Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Is cremation a Christian choice?
Question: Is cremation a proper alternative to Christian burial?

Answer:  For this question, we need to reflect on the Christian witness overtly connected to our responses to death.  We also need to respect our human feelings (and those of others) and acknowledge the importance of a healthy process in dealing with loss.

The Bible teaches us that the human body is God’s creation, and that God’s will for our eternal existence includes a redeemed, glorified body like that of the risen Jesus (Phil. 3:21).  When death occurs, the human spirit is separated from the body (James 2:26).  For a Christian, this absence from the body means to be personally present with the Lord, more than ever before (2 Cor. 5:6-8).  Yet the fullness of redemption will not be accomplished apart from a body (Rom. 8:23).  Theologians and Bible students disagree over whether the new body is received immediately after death or later, at the time of Christ’s second coming (compare 2 Cor. 5:1 and 1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16-17).  The most important point is that there will be a new body.

In light of the Christian expectation of bodily resurrection and the fact that our present bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:19-20), many Christians historically have felt that cremation was not appropriate, since it reduces the body to “ashes.”  That, of course, in no way hinders God’s power to provide us with new bodies which are immortal. Cremation would not hinder resurrection any more than would a person’s death in an explosion.  Furthermore, countless millions have died so long ago that their bodies have disintegrated and scattered to the extent that only God could possibly gather them together again. 

Because of advances in understanding the nature of the human body, we can recognize that God does not have to use the same molecules that are in your present, mortal body when he gives you a new, immortal body.  Those molecules are being periodically replaced with new ones during earthly life anyway.  Realization of this (and consideration of other factors such as cost and land use) has brought cremation into more frequent use among Christians over the last century.  Churches which at one time forbade it (such as the Roman Catholic) no longer do so.

So burial is not essential for one’s participation in the resurrection.  Some, indeed, will be alive when Jesus comes and will be changed into immortal bodies without actually dying (1 Cor. 15:51).  That does not mean, however, that we should be careless or disrespectful in what we do with the remains of one who has died.  Because bodily existence is God’s plan, and because that person’s presence with us was embodied, and our interaction with that person was in the body, we will want to treat the body with respect and dignity.  Reverence for life should apply for burial, cremation, organ donation, and other issues.

All such matters should properly be the decisions of responsible persons close to the deceased (usually carrying out the wishes of that person).  In my view, it is just as Christian to choose cremation as burial.  Whether burial or cremation is chosen, there needs also to be appropriate recognition of the fact of death and the reality of our loss and grief, and the reaffirmation of our trust and hope in God’s provision for our future.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Come, Holy Spirit! Awake My Soul!

Come, Holy Spirit!  Awake my soul!
Well up inside of me, life-giving flow!
Come, Holy Spirit, and make complete
The Father’s will for me, all I can be:
Created for your love, redeemed by Jesus’ blood.
Come, Holy Spirit!  Awake my soul!

Come, Holy Spirit! My heart renew!
Your beauty my delight!  The veil remove
To see all others throughout the world
With Kingdom eyes of faith and hope restored:
To see as Jesus sees God’s will and human need
Come, Holy Spirit!  Awake my soul!

I called; you answered, and made me bold
To ask for even more than I can hold!
Bring waves of healing from Jesus’ throne!
Your heart become my heart, your prayer my own!
To see as Jesus sees God’s will and human need.
Come, Holy Spirit!  Awake my soul!

