Thursday, 21 May 2020


A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation, the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 24th May 2020

1 Corinthians 15.1-26, 51-57

In our reading for this morning,
          Paul offers the most extended theological exploration
          of the significance of resurrection that we find in the New Testament.[1]

And today, just a few days after the day of ascension,
          we are invited to turn our eyes once again
          towards the resurrected Christ.

In this chapter, Paul was responding to those in Corinth
          who simply didn’t believe in the reality of resurrection.

We know quite a bit about the early Corinthian church
          – and they appear to have been what, in ministerial terms,
          is technically known as a ‘nightmare congregation’.

They were a multicultural, multi-ethnic, extremely diverse group
          of recent converts to Christianity,
with religious backgrounds ranging from Torah-observant Judiasm,
          to Greek paganism, to Roman emperor worship.

So getting any kind of agreement on even key issues
          was always going to be something of a nightmare,
and we certainly see this in Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church,
          where he has to address everything from money to sex to theology
                   as he tries to help this group of people work out
                   what it means to follow Jesus in their context.

And at the heart of all this, for Paul, is the issue of resurrection.

The question of how one should be a Christian in the world
          is a second-order question
which follows directly on from what one believes about resurrection.

Or, to put it the other way around:
          if you haven’t got your belief in resurrection sorted,
          you’ll never work out the right answers to any of the other questions
                   that those who would follow Jesus are going to have to grapple with.

Part of the problem was that the diversity of religious backgrounds
          in those he was writing to
meant that there was no common ground
          on which to build an argument
          for a Christ-centred understanding of resurrection.

The Jews had a variety of opinions about what happened when people died,
          with the Hebrew Scriptures tending to speak of death
                   as a place of rest, or void;
          with just occasional glimpses of the idea
                   that in some way the spirit of a person might return to the God
                   who had given the gift of life in the first place.

In Jesus’ own time, there were debates between different Jewish factions
          on whether there was any kind of existence
                   for the individual beyond the grave,
          and any notion of resurrection was tied up with the idea
                   of the resurrection of the whole nation,
                   and its restoration to its promised land.

For the Jews, the body and the soul
          were largely considered to be a united entity,
          and any resurrection involved the entire person
          – both their body and their spirit.

But then when we turn to the Greek and Roman context,
          the situation is equally confusing,
with an equally diverse set of opinions
          about the relationship of a person’s spirit to their body.

Probably the dominant view was that which we call Platonic Dualism.
          This is the idea, originating with Plato the Greek Philosopher,
                   that the soul is imprisoned in the body.
          In other words, the body and the spirit are not united,
                   but rather they are divided,
          forced together in an uneasy alliance for the duration of a person’s life.

Platonism taught that the physical world is merely a shadow
          of the true reality which lies beyond,
and so the physical body of a person is a poor shadow of their true self,
          which exists in its most real form as perfected spirit.

By this understanding, the corruptible body corrupts the soul,
          but one day the soul will be freed from its mortal shell:
                   when the body dies, the spirit is freed
                   to become most fully real and perfect.

So, we’ve got multiple views on mortality and immortality,
          and multiple views on the unity or separation of the body and the soul,
and all of these are in the background
          to what Paul’s trying to say about the resurrection of Jesus.

From a Jewish perspective,
          the resurrection of a person must involve their body,
          because the body and soul are a unity.
Whether the person is resurrected
          back into their old body to walk again on this earth,
          or into a new body walking on a renewed earth,
                   the point is still the same.

However, from a Platonic Greek view,
          any ongoing life of the Spirit must be about freeing the soul
                   from its corruptible and corrupting body.
So, for the Greeks any talk about resuscitating the corruptible body
          was hardly an attractive idea.

So Paul responds by inventing a concept
          to help try and draw together these two very different religious strands.
Listen again to what he says in verses 50-54 (translated by Nicholas King):

This is what I mean, brothers and sisters:
          flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God;
          corruption does not inherit un-corruption.
Look! I am telling you a mystery.

We shall not all fall asleep;
          but we shall all be changed, in a nanosecond,
          in the blink of an eye – at the final trumpet.

For the trumpet will signal
          – and then the dead shall be raised undecayed.

And for ourselves, we shall be changed.

For this decaying part must put on un-decay,
          and this mortal part put on immortality.

This is one of those passages that has been hijacked
          by the kind of Christianity that looks to a future moment of transformation,
                   when suddenly some heavenly trumpet sounds from the sky
                   and all the believers are caught up into the air…
It’s one of the famous ‘rapture’ passages, as they’re known;
          and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it!
Because when it’s heard in the context of those he was writing to,
          Paul’s words make a lot of sense.

