Filed under: Sermons
Grace and peace to you, siblings in Christ.
When we were living in North Dakota, we had a very long laundry line that basically took up our entire backyard. About 15 feet on the other side of the line was our neighbor’s house. So if our neighbor was in his kitchen, doing dishes, and looked out, he could read the logos on our t-shirts hanging in the breeze.
I never hung any underwear on our line.
From childhood taunts, “I see London, I see France, I see Suzy’s underpants” to high school dress codes to admonitions in seminary preaching classes – “don’t show your exegetical undergarments”— I’ve been formed to know you don’t go showing what you’re supposed to be covering up.
The thing is, we all have bodies, we all have variously shaped underclothes to hold our variously shaped bodies, and there’s nothing new or surprising about that. I was surprised then, one day while watching one of my favorite shows- “Call the Midwife”- set in 1950s urban England- to see a scene of laundry hanging between the flats. I noticed that there were all manner of undergarments and I was surprised that I had reaction of embarrassment that was simply not shared by the people in that culture. People have clothes, clothes get dirty, they get wet when washed, and they need to dry, and the way you dry clothes is to hang them out, which has the side effect of being visible to your neighbors.
Those are the facts. There’s nothing really to be embarrassed about. It’s pretty pointless to try to hide what we all know about each other.
When we read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it feels a bit like we’re noticing their undies on the line. We’re hearing about those cracks in their community we think we’re expected to hide. But what if the invitation is not to hide from our humanity, but to acknowledge each other’s? And in recognizing that we all have things under the polished image we’d like the show the world, might we learn how to deal with those not so pretty bits- and even more importantly, might we discover grace and live in grace towards each other?
Let’s enter the text with humility and compassion- for the Corinthians and for ourselves.
Paul has just greeted the Corinthians with a typical opening, and reminded them of a vision of who they are called to be, as he writes:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift
Within that thanksgiving are veiled references to the struggles Paul will address in this letter. It doesn’t take him much longer to become more direct.
We’ve only read 10 verses when we come to the first uncovering of the trouble in the community. Paul writes,
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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.
Divisions? Disagreements? What’s this all about? He continues,
11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Ah. Factions have formed within the one community. The problem is that people within the community are claiming adherence to one teacher or another. In Paul’s culture, in which you might be a disciple of one rabbi or another, this is understandable. You might follow one teacher and interpret the scripture through that teacher’s lens. The problem is that they are using their affiliation as a source of justification and division. It’s like they’re going up to each other and saying, “I”m following the right teacher and yours is wrong.” Or- “You’re believing lies.” Or- maybe they’re trying to keep away from those who are interpreting from a different point of view.
Was there a pros and cons list followers were carrying around for Paul, and Apollos, and Cephas, and those “always have the right answer group” claiming Christ?
Paul calls them on it. He’s not interested in having his name used in their game, writing “thank God that I baptized none of you… except Cripus and Gaius…” (1:14). Paul knows it’s not about him. He may have been the one called to spread the word, but it’s been the word about Jesus, not about Paul himself. It’s been the word about the cross, not something wise or glorious, flashy or entertaining. Paul knows he’s human and has plenty of failings, and he’s ok pointing those out just to help the Corinthians break away from their focus on having the right group.
Your teacher, your pastor, your church affiliation, in the end, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is Christ. If Paul’s clear on saying he doesn’t want his name dragged into this argument, I can only imagine how clearly Christ would shout his disapproval.
I think we all can picture pretty clearly what it looks like to have a church broken up into factions. Many of us have ears ringing with memories of heated discussion and accusations. We also know what it is to weigh different schools of thought- different interpretations of the scriptures. Maybe some have not, but I think many of us have had plenty of time in prayer and study, discerning what teachings we want to live out of. We have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the Corinthian community. It can be pretty uncomfortable for this kind of division to be named and brought out in the open.
