God’s Border Collie, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13; Pentecost Sunday

A sermon delivered by the Rev. Patrick H Wrisley, D.Min. on May 28, 2023

In a church I served in north Georgia decades ago, there was a dear older woman who invariably would come up and hug me each week saying, “Thank you, preacher, for the message!” It was awfully sweet of her, but she had this proclivity to go overboard on the gardenia-scented perfume and it clung to me long after she left as the gardenia scent followed me around all day long like a dog waiting to get fed.

            Have you ever met a Christian whose sense of Christian piety carries the odor of a Christian know-it-all who definitively knows exactly how Jesus votes and which books should be in a school’s library, knows for sure who is going to heaven and who is not, makes moral pronouncements about other people’s behavior, and who reminds us of what a good Christian they are from all their prayer, Bible study, and worship attendance?   Have you ever met one of these uber-Christians whose Christianity is so odiferous that it makes pre-Christians think, “Why would I want to follow Jesus if they act like THAT!”[1]

            Well, this is what Paul was experiencing and addressing in the churches in the city of Corinth, a crossroads for merchants traveling by land or sea. As pastor and professor, Greg Cootsona writes, “Only two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Christian community in this cosmopolitan center are a confused mayhem of competition.”  It was a church whose membership had a high opinion of themselves and there were divisions in the church based on wealth, class, social respectability, and of course their outward display of the spiritual expression of speaking unintelligible tongues no one could understand. Those people who spoke in tongues firmly felt they were more special and closer to God compared to those who simply handed bulletins out at the door. Paul had to address this spiritual elitism that was wreaking havoc in the church. The Corinthian church was structuring itself hierarchically just like the culture around it where the privileged, family-connected, and specially gifted are at the top of the pecking order and the rest of us are clamoring for various gradients below them.

            Paul spends three chapters of his letter to Corinth addressing this culturally formulated hierarchical mindset that was sifting itself out around spiritual behaviors and gifts. Today’s passage is setting up the next three chapters. Specifically, today Paul is addressing the fallacy of congregational hierarchy based on status or one’s spiritual endowment. He is reminding them, alas – he is reminding us, Jesus doesn’t structure our faith and Church like the culture does and yet we forget that. Too often the church imports the hierarchical models of our surrounding culture instead of exporting the flattened, egalitarian way of organizing the church community as Jesus did. The Church, we learn, has a level playing field where all members matter and are needed to contribute to making a difference for Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

            Now, concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

            Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gift of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kind of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

            12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.[2]

            What can we learn about the Spirit, the Church, and spiritual gifts from our text?

            First, what is important is not the gift or its expression; what matters is the Source from whence the gift comes. It’s not about Patrick’s spiritual gift of preaching; it’s about whatever gift you and I have, it comes from the Spirit of God. You and I have nothing to do with it. The Bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril in the year 350 says it beautifully. He describes it like this:

            “One and the same rain comes down on all the world, yet it becomes white in the lily, red in the rose, purple in the violets and hyacinths, different and many, colored in manifold species. Thus, (rain) is one in the palm tree and another in the vine, and all in all things, though it is uniform and does not vary in itself. For the rain does not change, coming down now as one thing and now as another, but it adapts itself to the thing receiving it and becomes what is suitable to each. Similarly, the Holy Spirit, being One and of one nature and indivisible, imparts to each one his grace “according as he will.”[3]  It’s about the rain and not about the tree or plant. It’s about the graciousness of the God-giving Spirit; it’s not about the gift itself.

            Second, Paul reminds us that all of us are needed to have an impact in ministry for Jesus. In Paul’s day, the body metaphor was a popularly used one. For the Greeks, they would talk about the polis, the city, as a body, and some parts of the body, the community, and society were more important than others. Paul takes this well-worn metaphor and gives it a twist. Instead of saying some parts are more important than other parts of the body (like the city’s mayor is more important than the garbage man), Paul is saying all parts of the body, the Church, are important because each of us has been baptized with the Spirit of Christ. This is Paul’s way of describing how the Church is differentiated from the rest of how the world works. Sure, the mayor is important but if your trash isn’t picked up in weeks, the importance of the garbage man rises to the top! Paul is telling us how hierarchy has been flattened when it comes to the Church. As we are reminded in verse 13, “For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we are all made to drink of one Spirit.”

