January 16, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
We’ve come to call it “the Holy Land.” From the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the country of Jordan in the east, from Syria in the north to the Sinai in the south, travel companies, tour groups, and tourists treat this piece of Middle Eastern real estate as a unity. It’s where Jesus walked and that’s what now makes it “holy.” It’s essentially one place with Jerusalem more or less as its center. That’s how we think of the Holy Land today, and this way of viewing that part of the world influences the way we and our congregations read the Bible.
It matters little to most folks precisely where this or that gospel event took place. One locale is as good as the next–it’s all the Holy Land, after all. Jericho or Jerusalem, Capernaum or Bethsaida: the places matter little compared to the presence of Jesus in those places. Unless we are actually in Israel on a tour group, we are typically interested in what Jesus said, not where he said it. In fact, if we preachers gave the average congregation a quiz on gospel geography, even those who are quite biblically literate would not do too well. “Where did Jesus meet Zacchaeus?” “Where was it that Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ?” Many folks, off the top of their heads, wouldn’t have a clue (and might not even be so sure it matters where these things happened).
But knowing such answers ought to be more useful than merely helping someone win a game of Bible Trivia. After all, geography is pretty important. We’re shaped by places. The philosopher José Ortega y Gassett once famously said, “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” Most of us sense the truth of that. As Kathleen Norris pointed out in her book Dakota, people who live on the prairies think differently than do city folks, mountain folks, or those who live on the sea. Place matters.
We may have a hard time describing just how and why that is, but all of us know that certain areas of the country carry certain associations. Just listen to the political pundits in an election year as they point to different parts of the map. Politicians tailor their messages for the sensibilities inherent in certain places.
The backlog of information and assumptions we have about different places shapes our reactions to certain events. For instance, if you knew of a well-known, gifted pastor who for years had preached in a very upscale congregation in Los Angeles, California, how would you react if one day you heard he’d taken a call to pastor a tiny church in Grand Forks, North Dakota? Well, you’d wonder about such a move. You’d maybe even prognosticate that this could be a difficult transition for the family (who might undergo what we refer to as “culture shock”).
Yet in the gospels we often forget all this. We shouldn’t, because in the stories of Jesus, place is important. And not just because Jesus, as a real human person, always had to be somewhere. But there is more theology involved in locale than we sometimes realize. Matthew 4 is a good example.
Hard on the heels of his baptism by John and his wilderness temptations, Jesus preachers his first sermon upon hearing that John has been arrested, and as he does so, Jesus picks right up where John left off. As Matthew reports it in 4:17, Jesus’ first sermon is a word-for-word repetition of John the Baptist’s sermon from Matthew 3:2. On one level it is good to see Jesus affirming the ministry of John, telling people what John told them: “Turn around, change your life: the kingdom of heaven is coming!” But that’s what John said. Shouldn’t Jesus be able to say something more? John said the kingdom of heaven was near. Well, with Jesus on the scene shouldn’t he be able to say, “It’s not just near it is now here!”? But no, Jesus echoes John: it’s near, so get ready.
That’s the first surprise about Jesus’ inaugural sermon: it’s just a knock-off of John the Baptist’s work. But the second surprise is even bigger: namely, the locale Jesus was in when he gave the sermon. No sooner does Jesus hear about John’s arrest and he high-tails it north some eighty miles to Galilee. Jesus then moves out of his backwater hometown of Nazareth and settles in at an equally out-of-the-way place called Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. In other words, Jesus has gone out into the sticks. Eighty miles may not sound like much to those of us accustomed to driving 70 miles an hour, but in a day when nothing moved faster than a donkey could plod, eighty miles was quite far indeed. Jesus has taken himself very far away from Jerusalem, from Judea, and from all things religious.
So surprising is this shift in geography that Matthew feels the need to bring in a prophetic heavyweight like Isaiah to re-assure his readers that this move makes some biblical sense after all. Matthew was right: Isaiah did associate God’s promised One with Galilee. But even those familiar with Isaiah did not necessarily think this is where the Messiah would begin his work! Maybe God could grandfather in the outlying regions once Jerusalem was taken care of, but to start out in the sticks?! It did not look like a logical choice.
It may not have been logical but it was theo-logical! The nearness of God’s great kingdom of shalom has already been announced in the vicinity of Jerusalem. So Jesus makes a point to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom also to others. Jesus has come to this world for the sake of this world–for all of it. There are no unimportant places. There are no places where the presence or preaching of Jesus would be “wasted.” Ultimately the whole world needs Jesus, and so Jesus begins by making a foray into the wider world.
