Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ!
What is your vision of church? What kind of community do you expect to find here?
In the paperwork you sent me, you described yourselves as a family. In many different ways, you told this stranger, “we are a family” – “a family of singers.”
Most of the time, when churches call themselves a family, they don’t mean a real family- not the kind of family most of us have- the kind that has struggles and tensions and estrangements. They mean an idyllic family, in which everyone is overflowing with love for the other, always getting along, always working together for the good of the other, always remaining faithful and loyal.
For some reason, when we enter this building, we expect that we have all been transformed at the door. We expect that somehow we have left all of our emotional triggers, our issues, our personalities, and our wants locked up in the car. The reality is that we can’t do that. If we’re a family, we’re a real family, complete with the secrets of a hushed up addiction or the pain of a brother who doesn’t even know how much work it’s been to take care of Mom.
We bring into this place, into this community, all the junk that weighs down our relationships and our lives outside. We also bring a hope and expectation that things here will be different. And when the relationships inside the church as just as messy as they are outside, we can be overwhelmed with disappointment and even a sense of betrayal. We can feel like the others in the community aren’t living up to how they’re supposed to be. We can feel like God hasn’t been present, or isn’t powerful enough, to make the church reflect the joy and peace of heaven.
It can be bad enough that people leave. They might leave their own community in search of a more perfect one. Or, they might simply leave the church and give up on Christian community.
Struggles within the church aren’t anything new. Paul writes to the church in Corinth to help them learn to live together. In today’s reading from First Corinthians, we hear of one conflict in their community. As you read First and Second Corinthians, you’ll find there are many other struggles.
In this first chapter, we learn that the Corinthians are aligning themselves with different teachers. They are proclaiming allegiance to one leader or another, as if they were claiming to be in a different school of thought. If we were to bring this problem into today’s world, it might sound like one person declaring I’m in the ELCA, and another I’m WELS, or I’m American Baptist, or I’m PCUSA. If we were to bring it into our congregation, it might sound like one person saying I support Judy and another I support Kurt or I support the pastor or I think we should call all new leadership.
Paul tries to distance himself from any who would place their loyalty on him. It’s not his wisdom or power that should matter. All that matters is their connection to Jesus. The connection Jesus has made with each person is a connection that is made to the whole community. They have been baptized into the one Lord Jesus and filled with the one Holy Spirit and made into one community as children of God. As Paul writes, in another letter, to the Galatians: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (3:28).
The tendency to divide and set up ranks against each other has no place in the Christian community. All people are loved, all people are celebrated, all people are claimed by God. Christian community ought to reflect God’s deep valuing of each person, with no room for divisions that value one person over the other.
Our world today has become quite polarized and segregated. People stand on one end of the political spectrum or another, and don’t mix with those opposite them. Rich and poor don’t often share the same community. We tend to seek out people who are like us. Because of that, we haven’t learned how to live in community with those who are different. We haven’t learned how to listen with compassion to other views. Instead, we are taught to shout our own opinions ever louder when we encounter a different one.
When the Corinthians began to align themselves behind different leaders, they lost sight of the one God and the one Jesus Christ who called them into faith. Today, we see this type of division reflected in the way the Christian church is divided into many denominations. Some groups work together better than others. This past week has been the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” The point of this celebration is to recognize the great diversity of the Christian church, while celebrating the unity we share in Jesus Christ.
At the end of our reading from First Corinthians, Paul begins to talk about the foolishness of the message of the cross. Next week’s reading will pick up with these last verses and focus more deeply on the cross, the work of God that seems to take a fool to believe, or a foolish God to do. That almighty God chose to die on a humiliating cross in God’s greatest act of salvation and self-disclosure goes against all our expectations of how a God ought to act.
Our God acts in strange ways. That God would choose to entrust the gospel and the carrying out of God’s mission to a community that won’t always get along seems to be a great foolishness. Why place something so important in the hands of those who so often prove themselves unworthy?
Some days, it seems like God would have been better off reaching out to individuals, and calling us personally to work alone. Many of us live with the axiom, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” There are many in our world who live as God’s plan is to entrust God’s work only to the individuals who have it all together, only to ones who have achieved a certain rank of holiness. They might think God only needs the good workers, the ones who won’t let him down. This is where we get the idea that God wants us to have a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s how we can justify a life of doing good on our own, but not value being a part of a worshipping and serving community. I was reading Rob Bell’s book Love Wins for a pastor’s retreat this week. At the beginning of the book was this quote: “”the problem, however, is that the phrase ‘personal relationship’ is found nowhere in the Bible.” (10).
God doesn’t just want a bunch of personal, individualistic relationship, God wants a relationship with the whole community. God’s vision is for us to be in community both in this life and in the life to come. God comes with healing salvation for all people. We experience God’s presence in community.
Paul prays for the people of Corinth and appeals to them, “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” (1:10b). I don’t think Paul is asking us to become mindless zombies who no longer think or have opinions. I think Paul is inviting us into a new way of being together in community- a way that is shaped and sustained by Jesus Christ.
The question that emerges for Christian communities becomes— “Is Jesus powerful enough to hold us all together?” “Can Jesus give us a purpose around which we can rally?”
The message of the cross, of God’s great love for all people, is meant to trump the importance of any other message that would divide us. On the cross, Jesus declares that serving others in love is of primary importance. In our own communities, this can look like giving up our own power, listening to the other, and seeking the other’s well-being.
As we enter this place, we are being transformed. Jesus meets us when we gather. Jesus enters our lives through the sacraments. We are being changed, but we haven’t arrived yet. So we live each day, we live in community, in the tension of knowing that God’s promise is for us to live together in joyful relationship and that our reality is that it can be difficult to work and play together. May the hope of God’s promise of unity give you strength and patience to experience the joy of community. May your vision of church be inspired by hope and your heart full of grace for those times the reality disappoints. One day, we will all be gathered into perfect community, until then, we press forward in faith, together.
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