Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chloe's a Tattletale

This morning’s second scripture reading is 1 Corinthians 1: 10 – 18, and can be found on page 807 of your pew Bibles.
Listen now for the word of God.
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.
My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; and another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?
I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
-The word of the Lord
-Thanks be to God.
My grandmother is one of those people who only use Duke’s Mayonnaise. My grandfather told me he learned that lesson the hard way, having come home from the store with one of the inferior brands, and been sent back to exchange some lesser mayonnaise for the real thing. You might say that my grandmother has made up her mind on mayonnaise, and hasn’t changed it in a very long time.
In today’s world that same kind of dedication seems to be a rarity. People seem to like change, and it is not often some deep seeded commitment that stirs our decision making, but passing whims, sales, or flashy new advertising.
Of course, no one would think it a serious problem if our inability to commit to things were limited to what we put on our sandwiches or in our potato salads, but lack of commitment has infiltrated more serious concerns.
The standards of our faith that once seemed to be written in stone, immovable and unchangeable, now seem to be under the sway of movements and philosophies of the day. The standards of “truth,” seem to be less certain than they once were, and we find ourselves just like Pilate before Jesus, asking, “What is truth?”
Like tapered jeans, feathered hair, roller-skates, and tie-dye shirts, commitment and certainty seem to have gone out of style.
Today even “the church,” at least in the way that Paul speaks of it, has changed, and is changing dramatically.
Some groups have broken away, seeking something pure and a truth un-wavering to the winds of time. These days Presbytery meetings are the forum for debate, or simply the place for announcing who has moved on from the PC (USA).
There are some who would say that they are leaving a denomination that has faltered, that has failed, that has compromised too often, that doesn’t seem to stand for anything anymore.
And those who leave might say that they are seeking the truth of Christ – acting as the true church, unlike those who in the Corinthian church said, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; and another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
But I wonder often what such divisions are really all about.
Anyone who has been paying much attention to the Presbyterian Church recently knows that our current divisions have a lot to do with ordination – who can be ordained – what standards for ordination really exist? This debate brings up new questions – questions that Paul probably didn’t deal with directly, but dealt with in his own way nonetheless.
In our passage for today, Paul wrote, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
With the crafting of such a sentence, Paul addresses the problem that those from Chloe’s household let him know about; maybe not directly, but in a way that disarms the argument, making a statement that’s hard to disagree with, but which steals the foundation from any quarrel, saying, I have been called here, not to baptize, “but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
For Paul, the cross stands as the judge of all human wisdom – and for Paul, it was this one truth that held his commitment fully, making human knowledge appear to be foolishness.
But to the Priestly Leaders of the Jews—a group also called the Sanhedrin—and the Romans, at the time of Jesus’ trial, it was Jesus who appeared to be foolish. The Sanhedrin and the Romans were two groups who could not compromise together, but were, like politicians vying for a Presidential Nomination, unified by a common enemy in Jesus.
The Sanhedrin, committed to a truth they believed lied in their interpretation of the Law, and the Romans, equally committed to the truth of law and order, were both offended by the man who preached that the truth could not be in either of these places, but in loving your neighbor as yourself. The Romans and the Sanhedrin were both sure that truth did not lie in the words and essence of the man who stood before them both, condemned as a criminal.
And Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
They assumed that Truth lay in their interpretation of the Law; that Truth lay in Empire, in order, in human wisdom. And their opinions, held so strongly – unwavering, uncompromising, unapologetically standing for something they thought to be true – crucified the truth, the light to our shadow.
So Jesus died, like a child torn apart by two warring parents both too obsessed with being right to see the failings of their argument – more dedicated to winning the fight than to the love that once joined them together; or like a denomination torn apart by churches convinced they are the true manifestation of all that is good and right that they have forgotten that the essence of Christianity is not the standards of faith that can be agreed upon, but our common call to the foot of the Cross – binding us together as one body of broken people who admit their need for a savior; or like the Corinthian congregation segmented by leaders who all believe they have all the right answers tearing apart a church – the very body of Christ, torn apart by the Roman Court and the Sanhedrin, unable to see beyond their the words to see the truth.
The Cross stands before us all – not as something to fight over or to defend, but as a sign that should humble all of us who think that we are right. Here we see that we don’t have the answers, and we can only hope that Chloe will tell on us before we tear ourselves apart.
In a world so broken by war fueled by fundamentalism and the fear of retreat, it seems that we have gone too far trusting in human wisdom so that we may never make it back.
We want to stand for something, we want to believe that there are answers lying in our hearts or hands; but the Cross shows us that the truth does not lie in the faith of the Sanhedrin, the wisdom of the Greeks, the order of the Romans, the Patriotism of the Republicans, the Hope of the Democrats – but that the answer lies in those hands nailed on the cross.
At the cross we see that faith does not mean forging ahead according to what we believe is right – but walking humbly with our God and neighbor, expecting to make mistakes, but walking together, bound by cords that cannot be broken. And we’ll be singing, “Bind us together Lord, bind us together, and bind us together with love.”

