By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:20-31
The subject of “call” has been a recurrent theme in my sermons in recent weeks. We previously looked at two gospel stories about the call of Jesus’ disciples. But this Sunday we look at the topic of “call” from a different perspective as we examine call beyond that original circle of Jesus’ followers and consider what it looks like lived out in the context of a local congregation. We move beyond the experience of learning directly from an incarnate Jesus to the experience of a Christian community discerning and struggling as followers of a Jesus they can no longer see. In other words, this is a sermon about what it means to be a Church.
Now, most people like to be comfortable in their church. We often speak, quite appropriately, of church as “family,” a metaphor emphasized in New Testament scripture. However, whereas in the nuclear family, we all accept that proverbial “crazy uncle,” we are often not so indulgent in our church families. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said decades ago "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning…" or 10:00 or 10:30. Concern over this persisting reality led to a 2014 survey conducted by Life Way Research in which church members were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: “My church needs to become more ethnically diverse,” 53 percent of respondents disagreed — and 33 percent strongly so.[i] So, not only is homogeneity a reality for the church. It is, apparently, a preferred reality. And it goes well beyond race and ethnicity. With a few exceptions, the vast majority of members in the vast majority of churches in America share commonalities with regards to social status, education level, income, and even political perspectives. And, psychologically, that makes sense. If I desire church to be a comfortable experience for me, I will seek out those with whom I share much in common. After all, diversity leads to differences and differences can lead to conflict and conflict makes most of us very uncomfortable. But alas, if we take our scripture seriously, church is not a place of comfort and commonality. It is a place of differences; and the natural “butting of heads” that result from such differences is not something to be avoided; it is something to be acknowledged and wrestled with in a healthy, open way.
In the time of the apostle Paul, Corinth, Greece was an amazing city. It was a cosmopolitan city. Sinatra’s tribute to New York, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” may well have applied to first century Corinth. It was populated, primarily, by freed slaves and military veterans, as well as a number of artisans. It would have had very few Roman aristocrats and so it was a city offering the unique opportunity for upward mobility, a concept generally scorned in the ancient world where status was usually considered to be fixed at birth. And, quite understandably, because status could change in ancient Corinth, its residents were particularly fixated on it. People were judged and engaged with in a variety of ways depending upon where they fell in the social pecking order.
According to You Tube, the best known scene from the 1990 film, “Pretty Woman” starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere is the shopping scene. In the film, Gere plays a corporate executive who falls in love with a prostitute, played by Julia Roberts. She has never experienced anything like the world Gere’s character lives in. He gives her his credit card to go shopping. Still dressed in her “working clothes,” shall we say, she first enters the renowned Beverly Hills boutique, Boulmiche. The owners look askance. When Roberts’ character inquires about the price of a dress, they inform her that she can’t afford it and that she’s in the wrong place and they ask her, quite briskly, to leave. Roberts has better success reinventing her wardrobe at other shops and so she returns to Boulmiche the next day dressed in a lovely, modest white dress and black hat. She finds the sales person who’d snubbed her the day before. Pointing out that she is the woman the sales person had refused to help. She inquires, “You work on commission, right?” Then, holding up both arms weighed down with shopping bags she says, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
As human creatures, we often use prejudicial criteria to determine who does and doesn’t belong. The challenges of diversity within the Corinthian congregation kept the apostle Paul busy. It seems he was continually addressing a variety of concerns that stemmed from their differences; but Paul doesn’t shy away from addressing them. Paul also makes clear that what matters most is what they hold in common: a newfound identity through Jesus. Their identity in Jesus is not based on anything they’ve achieved or accomplished for themselves; rather, it springs from their ability to trust entirely in what God did on their behalf through Jesus. Although some Corinthian church members now occupy the upper class, Paul reminds them that most didn’t start out that way. And, even for those who did, it gives them no advantage over their lower class brothers and sisters. In fact, Paul writes, God shows a preference for the lower-class. Just remember, Paul points out, how their relationship with God began. They are who they are because Jesus willingly went to the cross. He is their hero, their example, their Savior – someone condemned and humiliated through the most brutal form of capital punishment available in the first century world. Today, crosses are revered religious symbols; they’ve even become works of art. In our modern world, they have adorned everyone from the Pope to Madonna. But there was nothing beautiful or reverent about a cross in the ancient world. It was associated with pain, suffering and humiliation. Yet God transformed it into an instrument of salvation. An instrument of torture became a bold demonstration of God’s grace.
