Sunday, November 17, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(4) Partial Identification in Mission

Outline: 018-E3.4-Partial Identification
Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Discussion Audio (1h33m)

Sacraments are Reminders of Your Identity

If we are truly honest with ourselves, most (all?) of us would prefer a magical religion; a happily-ever-after, fairytale religion – a religion where a deity magically makes everything better and we are lifted out of all the trials and temptations of life. If we can’t have that, the next best religion is the kind where everything is prescribed: follow these exact steps and you can better the odds of blessings. We prefer religions that can do something for us.

Some of the Christians in Corinth seemed to hold to a magical view of Christian sacraments. They apparently thought that Baptism and Eucharist conferred some kind of divine warding against paganism and idolatry. Thus, they reasoned, it no longer mattered where and what they ate and drank, or whether or not they participated in some of the pagan temple rituals, as long as they continued to observe Christian sacraments. Not only that but they were trying to force this magical view as “Christian” upon others who had questions and reservations about this line of reasoning and action.

In today’s passage – 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – Paul works through Hebrew history of the exodus to correct the errant view of sacraments. He writes, by analogy, how the Israelites were afforded experiencing the great sacraments of miraculous deliverance and provisions, yet most failed to respond in an appropriate manner to these sacramental signs. Paul writes that those in Corinth, because of their erroneous reasoning, are likewise in danger of failing to fulfill the purposes that God desires for and through them. Paul explains that the sacraments are not magic that provides benefits to those who participate in them, but rather, the sacraments are reminders of what God has done for them in the past and present reminders of who they are in Christ: the sacraments have no innate magic or even value. They are reminders that we are nothing apart from Christ.

We can easily turn our religious beliefs and traditions into magical wishes, or idolatry.

Jews thought of idolatry as a matter of worshiping the wrong gods, and therefore something that only Gentiles could do. Paul thought more deeply on the matter. He saw that idolatry was a disease of human freedom, found as widely among Jews as among Gentiles. Idolatry begins where faith begins, in the perception of human existence as contingent and needy. But whereas faith accepts such contingency as also a gift from a loving creator from whom both existence and worth derive, idolatry refuses a dependent relationship on God. It seeks to establish one's own existence and worth apart from the claim of God by effort and striving ("works '') of one's own.[1]

Whenever we look upon beliefs and traditions as somehow granting, or helping us to maintain, a right relationship (righteousness) with God, we turn religion into an idol whereby we try take control of how God relates to us and to other people; i.e., idolatry.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13 ESV)

This is a text that is too frequently misunderstood and misapplied. Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians explains,

Dealt with in isolation from the passage in which it occurs, this verse is sometimes turned into a quasitheological philosophical explanation of human suffering, evil, and divine will. The statement is elaborate and does perhaps invite such exposition and speculation. Yet, one must see that this verse is not an isolated philosophical statement that purports to delineate intricate facets of life. Paul speaks to the Corinthians in context: They are arrogant, overly self-confident, believing themselves to be "standing firm." But, Paul says, "Watch out!" The Corinthians are not above the unpleasant complications of normal human existence, and facing that fact they have one hope: the faithfulness of God. God is trustworthy, and even if the situation seems impossible, nothing is beyond God's power and grace. When the Corinthians confront times of trouble they should not deny their susceptibility to temptation or trust their own superspirituality to see them through. Rather, they need to remember, to know, and to act on the one ultimate assurance that is their real security: God is faithful. The tendency to overread this verse is a temptation within itself, but despite the mysterious matters that it raises, the plain sense of the verse is a call to recognize and to trust God.[2]

When seen in context, verse 13 contains words of encouragement specifically in regards to the tension that Christians face when dealing with the question of how best to “become weak” and “identify fully” with those whom they are called to minister to. The text is not a blanket promise that Christians will never face any trials or temptations beyond their ability to cope.

What the text, in context, promises is that in mission work Christians will be given wisdom and strength to avoid succumbing to idolatry. The text does not promise that difficulties in making appropriate decisions will be magically removed. Rather the text implies that mission work will always involve difficult issues. The promise is that Christians will be “able to endure it” because God is faithful. This returns to the end of chapter 9 where Paul wrote about discipline: effective mission work requires great energy and discipline. In 10:13 Paul writes that God will reward those who discipline themselves for mission with the strength to sort out the tensions such work involves.

Christianity does not promise magic for us.
It promises the faithfulness of God and the strength to endure
so that Christians can be effective in their incarnational ministry
for others.

[1] Reading the New Testament Series: Romans, entry for Romans 3:9.

[2] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 10:13.

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