We Are (Not) United

1 Corinthians 1.10-18

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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 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.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

The church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it seems as if there is no future in which we stay together.

One pastor put it this way, “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count. For a long time it was my friendships within the church that kept me with the church. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live solely for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed, and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the way things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belittled particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this, “It matters not how we treat particular people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people speak this way about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences? Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer remain together.

By the way, does anyone happen to know what year it is? I can’t quite remember. 2020? Oh, you’re surely mistaken. The year is 1844 my friends, how could you have forgotten!?

Those quotes I read, contrary to what we might’ve thought, were not shared over the last few weeks by pastors offering too much information on their respective Facebook pages. Actually, they are all from the year 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And what was the actual matter at hand? Slavery.

One of the great ironies in the church is that we call ourselves United Methodists and we are anything but united.

The church in Corinth was similarly divided. In Paul’s first letter alone we can count at least fifteen different problems the apostle had to confront including lawsuits, idolatry, prostitution, and a whole lot more. But here, right after his pronouncement of grace upon God’s people, he got down to the business of addressing partisanship – otherwise known as divisions.

We’re not entirely sure how it happened, or even why, but the Corinthian Christians factionalized behind different leaders. Some followed Paul, some Cephas, and some Apollos. And the disrespect they held for the rival leaders extended down to the individual followers as well, such that some of the followers of Jesus refused to break bread with one another.

It doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, how can an organization founded upon the principles of total inclusion descend into such rampant division? How can a people told to love their neighbors as themselves cease to love their literal neighbors? How can something as united as a church break down into different factions?

Those questions were asked in Corinth, they were asked in 1844, and they’re still being asked today.

The gospel itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I said last week, and will be saying over the coming weeks, grace is really really messy. It is not simple – For, what God did, makes no sense to us. It makes no sense to us because we would not have done what God did had it been up to us.

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The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation made available to all, is so contrary to everything we think we know about the world and even, at times, contrary to everything to what we think we know about the church!

I mean, is the gospel really for all? What about the real sinners (let your minds wander), do they have a place in the church? How would we feel about the outsiders being let into the inside?

We might bristle at the thought, but we can’t ignore that making the outsiders the insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. 

Faith, whatever it may be, is confounding precisely because it runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught to expect about the world. It is challenging to wrap our minds around which, incidentally, is why we keep coming back to church week after week in hopes that we’ll get a better angle on all this.

Now, of course, there will be plenty of other folk who will try their best to convince us that there are easy steps to Christianity, that if we follow a simple formula we will get our lives perfectly sorted out. Countless books are sold every year on that premise alone. 

There will always be Cephases and Apolloses vying for our allegiance.

But the word from scripture, and in particular within the Pauline corpus, is that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus. The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

It can take a lifetime of coming to the table over and over again before we really start to believe that Jesus would do what Jesus did, even for us!

It can take decades of Sundays hearing the gospel story before it finally starts sounding like good news.

It can take generations of patient faithfulness before we begin to see how foolish the message of the cross is, and how everything we do hangs on it.

Which leads us back to Corinth, and in a sense back to 1844, and back to the church today. All churches throughout time have fallen prey to the temptation of easy answers. And who can blame them? If people provide the answers we already want to hear, then why not follow them? 

There have been plenty of Apolloses and Cephases over the centuries. As Christians we so regularly self-identify around particular leaders who give us what we want to hear. Tribalism runs rampant in the church such that since the very beginning of the church there have been alternative modes of the church within the church!

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But the cross demands something different and something far more difficult.

Most of us here today have come of age in a world in which we are so comfortable with crosses dangling around our necks and adorning the top of our steeples, that we cannot conceive of crosses as anything but sterile symbols of something vaguely religious.

But the cross is, and forever shall be, a shocking thing. 

2,000 years of church life has made it next to impossible to consider how shocking it was to preach a crucified Messiah during the time of Paul. The next closest thing would be hanging hypodermic needles around our necks, or placing electric chairs on top of churches, or hanging nooses on the walls of our living rooms.

The cross is death. Which is why Paul can say, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The world doesn’t want death – it wants other signs of worldly power. And yet our King of kings rules from a cross, and one of his final pronouncements is not an exhortation about all we must do to earn a spot in his kingdom. Instead, Jesus uses some of his final earthly breaths to declare one of the strangest things of all, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

And, indeed, we have no idea what we are doing. We are a people at war – not necessarily in the conventional sense but we are certainly at war with one another these days. 

The United Methodist Church is battling about who can marry who and who can get ordained. We appear at the brink of schism, dooming ourselves to repeat 1844 all over again. 

Our partisan finger wagging continues to divide families, and friends, and co-workers. We identify who is in and who is out by the name of a candidate on a bumper sticker or by the avenue by which they receive their news.