            Beloved, hierarchy has been flattened. For all people who have confessed by word and action “Jesus is Lord” are baptized by the One Spirit; we’ve all been equally adopted as brothers and sisters of God whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, white or black, straight or gay, and dare I add Republican or Democrat – we are all children of the King, and the Lord needs your gift to be put to work!

            Third, it reminds us that there is no “I” in Team. Verse 7 declares, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This was a tough thing for the Corinthians to hear. They were priding themselves that some in the community were more important than others based on their particular spiritual gift. Paul is hammering home the point that each of our particular gifts is not for our personal benefit and edification; it is for the benefit of the rest of the community.

            Saint Basil in the mid-third century wrote, “Since no one has the capacity to receive all spiritual gifts…the grace of the Spirit is given proportionately to the faith of each. When one is living in a community with others, the grace privately bestowed on each individual becomes the common possession of the others…One who receives any of these gifts does not possess it for his own sake but rather for the sake of others.”[4]

            So, if you have been given the gift of leadership, it’s not solely to advance your career; God is expecting you to use it for the Church. Do you have the gift of the Midas Touch in that you know how to make business decisions that make great revenue? Well, guess what, God blessed you with that gift to apply that touch and your wealth for the common good of your faith community. Do you have the gift of empathic listening and do people experience safety with you? God is expecting you to use it for the common good of your fellow brothers and sisters in the church. Do you have the simple gift of being perceived as a friendly human being? God wants you to use that gift whether it’s handing out bulletins and greeting people at the door or making a call to welcome a guest to church. You get the point. Your job is to figure out what your gift is and how, or even, if you are even using it for the body of Christ or not.

            My brother-in-law, Rick got a border collie a few years back. His name is Bear and he’s about 30 pounds, has a blue eye and a green one, is brown and white, and has boundless energy. Border collies are bred for one thing: They herd. Not only are they the smartest dog breed, but they are also one of the most active. They must be exercised and run hard. Bear herds anything that moves!

            One morning when Bear was still less than a year old, he was on the second floor of their house when he spied Rick’s two cats downstairs sauntering at the base of the stairs; Bear instinctively went into action. He launched himself through the air from the top of the stairs and miscalculated the angle of descent and crashed into the front door below. He then got up and began herding the cats! Never mind he fractured his front leg! A border collie has to do what a border collie does- herd! As pastor and author Heidi Haverkamp says, “The Holy Spirit is like God’s border collie – trying with boundless energy to herd us together into groups, to testify in word and action to all the world that “Jesus is Lord!” and that God is love!”[5]

            Beloved, over lunch today, ask those who are with you, “Do you see a spiritual gift in me? If so, what is it? Am I using it for the common good of our church?” If so, praise God. If not, why not? In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

© 2023 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Pentecost by Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, et al. https://a.co/6ZohXYd

2 New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

[3] Cyril of Jerusalem, The One Spirit Adapts to Personal Diversity from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, VII, Thomas Oden, General Editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p 117.

[4] St. Basil from the Long Rules 7 from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, VII, Thomas Oden, General Editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p 118.

[5] Heidi Haverkamp, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: Year A, Volume 2, Lent through Pentecost by Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, et al. https://a.co/75kIJV9

Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pastoral Prayer for May 21, 2023

Almighty God, the One who is, who was, and whoever shall be, praise you as we glorify you this morning in our prayers, attentiveness, and worship! You have made this day, and we rejoice and glorify you in it!

Today we celebrate your divine ascension into heaven, Jesus, making way for the Holy Spirit to be gifted to your followers. Help prevent us from naval gazing into the heavens wondering what you are up to but instead convict us to go, baptize, make disciples, teach, and serve others in the loving name of Jesus.

This morning, we lift up the family of Van Lloyd as they grieve her death early yesterday. We pray for all who feel the searing sting of pain from the grief of a lost spouse, child, parent, or friend. Remind us in those shadowy moments that you have conquered death and we dine with the saints of heaven each time we break bread with you at the Lord’s Supper.

There are those in our midst whose lives teeter on the precipice between life or demise. We pray for those who are in the position of having to make very difficult decisions regarding healthcare for themselves or for a dear loved one. Give them peace and assuage any doubts they may have.