Place matters. Every place. Every person in every place. Because in the end the “Holy Land” is not over in Israel: every place where the Spirit comes into a person’s heart is holy ground. Our goal should be to keep proclaiming and living out the kingdom until the knowledge of God covers the earth the way the waters cover the seas. For then it will indeed be true once more to say, “The earth is the Lord’s and all who live on it.”
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!” That is what Jesus says (cribbing from his cousin John) in Matthew 4:17. In his wonderful commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner paraphrases this, “Move, because here comes the whole new world of God!” The verb translated as “is near” is the same word Jesus uses later in Matthew when he sees Judas in Gethsemane and says, “Here comes my betrayer.” So when Jesus says in verse 17 that the kingdom of heaven “is near,” he means it’s marching straight toward you! If you’re crossing a street and see a garbage truck barreling down on you, you may well say, “Hey, look out! ” Jesus’ words have that same urgency. “Look out! Move! A whole new world is headed straight toward you!”
As Bruner says, every word of Jesus is nuclear. These words are urgent and the implications of this kingdom’s approach are immediate. If someone tells you to “Watch out!” when you’re crossing a street but then you just stand there, something is going to happen quite soon. Jesus’ point is the same: you cannot hear him tell you that the kingdom is approaching but then just stand there like a statue with your hands in your pockets. You need to repent, literally to turn around, so that you are ready to embrace this kingdom, so that you can hop onto the kingdom instead of getting crushed by it as it rolls over you.
If you are going to try to establish yourself as a public figure, you try to nudge your way into the limelight, not out of it. Today if you are an author and get the chance to plug your book by having Matt Lauer interview you on the Today show, you snap up the opportunity! If Oprah Winfrey wants to make your novel one of her Book Club titles, you are only too glad because every book Oprah puts onto her list appears on also the New York Times bestseller list soon thereafter. So what would we think of an author who turned down the Lauer interview and the Oprah Book Club offer in favor of driving over to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, to be interviewed by a reporter for the Broken Arrow Gazette? We’d say he was out-of-touch! That’s not how you sell a lot of books.
To the minds of his contemporaries, Jesus messed up, too, by giving up the potential spotlight of Jerusalem in favor of Capernaum way out in the backwaters of Palestine. Even Matthew feels the need to muster a biblical heavyweight like Isaiah to show that Jesus did not go wrong when he went north but instead Jesus went north to fulfill a prophecy. But the point is that it is only after Jesus had put a lot of miles between himself and Jerusalem that he announced the advent of the kingdom. Maybe it was Jesus’ way of saying that the kingdom of God is not tied down to a single location, and certainly it cannot be restricted to the spots on the map we deem important. The kingdom can come, and does come, most anywhere and everywhere.
Author: Doug Bratt
In the northern hemisphere this time of year is characterized, in part, by darkness. While daylight is already beginning to push that darkness farther and farther back, people sometimes think of January as one of the darkest and, as a result, bleakest seasons of the year.
That’s part of what makes Isaiah 9 an appropriate text for this Sunday. It too, after all, begins in darkness. It’s not just that the prophet speaks of the people who are “walking in darkness” (2). It’s also that God promises to plunge the Israelites into at least figurative darkness as a response to their spiritual adultery (8:19-20). In fact, the prophet speaks of darkness not once but four times in just four short verses (8:21-9:2).
When Isaiah speaks these words, it’s probably about the 9th century B.C. It’s a dark time for Judah. The gluttonous Assyrian Empire has already devoured the ten tribes of Israel and scattered its people. The surviving two tribes in Judah constantly fret that they’re the next course on Assyria’s menu. As a colleague notes, in the context of such a threat, even the daylight can feel like darkness.
Isaiah 9’s images of life in that darkness are chilling. They describe threat, oppression and violence. After all, the prophet speaks of life in darkness as “living in the land of the shadow of death” (2). He also refers to “the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” (4). What’s more, Isaiah mentions a “warrior’s boot used in battle [and a] … garment rolled in blood” (5).
This gives those who preach or teach Isaiah 9 an opportunity to explore how such images also characterize life in the 21st century. They might describe some of the tyrants and oppressive governments that make so many people so miserable. This text’s teachers and preachers might refer to the violence that plagued North American cities like Chicago in 2016.
