Sermon: “And Now for Something Completely Different”
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:1-17
Over the past few weeks there has been a certain question that I’ve heard over and over again in different places. The first time I heard it, it was asked in response to Howard Camping’s prediction that the rapture would occur on May 21st. At the time I happened to be making plans with a friend of mine, and after writing all of the details on my calendar, I remarked, “This is assuming that the rapture doesn’t occur on May 21st.” We didn’t take the rapture into account when we made our plans, of course. My friend’s reply was telling. He rolled his eyes and said, “I’m so tired of hearing about that guy. What Bible is he reading anyway?” It was a rhetorical question, meant to dismiss Camping’s prediction as the result of sheer ignorance. What Bible is he reading?
The second time I heard the question was shortly after our presbytery voted on Amendment 10-A, which changed the ordination standards currently written in the Book of Order. The language of the amendment elicited strong reactions from both sides, and there was considerable debate regarding what the passage of the amendment would mean for us as a denomination.
Some applauded its broadening of the requirements for ordination to focus not just on sexual sins but “to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.” Others called passionately for the amendment to be voted down because it removes the current language requiring candidates to exhibit “fidelity in the covenant of marriage between and man and a woman or chastity in singleness”. The day after the Presbytery of Charlotte voted on the amendment, I was reading through newspapers and articles on the internet surrounding that vote, and in the comments section of the Charlotte Observer’s article on our vote, someone had asked a question that caught my eye. It simply read, “What Bible are they reading?” Once again, the question was rhetorical, and it was meant to dismiss the affirmative vote on Amendment 10-A as the result of sheer ignorance. What Bible are they reading?
I’m not sure why that question has stuck with me like it has. I think that on a personal level, I’m interested in what it means to ask it. It seems to uncover a tendency we all have to view those who interpret the Bible differently than we do as ignorant, or just plain wrong. People on both sides of just about any debate do this. What Bible are they reading? It seems to suggest that the truth is right there in black and white, and all you have to do is read it for yourself. The reality, however, is that things are rarely that simple. It’s been said that if you put three Presbyterians in a room together, you’ll end up with four different opinions. It seems that not only is math not our strong suit, but neither is agreement with each other! This is especially true whenever we begin talking about “hot button” issues. Passions run deep on both sides. The conflict is often bitter and uncivil. The culture warriors are entrenched in their beliefs, unwilling to give any ground whatsoever, lest their side be perceived as “losing”.
But you know, that’s nothing new. We aren’t really doing anything that hasn’t been done before. The issues may be different from generation to generation, but the pattern of conflict is the same. I’ve been ordained for almost six years now, and it very much seems to me that we are fighting the same battles over and over and over again, and they aren’t necessarily even the battles we should be fighting. I can only imagine what older ministers must feel. Those who have been in the ministry much longer than I have probably just accept it as an endless cycle of conflict after conflict. That seems disheartening to me if that’s true. But I’m not there, yet. I’m still young enough and naive enough to hope and believe that we are capable of much better.
It may seem absurd to say that, especially considering that the picture of the early church that we get in scripture is oftentimes darkened by conflict and disharmony. Read Paul’s letters to the churches he started in Rome, and Galatia, and Thessalonica, and – this morning – Corinth, and then look around at what’s going on in the church today. It doesn’t seem like things have changed very much in two-thousand years, have they? You would think that after two-thousand years we would have learned how this thing works, right?
If you read through 1 and 2 Corinthians in your Bible, you’ll see that the church in Corinth was doing some of the same things that we are doing today. You’ll also see that quite frankly, that church was frustrating Paul to no end. He had started that church just a few years earlier, calling all kinds of people from vastly different backgrounds to gather together and do incredible things like worship together, and pray together, and eat together. He had assembled a rag-tag bunch of former Jews, former Pagans, and everything in between. He had organized something completely different: a church, built on the idea that vastly different people are called together to be a family according to God’s love, and their purpose and mission in the world was to show that love, which was so clear in the life and death of Jesus, to each other and to their neighbors. In just a few short years, it seemed that they had forgotten everything that Paul had taught them. They divided into factions, and pretty soon they were saying very nasty things to each other. Things like, “You’re not a real Christian at all! You may think you are, but you’re not! We are! What Bible are you reading, anyway?” Each group was claiming exclusivity over the other – that “they” had the truth – and the others did not. That they were right on a particular matter, and the others were wrong. That they were the “true believers” – and the others were “not real Christians.” Those early Christians began what is perhaps our most enduring tradition: fighting with each other. So, Paul decided to write them a letter. The letter he wrote began encouragingly enough, but after the greetings and salutations, he gets down to business:
I appeal to you that there be no divisions among you.
