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October 16th, 2017

Soli Deo Gloria

Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1

 

Some weeks it’s harder

One of the challenges of preaching is that every week, ready or not, you have to present a message that you’ve got life and faith figured out. Some weeks it’s harder than others.

I like stories that end well. This week they were in short supply. For example, Linda and I went to the Carolina Panthers game Thursday evening. We wore our “Shaq Thompson” Carolina jerseys. I’m such a big fan I have a Carolina Panthers steering wheel cover and own Cam Newton socks my daughter just sent me. We don’t get to go to many games live because they’re on Sunday afternoon. The Panthers should have won with us watching live. They didn’t.

There were more serious stories this week. Several pastoral care relationships aren’t going well. The hardest blow of the week came to Mike and Susan Laughter, whose daughter-in-law gave birth to a stillborn child on Friday. Pregnancy, labor, and delivery are hard, but a baby is worth it. What if the baby never takes a breath?

All week I’ve been pondering the verse in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). The Latin phrase is Soli Deo Gloria, “Glory to God alone.” It’s one of the five “solas” of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. I’ll offer three angles on that text.

Personal

The first angle is personal. I tried to keep 1 Corinthians 10:31 front and center the last two days. As President of Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC, I attended the Michigan Conference of the UCC, because they were deliberating on a resolution that would ban Faithful and Welcoming displays from their gatherings. If the proponents had their way, the resolution would be forwarded to the UCC’s General Synod with the goal of barring us from the exhibit hall of our biannual national meetings. The argument is that our position on human sexuality is the moral equivalent of white supremacy, and bigotry should not be granted exhibit space.

This was the right time for me to keep Paul’s motto in mind: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Although my opportunities to meet with various delegates was limited, I did have the chance to get to know the Conference Minister Friday evening, and he was very gracious and helpful.

The committee hearing on the resolution was Saturday morning. Time was limited, and the committee eventually decided to recommend that the Conference table the resolution until next year’s meeting. That seemed like a positive result from my perspective, and I felt my presence had something to do with the recommendation.

Because of my flight schedule, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay for the plenary business session, but I wouldn’t have had voice or vote anyway. I stayed through lunch, and while in the lunch line my flight home was cancelled. I headed to the airport, only to learn that there were no more flights scheduled out of Lansing to anywhere. The airline gave me a voucher for a taxi to Detroit, along with two other passengers who were supposed to be on the same flight. I fell asleep in the back seat of the minivan taxi on the way to Detroit. I’ll return to that story later.

Historical

The second angle is historical. This month we are remembering the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. October 31, 1517 is the date that Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the chapel door in Wittenberg, Germany.

The reformer most connected to our history at Corinth is not Luther, but his Swiss contemporary, Ulrich Zwingli. Although both reformers were born in 1484, Zwingli’s story unfolded very differently from Luther’s. Luther’s training was in the monastery and seminary. Zwingli was more interested in what we would call a “secular” or liberal arts education – music, mathematics, classical languages and literature. However, in his day that classical education included the study of Scripture.

In 1506, having completed the Master’s degree in Basel, Zwingli was surprised by an invitation to pastor a church in Glarus. He remained there for a decade. While at school and in his first parish, the bachelor engaged multiple times in sexual relationships. This would come back to haunt him. However, his style of preaching made him quite popular, and his reputation grew.

In 1517, the “big church” came calling. Grossmünster (literally “Great Cathedral”) in Zurich had heard of his reputation. Zurich was the leading city in Switzerland, and, once he heard they were interested in him, Zwingli desired the appointment. His past indiscretions with women, however, were a barrier, and rumor was even worse than reality. Zwingli confessed his faults in a letter, clarifying the rumors, and was called to Zurich. On his 34th birthday, January 1, 1518, Zwingli began serving in Zurich.

Zwingli was not yet what we would call a “Protestant,” but his ministry did develop differently than the Catholic customs of his day. From the beginning in Zurich, he decided to preach through books of the Bible instead of following the Scriptures suggested by the Catholic church. He began with a chapter-by-chapter exposition of Matthew, then Acts, then Galatians, and eventually preached through all the New Testament in six years. It was apparently this preaching that cemented in his mind the truth of the Gospel, salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone.