© W/M Arden C. Autry, 2013

Monday, August 13, 2012

The following is a sermon I preached at First United Methodist Church, Tulsa, on August 12, 2012. The text was Exodus 20:1-3.
I know you can’t read them from where you sit, but perhaps you can tell what I’m holding. It’s a copy of the Ten Commandments, engraved in stone tablets. Charles Geiger, a long-time member of this church, gave this to me several years ago. Charles has given similar sets to a number of people, particularly on the ministerial staff. I really appreciate this lovely copy, and I keep it displayed in my office in a prominent place.
I brought these tablets today because we’re beginning a new series that will largely focus on the Ten Commandments, with some other passages brought in at crucial points. In coming weeks we’ll talk about each of the commandments, what they mean, and how they benefit our lives if we heed them.
I also brought these tablets to illustrate something you won’t see by simply reading off the list of commands. For example, today we look at the first commandment. On this tablet it reads: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” That’s King James style, but it means the same as the NIV: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Whatever the translation, the wording is clear enough. But something vital to a proper understanding and application is not written here. Indeed, if you have the Ten Commandments memorized, you still need to know something else to avoid misunderstanding the commandments. So perhaps the most important thing I have to tell you this morning is this: If you don’t know the story, you’ll miss the point.
If we know the commandments but don’t know the story surrounding them, we will almost certainly misunderstand them, and consequently misapply them. Probably we’ll ignore them, because they make us feel guilty. Or they may bring out the judgmental side of us. If we don’t know the story of the Ten Commandments, we may be tempted to use them to find fault with other people.
You need to know the story of the Ten Commandments—especially the answers to questions like who, when, and why—so that you can know how to respond to God’s commands. So today, we’ll look at the first commandment, but first we’ll look at the context for the Ten Commandments as a whole.
The first thing to ask is: who gave the Ten Commandments, and when did he give them?
Asking who gave the Ten Commandments seems like an easy question with an obvious answer. But God thought it was important to remind Israel who he is as he begins to give the commandments. Exodus 20:2 quotes God, identifying himself: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (NIV).
And not just here in Exodus 20. Many times in the giving of the Law throughout Exodus and on through Deuteronomy, the Lord says in effect, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, who delivered you from slavery.”
Identifying himself this way, God seems to claim the right to give Israel directions for living. After all, they owe God their lives, especially their newly liberated lives, set free from oppressive slavery in Egypt.
But more importantly, God is reminding Israel of their own story. Their story with God has been a story of God making promises to Abraham centuries before, promises which God is now keeping. Israel’s story with God now includes the recent series of miracles in which the Lord manifested his power over the most powerful ruler on earth, the Pharaoh of Egypt. More impressively, the Lord manifested his power over creation itself.
It took ten plagues (culminating in the Passover) to pry loose Pharaoh’s grip on his Israelite slaves. In the ten plagues of judgment, the Lord showed his power over all the so-called gods of Egypt, the gods they associated with the Pharaoh, with the sun in the sky, with various living things on earth, and with the all-important Nile River. The Lord had shown that he is in fact the only true God, and that he controls all those things that the Egyptians worshiped.
So in Exodus 20:2, the Lord reminds Israel that he is the God who did these things, which also serves to answer the question about when. When did God give these commandments? God gave these commandments to Israel after he had delivered them, after he had saved them. It’s so important to get the order right. God saved them; then he gave them the Law. The ten plagues come before the Ten Commandments. We need to remember that order. We need to know that part of the story, or we’ll miss the point of the Ten Commandments.
If you know the story, you remember that God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3), but he did not give him the Ten Commandments at that time. God did not send Moses into Egypt with a message for the Israelite slaves: “Here’s God’s law; let’s do a good job of keeping it, and maybe God will save us.” No, God sent Moses into Egypt to tell the people he was coming in power to save them, to set them free, and take them to the Promised Land. After God delivered them, then he gave the law as guidance they would need for a life full of blessing.
