Third Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 26, 2014
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When we read the letters of Paul in the Bible, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they are letters. They’re full of weighty theological matters about the nature of God, the nature of community, and what it means to be a Christian. But they’re also letters about specific people and circumstances. Paul was an itinerant preacher who traveled around preaching the Gospel and planting churches. He made his living by making tents and awnings, and spent his evenings preaching and teaching. When he had a church established in a town, he would pack up his belongings and move on to another city to set up his business and his ministry all over again. Even though the churches he started were pretty self-sufficient by the time he moved on, they would still write to him for advice. We don’t have copies of the letters they wrote to him, but the letters Paul wrote back were preserved and circulated to other churches, and eventually ended up in the New Testament. First Corinthians is one of two letters Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth.
The Christians in Corinth were divided by a lot of issues, which should sound pretty familiar to us today. They were divided over theology, over how to handle church meals, over where people sat in worship, and over matters of sexual morality. How many churches today are fighting over what they believe, or about how to interpret the Bible, or about potlucks and soup suppers? And there are certainly a lot of churches divided today over disagreements about sex and morality! The Corinthians were also divided along gender lines and class lines and ethnic lines. And how many churches today are divided between men and women, or rich and poor, or by ethnicity? How many churches are there where only a certain type of people are welcome? We have a lot in common with the first Christians who gathered in Corinth, and looked to Paul for guidance.
We don’t know exactly what questions they asked, but I wonder if they were surprised by how Paul responded. Because, you see, he didn’t start by addressing any of the issues that divided the Corinthians. He didn’t start in by talking about who should sit where during worship, and he didn’t start in by talking about sexual morality. He didn’t start out by addressing the role of women, or the economic and ethnic issues that divided them, or even how to interpret the teachings he had handed on to them. Instead, he started by reminding them of the most basic foundation of their faith, the one point on which all the Gospel rests: the cross of Christ. He’d address all the other issues over the course of the letter, to be sure, but he starts with the cross of Christ. Because the cross is why they’re there; the cross is what brings all these people together.
It’s what brings us together, too. The love of God, poured out for us on the cross through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. No matter what we disagree on; no matter what disputes and disagreements arise, the cross is the core of our faith and our community. Now, there are a lot of people who don’t like thinking or talking about the cross, even among Christians. It’s pretty gory, and it can be depressing to think about Jesus death and the reason Jesus died. To remember that we are sinners. Have you ever noticed that there are a lot more people in church on Easter Sunday than on Good Friday?
And for people who don’t believe, well, the whole idea of the cross just doesn’t make sense. There are a lot of people who believe that Jesus was a moral teacher with a lot of good ideas, but the idea that salvation can come through something as barbaric as a crucifixion, well, that they just can’t swallow. It sounds like foolishness to them. I remember one Christmas day when I was in seminary, a couple of my cousins sat down with me after dinner and tried to convince me not to become a pastor. “After all,” they said. “It’s not like faith and religion make a difference to anybody. If you want to help people, become a social worker. If you like Jesus’ teachings, you can still share them. Why would you want to become a pastor?” The very idea of God being born in human flesh, and then dying to save a sinful, broken world, was unbelievable to them. Foolishness.
And yet, in that act of weakness and surrender, when Jesus gave up his life for the very people who rejected and tormented him, God’s power shone forth. In that act of darkness, in that murder of an innocent, the light shone forth. In the cross, the gates of Hell were shattered and the chains that bound us were destroyed. In the cross, God saved the world. In the cross, the kingdom of heaven comes near to us and the seeds of that kingdom are planted in us and in the world around us. Paul explained it this way in another letter he wrote: “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Christ chose to die for us even though we are sinners, even though we are broken, even though we could never deserve it. Christ chose to die for us out of the greatest love there is, and that love was powerful enough to remake the world. That love, poured out on the cross, broke the chains of sin and death and made us free in Christ.
We are here today because of the love shown on that cross. We are here because experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ turned his disciples from timid followers who scattered at the first sign of trouble into faithful and courageous men and women who were open to the Spirit’s presence and spread God’s Word. We are here because throughout the two millennia since then, countless billions of people have heard and been changed by the story of God’s love that comes through the cross, and have known the power of that cross to guide and save them through good times and through the deepest persecution. We are here because we, too, have seen God’s power in our lives, the power of the one who came to save us by offering his life as a ransom for ours, who calls us by name and asks us to follow.
Paul knew that that power—the Word made flesh, the Love that conquered death and hell—is the ultimate reality for Christians. It’s the center. It’s the heart. Everything we do and everything that we are should flow from that reality. Every other issue we as Christians face must be guided by the light of the cross. Everything, from morality to social justice, from theology to worship, from how we handle the problems with the roof to how we handle church potlucks to how we treat people, everything begins and ends with the cross on which Christ died.
It’s easy to forget that, as we go about our busy lives. Even in church, sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted by the business and politics of running the church and forget about why we’re here. It’s easy to get distracted by important issues like morality (or the lack of it), or by church attendance, or by our own internal disputes. And those things are all important! But more important still is our faith in Jesus Christ, who loves us and calls us to follow him, who died for us on the cross, who transformed us and saved us. We may disagree on many issues—Christians have been disagreeing for two millennia, since the very beginning!—but we must never forget what brings us together.