Sermon February 27, 2011
8th Sunday after Epiphany
For the last few weeks we’ve been hearing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where he tries to help his brothers and sisters in Christ hold together despite a deep and growing rift in their community.
In fact, the schism in his church has become so intense that in today’s reading Paul addresses the topic of being judged by the members of his church:
But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.
(1 Cor 4:3-4)
Kinda makes you wonder: what the heck did Paul do to get everyone so mad at him?
When Paul arrived in Corinth, probably around 52 AD, he found one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Roman Empire; a city placed right in the middle of the global trade routes between Europe and Asia and so a city teeming with commerce.
And because it was in the middle of this global crossroads, Corinth was incredibly diverse. There was an enormous variety of ethnicities: Romans, Greeks, Asians, Jews; and it had a stunning religious diversity too: followers of every sort of cult, from worshipers of Apollo and Aphrodite and all the other Graeco-Roman gods, to devotees of the Egyptian gods like Isis. Poseidon was a very popular god there, thanks to the town’s shipping and fishing industries. Shrines for these different gods lined the streets of the city, populated the harbors and ran along the roads leading to and from town.
Then along comes Paul, who for the first time in human history tries to build a religious community that embraces everyone, Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, rich and poor. We have to remember how unheard of this was, this attempt to have all these different people from all over the world speaking the same language of the Spirit.
As far as we know, this is one of the first efforts at “finding unity in diversity” ever made.
It’s not surprising, then, that divisions and conflicts would have erupted. Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half and by the end of that time he had developed a solid, thriving Christian community. He planted the seeds; and this other guy, Apollos, stayed to water the seeds. And then, because they were still infants in Christ, the people started choosing sides – I’m for Paul; or I’m for Apollos.
Factions developed; whatever minor differences there were between them were exploited and exaggerated; people were made to choose sides and before long the community was in danger of splitting.
That’s why Paul was hearing about all kinds of judgments being made against him – nasty rumors, lies, and innuendo spread by people who just couldn’t resist the temptation of spreading the latest dirt, whether it had any basis in truth or not – not out of malice, of course, but, well, they were just so engaged and passionate and mad!
In the previous chapter, Paul addresses this conflict head on:
For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Cor 3:3-7)
In other words, Paul is saying to those who were splitting the community, You seem to be under the delusion that you are in charge. But none of us are in charge – it is Christ who lives in us who is in charge.
Now, on one level, this is one of those things that we hear all the time from the pulpit – yeah yeah, Christ is the head of the church, we’ve heard it before – but what Paul is saying is not just that Christ is the head of the church but that Christ is the head of each of us – each of us, individually. The unity or disunity of our church begins and ends with the unity or disunity within our own souls. Paul is not just talking about how a community works – he’s talking about how each of us work – about what’s going on at the level of our minds and hearts and souls.
We can’t begin to understand what Paul is saying about the unity of the church until we first come to understand this unity with the divine that exists within ourselves – that’s the first and most important question.
One of the great scholars of Paul’s letters puts this in modern terms by calling it “the egocentric delusion” – this delusion that we all carry within us that makes us think we are our own masters. This delusion that comes from the very structure of our minds; because we have this gift of self-consciousness; we can hear ourselves think; we watch ourselves making decisions and exercising choices and having preferences for this thing or that person and it all combines to make us feel like we are in charge of ourselves.
But we’re not - when we're living in Christ.
Consider, for example, the simple question, “Who am I?” Ask yourself that. “You are you?” And of course the answer seems obvious: “I’m me! I’m Joe Jones; I live in a little blue house at 4th and Elm; I’m the son of George Jones and Sally Smith; I love the Giants and the Raiders and my favorite color is blue. What? That’s who I am.”
That kind of answer is what Paul is talking about when he says in today’s reading that the Corinthians are being “merely human.” They are accepting who they are on face value. As one writer puts it, “They are living for themselves; seeking their own pleasures, regarding others as a means of satisfying their own desires.”
“You going to watch the Oscars tonight? What you cooking for dinner? I’m thinking of making a stew. I like stew. Can I borrow some potatoes? Yeah, I’m thinking of using Cindy’s recipe – do you like that? Did you see her hair today? I really think she’s dying it.”
And so it goes, on and on, this incessant chattering monkey mind, day in and day out... until we keel over dead.
What Paul is saying is that the people in Corinth hadn’t yet figured out the depth of who they are – that God lives in them. The Spirit of God – moving beneath the surface of their consciousness, flowing into them like an eternal stream – that Spirit – the same Spirit that searches out the very mind of God – that Spirit is alive in us.
And if that Spirit is alive in us, then it is impossible not to submit to it.
As Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “No one can serve two masters.”
And that changes everything.
In fact it changes things so radically that the question is no longer, “Who are you,” rather it becomes “What are you?” Which is how Paul puts the question: “What is Apollos?” he asks; “What is Paul?”
What are you, then?
Either you’re a servant of that Spirit of God, living inside you, or you’re dead already and you don’t even know it. Either you are rising to new life in Christ or you’re just marking time until the grave comes.
And if you’re a servant of that Spirit, if Christ is living in you and you’re living for Christ, you are no longer in charge.
And when these Spirit-filled people come together to worship their God, the Spirit speaks through them and moves among them and all of their divisions and all of their petty cultural differences fall away because they have joined the household of God.
Which is why, in today’s reading, Paul says we are “stewards of God’s mysteries.”
The stewards are put in charge of managing the estate – they are not the owner themselves. The work we do on behalf of God does not belong to us.
This church does not belong to us. The pew that you’re sitting on is not “your pew.” The fact that any of us even exist is utterly and entirely an expression of the glory of God.
To those who are judging him, then, Paul says, “We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.”
In human terms, Paul says, this is nothing but foolishness. In fact, by the world’s standards, by the standards of all those who would judge him or Apollos, they have become “a spectacle to the world.” A laughingstock; an object of contempt and ridicule. Yes, Paul says, “We are fools for the sake of Christ.”
It’s this foolishness in Christ – this complete submission to the Spirit of God living within him – that gives Paul, then, the ability to endure the judgments laid against him:
When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly.
This is the same unity with the Spirit of God that inspired Jesus, in last week’s gospel, to say, “You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
It’s important to understand this: Paul’s advice to them was not just “play nice.” He didn’t say, “C’mon everyone, can’t we all just get along?” Instead, he challenged them to look more deeply into who they were, or more accurately, into what they were serving. By pitting Paul against Apollos, they were that they were still infants; still acting like children; and they had a lot of growing up to do.
It wasn’t Paul that changed their lives, it was God, working through Paul; it wasn’t Apollos whose spirit rang through them when he prayed with them, it was God, working through Apollos.
My prayer for us, as we all grow up in Christ, is that we will focus ever more deeply on the source of our joy. It is not me; it is not Melissa or Carol; it is not Harold or Leslie; it is not the organ; it is not this building; it is not this prayer book; it is not this hymnal. Tomorrow, in the blink of an eye, all this can be gone.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
I say this to you in the name of the one who lives and moves and has its being within us, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.