Silly Signs of Righteousness - thrive UMC Official Blog

Silly Signs of Righteousness

In book of the Bible that we’ve been reading throughout this series, the Apostle Paul is addressing some very specific concerns, to a particular community. In fact, about the middle third of the letter reads like a kind of parental scolding of a child who by now has a long track-record of misbehaving.  For instance, as we read last week, a member of the church had been involved in an illegal, incestuous relationship; so Paul wrote to tell them: kick that guy out!  Excommunicate him! And then in the next chapter, he goes on to scold them about taking each other to court, where –again –he gives very specific advice: find some wise people in the church to help you work your own stuff out

            But even as he’s telling them what to do, you can also see him try to teach this young community how to start working some of this stuff out for themselves.  Our reading for today picks up as Paul is trying to help them wade through the muddy waters of moral sex and healthy relationships.  We’re starting in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7, reading verses 17-24.   

17 Nevertheless, each person should live the kind of life that the Lord assigned when he called each one. This is what I teach in all the churches. 18 If someone was circumcised when called, he shouldn’t try to reverse it. If someone wasn’t circumcised when he was called, he shouldn’t be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing; not being circumcised is nothing. What matters is keeping God’s commandments. 20 Each person should stay in the situation they were in when they were called. 21 If you were a slave when you were called, don’t let it bother you. But if you are actually able to be free, take advantage of the opportunity. 22 Anyone who was a slave when they were called by the Lord has the status of being the Lord’s free person. In the same way, anyone who was a free person when they were called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought and paid for. Don’t become slaves of people. 24 So then, brothers and sisters, each of you should stay with God in the situation you were in when you were called.         

            So here in chapter 7 Paul is basically telling everyone: stay where you are. Don’t move! If you’re married, stay married; if you’re uncircumcised, keep it; if you’re a slave, stay a slave!  Which let’s just be very clear and very upfront on this: there are some circumstances for which this is absolutely terrible advice, right? 

            And this passage in particular can be very bad if it is turned into a sound-bite or taken out of context. Again, Paul was writing this letter to some very specific, very real human beings.  So let me be clear: Paul was not writing this letter to abolitionists in 19th century America.  He was not writing this to spouses in abusive marriages.  He was not even writing this to people stuck in jobs that they hate.  Instead, he was writing this to a whole group of people who were trying to navigate a whole new set of expectations. 

            And when you’re leaving an old way of life to start a new one, it can get pretty difficult to know what to let go of, and what we need to hang on to.   For example, last week, we already read about the incident of incest that had happened, and we heard a part of Paul’s sermon against sexual immorality; but it turns out that there were also people in the same community who were going around preaching celibacy as the ‘Christian’ thing to do. 

            So it’s like one side going: “now that we have Jesus, we don’t have to worry about the old, ‘pagan’ laws anymore! Who cares what the Roman rules say, love is love man, and I love my step-mom! Christ is freedom baby, whoooh!”  And meanwhile, the other side is saying: we used to visit dirty, slutty, sexy temple prostitutes because we were filthy, awful sinners; but now that we’ve been washed clean by the blood of the lamb, we won’t even let our own spouses into our beds! Instead we cross our fingers at them, hiss, and go: in the name of Jesus, get back you wanton lust-buckets –can’t you see how spiritual I am now!”

            [Add that to the list, along with: ‘I have a headache,’ ‘I’m too tired,’ ‘you smell bad,’ etc.: keeping these genitals untouchable for Jesus. Spouses everywhere are thrilled.]

             And none of that is good, right? If you read these couple of chapters closely, you can feel the struggle happening beneath the surface.  This new group of people is scratching and clawing at one another, trying to carve out a new way of life for themselves –and they are like herding cats.  They have left their old lifestyles and habits behind them in a radical way; but they don’t yet know how to act or how to be in this new kind of kingdom under the Lordship of Christ.