We pray for our world leaders, not only the G7 but for leaders in the majority 2/3 world who do not often make the headlines. In particular, we pray for our national leaders in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Oval Office. Partisanship has infiltrated all branches of our government which is destroying civitas, sowing disunity and distrust, and sowing fear among their constituents.  The eyes of many of our citizens have developed cataracts preventing us from seeing the legitimate needs and concerns of those people who are different from me. We dare to judge another human being’s worth based on their party affiliation, the color of their skin, sexual identity, economic standing, or by the type of books they read. O sweet Lord, we have become a nation of narcissists where “my agenda and moral beliefs are more superior than your agenda or moral beliefs.” Sadly, in the process, we’ve become an amoral people.

Yet, we sit eagerly awaiting Pentecost when you breathe upon us your Holy, Live-giving, Spirit of joy, love, peace, reconciliation, and unity. Prepare our hearts this week to receive the gift you so eagerly want to bestow upon us. Hear us now as we lift up these people to you…

For those dying…

For graduates…

For their teachers and professors…

For those who work in hospitals and in the medical sector…

For the janitors and custodians who serve us in our places of work or enjoyment…

For the men and women, along with their families, who serve our nation…

For the homeless children, women, and men of Broward County…

And finally, for our community’s faith leaders who are trying to remind a diffident world that You, O Lord, are alive and well and that we are to love and serve in Your name.

Now hear us as we pray the prayer Jesus taught his beloved centuries ago…

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom comes, they will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom, the power,  and the glory forever. Amen!


Posted in Prayers, Sermon | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Who IS This? Matthew 21:1-11

A sermon delivered on April 2, 2023, Palm Sunday, by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

How many of you can tell me what this means? (I hold my hand making a Peace Sign).  It means, “Peace!” to you.  It means, “Hey dude, peace and love.”  It’s become a universal symbol of sorts for “it’s all good” and “let’s just get along.”  But you know what?  When people in our country started using the peace sign it meant something different.  Emerging in at the end of WWII as a sign of Allied victory, the peace sign was co-opted in the 1960s and used as a counter-cultural symbol to show one’s protest against the war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. Once a sign of victory over a vanquished enemy, in the 60s it was a protest symbol.  It was as much a political statement as it was a cultural one.  It’s interesting to note how over time the meaning of the symbol has evolved from its original meaning of vanquishing our enemy to a simple gesture of “love each other.” This is what happens when more and more generations are removed from the original use of a sign or symbol.  The meanings can become diluted at best or simply forgotten at worst.

This, my friends, is exactly what has happened to Palm Sunday and our waving of the palm branches.  We see the waving of branches and placing them upon the road as a way to throw Jesus a parade and celebrate his arrival in Jerusalem. Like the peace sign of the 60s, the meaning of the waving branches needs to be reexamined and we all need reminding that waving palm branches was a revolutionary and politically loaded symbol back in Jesus’ day.

Catholic and Orthodox Bibles contain writings from the intertestamental period between the writing of the Old and New Testaments called the Apocrypha. The Apocryphal writings of 1 and 2 Maccabees describe the battles between the Jews and the former generals of Alexander the Great’s warring armies dating about 160 years before Jesus. The history describes how the Jews under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus and his sons, retook Jerusalem from the Greek king, Antiochus, and his successors.  When the Jews overthrew their warring occupiers, they paraded into Jerusalem waving palm branches of victory over their oppressors.[1]  It was a political statement of Jewish sovereignty. It was a spiritual statement that God is king over the city of Jerusalem and her people. That was the last time palm branches were waved in Jerusalem.

With this in mind, let’s read Matthew’s version of Palm Sunday in Matthew 21.1-11.  Listen to the Word of God!

Matthew 21.1-11

21 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet (s Zechariah and Isaiah), saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
    humble, and mounted on a donkey,
        and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting (from Psalm 118),

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”[2]

By studying historical narratives from the first century, biblical scholars Borg and Crossan have postulated that perhaps there could have been two parades that day entering Jerusalem.  On the one hand, the parade we just read about from the east was largely composed of peasants from the perceived backcountry of Galilee chanting out to Jesus, “Save us!” as he rode down the slopes of the Mount of Olives on a donkey.  But on the other side of the city, coming in from the Mediterranean seaport of Caesarea came riding the new Roman governor, Pontus Pilate, entering the city on a war horse at the head of a column of Imperial cavalry and foot soldiers.  He was coming to ensure that there would be order in Jerusalem as the city would swell from roughly 40,000 to a quarter of million people during Passover.  So, if you were in Jerusalem walking on her walls, you would see the glittering armor of a conquering army to the west and you would see throngs of everyday folks waving branches and paving the path with palms and their clothing on the east. What would you make of that?