Yet as Craig Barnes notes, darkness plagues even the middle and upper class people whom we teach and preach to. Darkness, he says, “Is what our newspapers describe. It is what the lab report depicts when it finds a disease in our body. Darkness is what many young adults feel about their economic prospects, and it is what remains in our hearts after we have been hurt.”
We do what we can to try to chase the darkness away. We elect new politicians and send soldiers to chase despots off their thrones. We hire more policemen and build larger prisons to try control the violence that stalks our neighborhood. But, to riff on a cliché, we have seen the darkness … and it is ours. We do what we can to scatter it. Yet many of us have a growing sense that only someone or something outside of ourselves will finally be able to chase away the gloom in which we live.
Thankfully, then, Isaiah speaks a word of dazzling light into Israel’s and every other darkness that has plagued our world. That word is largely a song of praise addressed to God by the prophet on behalf of God’s Israelite people. It thanks God for God’s gracious actions.
However, modern translators believe the prophet uses a curious combination of verb tenses to describe those actions. After all, some are in the past tense. For example, the prophet says, in verse 3, “You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy” (italics added). “You have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor” (4).
In other cases, however, translators believe Isaiah speaks in the present tense. For example: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given” (italics added – v.5). In still other cases the prophet seems to speak in the future tense, as in, “The government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor” (6).
Those who preach and teach Isaiah 9 should at least acknowledge this unusual mixture of verb tenses. Yet perhaps we need to say little more than biblical scholar Terrence Fretheim’s, Isaiah’s “confidence related to the future is grounded in the divine action of the past.”
The prophet introduces the agent of this change with a threefold use of the word “for” (vv. 4, 5 & 6 – although the NIV doesn’t translate that in v.4). God, he promises, will break the bonds that enslave people and transform the weaponry used in such oppression.
We might expect God to use a great warrior or mighty politician to effect this dramatic reversal. Yet the prophet makes no such claim. Instead he insists, “To us child is born.” Isaiah gives this young transformer a number of striking names: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (6).
So this Child is both a dispenser of wisdom about the best way to live in God’s world and someone who’s mighty enough to push away the darkness that engulfs so much of our world. This Child also both goes with us wherever we go and ushers in the peace for which we long but now seems so scarce.
But, as with Isaiah’s suffering servant, the exact identity of Isaiah 49’s child is not completely clear to the prophet’s 21st century audience. Many scholars point to the prophet’s extensive use of royal motifs. So they wonder if Isaiah 9 is some kind of ritual for the enthronement of Davidic kings.
Of course, prompted in no small part by George Frederic Handel’s brilliance, the organizers of the Lectionary seem to see Isaiah 9 as pointing to the birth and work of David’s descendant, Jesus. Neither they nor we seem deterred by the fact that the New Testament makes no use of Isaiah 9’s images, to say nothing of linking them to Jesus.
Perhaps our text’s preachers and teachers can land in this debate somewhere near Terrence Fretheim lands. He suggests that in light of the ongoing failure of David’s descendants to rule Israel well, Isaiah is probably speaking of a coming king.
Hezekiah, whom some scholars think of Isaiah’s primary referent, provides an appetizer of this coming king in ways none of David’s other royal descendants did. However, Jesus Christ most fully fills the roles the prophet assigns in verses 4-9.
Yet perhaps, as with the debate about the suffering servant’s identity, Isaiah 9’s preachers and teachers are wisest when we focus on what God does and promises to do through this unidentified child instead of trying to identify him. Certainly there’s enough beauty and hope portrayed in this text to last those who present it for a very long time.
After all, Isaiah speaks of God bringing light into the varied darkness that plagues and haunts God’s whole creation. He describes the kind of joy that is part of the most appropriate response to God’s might work and works, yet sometimes is in such short supply even in God’s people.
The prophet describes the freedom from oppression that God promises to give through God’s mighty son. He also lays out a vision of peace for a world that’s so often soaked in blood. Isaiah even speaks of God’s instituting the kind of justice and righteousness that seems like an endangered specie in the 21st century.
That’s a vision that all of God’s adopted sons and daughters can get on board with. Yet it’s not just a promise of what God is determined to do in and for our world. It’s not just something the zeal of the Lord will carry out. It’s also a kind of job description for those whom the Spirit empowers to follow the Child who grew up to be not just our Savior, but also our Lord.
In Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Stephen Ambrose describes Lewis and Clark’s meetings with the chiefs of many Indian tribes. They always included in their presentations to the Indians a plea for peace among the various tribes. That idea that came from President Jefferson was that the Western territories would be far more appealing to white settlers and travelers if the Indians weren’t warring.
But there were problems in talking to Indians about peace. In what’s present-day North Dakota, the Hidatsa tribe, for example, apparently couldn’t grasp the concepts of “war” and “peace.” Their experience for years had been pretty straightforward. Periodically, their young braves would get restless. They were “spurred by their desire for glory and honor, which could be won only on raids, which always brought on revenge raids, in a regular cycle.”
So the white explorers who encouraged the Indians to pursue peace might as well have told them to stop the spring rain. After all, as one young brave asked, if they quit hostilities, what would the tribe do for chiefs? Since chiefs died every so often and needed to be replaced, they assumed the only way of selecting new chiefs was to see who were the bravest warriors.
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
Author: Stan Mast
It was Emily Dickinson who clearly enunciated one of the great principles of effective preaching: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Most everyone who hears your sermons already knows the truth. Thus, you’ll have to find a new way to tell it so they will listen to the “old, old story.” No, I didn’t say that we have to tell a new truth. Paul warned against such innovation in his fiery epistle to the Galatians. “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than the one you accepted, let him be eternally condemned (Galatians 1:9).” But we should add, “If anyone is preaching the blessed Gospel in a boring, humdrum way, let him turn in his preaching credentials.” So we need to work at telling the truth slant, at an angle, so that it can find its way into bored, distracted, defended minds and hearts.
I say all that to introduce the angle I’m suggesting for your sermon on Psalm 27. Once again the Lectionary slices and dices this Psalm, leaving out crucial parts for reasons beyond my understanding. I’m going to ignore those editorial choices and focus on the whole Psalm, because my angle on Psalm 27 comes from the second to the last verse (13), and particularly the word “see” that also occurs at crucial places throughout the Psalm. “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” I can’t see that goodness now; it’s too dark. But I am still confident, in spite of what goes bump in the night, that I will see God’s goodness in my life. There’s my angle– the image of seeing in the dark.
Have you ever noticed what happens when you are suddenly plunged into darkness? My favorite picture of that response comes from a Sunday night “in a deep and dark December.” People were exiting the sanctuary after a Service of Lessons and Carols, when suddenly all the lights in the building went out and it became pitch dark. Everyone stopped in their tracks, put out their hands in front of them, and began to walk very tentatively, shuffling through the halls, feeling their way to their coats and the doors. I know, because I was bumping along with them. It’s hard to walk confidently in the dark. Indeed, it’s dangerous. That’s what your sermon on this text could focus on—what you need to do to be able to say, “I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
There is a great tension in this Psalm. Perhaps dichotomy is a better word. It is composed of two entirely different stanzas. The first one is a magnificent confession of unshakeable trust in God. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear….” The other part is a fearful prayer of lament. “Do not hide your face from me….” So great is the contrast between these two parts that a number of scholars say we have to separate poems artificially joined here. Verses 1-6 are a Psalm of light, while verses 7-14 are a Psalm of darkness.
That may be, but I think a literary explanation of the tension misses a deeper spiritual explanation. Isn’t it true that our lives are often filled with exactly the tension expressed here, a tension so powerful that we feel divided, almost like two different people. Sometimes we are so confident of God’s love and care that we are just as bold and strong and courageous as the Psalmist in verses 1-6. Other times we are so enveloped by the darkness of life that we are simply overwhelmed by its troubles, and we fear that God has turned against us. Then we say things like verses 7-14. The Christian life can be incredibly bright when the Lord turns his face toward us and unspeakably dark when we enter the “dark night of the soul.” Isn’t that your experience?
Here’s the question: how in the world can we have the confidence of verses 1-6 when we are walking in the darkness of verses 7-14, so that we can say verses 13-14. Here’s the answer: it all depends on what we look at.
The source of the darkness in verses 7-14 is enemies. Over and over David talks about them. His life was full of them, from his dismissive older brothers and that insulting giant to lions and bears attacking his flock of sheep to Saul and the Philistines to his own children and his own sinful nature. As I pondered that reality in David’s life, my first thought was that most of us don’t have lives full of enemies. We don’t live in a war torn land as David did. We don’t face the attacks of wild animals. We don’t have powerful people trying to put us out of business and, indeed, out of the picture entirely.
