“Restore Us, O God!” Lent and Easter Sermons

Through this season of Lent, through Holy Week to Easter Sunday, we are calling on God to revive us, to renew us, to restore us. Pastor Michael’s sermons explore various dimensions of our very human experience of faith. This blog will be updated as new sermons are posted.

“We Hunger” (Mar. 5, 2017): Reflecting on our deep longings for sustenance, for security, for significance, in contemplating Matthew’s story of the temptations of Jesus.

“We Wonder” (Mar. 12, 2017): Reflecting on the stories of Abram in Genesis 12 and Nicodemus in John 3—two challenging stories of people being called to risky faith in a mysterious God who doesn’t fit neatly into our boxes.

“We Thirst” (Mar. 19, 2017): Reflecting on our deep thirst for love, as seen in John’s story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

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Some Notes on “Gaia’s Story”

It was a Friday afternoon, two days before I was to begin my sermon series on 1 Corinthians 1-3. I had the whole series laid out, my first sermon nearly completed. Highly exegetical, deeply theological, desperately needed. But utterly uninteresting. The thought hit me: “Why not tell a story?” And thus “Gaia’s Story” was born, each installment written one at a time.

“Gaia’s Story” is a work of fiction. However, I tried to make it as true-to-life as possible without getting bogged down in details of historical background or cultural context. 1 Corinthians is a letter that lends itself to this contextual reading: the problems in the Corinthian church were woven into the fabric of Corinthian culture, and much of Paul’s letter only makes sense when we understand some of that culture. Thankfully, ancient Corinth has been well-excavated; we know as much or more about Corinth as any other New Testament city. See here and here for some great photos of ruins and artefacts of ancient Corinth.

Plan of Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

Plan of Corinth (Holy Land Photos). Some of these structures are from a later period, but the basic plan of the city’s core was likely the same.

The only specific setting I mention in “Gaia’s Story” is the forum. This is the large “city square” that stood at the heart of Corinth. I’ve placed Gaia’s food stall among the shops on the north side of the forum, simply because it’s a great location: the temple of Apollo behind it to the north, the open forum before it with another temple to the west and a large basilica to the west, and looming to the south the Acrocorinth with its temple of Aphrodite on top. Other locations in the story such as Gaia’s flat and Stephanas’ home are undefined.

Popina (Food Stall), Pompeii

Popina (Food Stall), Pompeii

Gaia’s food stall features prominently in the story. These popinae were popular in many cities. Those that have been preserved were made of stone, with holes carved out for holding basins of food. Fires could be lit underneath to keep the food warm. These food stalls were likely popular for civic workers and tourists. They were also the only hot food many of the poorer citizens could hope to get, with no kitchens or sometimes even fireplaces in many of their homes or tenement-style flats.

Apollo Temple with Acrocorinth in Background (Holy Land Photos)

Apollo Temple with Acrocorinth in Background (Holy Land Photos)

Corinthian society was diverse but highly stratified. All types of people came to Corinth from all over the Roman Empire and beyond, bringing their languages and cultures with them. A wide variety of religious options were available for people to choose from; it was not unusual for people to adhere to several at once. Within Corinth, the upper classes were highly competitive, seeking honour through acts of patronage and association with honorable people. The working poor and slaves lived at the whim of the wealthy. Women could achieve significant status and roles in Corinthian society, but this was relatively rare and notable when it happened. All this is reflected in “Gaia’s Story.”

The characters in “Gaia’s Story” are a mix of historical and fictional. Gaia herself is fictional: “Gaia” was a common Roman woman’s name. Leukos, Agathon, Melita, Iris, Oresus, Joseph, and Jonathan are also fictional, though the names are actual Roman, Greek, or Jewish names from the period.

Stephanas, Crispus, Gaius, and Phoebe come from Paul’s writings. Stephanas was the one who brought 1 Corinthians from Paul (1 Cor 16:15-18). Crispus is mentioned among those Paul baptized (1 Cor 1:14); this is likely the same Crispus mentioned in Acts as a synagogue official who became a believer in Jesus (Acts 18:8). Gaius was another baptisand of Paul’s; I’ve given him the full name “Tisias Gaius” simply to avoid confusion with “Gaia.”

Phoebe is the most fascinating of the lot: she is described by Paul as a deacon and a patron of the church in Cenchreae, as well as the carrier of the letter to the Romans (Rom 16:1-2). As letter carrier, she would most likely have been the one to explain anything in Paul’s letter which the Romans did not understand—a high calling indeed. This is why I have had Phoebe read the excerpt from Paul in the final episode.

