imagery

Remind Me Who I Am

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While in Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth. He had to tackle a couple of serious issues that were not only dividing the church, but also harming their witness in the city of Corinth. Though Paul dealt with specific moral issues, his goal was far more encompassing. He wanted to say something important about life in the Kingdom of God.

Imagine (if you will) PauI taking a break after writing the first couple of chapters. He decides to meet a friend for breakfast to talk throughs some of the issues as he prepares for what is now referred to as 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. ( I should note that all the cultural details I give in this conversation are taken from some very detailed history of the Greeks and Romans culture of that time. Sarah Ruden's "Paul Among The People" provides an excellent historical background for this imagined conversation).

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“So Paul, how’s the letter going?”

“Well, I took a little time to talk about humility and pride, and how God has a way of using the unnoticed and overlooked to build his kingdom. I told them they were like a field that God farms – the dirt, specifically, that just nourishes what it’s been given. That was to bring them all to the same level. Then I told them they were like God's building – they are all still chosen and placed in the structure by God, but He’s building a presence in Corinth that provides safety and stability. I finished with the claim that they were like a temple. God’s presence and spirit inhabits them, which makes them holy. “

“I like it. Dirt’s humble, but temples are holy. Good combination. There's both a humility and honor that comes with committing to the service of Christ.”

“That's true. I hope those analogies connect.”


“So what’s the next topic?”

“Well, I told them in my last letter not to tolerate sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). They took that to mean that they couldn’t hang out with anybody who was immoral, which meant pretty much everybody in Corinth. That wasn’t my point. I was hoping they would read that as “raising the bar” within the church. On the one hand, they got super spiritual and disconnected from the community. On the other hand, they overlooked a huge problem right there in the church. I don’t know if I told you, but there’s one guy in the church who is sleeping with his father’s wife." (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

“Yikes.”

“She’s his stepmom, but it’s still adultery and awfully close to incest.”

“That’s not good.”

“That's an understatement. Then there’s all the people throwing lawsuits at each other and making fools of themselves in the courts in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:5-8). And if that’s not bad enough, they aren’t just looking for justice – they are cheating other people in the church. As if they weren’t having a hard enough time spreading the message of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. I have to get through to them that this is not the Kingdom of God. This is not a life of grace and peace – and holiness.”

“Why is it that these kind of issues pop up in Corinth and not, say, in Thessalonica?”

“The Thessalonicans were busy staying alive. It’s not like that in Corinth. Power isn’t their enemy; pleasure is. Have you ever been to Corinth?”

“No, but I’ve heard stories.”

“Well, there’s a lot to learn about what it means to be a Corinthian. There’s a lot of idol worship. There are 10 temples at least, and maybe up to 24 or 25 holy places. And all the gods are in competition, so all the followers are in competition too. So when people decided to follow Jesus, the transition was a little messy. They didn’t all like each other, because they were following different gods before. It was easy to copy the pattern, just this time it was, “I’m was with Apollos” instead of Jupiter, and “I was with Paul” instead of Artemis,” and “I was with Peter” instead of Poseidon. They still thought they to earn the favor of the gods by being impressive; they had to follow just the right person to be on God’s good side depending on what they want.
     I don’t think they ever came to church with actual idols, but the old mindset was still there. They didn’t believe God was actually interested in them unless they could get his attention. The idea of grace – God “leaning in to you”, being on your side - was brand new.

“So you’ve got a church full of people trying to impress God like they tried to impress their old gods.”

“Yep. And if you have the mindset that God’s love is based on how impressive you are, then most of the people in their church have their work cut out for them. You can’t earn God’s love, but even if you could, they were in for a rough road. For example, there are plenty of men joining the church who were into the symposiums.

“I’ve been to symposiums here, and it was just a bunch of old guys sitting around and talking about ideas.”

“Symposium literally means “drinking together.” For some people, that’s just a way of saying it’s a social gathering with some wine, but not in Corinth. A bunch of guys would get together, ban their wives, and drink themselves under the table… where the flute girls were waiting for them, and they weren’t playing music. It was a rare symposium that got anything constructive done.
     But the symposiums were just entry level. The komos guys were worse. They were the ones who led the late night parties, the ones who would drink excessively all night, then walk around the town and kidnap and rape people in the name of having a good time.”