God did not give Israel the law so that they could save themselves or earn their salvation. God gave the law as guidance to a people he had already saved. That’s how you and I should read the law, not as a way to save ourselves by keeping the rules but as a way to guide our lives as the people saved by grace.
To make sure we see this important point, please notice with me a couple of earlier passages, before Exodus 20. The first is in Exodus 14. This is after the ten plagues struck Egypt, after the Passover. The Israelites have left Egypt, but Pharaoh has changed his mind about letting them go. With his mighty army he pursues Israel to the shores of the Red Sea. Israel is trapped between Pharaoh and the sea. The people cry out with fear, certain Pharaoh’s chariots will soon run over them and round them up for slaughter. But in Exodus 14:13 (NIV), “Moses answered the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.’”
The Israelites have already seen many things God has done to save them. Now Moses tells them again, “Stand still and watch God. Don’t try to save yourselves; let God save you. Watch!” Just as he promised, God intervened; he made a way when there was no way. He opened a path through the Red Sea, for Israel to cross on foot. When Pharaoh’s chariots tried to follow, they were caught in the rush of returning water. One more time, God did what no one else could do to save his people.
Now let’s go forward to Exodus 19. The people have arrived at Mt. Sinai, where they will enter into solemn covenant to be God’s people on earth. God will soon give them his law. But before he does, God says in Exodus 19:4: “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (NIV).
God reminds them what they have already experienced of his saving grace and power: “You have seen it,” he says. “You have seen how I carried you. I brought you on ‘eagles’ wings’—far beyond your own power. I have brought you to this place. I have brought you to myself.” Israel didn’t earn this privilege; they didn’t achieve this status; God gave it to them. God has carried them. God has brought them close to himself to be his very own people, with unique knowledge of his ways, to share with the rest of the world as their testimony of the greatness and goodness of God.
In Exodus 14:13, they were told to stand still and see the salvation of God. Now, in 19:4, the Lord reminds them that they have seen the salvation of God. That brings us to Exodus 20, where, in effect, God says, “Now hear this!” Now that you’ve seen what I’ve done to save you, listen to my words of direction, my words of guidance. Now that you’ve seen what I’ve done, listen to what I want you to do.
In connection with that, notice something that’s easily missed. Did you notice the wording in Exodus 20:1? “And God spoke all these words” (NIV). Several chapters later, Moses will receive stone tablets engraved by the finger of God (Exod. 31:18). But in Exodus 20, God is speaking—audibly—to the whole nation of Israel. They all heard the Lord, speaking the Ten Commandments. The people were so overcome by the experience that they begged for it not to be repeated (as you can see in Exodus 20:18-21).
The point I want to underscore is that first God showed them his saving power; then he spoke his guiding word. Humans are more likely to follow guidance when we trust the good intentions of the one who offers it. God had given Israel abundant evidence of his power and his good intentions; they had seen what he had done. Now he speaks guidance for their lives, individually and as a nation. They should listen, but they should also never forget what they have seen.
So we know who gave the Ten Commandments and when, and that has begun to answer the question of why God gave the commandments. God’s purpose in giving the law was not to save Israel; it was to guide them. What is God’s purpose for us in the Ten Commandments?
The most common misunderstanding of the OT law comes from trying to use God’s commands as a way to save ourselves—by our performance. Maybe we’re not foolish enough to think we’ve done a perfect job of obeying God, but we are vain enough (at least I am) to think we do the right thing more than lots of people, maybe more than most people. 
Are you like most people? Do you think you’re better than the average person when it comes to making moral decisions? You know the average person thinks he’s better than average. Is that your confidence for judgment day? Do you think God will populate heaven with those who have been better than average? Do you think God will weigh your good against your bad and give you extra credit for sincerity? Is that what you’re counting on? If so, you’re counting on your performance. You’re counting on yourself. And to you God says, “Stop counting on yourself; start counting on me. Stop and look at what I’ve done to save you. When your heart sees what I’ve done to save you, you will want to listen to what I tell you to do.”