Apollos and Cephas (Peter) are also mentioned directly in 1 Corinthians 1-3. We hear more about Apollos in Acts 18: a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria in Egypt, well educated and highly skilled in rhetoric. These qualities make him a plausible candidate for being the author of the sermon known as the Letter to the Hebrews—which is why I’ve had Crispus read an excerpt from Hebrews as from Apollos in the last installment of the story.

Peter, of course, was a fisherman from Galilee, trained directly by Rabbi Jesus. We have no reason to believe that he himself had been to Corinth before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians; more likely is that he was known by reputation in Corinth, or that some of his followers had brought Peter’s particular angle on the gospel to Corinth. An ancient tradition (and a plausible theory) has Peter being the primary source of the Gospel we know of us Mark—thus my description in the final episode of Mark’s Gospel as Peter’s story of Jesus.

And the oracle of Christ from Jonathan in that final episode? That, of course, is from Revelation, which claims to be written by an otherwise unknown prophet named “John” (Rev 22:8-9) A bit of a stretch, I know, but it is fiction, after all.

Click through to listen to “Gaia’s Story.”

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No Foundation but Jesus

Audio clip and bulletin notes for a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on Feb. 19, 2017, in a series called “Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation.”

This sermon concludes our reflection on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians through the story of Gaia, a fictional woman in first-century Corinth. In this sermon Gaia begins to experience what Paul meant when he said that “all things our ours” in Jesus our “one foundation” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23).

Audio: “No Foundation but Jesus”

Pastor’s Notes:

West Forum, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

West Forum, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

  • The church in Corinth was a church divided over sexuality and marriage, spirituality and worship. There were factions within the church, each with its favourite theology and preferred leaders. Underneath all this were questions over how to faithfully follow Jesus within a diverse and changing culture.
  • Paul insists the church’s only foundation is Jesus, crucified Messiah and resurrected Lord. Christian unity lies in following Jesus and Jesus’ way of love together; this is even the mark of Christian maturity and spirituality. This means, then, that nothing else is a foundation for the church: not any particular set of rituals or way of worshiping, not any specific set of beliefs or moral code, not any religious or cultural tradition, not even the Bible. Jesus Christ alone is our foundation (1 Cor 3:11).
  • But this one foundation opens up the whole world to us. Paul insists that because Jesus alone is our foundation “all things are ours”: we can draw widely on a variety of people and experiences to grow in this Jesus-centred faith and life (1 Cor 3:21-23). This relates to the idea that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1): because God is our good Creator who has made all things good, everything is available for our edification and enjoyment.

Questions to Ponder:

  • What things am I tempted to place at the foundation of my Christian faith and life instead of or in addition to Jesus? What about us as a church?
  • In what ways am I intentionally drawing on a wide variety of resources—diverse teachers, writings, traditions, experiences, stories—to grow in my devotion to Jesus and his way of love?
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Co-Labourers with Jesus

Audio clip and bulletin notes for a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on Feb. 12, 2017, in a series called “Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation.”

This sermon continues our reflection on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians through the story of Gaia, a fictional woman in first-century Corinth. In this sermon Gaia experiences first-hand what Paul means when he talks about the church as a scattered-seed garden or an active temple still under construction, and Christians as “God’s co-labourers” in this work (1 Corinthians 3:5-17).

Audio: “Co-Labourers with Jesus”

Pastor’s Notes:

Sower (Free Bible Images)

Sower (Free Bible Images)

  • The church in Corinth was a church divided over sexuality and marriage, spirituality and worship. There were factions within the church, each with its favourite theology and preferred leaders. Underneath all this were questions over how to faithfully follow Jesus within a diverse and changing culture.
  • Paul has called on the church to focus their attention on Jesus and Jesus’ way of love: “Christ crucified.” This is where Christian unity lies, and this is the mark of Christian maturity and spirituality.
  • In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul now turns their attention to the diversity around that unity. He uses two images here, and a third later in the letter: the church as a garden, a temple, and a body. All three metaphors highlight the reality that the church is made up of very different people in terms of their temperament, convictions, abilities, and roles, yet all can work together toward a common purpose in ways that complement each other.
  • Paul also uses an unusual phrase in 1 Corinthians 3:9: we are “God’s co-labourers.” The idea is this: Jesus calls different people with different gifts and backgrounds to work together with him in kingdom-planting and church-building.