Frankly, I think many of us have found it embarrassing for this church to have its name spoken out in public along with phrases like, “they’re having problems” or “they’re leaving the ELCA.” But, I don’t think it has to be. There’s nothing new with having divisions within the church. There’s nothing new to being emotional or having a temper or turning away instead of working it out. We don’t have to be ashamed of having a problem that is pretty typical. We’re not called to hide away our struggle. But we are called to be open to God’s word to us:
We’re in the same boat as the Corinthians, and so, more than ever, from the page of the Bible to our ears, Paul’s speaking to us: “Has Christ been divided?” (1:13)
Is Christ a measurable quantity that exists to a greater degree in one church over another? Can one group claim Jesus and be right in saying the other does not have him? No, of course not. In Colossians we read that in Jesus “all things hold together” (1:17) and “there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (3:11)— all the groups into which we divide ourselves mean nothing to Christ, he transcends our boundaries. Further on in First Corinthians, Paul will talk of the Body of Christ, holding all the very different members of the body into one being. There might be differences among people, but there is one Jesus Christ who holds them all together- only one Jesus Christ who decides that each of them has a part in him.
The problem is that we tend to be afraid that Jesus will decide we don’t have a part in him. This makes us do crazy things. Our fear grows a festering sense of shame that divides community and pulls us away from Christ.
We don’t have to play the shame game when we realize there are divisions among us. We don’t have to let shame drive us to cover up by exposing other’s faults. So much of our lives is caught up in trying to look better than we are, to pretend we have fewer faults than our neighbors, to claim righteousness and holiness. Paul calls all that what it is: foolishness.
Because we who claim Jesus see things upside down to the way the world sees things. We claim something the world sees as foolish: the cross as the highest wisdom. We name the cross as the throne of our God. Looking through the cross, we see what seems wise is really foolish.
We’re so used to thinking according to the ways of this world that what God’s doing in the cross really doesn’t make sense. Why would God choose to be exposed in shame?
God goes to the cross to upend all our expectations about needing to hide the truth about who we are. On the cross, God declares:
I’m here for you.
You’ve gotten it all totally, horrible wrong, all my teachings, all my intentions, and yet, I’m still going to love you.
You can’t do anything nasty enough to make me budge, I’m not going to turn away from you,
I’m not going to turn on you.
All your lists of right and wrong, holy and sinful, are upside down and twisted around,
it’s time to realize I’m not a God about lists of naughty and nice,
I’m a God who keeps no score, who washes away sin,
who declares you beloved even while you are covered in the muck of sin, and who makes you new
I’m bringing you along on the path towards a more whole creation.
I’m here for you, because I know how very much you need me, and I’m willing to do everything to love you into life.
The foolishness of claiming affiliation to the one right teacher is exposed by the Jesus Christ who comes from God and hangs despised on a tree. Because that Jesus doesn’t do the “right” thing at all. He doesn’t follow the rules. He follows God’s love.
God’s love is a dangerous and wild force that rips out of our hands any tallies of in or out, right or wrong, welcome or not. God’s love carries us up out of ourselves and our preoccupations with self-righteousness and centers us in the wonder of grace.
The cross unravels our need for division. We align ourselves with the right group so that we can feel justified that we’re believing the right things and doing the right things, and so that we have an opposing group to point to as our foil. It helps us avoid looking at the things we don’t like in ourselves and keeps others from discovering how we are broken.
But if the cross is about Jesus choosing to stand with us in our brokenness, if Jesus already knows about everything we’re trying to hide, and if that hasn’t made him run from us, but is actually what is making him run towards us, then maybe we don’t have to be afraid or ashamed anymore. This is grace: that God loved us when we were most unloveable. Living in that grace, we can say with bold confidence, I am broken, but I am also beloved. We can look out- at those we’ve once pushed away- and know that about them: you are broken, but you are also beloved.
Living in grace, shame and judgement have no place. Without shame and judgement, division cannot be fueled. There will still be differences. The twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians is all about how differences are necessary. Different lens for interpretation, different ways of living out the gospel, different organizing structures, different styles, different gifts and different failings- but grace gives room for difference because it is centered in unexpectedly wide love.
