Thanksgiving Is Good for the Soul (1 Corinthians 1:4)


Several years ago, I suffered a bout of deep depression. It lasted for months. And I don’t want to experience it ever again. But I learned something out of that depression that has proved invaluable to my mental—and spiritual—health:

Giving thanks is good for the soul.

During my depression, I kept a journal in which I monitored my feelings and their causes in minute detail. The more I analyzed my depression, the more depressed I became. So one day, I tried something different. I wrote a list of everyone and everything I was thankful for. To my surprise, it was a very long list. I can’t say my depression instantly disappeared that day, but its hold on me lost considerable purchase.

I don’t know whether Paul ever suffered depression. As we read 1 Corinthians, we’ll discover that Paul had plenty of reasons to feel deeply sad about the church in Corinth. It was a moral and theological mess. Yet Paul nevertheless gave thanks for it. His word of thanks is six verses long (1 Cor. 1:4-9), but here I want to focus only on the first verse:

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus (1:4).

Let’s take a closer look at this sentence:

I: Giving thanks cannot be delegated. It is our privilege and responsibility.

Always: Paul wasn’t thankful on good days and ungrateful on bad days. He was always thankful. You can see the constancy of his gratitude when you look at his words of thanks for other churches he wrote to (Rom. 1:8, Phil. 1:3, Col. 1:3, 1 Thes. 1:2, 2 Thes. 2:13, 1 Tim. 1:12, 2 Tim. 1:3, Philem. 4). We should be constant in our thanksgiving too.

Thank God: Paul’s thanksgiving is radically God-centered. Paul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles by the will of God. So every time Gentiles decided to follow Jesus, Paul gave thanks to God for them. Do you thank God for others?

For you: Notice that Paul doesn’t thank God privately for the Corinthians—or for any other church. He thanks God for the Corinthians in front of the Corinthians. God knows whom you’re thankful for. Do they?

Because of his grace given you: If Paul looked only at the Corinthians’ present behaviors and beliefs, he might not have had much reason to give thanks. They were a “problem child.” But when he looked at where the Corinthians had been in comparison to where they were, he had lots of reason for gratitude. God’s grace had started them on their spiritual journey and moved them far along. Our gratitude will grow when we focus more on the progress God gives than the problems others cause.

In Christ Jesus: God’s grace is always mediated to us by Jesus Christ. Whenever you get frustrated with others, remember this: Jesus Christ loves them and gave himself for them (Eph. 5:2).

So, give thanks. It’s good for the soul: yours—and theirs!

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The Radical Impermanence of the World and the Permanence of Christian Love


9-11-twin-towers

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11. The Friday after 9/11, I wrote this devotional for my church. Providentially, in this devotional, I was working my way through 1 Corinthians 13 that week, Scripture’s “love chapter.” I’m reposting that devotional today because, fifteen years later, it still expresses my heart and mind in the light of that horrific event.


OPENING PRAYER

This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!

O God, grant us a vision of this city, fair as it might be: a city of justice, where none shall prey upon the other; a city of plenty, where vice and poverty shall cease to fester; a city of brotherhood, where success is founded on service, and honor is given to nobleness alone; a city of peace, where order shall not rest on force, but on the love of all for each and all. (Walter Rauschenbusch, 1861-1918)

SCRIPTURE READING

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13, NIV 1984)

DEVOTIONAL MEDITATION

The events of this week remind us of the radical impermanence of the world.

Who would have thought – on Tuesday, September 11, before 8:45 a.m. – that the day would end with the deaths of nearly 5,000 victims and the total destruction of the Twin Towers and the partial destruction of the Pentagon? Who would have thought that a peaceful nation would, within minutes, be transformed into a nation gearing up for war? Who would have thought that the terror visited upon other, distant nations would be visited upon us?

Life, strength, peace – gone in minutes. Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes the glory of the world.

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul articulates the permanence of Christian love in contrast to the impermanence of everything else. The Corinthian Christians needed to hear this message because they had elevated impermanent things – the gift of tongues – onto a pedestal that one day would topple over. Life passes. Strength passes. Peace passes. The gift of tongues passes, as do the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. But love remains.

We are like children, Paul writes, who grow up. Activities appropriate to youth are inappropriate for grown men and women. Privileges reserved for adults are unavailable to children. Our very speech reflects the change; the halting lisp of childhood gives way to confident talk of serious adults. Our thinking matures. We are born, we grow, we live, and we die. Life passes. But love remains.

