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A Thinking Church

Sermon - 1/24/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Corinthians 14:1-20

The text this morning for our reflection is from the 14th chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. He's writing concerning a problem that has occurred in that ancient church around the use of a gift, the speaking of tongues.

I'm going to read the first 5 verses of that chapter and then skip to 13 through 20. Paul writes:

Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. 2For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. 3On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their building up and encouragement and consolation. 4Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. 5Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unproductive. 15What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also. 16Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the ĎAmení to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying? 17For you may give thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up. 18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; 19nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

20 Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.

 

The Contemporary English Version translates verse 19 as "I would rather speak 5 words that makes sense than 10,000 words in an unintelligible language". I got to thinking, huh, I wonder if this guy is talking about me here? :) Could I give a sermon in 5 words that made sense? Don't get your hopes up :).

I did a check on my last sermon to see how long it actually was, and it came in just under 2,500 words (not quite 10,000 :).

Reminds me of the story of the monk who went to the monastery where they practice the art of silence. For 7 years you had to remain silent, and then you were allowed 2 words. Then another 7 years, then 2 words. And so this monk comes in, thinking this will be a wonderful time of contemplation and growing in the spirit. After his 7 years, he went to abbot and he said "food, cold". The abbot nodded in understanding. Another 7 years, he came back and said "Bed, hard". The abbot nodded, and understood. Another 7 years passed and he came in and said "I quit". And the abbot said "I'm not surprised, you've done nothing but complain the whole time you've been here!".

Well, in over 25 years of preaching, I've never preached on this text, not once. In part because it does not come up in the lectionary, the proscribed readings for use that many churches follow. But also because, I mean, let's face it, it's not an issue for most of us in the church. I know we have many issues that we face, but speaking in tongues (and the problems caused thereby) is not one of them. Now, if someone starts that practice here, then maybe it will become an issue. But it was a major issue, you see, in the ancient church, a major source of conflict, as some thought that they were better than others because they had this wonderful gift.

And so it is, for us, I think, an instructive text to examine, even if we don't have that issue, but understanding how Paul approached this and sought to resolve this conflict can help us as well. And the nature of the problem was pretty simple: some had this gift, others did not, and it was creating dis-order. It's a peculiar gift, we have to say, for most of us in our non-Pentecostal tradition, that we don't quite comprehend. Like Americans trying to understand the game of Cricket :). Or the British trying to understand the American health system. Some things are hard to comprehend unless you are part of that tradition and culture.

There's a lot of introspection going on now around the culture of Haiti. And there's much that we do not comprehend because we're not part of that culture. We just need to know that for those that do speak in tongues, then as well as know, it is a powerful spiritual experience. But the problem is that it's causing this chaos and disruption in the church. So Paul does a couple of things to bring it under control. First of all, he deflates its importance. He says, don't think that you are so special because you have this wonderful gift and others do not. That alone is a great lesson for anyone to realize that no matter how wonderful and special and great your gift may that makes you God's gift to humanity, all of us are no more special, wonderful, than anyone else and whatever gift they may have. And there are many other gifts, says Paul, that are more valuable than tongues, because they are more useful in building up the church. He cites the ability to prophesy as one. Meaning not the ability to predict future events, prophesy in this context means the ability to discern the will of God. That, we could see, is much more useful.

No matter what one's gift, however, it has to be guided by love. So the second thing Paul does is to establish an ethic of love that supersedes all else. And you will recall that chapter 13, the great chapter of love (1 Corinthians 13) immediately precedes this text. That chapter concludes by saying that love is the greatest gift of all. We talk a lot about love in the church, and of course it's easier to talk than it is to do at times, but I think we all understand the importance that love plays in the community.

And then Paul does one more thing in this text that we don't talk about quite as much, but I think can be just as important, so I want to focus the rest of my time on that. And that is, Paul appeals to reason, and the use of the mind. Now, heaven forbid that we should do that in church, right?

John Wesley, one of the great Protestant reformers (founder of the Methodist tradition), held that there are 4 principle authorities in the Methodist tradition. Anyone want to shout those out? Scripture, Experience, Tradition, and Reason. April came out of a Methodist church most recently, so that's why you're hearing that voice from over there :). Scripture is generally regarded by most as the most important of the four. One of the slogans of our particular tradition, of our founding fathers, was "Where the scripture speaks, we will speak, where the scriptures are silent, we are silent".