On one side come the oppressive occupiers and on the other side comes a gentle self-proclaimed liberator followed by peasants. Coming from the western side comes stability and status quo even at the cost of oppression from the Romans.  Coming from the eastern side gathers what you might see as a populist protest march coming up against an entrenched political system. You’re used to oppression and that oppression has become routine in your life and can even seem secure at times; it’s predictable. Yet, your heart yearns to join the protestors marching in from the other side promising liberation.

To one side you see Domination: You see nothing but a mass of crimson, gold, steel, and imperial power.

On the other side, you see humble Liberation. You see the masses of peasants waving palms and paving the road with their clothes as they make their way down from the Mount of Olives from whence the Messiah is supposed to come.  

As a Jew watching all this unfold, you have one of those internal Uh-oh moments because you realize the potential for trouble is brewing. There’s trouble on the left and right; you’re caught in the middle. You want to get excited but you’re fearful because you have seen the Roman brutality used to “keep the peace”.  But what makes you think there is going to be trouble? Well, note in verse 10 we read, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and in turmoil.”  Using the same word we get our English word seismic from, it can be literally read, “the whole city was actually shaking like an earthquake.”

To say there was electricity in the air would be a gross understatement.  I imagine the game the electric football game I grew up with. You placed the players opposite each other on this metal grid like a football field and then hit the button. All the players began to shake violently toward one another in a mass of vibrating steel and plastic. This is what is in my mind as I think of these two parades coming together. Borg and Crossan write, “Jesus’ procession proclaimed the Kingdom of God” while Pilates proclaimed the powers of the imperial empire.”[3] It’s no different today, really. Even today, the tension is between the powers of the empire pitted against the powers of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, my friends, place yourself on Jerusalem’s wall and see and feel this entire spectacle unfold before your eyes.  Looking to the west, you can easily see the one riding the magnificent battle horse, but as you turn and look east, you spy this motley procession coming down the side of the Mount of Olives through an ancient Jewish graveyard and you mumble to yourself, “Who is this?”

Beloved, this is the question I want to weigh on us this Palm Sunday. I want you to place yourself atop Jerusalem’s walls and ask yourself who is it you see riding that donkey – that biblical emblem and image of the humble Messiah – making his way into the city by the Beautiful Gate below the Temple Mount? We easily place ourselves in the mindset that, “Of course, I would know who it was coming on that donkey down the hill!” but would you if you were there in the midst of the frenzy?  I wonder if that isn’t the real challenge facing the Church of Jesus Christ today…we think we know who it is riding on that beast of burden but is there a possibility we have it all wrong? 

American Christianity tends to hold onto the sweet baby Jesus notion we gained at Christmastime. We’ve made Jesus into the image of a God that is personally pleasing and satisfying to us – a Savior that is all sweet, meek, and mild and will answer my prayers when I cry out in need of something.  Palm Sunday, today, is the day we are rudely awakened and are reminded that the image of God riding humbly on an ass is a man about to turn the city, dare I say the world, upside down and cause people to choose which side of Divine history and life they were going live: The life of the empire, or, the life of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And so there you are in one of those two crowds. Much will happen over the next few days in the city of Jerusalem and members from both crowds will turn on and condemn this humble rider on a pale grey donkey. Everyone has assumptions about who this is riding into town from the east and what he will do.  Soon, everyone’s assumptions will be shattered.  Soon, everyone will begin to run and desert him because when asked, “Who is this?” they will say, “He is one who did not fit my expectations.”  They will say, “It’s too dangerous to follow him.” They will say, “Following him will upset the way I live my life…no thank you.”

I suppose the real question is that when you are asked, “Who is this?”, what shall you say? In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© 2023 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See 1 Maccabees 13.49-52 and 2 Maccabees 10.1-8.

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 2-4.

Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Even the Smart Ones Sometimes Get it Wrong, John 3:1-17

A sermon delivered on March 5, 2023, by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Our New Testament reading on this second Sunday of Lent and our journey to the Cross and Easter is a wonderful text to hear, not because most all people are familiar with it, but because it is a primer for Christianity 101 all of us need reminding of from time to time.

