Sermon by Rev. Stephanie Sorge Wing from Trinity Presbyterian Church.
Click here to read a transcript.
Note – this sermon was preached at Community Mennonite Church as part of an ecumenical pulpit swap
Stepping into a pulpit when you don't know the congregation can be tricky. Especially when you do so after such a big weekend for our divided country, and particularly when a passage like the one from 1 Corinthians comes along. This Sunday is in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. That is the occasion that led a group of pastors who gather regularly to study the Word together to suggest a pulpit swap for this Sunday. National events and the lectionary passages were incidental, at least according to our plans. But when is anything really incidental to God?
As we study Scripture, it's important for us to try to understand the context in which it was written. That's often difficult for us to do, really. The times, the places, and the world views can be so foreign to us today. However. Of all the cultures and contexts presented to us in the Bible, the church in Corinth is probably the one most similar to our contemporary world. There might not be any letter more pertinent to our time than this one.
If we were to take a trip together to Corinth today, we would see a sleepy little village. Not much to write home about, really. But back a few hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Corinth was a city of wealth, power, and high culture – a jewel in the crown of the Greek Empire. It was so important and influential that when the Romans went to work conquering the Greek Empire, they determined that this magnificent city had to be leveled in order to achieve political dominance.
For 100 years the city lay in ruins, until 44 BCE when Julius Caesar gave permission for the city to be rebuilt as a city for "Freedmen" – men who were born as slaves but who had somehow won their freedom, often through military service. As such, the city became a kind of safe place for many different people. A melting pot. But back in its heyday, Corinth was a bustling, very diverse city. It had just about every religious sect, belief, and practice represented, including Christianity. Because of this, there was quite a bit of syncretism and borrowing of traditions, mixing of beliefs. The city was also notorious for its vices, but the heart of it all, religion was alive and well.
Paul spent 18 months in Corinth, working first with the Jews and then reaching out to the Gentiles. In his time there, the church became firmly rooted in the city. After he left and went to Ephesus, problems in the Corinthian church came to his attention. First, a group called "Chloe's people" came back to Paul reporting problems. Then the church itself sent a letter to Paul detailing some of their disagreements and asking for his help in resolving them. It is to this context that Paul writes.
Even among the earliest Christians – before there was much time for real corruption, right? – there were real and deep divisions. Being spiritual seemed to take priority over following Jesus. Groups pointed to themselves, or to their schools of religious thought, rather than pointing to Christ. Christians arguing with each other, left and right. It's hard to imagine…
My guess is that they wanted to hear "you're right," or "they're wrong," – an answer to their disputes. But the disputes were minor compared to the division itself. Paul's first plea is to Christian unity, for the church to be united in mind and in purpose. I wonder if that was any easier for them back then than it is for us today.
It's certainly not easy for us these days. Each week, there are a handful of letters to the editor of the DNR in which self-identified Christians take swipes at each other. It's a local replay of what has been playing out over this whole election cycle, over who can truly claim the mantle of Christ. The question has been asked openly and between the lines in so many ways and places: "How can you call yourself a Christian and…." fill in the blank. Christian unity is sorely lacking these days, just as it was for the Corinthians, and has been in the two thousand intervening years.
We hear Paul's plea. We recognize the importance of Christian unity. That's why I'm here today! Of course Mennonites and Presbyterians are united in the Protestant stream, but Menno Simons and John Calvin were sharply divided over some deep theological disagreements. And yet, Community Mennonite is probably far more similar to Trinity Presbyterian than we are to some of the other Presbyterian churches in town. This pulpit swap is a response to the challenge of Christian unity, and yet I have to admit that those of us involved in this ecumenical pulpit swap are far more like-minded than not. Despite the theological differences between our churches, I would venture that the ways that we struggle to live our our calling as disciples are more alike than not. This kind of unity actually isn't that difficult. It's when reaching out beyond like-minded Christians that it gets much more difficult.