Faith itself passes away, as does hope. They are necessary only as long as God delays the final establishment of his kingdom and we enter into his rest. We believe in and we hope for only until our faith becomes sight and our dream a reality. When that happens, we no longer know partially, we know fully, and are fully known. Faith and hope pass. But love remains.

Why? Love remains because God is the only permanent reality, and God is love. Classical theology defines God as the unmoved mover, the being who shakes the heavens and the earth without being shaken. More recently, Clark Pinnock has called God “the most moved mover,” in recognition that his heart of love beats for suffering humanity. God remains, and so love remains.

At this moment in our nation’s history, love is – at the very same time – both close to and far from our minds. When we consider the victims of these terrorists’ attacks, our hearts go out to them and to their families. Throughout the nation, citizens have generously donated their prayers, their time, and even their blood to help those who are suffering. This is good. This is human life as God intended it to be lived.

And yet, I have also heard voices raised in anger. Calls for merciless and indiscriminate war against the citizens of Muslim nations, regardless of whether they perpetuated or supported the men who terrorized us all on Tuesday. This is bad. This is human life as Satan intends it to be lived. Love for our enemies, which Christ commanded, is far from our minds.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for justice, and if justice must come through the prosecution of war, then so be it. But after war, then what? In his second Inaugural Address, at the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln expressed thoughts that we must keep in mind when we are done with our war: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Charity for all. A just and lasting peace with all nations. That is what God is calling us to help establish once the coming war is justly prosecuted. The battle passes away, but love remains.

Sic transit gloria mundi. But not the glory of God.

CLOSING PRAYER

O heavenly Father, at whose hand the weak shall take no wrong nor the might escape from judgment; pour your grace upon your servants our judges and magistrates, that by their true, fruitful and diligent execution of justice to all equally, you may be glorified, the commonwealth daily promoted, and we all live in peace and quietness, godliness and virtue; through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Thomas Cranmer, 1489-1556)

Plans and People (1 Corinthians 16:5-24)


Paul concludes his contentious letter to the Corinthians by writing them about his plans and about the people whose friendship they hold in common.

First of all, his plans. Paul intends to visit the Corinthians, although he can’t tell them exactly when he will arrive. He will come to them, he says, “after I go through Macedonia.” The important thing is not the timing of the visit, however, but its duration. “I do not want to see you now and make only a passing visit; I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits.”

I have often noticed, in emails and instant messages over the internet, how difficult it is to convey my feelings through only the written word. Sorrow, sarcasm, wry humor – all these things require a tone of voice, an arched eyebrow, a sly smile. They all require, in other words, personal presence. It is through our nonverbal communication that we express what the words of our verbal communications really mean.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has often said some harsh things to and unflattering things about them. No doubt Paul wanted to spend extensive time with them to let them know the depth of his personal feelings for them, how much he loved them as his children. He was angry with them, yes, but with a parental anger. If he was with them personally, they would understand how quickly his anger could turn into joy and love and pride of spiritual paternity.

For Paul was indeed proud of them and glad for their conversion, and he loved them deeply and richly. They were, after all, his people, his spiritual family and nation. Throughout today’s Scripture Reading, Paul mentions many names: Timothy, Apollos, Priscilla and Aquila, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. Some of these people were known by the Corinthians. The first four in my list, for instance, were instrumental in bringing the Corinthians to faith and in nurturing them spiritually. The final three were themselves members of the Corinthian congregation. What united them were a common faith in God, a common belief in Christ, and a common experience of the Holy Spirit. Though now separated from one another by long distances, they had more in common with one another than with their current neighbors.

To be a Christian is to live in constant fellowship with other Christians, both at home and abroad. Often, in my travels, I have had the opportunity to spend time with Christians in other countries. We are separated by ethnicity, language, and geography – all three, powerful forces. But we are united by a force more powerful: “the grace of the Lord Jesus.” It is ultimately this bond, this commonality, that Paul appeals to in his many arguments with the Corinthians. Because we are united by Christ, we should not be divided by any other thing.

And so we conclude Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We have learned about the supremacy of Christ, the priority of his cross, and the finality of his resurrection. We have seen that we should act in love toward our friends in all things – from how we eat to how we speak. We have learned, in a nutshell, to keep first things first.

St. Augustine once said that in essential matters, Christians should have unity; in nonessential matters, they should have liberty; but in all matters, they should have charity – that is, love. “My love to all of you in Christ Jesus. Amen.”

Remembering the Poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-4)


An abrupt transition occurs in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Heretofore, Paul has been speaking in lofty theological terms about lofty theological themes. Now, however, he offers four verses of advice on the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of giving. The transition is, if you think about it, a marvelous comment on the Christian life, for the life of faith includes everything from the sublime to the mundane. No aspect of life is untouched by God’s grace. Our ideas must change, and so must our habits – even our spending habits.