The purpose of the law as guidance—not salvation—is made clear in the New Testament, in such passages as Galatians 3:24 (NIV): “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” Other translations use the word “tutor” or “schoolmaster” to describe the Law. The point is, the instruction of the Law can lead us to the Savior, but the Law is not and never was meant to be the means of salvation. The Law can teach us our need for salvation as we see how we fall short of God’s purpose. The Law can show us we have fallen, but it does not pick us up. For that we need the Lord himself, carrying us, just as he carried the Israelites “on eagles’ wings” to himself. The Lord comes to us in our brokenness, in our slavery, to pick us up and bring us close to himself, so that his presence heals us. The Law can show us we need healing, but it does not heal. God does.
One time I thought I had a broken hand, after another player hit me rather awkwardly in a basketball game. My hand hurt and it wasn’t working properly; so I took myself out of the game. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but an x-ray confirmed my guess: my hand was broken. The doctor made sure everything was rightly aligned; then he put on a splint to keep my hand still long enough for the bone to heal.
The x-ray revealed the break—the location and its severity—but the x-ray did nothing to heal the broken bone. For that matter, the doctor didn’t heal the bone either; he just set it in place, and the life in my body produced the healing over time.
God’s law is like an x-ray, revealing broken souls and broken relationships, but the x-ray does nothing to heal what is broken. That takes the personal touch of Jesus the Healer. Even more, it takes his healing life injected into our souls. The law’s x-ray reveals our brokenness, but Jesus sets things right, and then the presence of the Holy Spirit brings healing through the new life he breathes into us.
This applies to the way we read the whole Bible: before we try to live by God’s guidance (in the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount) we need to see what God has done to save us. We need to listen to the Ten Commandments and listen to Jesus’ instructions as coming from the God who has shown us how much he loves us and what his power can do. 
From God who has already acted to save us, we can receive instructions which will bless us and make us a blessing to others. But if we try to live by the rules in order to save ourselves, we won’t be blessed by the law. Remember, God doesn’t give us the law to save us. He gives the law to people saved by his grace and power. He gives the law to instruct us in the way that is good. But the power to live in the way that is good is the power of his saving presence, the power of his Spirit within us.
So, what about commandment number one in the Ten Commandments? “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3, NIV). Why does God require this from Israel and from us? Is it because he doesn’t like competition from rival gods? God is a jealous God, as Exodus 20:5 tells us. But an even more fundamental reason is that the Lord God knows there is no competition! And Israel should know this, after all they saw God do in Egypt in the ten plagues, after what they saw him do at the Red Sea. There is no other god who saves like this!
Israel should worship and serve no other god but “the Lord [their] God who brought [them] out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” What about us? We worship the same God, but not only because he delivered Israel from slavery. We worship the same God, who has now given “his only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him can have everlasting life.” We worship the same God, who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. We worship the God who has conquered sin and even death, this God who has shown us that he alone is God and there is no other. 
The first command requires Israel and us to worship the true God, exclusively. We are not to seek our lives and our salvation in those things which fascinate us only to fail us: our pleasures, our possessions, our powerful positions, or anything else that we allow to run our lives. We allow these things to rule our lives because we think we can get life from them. Eventually we learn these are false gods, with no power to give life or lasting fulfillment. God knows this already; so he says, “No other gods!”
God wants you to live; he doesn’t want you to seek life where it cannot be found. God wants to be the only God you worship and serve, because he is the only God who saves and fulfills your reason for being. God knows he is the only God you really need; and he wants you to know that.
How much does he want to be your God? To be all the God you’ll ever need, he’s willing to go to the cross, to die and then rise, and then give us the gift of the Holy Spirit.
To us this morning God says, “Look what I’ve done to save you. Look what I’m doing to finish my saving work. Listen to what I say. Follow my directions. Keep always before you the cross of Christ, the sign of my conquest of everything that would destroy you. I am your God; there is no other.”

