Sermon Take a Good Look Around January 26, 2020
I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common. I bring this up because some from Chloe’s family brought a most disturbing report to my attention – that you’re fighting among yourselves! I’ll tell you exactly what I was told: You’re all picking sides, going around saying, “I’m on Paul’s side,” or “I’m for Apollos,” or “Peter is my man,” or “I’m in the Messiah group.”
I ask you, “Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own? Was Paul crucified for you? Was a single one of you baptized in Paul’s name?” I was not involved with any of your baptisms – except for Crispus and Gaius—and on getting this report, I’m sure glad I wasn’t. At least no one can go around saying they were baptized in my name. (Come to think of it, I also baptized Stephanas’s family, but as far as I can recall, that’s it.) God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what Christ has done, collecting a following for Him. And God didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center – Christ on the Cross – be trivialized into mere words.
The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It’s written, I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots. So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn’t God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in God’s wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb – preaching, of all things! – to bring those who trust God into the way of salvation. 1Corinthians 1:10-18 The Message
It’s good to be back here after a week of vacation. Thank you, Jan Lanterman and Dave Whitmer, for preaching for me, and Dianne Mahler for keeping track of all of us, and thank you, Napa Methodist Church, for carrying on while I was away. It’s good to be with God’s House Band again. Every music ministry here brings its own energy and passion, and I knew when I told Ellen that I was preaching about unity this morning, she’d have music to match the message.
This morning’s scripture is from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, and it’s a letter to us as well, because there are similarities between ancient Corinth and contemporary Napa, and because the church is always, always struggling with what it is to be the church. Corinth, at the time of Paul’s writing, was a place of sophistication, of culture and money and education. There was also slavery and prostitution and poverty and corruption. The church at Corinth was this diverse mix of Jews and pagans and new followers of Christ, of rich and poor, of minions and the elite. With that diversity came all kinds of internal fighting and judging the spiritual maturity of others. Paul (whom I used to detest for his insistence that Christian women abide by the same rigid roles as was culturally appropriate and acceptable for his day) but now whom I see mostly affectionately, as the Den Mother of the early church… Paul was a rule-follower and a zealot, but he was also a lover and a poet. Last week’s crossword puzzle had a four-letter clue about the book of the bible describing Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ. Paul’s story is found in the book of Acts, where it’s told that “breathing threats and murder” against Christians, he hunted them down, persecuted them, and threw them in jail. He had an extraordinary experience on the road to Damascus, where he was blinded by an intense light, thrown off his donkey, and he heard the voice of Christ asking, “Saul, why do you persecute Me?” You can learn more about Paul’s dramatic conversion experience in Acts, chapter 9.
Paul seems to have been the same kind of Christ-follower as he had been a Jew: fanatical, obsessive, single-minded. Except that his experience with Christ also convinced him that he was a beloved child of God (that sounds so much like John Wesley, who was also kind of fanatical and obsessive and who had an experience of Christ’s love that “strangely warmed his heart.”) Paul’s faith and life were transformed when he found himself so loved. He became a Christ-follower – finding meaning, finding his purpose, in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Paul learned about and experienced Christ’s compassionate care and unconditional love… not as a first-person friend of Jesus as the original twelve disciples were, but as a disciple of the Risen Christ… And this is what I find amazing, reading Paul’s letters, that everything he learned about Christ he learned from the church. He matured in faith, from that experience of falling off his donkey on the road to Damascus, hearing a voice ask, “Saul, why do you persecute Me?” to being a mature Christ-follower, who listened for and recognized the Lord’s voice. Paul became a leader and shaper of the early church. And I’ll say it again that what’s amazing… is that everything Paul that learned about Christ’s life-transforming love, he learned in the church.
So it makes sense that Paul was worried and heartsick hearing about the Corinthian Church fighting among themselves about beliefs and allegiance and superiority. Christ’s love had transformed Saul’s own allegiance and superiority into Paul’s humility; knowing with all his heart that God has no favorites, and winning God’s love isn’t possible, and yet with all God’s heart, God loves all that God has created. This pericope from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is about unity. “You must get along with each other,” he wrote. “You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common.” Paul’s theme of unity revolved around koinonia, which is an intimate spiritual connection Christ-followers (the church) have with Christ and with each other. It’s a mystical union, like love is mystical. Mystical is a word defined as “not apparent to the senses or obvious to the intelligence.” Koinonia is an outward sign of our conviction that we are God’s own, beloved, and everyone else is too. Knowing ourselves to be beloved, we are to live so that it’s evident to all people that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, spiritually, mystically, and practically, connected through love.
