“Unfinished Business” A Devotion on 1 Corinthians 3: 6

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”—1 Corinthians 3: 6

At the beginning of my ministry I taught myself to cook. I was serving two small congregations in rural Maine. I was single then and rattling around the parsonage, so to keep myself occupied (and fed) I started reading various cookbooks and trying out different recipes.

I discovered I really liked to cook. I would buy the ingredients, follow the directions, and, at the end of the process, my dish either came out right or it didn’t. I liked that. There was no waiting around for the results.

One of the reasons I liked cooking so much was that it was different from my life in the church where you don’t see such quick results. In the church you seldom get the immediate sense of completion that you do in cooking.

I came to realize that the Christian life is more like gardening than it is like cooking. In the church, as in gardening, you plant seeds, you water and tend your garden, and you wait. You wait for God to give the growth.

Addressing a church fight in Corinth, Paul tells the congregation that the church is not about any one person. It is a team sport, and builds on what others have previously done. Paul founded the church in Corinth. He planted it, and Apollos, who came after him, watered it, but it was God who gave the growth.

The church’s business remains unfinished for now. Others will take it up. In the meantime we worship, we pray, we teach and learn, we care for each other and for our world. We move from season to season under God’s abiding care, waiting for that day when God’s great Garden will blossom and flourish over all the earth.

Prayer: Make us faithful gardeners, O God, until that time when you bring to completion all the faithful work done for your reign and realm, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(This is my United Church of Christ Daily Devotion for February 18, 2019. To see the original go here. To subscribe to the UCC Daily Devotional and receive it every day by e-mail go here.)

“Small Beginnings” A Baptismal Sermon on Mark 4:30-34

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” —Mark 4:30-34 Continue reading

“The Community that Mercy Makes”

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” —1 Peter 2:10

The First Letter of Peter was written to encourage Christians in Asia Minor who were being persecuted for their faith. Most of them were Gentile converts to Christianity, and Peter reminds them that their inclusion in the church and in the promises of God was by an act of divine mercy made real by the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Continue reading

“The Seven Last Words of the Church”

seven-last-words“Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” – Mark 7:6-8

Some of the scribes and Pharisees questioned Jesus as to why his disciples had not washed their hands before eating, as was “the custom of the elders.” He chastised them for their slavish devotion to custom, while neglecting their relationship with God.

Our customs and traditions are important for institutional continuity and for doing things in the church “decently and in order.” But customs followed for their own sake can stifle needed change and quench the flame of the Spirit. Continue reading

“Finding the Perfect Church”

No perfect church“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” —2 Corinthians 4:7

After I retired from active pastoral ministry my wife and I were ecclesiastically homeless for a few years. We went to church, but we couldn’t commit to one.

We sometimes felt like Goldilocks at the Bears’ residence. One congregation had good preaching, but not so great music. Another had terrific music, but the sermons were on the light side.

This period was an unhappy time in our lives, for we are serious “church nerds” and needed a church home. We knew there was something unfaithful about “church shopping” and being, to use Eugene Peterson’s phrase, “tourists and not pilgrims.”

The problem was there was no perfect church. Thomas More coined the word Utopia in 1516 to describe a perfect society on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. Utopia in Greek means “not a place.”

There has never been and there never will be Utopia. There is no perfect congregation, just the ones we’ve got, full of imperfect people that God loves and calls to be the church. And we knew ourselves well enough to realize that if we ever found the perfect church, as soon as we joined it, it wouldn’t be perfect anymore.

Prayer: Holy One, bless us all in your church with your extraordinary power, that through your imperfect people, your perfection may shine brightly for the world to see.

(This is my United Church of Christ Daily Devotional for April 9, 2016. To see the original go here. Meme is used courtesy of the UCC.)

“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time. Continue reading

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!

When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?

I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)

This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Continue reading