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Obituary for my dad

Clyde Otis Autry, Jr., passed from this life into the nearer presence of Jesus on February 28, 2012, at the age of 83. He was born to Clyde and Flora Holland Autry, on June 27, 1928 and was a life-long resident of Hall County . He was preceded in death by his parents, two sisters, Vina Savage and Margaret Gilstrap, and by his beloved wife, Hazel McGhee Autry.
He is survived by three sons and their wives, Otis and Melinda Autry of Dunn, NC, Arden and June Autry of Tulsa, OK, and Larry and Joy Autry of Gainesville, GA. Also surviving are four grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, one great-great-grandson, and a number of nephews and nieces. He was loving, generous, and supportive to all of them.
Clyde loved the Lord and he loved gospel music. He played bass guitar for decades at Congregational Holiness churches in Gainesville , Lula, and Union Grove, and at Union Grove Camp Meeting ( White County ). He also played bass for many years with the Saxon Family at gospel singings throughout the region.
He worked as a supervisor at Gayborn Mills and later at Macklanburg-Duncan, until retirement.
Clyde leaves a legacy of faithfulness to Christ, integrity of life and witness, an infectious laugh, and friendliness to all he met. He will be greatly missed by family and his many friends, but they are comforted in knowing his trust in Jesus is fully rewarded in God’s presence.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Upside-Down Life

"The Upside-Down Life" (1 Corinthians 4:1-5, 16-17), a sermon preached by Arden Autry at First United Methodist Church, Tulsa, OK, February 5, 2012

