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.
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