“Now about the collection for God’s people….”

In the early church, a dispute arose as to whether a person must become a Jew in order to become a Christian. Christianity is, of course, Jewish. Our Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible. Jesus himself was a fully observant Jew, as were all the writers of the New Testament, except Luke, who was a Gentile. Although the early church dispute is not a live issue for us today, in the first century, it nearly drove the church apart. As you can read in Acts 15, a church council met in Jerusalem and decided that Gentile converts were not required to under circumcision, eat a kosher diet, or in any way observe the Jewish ceremonial law.

Reflecting on this council, Paul writes of the division of missionary labor that resulted from the Jerusalem Council: “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:9-10).

The collection for God’s people – especially the poor Christians in Jerusalem – was Paul’s way of keeping his promise. Not only did this collection demonstrate Christian concern for the social well-being of the poor, but it also demonstrated the love of Gentile Christians for Jewish Christians. The offering was a way of supplying needs and bringing people together. In a first-century world where ethnic and religious differences were sharp and strong, and in a church that was still trying to figure out how to be united in spite of these differences, a generous offering for the Jewish poor from Gentile converts would go a long way toward uniting the church.

And, we might add, toward facilitating exuberant worship. “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:12-15).

As I already wrote, the Jewish-Gentile division in the early church is no longer a live issue for us today, but there are still poor people in our church and in our community. We are, let’s face it, a comparatively wealthy church, and our affluence sometimes makes the poor or the homeless or the otherwise “different” uncomfortable in our presence. What better way to supply their needs, welcome them into our community, and inspire them to worship God than by blessing them materially?

The Death of Death (1 Corinthians 15:50-58)


Many years ago, Rocky Aoki – the founder and owner of Benihana Restaurants – remarked, “Life is a one-hundred yard dash with a brick wall at the finish line.” With these words, he expressed a sentiment many have when they have no hope beyond this life. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” is how Rocky Aoki might have put it if he had lived in Paul’s day.

All of us must vote in what Bruce Thornton calls “the bleak democracy of death.” That is a fact which we cannot change. But we need not all vote for Rocky Aoki’s candidate. Paul, you see, offered a hopeful alternative. Christ rose again, and so can we if we put our faith in him.

Paul believed, as do all Christians, that death is not the brick wall at the end of life’s race. Rather, it is the thin tape stretched across the finish line that we must run through if we are to participate in the victory celebration. To switch metaphors, Paul believed that death is a nap, a short sleep from which we will awake when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

And when Christ returns, “we will all be changed.” Here is another metaphor for death and resurrection. It is a change of garments – “For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”

All of these metaphors point to a single truth: Death is a fact of life, but not the only fact of life. The great fact of life is that “Death has been swallowed up in victory” by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death, therefore, is not to be feared by those who have put their hope in Christ for a better life.

In the seventeenth century, John Donne wrote a marvelous “holy sonnet” addressed to death. Donne, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, lived and ministered during the horrible years when three waves of bubonic plague devastated the population of London. Rather than flee to the countryside for safety, Donne remained in London, preaching the comforting gospel to those in imminent peril of plague. In his “holy sonnet,” he wrote:

 Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;

From rest and sleep, which by thy pictures be,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,

Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery.

Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,

And better than thy stroke, why swell’st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

For those who have put their faith in Christ, all that separates this life from the next is a comma, a brief pause to catch a breath. We live, we die, we rise again. In Christ, death is not so much to be feared as pitied, for in the end, death will die, but we will awake to the glorious morning of resurrection.

Natural and Spiritual Bodies (1 Corinthians 15:45-49)


First Corinthians 15:45-49 continues the argument of the previous paragraph. At verse 35, Paul asked, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” He answered that question in verse 44 by saying that although people are born with a “natural body,” they are raised with a “spiritual body.” Verses 45-49 expand on this answer by means of an analogy between Adam and Christ.

Before we get to the analogy, however, it is important to understand what Paul means by the distinction between “natural” and “spiritual” bodies. In Greek, the word for “natural” is “psychikoi” and the word for “spiritual” is “pneumatikoi.” It would be easy to understand those terms as synonyms for “material” and “immaterial” bodies. We are born with a material, flesh-and-blood body, but we will be raised with an immaterial, indestructible body. That would be the easy way to understand “natural” and “spiritual,” but it would be a misunderstanding of the terms.