I catch myself sometimes imitating my dad.  I notice that I’m laughing, frowning, or gesturing like he does.  My “ways” are a lot like his, probably more than I notice.  It’s natural because I learned how to speak and act by watching and listening to him as I grew up.  What I imitated became part of me.  My laughs, frowns, and gestures are genuinely mine, even though I learned them by imitating my dad.
A lot of things we do and say—and even think—we learned by imitation—from parents, perhaps from childhood peers, or peers of the workplace.  We may not have chosen these influences consciously, but we were shaped by the process of imitation until certain expressions and attitudes were internalized.  What we imitate long enough, we internalize.  We become what we imitate.
In 1 Cor. 4:16, the Apostle Paul says, “I urge you to imitate me.”  He doesn’t mean imitating his gestures or his facial expressions.  He means imitating his values and priorities, his upside-down way of living not for himself, for his comfort or career advancement, but rather for Christ and his kingdom. 
Let’s look at the context of 1 Cor. 4:16, where Paul says, “Imitate me.”  Notice “therefore” at the beginning of the verse.  It points back to the previous verses as the basis for what Paul says in verse 16.  The most immediate connection is with verses 14-15. 
Paul addresses the Corinthians as “my dear children” (vs. 14).  Speaking figuratively, he says that “in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (vs. 15, NIV).  Paul brought the gospel to their city; he led them to faith in Christ.  In that sense, Paul is their spiritual father.  They should imitate him, as “dear children” would imitate a respected parent. 
If you look just at the previous paragraph in 1 Cor. 4 you might not want to imitate Paul.  Look how he describes some of his experience.  In verses 11-13, he says that he has been “hungry and thirsty . . . in rags [not adequately dressed] . . . brutally treated [beaten] . . . homeless.”  He goes on to say he has been “cursed . . . persecuted . . . [and] slandered.”  In the eyes of some people, at least, Paul is regarded as “the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.”
That doesn’t sound very attractive, does it?  Of course not everyone abused him.  Many were grateful for his ministry.  But he was often treated quite harshly.  But look how he treated people:  “we bless . . . we endure . . . we answer kindly” (vss. 12-13).  “We answer kindly” (NIV) could be translated “we speak words of encouragement.”  What a response to slander!  Some people speak ill of Paul, not just pagan or religious opponents, but even some Christians.  But Paul looks for ways to speak encouragement, positive, kind words to promote better attitudes and more up-lifting ways of speaking and acting. 
Paul would certainly encourage us to imitate him in blessing, enduring, and speaking kindly, but the real foundation for his lifestyle is found in an earlier paragraph. Let’s look at the first five verses of chapter 4. 
Look at verse one. “So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.”  How does Paul want others to see him? How does Paul see himself?   As a servant of Christ (vs. 1).  That means Paul serves Christ’s purposes, rather than his own.  Paul wants to be Christ-serving rather than self-serving. 
Paul says he has been “entrusted with the secret things of God” (vs. 1, NIV).  For “entrusted” other translations use the word “steward,” which means someone entrusted with responsibility for resources that belong to someone else; someone who’s been given responsibility for another person’s project.  Paul is a steward, responsible to God for what Paul does with his life and all the gifts God has given him.  And the project is spreading the gospel of salvation, the good news that there is a Savior for all humanity and his name is Jesus.  That project is God’s agenda.  And the resources for this project—including Paul’s very life—belong to God. 
Paul’s self-description as a servant of Christ means he is not commander of his own life; he is not the captain of the ship; he’s the crew.  He is answerable to God, the owner of the ship.  He serves Christ, the captain of the ship. The business of Paul’s life is not his own business; it’s God’s business. 
Being entrusted with “the secret things of God,” means he is responsible to God for the truth God has revealed.   What Paul does with God’s truth is (first of all) how he responds to it in his own life.  Second, it is how he shares that truth with other people, by what he says and by how he lives.  If Paul speaks truthfully but lives falsely, he will not be a good steward; that would mean a violation of trust, a dereliction of duty. 