But then I realized that many Christians do have enemies, and I don’t just mean Christians being physically persecuted all over the world from India to Indonesia to Iraq. I mean that many members of your congregation know about enemies all too well—bullies at school, abusive spouses, competitors at work, opponents in church disputes, not to mention the spiritual forces of wickedness who always lurk behind the scenes of every human conflict (Ephesians 6:10-20). Enemies can make the Christian life very dark indeed.
That is especially true when we allow ourselves to focus on them. That’s what makes the difference in Psalm 27. When the Psalmist focuses on the Lord as his light, he fears no one. He is bold, courageous, and confident. He holds his head high and strides through the night. But when he allows himself to focus on his enemies, his faith wavers and the darkness comes crowding in. He can’t see God’ face any more, and he feels overwhelmed by everyone, even God.
So the question is, what can we do to keep our eyes off our enemies, or whatever else makes the Christian life dark and frightening? We can do what the Psalmist’s heart told him to do in verse 8. “Seek his face!” Rather than focusing on the faces of his enemies, he seeks the face of God. That’s what we have to do in order to see in the dark.
But what does that mean, in practical terms? Verse 4 tells us. “One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” Let’s unpack that. “One thing I ask, this is what I seek … to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….” “One thing….” That’s a key—a single minded focus. One of the reasons we don’t walk as confidently as David, indeed, can’t, is that our eyes dart everywhere. Our desires reach out in so many directions. We seek so many things. And the result is that we end up seeing a lot more darkness than God. We must single-mindedly seek God’s face.
That is, says David, we must “gaze upon his beauty….” The word “gaze” refers to a clinging, lingering look, as though our eyes are chained to God. David is talking about a visual feasting on the beauty of God. The beauty of God is his grace, his love, and faithfulness, and strength, and compassion—everything summed up in that word in verse 13, “I will see the goodness of the Lord….” The secret of seeing in the dark is fixing your mind on the task of gazing on the goodness of the Lord, rather than on the badness of the darkness.
Again, what does that mean practically? How in the world can we see God’s goodness? Where can we possibly see God, who is invisible? Well, says David, “in God’s house, in his temple.” David meant that literally, because in those days God’s glory, represented by that great shining cloud called the Shekinah, hung in the house of God between the cherubim in the Holy of Holies. David knew there was a place where the glory of God was located. And though he couldn’t personally enter that place, he could get close. In the tabernacle designed and built according to God’s explicit directions, he could be surrounded by all the symbols of God’s glory. Even when he was away from Jerusalem, he knew it was there. The Psalms are filled with his yearning to return to Jerusalem so that he could gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and seek his face in God’s house. So the secret of seeing in the dark is going to the place where we can see the beautiful glory of God.
That sort of leave us out in the dark, doesn’t it, since we don’t have such a building. Well, no, it doesn’t leave us in the dark, because we have something better than a place. We have a person who said that he was greater than the Temple (Matt. 12:6). Indeed, when John 1:14 says that “the Word became flesh,” it literally says that the Word “tabernacled” among us. That’s the very word that described God’s house in the Old Testament. God’s new temple is Jesus Christ. And says John 1:15, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” What the blind man said in John 9 is true for everyone who knows Jesus as Lord. “One thing I know. I was blind, but now I can see.” We can see even in the dark, for, as Jesus said in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
That’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it? The imagery of Jesus’ words is a direct fulfillment of Psalm 27. Yet we who are Christians do walk in darkness at times. How can it be that we who have the Light of the World in our lives still know times of darkness? We find the answer here in Psalm 27. It’s because we don’t keep our eyes on the Light. We don’t single-mindedly seek the face of God in Jesus Christ.
Or to put it in Jesus’ own words, “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness….” “Whoever follows…,” but if we stop following, if we take our eyes off Jesus and begin looking around at the darkness, we’ll lose our sight of him and see only the darkness. To regain our sight, to see in the dark, to walk in confidence even in dark times, we must turn our eyes on Jesus.