Questions to Ponder:

  • What difference would it make in my daily life if I thought of myself as “Jesus’ co-worker,” working alongside Jesus to expand God’s kingdom and build Christ’s church?
  • What difference would it make in our church if we thought of other Christians as “Jesus’ co-workers” with us—even those who are very different from us in temperament, convictions, abilities, and roles?
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Jesus, God’s Wisdom

Audio clip and bulletin notes for a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on Feb. 5, 2017, in a series called “Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation.”

This sermon continues our reflection on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians through the story of Gaia, a fictional woman in first-century Corinth. In this sermon Gaia wrestles with Paul’s words about “God’s wisdom” being discerned only by those who are “spiritual”—and comes to realize that true wisdom is about following the crucified Christ in humble, self-giving love (1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4).

Audio: “Jesus, God’s Wisdom”

Pastor’s Notes:

North Forum Shop with Temple of Apollo, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

North Forum Shop with Temple of Apollo, Corinth (Holy Land Photos)

  • In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul contrasts “human wisdom” with “God’s wisdom.” In speaking of “God’s wisdom” Paul says some things that are difficult to understand: that it is “secret and hidden,” that it is only “revealed by the Spirit,” and that the “unspiritual” cannot understand it. Many Christians have taken this to mean, “We are the truly spiritual people who have special knowledge of God or special insight into the Bible; those who don’t agree with us are clearly unspiritual.” But this way of reading the passage goes against Paul’s whole point in this section of 1 Corinthians, calling for humility and unity among Christians who think differently.
  • The key to understanding the passage is to realize that “God’s wisdom” is not “correct interpretation of Scripture” or “correct theology”; “God’s wisdom” is “Christ crucified.” We show that we know “God’s wisdom” when we follow Jesus in humble, self-giving love for one another. This is the “mind of Christ” that Paul says we have (2:16; cf. Phil 2:5-8), the “same mind” that Paul has called the Corinthians to be united in (1:10).
  • The irony is that those who claim to be the “spiritual” ones and so hold other Christians in disdain or judgment, even seeking to divide from them, are showing that they are in fact “unspiritual” (3:1-4).

Questions to Ponder:

  • In what ways to I hold other Christians in disdain or judgment because of their different ways of thinking about or living the Christian life?
  • What can I do to better understand the “wisdom of God” in “Christ crucified”? How can I better live out this true “wisdom of God”?
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Jesus, Crucified King

Audio clip and bulletin notes for a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on Jan. 29, 2017, in a series called “Jesus: Our Church’s One Foundation.”

This sermon continues our reflection on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians through the story of Gaia, a fictional woman in first-century Corinth. In this sermon Paul’s words about “Christ crucified” as the true power and wisdom of God become real to Gaia in her own struggles and weakness (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

Audio: “Jesus, Crucified King”

Pastor’s Notes:

Popina (Food Stall), Pompeii

Popina (Food Stall), Pompeii (Holy Land Photos)

  • The church in Corinth was a church divided over sexuality and marriage, spirituality and worship. There were factions within the church, each with its favourite theology and preferred leaders. Underneath all this were questions over how to faithfully follow Jesus within a diverse and changing culture.
  • Paul points the Corinthians to “Christ crucified.” For Jews, this was a stumbling block: a crucified Messiah was unfathomable, even near-blasphemy. For Gentiles, this was foolishness: what kind of king or “son of god” gets executed in the most shameful way imaginable?
  • But for Christians, “Christ crucified” gets at the heart of our faith. “Christ crucified” is the power and wisdom of God. “Christ crucified” shows us who God is and how God works in the world.
  • The cross is the ultimate “God moment”: it reveals a God who is especially with the last, the least, and the lost, the “nothings” of this world; it reveals a God who is most present in our moments of greatest weakness and suffering, our times of greatest need.
  • The cross is the ultimate “power display”: it shows that compassion is stronger than aggression, that truth is stronger than manipulation, that nonviolence is stronger than violence, that forgiveness is stronger than retribution, that persuasion is stronger than coercion, that love is stronger than fear or hate.

Questions to Ponder:

  • In what ways do we buy into our world’s view of power and success? In what ways have I done so?
  • In what ways do I need to re-orient my thinking in light of the cross, on who God is, or how God works, or how I should live?
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Blogging Note

Over the past month I have made a blogging change that some readers might want to be aware of. This blog will be more focused on church-related matters, especially sermon summaries or podcasts. I have re-started my old personal blog at michaelpahl.com, where I will post my other musings on the Bible and theology, Jesus and the gospel and more. Please feel free to check it out and follow it or add it to your blog reader.

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