We write people off for Facebook posts and tweets and delight in our ever tightening tunnel vision about reality.

Our tribalism is going off the rails and, shockingly worst of all, it seems like we actually enjoy it.

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The word of the cross is not easy to proclaim. It wasn’t easy for Paul, it wasn’t easy for the church in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and it’s not easy today. 

The word of the cross is a stumbling block to those who call themselves religious and it is foolishness to those who delight in the rise of secularism precisely because the cross stands as a beacon to a different reality, a reality we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.

For as much as the cross is a sign to the world about the forgiveness of sins, it is equally a reminder that we have plenty of sins for which we all need forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, we cannot look at the cross without confronting the inconvenient truth that we are the sinners for whom Christ died.

We confess, however, that we would much prefer to hear a different kind of message about the cross. Perhaps something a little more uplifting, or at the very least something optimistic. 

Ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong.

But, again, the cross tells us something different – the cross tell us we’re all wrong.

Jesus was put to death by the legitimate powers of his time – He was denounced by the Roman governor, flogged and beaten, and was taken along with common criminals to be executed outside of the city.

He was condemned to death by all of the best people of church and state, and was condemned for crimes against religion and government.

This is a challenging thing to confront – particularly for those of us who feel good in our piety, or happy in our political proclivities… Jesus went to the other side, he went to be with the people we would rather ignore, and he took his place upon a cross because we put him there.

We hate it, we don’t want to even get near it, here in the ivory towers of our own making. But Jesus, the one we worship and adore, Jesus is on both sides. He is on the side of the victims and on the side of the perpetrators. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He speaks to the powerful and to the weak.

That is why the gospel is so overwhelmingly radical – When we say Jesus is for all, we really mean all.

We are not united. We have plenty of divisions cropping up all the time that keep us from one another. But there is something that truly unites us – the gospel. It is radically inclusive in ways we can’t even dream of. Whether we like it or not the gospel refuses to divide the world up into the correct and the incorrect, the righteous and the unrighteous, the innocent and the guilty. Jesus takes all of that into himself and says I forgive you.

It’s foolishness according to the world, but to us it is the power of God. Amen.

Good Fences Make Bad Neighbors

Ephesians 2.11-22

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” – a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands – remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, but upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

It was still cool in the early morning when the man prepared to mow his lawn. He looked forward to being able to drive back and forth over the grass before the sun made it too hot, and it was an opportunity for him to escape from all the busyness of the world. The hum of the machine below his legs was barely audible over his ear protection and he continued to mow until the lawn was immaculate.

As he maneuvered the mower toward the garage, he hopped off to inspect the machine when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled to the ground. The two men rolled down the hill grappling each other until they came to a stop, and the fighting really began.

Hours later the mowing man was in the hospitable with six broken ribs wondering what had led him to all of this.

That man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, a senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the fight broke out. Was the assailant an opponent of Paul’s political ideologies? Was he so moved by debates on Capitol Hill that he felt violence was the only solution? Was Paul involved with some nefarious characters and now we were seeing behind the curtain?

Not since 1856 had a sitting senator been so beaten and sent to a doctor. It was a frightening moment for law-makers all across the country as they began wondering if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out. The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tired of Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

I’m not making this up people! While a great sum of people assumed that Paul’s political persuasion was to blame for the attack, while the media continued to stir the pop as much as possible, it was all about a neighborhood squabble.

Though this one left a man in the hospital with 6 broken ribs.

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Remember that you were once without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. He is our peace! In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

Have you ever been mad at a neighbor? Maybe they kept playing their music too loud into the early morning hours, or perhaps they kept parking their car in front of your driveway, or maybe they kept blowing their lawn clippings on to your property…

Robert Frost once famously wrote that good fences make good neighbors. And one could make the argument that strong walls make for better peace. There’s a reason the Vatican is surrounded by walls, and the White House, and even the Temple in Jerusalem.

            Every child that has had to share a room knows the value of a wall (though in this case a figurative one).

            There’s a reason we have to go through security before we got on an airplane.

            But good walls also make for bad neighbors.

During the initial hearing after the lawn mower battle, it came to light that Rand Paul and his neighbor had not exchanged a word with one another for over ten years. Tens years of frustration about lawn clippings boiled over to the point that violence came forth. That’s a pretty tremendous wall to share with a neighbor, a wall of hostility that’s stronger than any bit of chain, any concentration of concrete, or any fabricated fence.

The higher we build the walls around us, both the real and the imagined, the higher the hostility tends to be. Every year more and more gated communities are completed. Year after year new boundary lines are drawn for schools, for taxable business, and a whole slew of other items. Year after year we tend to spend more time with people who look like us and think like us and talk like us than ever before.

And yet Paul is bold, some might say foolish, to proclaim that Christ has broken down the dividing wall, that Christ has eradicated the hostility between us.