There are three primary characters in our Story this morning. First, there is Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, the equivalent of a Jewish Ph.D. in religious studies who spent his life studying the Torah and teaching his findings to his fellow Jews. Second, we have Jesus. And third, you and I are in the Story as well. You and I are sucked into the conversation in verse 11 and following when the Story’s author, John, has Jesus direct his conversation directly to you and me. You see, beginning in verse 11, John switches to using the second person plural, y’all, and has Jesus speaking directly to us. Listen carefully to what Jesus is saying to us. The Holy Spirit give each of us ears to hear this well-known scripture anew! Listen to the Word of the Lord from John 3:1-17.

John 3:1-17

1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’  8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe; how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”[1]

Lesson One in Christianity 101: Jesus can ill-afford hidden followers and disciples. John immediately gets two facts right out there for us: Nicodemus is a prominent religious scholar and official and Nicodemus was afraid to publicly show his faith in Jesus. We’re told he came by night to meet Jesus. He came when the streets were clear. He came when he wouldn’t be noticed. He came when everyone else was winding their day down preparing for bed. He came in secret making sure his reputation would not get sullied. Nicodemus came to Jesus when it was convenient for him to do so.

Bless Nicodemus’ heart – and I really do mean that in the Southern sense of the phrase. I really want to cheer him on but his late-night slinking around trying to get to know Jesus doesn’t come across too well. Fortunately, Nicodemus’ behavior in the Story moves more into the daylight the subsequent two times he appears later in John’s gospel.

The unfortunate reality is the church today is full of followers like Nicodemus; sadly it always has been. Early Church Reformer, John Calvin back in the sixteenth century referred to those ‘Nicodemites’, those Christians who sympathized with the burgeoning reformation of the Church but were reluctant to be publicly identified with those reforms in the open.[2]  Closet Christians. You could not recognize them as Christians unless they put on a sandwich board sign that indicated they were.  The Church today can ill-afford to have nighttime, hiding-in-the-shadows followers of Jesus Christ. It forces you and me to ask ourselves, “Is my faith out in the open daylight where others can see what I believe in my daily living or not? Can people even tell I am a follower of Jesus? Am I a nighttime follower of Jesus like Nicodemus? Am I a Nicodemite?

Christianity 101 Lesson Two:  The work of our salvation is God’s initiative, not ours (vs. 3). Salvation, just like the communion supper we will have in a few minutes, is a gift given to us. Verse 3 is too often translated as ‘born again’ when the same word also means to be born anew or born from above. The latter two definitions better fit the context of the table talk they’re having. In The Message, Eugene Petersen translates verse 3 as, “Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see that I am pointing to God’s Kingdom.” 

Western Christianity has beaten it into us that if you and I simply mentally consent to acknowledge good doctrine and make up our minds Jesus is God’s Son, then we get or earn eternal life. In other words, my eternal destiny rests upon my saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to believe in Jesus. Beloved, that’s a lot of power that frankly none of us has. There is no grace if we think about our salvation that way. If our salvation and eternal destiny were all up to our individual decisions, then why did Jesus come in the first place? Why did he have to die and rise again if it’s all up to you and me saying ‘I believe’ or not?

Jesus tells this religious scholar that it’s not following the little nit-noids of the Jewish Law that earn you love from God; God’s love is already extended! All you have to do, Nicodemus, is be an open vessel for God to pour his Spirit in you! Think of it like this: you and I are the shy, timid boys and girls ringing the gym’s wall at a mid-high dance; Jesus takes the initiative to come up to us and asks us to get out onto the dance floor! This leads me to the next lesson our text teaches.

Christianity 101 Lesson Three:  The Kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future expectation. Jesus speaks of salvation in the present tense. We tend to associate eternal life with that which happens to us when we die; we forget that eternal life is both a present and future reality. In John’s gospel, the word faith is a verb and not a noun. As a noun, faith means it is something I have or possess. As a verb, it means pledging fidelity and loyalty to someone that requires present-tense action, effort, and demonstration of that fidelity.

I did a wedding last night and when the couple stood in on this chancel and pledged their loyalty and fidelity to each other, it signified that they were from that moment forward living a new life. It meant they detached from their family of origin and began a new family of their own. It signified they were no longer going to date other people but pour everything into this new marriage relationship. Their lives were now bound together and when something happens to one, it affects both of them. This is what faith means; it means living devotedly to another showing reciprocating love for the other. Spiritually, it means that Nicodemus, you are going to take all that religious stuff you have stuck in your head, put it down, and hold my hand as we take an adventure together!