It's a catchy slogan, but it's fallen a bit out of favor because it was used too much to avoid dealing with hard issues. Abortion?  Where the scriptures are silent, we are silent. Bio-genetics? Where the scriptures are silent, we are silent. Condom use? Where the scriptures are silent. . . . I joined the board of Planned Parenthood and I'm learning a whole new lingo that I've never used in church before :).

We've come to realize that if the church is to remain relevant, it's often right there were scripture does not speak that we need to speak, because people are looking for guidance. And so to use the principles of scripture and the stories of Jesus, and to apply reason to determine how then we should think and act as Christians, takes some creative thinking.

For ultimately it is reason, the ability to think critically about scripture, tradition, and experience, that enables us to incorporate all of that into our faith and apply it in our lives.

Let me give quickly just one small example from this text on a relatively minor point of interpretation. Ancient Greek is written either entirely in capital letters or lower-case letters. They had not yet invented the convention of using a capital letter at the beginning of a word to denote a proper noun, or the beginning of a sentence. So it takes a little bit of interpretation. If you look at chapter 14 verse 15, you see there that Paul says "I will pray with the Spirit". Well, is that spirit with a capital "S", denoting God's spirit, or a small "s", referring to his spirit? And if you look there in your text, the translators of the New Revised Standard Version (in our pews) have chosen the small "s". The Contemporary English Version, to make it even clearer, adds a pronoun. Paul says, in that translation, "I will pray with my spirit" (pronoun not actually there in the Greek, but inferred).

That scholarly decision is based on what we know about Paul's writing style, theology, and the content here of this text. And you see, that is developed through rational thought, through the use of reason.

Paul says we have to use that kind of reasoning ability in the church. Otherwise, we are apt to descend in a downward spiral of chaos and dis-order among competing claims of the spirit and revelation. So, in short, engage mind before you engage tongue. And of course, engaging the mind can potentially resolve all kinds of problems before they occur.

Imagine a conversation between John Edwards and his wife.  You fathered a child with a campaign aide while running for Vice-President?!  What were you thinking?  And of course, the point is, he wasn't thinking, right? And that's the problem.

We know we shouldn't eat that extra dessert, but we do. We know we should exercise more, and often we don't. The simple fact is that our actions are based on more than just rational thought, on all kinds of factors and needs. And so in Corinth, people were engaged in all these activities that were not well thought-out, and how it benefits or builds up the church, and that creates all kinds of problems.

Paul seeks to correct that situation, and to strengthen the church by appealing to people to think, to use their minds. Don't think like children, he says, grow up. Be mature in your thinking. Some would say the church has still not learned that lesson, that's part of our discernment process, to bring rational thought together with the spirit.

John and Dave Frohnmayer, are two intellection powerhouses that I've long admired, great public servants. Of course, Dave the retiring president of the University of Oregon, John as the former head of the National Endowment for the Arts under the first President Bush (and many of you will remember that turbulent era around some of the artwork that NEA helped to finance). John has a weekly radio address that is aired on KLCC, and I happened to catch it this Friday, and in it, he noted that religion is often used as an excuse for immoral actions. And he cited the example of the extremist who tried to kill the Danish cartoonist who drew that cartoon that most Muslims found very offensive. A price was put on his head. But that is an immoral act, based on religious thought.

He cites another example, a little more controversial probably, the Roman Catholic Church's ban on condoms, particularly in light of HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa that is literally killing millions of people. And he said you can't justify that ban any more on the basis of religion.

We could add our own examples, we might disagree with those, put in some others, from suicide bombers to the murder of Dr. Tiller (a late-term abortion provider), which is actually the reason why I joined Planned Parenthood, because I thought it was important, especially as a minister, to be involved.

I would agree that justifying acts of violence with religion is abhorrent and even immoral. But the question is: is it the fault of the religion itself, or the thinking of the believer? Frohnmayer went on to cite Christopher Hitchens, author of the book "God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything". And in summing up Hitchens points, Frohnmayer said: "Religion is not rational. You cannot explain it with logic, though many have tried. And because religion is not rational, neither are the actions of it's believers". Who, me? :) Is he talking about us?