“Sounds like a’ reality play’ waiting to happen – 'Keeping Up With the Corinthians.'”

“It’s hard to keep up with the Corinthians, let me tell you. It’s not just alcohol and parties either. There are thousands of temple prostitutes, and huge parties that eventually end up with everybody sleeping with everybody else.
     In Corinth they have a word, “porneia.” which describes a particular type of woman. The men would parade the slave girls, the "pornos," through the marketplace naked. Many of the men would buy them and beat them – you can buy vases in Corinth with drawings that celebrate their sexual and physical brutality. These men treat these women as objects, and they see sex as a simply a thing to buy and sell. As you can imagine, this mindset effects every woman to whom they relate."

“Sounds like it’s tough to be a woman in Corinth.”

“It’s tough to be a young man, also. In Corinth, it’s not unusual to find an adult man who targets a young boy, and basically owns him sexually until he gets tired of him. The conqueror is considered manly and admirable, I guess because he has shown that he is powerful and can take a young man full of potential and life and break him.
     But the boys they choose are from then on considered soft or effeminate – the Corinthians use a word “malakos” that means soft, like a garment - and less than manly, and socially they are ruined and shamed for the rest of their life. Believe me, fathers keep a close eye on their sons in Corinth.

 

“Is all this just no big deal in Corinth? Is there any kind of social stigma attached to any of this – the prostitutes, the affairs, the homosexuality?”

“There are only two kinds of people that the Corinthians reject: the boys I just mentioned, and those who commit adultery with a married woman. Adultery is off limits. Men get beaten, castrated, and even killed if they choose married women; the women lose their households and their children are declared illegitimate, which means they lose their inheritance and their citizenship. And the boys who are targeted by the adult men become outcasts as soon as the men are done with them. Other than that, men can do what they want. It’s not a great town for women or young men."

“That’s a lot of people in need of healing – not just the victims, but the abusers.”

“That’s true. I’m glad the gospel of Christ is up for the task. The church is the only place to provide a place of grace and peace.”

“It sounds like the Corinthians brought a lot of Corinth into the church with them. That makes peace a difficult thing to achieve, doesn’t it?

“That’s not the half of it. Corinth has a ton of money parading through its streets, and it’s so easy to get caught up in the money game. Some people don’t go to temples to worship idols; they sit in the bank and worship. They would steal, they would run these schemes where they would learn people’s secrets and run this extortion racket – and believe me, there are a lot of skeletons in Corinthian closets. They are used to getting what they have through bribery and corruption. They are used to using the legal system to sue people and take what is not rightfully theirs. We’ve brought in some people whose objective in life was to acquire of more wealth, and that’s not a habit that is easily broken."

“I know a guy named Ponzi who is really into that.”

“Yep, he’s got quite a following. Anyway, collecting the offering is tricky.”

“I have to think that it’s hard for people to ignore the histories of the people in the church. I’m assuming everybody knows about the others?"

“Slander and gossip is practically a game in Corinth. Have you seen all the scrolls at the checkout out lines at Jebediah’s Coconut Mart?"

“Pilate was an alien, apparently.”

“Right…. Anyway, they are nothing compared to what happens in Corinth. Any rumor is a good rumor, and people have been made and broken because of the sharp tongue or sharpened pen of some babbler who constantly destroys other people with their gossip. So add that to the mix in our church."

“So let me see if I have this right. You started a church with some serious partiers, actual idol worshippers, people who will do anything sexually, prostitutes and rapists and abusers – AND their victims. You have greedy thieving, gossiping, slanderous people. And that’s the Corinthian church?”

“I have a different way of looking at it. Who needs Jesus more than these? They are all desperately in need of a community of people who will accept them, love them, forgive them AND challenge them to be a temple for God. Jesus himself said he didn’t come for the healthy and the righteous, right? He came for the sick and the sinners (Mark 2:17). Is there a better message of hope than one that says God can turn these people into a temple in which His Holy Spirit dwells?