We no longer have to hide what is a given about us- that in this life, we struggle. We can be outrageously open with the good news- that our struggle gives us occasion to learn even more deeply God’s love for us, and opportunity to live in to the experience of forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom that Jesus’ cross opens for us.
Display for your neighbors to see: you’re a work in progress, and the master craftsman is forming you into people who rely on God’s grace and who show that grace to others.
Filed under: Uncategorized
Grace and peace to you, people of God.
When’s the last time you went out to a restaurant or to a new place?
How did you decide to go there?
If I’m driving around in a new area, I’ll pull over and check out Googlemaps, read a number of reviews, and then pick out where I’m eating. I listen to what total strangers say and let them influence my decision.
As we prepare to move to a new city, I’m writing down and leaning on other’s recommendations for everything from professional services and contractors to the best way to get from place to place. I look to others as the experts in their homeland.
We go places, hire people, and try new things because others tell us about it. We take their word for it.
How much we trust them depends on our relationship and their authority. I’m going to trust a good friend or a trusted professional because of the former’s relationship and the latter’s position of expertise.
Our experience of following through on the recommendation determines if we tell others- and if we trust the source again.
The Gospel of John is written in beautiful poetic Greek. John chapter 1 was one of the first entire chapters I translated into English while studying Greek. Even as I read it in English, I am awed by how beautiful it is. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The first human character we meet is John the Baptist. “he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”
As much as I love the beauty of this chapter, I know others find it wordy, abstract, and hard to follow. I think it will be more accessible if you use this framework of seeking and following the recommendations of others. The book was written so that you would find and follow Jesus. Within this first chapter the major action is the Word Incarnate- Jesus- coming on the scene with an authority- John the Baptist- pointing him out and recommending him to others. This action then ripples out, with those who trust John the Baptist’ recommendation recommending Jesus to others.
John the Baptist is a teacher, a religious authority, who has a group of disciples who have formed a long and trusting relationship with him. When John points to Jesus and declares, “This is the Lamb of God,” his own disciples take his word for it. They follow his recommendation, invite others to join them, and go to see Jesus for themselves.
It strikes me that John is sending his own disciples to Jesus. He isn’t concerned with keeping his fame. There is no competition between John and Jesus here because John’s role is to prepare for and point to Jesus. They’re both working to bring people to the same God. There’s a lot for us to learn here, as we consider how we talk of fellow Christians and other churches. We’re all about the work of recommending Jesus to the world. We don’t need to create bad reviews of other congregations in an attempt to make ourselves stronger. John was confident enough in his faith to release his own power and prestige and encourage his followers to follow the one they had been waiting for. He’s willing to release his disciples into a new community where they will be formed in faith.
John uses his influence to encourage his disciples to seek out Jesus. His influence must be considerable. John points to Jesus, declaring, “Look, here is the Lamb of God,” and two of his disciples leave John and, following his directions, find Jesus.
When John’s disciples come up to Jesus, we hear one of the most interesting phrases in this text. When the disciples ask Jesus, “Where are you staying?” it appears to be a simple question of “how can we find you later? Where are you going to be around dinner time tonight?”
Jesus takes the questions to another level. Instead of saying, “I’m at the inn on the corner, the one with the famous falafels,” Jesus says, “come and see.”
This, then becomes an invitation to disciples. “Come and see” – not only where I’m sleeping tonight, but see where I’m staying- where I’m dwelling- where I- the living God- can be found.
For the next few years, that’s what these disciples will do. They will be with Jesus, seeing how he shows up for those in need, those pushed aside, and those without hope. They will discover anew where God is found- and be amazed that God is active outside the boundaries they had assumed.
Sometimes, they will not like where Jesus chooses to dwell, and it will be hard for them to stay with him. They won’t like that staying with Jesus means sharing company with people they’ve been taught to stay away from. They won’t like that being with Jesus means they step out of the space in which rank and honor and being better than others gets you rewarded. They will scatter and leave when Jesus chooses to be in danger, in suffering, in humiliation, and in death. They won’t be able to believe the news when Jesus is found, not only in death, but in resurrection- new life. With his ascension, Jesus fills all places with his presence and assures us that there is no place with the power to push him out.
