The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29, 2017
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:17-25
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One for All
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Two weeks ago I asked those that were gathered here if they had ever opened anyone else’s mail, ever read a piece of correspondence that didn’t belong to them, that was written to someone else. And no one confessed that, indeed, they had. All of you maintained your innocence, when the fact of the matter is we have read someone else’s mail, we do read someone else’s mail, every time we read from the book of 1 Corinthians, or any of the other epistles in our bible.
This letter wasn’t addressed to us, Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church in Pewee Valley, Kentucky, or any other contemporary congregation. This letter was originally addressed to another church, a fledging mission church, a small band of people in the ancient Mediterranean city of Corinth. So, we have read and are reading someone else’s mail in order to examine ourselves as a congregation through the lens of this ancient correspondence. How do we stack up to the Corinthians?
Two weeks ago, we began hearing (again) about what appears to be a pretty fantastic congregation. In the opening lines the writer of the letter expresses deep gratitude, giving thanks to God for what has done in this budding community in the past and expressing his hope for their future. That was the “Set-up.”
Last week, along with Paul, we rolled up our sleeves and confronted this first century church, and so confronted ourselves. The fundamental theme of Paul’s letter is sounded in verse ten, immediately after his high praise: The community must be in agreement, there must be no divisions, all should be united. They’re not, you see. And after picking apart the ancient, and original, recipient of this letter, we turned to ourselves and asked “What divides us as a congregation today?”
I suggested, similar to the first century Corinthians, not so much theology or doctrinal orthodoxy, or even behavioral expectations. Rather what divides us most often and most completely are the political, social, and ideological positions we hold in our personal lives. Our divisions in the church, including the ones in this humble congregation, have mostly to do with the activities we associate and identify with that concern the governance of our country, or state or our cities, especially the debate or conflicts between those having or hoping to achieve power.
Is any of this sounding familiar to anyone?! I hope so. I spent a lot of last week thinking about … well, “division,” and I didn’t like it. I’ve been so looking forward to getting back together here this morning, because as last week’s worship hour drew to a close, we realized that we will deal most effectively with any tragedy over what divides us today as we focus not on the power struggles in our civic lives that so easily and so insidiously creep into our lives here, or not on the knowledge we have accumulated through the “wisdom of this world” and try to display here, but as we focus on what unites us: the sacrificial love of God in Christ in all we do together … here.
That’s what we’re about this week – that which unites us: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, our original profession of faith, and on the central symbol of our lives. These three things make us … One for All.
Pray with me … And listen for the Word of God: Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. So let’s begin (again) the arduous but vital task of re-uniting.
To begin with, we Christians know about God – about the character of God and about the passion of God – most decisively through Jesus of Nazareth. We find the revelation of “the Almighty, omnipotent, eternal God” primarily in a human being. That is an affirmation unique among the major religions of the world. His teaching, his healing, his prophetic call to social justice, his remarkably inclusive vision of and for the world all reflected what the Kingdom of God, not only “might look like,” but already does look like … on earth. Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God already here. He is, for us, what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. And Jesus … was killed.
He didn’t simply die. He was killed. He was executed. We Christians also participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority. And why was he killed? Get this: He was killed because of his politics, because of his passion for God’s justice. The very thing that divides us still today, kills Jesus … still today. (There’s another sermon in there, yes? I’ll save that one for Lent).
In the decades that followed that first Good Friday and Easter, the early Christian movement preserved not on the memory of Jesus, but the Way of Jesus in their communal life. They did so in part by making a simple, but profound, profession. The very first and most widespread Christian affirmation – long before even the Nicene or Apostle’s Creed – was the profession that “Jesus is Lord.” The religious meaning is clear to us, but this profession had, and has, a political meaning, as well. “Lord” was one of the titles of the Roman emperor – Caesar was called “lord.” To “Jesus is Lord” is to say “Caesar is not lord.” To profess “Jesus as Lord” challenges the lordship of empire. It still does.
Marcus Borg uses examples from contemporary times to drive this point home. It would be like Christians in Nazi Germany saying, “Jesus is mein Fuhrer – and thus Hitler is not. Or in the United States, it would mean saying, “Jesus is my commander-in-chief” – and thus the president is not (Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 136).
In the simple profession that Jesus is Lord and his Way is our true path, that which would divide us – our earthly identities – are undone. One for All.
And, as if these two things were not enough, one more, three total, something comforting in that number. As we noted, Jesus, our Lord, did not just die, he was killed, he was crucified. He was hung on a cross, the Roman Empire’s form of capital punishment, and he died, not because of divine necessity, but because of human inevitability – this is what happened, and still happens (through perhaps more subtle methods), to those who so vigorously challenge Empire. As we’ve further noted, Jesus’ first followers and the early movement called “The Way,” needed to find some God-given purpose in this terrible death. So in addition to professing their faith, one of the things they did was turn to the device that was used to kill Jesus to find meaning – the cross. And while not the only one, the cross became, and still is, the single most universal symbol of Christianity. It is found in even the most austere of sanctuaries; it adorns the most majestic priestly garb; it hangs from millions of necks around the world; it is the post of the “P” in “peace” and the “T” in Co-exist on bumper stickers everywhere. That which was the ultimate tool of death and denial used by the Roman Empire for centuries, was appropriated by Christians to find divine significance in Jesus’ death.
Like all symbols it has multiple meanings, but in particular, the early Christian movement saw the cross as a symbol of “the way.” The cross embodies “the way”: the path to transformation, the way to be born again. The central symbol of Christianity pointed to the process at the heart of what became the Christian life: dying and rising with Christ to new life, dying to an old way of being and being raised to a new way of being, one centered in God (112-113).
It is no wonder that Paul pleads with the Corinthians, and other fledging Christian communities, not to “empty the cross of its power,” the power of God, new and abundant life, not only later, but just (if not more) importantly, right here and now. We have emptied the cross of some, or much, of its power – it’s true power – in the world today. It has become a symbol not of sacrifice, but of avarice; not of denial, but of authorization; not of transformation, but of domination. For too many Christians – and, frankly, even one is too many – this central symbol is alienating and off-putting because it has too easily and too often been used as a club, a symbol divides rather than unites. In too many case we can’t even sing hymns such as the one we’ll join in singing in just a few minutes from now without feeling some degree of squeamishness. We’re going to engage and change that, if only a little bit, this morning.
Our sermon hymn is one, according to my records (which are simply an old hymnal with dates listed for all the hymns we’ve sung together since I’ve been with you) we have never sung this hymn on Sunday morning. But as I prepared the message this week these words were on my lips. Matt (our organist) was giddy with joy when I asked him to prepare the hymn tune “Crucifer” for our singing this morning, knowing as he does the power in this symbol that Paul is at pains to keep before us. But … before we sing together, let’s be sure we understand …
Take out your hymnal and turn to hymn #371. A few reminders, beginning with verse one:
Come Christians follow where our Savior trod, the Lamb victorious, Christ, the Son of God.
The Lamb, not the Lion. The Christ, not the king.
In stanza three: O Lord, once lifted on the glorious tree, Your death has brought us life eternally.
Life eternal not as a reward for later, but as a promise for right now.
In the final verse: So shall our song of triumph ever be: Praise to the Crucified for victory.
Not victory over others, but over our own selves, over who we’ve become.
Lift high (that) cross … and we may just understand once again why Paul entreated us not to empty the Cross of Christ of its true power.
What unites us is far broader and far, far deeper than all that would divide us. Let us focus on our Christ, our profession, and the message of our cross, that we may seek always to be “All for One.”
If you’re comfortably able to do so, will you please stand with me and let us sing together …
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 29, 2017