There’s nothing sensible about it. Such a scenario is offensive to Jews and deemed foolish by those of Gentile descent. Yet, through that instrument of torture, they were given what is now their primary identifier: Christian. That’s who they are; not rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, artist or war veteran, male or female. Christian; that’s it, pure and simple; recipients of a grace that burst forth from the most hideous of circumstances. Bible scholar Ben Witherington writes: It is grace that undercuts all factors that promote factionalism. “Grace is not only the great unifier but also the great leveler in the Christian community.”[ii] Grace, the great leveler; what we were at the time God called us into this church family doesn’t matter at all; not one iota. Even now, there is only one description, one identifier that counts: Christian.
Friends, right now here in our own country and in many places around the world, people are drawing boundary lines, dividing lines, to determine who is in and who is out; who is of greatest value and who is unworthy. But the voice of the apostle can remind us also that the world’s categories have no place in the church. That is not a political statement; but a theological statement. Friends: Jesus was a Jewish messiah which means that – unless you’re of Jewish ancestry – God through Christ let you into an organization where you didn’t belong. But in Jesus, the dividing lines came tumbling down.
In what we deem Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he writes that we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. Though it at times may make us uncomfortable, the Church is called to be a place that never separates or divides by the wider culture’s categories. We are one in Christ Jesus and our call is to take that message to others; especially those who are vulnerable and those who make us uncomfortable.
And friends, Paul’s words to the Corinthians are important words for us to hear because the Centennial neighborhood is a Corinth, of sorts. Within this neighborhood, we have new and expensive condos being built and purchased by Purdue professors and area business leaders. We have historic homes that have been purchased and carefully rehabbed to reflect their original glory. But we also have many properties in decay. We have lots of rental properties. Some are inhabited by low-income, single-parent families (especially single dads) who struggle just to keep the roof over their children’s heads. We have here in our neighborhood graduate and Ph.D. students, whose long-hours mean that, this time of the year, they rarely see the sun rise and set on this side of the river. We have the homeless who line up outside LUM’s shelter at nightfall for a warm, safe place to sleep and we have a house full of women nearby who have fled domestic abuse. I would guess that the Centennial neighborhood might just be the most diverse neighborhood in the Lafayette area. And those various groups I’ve named seldom intermingle. So we have a remarkable opportunity to become the same kind of socially and economically diverse faith community Paul founded in Corinth. What a remarkable and exciting call.
Two weeks from today, we’re going to get together after worship to eat lunch and participate in an event dubbed “Community Dream Day.” Amanda Atkins will share a little more about it during our announcement time this morning. But in a nutshell, it’s a day we’ve set aside to develop ideas for how we can reach beyond our walls into our neighborhood to share the love of Jesus and cultivate a deeper sense of community. That’s what our Vision Statement is all about: Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community. If we’re gonna name it, we gotta do it. It was a recommendation provided by our church consultant, Rev. Dan Bonner, way back in January, 2015. We’ve had some other work to do together with some staff transitions and challenges with our facilities. But, with the sale of our Education Building, we can retire our debt and free up resources to reach out beyond our walls. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for and I’m excited to be with you all here and now. What a ripe moment of opportunity for ministry.
But, it won’t be easy. If creating true Christian community in the midst of so much diversity were easy; well, we’d have a much shorter New Testament because the Apostle Paul spends a lot of time, uses up a lot of parchment, teaching and guiding the Corinthians along. Forging authentic community in the midst of diversity wasn’t easy back then in Corinth and it won’t be easy for us here today.
But friends, in a world, in a nation, that has become some divided and divisive, we can deliver the good news that, in Christ, there are no divisions. We are who we are not because of what we’ve achieved or accumulated through our own efforts. We are who we are because of what God did for us in Jesus. Such a profound grace makes us all equal in the eyes of God and that is a much needed, reconciling and healing message to bring to our neighborhood and to our world.
[ii] Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians by Ben Witherington III; Eerdmans Publishing; 1995; p. 118.
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