Another way our text teaches us that salvation is a present reality is the word for salvation itself. For too long the Church has said salvation is equated with not going to hell; it’s time we reclaim the larger meaning. The word Jesus uses for salvation can mean being rescued from adversity but it also means for a person to be healed, restored, and made whole and complete once more. When we understand salvation this way, we hear Jesus’ words, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be restored to its original pre-Fallen state, that the world might be healed and made whole again.” This is what the reference to Moses lifting up the bronze serpent means in our Story.

In Numbers 21, we read how snakes were giving the wandering Hebrews fits; the poisonous vipers kept biting and killing too many people and they complained loudly to Moses and God. Well, God told Moses to make a bronze staff in the shape of a viper and if any of the Hebrews were bitten by poisonous snakes they just had to look at the snake-shaped bronze staff Moses held and they would be immediately healed. For Nicodemus, for you and me, healing, wholeness, and restoration all occur in the present moment, beloved. When we pledge fidelity to Jesus and walk in a way that demonstrates our fealty to him, our healing and restoration immediately begin.

This morning we come to the Lord’s Table. It’s a tangible reminder of the three basic Christianity 101 lessons we learned this morning. It demands that we publicly partake of this meal thereby making a communal profession that Jesus has died for us. It reminds us that the gift of our healing, wholeness, and restoration is a gift given to us as Jesus gave his body and blood for us. Finally, we take the nutrients from this food and live out our fidelity to Jesus in the world bringing healing, restoration, and wholeness to our families, our neighbors, our business colleagues, the faceless, nameless broken ones we pass by on the streets and yes – even for this home of ours we call Earth. In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

© 2023 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.
All rights reserved.

[1] NRSV. HarperCollins Study Bible: Fully Revised & Updated by Harold W. Attridge, Society of Biblical Literature https://a.co/j4JJ2Pt.

[2] George Stroup, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Bartlett, https://a.co/4MkMhfr.

Posted in Sermon | Leave a comment

Making Choices, 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9

A sermon delivered February 12, 2023, by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.

Making choices. You and I are faced with making choices the moment we wake up in the morning. Do I stay in bed, or do I get up? What shall I have for breakfast? What am I going to wear today? Who am I going to root for in the Super Bowl? Actually, do I really care about the Super Bowl? Those, in fact, are pretty benign choices we are faced with each day. But there are other types of choices we are faced with, too.

Do I fudge the numbers so the boss thinks things aren’t as bad as they are? Do I quit my job? Should I report to the authorities my company is exploiting non-documented workers? Do I turn a blind eye when I witness disparity and discrimination in the workplace?

Our Hebrew text this morning is from Deuteronomy 30 and records the words of God addressed to Moses and the wandering masses, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life” (30:19-20).  God wanted to make sure that before the wandering Hebrews crossed the Jordan River to claim the land of promise they would keep their focus on what is important. All they had to do was to remember that the Lord was their life and that every choice and decision they made thereafter would be one where they chose life. Sadly, we know how that all turned out.

Our preaching text today offers a similar call to the people of God. The indefatigable Apostle Paul is trying to convey the critical message of the power of the crucified Christ and the life-saving power of the Holy Spirit but the people in the church are not choosing life; they’re choosing sides. For the second time within 46 verses at the opening of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is calling out the Church for making poor choices and for losing sight of who is the source of their life. 1 Corinthians verse 12 Paul writes, “One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; and still another, “I follow Christ.”  Let’s see what he says in our scripture in 1 Corinthians 3:1-10. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

1 Corinthians 3:1-10

3.1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.  NIV

In case you missed it, that last verse is the key that unlocks this passage’s point. “For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.” The Corinthians are wrapped up around church leadership and programming and Paul is telling them, “You’re missing the point! It’s not about me or Apollos, it’s all about God working in and through you, members of the Church!”

Paul and Apollos are mere agents, catalysts, in helping the people in the pews get to working in God’s fields and in God’s house. The word Paul uses for a co-worker is the same word we get our word ‘synergy.’ Co-workers create synergy, mutually beneficial movement, change, and opportunities for growth. In a synergistic relationship, one person is not more important than another; one’s person’s gifts complement the gifts of another for the sole purpose of spurring the growth of the fruit of ministry and grace on God’s behalf.

