At Cross Purposes

Hiland Presbyterian Church, Epiphany 3A

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (NIV)

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius,15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.18 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.

I have been spending most of the last week trying to figure out how to talk with you about this text.  It is a text that feels terribly troublesome, but absolutely essential on this day and in our time.

I chose this text from today’s lectionary passages because I thought it might be a message we need this day. Yet, I have been struggling with this text because the easy message won’t do.

If you are anything like me, the easy message is what I want to take away from this text, and tuck in my pocket, and maybe even post up on the inside my kitchen cabinet where we keep the water glasses.

img20130627_0005I thought about that because my grandmother had a saying written in magic marker on an index card posted inside her kitchen cabinet where she kept her water glasses.When I was a little girl I saw the index card every time I reached up into that cabinet to get a glass. It was a saying that may have very well been inspired by this 1 Corinthians text:

“It’s so nice to be nice to the nice.”

That was my grandmother.

When I was a little girl, it seemed to me that being nice was the most important thing about Jesus and the church.

In fact, when I was a little girl in church, it always seemed that what they were trying to teach me in all the Sunday school lessons and youth groups was to be nice.

And sometimes that is really all we want from church and the Bible.

In a world that feels not very nice at all, we want to hear this text from 1 Corinthians as Paul saying:

Can’t we all just get along?

Don’t fight. Be united.

Christians are nice people.

So be nice. Especially in church.

I could tell you Paul is simply asking the church in Corinth to stop the bickering.That would have been an incredibly easy sermon to write.

And maybe that’s the sermon you were hoping to hear on a weekend in which many of us feel like the country has never been more divided and what we need to hear more than anything is a call for all of us to just stop the bickering and…you know…be nice.

But if I preached that kind of sermon, it would be a lie. It would be a lie.

You see, the truth is Paul was a little bit crazy. Or foolish, as Paul would probably put it.

In our text today, and in most of his epistles he wrote to his various churches,Paul is operating at cross purposes with every single thing we know about human nature.

Paul goes far beyond a call to be “nice.”

Paul is asking the church to be transformed in a way that goes against every single thing we know about human history.

Human beings love division.

Human beings love lines and walls and fences.

The truth is, there are divisions among us.

We are deeply, deeply divided.  And it has ever been so.

Today, you are sitting in a church that was made possible 500 years ago by a split in the Christian Church called The Reformation.  It was a split that birthed the Presbyterian church, among others. It was also a split that fueled bloody, horrible holy wars that rocked the European continent for more than a century.reformation_map

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so.

This morning, you are worshiping in a church that belongs to just one of hundreds of Protestant denominations, not including the many more hundreds of affiliated and non-affiliated Christian churches in the United States.

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so.

When I traveled to South Sudan two years ago, I learned a hard truth about that war-torn nation. After gaining independence from the Islamic government of Sudan, the Christians in the new nation of South Sudan no longer had to fight their Muslim neighbors.So they turned against one another. Tribe against tribe.

Christian against Christian.south-sudan

The new President of the South Sudan Catholic Bishops Council recently said: “We insist that South Sudan…has the highest number of Church goers. The paradox is that all these people go to the Church but then you find majority of whom still go back to kill each other, to fight, and you ask yourself: why do these people go to Church? So, we are praying for this miracle that we get converted truly to God and by that conversion we can be able to forgive, and be able to stay with one another.”

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so.

We live in a majority Christian country which violently revolted against another Christian country in order to become a new nation.

We live in a country which became so divided on the question of slavery that we went to war with one another, north against south, brother against brother, Americans killing other Americans, Christians killing Christians.

We live in a country which, until very recently in our history, insisted that people of color go to a separate school, drink from a separate water fountain, eat at a separate lunch counter and live in a separate neighborhood as far away as possible.

There are divisions. And it has ever been so.

Today, we are still behaving like the proverbial birds of a feather who flock together, preferring to live near people who look like us, think like us, and vote like us.

Some birds move so far off the grid they never have to see a neighbor at all.

Today, our online bubbles allow us to read only the news that fits our own world view.

We can curate our Facebook walls and our Twitter feeds to make sure we only see people who agree with us and think like us. If someone makes us mad, we simply unfriend them.

Today, with very little effort, we can go through an entire day and never, ever come into contact with someone who might challenge our perspective or cause us to change our mind, even a little bit.

In fact, I would venture to guess it’s much harder for us to spend time with people who are different from us than it is to avoid them.Even with all our connective technology, we drift further and further apart.

There are divisions among us. And it has ever been so. It is basic human nature.

So here we have Paul’s voice telling us,imploring us,to seek a better higher way.And that is why Paul is a little bit crazy here.

Because Paul is begging the church to live in a way that is completely counter to human nature,but completely consistent with the message of the cross.

Paul is speaking to a culture and church in Corinth that was very divided.Filled with all sorts of different people with vastly different identities.
Greek and Jew. Slave and Free.Male and Female.Insiders and outsiders.Paul or Apollos or Cephas.

All of them living with an identity that insisted it be obeyed above all the others: Caesar and the mighty Roman empire.
Paul understands that the people in the Corinth church are dragging all sorts of baggage and beliefs and identities into the church, yet he is insisting they must abandon all of them. What Paul is begging for is something radical, crazy, foolish even.

He is begging them to remember that in their baptism, they died to every division.

They are no longer:

Greek and Jew

Slave and Free.

Male and Female

Insiders and outsiders.

Paul or Apollos or Cephas.

Presbyterian or Catholic

Republican or Democrat

In their baptism, Paul says, they took on brand new identity in Jesus Christ.And unlike every other powerful identity or preference or prejudice we take on, our baptismal identity doesn’t wash off. We can’t burn our membership card when being the church becomes too difficult.

In our baptism, the Holy Spirit invades our DNA. The Holy Spirit makes our heart beat and our lungs fill with air.  In our baptism, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are new creations, grafted onto Christ.

Paul holds up a vision of Christ’s church in Corinth as an entirely new creation, who live in a new way, as one body who live undivided in the city of God.

Paul is a little bit crazy. And he knows it. He knows the message of the cross is foolishness to those who see the world as dog eat dog and only the strong survive and winning is everything. Paul knows competing identities are powerful things which constantly draw us away from our identity in Christ.And yet, Paul continues to bug these churches, again and again, to remember

Why they are there,

To whom they belong,

And where the real power lies.

When I work with churches as a member of the Commission on Ministry or through the Unglued Church, one of the questions I almost always ask is:  why are you here, in this church?

And no matter what kind of church I’m in — the answers are always like this:

My family has worshipped here for generations.

It was the closest Presbyterian Church to my house and I’ve always been Presbyterian.

I liked the pastor/the preaching

I like the music

I like the children’s ministry.

I like the church’s emphasis on justice or discipleship or mission.

My friends are here.

But dear brothers and sisters, it grieves me to say that not one person of whom I’ve asked this question –and I have asked this question literally dozens and dozens of times.

Not one person has said: I am at this church because Jesus called me.

Not one person said, “This is the place to which God called me for God’s purpose.”

Because that’s really the only answer for why we are here. We don’t choose church. God chooses us to be the church.

That’s the critical difference between what we do here and what we do in every other aspect of our lives.

We choose a political party. We choose a neighborhood in which to live. We choose the kind of music we want to listen to.  When we walk into a grocery store, we have at least 12 different kinds of cornflakes we can buy. When we go into Starbucks we can order any kind of fancy pants coffee drink we want. With extra whipped cream.

This is Christ’s church. We are called by God to be here. That is what we share in common and it is non-negotiable. We are called by God to do this work together.

We are not rooted in the music or traditions or even the pastor, which is something important to remember when you are going through a transition as Hiland is doing right now.

You are rooted in Jesus Christ through your baptism.Your purpose is a CROSS purpose.

Being united in Christ isn’t about being nice.Being united in Christ isn’t about agreeing with everyone.

Being united in Christ means remembering that our highest purpose, our primary identity, the only way we move and live and have our being is in Jesus.

Jesus is our essential. Jesus is our purpose.

Jesus works at all times to gather up the whole world to himself through the power of the Holy Spirt. We as Christ’s church are called to that reconciling work. Knowing, as Paul did, we are working at cross purposes in a world that seeks to divide us.

In Matthew 10, Jesus said,
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is very much the same, Paul invites us to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel.

Lose our loyalty to anything and anyone but Jesus Christ.

Lose our need to be right, our need to be strong, our need to be comfortable.

Lose anything and everything that distorts the purpose of being church.

Lose our eloquent wisdom if it obscures the cross of Jesus or empties it of its power.

Lose our fear if it keeps us from proclaiming the Gospel in all its foolishness to people who don’t look or think or live like we do.

A couple of months ago, Carol Roth’s husband, Mark Roth, who was co-chair of Commission on Ministry, put together a very interesting study of the ten-year trends for congregations in our presbytery, and discovered a surprising set of correlations to church growth.

From 2003 to 2013, congregations which grew were equally likely to be small or large, urban or suburban, wealthy or economically challenged, liberal or conservative. What distinguished these churches was their deep investment in mission, as reflected by diversity in their congregations. These growing churches made it a point intentionally to reach out to people unlike themselves and to welcome them into the community of faith. Sounds a lot like Jesus.

The cross purpose of Jesus is to gather all people to Godself.

The cross purpose of Jesus’ visible church is to gather us into communities which are holy spaces, holy enough to contain our differences, our conflicts and our squabbles, trusting as Paul did, that if we remain firmly rooted in Christ, our divisions no longer have the power to destroy us, but will make us more worthy of our calling.

Thanks be to God. Amen.