He’s trying to draw together
          the Jewish and Greek ideas about the afterlife
          and make sense of them in the light of Jesus.

One of the problems we can have,
          encountering Paul’s thinking on resurrection,
is that as Western Christians,
          we are the religious and philosophical heirs to Platonic Dualism.

And so we have a tendency to hear talk about body and soul
          from a dualistic perspective,
as if one glad day our Spirits will be freed from this mortal and corruptible shell
          to go and be with Jesus in heaven,
          and this is resurrection.

Except, St. Paul would want to say to us,
          as he said to the Platonic Dualists of Corinth,
          it isn’t.

For Paul, resurrection is absolutely NOT about escaping
          from the problems, trials, and tribulations of this present darkness
          to fly away to a better place.

Rather, resurrection, and specifically the resurrection of Jesus,
          is the defining and decisive moment
          where Christ destroys every ruler, authority, and power
                   that has ever held dominion
                   over the lives of human beings.

Listen to verses 24-26 again:

24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father,
          after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 
25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 
          26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The primary context that Paul has in mind here,
          when he speaks of rulers, authorities, and powers,
                   is of course the Imperial rulers of the Roman Empire,
          but he clearly also has in view
                   the spiritual forces that lie behind them,
                   including, interestingly, death itself!

To understand what’s going on here,
          we need to remember that Paul wasn’t just
                   a Greek-educated intellectual,
                   he was also a Jewish apocalyptic mystic.
          And what he certainly wasn’t
                   was a western scientific rationalist.

For Paul, the resurrection of the dead
          wasn’t understood as a simple restoration
                   of ‘those who have fallen asleep’ (as he calls it)
          to some kind of walking-talking-living-and-loving
                   post mortem experience.

Neither, for Paul, was the resurrection
          the same thing as the zombie apocalypse,
where newly-undead corruptible and part-decayed bodies
          are reanimated and re-inhabited by their immortal souls
          to lurch the earth for eternity.

Rather, for Paul, the language of resurrection,
          so central to his Christian faith,
needs to be heard in the context of the historical problem
          for which God’s deliverance and resurrection was the solution.

In other words, for Paul, resurrection is about the end of imperial rule.

Specifically, it is about the end of Roman domination of the known world,
          although it is also about the ending of the underlying spiritual powers
that gave the Roman empire its force and motivation
          to distort, demean and destroy humanity in its own service.

And this is where and why, for Paul,
          it all comes down to the resurrection of Jesus,
          rather than just to the concept of resurrection more generally.

Because Jesus was crucified.

For a Jew like Paul, the crucifixion of the Jewish messiah
          was a potent symbol
                   of the victory of the Roman imperial domination system
                   over the Jewish God.
Crucifixion was a Roman punishment,
          and it is not lost on Paul that Jesus died at the hands of Rome.

At the crucifixion, the messiah lost and the emperor won.

So to assert that Christ is risen
          is to make a profound statement about the power of the emperor.
The resurrection of Jesus is a potent symbol
          of the victory of God over the very powers that had killed him.
As Paul puts it, the resurrected Christ
          ‘has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power’.

It’s almost as if, in Paul’s thought,
          God makes Christ the counter-emperor,
who will ultimately destroy the earthly imperial rulers,
          having already defeated their spiritual power-base at the resurrection.

But Paul doesn’t stop there.

This isn’t just about first century Rome
          and first century Israel.
Rome and Israel are just the examples in his time and place
          of a far deeper victory.

To make this point, Paul borrows an image
          from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible,
and he says that ‘Christ has been raised from the dead,
          the first fruits of those who have died.’

This idea of the ‘first fruits’ comes from the book of Deuteronomy (26.2)
          and it was the idea that when harvesting,
                   the first fruit you gather, the first sheaf of wheat or whatever,
                   should be presented as an offering to God,
          as a symbol of the fact that the whole harvest
                   that is yet to come also belongs to God.

We have a similar practice here
          when we give our offerings of money,
and we often pray that the gifts we give to the church
          are symbolic of the fact that all we have belongs to God.

So if the resurrected Christ is the first fruits, what is the full harvest?
          If Christ is the first fruit of resurrection, what is still to come?

Well, it seems that Paul has set his sights rather high:

  21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;  22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.  23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.  24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

The resurrection of Christ
          isn’t just about the defeat of imperial rule in the first century,
          it isn’t just about the overthrow of those earthly powers (in any age)
                   that take the imperial spirit and reinvent it in their own time and context.

