Live at Apollos'... and Love Your Enemy

I begin this morning with letting you in on the trade of sermon writing. It is an essential trade of the minister, and each minister does it a little differently. Some read and some work off notes. Some ministers look ahead and have their sermons planned out for the next few weeks. Some feel it better to be more flexible and responsive to present happenings, and don’t plan too far ahead. Some preachers begin writing the sermon or outlining the sermon on Monday. Some wait till later in the week though they are thinking about it throughout the week. Some even wait till Saturday to actually put the sermon down after pondering it the whole week. The minister of my childhood church didn’t write his sermons and hardly used notes, and he’d get up really early Sunday morning, take a prayerful walk, and he’d go through what he wanted to say.
In other words, the trade of preaching is extremely diverse. Each preacher is different, and the tricks of their trade is very individual. What works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for the other. Yes, diversity reigns when it comes to the trade of preaching. For this reason, preaching is more an art than a trade.
Well, in our reading from I Corinthians, there is mention of a preacher named Apollos. Another preacher, an evangelist preacher, by the name of Paul writes the church in Corinth and mentions Apollos. Paul indicates there is division in Corinth. Some are attached and more in line with Paul who founded the church in Corinth. Others are more attached and in line with Apollos the church’s current pastor, if you will. Paul is calling for unity, and end the division around himself and Apollos. He points to Christ. Christ is the hub, the center which the wheel revolves around. Christ and his salvation unites all things, even planter and waterer.
Maybe you’ve heard of the famous quote usually attributed to St. Augustine: "in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity." Well, Paul is saying let’s focus on the essential of all essentials, Christ.
But maybe you’re wondering, who is Apollos? Well, Apollos and his involvement in the earliest days of the church, points us to another example of diversity. The early days of the church show a great deal of diversity.
Apollos is introduced in the book of Acts, chapter 18. Verses 24-28 say this,
24 Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. 25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. 26 He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
27 When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. 28 For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.
The talk about the baptism of John and the implication that it was not fully sufficient, what is that about? Well, the beginning of the next chapter, Acts 19, tells us:
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.
The suggestion here is that only baptism in the name of Christ brings the Holy Spirit. But there were Jesus-followers who were baptized in the name of repentance as John used to do it. It is suggested in Acts 19 that they didn’t have an understanding of anything known as the Holy Spirit. They are still called disciples, however. They simply didn’t see things like Paul did at the time. This changes, of course. But again, there was a diversity of thought even a few years after Jesus’ departure.
In the church, Apollos is known as Apollos of Alexandria. Alexandria is in Egypt now, but was founded by the Greek emperor Alexander the Great. Alexandria was a thoroughly Greek city as was Corinth. There is another renowned Jew living in Alexandria at the time. His name is Philo. He became one of the most important philosophers of the time or any time. He was known as an Hellenized Jew. To be hellenized means to become Greek in culture. So, Philo offered a Greek philosophical understanding of the Jewish faith. Philo fused the philosophy of Plato with a Jewish understanding of God.
The reason I introduce Philo here is that many believe Apollos was a student of Philo or a fellow Hellenized Jew, a Jew influenced by Greek philosophy. In this case, Apollos would have been a Hellenized Jewish-Christian. His was a Jew influenced by Greek philosophy who came to follow Christ. Again, we have an example of diversity in Apollos’ own life and thought.
Finally, Apollos is ministering in Corinth, a Greek town. The church in Corinth was a Gentile church full of Greeks raised in the religion of the Greek gods and in the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. That Apollos was influenced by the latter helped him in being a minister in Corinth.
A Jewish-Christian pastoring a Gentile church – again, diversity. And how do we approach diversity? Paul seems to agree with the Augustine-attributed saying, "in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity."
I want to finish up our time with one of Christ’s most famous statements. I read it this morning – “love your enemies.”
Is this a real commandment from Jesus? Are we expected to love even our enemies?
I am the father of a 6th grader. My son is a great kid. He is fun and funny. He is resilient and forgiving. He is compassionate. And he is really bright. One of the things he’s not at this point is studious. He doesn’t like to study. But because he is so smart, I still expect him to do well in school. I expect him to get A’s and B’s, not C’s. Yes, this is a lot to expect. But I expect it.
Well, with Jesus and his command we love our enemies, it’s similar. Yes, loving our enemies is a humungous ask and task. Nearly impossible sometimes. But the expectation is there. Christ expects us at least to work toward that goal. Will we always meet the expectation? No. Will God hold it against us? No. Will God be disappointed? We can’t deny that the answer to this question is “yes.” I am disappointed in Corey getting a “C.” Because I know he’s capable of a A or at least a B. It is essential we try to love our enemy.
The goal is the goal. The goal is to love deeply, to love like God loves, to love all. Loving our enemies is the good grade Christ hopes for and expects in us. We should work toward that aim as best we can. We do this by studying, by practicing, by praying, by letting go of self and self-centeredness and letting God work through us. That is the work we are called to do as Christians and as a Christian church. Let us do it together.
Amen.

Paul, the SBNR OG?

