Being united in a divided world

As with all other sermons from St. B’s, the audio can be found on the St. B’s website.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (January 22, 2017), St. Bartholomew’s Nashville

  • First reading
    • Isaiah 9:1-4
  • Psalm
    • Psalm 27:1, 4-9
  • Second reading
    • 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
  • Gospel
    • Matthew 4:12-23

Same Mind, Same Purpose, Same Message

I have often contemplated writing a commentary on 1 Corinthians and calling it “Paul’s Letter to the Episcopal Church.” It is perhaps the most relevant text in the Bible for our modern church setting. Not only does it deal with issues such as divisions due to doctrinal and leadership conflicts, its moral setting in first century Corinth is probably more like our own modern, western context than any time in between. As it happens this year our lectionary provides us with seven weeks of this challenging letter! Over the course of the next month and a half we will consider what God is continuing to say to the church of God that is in Nashville, even as he spoke to the church of God that was in Corinth.

Corinth was a port city that has been active and important almost continuously since the 8th century BCE. Located on the Isthmus of Corinth, the ancient city was roughly half way between Sparta and Athens and was at the crossroads of commerce. The population was one of the most diverse in antiquity, not only in terms of ethnicities (Greeks, Romans, Jews, Egyptians, Parthians, etc.), but also in terms of religion. Ancient histories and modern archeology reveal temples to the Roman, Greek, and Egyptian gods as well as Jewish synagogues and Christian churches. By the time Paul arrived in Corinth the worship of the Roman emperor had been established as well. The great and recently deceased scholar and Jesuit priest Joseph A. Fitzmyer summarized, “Diverse, then, would have been not only the sociological and economic character of Roman Corinth, but also the religious character of its cosmopolitan population.”[1]

It reminds me of a U2 lyric from their song about New York: “Irish, Italians, Jews and Hispanics / Religious nuts, political fanatics.” People from all the world converging and bringing with them all their beliefs, practices, hang-ups, vices, foods, and passions; that was Corinth and that is the modern, western world we live in today.

And if you consider where humanity has come in the last two millennia, while we have made seemingly innumerable scientific discoveries and we have developed all sorts of new technologies, we have not advanced morally. Many will disagree with that statement, and certainly societies around the world have been more repressive than first century Corinth. But if one believes that today’s pluralistic and relativistic western society is the current height of human moral evolution, the Corinth of Paul’s day was its equal and so his letter remains just as relevant.

So as we read Paul’s letter to that ancient community, I believe we will find it immediately pertinent to our own circumstances. Even more so since in today’s passage, the day after our diocesan convention, Paul’s appeal is

“…that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

I have to say that even with disagreement it was a very agreeable convention. Everyone was warm and hospitable, but we were not of one accord and certainly were not of “the same mind.”

“No divisions,” being “united in the same mind and the same purpose.” It almost sounds like it belongs in the Book of Revelation, in a description of the new heaven and new earth. But Paul is all too aware of how difficult this is in reality, hence the need for him to write this letter. The Christian community in Corinth was already being torn apart. And remember, this was just a few years after the movement had begun! Already people were taking sides, aligning themselves with one preacher or another, and finding reasons to tell other people that they weren’t worshipping God properly.

So right at the top of his letter Paul offers what seems a completely unreasonable request, that there be no divisions. When are there ever not divisions? Surely Paul can’t be serious! So it is that we usually soften or modify his language in an attempt to make his appeal something achievable. For example, Eugene Peterson’s marvelous paraphrase The Message, renders the first verse of our reading in this way,

10 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.

Peterson’s idiomatic rendering conveys a vital message and may well serve as an appropriate summary of my sermon by the time we are done, but it obscures the direct and challenging words of Paul.

“I appeal to you… that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Paul’s words are a stark challenge and we must hear them for what that are, the call to ideal Christian living. It sounds like a description of what it will be like to live in the world to come, because it is. Where the city of God “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. …Nothing accursed will be found there any more” (Rev. 21:23, 22:3) There will be no strife or division. The vision of the City of God is the perfection of our Christian life. We are not called to be “good enough,” we are called to be “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1Pet. 2:9; the theme of the convention).

Just because Paul’s words are hard doesn’t mean we can ignore them. The words of Jesus are no easier

Matt. 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Who hasn’t been angry with another person, who hasn’t insulted someone, or said that someone else was a fool? We have just come through a grueling presidential campaign where it seems no one had anything nice to say about the other party’s candidate and everyone felt justified in calling the other a fool (or worse). Did you ever consider that Jesus would consider our behavior sinful?

This is the tension between the holiness that God calls us to and the reality of our human, frail and flawed lives. This is the tension of the challenge of living the Christian life. To seek to achieve now what will only be fully accomplished in the world to come. To seek to bring God’s kingdom as near as possible while knowing that only Christ will bring it to fruition. We must constantly strive to be of the mind of Christ while knowing that we are all too human.

We all know the issues that divide us today: politics, sexuality, economics, personalities. I ill not go into details on any of them today, but we will and we must begin those conversations. I also will not do that today because there are always issues that we will be at odds over. Delving into the specifics of this or that issue are important, but what Paul offers us today is not an answer to a specific conflict but rather the answer to all conflict. That answer is to be of the same mind and same purpose which is the same message: the cross of Christ.

As we read through 1 Corinthians we will see that there were many issues with which the church was wrestling. Paul opens with the debate over who to follow, who is their true pastor Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), or Christ? His response is sarcastic and direct.

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

He then digresses into a stream of thought about who he has or has not baptized, but he refocuses his message again by declaring,

Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Anything, anything at all that empties the Cross of Christ of its power should be set aside. Arguments about who is the better preacher, how to worship, what to wear when we worship, the authority of scripture, the authority of the bishop, who to vote for, who to marry, and who to call as your rector must all be set aside when we come to the cross.

Don’t misunderstand me! These are all important issues and if a particular issue isn’t important to you, you can be certain it is important to someone else. They deserve the same respect that you expect. I am thankful that we as a diocese were able to exhibit this at the convention yesterday. There were several resolutions brought forward that sought to comment and counter the fact that our bishop has not allowed the trial liturgy for the blessing of same sex couples. There was much discussion and debate and in the end, the committee on resolutions brought forth a single resolution that acknowledge that we are of different minds on this issues in the Diocese of Tennessee. It also recognized that we must pray and discuss this within our individual communities and as a diocese and so that is what will happen over the course of this year.

This was important work and certainly the most contentious issue at convention, but it wasn’t the only one. There were a number of pink hats and, once I walked outside the cathedral I saw lots of pink hats with ears. Even so, no matter how passionate and vital we feel any of these issues are, they must all be set aside, laid down on the path as we climb Golgotha to worship at the Cross of Christ. This is where we are of one mind, one purpose, and without division.

Because it is on the cross through his sacrifice that Jesus reunited us with God. He restored our relationship with the Creator. In so doing Christ has made possible for us to strive to be without any division and of one mind. In so doing Christ has called us to live in that beautiful and painful tension of Christian living: to love the unlovable, to call no one fool, even the foolish, and to lay aside our priorities for God’s priorities.

It is hard. It is difficult and we are not perfect. But we draw closer to unity the closer we are to the cross. Look up and see there the face of our savior.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Therefore brothers and sisters of the church of God in Nashville be united, of the same mind, same purpose, same message: Christ and him crucified.

Amen. ✠

[1] {Fitzmyer 2008@33}

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