One of those sentimental old hymns that I love so much puts it this way. “Oh soul, are you weary and troubled? No light in the darkness you see? There’s a light for a look at the Savior and life more abundant and free. So turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
Of course, it’s not as easy as the hymn makes it sound. But it is possible, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the lens of the Holy Scripture, in the company of the Holy Catholic Church to turn your eyes upon Jesus. Gaze upon the beauty of the Savior and you will see in the dark. Then you can say with David, “I am confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. So wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”
Speaking of the lens of Scripture, I’ve been fascinated recently by all the TV ads for those virtual reality goggles. I’ve never put them on, but apparently it’s quite an experience. Put on a pair and you are introduced to a virtual reality that is overwhelming. People gasp and cry out in delight as they see things they couldn’t see before. Those things that aren’t really there, but they seem so real that it’s like being in another world. Or so I am told.
When we put on the lens of Scripture, we don’t see virtual reality. We see a reality we couldn’t see before, but a reality that is really there, a higher and deeper and wider reality than we could ever have imagined—the reality of God’s love in Christ (cf. Ephesians 3:14-21). When we are enveloped by darkness so overwhelming that it seems like the only reality there is, we must put on the goggles of Scripture. Then the light of his glory and grace will come shining through.
I’ll end with a story from Annie Dillard who was seeking a place where her spiritual hunger could be satisfied. I share this because of her reference to the dark night of the soul. I’m not sure you can use it in your sermon on Psalm 27, but you can enjoy it or perhaps be provoked by it. In her search she visited a Catholic church. “The Catholic church at least proved more innovative. On one occasion, parishioners partook of sacred Mass to the piano accompaniment of tunes from ‘The Sound of Music.’ Dillard sighs, ‘I would rather, I think, undergo the famous dark night of the soul than encounter in church the hootenanny.’ She adds, ‘In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.’” (from “Books and Culture”)
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the previous sermon starter on the first 9 verses of 1 Corinthians 1, I riffed on Tom Long’s suggestion that Paul wrote those opening verses with tongue firmly embedded in cheek. He praises the Corinthians for the very things Paul knows full well they were in deep trouble over. He names as would-be compliments the core of the arguments that were threatening to tear the tiny congregation to pieces. Paul uses a little irony, a little sarcasm, a little humor to set the agenda for this letter and perhaps to shame the Corinthians for their small multitude of problems.
But now as we get down to verse 10, Paul stops poking the Corinthians gently in the ribs and instead rolls up his sleeves and gets down to brass tacks. “OK, enough of the sarcasm” Paul as good as writes, “let’s be honest here: I know full well that you are getting divided as a congregation seven ways to Sunday!” Paul knows that rival factions are cropping up and he knows that each group is claiming a different person as their leader and champion.
“We take our cues from Apollos” some were shouting. “Oh yeah,” others shot back, “well no less than the Apostle Paul is our guy!” “Ha!” yet a third faction retorts, “Peter has been around longer than either one and he is the leader of our band!”
Who knows exactly how this state of affairs came about or what motivated the Corinthians to seek varying leaders. For his part, Paul makes it clear that their unity is to be found in the Savior who died for them and that Paul himself, Peter, Apollos, or anyone else you could name come under his Lordship. Unity is found in Christ alone and in the work he accomplished on the cross.
But then Paul seems to ramble a bit. He mentions that they were baptized not into the name of Paul but of Christ. And since there seemed to be some confusion in Corinth as to the value of various human leaders, Paul says he is glad he did not baptize too many people lest they put their faith in the one who did the baptism as opposed to the Lord into whom they were baptized. But then Paul seems to be a bit forgetful—it’s nearly humorous—as to who all he did baptize. A couple more come to mind but Paul’s not 100% sure even that accounts for everybody.
Well, I guess if you are in ministry long enough, you do forget who all you baptized. “Did I baptize you?” I have had to ask college-age kids when I run into them somewhere. I don’t always remember right off the top of my head either so we can give Paul a break here! The main point, however, is that who did the baptizing is completely unimportant. Only Jesus matters, only his work on the cross matters. And preaching that message is even more important than baptizing folks. Paul goes so far as to say no one ever per se commissioned him to baptize anybody but Jesus had been VERY clear that preaching the Gospel was Paul’s #1 job.
I guess we could point out that there is no necessary disparity between those two things. If you preach the Gospel effectively, people will convert and will then need to get baptized. So these are definitely not mutually exclusive categories here. But Paul puts it the way he does because he’s winding up for his first big piece of teaching about the meaning of Christ’s cross (and that comes up in next week’s Lectionary selection).