There is a new label you may have heard. Ministers certainly know the new label. In fact, we deal with the reality the label points to all the time. That label refers to people who are otherwise spiritual but are not actively involved in a church or any religious organization. In fact, they will often rail against organized religion. The label has become so common it has been shortened to an acronym – SBNR.
The spiritual but not religious. SBNRs. We all know folks who fit the description. Maybe some of you feel an affinity with such folks or maybe would even accept the label yourself.
What’s for sure, SBNR’s are growing in number, far outpacing folks claiming a specific religion or church.
Now, there is some credence for the idea of being spiritual but not religious in the scriptures, but with a very specific idea of what it means to be spiritual. What it means to be spiritual according to the scriptures is what I’d like to discuss today.
I’d like to begin by suggesting to you that the SNBR originals, the Spiritual but Not Religious OG’s, are the two most important figures in the Christian New Testament, Paul and Jesus.
We see Paul’s SBNR provenance quite clearly in today’s reading from I Corinthians, verse 15 especially: “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
But what does Paul mean by “spiritual”? What makes someone spiritual versus nonspiritual?
Paul tells us in verse 10. God reveals to us spiritual things through God’s Spirit. God through the Spirit moves us to be spiritual. The Spirit of God, the breath of God, breathes out who God is and leads us to understand God’s wisdom and love. Those who take in, those who internalize this breath of God, the breath that exhales God’s still speaking voice, those who receive God’s spirit which tell us about God fully, come to understand spiritual things.
Verse 12 says it all, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”
Being spiritual for Paul means receiving the spirit of God into our own spirits. The spirit of God infusing the human spirit – that is what makes someone spiritual for Paul.
Okay, we see what Paul means by spiritual. Spiritual means our spirits are infused with God’s spirit. What about the BNR though? What about the “but not religious?” Is Paul against religion?
If a religion is void of the Spirit of grace, love, and freedom, then, yes, Paul, like Christ whom he follows, is against religion. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians, makes this specific. 2 Corinthians 3:6 says this: “God has made us competent to be ministers of Christ’s new covenant, not of letter of the law but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
It is the spiritual life that matters most. Our religious faith ought to give way to a spiritual life that grows in God. A religion of rules and regulations, of rotely being religious just because, is not primary for Paul. A spirituality of grace and relationship is the point. The letter of the law kills. The Spirit of grace gives life.

So, Paul would be okay with the idea of being spiritual but not religious as long as we see spirituality as a gift from God. In fact, the aim of religious faith is to be spiritual in the truest sense of the word – receiving the Spirit of God complete with grace, love, and wisdom into our hearts.
However, what Paul would urge against is dismissing the importance of community. Being spiritual alone, on your lonesome, and not connecting to a community that seeks to do God’s work together, this is a recipe for disconnection and self-centeredness. Let’s not forget, Paul is talking to a community of Jesus-followers in Corinth. And he uses the language of we and us not I and me.
We speak God’s wisdom
God has revealed godly wisdom to us
We have received the Spirit that is from God so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
And we speak these things in words not taught by human wisdom but by the Spirit.
We have the mind of Christ.
A spirituality without the we, a spirituality without a community, is not spirituality in the truest sense for Paul. Spirituality and community go together. A spiritual person lives its finest and truest life when it lives as part of a community focused on the Spirit of God, the spiritual life, and collectively living out the mind of Christ.

Speaking of the mind of Christ, we don’t see the mind of Christ more clearly than we do in the chapter from Matthew we’ve been reading from these last couple weeks and will continue to read from for the next couple. Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Mount found therein gives us the perfect picture of Christ’s mind.
Last week we read the beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in the spirit and the mournful, those empty at heart and starving for justice, the meek and the merciful, the peacemakers and persecuted…
This week we read:
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
In a couple weeks, some churches will read these later words from the Sermon on the Mount,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven”
Yes, those rich and full with worldly power and pride may laugh at Jesus’ words as they did last week at the National Prayer Breakfast, they may see such divine wisdom as foolishness and hence laughable, they may see it as naivety and nicety instead of the mind of Christ and hence the ultimate Christian aim, but we as the church, as the extension of Christ in the world, as Christ’s light in the world, we know better. At least, we ought to.
As I come to a close, I say this: worldly power will use and abuse religion. Religion void of a spirituality based in grace, love, and compassion is a tool worldly power prefer. For it is so easy to use such a graceless, hateful, and callous tool when worldly power is all you seek. Godly power is the way of the Spirit. Godly power is the way of Christ and his kingdom. Godly power is found secure in those living the spiritual life, a life moved by grace, love, wisdom, and compassion. And godly power is not sought or possessed but shared with those who are powerless. Let us as Christians and as a Christian church embody godly power and share it with those we meet along life’s way. Amen.