This is certainly an important way to imitate Paul, by acknowledging Christ’s ownership of our lives and realizing that we are responsible to God for how we believe and obey his word.  And we are accountable to God for how we allow his agenda to shape our lives so that our lifestyle testifies to the truth and authority of God’s word.  So that our daily lives bear witness—in word but especially in deeds—to the goodness, the grace, and the generosity of God.
Let’s look at verse 2. “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”  As a steward, entrusted with God’s resources and God-given opportunities, Paul seeks to be faithful (vs. 2).  In the end, this is all that matters for stewardship:  Have I been faithful with the resources and opportunities God has given me?  This attitude, this value of putting faithfulness to God above everything else—this is the key to Paul’s whole life.  This is why Paul’s way of living would be regarded by most people as upside-down, but this is why God regards Paul’s life as right-side up.
If you let faithfulness to God be the mainspring of your life, you will be different from the majority of people, especially in our culture.  Our culture does not encourage faithfulness to God; our culture encourages us to seek personal fulfillment. Our culture tries to teach us that fulfillment trumps all other values, including faithfulness to God and faithfulness to others to whom we should be committed:  others who depend on our promises; others whose welfare depends on our reliability.  Much of the heartache that humans inflict on one another and on themselves can be traced to regrettable choices to put personal fulfillment ahead of faithfulness.
Faithfulness or fulfillment?  What shall be the supreme, governing value of our lives?  In itself fulfillment is a good thing, when it is the fruit of faithfulness.  But our culture teaches us to want personal fulfillment above all else.  Constant advertising and media attention devoted to celebrities stoke the fires that burn within us: we desire to be admired, we desire to be desired, we desire to get and enjoy things that promise contentment but can never deliver.  Even when we experience some fulfillment, we find it doesn’t last and we feel empty again.  But we don’t drop the pursuit; we just ramp up the effort to find fulfillment, sometimes at the expense of sacrificing faithfulness. 
The contest between faithfulness and fulfillment is at the heart of some ‘hot-button’ issues, such as same-sex marriage and unrestricted abortion.  But it’s also at the heart of every person’s battle to decide which values to live by, which goals to pursue, and what to sacrifice for the sake of a greater good.  It’s at the heart of how I run my business or pursue my career.  It’s at the heart of how I decide priorities of family and finances. 
What will I put first?  Faithfulness to God; faithfulness to others that God has put in my life—my spouse; my family; fellow members of my family in Christ?  Will I seek to be all I’m called to be in Christ, for my benefit but also for the blessing of others?  Or will these relationships take second place so that I can pursue personal fulfillment?  These choices confront us on a daily basis.  The stark truth—often discovered only with painful experience—is that sacrificing faithfulness in pursuit of fulfillment will leave you empty-handed.  The path of faithfulness is the only one that leads to lasting fulfillment.
Unfortunately our default setting—if we don’t screen the values pushed by our culture, especially by advertising and the media in general—our default setting is to opt for self-fulfillment.  That’s one reason we need to pray, every day, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.”  Unless we regularly listen and respond to God’s will, we will naturally enough do our will as it is regularly done on earth, functioning with the default setting on personal fulfillment rather than faithfulness to God’s kingdom.
Notice how Paul’s priority of faithfulness to God gives him courage to deal with other people.  In verse three, Paul boldly says, “I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court” (vs. 3, NIV).   This he says to a church caught up in silly comparisons about which preacher is the best—Paul, Apollos, or Cephas. In other words, Paul says, “It doesn’t matter whether you’re impressed by me or not!” 
But look at verses 4 and 5. There will be an evaluation of Paul’s life and ministry, the effect his life has had on others, but it won’t be by a vote of the Corinthians: “It is the Lord who judges me” (vs. 4).  Unlike humans, who have to judge by what we observe outwardly, the Lord knows “what is hidden in darkness.”  He knows the true “motives of men’s hearts” (vs. 5, NIV).