This, in turn, led to other reforms – some positive and some negative, in retrospect. Zwingli was very committed to his parish, even remaining in Zurich when the dreaded plague struck. He himself became deathly ill, but survived.  This only sealed the love of many citizens for him. His zeal for the preaching of the Bible led to some excesses, however. Zwingli began removing anything in Grossmünster that was not explicitly commanded in Scripture – stained glass windows, communion altar, and so on. Church services were only about the exposition of Scripture. No musical instruments were used, and no songs were sung except the Psalms. Church attendance also became required, mandated by the City Council. These were not weekly services, but daily.

Some Zurich citizens rebelled against the enforcement of religious duties, but others latched on to Zwingli’s reforms. On Ash Wednesday, 1522, some leading citizens shared two pork sausages – formerly forbidden during Lent. Zwingli himself did not partake, but he was present and apparently approved.

Tensions grew between the growing Protestant movement in Zurich and the Catholic cantons (provinces) in the rest of Switzerland. Control of a political or geographical region meant control of the churches as well. Zwingli himself was an ardent Swiss nationalist. He needed a military/political alliance, and this he sought through closer connections with southern Germany.

The German prince, Phillip of Hesse, decided that political alignment between portions of Germany and Switzerland required Luther and Zwingli to agree on their teaching. In 1529, the two reformers and their associates met in Marburg, Germany.

Biblical

The third angle is biblical. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a two-fold response to what’s happening to the church there. Paul had founded the church in Corinth, a city with a Las Vegas-style reputation for its diversity, commerce, and immorality. Its location on an isthmus made Corinth an east-west and north-south trade. The worship of idols included the ready availability of shrine prostitutes for the traveling merchants. Still, Paul founded a church there. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians for two reasons.

First, Paul had heard some troubling reports from Corinth. The most troubling was how divided the congregation was. Different factions were loyal to Paul or Peter or Apollos. Paul wanted them to find their unity in Christ.

Second, Paul wrote the letter was to answer some specific questions that were debated in his day in the emerging churches. Chapters 8-10 are devoted to a question about eating food sacrificed to idols. It’s a question we can’t relate to very well. Nobody walks down the meat aisle at Lowes Foods wondering if the beef or chicken was first dedicated to Zeus or Aphrodite.

In Ancient Greek and Roman cities, however, many gods were worshiped, and people believed one of the best ways to gain the favor of a god was to bring the best of your flock or herd. When the bull or sow was brought to the god, some of the parts would be burned as a sacrifice. The temple priests would then have the option to eat some of the meat or take it home to their families. Usually there was too much for them to consume, so some of the meat would be sold to the local butcher shop to raise cash for the temple.

No law-abiding Jew would eat any meat that had not been properly killed and drained of its blood by a rabbi. Gentiles had no such scruples, so when both Jews and Gentiles became believers, what were the new rules? Corinthian Christians argued both ways. Some said, “An idol is nothing anyway. You might as well say meat was offered to an oak tree or a granite boulder. Nothing changes when meat is offered to a nothing.” Others made either a biblical or moral argument that idolatry itself is a serious issue. Why would you want to tacitly approve giving glory to a false god?

The Corinthians decided to put this question to the Apostle Paul. Should we eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols? They wanted a simple answer: Yes, or No.

This kind of question still comes to pastors today.  Should Christians observe Halloween, the pagan holiday? Yes, or No? Should Christians watch the NFL if the players are disrespecting the American flag? Yes, or No? Should Christians divorce and remarry? If they do, should they serve as church leaders? Should Christians drink alcohol? Should Christians be in fellowship with other Christians they believe are living unbiblical lifestyles or advocating for them? Yes, or No?

Paul does not give the Corinthians a Yes or No answer to the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. There are certainly Yes or No issues of faith. “Should we participate in the worship of idols?” “Absolutely not!” (1 Corinthians 10:1-22)

The issue of eating meat is more complex. Paul needs three chapters (8-10) to answer their “Yes or No” question. Our reading today from the end of chapter 10 gives three considerations in summary of Paul’s argument.

First, follow your conscience. When there is a lack of clarity or consensus, think through the issue and remember you are ultimately accountable to God, not others. “Everything is permissible,” Paul says, perhaps quoting a Corinthian proverb, “but not everything is beneficial.” If your conscience frees you to eat meat, have at it.