Holding Peace

Simeon is an old man who doesn’t want to die until he sees the Anointed One, the “consolation” of his people. He is holding out hope till the very end. Why?
Luke tells us he was an upright and pious man. Heaven seems already his. Hope for heaven doesn’t seem necessary, at least not for himself.
Simeon has been waiting for salvation for his people. But not just for his people – for all people. As he holds the Child, he says the prayer he has been waiting to say all his life, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have made ready before the face of all peoples, A light for a revelation to the gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”
Salvation is in that child right then and there. Jesus will not be made ready. To use a playground cliché, Jesus was born ready. As an infant, he is already ready, and for all peoples, both Gentile and Jew. Simeon is not pleading to somehow stick around for 33 more years until the day when Jesus dies on the cross or is resurrected. Salvation doesn’t have to wait till then. The Incarnation is enough.
And the process of holding the Child provides its own quiet theophany, an experience of God amid the twilight of his years. In holding the baby Jesus, Simeon holds the embodiment of God’s peace. In taking Jesus into his arms, Simeon takes God’s peace into his heart. And in so doing, he opens his heart, making it capable of awakening to God’s unmediated presence. Simeon’s act of tenderness, the act of holding a child in his arms, removes the veil between himself and God.
What leads us to this kind of theophany, this kind of God-reception? Our text from Luke mentions the Holy Spirit three times. First, the Spirit has guided Simeon’s life in general. Secondly, the Holy Spirit reveals to Simeon that his death would not occur until the anointed one came. Lastly, the Spirit leads Simeon to the temple to meet the infant Jesus.
As Simeon realized, there is a spark of the Good in us, sacredly and holily moving within. If we are indeed seriously seeking truth, something will guide us on the right path to that truth.
Something tenderizes the heart and makes it ready to receive the love of God. This something is a someone, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit softens the hardened self and makes tender the callous heart, so we can see and feel love knocking at that heart’s temple door.  
If we home in on the essential process of the heart, we see that the process of the heart means allowing the heart to become tender and softer. And out of that tenderness and softness, we receive and hold God’s gift of love to us.
The Jewish context makes the story much clearer. According to Mosaic law, a mother was seen as needing purification after bearing a boy, even if that boy was the Anointed One, the Christ. This purification process took place 33 days after the new one’s circumcision. And circumcision happened on the 8th day after birth. 33 plus 8 equals 41. So, after 41 days, a ritual offering could be performed at the Temple. This ritual offering in effect enabled the child to be presented to the Temple community and to the God worshiped therein.
Also involved in this process was a kind of tithe or tax. That tithe or tax was 5 shekels, the texts tells us, and it was mandated by Hebrew Law when presenting a baby boy to the temple.
The text mentions two turtle doves? Well, if you couldn’t afford to offer a lamb, turtle doves or pigeons, both much cheaper than a lamb, would suffice. This tells us that the family coming into the Temple are not of the means to afford a lamb. Concisely put, this is a family dealing with some issues of poverty. Yet they are faithful whatever the costs.   

So, we meet Jesus and his family at 41 days old. Jesus is being carried by Mary and Joseph joins them, coming into the temple to present Jesus as a child of Yahweh. They come with 5 shekels and 2 turtle doves for the sacrificial offering. This was how it was done for faithful followers of Torah, the way of God.
Simeon’s prophecy which comes next is also entrenched in Jewish tradition. It is a prophecy born of a long wait. Simeon’s speak his truth to Mary. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul.”
The newborn revelation baby Jesus presents is scandalous good news. He will later embody it on the cross. The good news preaches that the kingdom of God is a revolution of the heart. It is a revolution that requires the heart be made vulnerable, that the heart be pierced and broken, in turn enabling compassion.
In John chapter 1 we are offered the poetic version of the Christmas story in the gospels. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” I’d offer a paraphrase that makes more sense to me. “The Word became embodied and dwelt among us.” Or the Word became a living poem given to us.
Infant Jesus, a single-word, sacred poem that embodies God, dwelling here and now, among us and hopefully within us – that is the meaning of this day.
As for Simeon, he holds that embodied Word in his arms. He holds that sacred poem cooing and peers into the eyes of God.
What does the poetic Truth embodied in 41-day-old Jesus mean? What does the Word embodied in Jesus say?
Those poor in spirit, those who’ve emptied themselves of go-it-alone-ness, who’ve opened their hearts to the tenderizing power of the Spirit, who’ve received the impoverished power of love, those like Simeon, will know the kingdom of heaven.
Most all of us have held a baby. Holding a baby is what peace looks like. How can you demonize, how can you hate and harm a baby or someone whose baby you hold?
What does it take to hold a baby? It takes a receptive, easygoing heart not afraid of being vulnerable.
To hold peace in our hearts, both externally and internally, takes the same. It takes a receptive heart toward God, others, and ourselves. A receptive heart gives way to a vulnerability that reaches out with relaxed arms and with an at-ease-ness capable of holding God’s gift of love close to us.
If enemies open-heartedly held the babies of their enemies, war would cease, and peace commence.
Simeon in holding the Prince of Peace is assured of the world’s salvation and can go and depart in peace. The world has been made right. May we sit and hold peace in our arms. May we realize peace and breathe that peace into the world. May we know the enlightenment of holding the infant Jesus in our arms and seeing the universal light of salvation.