            And the way it sounds from Paul’s letter is that husbands were withholding sex from their wives; and wives were leaving their husbands; and Jewish men were trying to reverse their circumcisions –which was a surgery, men, you don’t even want to think about; and slaves were trying to escape their financial debts and it was chaos!  Here they were, a whole community trying to live into their new freedom in Christ, and what they were discovering on the other side was anxiety and whole new brands of insecurity.  Suddenly, what they had thought would be freedom was threatening the bond of their families, and their relationships, and even their economy. 

            And I would imagine that, in the midst of all of this, the Enneagram sixs were just absolutely freaking out

              For the last six weeks, we’ve been talking about a personality system called the Enneagram, which identifies people based on their deepest, driving desires.  And today we’re going to talk about Type 6, which is called “The Loyalist.”  (Also called ‘The Devil’s Advocate,’ ‘The Questioner,’ ‘The Trooper,’ or ‘the Guardian.’) And their basic desire is to be secure. 

            Here is a quick description of 6’s, according to the Enneagram institute:

The committed, security-oriented type. Sixes are reliable, hard-working, responsible, and trustworthy. Excellent “troubleshooters,” they foresee problems and foster cooperation, but can also become defensive, evasive, and anxious—running on stress while complaining about it. They can be cautious and indecisive, but also reactive, defiant and rebellious. They typically have problems with self-doubt and suspicion. 

At their Best: 6’s are internally stable and self-reliant, courageously championing themselves and others.

            I have heard a few experts on the Enneagram suggest that there are more sixes in the world than any other number, and one author even hypothesized that as many as half of the population of the United States are 6s.  So if you haven’t identified with a number yet, odds favor the possibility that you’re as 6.  And if you want to find out, here are 4 statements that most 6s can relate to:

  • I am attracted to authority but distrustful of it at the same time.”
  • “I feel more secure doing what’s expected of me than striking out on my own.”
  • “I am a hard worker: I keep plodding along until the job gets done.”
  • “I sound out the opinions of people I trust before I have to make big decisions.”

Now the gift of 6s is that they are willing and ready to commit.  Once a relationship is developed with a person, or a community, or a set of beliefs, they will tend to stick with it.  And even if things aren’t going well, sixs tend to hang on longer than almost any other type.  And what’s more, they will fight for the relationships they care about, because their inner wisdom shows them that their connections are their lifelines.  Their families, and their communities, and the structures that uphold them are what keep them safe and stable, which is what they crave the most. So 6s are ready to dedicate themselves to those systems and supports; and in a lot of really important ways, they hold the fabric of our communal society together.

      But if you’ve been paying any attention to how the Enneagram works, you’ll also know that each gift is connected with a struggle.  And for 6s, the predominant struggle is with fear.  Because they are so concerned with security and relationships, they are also acutely aware of how things could go wrong.  If you’re at all familiar with the Marvel Comics superhero called Spiderman, you’ll know that one of his super-powers is that he can feel imminent danger. Any time a bad-guy is about to attack, it’s like his brain starts to buzz.  In the comics, they call this his ‘spider-sense.’  Enneagram 6s have a power just like that –except in the real world, we don’t call it a spider-sense; we call it ‘anxiety.’  Anxiety is the feeling, in our brains and in our bodies, that danger is afoot. It tells us there is something out there that could threaten our health and our vital social systems; and 6’s are wired to try and help the rest of us steer clear of that danger.

       6’s might be the reason Readers Digest is still in print –because they need to know which 6 new things might secretly be trying to kill their family this week –whether it’s salmonella in your lettuce, or the viral teenage trend of eating tide-pods, or potential glutton lurking in unexpected places, like furniture upholstery. Anxiety zaps us to focus in on the looming hazards of our external environment. And obviously that can be helpful sometimes.  For instance, our awareness of automobile danger leads us wear seat-belts to look both ways before crossing the street, and that saves lives. And there are just tons and tons of safety mechanisms built into our modern American life that really do make our lives better.  But let’s not overlook the irony that the number-one killer of Americans for the last several decades has been heart-disease. Almost a quarter of all deaths in the U.S. in 2017 happened as a result of heart disease.  And among the leading contributors to heart disease are stress and anxiety.  So you could say that there are Americans out there who are literally killing themselves trying to stay safe.

