"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

14 June 2009

Sermon, Sunday 6/14 (moved)

As I read through the Epistle for this Sunday, I was reminded of my friend Annie. Perhaps someday she will come for a visit and I can introduce you to her. I think you would like Annie. Annie is a tiny little southern woman with one of those smooth sweet southern accents that makes you instantly love her. When we were first getting to know one another, I learned that Annie was originally from south eastern Kentucky. Since part of my own family hails from the region I asked her if she was familiar with Breathitt County. In her sweet southern style Annie looks straight at me and without apology informs me that "some of the meanest people I ever met were from Breathitt County." To which, I could only reply, yup, I guess you met the kin.

It was a few years later, having Annie’s famous (and truly unparalleled) pecan pie in her dining room that she informed us that she and her husband Jeff were about to accept a call to serve as missionaries in Saudi Arabia. Someone asked her if she was afraid to go. It was with the same sweet southern type of reply, direct and without apology that Annie simply answered "Somebody’s gotta be willin’ to die for Jesus."

That’s why Annie comes to mind when I read Paul’s words to the church at Corinth. That’s exactly what Paul was telling the church.

I did some reading in church history this week. I wanted to share with you some of the stories of those who were willing to die for Jesus. People who came after Paul who understood his message, who refused to compromise the gospel even to save their own skins. There were thousands upon thousands of them. I thought of Polycarp bravely telling the Romans to "bring on their beasts" and Andrew who was crucified upside down because he declared the death his lord had died was too good for a sinner such as himself and even Paul himself, who was martyred in Rome not too many years after writing those words to the church in Corinth. But one story stood out from the rest. Richard Hannula tells the story well, so I am borrowing heavily from his words:

"The young slave woman, Blandina, gasped for air as she lay shaking on the damp stone floor... Suddenly the cell door creaked open and a Roman soldier shouted ‘get up, godless! Come with me.’ Blandina and the other prisoners were dragged out of their cells and into the arena. Shielding their eyes from the brilliant sunlight, Christian men, women, and children huddled together in the center of the arena. The spectators shouted curses at them. ‘Listen to me, you godless!’ the governor said. ‘You Christians offend our gods and bring down their wrath upon us. But if you will just swear by Caesar, I will release you.’… A few Christians stepped out of the huddle and with downcast faces swore the oath to Caesar. They were permitted to leave the arena, but most stood their ground. ‘Very well, then,’ the governor said, ‘you have chosen the beasts, the fire, and the sword.’… The crowd roared its approval… Blandina was returned to prison. From morning to night, jailers punished the frail Blandina…. ‘Curse Christ!’ they taunted… ‘I am a Christian,’ Blandina answered…. At the close of the day, the jailers could scarcely believe that she was still breathing; her body was so broken. ‘Who are these Christians?’ the jailers said to one another. ‘They go so willingly and cheerfully to their deaths.’

"The next day soldiers again brought Blandina and some other Christians into the arena. She was hung on a wooden post, intended as food for wild animals. Blandina lifted up her eyes to the lord and prayed aloud ‘O Father, strengthen us as we suffer for the glory of Christ." [As she suffered, one eyewitness described her as looking ] ‘as if she were invited to a wedding feast, not thrown to the

beasts.’… The pagans said they had never seen a woman suffer so much for so long…. [After she had died] guards stood watch, preventing [the friends of those who were martyred] from giving them a decent burial.

"’Why won’t you let them bury their dead?’ the guards were asked.

"’So they may have no hope in the resurrection.’ They answered. ‘It is that hope that gives them such courage.’"

It is that hope that gives them such courage. This is the whole point of St. Paul’s words in the letter to the Corinthians. Paul is writing to big beautiful comfortable Corinth. Corinth is a wealthy port city known for their trade, their lush living, and their immoral behaviors. These are people who have a lot of great earthly stuff to live for. They have literal treasure beyond most of the ancient world’s imagining. But Paul reminds them that their treasure is in jars of clay, their power belongs to God and not to them and that the whole point of the Gospel is that those things which seem to most real right now are really worthless in an eternal scheme. In other words, Hey Corinth, you may be living large now, but you are going to die. Your mortal bodies will grow old, and begin to fail before your very eyes. Death is doing its work on you, even now.

Paul knew Corinth well; he’d lived there for a year and a half working as a tent maker. And so he uses the language of tents and dwellings to drive his point home. It’s a great image. After all, a tent is a temporary home. In fact, the very first thing John’s gospel tells us about Jesus is that he ‘tented’ among us. That’s what those words mean when John says the word was made flesh and "dwelt" among us. The greek word really means he set up his tent among us. Paul carries on that image. Just as Jesus’ body was a temporary dwelling, so is yours.

But of course, Paul goes on about how we have a permanent dwelling, not made with human hands, which stands eternal. Our earthly home will be destroyed, but we have a far better place. In other words, it is the hope of the resurrection that should also encourage Corinth.

It is the hope of the resurrection that does indeed encourage Paul, too. He knows what he’s talking about. Paul, like Blandina, was a man who had suffered much. As he writes to Corinth, he’s just recently escaped a sentence of what seemed to be certain death. We read recently, and it is in this same letter to the church at Corinth, that Paul had been beaten, thrown in prision, and shipwrecked, all for preaching the Gospel of Jesus. I won’t share it here, but Acts 27 is the story of Paul’s shipwreck experience (during which time he was a prisoner being dragged to Rome for trial and possibly execution), his two weeks in the storm at sea, starved and expecting certain death, and the miraculous rescue of all 276 people on board. It is Paul’s credential to speak, knowingly, of the temporary nature of this earthly dwelling and the eternal dwelling not made with hands that awaits him. It is the resurrection that gives Paul courage.

Because Paul has this hope of resurrection and eternal dwellings, he has no need to fear any earthly enemy. "So," he says, "we are always of good courage." Even when "afflicted in every way… perplexed… persecuted and struck down." Never is Paul in despair or destroyed or forsaken or crushed, because he has this hope of the resurrection. "So," he says "we do not lose heart…. Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us into his presence."

Paul faced pressures in his day. Pressures we can all understand and some we’ve never even come close to experiencing. There were those in Corinth who had publicly denounced Paul and the Gospel. There were those who would like to see Paul executed. And yet, Paul’s hope in the resurrection gave him the courage to continue to preach the Gospel and to "refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of truth…" to commend the full Gospel of God unashamedly to each man’s conscience. Because Paul hoped in the resurrection, because he understood all that he had, even his own body, to be nothing more than a temporary dwelling, Paul had no fear or temptation to step back from the truth of Christ Jesus.

We understand because in our culture we have a lot of the same pressures beginning to mount. It is no longer socially expected and eventually will no longer be socially acceptable to be a Christian. The world around us would rather we tampered with the Gospel, or better yet, sat down and shut up about this whole Jesus scandal. And here at St. Peter’s we are faced with a world that does not know Jesus. A town that is showing the signs of sub-urban decay, drugs and lost-ness. We are sometimes tempted to back down, turn away, or tamper with the Gospel.

But we can take courage in the resurrection just as Blandina, and Paul, and Annie. Our bodies, our buildings, our earthly wealth are all just treasures in jars of clay, temporary tents in which to dwell. These are not the things which give us hope. It is, after all, the resurrection which gives us courage, that we may go willingly, even to our own deaths, in order to give praise and glory to Jesus Christ, to commend the Gospel to one another, and so that the persecutors and the enemies might be truly afraid because of the hope that is in us.

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