Rather, it is about the resurrection of all things.

It is about the ultimate defeat of death itself,
          as all of humanity, and indeed all of creation,
                   is freed from the tyranny of death and made alive once again.

This is a view of resurrection which changes, literally, everything.

This world is not something to be endured,
          it is something to be redeemed.
It is not somewhere to escape from,
          it is somewhere to live in.
It is a world that is crying out for the life-giving spirit of the resurrected Christ
          which comes to those who are oppressed
          by the powers and empires of any day and age.
It is world that desperately needs the faithful witness and service
          of those who have themselves already received
          the gift of life eternal in Christ Jesus.

We need to move way beyond a view of resurrection
          that focusses on where we go when we die.

This passage from St Paul is not about that,
          it is about life lived now,
                    as the future breaks into the present
          in ways that transform the lives
                    of all those of us who long for restoration.

[1] This sermon was based on reading the relevant section of ‘A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament’ by Segovia and Surgitharajah (eds.)

Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Personal Touch

Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
10 May 2020

‘The personal touch'
Acts 18.1-4
1 Corinthians 1.10-18

As a way into our reflection on scripture for this morning,
            I’d like to invite you to take a moment
            to think of those people who have been particularly important to you
                        in the story of your life.

They might be teachers, friends, family,
            parents or grandparents, people from church or work;
take a moment and hold their names in your mind,
            and give thanks for them, and for the influence they’ve had you.

We all of us have people we can give thanks for,
            individuals who have mattered to us and influenced our lives.

And of course there will be those who we would rather forget,
            people who have made life difficult for us,
            who we have struggled to relate to and possibly struggled to forgive.

Individuals are complex, we all are, but individuals matter.

And what struck me quite forcefully as I was reading through the passages
            in preparation for this morning,
was the number of personal names mentioned
            in these two sort passages.

Here they are now:

·       Paul
·       Aquila
·       Priscilla
·       Claudius
·       Chloe
·       Apollos
·       Cephas
·       Crispus
·       Gaius
·       Stephanas

Ten names, two of them women;
            all of them individuals who, for better or worse,
            played their role in the drama of the early years of the church in Corinth.

There can be a tendency for us to de-personalise
            the various characters we meet in the New Testament.

Some of them we just ignore:
            I mean, when did you last hear someone talking about Cripus, Gaius and Stephanus?

But others we mythologise:
            ‘big’ characters such as Peter and Paul can become kind of stock characters,
                        archetypes of idealised discipleship.

We’ve heard it in a hundred sermons:
            Peter is the comedically inept failure who comes good in the end,
and Paul is the classic villain-turned-hero
            who exercises superhuman strength of character
            in the face of overwhelming threat and opposition.

And if we’re not careful, we lose sight of the individuals,
            the people, the personalities that lie behind the names on the page.

So this morning, I want us to keep alert for the personal touch,
            for the way in which the people that these names speak of
            featured in the life of the early church,
because in their significance we will discover
            something of the significance of our own lives
            and the people that have played their part in our stories.

So, to Corinth.

I went through Corinth when I was about fourteen,
            in a car driving from Athens where my uncle lived,
            to the southern tip of the Peloponnese where the family village was located.

We only stopped for a few minutes, to have a look at the Corinth Canal,
            a four mile cut through the isthmus, linking the Aegean and Ionian seas.

Plans for a canal here date back to before the time of Jesus,
            but it wasn’t actually constructed until 1893.

So when Paul was staying in Corinth,
            goods needing to be taken from one side to the other
                        had to be taken off the ships, hauled across,
                        and loaded onto other ships on the other side.

There were even some ships that were designed
            so the whole ship could be hauled across without needing to be unloaded at all.

This made the city of Corinth incredibly wealthy,
            as it could charge a tax for all the goods passing through;
and at the time of Paul and the others mentioned in our readings this morning,
            Corinth was a bustling, multicultural, and vibrant city,
            with two ports and thriving industry.

When Paul gets there, he quickly teams up with a married couple,
            two Jewish Christians named Priscilla and Aquila.
Between them, they exercised the original tent-making ministry
            by, quite literally, making tents.

These days we often use this phrase to describe people
            who have a self-supporting ministry,
where they work a normal job for their money,
            and then volunteer their time in the service of their church.

As churches are struggling financially, particularly in rural areas,
            this kind of ministry is becoming more and more common.

Anyway, it has strong precedent,
            and Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila founded the Christian congregation in Corinth.