      But the statistics on this whole thing get worse the more you look at them, because it turns out, that of all the people who lived in the 19th century –every single one of them is now deceased.  The last person with a birth date verified as being before the year 1900 passed away in 2017.  Her name was Emma Morano.  And everybody from every century before that, it turns out, is also dead, which is a trend that does not bode well for our hopes of an indefinitely secure future.   

            And perhaps the worst side-effect of our epidemic anxiety is that, while we’re all so busy focused on all of the potential dangers and threats facing us at any given moment, we end up missing out on the joys and the true blessings sitting right at our feet now. Because we are alive, now.  We have friendship and love, which give us life, now.  God is present and working in our midst, now.  But it is almost impossible to see and to celebrate any of that when our spider-sense is going off.  So long as we’re constantly trying to jump out of the way of each and every new threat that we feel, but cannot see, we are forfeiting joy and blessing and any possibility of peace. And the thing that we need to know, and need to internalize is that our anxiety, which comes out of a craving for security, will never actually save us from danger. It will only make us a different kind of slave.

            And this, I think, is what Paul was talking about when he was telling the people in Corinth to stay where they were.  Everyone was so busy trying to avoid the threats that they saw, that they ended up blindly running into all kinds of new traps. For instance, the incestuous man probably thought he was being liberated from Roman judgment –only to end up being judged by the Church.  And those who saw what he did tried to free themselves from all possible dangers of sexual immorality by abstaining from all forms of sex –but as Paul tries to point out: not everyone is built for celibacy.  Oh, if only the Catholic Church had paid more attention to this passage!  And sometimes, leaving the city or the job or the marriage so you can start a new life will not set you free, because the real oppressor might be inside you.  Sometimes our own cravings –whether they be for pleasure, or for freedom, or for security, can be our most restrictive masters.  So sometimes the right thing to do is not to change our position –it isn’t to leave and to go somewhere else.  Sometimes the right thing to do is to change our posture

            If we are indeed to be free in Christ, then that is a change that first comes from within.  “Each person should stay in the situation they were in when they were called.” Says Paul “21 If you were a slave when you were called, don’t let it bother you. But if you are actually able to be free, take advantage of the opportunity. 22 Anyone who was a slave when they were called by the Lord has the status of being the Lord’s free person. In the same way, anyone who was a free person when they were called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought and paid for. Don’t become slaves of people. 24 So then, brothers and sisters, each of you should stay with God in the situation you were in when you were called.”       

            The message here for all of us is: stay with God.  Don’t miss that line in the text.  Amid all of the change that’s happening in the world around us, and even in the church: stay with God.  God is the source of all true freedom; and God has already given us all the security we need.  When you are with God, you don’t need to wait for the physical shackles to fall off to be free.  And in the same way, just because there’s no shackle on your leg, it doesn’t mean that your heart’s unchained.  And that’s the kind of freedom most of us most desperately need: the kind of freedom that lets us be who we are, where we are.  It is freedom from anxiety, into love. 

            As we close today, I wanted to pass on some practical tips for Spiritual Growth for the 6s in all of us:

  • Practice centering prayer regularly. This will help you stay in tune with God, and remind you of the true source of your security.
  • Limit your exposure to the 24-hour news cycle, and other media that reinforce your anxious or pessimistic view of life. This is an easy way to start to work on giving your attention a kind of discipline. Set boundaries up for things that trigger anxiety, so that you can be free and encouraged to focus on joy.
  • Learn to recognize the difference between legitimate fear and free-floating anxiety. Ascribe different values to them.  Theologian Paul Tillich, in his book, The Courage to Be explains that the first step toward freedom from anxiety is into fear.  When we’re anxious, we just sense danger –but we don’t even know what we’re afraid of.  When we enter into fear, we concretely identify the source of our danger.  Then, once we are clear about what we are afraid of, we can respond to that potential danger more sensibly and effectively. 

May we all work to grow free from anxiety, so that we’re free to more powerfully love.

Let’s pray.