ascension into less than 24 hours. To me, it isn’t really the timeframe that matters. It’s what happens to the disciples, those followers of Jesus who were scared out of their wits on Easter morning, and here we find them worshiping Jesus, returning to Jerusalem with great joy, and continually blessing God in the temple. They had already lost Jesus once, on the cross. And their sorrow at his death is completely understandable. But now, when they lose him a second time, they rejoice! What happened to them in the meantime?

They became witnesses.

They knew they had seen God.

When Luke says they worshipped Jesus as he ascended, he doesn’t use that word lightly. In fact, this is the only time in Luke’s entire gospel when the disciples worship Jesus. These were good Jewish kids, remember. They knew that first commandment backwards and forwards. “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7) They knew that only God deserved their worship, their praise, their adoration. So when Luke says, “they worshipped Jesus” he’s really saying, “they finally knew Jesus was God.”

This new understanding that Jesus is God required a completely new understanding of who the disciples had become. Not only did the disciples become aware that God was redeeming all of Creation through Jesus, they also realized they had a role to play in that redemptive work. “You are going to be my witnesses,” Jesus tells them. You are going to show the world what you now know to be true.

“But how can we possibly do that?” you may be wondering. Well, notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Go do witnessing.” He said, “You will be my witnesses.”

God is not asking you to add more things to your To Do list. God is asking you to make a new To Be list. Not that you need more items to check off, but that each item on your To Be list makes you more like Jesus.

So, instead of going to more Bible studies or reading more chapters and verses each day, Christ calls us to be more hungry for the Word of God.

Instead of signing up for more projects, participating in more programs, and doing more work, Christ calls us to be more aware of the needs we see around us.

Instead of attending more prayer circles or reading more devotional books, Christ calls us to be more present with God, and more attentive to God’s still, small voice throughout the activities and routines of our day.

Instead of doing more work for the church, serving on more committees, teaching more classes, organizing more events, Christ invites us to be more of who God created us to be.

Instead of doing more for Christ, we are to be more like Christ.

And that is our witness.

But we cannot be witnesses on our own. In fact, we can’t be Christ’s witnesses under our own power at all. If we depended on our own strength and will, we would only be witnessing to ourselves, not Christ.

Jesus told his followers they would be “clothed with power from on high.” In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate that initial baptism in the Holy Spirit that came like a mighty rushing wind on Pentecost. The same power that Luke ascribes to God, Jesus, and the Spirit throughout his Gospel becomes evident in the lives of the apostles in Luke’s second book, Acts. Remember last week that I told you, “becoming a member of Christ’s church gives us a lot of power. Christ expects great things of us, and has given us the Holy Spirit to accomplish that work.”

This is the central theme of Ascension: Jesus has completed his work on earth. Now it’s our turn. He leaves, but not without saying a proper Goodbye. He leaves, but not without reassuring us that this is not the end, but the beginning. Just as our confirmands last week affirmed that they are at the beginning of a life of faith and faithfulness, so the church is at the beginning of a new age of ministry.

Christ calls us to live into our faith, willing to share good news, certainly, but aware that our very lives are the witness we bear. How we live shows Jesus to others. We have not been given this grace to keep it locked up inside this building, despite the sign on the front door that says, “do not open this door.” Despite the stained glass windows that prevent us from seeing out into our community unless we go outside, we are called to be witnesses. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are witnesses to what we now know: that Jesus is the Son of God, who calls us to repentance and forgives our sins.

So the disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple, blessing God. Isn’t than an interesting way to put it, “blessing” God? Jesus had blessed them as he left their sight. Now they were blessing God in the temple, as they waited to be clothed with the power of the Holy Spirit. That narrow band of time, the bridge between what was and what will be, has come to completion. What lies ahead is the Kingdom of God, in which we all participate, to which we all belong. As our lives bear witness to this good news, we are called to receive Christ’s blessing, to accept the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, changing us as it did those first disciples. And we are called to worship Jesus, the only Son of the Living God.

Can I get a witness?

How Will You Build? Sermon on 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23

Sermon for June 9, 2013
Click here to listen to this sermon.

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve explored the theme of wisdom, found in the opening chapters First Corinthians.  We know that Paul was writing to the church at Corinth to set them straight on a few matters of theology, but he also was writing to guide them, as they figured out what it meant to be the church in first century Corinth.  We know that the Corinthians were proud of their knowledge, or their “wisdom,” and Paul opens his letter to them with strong words of warning against seeking earthly wisdom over God’s wisdom.

We also know that, like any group of humans living together in community, the church at Corinth suffered its share of discord.  Arguments over leadership had divided the church into factions, and these factions were threatening to destroy the church.  Paul’s concern for this congregation is not limited to Corinth alone.  He sees how squabbling in Corinth holds implications for the other churches under his care, and he is eager to resolve issues before they develop into full-blown schism.

In the passage we heard a moment ago, Paul admonishes the believers for acting childishly and foolishly.  He uses two images to describe the church.  One is a field that Paul has planted and Apollos has watered, but a field that depends on God alone for its growth into fruitfulness.  The other image is one we often mistakenly associate with the word “church.”  Paul tells the Corinthians that they are like a building.

Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs?  When it was time for the pigs to head out into the world and build houses of their own, each had a perfect plan for building.  They chose their materials to suit their personalities.  One chose straw, another chose sticks, and the third pig decided to build a house out of bricks.  When the Big Bad Wolf came around, it took no time at all for that wolf to huff and puff and blow down the house of straw.  The pig that had built the straw house went running to the next pig’s house.  Together they huddled in the house of sticks, but the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew in that house, too.

When two very frightened pigs showed up at the third pig’s door, it would have been easy to say, “Sorry, you got what you deserved!”  But that didn’t happen.

The third pig let the other two in, and bolted the sturdy door and shutters against the Big Bad Wolf.  Safe at last!  But when the Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow down the brick house, no matter how hard he tried, he climbed onto the roof, and found the one opening that the pigs had left open: the chimney!

As the wolf came down the chimney, however, he discovered – now here you can insert your favorite ending to the story.  Some folks end it with the wolf falling into a boiling kettle that was hanging over the fire (but in that version, the first two pigs get eaten by the wolf!), while others have the wolf falling into the fire itself.

I learned that second one, thanks to Walt Disney.  –  So the wolf fell right into the flames, where his tail caught fire.  He went running out of the house as fast as he could, straight to the pond, and jumped in the water to cool off his burning tail.  The Big Bad Wolf never bothered those three pigs again, and they lived happily ever after in their strong, brick house.

Great story, right?

But it is a fairy tale.  Literary historians cannot identify the origins of the story, though it first appeared in print in the mid 1800s.  It’s been classified, analyzed, adapted, parodied, and even turned into a children’s opera, using music by Mozart.  Though I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul never heard the story of the Three Little Pigs, I’m also pretty sure he would have liked the moral of the story: When you build a house, the materials and method you chose matter.  Straw and twigs won’t work, when put to the test.  A building that will last, must not only be made of sterner stuff, it must be built on a solid foundation.  As Paul writes to his friends in Corinth, he has some important construction advice for them.

Let’s turn now to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 3:10-11, and 16-23.

1 Cor. 3:10   According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder, I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.  Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.  11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.

1Cor. 3:16   Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.  For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.  18    Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.  For it is written,

“He catches the wise in their craftiness,”

20 and again,

“The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”

21 So let no one boast about human leaders.  For all things are yours,  22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23 and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

At first glance, we might think this passage is really just a summary of Paul’s teaching from chapters one and two.  Back in chapter one, Paul wrote, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”[1]  And now, we hear the corollary of that statement: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”[2]  Instead of showing off how smart and wise they were, the Christians at Corinth had been demonstrating their spiritual foolishness.  They had done this by identifying themselves with particular leaders, saying “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Peter.”  Paul denounced this rivalry back in chapter one.  The rivalry is apparently not between leaders in the church, so much as it is between groups of followers who claim to belong to particular leaders.  He reminds the Corinthians that he and Apollos are both servants of Christ, working together.  He urges the church to be unified in Christ alone.

But this passage has more to offer than a simple summary of Paul’s argument up to now.  Paul uses this opportunity to explain to the Corinthians – and to us – why it is so important that they seek unity.  Paul is not only telling the early church to “Grow up!”, he is giving it good reason to do so.

First, Paul uses the image of a building to help his readers understand his point.  Like any good builder, Paul starts by laying a firm foundation, and that foundation is Jesus Christ.  Nothing more, nothing less will do.  The only viable foundation for the church is the Lord Jesus Christ.  In the verses we skipped, Paul goes on to explain that whatever material the church uses to build on that strong foundation must be able to withstand the test of fire.  Like the first two pigs in the fairy tale, the Corinthian Christians have settled for flimsy stuff to build their faith.  Paul is urging them to build with materials that will last.

Then, Paul goes on to explain why the materials they choose to build are so important.  “Do you not know,” he asks, “that you are God’s temple?”  The building under construction here is more than a simple hut.  It is the place where God’s spirit resides.  In fact, it isn’t a building at all – that’s just the metaphor Paul has been using.  This temple is the people of God, Christ’s church.

There is an important point of grammar here  in verse 16 that may not be clear in standard English: the “you” is plural, not singular.  It does not refer to an individual, but to the whole community of believers.  If we lived in the South, there would be a distinction between “y’all” and “all y’all.”  So Paul is saying:  “Do all y’all not know that all y’all are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in all y’all?”

This is a radical notion in its original context, where God was believed to reside in the temple at Jerusalem.  Even in the pagan culture of Corinth, a temple was expected to be a building.  Yes, Paul says, God dwells in the temple but it is not a building.  It is a community of faith.  And it is up to you – all y’all – to build that community.