It has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you.
Some of you are saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I’m with Peter”
and some are sure that they alone are on the side of Christ.
Is Christ divided?
Now if you fast forward about two thousand years you’ll see that we’re still at it. Those on the left claim allegiance to the Covenant Network or More Light Presbyterians. Those on the right claim allegiance to the Presbyterian Coalition or the Presbyterian Layman. Plenty of people on both sides of any issue claim to solely be on the side of Christ, and anyone who holds different opinions are opponents of Jesus Christ the Lord himself. And above the fray, Paul’s own rhetorical question hangs like a forgotten sign: Is Christ divided? And nothing drove Paul into a frenzy like hearing of a divided church.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters there’s a devious senior devil named Screwtape, who at one point tries to console his nephew, a devil named Wormwood. Wormwood is grieving because a human he was desperately hoping to torment has recently converted to Christianity. Screwtape’s advice to his nephew is simple: “I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t keep out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it.” Screwtape knew the truth about human beings, and he knew the things that could most easily get in the way of the gospel for Christians. It turns out that division, discord, arguing over things… these are the things that hinder the work of Christ. These are the things that tear down the church.
Paul, of course, didn’t want to see the churches he started torn down. So he reminds them that they are called to be different! When all the world jumps at the chance to argue over something and divide, and separate, and form opposing factions, the church is supposed to be something completely different. Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Paul knew better than to expect people of such differing backgrounds and viewpoints to agree on everything. He isn’t telling them to have it out until everyone is forced to share the same opinion. Frequently in his letters, he will tell Christians to “be of one mind”, and by that he means to live together not according to our own opinions and agendas, but according to the One who calls Christians together in the first place! That’s not to say that we will be able to join hands around the campfire and sing Kum Ba Yah. But it is to say that the way we are to relate to each other is primarily out of love. It is to say that there is no excuse for dismissing the views of other faithful Christians simply because they differ from our own. It is to say that we are to be something completely different from what we see in the world. The Christian Church was created to be a family of people from varied backgrounds, called together by the gracious love of Christ, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. As long as we call ourselves a “church” we are proclaiming to be that kind of family. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes it is resoundingly clear that the love which draws us together and binds us to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ is abundantly stronger than any of our disagreements or divisions. Sometimes we fall flat on our faces, and in the midst of our dissension we miss an opportunity to glorify Christ.
Recently, even as I was hearing questions like, “What Bible are they reading?” I’ve seen us get it right. After our most recent meeting of the Presbytery of Charlotte, the one in which we debated Amendment 10-A, the debate was civil. It was for the most part respectful. And it was faithful – on both sides. One of the elders who represented his church at the meeting also happens to be a columnist for the Charlotte Observer. In his editorial following our meeting, he called the meeting “different”. He wrote: “It was a passionate and polite debate – perhaps because of something [we] want [our] community to know: that good, smart, faithful people on both sides are struggling and sorting through the debate… It was a different conversation. It’s not that hard to have, if [the people on both sides] are humble enough to understand that they might not be right.” One of the pastors at the meeting was quoted at the end of the article, saying, “I think everybody is trying to be faithful. I think the trick is to be loving.”
The trick is also to set aside our differences, and put our hearts, and our minds, and our hands together to do the work that Christ has called us to do:
To feed the hungry, to nurture the children, to honor and respect the elderly, to welcome the outcast and the stranger, to visit the sick, to comfort the dying, and to get together with people who have little in common and may not even know one another or like one another, for that matter, to sit with them, and confess our flaws together, to bread bread and share the cup together, to proclaim our faith and our hope together—for the world and for each other.
There are many in the world today who would call that strange or different. But those of us who follow Christ – we just call that “church”.
And we thank God for it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
This sermon was written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz, and delivered on May 29th, 2011.