 

“So when you went there, you were surrounded by people with all this sin. It must have been easy to think, ‘Thank God I’m not like them! I only did…THIS!’ How did you stay humble? How did you keep this all in perspective?

“Well, look who you are talking to. The ‘I only did this’ is that I killed people. I hunted Christians down and stoned them to death. And Jesus appeared to me and called me into his service anyway. So if they can’t be a church, well, I can’t be the church either. But even if a sin wasn’t so noticeable, we all have sinned. Sometimes sin is really obvious; other times it’s far more subtle, but just as real.
     God’s love is for everyone, so we started a church with the humiliated, the shamed, and the broken, with no future for them in Corinth. And we talked about grace, and peace, and forgiveness, and holiness and what life in the Kingdom of Heaven looked like. “

“I've heard you preach the same message here. Because of Christ,  people who did evil things and people who had evil things done to them – they all can be restored and used in the service of God to bring truth, justice, peace, and grace to the world.”

“Precisely. That’s the piece of the puzzle the church is missing right now. They are having a hard time letting go of the their own past as well as the brothers and sisters in Christ. On the bad days, they still think there is no way they are good enough for God, or that they can ever overcome their past. They are still very Corinthianized. It's hard to overcome a lifetime of experiences.

“So here’s my summary: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, drunkards, slanderers and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God“ (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

“That’s a pretty grim list when you put it that bluntly.”

“It’s honest.”

“Yes, it’s honest…but it’s incomplete. I also need to remind them that their history is not their destiny. They don’t have to be stuck with the guilt and punishment of sin. Put next, “And that is what some of you were" (1 Corinthians 6:11). They may think their identity is based on what defined them in the past, but that’s not who they are now. If they are feeling guilty and condemned, I want to point out that through Christ their penalty has been paid, so add this too: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)

“You might have to clarify your terms here. I think the Jews know all the terminology – will the Corinthians get it? They are mostly Gentiles. ”
 
 “Washing is purifying. They had been made pure by the sacrifice of Christ. That’s one of the symbols that goes with baptism, or with washing each other’s feet during the Lord’s Supper – they were dirty, but now they have been made clean.

     Sanctified is just the ongoing process of purifying. If you walk across Ephesus, you’re feet get dirty. You wash them again. As we walk through life, our souls and lives get dirty. God washes them again.
     Justified is a legal term, and believe me, this church knows about legal terms. Even though they are guilty of a lot of sin, when they stand before God He will pardon them because the penalty has been covered by Christ. They will own nothing, even though they once owed everything.

“That’s always good to hear. All of us need God’s mercy and grace. It’s easy to think that all of our past failures somehow define us, and even thought I know in my head that’s not the end of the story of my life, it’s not always easy to really let that sink in. I know what I was, and that can be depressing if I stop there. Thank God that’s not who I am now."

                                           

                       Jason Gray, "Remind Me Who I Am"

 

The Potter and the Clay (Part 2)

In the previous post, we looked at how the Potter pulls the clay from the ground and prepares it for His use. He "wedges" it to get rid of air holes, then throws it into the center of the wheel. After that, of course,  the shaping begins.

