"No more phony gods"

January 18, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

"Remember that before you became Christians," Paul wrote to the folks in Corinth, "you went around from one idol to another, not one of which could speak a single word." (12:2, Living Bible). Other translations put it, "when you were pagans," (NRSV, NIV, JB, NEB) or "heathen" (RSV). I prefer the first choice of words to the latter. I mean, who wants to think of themself as pagan or heathen? Not too long ago, in our minds "pagans" were natives of some dark, distant continent. We sent missionaries to convert all those "heathen" somewhere "over there." Of course, those terms aren’t that far off the mark anymore "over here." In fact, believe it or not, there are people around who proudly wear the label "pagan." If the truth be told, there’s probably a bit more "heathen" in each us than we might realize. After all, we have our share of idols that we follow, if we’re honest enough to admit it.

Now, it’s not my purpose this morning to go off naming our idols. They are legion. In just a week, for instance, millions will prostrate themselves before a glowing tube and worship the gods of football, shouting out praise (or curse), imbibing what may seem to be sacred elements, often in the company of other true believers... Forgive me for picking on the Super Bowl. As I said, it’s not my intention to make a list of idols. Actually, inviting a friend who doesn’t know God over to watch this game might provide an opportunity for outreach, a common ground experience to build upon, or so some have suggested.

It doesn’t take much "remembering" back before we knew Christ to get in touch with the idols around us. Of course, for some of us, those idols are pretty fresh, and this bit of "knowing God," of being a "Christian," is fairly new territory... I like how Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse. Perhaps you’ve already read it in your bulletin. "Remember how you were when you didn’t know God, led from one phony god to another, never knowing what you were doing, just doing it because everybody else did it?" There are "phony gods" all around us, folks, each demanding of us that we follow. Now some are fairly benign. Others, however, are dangerous.

Exactly 60 years ago, a horrifying example of the latter type took place in China. Americans of Chinese descent are only now trying to break the silence over what happened in their homeland during the Japanese occupation. Between 1931 and 1945 more than 30 million Chinese died from massacre, attack, forced starvation, and germ warfare. On the morning of December 13, 1937, roughly 50,000 Japanese soldiers captured the capital city, Nanking. Many had fled before the invading force, but more than half a million people remained. On that fateful invasion 60 years ago, the Japanese were given the order to kill all captives. During the ensuing chaos, commonly referred to as the "Rape of Naking," between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered.

The brutality of it all was beyond description. Two recent books document the atrocities. It is not fitting in this setting to describe what happened, for it turns the stomach. There is still a great deal of animosity between the Chinese and the Japanese, something we fail to realize, often thinking that all asians are alike. Whereas the nation of Germany has publicly acknowledged and apologized for what it did against the Jews, Japan has never done so with the Chinese - and what happened is omitted from history books, even our own.

Now, I don’t mean to incite rascism against the Japanese, neither do I want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Nagano. I know my wife will be prostrated before the glowing tube when the skaters take to the ice... The nagging question that remains, though, is how could the Japanese have gotten caught up in something like the "Rape of Nanking?" Those of us who have Japanese friends know them to be some of the most gracious, polite, and hospitable people around. That’s the stereotype we have of their society. They are not an evil people. However, like their counterparts in europe, they laid aside their better nature during that war, and were moved to do some horrible things.

Of course, we dare not set aside the Japanese as somehow more prone to such terror. If anything, this century has taught us the darkness of which the human spirit is capable - even among the best and the brightest. We can be moved to do just about anything, can’t we? For us, the question is this: how do we discern between the various spirits which move us?

That really was the question the apostle Paul was trying to answer in this portion of his letter to the church in Corinth. In that day, just as in this, there are all sorts of gods out there motivating us to action. Patriotism is just one of them. Now, love of country can be a wonderful thing, inspiring and pulling us beyond the narrow confines of our own self-interest. To care about something bigger than yourself is good, isn’t it?

