A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.
January 18, 2015
1 Cor 1:1-9
I don’t know what you remember about this church in Corinth, but it had some issues. Paul has heard of many problems in their fellowship because he keeps getting letters from people with complaints and concerns.
They are fracturing.
They are disagreeing over doctrine, appropriate behavior, and leadership.
They have a high insistence on the rights of the individual, even as they watch that right negatively impacting the life of the community.
And so Paul writes to them. He will, later in the letter, be pretty direct and clear about his concern.
But that isn’t where he starts.
He starts by identifying the people being addressed in the letter:
“To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
From the first lines of his letter, he reminds them, he reminds us, of some important things. We are called to be saints and we are together.
When Paul calls us “saints”, he’s not assuming we’re perfect people or have halos. He’s saying that we’ve been called and marked by God, have been “sanctified” or “holy-fied” by God.
And Paul never uses the word in the singular form. Paul doesn’t know about individual saints out in the world, doing their own thing. Paul knows about people who are called together to be plural saints, working together for God.
And even though in their bickering and fighting, they have not been particularly saintly, Paul calls them back to that identity.
He’s calling them to their better nature.
He will have strong language for them later in the letter, but it is clear for Paul that in order to move forward as the church, they are going to need to remember who called them together in the first place. And they are going to need to remember that they weren’t called for private reasons. By that I mean that Paul doesn’t see the church as a group of individuals, called by God, who happen to meet together under one roof.
Paul, I think, would be very confused by American Christianity’s emphasis on individual salvation. Because he sees us as being called into the very body of Christ. Salvation is given to us as a body, as a community. And not just any community, but a holy and sanctified community. This is strongly tied to the Old Testament understanding of Covenant. God’s covenant with the people was never for the benefit of any individual member of it. But it called them to come together. Because the truth is, we’re stronger together than any of us are alone.
I’d like to show you a video clip that I shared a while ago. This is 8 year old Elizabeth Hughes singing the National Anthem at a hockey game. Watch what happens.
As Carolyn Blackhurst said about this video when she shared it with me a few years ago, “at our best, we sing together”.
This is how Paul saw the church. Called to bring our voices together. Even though this 8 year old has a voice that many of us could only dream of, she needed the voices of her other hockey go-ers to recover from the failure of her microphone.
And that’s true for all of us, no matter our remarkable individual gifts. Our individual giftedness is enhanced and strengthened when paired with the other saints God has put alongside us.
20th century Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”
I’m not normally a big fan of Niebuhr, but I like the reminder in this quote that our communal endeavors have to be grounded in the love that we see in forgiveness.
We have to be people who say “I’m sorry” and people who say, “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
We have to be people who can occasionally let go of our need to be right in order to be people who are in relationship with each other.
I am thankful for this reminder from Paul.
Because while community is the better road, it isn’t always the easier one. And in light of the news these past weeks from Paris, and Nigeria, and Moscow, and the Capitol bldg, it is easy to see the challenges we face.
How can we be in community with people who are willing to kill over a cartoon? How can we be better community so people choose life instead of choosing terrorism and annihilation?
How can we live together in ways that give people hope for a better life?
How can we live together so our rights are not more important than the lives of other people?
I think it goes back to our baptism, as we talked about last week.
Our text from John’s gospel today begins with John the Baptist’s account of Jesus’ baptism, which is closely connected to the calling of the disciples.
As we look at Jesus’ own baptism, and remember our baptisms, we notice that baptism, much like our being called saints, is connected to the understanding of being called to community. We aren’t baptized to be lone rangers. We are baptized to be then be called into community.
What I noticed in this text is that even Jesus gets called to be a part of a community. Even in John’s gospel, where his divinity is on full display, Jesus isn’t a lone ranger. He calls the disciples to “come and see”, to join him on the way.
And we know about the disciples. They are not called because they have it all together or because they bring with them particular crime fighting skills. We know that they say and do the wrong things all the time. But they are better together than any of them are alone.
And sometimes they get it right too.
In this account, they recognize Jesus for who he is. “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
They proclaim his identity at the beginning of his ministry, perhaps even helping call him into his role and his better nature. And then they invite others to come and join them on the journey.
Our response to both our baptisms and to the baptism of Jesus is to “come and see”, to join on this journey of discipleship. Even if we could do it on our own, we aren’t called to do it on our own. We go together. Our successes and our failures are a part of who we are together.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from a Roman Catholic Archbishop from Brazil, Dom Helder Camara. He said, “When we are dreaming alone, it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality.”
Friends, what reality are we being called to dream together? Come and see!