Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017
Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-9, 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. Amen.
Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them. I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.
On Tuesday, I was in Corinth. Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times. My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. During worship, we read this portion of the letter. As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo. The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left. Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.
In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community. Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored. There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events. Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite? And have they helped you grow in status? Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods. It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good. It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right. Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.
This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth. These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them. They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together. And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians. This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions. Who was the best Christian? Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel? Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough? It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too. It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else. Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community. But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing. Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.
And so Paul called for unity. Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose. It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity. Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better. The Christian life is about following Jesus. The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together. The Christian life is about the cross.
Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right. Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted. He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear. Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it. And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up. The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death. The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done. The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves. We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is. There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.
In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do. We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so. And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create. In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor. God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us. We don’t save the world—we can’t. Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.
In a truly Christian community, there is unity. Now, some people misunderstand what that means. Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements. Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living. Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye. In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being. We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.
What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities. The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world. All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ. The cross is who we are. The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth. That is where Christian unity comes from. Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ. Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second. Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it. There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ. There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized. There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world. In him we live, and move, and have our being. In him is the power of God to transform us and the world. Thanks be to God.