If we stay within the confines of this particular reading, what we can talk about as preachers is that the Corinthian tendency to lose sight of the main thing did not exactly end with the Corinthians 2,000 years ago. How easy it is in the church also yet today to be distracted from the primary things involving Jesus and his cross. Oh, maybe we don’t claim a single leader as our faction’s champion in just the ways the Corinthians were doing but there are other ways to accomplish the same thing. If we come to think that ONLY our own denomination matters and has a corner on truth in a way no other communion or tradition does, we start to shift our focus from Jesus alone.
If we come to think that our congregation is more important than others because it’s so much bigger, more successful than others—that our video production values outstrip that pathetic little church on the other corner and so naturally people flock to our church—we lose sight of Jesus alone. Or when in our congregations we make the quality of our music the be-all and end-all of worship and our spiritual life together . . . or when we make the excellence of our education program the primary thing we focus on week to week . . . or when we pride ourselves on being so much more socially engaged than so many other congregations . . . or when we ________, well, fill in the blank. There are 1,000 ways to distract from the power of Christ and of his cross and so drain the Gospel of its true source of power.
When we read 1 Corinthians 1 and hear Paul report that Christians in Corinth were saying “I follow Peter! I follow Apollos!” it’s easy to shake our heads. “Goodness, that is so OBVIOUSLY wrong,” we want to say. But to others from the outside looking in, might it not sound just as obviously wrong to hear people say “I follow Luther! I follow Calvin! I follow Pope Francis! I am Reformed! I am Anglican! I am Catholic! I am Baptist! I am high church! I am low church! I am Pentecostal! I am ____” Again, fill in the blank. Is any of this really so different or so less obviously problematic than the Corinthians’ claiming Paul, Peter, Apollos?
It is worth pondering. It is worth wondering about out loud from the pulpit. All these things tear at our larger unity as the Body of Christ. All of these things cause ugly arguments to erupt that detract from the beauty of the Gospel. No, for the foreseeable future we will not be finished with identifying ourselves as Baptist or Reformed, as Calvinist or as Lutheran. But even as Apollos, Peter, and Paul were all under Christ, so we are all still under Christ now and the larger unity we have on Gospel essentials needs always to be more important than the outward demarcations among us that can so easily come to dominate everything we associate with being a Christian.
As we will see next week, if you believe in the outrageous message of the cross, then whether you are Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican or whatever matters far less than the fact that you share with believers everywhere the gift of faith that alone lets you embrace such a radical, paradoxical message like the Gospel. That very simply is the most important thing in the world.
We do well to rehearse that fact as often as we can when we gather for worship.
Theologian Robert Jenson once made a curious point. Jenson said that in history, the Christian Church has, of course, found itself in a host of very different cultures, times, and places. As we are now in the early stages of this third millennium A.D., we know that our modern world looks and feels vastly different from the world that existed even a century or two ago, let alone a thousand years ago. Our easy use of miracles like the telephone and computer, our understanding of planet Earth’s place in the larger scheme of outer space, our familiarity with cars and jets–all of this makes us very different from most of the people who ever lived.
Even so, Jenson observed, when it comes to the basic beliefs of the Christian faith, we ought to have more in common with someone like the apostle Paul from long ago than with non-Christians alive right now. If third-century Christians could see a modern church sanctuary, they would likely be stunned. But no matter how agog such folks would be to see electric lights or to hear a pipe organ, even still, if they could somehow across the centuries listen in on our worship, then we could only pray that the message that they would hear from us in the year 2017 would be the same gospel they heard back in the year 217. If it were not, if we had allowed the modern world to alter our Christian proclamation and beliefs, then we could not properly claim to belong to the true Church. No matter how bizarre the setting of the modern world would be to Christians from the distant past, the message that gets proclaimed should still be so true to the Bible, that any Christian from any time or place would be able to hear what we say and respond, “Yup! That’s my hope, too! That’s still the same gospel message of God’s love that changed my whole life so long ago!”
Long ago in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the world began again. History changed because of Jesus. One of the things that changed is that a new group known as the Church appeared on the scene as the gathering of all those who know and love Jesus as Lord. It’s a wonderful thing to know that we are part of a holy community that is now about 2,000 years old, that spans the globe, and that includes so many untold millions of people, each of whom truly is a spiritual brother or sister. But how easy it is to forget the larger unity we share with people from long ago, from far away, from different settings even right now in this present world.