John chapter 1 is an invitation to us, to follow the recommendation of John and his disciples, of Jesus’ disciples and the early church, to seek out where Jesus is staying, to come and see, and enter a life of discipleship, dwelling where Jesus dwells, and sharing in his work. Cross- our community of faith- is the recommender and the accompanying disciples who help us discover Jesus and dwell with him.
We don’t create faith within ourselves, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit, but we can put ourselves in places where we meet Jesus. We can go to places where faith is created. That’s why we come here. The primary place Jesus dwells is in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, because Jesus has promised, “this is my body; this is my blood.” Jesus comes to us in Word read and preached. Jesus stays here among us, as promised, “I will not leave you abandoned.” (Jn 14:18) We’ve come here to meet Jesus and to be trained to recognize Jesus as we leave this place and enter the rest of our week.
Our annual meeting is a time to celebrate that this community of faith has been meeting Jesus. For us, Jesus has made himself present in bread and wine, divided and shared. Jesus has made himself present in the strangers and familiar faces we’ve served at Bread and Roses, Family Promise, and the Ixonia Food Pantry. We saw Jesus reflected in the eyes of children and adults working for a better future on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. We met Jesus in each other, as care, love, and forgiveness were expressed. People have met Jesus in you.
While we may trust that Jesus is present, it can still be hard to see him. Like a pop up party or a mob dance, Jesus appears where we least expect him.
I was listening to an interview with Veronica Chambers and Sarah Lewis who edited and contributed to a book about First Lady Michelle Obama, entitled The Meaning of Michelle. One of the vignettes told that Mrs. Obama would go for regular walks on the streets of Washington DC, and no one would recognize her. She wasn’t accompanied by all the fanfare one expects with the First Lady. She just looked like a normal black woman out for a jog, and so no one expected she was anything special. They didn’t give her a second look, didn’t ask for an autograph, didn’t really see her.
Sometimes we don’t recognize what we don’t expect to see. We see what we expect and miss out on what’s really there. If we don’t expect Jesus among the poor and oppressed, the sinners and the anti religious, the depressed and the dead, we will miss him. We won’t have the wonder of seeing that God’s love is so big, nothing anyone can do will push Jesus away. We’ll miss out on knowing that God values all people, and maybe we’ll live in fear that we might do something to make God value us less, to make God reject us.
Jesus dwells where we don’t want him to be. He is in us, knowing those places we hide from everyone else. He is in people and situations we don’t want to value and we don’t want to be near. Jesus has to be there, because that’s where the front lines of the coming kingdom are: where God is working to bring good news, healing, and justice. We might not want Jesus to be there, in the ickiness of life, because his being there calls us towards changed action. If Jesus is there at work, surely we should be too. If we’re disciples, we’re to be joining Jesus where he is active, mimicking his work.
This first chapter of John is all about this God who dives into the world, entering it fully, especially dwelling among the poor, the pushed aside, and the suffering, even filling the space occupied by death. Jesus comes into all this to bring his love and life to the whole world.
Jesus is found in scary, unexpected, messy places, and invites us to come and see what he’s up to. He dwells there to bring change, and calls us to be active in his work. It’s more comfortable to find Jesus in the woods, or in the beautiful sanctuary. We need each other- we rely on each other’s word- to tell us where Jesus is staying, so that we don’t miss out on finding Jesus. The glory of being a disciple is in being right next to the teacher, copying the teacher, becoming more and more like the teacher. Then the work of the master is work we also take joy in, because we’ve been there as it’s coming into being.
The movement of the Gospel of John continues today. We are called to be doing the work of John the Baptist and the disciples, pointing Jesus out and walking with others as they come and see where he is. Jesus invites you, and each child of the earth, to come and see that he already dwells right here, with you, and his presence is bringing joy and life, justice and well-bring, for now and forever.