“Opening the form” happens after centering.  The potter puts his finger into the very center of the clay to create a well. As He pulls the clay towards him, the clay begins to respond.  Re-centering happens throughout this entire process. We are constantly in need of aligning ourselves with God and his ways. There is an interesting incident in Jeremiah18:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”
      We all get marred by others:  cruel words, physical abuse; emotional manipulation.  We call them scars.  But sometimes we mar ourselves – we make choices that catch up with us.  And it’s not that the Potter has to throw us away, but there is a re-centering, and maybe a new well, a new direction in the plan.  The Potter is not stumped, but the pot may take on a different shape on the way to fulfilling the Potter’s purpose.
    Sometimes our lives take a path we don’t expect.  We had this plan – we were going to do THIS with our life – but we got marred, and something about that marring changed the shape of our lives.  And we still have the same purpose we always did, but now we might get there a different way.  
Pulling up the wall (the sides of the pot), the Potter's hands no longer fully surround the clay.  The hands change position to one hand on the inside and one on the outside and the wheel speed slows considerably.  Gentle pressure inward forces the clay upward.  Again, pressure must be steady or the form will shift off center.  God is doing something inside us, but He’s also working on the outside.  When this happens to us, there are things happening that no one else can see – but there are also things people can see.  God doesn’t just work on what we do [external]; God doesn’t just work on who we are [internal]. He works on both.
     The Potter does not need to use much pressure to make the clay take shape.  The clay is very sensitive to the touch.  The Pot has a sure foundation; the grains are aligned with the Potter’s plan; the pot is still near to the Potter.  In the same way, the believer is grounded in the truth, aligned with the will of God, and confident that the work God is doing is making something beautiful.
Once the walls are lifted then the potter begins to apply a pressure to specific places on the wall to create a shape. The wheel is turning much slower now.  The potter is now using small nudges that make big changes to the pot.  Centering really is not needed any longer at this point; just a balancing of the form.
      This is the gentle nudge, but it is HUGE in shaping the pot.   Question: Do we believe God speaks to us?  Are we sensitive to His touch?  Are we so surrendered and submitted to God that we are living in the awareness of His presence in our lives – His purpose, His plan? If we want our lives to really take shape we must be sensitive to His nudging – prayer, the Bible, godly friends, and our conscience.
The pot is removed from the wheel and set aside to dry before it is returned to the wheel for final trimming.  Re-centering occurs before trimming the foot of the pot.  Usually, if the potter is good, a few gentle taps move the pot on center.  The potter trims a "foot" on the pot.  Another foundation for the pot to sit on. 
 It is important that there is a consistency of thickness throughout the pot, or it will crack in the drying process.  There is a balance to the Christian life. Faith or works?  Intellect or emotion?  Long-term planning or in-the-moment response?  Well, yes. For example,  if we rely only on scripture and never learn to "know" God spirit to spirit - hearing his voice, feeling conviction, becoming spiritually discerning - we will not be able to be used as the potter intended.  But if we neglect the word(truth) and only rely on what we discern we will not be used as intended. Balance is crucial in forming the life of the believer.
     The drying process is a good analogy of the times when we know we are waiting on God.  The pot remains confident that the potter will return to finish the work he began (Philippians 1:6) This is Joseph as he languished in prison…Ruth as she waited on Boaz…Jesus as he waited for his ministry…. the disciples as they waited between Jesus's ascension and the feast of Pentecost…this is us as we wait at times when all we see happening is that we are drying, when actually we are being prepared for the next step in God’s process. 
The pot is fired.  Once the heat of the kiln reaches a specific temp. the clay is transformed and is no longer able to go back to the earth as soft clay.  The actual chemical composition has changed.  In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist said: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” 
If the pot never experiences the fire, the heat, the clay will never mature.  It will never be able to be fully used for the Potter’s purpose.  Trials change us. This is a pivotal point in the life of the believer.  We have to be careful that we don’t reach a place anywhere in the pot making process where we fear the fire of refinement.  Again, it is all about surrender.  
The Glazing is the final adornment process. Glaze is actually clay that has melted to make glass. Its purpose is to enhance the look of the pot, to make it attractive. 
   There is an importance placed on having a glaze that "fits" the clay body you use.  The two need to mature together in the kiln at the right temperature  and will hopefully fuse with no imperfections.   
   This sounds a lot to me like our testimony of forgiveness, grace, and hope. .  It comes from us, the clay, but it’s made possible by the Potter.  

Then the pot is filled. That’s the purpose of a vessel – to hold something. 

  • Romans 5:5 “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
  • Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem…”
Now, we are ready to be poured out in the service of others.  God molds us for His purpose; God fills us with the love and power of His Holy Spirit, and now God’s vessel pours God’s life and truth into the world, to the glory of God.
And through it all, we have The Potter - steady, unchanging, trustworthy, faithful, a solid rock, a firm foundation. 
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to [us] …We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6 )