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I Always Thank God for You

This morning’s (second) scripture reading is 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, verses 1 – 9; and can be found on page 806 of your pew Bible.
Listen now for the word of God.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours:
Grace and peace to you from God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank God for you because of the grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him we have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God, who has called you into fellowship with the Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.
The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
I had the honor of serving one of our denomination’s finest churches as an intern in the summer after my second year of seminary. One of the flagship churches of the PC (USA), hosting General Assemblies, having had more than one of their senior pastors move on to become moderator; this place was perfect for learning about our denomination because this church, with its illustrious heritage and breathtaking cathedral-like sanctuary, had been losing members since the 1950’s and the end of this loss seemed to be no where in sight.
Across the street from this fantastic church stood another church undergoing renovations; not so that it could expand to accommodate their growing congregation, but so that the sanctuary, Sunday School rooms, and offices could be converted into apartments to accommodate the growing number of young professionals who could see the value in a fine apartment, but didn’t have the time to stop and see the value in attending a fine worship service.
The fate of this church-turned-apartment complex was a looming omen, casting a shadow of fear over the congregation that I served.
They looked to the past, remembering the days when the sanctuary would fill to the point of bursting, Christmas Eves with folding chairs filling up the aisles to accommodate all those who wanted to worship God in this place that meant so much, and Sunday school rooms with the audible laughter of children being nurtured in the faith where now only a few small voices remained. They would remember the times with both joy and shame, for it seemed as though they had failed, or might fail, in keeping the church alive, and when it came down to it, if the church were to close, whose fault would it be?
Surely, they would not be the kind of church who, like that church in Corinth, inspired Paul to write, “I always thank God for you because of the grace given you in Christ Jesus.”
Surely, they would be the kind of church that Paul would be too ashamed to write, the kind of church who would fade away into history rather than be remembered in scripture.
The Corinthian church was a big wealthy church, because Corinth was a city conveniently situated for imports and exports between the Aegean Sea and the Ionian.[i] An attractive place, and a wealthy place, that surely nurtured a church who didn’t worry about budgets or mortgages, but who was able to rest secured in the promise that their church would be there for their grandchildren, would stand the test of time, establishing its place in Corinthian society – a church that would not need suffer the anxiety of a future as an apartment complex.
However, success often breeds its own sad set of problems, and as Paul is that kind of a person who you only hear from when something is gone wrong, not the kind of boss who drops in to say, “hey, looks like your doing a great job – keep it up,” but the kind who, should you be called to the office or find a letter at your door, you know to expect the worst.
Such is the case with the Corinthian church, for, according to John Calvin, “during Paul’s absence false apostles had crept in, not… to disturb the church openly with wicked doctrines…but priding themselves in the splendor and magnificence of their address, or rather, being puffed up with an empty loftiness of speech, they looked upon Paul’s simplicity, and even the Gospel itself, with contempt.”[ii]
Like any pastor, outgrowing his or her humble position by growth in ambition rather than growth in faith, leaders in the Corinthian church, seeking the credit for the church’s success, split the congregation into factions rather than be unified by Christ. To use Calvin’s words again, they were “promoting their own honor, rather than Christ’s kingdom and the people’s welfare.”[iii]
But Paul’s criticism of these problems does not begin with anger or insult, but with the words, “I always thank God for you because of the grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you.
Paul’s words are kind, and might almost seem to give the ambitious leaders of the Corinthian church more reason to boast - but Paul’s words are not focused on the leaders, they are focused on God. No, pointedly, Paul takes the credit and acclaim that has been misplaced on the heads of the leaders and that has caused factions and divisions, and gives it right back to its rightful source.
It is not uncommon for any leaders in the church to take credit for success – lifting them up, applauding their own efforts, taking credit for what God has done. But Paul knows that the source of their speaking or knowledge does not lie in the goodness of their own character, but is able to do such good because of the grace given in Christ Jesus.
And likewise, it is not uncommon for church members to take credit and responsibility for what they perceive to be failure, placing blame for smaller attendance or lacking programs, on themselves or their leaders, assuming that if things are going wrong that they are at fault –but Paul also speaks to this concept of responsibility, for placing blame for what seems to be going wrong is equally self centered.
We deserve Paul’s rebuke whenever we take credit for success or failure, believing that the future wellbeing of the church lies in our hands - because the future of this church does not lie in our hands, but in the hands of God, “who has called you into fellowship with the Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is faithful.”
I want to rejoice in this day, because today we are surely oblivious if we cannot see God working in this place – though we must remember that we are no doubt fools if we think that God is working in this place because of what anyone of us has done.
The inflated egos represented in the Corinthian Church, and the inflated sense of responsibility represented by the church that I served as an intern, are two sides of the same coin, both sides which seem to doubt the power of God, lacking the faith to trust that it is God who is at work all around us.
So Paul calls us to a different sense of purpose and responsibility – to a place of trust, trusting the sure truth that God is setting all things right in Jesus Christ.
While we are called to trust, and to watch, we are also called to be actors within this great healing of the world – acting, not because of our own merits, but using our gifts for the glory of God, knowing that it is because of God that we are here in this place at all.
According to Bible scholar Richard B. Hayes, God invites us to participate in this healing, and because of this invitation, “on the one hand, the stakes are raised. Our actions belong to a larger pattern of significance than that of our own lives, and the church’s obedience to God’s will matters urgently, because it is part of God’s strategy for the eschatological renewal of the world. On the other hand, at the same time, we can gain a better sense of proportions about our own striving and failures, for God is faithful, and it is God who is at work in calling and preparing us.”[iv]
We are all called to this place, and we must not allow our complaining, our disappointment, our egos, our successes, our triumphs, our shortcomings, to hinder God from letting this church be a great voice, shouting the good news in our actions and words, through our presence in this community, and despite the flaws that make us one people in need of the same savior.
[i] John Calvin, Corinthians Volume 1, p. 37.
[ii] Ibid. p. 38.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Richard B. Hayes, First Corinthians, p. 20.