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C - 5th sunday in ordinary time

1 corinthians 15:1-12

Putting First Things First

Business

Management guru Stephen Covey became known for his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey stated that effective people have a knack of “Putting First Things First.” For Covey this stretched well beyond the ability to set up a simple nuts and bolts To Be Done List. He has a very effective illustration that uses small pebbles and large rocks. Covey takes a container and fills it about 3/4 full of small pebbles. He then challenges someone who is attending his conference to try to put the set of large rocks into the container. The person will try to jam the larger rocks into the pebbles. He or she will only succeed in putting one of two of the rocks into the container. The person usually tries to rearrange the pebbles, again with only limited success. Once the person acknowledges that they cannot do it, Covey will successfully use a paradigm shift by beginning with the larger rocks then pouring the smaller rocks around them.

Covey claims that most people first fill their lives with a lot of little tasks or activities. People then try to jam the more important tasks around all these less important tasks. However, the less important tasks prevent us from accomplishing the more important ones.

The advice is not only good advice for managing your time but it is also makes for sound theological reflection. Life is filled with challenging theological and philosophical questions. Why does God allow evil? How did God create the world? Is there life beyond our galaxy? What happens after death? Will time as we know it ever end? Do dogs go to heaven? Are there aliens on other planets? Did Jesus cry as a baby? When did Jesus know that he was the Messiah? What did the manna that God provided for the people in the wilderness taste like? Did Adam have a belly button?

We can easily get side tracked in our spiritual life and in our discussions with others. We could spend an excessive amount of time worrying about peripheral topics and spend too little time on the more important matter of the faith. We must learn to put first things first in our theology as well are in our personal and professional lives. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul indicated that he never lost sight of the most important theological issue. The apostle to the Gentiles had spent a great deal of time discussing several problems in the church—hero worship, insisting on our freedom to do as we please, spiritual gifts, sexuality, worship and other topics. He is coming to the end of this letter and he is introducing his most important topic—resurrection and life after death. This is a critical topic for Paul. A person's eternal destiny is critical. Paul believes that there are no back doors. Resurrection and eternal life with Christ are not automatic. They are only for a few. Paul wants to make sure that the Corinthians are part of the few.

He emphasizes several points. First, we are only saved thorough our faith in one gospel. Today we live in an age of pluralism. We are constantly told that people have the freedom to believe anything that they want, there are many roads to God, people will take different paths in their spiritual quest. Every religion has at its core a set of beliefs that are common with other faiths: a belief in God and a set of moral and ethical principles that instruct the devotee to treat others with compassion and care. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are saved only through one gospel, the one that he preached to them. And they are only saved if they hold fast.

That last phrase is very difficult to understand. It seems to go against others sayings of Paul. In Romans Paul tells the believers that nothing can separate them from the love of God.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:38–39

4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ,

Ephesians 1:4–5


who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time,

2 Timothy 1:9

Yet Paul also appears to hint that salvation is conditional upon the sincerity and perseverance of the believer.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.

Col 1:21–23

Even Jesus includes this conditional warning in his instructions to his disciples. He is sending them out in pairs and he warns them of the persecution that they will encounter. He warns them that only those who stand firm will be saved.

21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

John Calvin provides helpful insight on the passage. He explains that Paul is reproving their carelessness and fickleness toward the faith. Shallowness for Calvin was merely an indication that the person never really was saved.

The second point that Paul makes is the theme of this sermon—this gospel is the most important thing on which you can believe. I am not sure that adequately conveys the significance of Paul's teaching. In surveys people will often indicate that they bring their children to church so that they develop a good solid moral and ethical background. Paul considers this secondary. He does not advocate faith in Christ because it has a moral code that excels all other religions. He is not defending the faith because it provides the most compassionate teaching on how we are to interact with people in the community. Nor is he trying to brainwash the Corinthian church into memorizing a strange and exotic set of beliefs and doctrines. He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ because it was true and therefore the most important thing the he could share with them.

Paul did not risk his life to deliver pithy sayings to inspire people. He did not endure imprisonment and floggings to tell Christianized Aesop's fables. The message he preached was true. It was interwoven throughout Biblical history. Beginning with Adam and Eve God told the serpent that it would bruise the heel of the messiah but the messiah would crush his head. God then chose a people and called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and travel to a land that he would show them. Then God raised up Moses to lead the people out of Egypt and into the promised land. He also gave them the Law which pointed to the sacrificial role of messiah. God took time to carefully chart out his plan through the history of his people. This plan was recorded bit by bit in the Scriptures of the Jewish people. This was not a make believe story with a happy end. It is a story in which God's people suffer many things but some how find a way to endure. Paul did not make up this message. It was the story that he received from God and delivered to the people of Corinth.

In my opinion we have relegated the primary message of the gospel to a secondary role. We substitute different versions of the gospel for the one that Paul considered of first importance. We do this a number of ways and I admit that I am just as guilty as any other preacher.

The first is, we preach about a God who is our personal friend. The incarnation is an amazing doctrine. The notion that God became man is unique from all other religions. We preach about a God who took on human flesh so that he might know our struggles, disappointments and heartache on a personal level. This is all true but sometimes we forget that God was not born of a virgin to be our personal friend. Jesus emptied himself and took on human flesh to die. The fact that we can now approach him as our friend is fantastic news but we must not let Jesus become too familiar. We must not try to pull him down to our level.

Another way that pushes the primacy of the gospel into a secondary role is through the self-help fix it sermons. Of course we want to worship God but we also want a God who will give us step-by-step instructions on home life. We expect our religion to help us be a better housewife, a better father, a better manager, or a better teacher. We want our religion to teach us how to overcome feelings of anger, disappointment, and our uncontrolled sexual desires. We turn the Bible into a how-to manual and read it with a expecting it to help us solve difficulties in our personal life.

We also distort the gospel message when we put too much of an emphasis on its moral code. Eugene Peterson warns us that the Bible does not tell us “Live up to this standard. It also does not tells “You must think like this” Paul told the Corinthians a story. It was a story about God becoming incarnate. It was a story about about man who sacrificed his life for us. We should never “use” the biblical revelation for what we can get out of it, Peterson states. We should never use it to add color to our otherwise boring lives. In doing so God is no longer God, Jesus is no longer Savior.

This does require something from us. It calls us to learn the story, the whole story. To go back to the opening lines of Genesis and really learn the story.

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Walled Lake MI 48390


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