This idea is radical today for a different reason: our society focuses on individual experience, on self-fulfillment that centers attention on personal satisfaction rather than personal piety.  Contemporary culture values individualized spirituality, but our God is not a private God.  “Come, let us worship and bow down, and kneel before the Lord our Maker,” the Psalmist writes.[3]  While personal piety is important to our spiritual growth, worshipping as part of the Body of Christ, in community, is essential to the development of our faith, and to the building up of the Body to which we belong.  It may be possible to be a believer in isolation, but it is impossible to be a true disciple alone.  We need other disciples around us, living out our faith together in unity as the Body of Christ.  The Greek word Ekklesia, which is translated throughout the New Testament as “Church,” refers to a gathering of people, not a building – or even a location.  The church is a group of people, gathered together in Jesus’ Name.

But Paul isn’t finished.  Since you are God’s Temple, he continues, the holy place where God’s spirit lives, does it make any sense to destroy yourselves with petty feuding?  If you try to destroy God’s temple – which is all y’all – you will be destroyed in the process.  Don’t kid yourselves.  Not only is God’s foolishness wiser than your wisdom, your wisdom is foolishness to God.  So stop arguing about which leader you should follow.  You don’t belong to any of us; we belong to you.  And you belong to Christ.  And Christ belongs to God.

This is a new way of thinking for the people of Corinth.  The hierarchy has been turned upside down.  Or, more accurately, right side up.  Isn’t it true for us, too?  How often do we “try to fit God” into our overly busy lives, instead of ordering our lives around God?  How many of us are more likely to follow a celebrity on Twitter than to follow the one who saves us from our sins?  Isn’t it easy to buy into the “me first” culture that surrounds us?  I know my blood pressure rises every time someone cuts in front of me on the highway.  But if we get our priorities straight, God is at the center of everything we think and do.  Christ is not only our faith’s foundation, he also becomes Lord and King over all aspects of our lives.

Paul reminds us to keep God at the center of everything we do together as a church, too.  With Christ as the foundation of the church, “each one should be careful how he builds.”[4] Paul writes.  In other words, we need to be intentional with the process of being church.  How we build is important, if we are to live out faithfully our calling as God’s people.

When you paint a house, proper preparation is everything.  You have to replace the rotten wood, scrape, prime, and do the trim work before you can ever begin to lay on that first coat of paint.  Most of the work that goes into painting a house is the prep work.

When you plant a garden, I was reminded yesterday, you have to prepare the dirt if you want the plants to thrive.  The ground must be broken up, the sticks and weeds removed, and the soil enriched with compost or fertilizer before you put the seeds in the ground.

Right now, our little suburb is rebuilding its streets.  We are not talking about re-surfacing, like the work that is happening  around the church’s neighborhood right now.  These are new streets, with curbs and concrete driveway aprons, and run-off “rain gardens” and the whole works.  It has been a five-year project, and our street is part of the final phase of street rebuilding.  Before they start tearing up the asphalt and digging the new roadbed, however, the prep crews are putting in new sewer connections and new natural gas lines.  I don’t know about you, but I never really thought about sewers and utilities as part of a road-building project.  But the people who have planned it know what they are doing.  How you build matters.

Paul has given us a good “How To” guide for building the church in this passage.  Here are the ways Paul says we should build:

First, Paul writes “According to the grace God has given me, like a master builder.”[5]  We need to depend completely on God’s grace, recognizing that it is God who does a mighty work in us.

Second, We make Christ our foundation.[6]  With the focus of our attention on Jesus, we no longer worry about getting our own way.  When being like Christ becomes the foundation of everything we do and think and say, “our way” simply doesn’t matter any more.

Third, We work together, in unity. [7] There are so many ways we can allow ourselves to be irritated by one another, aren’t there?  But none of these differences of opinion should matter to us as much as being one in Christ Jesus.  We are the church together, the song goes.

Fourth, We remain Spirit-filled [8] – If we are God’s temple, then God’s spirit lives within us.  The Holy Spirit is “at home” among us.

And fifth, we must be Wise by God, but fools by human standards[9]  – When we turn our attention toward the values of the world around us, we get distracted by things that don’t matter to God, and we ignore what burdens God’s heart.  We look to the rich and successful for affirmation, instead of looking to the poor and powerless Christ calls us to serve.

The mission of Bethlehem Covenant Church is to be a welcoming neighborhood church with a heartfelt devotion to God.  Through our strategic planning process, our church has named four areas where we want to see God moving in and among us to carry out that mission.  Reading the Bible; Recognizing the Holy Spirit at work; Small Group ministry; and Demonstrating our Faith through Risk-Taking are those four areas.

These are the materials we use to build the church – our church.  These are our building blocks.  But we could have easily chosen other materials.  We could have decided on a different mission statement that would have been just as valid, and done just as much to further the Kingdom of God.  It is important to choose good materials.  Brick and stone is more durable than straw and sticks, when put to the test.

But how we build is just as important as the materials we use. When we do all these things together, according to the grace given us, filled with the Holy Spirit, fools to the world’s values, but wise by God’s standard, with Jesus Christ as our only foundation, then God’s Kingdom grows.  Then all things become ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.  Amen.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:25

[2] 1 Cor 3:19

[3] Ps  95:6

[4] 1 Cor 3:10

[5] 1 Cor 3:10

[6] 1 Cor 3:11

[7] 1 Cor 3:16

[8] 1 Cor 3:16

[9] 1 Cor 3:18