Tuesday, January 25

Sermon - Third Sunday After Epiphany

Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

I was in college. I remember that it was cold. It was an Easter sunrise service. It was a rare thing for it to be cold. The Baptist Student Union was having its service out in the gazebo on the lake. Cold weather is a rare thing at Easter. It must have been early that year. Usually the azaleas are out, the dogwood are in bloom. Easter is a glorious time.

I remember that I was sitting, looking at the water...And then I had a vision. In the vision was a light. It was undulating like some living thing, a giant amoeba. It was surrounded by darkness, the kind of darkness that is limitless. The light could not penetrate it...or so it seemed. Tendrels of light reached out and at the end of each tendrels was a person, each in their own way was making their own way toward the light, being led out of darkness and into the light's embrace.

And so I sat there wondering why we are Baptist. I wondered why we made the distinction. Others were celebrating Easter and we had divided ourselves, separated ourselves. It made no sense to stand alone or segregated into our little tradition when we are all on the same journey.

I share this with you so you will all understand a little better why I am so passionate about the ecumenical vision of our congregation. Today's readings reminded me of this vision.

The Corinthians passage always makes me laugh. What is Paul talking about? Did he baptize those people or not? It is like Paul is showing his age or something. He wearily goes off on some tangent about who he might or might not have baptized. He sounds confused. A couple of the commentators I read preparing for this sermon suggest that Paul is so flustered by the situation at the church in Corinth that he is incapable of remembering who he baptized. He’s just that mad.

When I read this passage, I can almost hear him saying "I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else...but that's bedside the point. Gosh. What was I talking about? Boy, you people! You see... Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and, apparently, 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."

It is not a great leap in a congregation like ours when we are already thinking about ecumenism to think that Cephas, and Apollos or even Paul himself could be John Calvin or Martin Luther or any number of Baptists…the list could go on and on. It should be an easy leap to hear "denominationalism" or "factionalism" when we are presented with the troubles at Corinth. Like the church then, the church today is divided.

And in response to that disunity. Paul suggests a means for unity. He recognizes the disunity. He understands how it happens. Paul recognizes the temptation to turn our faith into a club or an association of some kind where we are concerned about allegiances to a patron (Cephas, Apollos or even Paul himself) or an allegiance to an institution above all else.

For Paul, the means for unity in the church is the cross. It is through foolishness, through humble submission to Christ that we can achieve unity. In chapter three of the letter to the Corinthians Paul sums it all up for me. "21So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God."

I believe that this is the attitude that we attempt to live into here at Reconciler. It is not that Paul is suggesting we ignore Cephas or Apollos or, heaven forbid (!), Paul himself. Oh no. Paul has too much more to say to all involved to care to be ignored. But he does tell us whose we are, and, in the end, to whom we belong.

The discipline I am learning is to not brag about being Baptist, to not insist that being Baptist is the best and only way to be Christian. Or even the only way I can be Christian. I am having to reshape my thinking. It may be that, though I am Baptist, and I express a certain loyalty to being Baptist, the fundamental reality is that the church is about Christ. Paul says that the church is Christ. I cannot proclaim Baptist identity, as precious as it might be, as if it were a substitution for being Christian.

This has been my work as a pastor in this ecumenical congregation. To bring about unity, to bring about reconciliation, I have had to sacrifice some of my identity as a Baptist in order to claim my identity as a Christian. Perhaps this is not your stumbling block, but it has been mine. I must confess that this was a revelation of sorts to me. I realize now that I have spent far too much time arguing and debating. I cannot tell you how many times I said in seminary "But as a Baptist…" It has been hard to learn to speak about Jesus and not about being Baptist.

In ecumenical work, this, I believe, is the task we must all take on as our own. The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity says it better than I can:
If the ecumenical project of modern Christianity is to move forward. Unity will require our churches not only to renounce the selfishness and insularity that we all dislike and easily see as sinful. It will also require our churches to embrace a spiritual poverty that has the courage to forego genuine riches of a tradition for the sake of a more comprehensive unity in the truth of the gospel. [The disciplines of unity are penitential. As St. Paul teaches, for the sake of unity, we must be willing to suspend gospel freedom and conform to the limitations of the weak. This process will be ascetical; it will necessarily involve that sacrifice of real but limited goods for the sake of the greater good.]
Like Christ, we must lay down our own lives, our institutional lives in order to serve one another and to bring unity, a real and present unity.

The fruits of this discipline have been numberless. This humility and self-giving has been nurturing to us all here at Reconciler. Through what may appear foolish, worship life is enriched, deepened, by our willingness to let go of our particular (and perhaps peculiar) identities and seek that which is of Christ and one another as members of Christ’s body. It is not as if Paul and Cephas and Apollos are going anywhere. They too are members of the one body. The riches of our traditions are embraced by Christ himself. Now they do not serve as stumbling blocks but as stepping stones. Now they are gifts to one another for the sake of our shared salvation through the cross. This is good news!

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
God has multiplied the nation,
God has increased its joy.
Rejoice before God as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of our burden, and the bar across our shoulders, the rod of our oppressor, has been broken as on the day of Midian.

That light that shines is the light of Christ.

That light shines into the dark places of the world.
That lights shines into places of disunity
That light shines into places of oppression.
That light shines into denominational offices.
That light shines into regional offices, diocese and conferences warming hearts and enlivening minds.
That light shines into this congregation.
That light shines into our homes.
That light shines into our hearts long made hard by fear and distrust.

Disunity cannot stand. Have hope in the cross. Have hope in the way of Jesus. Let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Aquinas or Luther or Calvin or Bonhoeffer or Fiorenza or Barth or King or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

No church is a utopia. No denomination is either. No home, no family…strife exists. But we, we who follow Christ know how to meet strife and disunity. Humility and self-giving are God’s gifts to us so that we may be Christ to one another, in our homes, in this place and in all the world.

May God grant us peace and unity now and always.