Then, after a while, Paul moved on and eventually ended up
            in Ephesus in what is now western Turkey,
and from Ephesus he had a series of correspondences with the church in Corinth,
            writing possibly as many as five letters to them,
although only two of these seem to have survived
            and made their way into our Bibles.

We pick up the Corinthian correspondence this morning in chapter 1,
            straight after the initial greetings with which all ancient letters started.

And it seems that what has prompted Paul to write
            is that there are problems in Corinth with division in the church.

The issue seems to be about which strong character
            in the leadership of the early church
            people were following.

Some were following Paul, some Apollos,
            some Cephas (or Peter as he was better known),
and some were just being annoyingly super-spiritual
            and saying they followed Christ and not any human being!
We’ve all met Christians like that…

Anyway, Paul tells them not to be so obsessed with who baptised them;
            as if it matters who did the dunking!

The important thing was whether they were living out
            the truth of their baptism in their daily lives.

I’m sure we can all relate to this issue of hanging our faith
            on a particular person’s ministry.

After all, most of us have a soft spot in our memories
            for the minister who baptised us, or nurtured us in our faith.
Maybe you even gave thanks for them a few minutes ago.

And most of us prefer the preaching of one person over another.
            Are you a Rob Bell person or a Brian McLaren Person,
                        a Tom Wright person or a John Piper person?
            A Simon person or a Dawn person,
                        or a Luke, or Martyn, or Nigel person?
            Or are you a Ruth person or a Brian person,
                        a Barrie person or a Howard Williams person?

Can those who have come after ever measure up
            against the idealised and mythologised preachers of days gone by?

We all do this, and Paul points to a great danger
            in this factionalising and idolising of preachers:
The danger is that of confusing the messenger with the message.

So Paul says, in v.18,
            that it is the message of the cross itself which is most important,
            not the words that different preachers use to frame or communicate it.

And there is an ambiguity in the Greek here
            which may, or may not, be deliberate.
When Paul says that the message of the cross
            is ‘foolishness to those who are perishing,
            but to us who are being saved it is the power of God’,
it is not clear whether he is referring to the message ‘about’ the cross,
            in other words, the story of Jesus’ crucifixion;
or whether he is referring to the message ‘of’ the cross,
            what the cross itself says to us
            about who God is and how God is made known.

I tend to think that it is this second option that makes most sense,
            because the message of the cross to each of us
                        is that God speaks salvation not through the words of humans,
                        but through decisive action in history in the death of Jesus.

If salvation is found in the message about the cross,
            that makes us mere spectators or consumers of the message.
But if it is found in the message of the cross,
            then we are invited into that story
as participants in what God is doing to turn the world upside down
            by realigning our understandings of power, authority, suffering, and death.

The first century world was very familiar with the techniques of rhetoric,
            and public speaking was regarded as an art form.

They knew what it was to be consumers of messages;
            you could go to the forum in any Roman town,
                        the equivalent of Speakers’ Corner in London,
            and hear people talking eloquently about any kind of subject you desired.

But Paul wants to differentiate the word of salvation
            spoken by God in the event of the cross,
from the words of those
            who would merely speak about the cross.

The crucifixion is not just another subject
            for public debate and rhetorical excellence.

For Paul, it is the cross itself which speaks
            through the brute fact of its existence in history.
And when it speaks,
            the cross cuts through the babbling words of well-intentioned preachers,
            proclaiming its own message of Christ crucified,
                        of God-on-the-cross,
            of the all-powerful becoming the utterly powerless.

The message of the cross is an ugly message of suffering,
            a controversial message of cosmic disruption,
            and a dangerous message of political and social revolution.
And there is nothing that can, or should, be done by preachers
            to sanitise or beautify the shock, the horror,
            the ‘scandal’ as Paul puts it,
of the word of the cross.

The communication of the power of divine love
            through the murderous and barbaric act of execution by crucifixion,
speaks directly to us of the radical lengths to which God is prepared to go
            to make God’s own love for humans known.

The cross speaks a message of the extent of God’s love,
            and this cuts through human words
to send a message of forgiveness, acceptance and welcome,
            direct from God’s broken heart to ours.

This is the message of salvation,
            and it comes from God to me, and from God to you.

And so we’re back at the personal touch,
            with the valuing of each created person by the one who made them.

God loves us, and forgives us,
            and welcomes us into the new and radically constituted kingdom of God.

And as we take our place in God's kingdom
            alongside all those others who hear and respond to the word of the cross,
we play our part in the transformation of the world
            as the kingdom of God is made known on earth,
            as it is in heaven.