Paul believed that the message of the cross was peace and reconciliation. There probably are as many theories of atonement (the saving work of God) as there are Christian denominations, and I’m referring to atonement, and the message of the cross, as proof of God’s love. Max Lucado, an author and pastor, has said, “God would rather die for you than to live without you.” Not a very postmodern sentiment, but an expression of the Love that had the power to transform Paul’s life, and our lives, and change the world. If there’s ever been a time in the history of humanity when we’ve needed peace and reconciliation, it’s now. This isn’t a debate about whether our time is more desperate or depraved than the Dark Ages or Hitler’s Germany because there’s no comparing times of hopelessness and corruption and fear. They just are, and they are a call to the church for unity. Paul saw the meaning of the cross of Christ as a call to sacrificial living; as Christ sacrificed Himself for us, we are to serve others with love and joy and sacrificially.
Tomorrow I’m going to the Gathering of the Orders in Livermore; four days of meetings with all United Methodist clergy in our Conference, the District Superintendents, and the Bishop. I’m sure that the hot topic will be unity in a dividing denomination. How will we live with our differences, and how will we practice peace, and reconciliation, and love, with others who have called us out as unfaithful, unbiblical, unchristian. Our critics are God’s beloved and we are, according to Paul, to live with them as sisters and brothers in Christ, in koinonia. Christ’s love is to be a higher call than our preferences and politics and convictions. Do we belong to Apollos, or Cephas, or to the Reconciling Ministries Network or Progressive Christianity… or do we first and with all our hearts, belong to Christ?
A word about sacrificial love. It sucks. I don’t see why what I want and believe isn’t the most important thing in the world. I mean, I do understand, but I also want what I want. I want to be right, I want to be on the right side, and I want the right to win. I don’t see Paul saying that we shouldn’t take a stand or that we shouldn’t disagree or argue our positions. I understand him to say that koinonia, that spiritual, mystical love that unites us with Christ and with each other, is where our hearts are to align. The emphasis on koinonia (instead of friendship or community or fellowship) is that it’s not something we can make happen on our own. Koinonia is a state of the heart, when we know that we are God’s beloved, and that everyone else is too. John Wesley heard a reading of the letters to the Church at Rome, and those words of scripture convinced him that Christ’s love had saved him, and his heart was “strangely warmed” at this mystical union. So searching the scriptures, and prayer, and silence, and singing, and serving, and sharing Holy Communion, are some of the ways we practice koinonia… loving God and loving each other (and then all others) with all our hearts.
Those words “spiritual” and “mystical” might make you think that you’ve stumbled into a yoga class, and that the warm feeling you get, hearing those words “spiritual” and “mystical” will dissipate when you’ve taken off your yoga pants. But the spiritual and mystical elements of koinonia are something we can practice. That warm feeling I have right now is because I have on too many clothes, as an illustration of Christian unity. (You might guess that in elementary school, I excelled at show-and-tell.)
What do we have to take off, or let go of, to let Christ’s love fill our hearts and change our attitude? We have to (1) TAKE OFF self-criticism and comparing ourselves to others, our uniqueness, and giftedness. This was happening in the Corinthian Church, and the criticism and comparisons were tearing them apart.
We have to (2) TAKE OFF the erroneous belief that we aren’t as good or as smart or as wonderful as other people. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.The message of the cross is foolishness to [some] but it is the power of God for [others.]” We are all a unique and gifted part of the Body of Christ; no one else has our same gifts for service and love and unity.
We have to (3) TAKE OFF words and ideas and worn-out theology that might keep us from fully experiencing Christ’s love for us. We were created in the divine image, created by a relational God to love and be loved. Our longing for God, however faint and faithless, is an echo of the Creator’s longing for us. Above all else that we know about God, we were created by God, to love and to be loved.
We have to (4) TAKE OFF needing to be right. We can know what we know and still be respectful of what others know. This is a practice that we can start at the Thanksgiving table, where we’ve been warned not to discuss religion or politics over the turkey. “Why?” is a good question to respectfully ask, and “I wonder” is a good starter to a discussion.
We have to (5) TAKE OFF needing to have our voice and our opinion be the loudest. Listening, it’s said, is so similar to being loved, that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference.
We have to (6) TAKE OFF name-calling and judging others who appear to be less intelligent, less educated, less sophisticated, or less of anything than we are. Our humanness, our vulnerability and fragility and the brevity of this life… these are things we have in common. We are one people, and there’s something to celebrate in our common humanity.
We have to (7) TAKE OFF being unable to forgive ourselves and others for being silly, stupid, and wrong. We are sinners, all of us, falling short of who God created us to be. “Please forgive me” needs to be part of our verbal wardrobe, words we’re not afraid to say to ourselves or to others.
Finally, we have to (8) TAKE OFF withholding love from people who don’t deserve it. Everyone (this is a bitter pill to swallow) is deserving of love. The inability to love strips us of our humanity, of our unity, of our koinonia. The cross of Christ reminds us that we are called to love God [ARM UP] with everything we are, and love and serve others [ARM OUT] as if they were Christ… or as if they were us.
The church is always, always struggling with how to be the church. United Methodists are struggling now with how to love each other and live in Christian unity. With all its faults, I still believe that the church is the best place to practice… peace, reconciliation, unity, koinonia, and love. Amen.