Second, consider the impact on others. What about the conscience of others? You may be “free” to eat the meat, but what if your freedom causes a weaker believer to trip up in his faith? Is the loss of their spiritual health really worth a few bites of steak? And what about an unbeliever? If they serve you food and tell you it was first sacrificed to idols, they are probably seeing that meat as a form of worshiping the idol. They may be testing your commitment to worship God alone. In that case, decline the meat because your deeper concern is their salvation.

Third, whatever you do, give glory to God. What does it mean to give glory to God? To give glory to something or someone is to lift higher, to make prominent, to make more visible. We glorify an athlete who makes the winning touchdown. We glorify the sales rep who leads the numbers. We glorify the student who earns the scholarship. We glorify the cross by putting it at the highest place on our building.

There’s more to glorifying than just making something noticeable, however. You can lift up something or someone negatively. Harvey Weinstein’s name was all over the news this week, but he wasn’t glorified. To glorify is a positive idea – to lift higher something or someone in order to affirm the essential character or the actions.

To glorify God is to make him more visible and more attractive. That’s my goal as a believer in all my relationships to other believers and to unbelievers. Do people want more of God because of what he’s done in my life? Does what they see in me and hear from me, draw them to God? I hope so.

That was how Paul gave us the phrase, “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Unfortunately, the next chapter of Paul and the Corinthians turns south.

The endings

I like good endings. Sometimes our stories don’t end well.

The personal angle. When I awoke from my nap in the taxi yesterday, I had a voice mail from someone who stayed at the meeting for the plenary session. He said the motion to table was defeated, and the resolution – the one about denouncing Faithful and Welcoming Churches due to its “bigotry” – was approved by the Michigan Conference and will be forwarded to the UCC’s General Synod.

On some level, I knew the trip to Michigan would be part of my sermon. I couldn’t write it until it was over, but in my mind last week I think I figured I would be telling you that my presence made a difference. The story in my head was that I would be able to tell you by focusing on the glory of God and not my own rights or hurts, it turned out well. That was what I wanted to say. The story didn’t end that way.

The historical angle. Zwingli and Luther couldn’t agree at the Marburg Colloquy. They had many disagreements, but most were either ironed out or laid aside. However, they vehemently disagreed about the physical presence of Jesus in the service of communion, so they parted ways. The failure to agree had implications beyond the religious. Now Phillip couldn’t create the alliance Zwingli needed for protection. He was on his own to fight the advance of the Catholics. Two years later, Zwingli himself died in battle. His body was quartered and burned. His story didn’t end well.

The biblical angle. As for Paul and the Corinthians, that didn’t play out so well either, at least in the short term. In 2 Corinthians we learn that Paul made a “painful visit” and wrote a “severe letter” to the Corinthian church after he wrote 1 Corinthians. The breach widened between the apostle and the church he founded.

Sometimes stories don’t end well. When it’s the pastor’s story that doesn’t end well, I need to get up on Sunday morning anyway and preach. Whether or not I feel like it, and whether or not I’ve finished processing a disappointment to the place where I my spirit is settled. I’m not sure if I did live for the glory of God the last two days, even though I tried. And if I did, I can’t report a good outcome. I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, but this morning the glass feels very empty. So what can I leave with you?

First, God’s glory does not rise and fall with my story. The emphasis of Scripture on the glory of God is that God’s glory is fixed and not dependent on what happens on this little globe in a little solar system within a medium-sized galaxy. God is who he is and his glory is not dimmed or enhanced by me. In the movie, “Elf,” Santa’s ability to complete his Christmas Eve mission is in jeopardy because there’s not enough Christmas spirit. God’s not like that. His glory does not depend on my performance or yours.

Second, do everything anyway to bring him glory. Why? Not because it works. Not because it will change people. Certainly not because you’re helping God out. He doesn’t need your help.

No, do everything for his glory because that changes you. God’s glory is fixed, but when we glorify him we are brought closer to his purposes, to his heart, to his character. We live more humbly, more graciously, more willingly into obedience and faithful witness. That’s about as far as I’ve come today. Amen.

 

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