I recall my first visit to Fort McHenry here in Baltimore. In the the initial presentation one learns the history of the place, and it’s moment of glory when, during the war of 1812, a battle raged in the harbor. Witnessing "the rocket’s red glare" and the "bombs bursting in air," Francis Scott Key long ago penned the poem that became our national anthem, which is played at the end of the presentation. At just the right moment during the song, the curtain is drawn back to reveal the stars and stripes which still fly over the fort. The effect was quite stirring, even though I later felt my emotions were manipulated to feel that way.

There’s a different sensation when this anthem is played just before a ball game. Tell me, why do the crowds start cheering before the song is over? Where did that practice begin? Was it like the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel’s "Messiah," where people automatically stand, as they have for a couple centuries? In that case it all started with a king who stood at that very moment in one of its first performances. Why did he stand? Maybe he was tired of sitting, or possibly he was so moved by the music that he couldn’t help but get on his feet. You don’t ask the king why, you just do as he does. And people have been following suit ever since. Hopefully we stand today because the "Hallelujah" lifts us.

There are all sorts of motivational spirits out there - some good, some not so good. Sometimes we’re aware of them. Other times we’re not. A great many of them are phonies, but still we follow them, never really knowing why, often just because everybody else is. We’re pagans, and we don’t realize it, ignorant of the fact. How much distance is there, really, between first century Corinth and 20th century Baltimore? Well, the statues of the gods on Mt. Olympus may not reside silently in some open air temple in our neighborhood. Then again, they may be just as visible - and just as dumb, whether by that term we mean "unable to speak," or "foolish."

Paul was writing to folks who knew about the forces that moved them. Like an alcoholic who knows he has an addiction, they knew that not every leading is a good leading. When they experienced the movement of God’s Holy Spirit in their midst, they had questions about it, just like we do today. When this passage of scripture from 1 Corinthians chapter 12 is read, we often focus upon the diversity of gifts Paul highlights, emphasizing that God works in different ways in different people. I know that’s my usual take on these words, which is natural for this point in time. "Diversity" is a buzz-word in our society right now, pro and con. Unlike the spirit of this age, though, Paul emphasizes that God’s diversity does not lead to every man or woman going their own separate way, doing their own thing, aiming toward self-actualization as their god (with a little "g"). Instead, real diversity brings people together, operating like the human body which has different parts, each with its own identity and function, but all connected as a whole.

That’s only one part of the picture Paul is painting, however. Diversity is a fact of life, whether in society or in the church, but it’s not the only factor. Beyond sensitivity training that helps us accept our differences, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? That’s what "discern" means: "to separate." That’s a harder question to ask or answer in our culture at present, for it implies a judgement, a decision, and we don’t like judgement.

Paul presents a simple two-fold criteria for discerning the good from the bad, when it comes to being motivated by God’s Spirit. No one who is inspired rightly will say and mean "Jesus be damned." This isn’t merely a matter of profanity, though our words are much more powerful than we realize. No one led by the Holy Spirit will reject Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of humanity. Likewise, anyone who would say and mean "Jesus is Lord," and live as if that were so - there’s a good probability that they have received this insight from God’s Spirit.

What this means is that, according to Paul, the Holy Spirit creates the church to be a living body. Yes, there is diversity in this creation, different people with different God-given abilities. However, if we deny that Jesus Christ is the most important element, that he is the "head" of this body, its leader, then we’re following a phony god. Now we can deny Jesus in all sorts of ways. We can speak the right words, but live otherwise.

There are all sorts of phony god’s out there seeking our attention, desiring our worship. Half the battle is becoming aware of them and realizing that they are as lifeless as statues. As we seek to be God’s people, in him to "live and move and have our being," to be a living body and not just a bunch of dry bones, our clarion call needs to be "No more phony gods!"

Would you stand stand with me and proclaim, not just with your voice, but with your heart and in your actions this coming week, that "the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord." (#311)

1998Peter L. Haynes

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