The differences feel as sharp now as they ever have. Sometimes it seems like we're reading two different sets of sacred texts, or following two different saviors. Within my own family I have those whose understanding of Christianity and what it means to follow Christ are very different from my own. I usually avoid theological discussions at all costs, because I don't want that to come between us. Then, there are some Christians who I really love and respect but with whom I seriously disagree, but with whom I can begin having some conversations. It is still so difficult for it not to get personal. Or for us not to end up just saying, "Well, I belong to Paul and you belong to Cephas." To just shrug and say we're in very different strains of Christianity, with an emphasis on the word strain.
Prior to the election, I made a plea for all of us to join together around what unites us, which is greater than what divides us. But to be honest, I've been struggling since then to figure out just how to put that into practice myself. I continue to struggle. It seems as though no amount of theological or Biblical discussion or debate will solve our divisions. It's helpful to hear Paul's reminder, that our aim in proclaiming the gospel, is not to do so with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power.
Each week, I – along with many other ministers of the gospel – struggle to be faithful and find something to say with eloquent wisdom. It's kind of a big part of what we do. Sometimes we are more successful than others – with the faithfulness, the eloquence, or the wisdom. But sometimes the most faithful response we can make is to bumble and fumble along, trying not to trip over too many of our own words as we make our way to the cross.
That cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the very power of God. Of course, that's one of the problems – that the cross means something different to many different Christians. For some it represents a narrow gate, or maybe even a balance beam towards salvation. I've seen drawings that depict a great chasm, essentially with the cliff of damnation on one side and the cliff of salvation on the other. The cross is a narrow bridge between. But you'd better watch your step!
For others, the cross represents sacrifice. For some, it's a reminder of the public and humiliating death of Jesus because of his perceived political threat. Some see it as suffering, and others as triumph. But however we see that cross, I think we have to recognize that the very power of God that it represents is the power of God's unfathomable love.
As we bumble and stumble our way through the minefield of division, I am convinced that the only way we can meet up beyond those lines is by claiming the power of the love of God. It's easy to feel powerful when puffed up by pride, or rage. Or to feel powerless as everything seems to be crashing in on all sides. But true power – the only power that can truly unite us – is the power of the love of God. The only way forward is love.
Friends, we belong to Christ alone, and we are bound together – with each other and with all of humanity – not by bonds of our own choosing or commonality, but by the bond of the love of God in Jesus Christ. A love so revolutionary that it was displayed for all to see on a cross, of all places. A love so complete that it enfolded in forgiveness even those who taunted and tortured in the midst of pain and great suffering. A love so incomprehensible that all we can really do is bumble and mumble and fumble our way around it.
That love unites us. That is the only power that can unite us in moving forward. We have a long journey ahead, that is for sure. There are many divisions in our world, in our country, and in our community. But most grievous of all, there are still bitter divisions within the body of Christ. When we tear and snipe at each other, it is Christ's body that is being hurt. Even today Jesus says, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." Forgive us, God, for we know not what we do.
This is a week dedicated to Christian unity. This Sunday and this week have nothing to do with the timing of a national transition in leadership. But seeing where we are as a nation, there is so much work for us to do as people who claim to follow Christ. This Sunday of Christian Unity recognizes that in order for us to be the body of Christ in the world, and get to work as the hands and feet of Christ, we need to stop sniping at each other. We need to stop tearing each other down, because the other is us. We are one body.
This pulpit swap is a good place to start. It helps to begin with those who are adjacent us. Different, but adjacent. But then we also need to start stepping out, in love, with love, towards those members of this Christian body who we might not even claim, and those who most certainly don't want to claim us.
Our first steps may falter. Our words will surely fail us. But the love of the cross, the power of God in Jesus Christ, will not. So today, and tomorrow, and the next day, I pray for each of us that we have the strength and courage to step out, and to follow Jesus just as those first disciples did. To follow even though we don't know why or how, not boasting of our understanding, but only because that is where God calls us to go. Mumbling, bumbling, and fumbling in love. May it be so! Amen.
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