Over my years in ministry, I’ve been privy to parking lot conversations where whispers are made from members, “You know, I don’t like that pastor. He is hard to understand.” I’ve heard, “I don’t come to worship if she’s preaching; I don’t like her style.” I’ve heard, “You know the pastor is divorced, don’t you?”  I’ve heard, “He shouldn’t be a minister because he has a beard, and tattoos and rides a motorcycle!” When I hear things like this, I look heavenward and feel the tears of God washing over my face! They are comments that are a lesson in missing the point.

Patrick plants, Pam fertilizes, and Nic waters but it’s God who is producing the growth in the recalcitrant soil and is transforming barren space into a vibrant, fruitful field and household community. The Lord is our mutual life together. The focus is not on Paul, Peter, Apollos, Nic, Pam, or Patrick; it’s on our Lord Jesus Christ. When that focus is taken away from the Lord Christ, the field we call First Presbyterian grows weeds and the house we call First Presbyterian becomes uninhabitable.

1 Corinthians 3 talks about our choices as a community of faith and about the way the community conducts itself. Paul is reminding us that the Church of God operates vastly differently from the way the world works. The Spirit of God does things differently from the spirit of our flesh. The challenge with churches today is that we overlay the way the world conducts its business and expresses its ways, values, and behaviors onto the way the church conducts the way it does business and expresses its values within the community of Jesus.    

The world tells us to live with an attitude of scarcity so we better horde all we can whereas the Church encourages us to live lightly and in the confidence of God’s abundance.

The world says the best leaders are outgoing, extroverted, smooth talkers, and charismatic whereas the Church insists that church leaders are to be unique and use the individual gifts God provides each of them to create synergistic energy between Paul, Apollos, Peter, Patrick, Nic, and Pam.

The world says it’s the survival of the fittest and as such we either set up sides or manufacture layers of hierarchy; my side, my point of view, my theological point is better and is clearly more superior than yours! Church members and churches then take up sides on who is right and who is wrong causing divisions and jealousy because our worldly pride and hubris get in the way. The church that chooses life and lives for God operates where members live in humility on a level playing field where love and egalitarianism are the keys.

The world says we each can choose what to eat on the all-you-can-eat spiritual buffet that makes us feel all good, fat, and happy whereas the church says we are not to overload and fill up on feel-good spiritual carbohydrates but instead eat a healthy, protein-enriched faith of intentional worship, spiritual education, and service to others.

Professor James K.A. Smith writes, “The church – the body of Christ – is the place where God invites us to renew our loves, reorient our desires, and retrain our appetites.”[1]

The Lord is our life. Isn’t it reasonable that our choices and how we make them reflect that reality? Shouldn’t the way we do things in the Church, the way we act in the Church, be a dramatic contrast to the way people treat each other, relate with others, disagree with one another, and solve problems together in the world? Your pastors and church leaders of First Pres are trying to live this reality out. We are a diverse group of people in this body, and we are not all going to agree all the time; but this is what we are committed to doing: Work synergistically with our particular gifts to create an environment where the Spirit can move among us, form us, and send us out into the larger community helping others to learn and participate in the Lord of Life. If the Church of Jesus Christ cannot figure out how to live and relate with other Christians regarding religious, political, and cultural inclusiveness, then the world will never get it either.

Beloved, it doesn’t matter if you’re for the Chiefs or the Eagles. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican, Democrat, or Independent. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, Hispanic, black, or Asian. It doesn’t matter if you are gay or if you’re straight. When any of us become a follower of Jesus Christ, we put away those things of the world and put on a new identity of Jesus and in Jesus.

Today, a man made a choice and was baptized and took on a new identity. He immigrated from being of and in the world to become a man of and in the Kingdom of God.  He has, as one scholar says, been “Given a heavenly passport; in his body (the Church) we learn to live like “locals” of Jesus’ kingdom.  Such immigration to a new kingdom isn’t just a matter of being teleported to a different realm; we need to be acclimated to a new way of life, learn a new language, acquire new habits – and unlearn the habits of that rival dominion (that we call the world).  Christian worship is our enculturation as citizens of heaven, subjects of the kingdom come.”[2]

And so, beloved, that requires each of us to make choices. As you leave today, reflect on how you make choices in your life – a life that’s based and grounded in Jesus Christ and as members of the Church, his holy Bride.

© 2023 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love.  The Spiritual Power of Habit, (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016), 65.

[2] Ibid., 66. Words in parentheses are mine and are added for rhetorical clarity.

Posted in Sermon | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment