…in more ways than one. The following is the first of our 2010 Lenten series messages on the cross:
I Corinthians 1: 1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2To the church of God in Corinth, (a) to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, (b) together © with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: 3Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge— 6because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. 7Therefore you do not lack (d) any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God, who has (e) called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. 10I appeal to you, brothers, 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. 11My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.
It must have been an awesome sermon. That, or the Spirit did a mighty work of grace. By the time the preacher finished his message, the normally staid, proud, uptight and status-conscious congregation was cut to the heart. Tears rolled down their faces as the message struck home: that everything rests upon the grace and the goodness of God, and not their own merits; that compared to God’s mercy and faithfulness, we have no right to compare ourselves with each other, nor to look down on anyone else.
First one, then another, among the congregants began to cry out, “I am nothing; I have nothing, that was not given to me by grace!” People knelt at their pews, or came up to the altar to confess the sin of their constant absorption with status, their sense of superiority, their obsession over other people whom they worshiped and imitated in the business and celebrity magazines, or whom they hated or feared or put down.
Just then a man passed by one of the doors of the sanctuary. He was in that church building more often than any of the worshipers, or even the pastor. But he never attended worship. He was the church janitor. Because of his poverty and his lower social class, he didn’t feel comfortable worshiping with the very people he served. But the leveling spirit of repentance was contagious, and he found himself drawn inside. Struck by the same Spirit of “grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved,” he too knelt at the altar and began crying out, “I am nothing! I have nothing that was not given me by God’s grace!”
In the pews two rows back, one man, down on his knees weeping, prodded another man next to him, pointed at the janitor, and said, “Look who suddenly considers himself as much a nothing as we are! What gives him the nerve?”
There we see how subtle and stubborn is the most original of all sins: pride. Its that stubborn and subtle compulsion to justify ourselves by comparing and contrasting ourselves with each other. You hear it in that phrase, often offered after receiving criticism, “Well, at least I don’t…..(pick your pet peeve) like….(pick your favorite enemy).” I wonder if that wasn’t what Adam and Eve got from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: 20-20 vision of their own good and a 20-20 vision for each other’s evil. You see it in the way they covered themselves with fig leaves, and in the way Adam said to God, “That woman, that you gave me, she gave me the fruit…..” and of course, I took a taste. Just to be nice.
This compulsion to justify ourselves by comparing and contrasting ourselves to other people afflicted the Corinthian Church, as we see in verses 12 and 13. There Paul writes: “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’ The people named just now were not divided against each other, but the people who followed them were. The Corinthian Christians were using these different names and persons as separate boxes into which to segregate, compare and classify themselves. That always leads to the need to have enemies and inferiors, so that we feel better about ourselves by contrast. People may wear these self-appointed titles and their levels of worth and honor like the crown you see on the altar, next to the cross.
This need to make sense of the world, by contrast and separation, begins in childhood. That’s the first and easiest way children know how to understand themselves, and the world, and to find some security in it: by rigid and simplistic divisions and distinctions. Sometime around 3 or 4 years of age its common for children to say in the most rigid terms, “Girls this….boys that.” Some girls at that age will want to wear the same pretty, frilly dress every day, all week. You try to raise your boys to be peaceful, non-violent, and still they may pick up every stick around and play like its a sword or a machine gun. Because those are the gender roles and distinctions they get from the world. Hopefully they’ll grow up to see how much more they are alike than different, even while respecting their differences as men and women. Hopefully they’ll develop a greater sense of freedom as they mature.
But not if they watch too many Superbowl commercials.
When we try to justify ourselves by comparing and contrasting ourselves against each other, its like weighing ourselves on a scale that never resets to zero. Or measuring things with a tape measurer that won’t retract. Or hiking through the woods, off trail, with a compass that won’t point in any direction, let alone north. Our measurements will get meaningless, and of course we’ll get lost.
If that’s where we get stuck, then we’ll stay childish in every way except one: the power by which to carry out our judgments and comparisons against each other. War is always based on the knowledge of good and evil: the knowledge only of our own good, and the knowledge only of “their” evil. Whoever “they” are. Children may play war, but adults have the power to make real war against the people they fear and consider inferior. In the First Church of Corinth, you could say that the spiritual equivalent of war had come to them.
As we grow up, however, we hopefully learn a more mature way of making sense of the universe and finding our place in it. In fact, that’s where Paul starts his letter to the Corinthians. Before he gives a diagnosis of their problem—those Corinthians have a divisive, judging spirit—he prescribes the solution: know who you really, truly are. Know your true identity, in God. Its an identity that does more to unite you than it does to divide. In those first verses I find at least four things—four common markers of identity that Paul wants them to remember. They apply to all churches, in all times and places, including us.
First of all, they are in verse 1, “the church of God in Corinth,” even though they were composed of many house churches. So, even though they, as members and congregations, come in different sizes, shapes, languages and cultures, they are to remember, together, that they are Christ’s one and only church in Corinth. Today, what this says for “I am of Menno, of Luther, of Wesley, of Rome, of England,” I can’t say in one sermon, except to remind us that we and all our neighbor churches also comprise, together, “the church of God in Minneapolis.” That’s why I attend a local weekly pastor’s prayer group. So hold every current distinction lightly. They won’t be forever.
Secondly, they—and we– are, “sanctified by Christ Jesus and called to be holy.” Therefore, we are not sanctified or made holy by any goodness of our own. We are sanctified and called to be holy by the goodness of Jesus Christ. Now, sanctified” means the same as “called to be holy.” Its not a statement of where anyone has arrived, as though some of the Corinthian Christians are walking about with holy halos around their heads while birds alight on their shoulders, they are so perfect and so far beyond temptation. I haven’t met anyone like that yet, certainly not in the mirror. Rather, its a statement of how God sees us and where God is leading us: “sanctified” simply means we have been set apart and dedicated to God’s service, to God’s honor, like the bowls, the cups and the dishes in Israel’s ancient temple. Once dedicated to God’s service, they couldn’t be loaned out for common uses: like chariot delivery pizza.
Our third statement of identity is that we are not only the church of Corinth, or the church of Minneapolis. Paul says we are the church of God, set apart for God, “together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours” in verse 2. In other words, we’re part of something much bigger than the local scene. There are bonds of the Spirit tying us into a holy communion with saints all around the world this morning. Our loyalty to them must be as strong as our loyalty to our neighborhood, even moreso than to our country, for they too are key to our identity.
The fourth thing Paul tells the Corinthians about themselves is that they are a gifted people.” Not just “gifted persons,” individually, one by one, but, in verse 7 a gifted group. In fact, so gifted, Paul says, that, “you do not lack any spiritual gift,” any God-given power for ministry and witness. But he means you plural, together, “you all,” as a group, and not you singular, any one man or woman. In every church there is only one person who has all the spiritual gifts that Paul will talk about in this letter. But don’t look around for him or her, don’t look up here, we can’t see this all-gifted person, except when we see us gathered, in worship, love or prayer. He’s the Lord Jesus, and he distributes his gifts for ministry throughout his church, and throughout his churches, in such ways that everyone needs each other’s gifts in order to best use their own.
There’s a kind of West African folk tale that captures this sense of communal, interdependent giftedness, like the one about the father of four children with special powers who went hunting one day and never returned. A week passed, a month passed, even a year, before, finally, the youngest child asked, “Where’s Dad?” So her three older, specially-gifted siblings went off to find him. The oldest sister had the gift of reading tracks no matter how old they were. She tracked her father down to to a distant clearing, where all they found were his bones. Around those bones she read the tracks of a lion. The second oldest, a son, had the gift of sewing together anything he liked out of grass. So he pulled up some grass and wove a complete human body around the bones: the spitting image of his father. The third, another son, had the gift of blowing life into anything he wished, so he blew the breath of life back into his father’s likeness, and home came Dad, alive, with his three oldest children. Such stories end by asking, “So, who was most responsible for bringing father back home?” There’s enough value in everyone’s contribution to keep the discussion going all night. Don’t forget to include the baby daughter who posed the question everyone else was ignoring. Such stories, to me, are like parables of the church. Everyone is gifted, but everyone needs each other’s gifts in order to use their own to the fullest.