Gordon Fee outlines a proper understanding of “psychikoi” and “pneumatikoi”: “These are the same two adjectives used in 2:14 to describe the basic differences between believer and unbeliever. In this case, therefore, as the next analogy (vv. 45-49) will make clear, they do not describe the “stuff” or composition of the body; nor are they value words as in 2:14, describing the essential difference between those who belong to God and those who do not. Rather, they describe the one body in terms of its essential characteristics as earthly, on the one hand, and therefore belong to the life of the present age, and as heavenly, on the other, and therefore belonging to the life of the Spirit in the age to come. It is ‘spiritual,’ not in the sense of ‘immaterial’ but of ‘supernatural,’ as he will explain with the help of Scripture in v. 45, because it will have been recreated by Christ, who himself through his resurrection came to be a ‘life-giving Spirit.’”

And so we come to verse 45: “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” When God molded Adam from the dust of the earth, Genesis 2:7 tells us, he then breathed his Spirit into him so that he came alive. God’s Spirit goes into the first Adam. God’s Spirit goes out of the second, Adam, however, giving life to everyone else. In other words, while God must pour life into the first Adam, through the second Adam – the resurrected Christ – he pours out life upon all who believe in him.

Our life, in other words, passes through stages from “natural” to “spiritual” by means of the resurrection. When Paul writes, “The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual,” he is merely describing the chronological order of our existence. We are born – like Adam – with a body that is capable of death, but we will be raised – like Christ – with a body capable of immortality. As Paul writes, “just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.”

Behind all this admittedly difficult-to-understand exegesis and hair-splitting definition of terms there lies an extremely important point that we must grasp concerning spirituality. The Corinthians practiced a decidedly immaterial form of spirituality. In other words, they didn’t give a fig about the body. All that mattered was the immaterial spirit. For Paul, however, spirituality encompassed the entire human being – body, mind, and spirit. In Christ, God is redeeming all of it. By denying the resurrection of the body, the Corinthians were limiting the scope of salvation and hence the love of God for his creation.

God wants to redeem you and me in the totality of our humanity. He cares for the body, and so should we.

If No Resurrection, Then What? (1 Corinthians 15:29-34)


In 1 Corinthians 15:29-34, Paul points out three consequences of denying Christ’s resurrection.

First, Christian theology goes wobbly. Verse 29 refers to the Corinthian practice of baptism for the dead. Nobody’s quite sure what baptism for the dead looked like or why the Corinthians practiced it. Perhaps it involved baptizing a live Christian on behalf of a dead pagan in hope that the dead would receive the benefits of Christian baptism. Whatever it was, it was a Corinthian eccentricity. The New Testament nowhere condones it, it contradicts what the Bible elsewhere teaches about baptism, and no Christian church has ever followed the Corinthian example. Paul briefly cites baptism for the dead as an ad hominem argument against the Corinthians. “If you don’t believe in the resurrection,” he seems to ask, “why do you baptize the dead? It’s not going to do them any good.” Bad theology always leads us into such contradictions.

Second, courage goes soft. Verses 30-32 refer to the intense persecution Paul experienced throughout his ministry, but especially at Ephesus, from which he wrote this letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s question – “why do we endanger ourselves ever hour?” – is quite pointed, for if there is no resurrection, why bother enduring opposition? Throughout the history of the Christian church, courageous men and women have undertaken great missionary labors, at considerable personal expense and danger, in order to advance the gospel. They endured hardship in this life in order to experience unquenchable joy in the next. But if there is no next life, why bother? If Christianity is false, then absolute hedonism is true: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Third, morality goes awry. Verses 33-34 draw the connection between our beliefs and our behavior. If we believe there is no future judgment at which we will be saved or judged, if we believe in other words that there is no resurrection, then we can do whatever we want. We will eat and drink. We will all become hedonists. Here’s the problem, though: Hedonism contributes nothing good to this life or to the life to come. Think about it. A person solely committed to the satisfaction of his own desire for pleasure is unlikely to do anything heroic or significant in this life. Because the heroic and the significant involve hard work, especially the hard work of enduring opposition. Had Martin Luther King Jr. been a hedonist, would we have had a Civil Rights movement? Had William Wilberforce and the “Clapham sect” been hedonists, would the British slave trade have been abolished? Had Jesus been a hedonist, would any of us have been saved? So, Paul tells the Corinthians to “come back to [their] senses,” literally, to “sober up,” for there is work to do in this life and joy to experience in the next.

If there is no resurrection, then what? Wobbly theology, cowardice, and immorality. These are hardly the building blocks of a life useful to God and others.

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