One need not drive around for very long, or turn on the television, or simply swipe on a phone, to know that hostility is still very real, and that new walls are being constructed each and every day.

However, in the blood and cross of Christ, Jesus’ peace has been made possible for us.

And this is where the struggle between building walls and erasing hostility really comes into focus. It is far too easy to read a passage like this from Ephesians and then make some sort of declaration about current realities like the proposed wall at the southern border with Mexico, or furthering divides within our local community. And for as much as that might be true, those are walls and hostilities and visions of peace defined by our terms, and not necessarily by Jesus.

When we think of peace, we might imagine a time and place where everyone will just get along, or at least where people will just start being nice with one another.

But Jesus, the Lord of lords, he doesn’t have a lot to say about being nice. Sure, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick… those are all nice things. Doing all of that might make the world a little more peaceful.

But Jesus’ peace, a divine peace, also looks like turning the tables over in the temple, it looks like calling to task the political and religious elite for making such a mockery of the kingdom, it looks like abandoning the people closest to you if it means making God’s new reality manifest on earth.

And sometimes Jesus’ peace doesn’t jive with our version of peace.

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One of the greatest challenges of being a Christian today is that many of us simply cannot resonate with the deep and profound truth that we were once far off and have now been brought near by the blood of Jesus. If we’ve grown up in the church, or can’t remember a time when the church was not pivotal in our life, we make the assumption that we have always been near. But all of us here are gentiles, we were far from the Lord and were only brought close because of Jesus.

And when we recognize our far-off-ness, when we recognize the immense chasm that has been joined in the blood of Jesus between us and God, it makes the peace of Jesus a whole lot more interesting.

Jesus’ peace is different than our peace, and is only possible because of his peace. We are no longer stranger and aliens to one another, but instead we are citizens of the household of God. This is the best news my friends! Whatever divisions and hostilities we might imagine between us, they have been wiped away! The cross stands as the great unifier between all of God’s people, including us.

            Jesus’ peace is greater than any earthly vision we could possibly imagine. It is more powerful than any political policy, it is mightier than any magistrate’s order, it is more life giving than any piece of legislation.

            Jesus’ peace is revolutionary.

And Jesus’s peace is nothing short of Jesus himself. In the life, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Lord we discover not just a way to live differently, but also the way that makes a way where there was no way. Jesus destroyed, and continues to destroy, the walls and the hostility between us, because we have been made one in the blood.

Now, of course, there is the temptation to treat the church like the unique place of peace, a one-hour a week reprieve from the madness of the world. Church, what we are doing here right now, is not the place where we pretend peace is possible by sitting next to people whom we might otherwise ignore during the week. The church, as the body of Christ, is a new peace, one in which a different power from the cross redefines the ways of the world.

Does this mean that we need to leave from this building and start tearing down our backyard fences? Should we go to our country’s southern border and protest the construction of a giant wall? Is this text compelling us to destroy every boundary that has ever existed?

Destroying walls does not in itself create peace. We still live in a very broken world in which our sinful desires compel us to make choices we know we should not make. Peace, Jesus’ peace, only comes by eliminating the hostility behind the dividing walls, and that’s not something within our own power.

Rather than building walls that separate us and keep us safe, rather than trying to become our own Gods and destroying new walls, Paul pushes us to let ourselves be built upon the cornerstone of Christ into a temple where God dwells.

And friends, this is no easy task. To do so requires humility all but lost in the world today. It requires a willingness to say that I cannot do this on my own, that I have failed to love my fellow brothers and sisters, that I have ignored the power of Jesus blood.

To be built upon the cornerstone of Christ, rather than building our own walls, is to fundamentally commit ourselves to Jesus instead of trying to commit Jesus’ to whatever we want.

            It is nothing short of letting our lives embody the words we pray each and every week, “let thy will be done.”

When each of you entered the sanctuary this morning you were handed a Lego piece. I asked you to hold it and consider your piece in the kingdom. I did this because each of us has a piece to play in peace.

But it’s not our responsibility alone.

As Paul so rightly puts it, Jesus came and proclaimed peace to us! We were far off and through Jesus we have been united with one another in one Spirit to the Father.

We are no longer strangers and aliens; all has been made new! We are citizens with fellow saints and members of the household of God. We have been built about the foundation of those who came before, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.

In Jesus the entire structure of reality is joined together and it continues to grow in the holy temple in the Lord. Our oneness, the destruction of our hostility, is the beginning of the dwelling place for God.

And so we hold our piece that is part of Jesus’ peace. But we are not alone. In just a moment, each of us will be invited forward to connect our piece to Jesus’ peace. We will be built upon the cornerstone that is Jesus the Christ, the one who is our peace. We will see our connected and stuck we each other we really are. And we will remember that Christ has already destroyed the walls between us and erased the hostility. Amen.