Once we’ve got those identity markers down, what point is there in making ourselves feel better by comparing ourselves to others? Wouldn’t we feel pretty good already? Aren’t those identities awesome enough that we can just get on with being ourselves, without constantly worrying if someone is ahead of us, or worrying that someone won’t stay beneath us and behind us? Again, among other things, we are: 1) the church of God, 2) part of the worldwide, universal church, 3) set apart and called to be holy to God and God’s purposes, and4) gifted with complementary, mutually helpful gifts……together.
Twenty-one centuries later, that’s still who we are in Christ. Don’t forget it, but not because we are facing the intensity of divisive forces and factions like what the Corinthian churches faced. If anything, this is a remarkably united and gracious church for all the variety of cultures, class and generations among us. But we have our differences here too. And that’s a good sign. Because it means that we take our calling in Christ seriously. And that God is gifting us in many different ways to carry out his mission in the world. For that we must be united. But unity is a journey, not a destination. Unity is not the absence of differences but how we view differences and deal with them. If we understand who we really are, by the grace of God, because of Jesus Christ, then differences don’t have to be scary. Many of them we can see them as mutually enriching.
This last week, while Becky and I were in Mexico, I attended an Ash Wednesday service. At that church in Zihuatenejo, I saw that their theme statement for the season of Lent was, “Repent and Believe the Gospel,” a simple declaration from the earliest, simplest preaching of Jesus. The Lenten season theme we’ll be following, with many churches across our conference and denomination, is “Holding On and Letting Go.” That’s just like the theme of our Mexican brothers and sisters: “Repent and Believe the Gospel,” but in reverse order. “Letting Go” means repenting: repenting and releasing anything that is holding us back from Christian maturity, even, anything that is holding us back from Christian faith. “Holding on,” is another way of saying “Believing the gospel.”
If we’re looking for anything to let go of this Lenten season, we can settle for the usual things, like chocolate or dessert or meat or some other indulgence. If those things have such a grip on us that they’re holding us back, then let’s help each other break free of them this season. But I decided to start this year’s preaching focus on I Corinthians during Lent because, in the first few chapters of I Corinthians, Paul points our attention to some subtle, spiritual, but no less pressing things we might need to look for and unload if we find them on us. And not just for Lent, but for keeps. Just as Paul had to have the scales fall from his eyes after his encounter with Christ, on the day of his baptism, so do we Christians often need to let scales fall from our eyes as they accumulate.
The scales I’m thinking about this morning, which Paul identifies in this chapter, are the false identities that build up and blind us, They are the false identities that build up every time we seek to justify ourselves by comparing and contrasting ourselves against others, by that reflex to seek worth and security first and always in our distinctions, divisions and differences. Differences are real. They deserve respect. Some of them cannot be reconciled, but only managed. But we must not let them become idols on which we hang our worth and identity.
(TO THE CROSS)
For there is something so big, so major, so game-changing, that it calls into question all the trophies and badges and hierarchies by which we seek to divide and distinguish ourselves over and against others: the cross of Jesus. It may look like a miniscule -t- but think of it as a giant question mark from heaven, that calls into question all the judgments and assessments and evaluations of worth and status among people, all the criteria of who’s up and who’s down, what’s wise and what’s foolish, what’s eternal and what’s temporary. Its a sign that shows us the depths and the extent to which God will go to unite us with himself and each other. On that cross died not only the Savior of the World, but also all the ways and the excuses by which we seek to justify ourselves, all the comparisons we make to distinguish and divide ourselves from each other.
(PULL OFF FIRST CLOTH)
As I hope to show in the next few weeks, its by looking to the cross that all such scales begin to fall from our eyes.