I waited for Frohnmayer, who actually has a Seminary education as well as his legal training, to come to the defense of at least the Christian faith. But he never did, except that he cited the positive aspects of religion along with that. And I got to thinking, is what we do rational?

Maybe it's not rational that we open up the church on those freezing nights to welcome the homeless.

Maybe it's not rational to send thousands and thousands of dollars of our money to Haiti that we could put to use here.

Maybe it's not rational to come to church on Christmas Eve at 11:00 o'clock at night to hear those stories and sing those songs we know by heart.

Maybe it's not rational to teach "Blessed are the poor. Love Your Enemies. Forgive those who wrong you".

Maybe it's not rational to believe that God created the world, or Jesus was raised from the dead, or that love is greater than all else.

Maybe it's not rational, but does it make more sense to not help those in need, and who are suffering, when we have the means to do so?

Does it make sense to teach hate and revenge as the way to a better world?

Does it make more sense to rely on the news from Wall Street than the good news of Jesus Christ?

Does it make more sense to live by fear and greed than by love and faith?

Maybe everything we believe and do is not rational, but could it be that the rational choice is not always the better choice? That there is a better way to live than what the world offers, and by what pure logic dictates?

Now, having said that, I also have to question whether or not the premise of Hitchens is correct -- that religion is not rational. Well, maybe sometimes. But that it's an either-or proposition, that one must choose between faith and reason, between God and science. My concern is that we accept that faith is not just different than rational thought, that it is opposed to reason and science. And then we deny one of the greatest gifts that God gives to us -- the ability to use our minds. To think for ourselves, to be creative, imaginative, original, as Christians.

So I want to argue that there is no dichotomy between belief and reason, faith and science. But rather, to be Christian, in fact requires us to use our minds as Paul calls for in this text. To combine mind and spirit, faith and reason, belief and logic.

John Cobb, my primary professor in Seminary, one of the leading theologians still alive today in this country, wrote a great little book entitled "Becoming a Thinking Christian". And Cobb contends that to renew the church, we have to renew thinking in the church. That there won't be church renewal without a renewal of our thinking. And by that, he means thinking seriously about what we believe and do, how we interpret scripture, how we see God working in our world. He writes: "A church engaged in serious debate over matters of great importance will be far healthier than the present one". Amen? He goes on: "Christians cannot afford a continued shrinking of the sphere within which we think as Christians. And the world cannot afford to lose the benefit of Christian vision and wisdom".

To engage in this kind of serious theological reflection on matters, as Cobb says, of great importance, is precisely the idea behind our new Tuesday evening group "Theology on Tap", at Cosmic Pizza, right after work, about 5:15 p.m. I thought I'd start with a non-provocative topic: "Is Pat Robertson Christian?". OK, so it provokes a little response :). But the question, of course, is not really about Pat Robertson. It's about our understanding of God. In contrast to Robertson's claim that the earthquake in Haiti was God's punishment upon the people of Haiti for the revolt of that country against the French 200 years ago, in his words, a "pact with the Devil". To so blame God for the deaths of 200,000 innocent people, including thousands of children, is not just ludicrous, it's blasphemous. Charging God with no less than genocide. And I believe it's important for us to speak out against it.

To put it differently, is it Christian to say that God uses amoral acts of nature (earthquake, hurricanes, tsunamis, whatever the case may be), that make no distinction between good and evil? As Christians, should we really say that God allowed, or even caused, this death or that, because of this event or that, or that accident or that disease? Can we not, as Christians, articulate a better, more adult, if you will, understanding of God?

A God who never acts of spite but always out of love?

A God who does not, perhaps even cannot, coerce, but does invite, lure, and persuade?

A God who always, always, adds to life, goodness, and joy, and never diminishes the good or destroys life?

A God who can be known in science, and understood through reason?

A God who seek to transform chaos into harmony, a God who may remain a mystery beyond what we can discover, but never beyond who we can know?

Though I do not profess to know the mind of Paul, let alone the mind of God, I believe when Paul says 'we should think like adults, not children', he means for us to use our minds in these ways. To deepen our understanding of God, and to further God's work to bring life, hope, and goodness to the world.

May it be.

 


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