Paul has a clear conscience, but he knows the ultimate Judge, God, is the only one whose judgment finally matters (vss. 3-4).  Paul’s view of himself, his positive self-regard or self-image, won’t count in the end. 
It’s good to have a clear conscience.  A troubled conscience will thwart your life in countless ways.  If you carry around a guilty conscience, you won’t even see the good you could do for others because you’ll be pre-occupied with yourself.  It’s good to have a clear conscience, but it’s not the final accountability. 
It’s good to have a good reputation with others.  A reputation for honesty, competence, and reliability will get you more opportunities to do well and to do good.  But having the best reputation among your peers is not the final accountability.
Finally and inescapably we are accountable to God, as Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”  And in our text this morning, in 1 Cor. 4:5, Paul reminds us of that time when “each will receive his praise from God.” 
It’s nice to have the praise of people who are pleased with something you did.  I enjoy it when people tell me they liked my lecture or sermon or song.  But the praise of people will count for nothing when we stand before God.  Then God’s praise, his pleasure, his approval, his commendation, will be all that matters.
Let’s summarize what we’ve seen in this chapter.  What does it mean to “imitate” Paul?  This chapter highlights Paul’s selfless concern for the spiritual well-being of others, his concern for God’s judgment alone, his lack of concern for human popularity (vss. 1-5), and his willingness even to be mistreated for sake of the gospel (vss.11-13).  To imitate Paul means putting God’s blessing for others ahead of concern for my reputation, my career potential, or how I compare with other ministers or other Christians.  To put it in a single word, Paul values faithfulness to Jesus above everything else.  To imitate Paul, my top priority must be faithfulness to Christ.
In several of his letters Paul encourages Christians to imitate him.  One passage, 1 Corinthians 11:1, is particularly important. In 1 Cor. 11:1, Paul says, according to the NIV: Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  A more literal translation, the New American Standard, puts it this way:  Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”  Paul could safely encourage us to imitate him only to the extent that he imitated Christ.  That’s implicit in every passage where Paul encourages us to imitate him.  Imitate someone who imitates Christ.  That’s good advice for everyone.
The word “imitation” can sound superficial, but think about it: almost everything we know how to do, we learned first by imitation, including learning to speak.  Much of this imitation is not consciously chosen (like accents or prejudice).  But Paul urges a conscious choice to imitate a good example.  Indeed, if we do not consciously, deliberately choose to imitate good examples, we are likely to imitate bad examples, which are abundant in the world.
Be careful what you imitate, because what you imitate continually you will internalize eventually.  When we choose to imitate Christ and mature Christians, the Holy Spirit works to make these qualities our own, as fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).  But you’re less likely to exhibit these qualities unconsciously if you do not consciously choose them, from observing them in others, or in God, and deciding to imitate them.
Imitating Christ, imitating Paul or other good Christian examples will be an ‘upside-down’ way of life because it’s opposite in many ways to the life-style and priorities the world promotes.  But it really boils down to this question:  What values and priorities define your life?  What is your life about?
If you pay attention to mass-media advertising, you’ll think your life is defined by consumption, by having the latest, the shiniest, the fastest, the sexiest, whatever it takes to affirm yourself as being of value.  And there’s no better day of the year to be aware of this than Super Bowl Sunday, where advertisements get special attention.  Notice what they’re offering you, and ask whether this product can really deliver on the ad’s promise, or whether this is just a way to get you to spend money pursuing self-fulfillment through consumption.
It’s almost un-American to criticize consumption.  After all, our economy depends on people spending, not on people saving. But that’s not my point just now.  My point is that you’re called to something better, something higher, something more lasting, and something ultimately more fulfilling. 
Paul began this book by reminding us that we’re “called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2).  We call on Jesus as Lord because he called us first.  And he didn’t call us to be consumers, spending our money and our lives pursuing more and more stuff.  He called us to be holy, sanctified by our worship of him, and devoted to his purposes in the world.  His purpose is to bless and heal the world through right relationships with God and one another.  We’re called to be part of that healing.
Another way to say it: You’re not called to be a bucket.  You’re called to be a pipeline.
If your purpose in life is to acquire, collect, and consume, then your life is like a bucket.  The question is how much you can hold; what will it take to fill you up, since you seem to leak?  And what will you have when the bucket bursts?  But if living like a bucket has not satisfied you, maybe you should try living like a pipeline.
You can be a pipeline, a means of conveying blessing from God to people around you.  You can let God pour out abundant blessings for you to share with others.  I’m not talking simply about money.  I’m talking about time, faith, hope, and love.  People around you are desperate for these.  Let God use you as a pipeline for blessing others, and there is no way you can avoid being touched by his blessings, too.
Of course a certain amount of consuming and collecting is necessary and prudent.  You and your family need food, shelter, clothing, transportation, etc.  Consumption, however, is not your calling.  Your calling is to make a long-term difference for good in the lives of other people, knowing that God Almighty is looking after your eternal good.
This is the calling for which we are accountable.  This is the stewardship with which we’re entrusted.  The point of your life is not how much you collect or consume; the point of your life is how much you bless others in Jesus’ name for the sake of the kingdom of God.  The point of your life, in other words, is how much you imitate God, your heavenly Father, in his grace, love, and generosity.
Faithful imitation of your heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit—that’s your calling, and that’s your path to lasting fulfillment.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

(Where this river flows)

From the threshold of the temple, just a trickle was seen,
Quickly growing to a rushing, mighty stream.
From the Most Holy Place flows a river of grace,
Spreading healing and life to the world.
Where this river flows, everything lives.
Where this river flows, everyone lives.

From the temple of his body, after Jesus had died,
Sprang a fountain, blood and water from his side.
From the Most Holy Place flows a river of grace
Spreading healing and life to the world.
Where this river flows, everything lives.
Where this river flows, everyone lives.

From this temple of his Spirit living water will spring,
Speaking blessing and refreshing thirsty souls.
From the Lord’s dwelling place flows a river of grace
Spreading healing and life to the world.
Where this river flows, everything lives.
Where this river flows, everyone lives.

Holy Spirit of God, life-giving stream,
Turn deserts to gardens as you flow through me!
Where this river flows, everything lives.
Where this river flows, everyone lives.

© W/M Arden C. Autry, 2011

Ezekiel 47:1-12; John 2:19-21; 4:14; 7:37-39; 19:34; Revelation 22:1-2