Sunday, May 04, 2008

Audio from Sunday, May 4

Sermon from Sunday, May 4

Based on 1 Cor. 6:1-8.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about the book of 1 Corinthians. We’ve been talking about it because of the similarities between the town of Corinth and Exton. This letter was written to the church in the ancient city of Corinth, which was a town where people were constantly moving in and out. It was located at the intersection of two major trade routes, and people would come in and live in Corinth for a few weeks or a few months, or a couple years, and they would conduct their business and then go back to their towns or on to the next town to conduct their business.
The result of all this was a community in constant flux. Just like if you were to ask somebody to define Exton, they’d say, “Um, I guess it’s where people go to shop,” there was not a real strong sense of community in Corinth. How could there be? Nobody stayed long enough to set down roots. Well, I shouldn’t say nobody—there were of course long term residents, but the majority of the people were in and out as they conducted their business.
And so the church too was in constant flux. People were in and out of the community and they were in and out of the church. We tend to think of that as a weakness of churches like ours, that people come and go so often; but the apostle Paul saw it as a strength. If the church could be strong in Corinth, then it would be strong all over the world, because people would take what they learned during their short time in Corinth and take it home with them.
So the book of 1 Corinthians is a letter from Paul to this church at the crossroads and we’ve been looking at it for some advice for our little church at the crossroads. We’ve talked about the need for a church at the crossroads to be spiritual, to look at the world with Jesus’ eyes and to think about the world in which we live with Jesus’ mind. Last week, then, we talked about the need for a church at the crossroads to be holy. By this we meant that a church at the crossroads has to be especially careful not to just blend in with the surrounding culture, but to be different. And those two ideas, the idea of looking at the world with Jesus’ eyes, and the idea of living a life distinct from the surrounding culture, I do want to keep before you and challenge you—does your life strengthen or weaken this church at the crossroads? As we are committed to these ideals, I believe we’re faithful to being the church at the crossroads that God wants us to be. If we are not committed to those things, I believe we will fall short of being that church at the crossroads that God will use to touch the world.
The text for this morning comes from the sixth chapter of the book. Paul has done a bit of theologizing in the book, and has talked extensively about the need to live a simple faith, to cling to the essentials of the faith, to cling to the idea that Christ has been crucified and risen again. A church at the crossroads may be tempted to abandon that simple faith in favor of something more relevant or attractive or appealing, but Paul says that such abandonment only harms us in the end, because it robs us of our power to speak to the culture in a way that they need to hear. We must cling to this faith.
You know, theology is a word that probably strikes different people in different ways. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when I hear about theology, I start to rub my hands together and get excited, and get ready for a deep discussion. I would just guess that many of you don’t have the same reaction. Most people, when they hear about theology, want to change the subject. It’s confusing, it’s big words, it’s a bunch of jargon, and everybody disagrees about it anyway. Why bother paying attention to it? Historically, through the years, Baptists have been skeptical of theology, because it seems to some people that thinking too much about God makes your relationship with God mean less. In fact, I’ll tell you this story: when I got to Drew, the school where I’m working on my Ph.D., I was making conversation with some of the new students. In my incoming class, there was another Baptist, a Korean Methodist, a Lutheran, a Catholic and an Episcopal priest. And so we were talking, and someone started talking about how he was looking forward to finishing his Ph.D. because it meant that in his denomination he would get a pay raise. And so they asked me if I would get a pay raise, and I was like, “Um, no, probably not; that’s not really how it works with us Baptists. In fact, once I finish a Ph.D. there are many Baptist churches that will throw my resume in the junk pile, because the assumption is if you’re really educated, you know a lot about God, but you don’t really know God.
So you have to really love theology to want to study it as a Baptist. And I’ll come clean—I love theology. You know why? Because what we believe inevitably affects how we act. Let me show you what I mean. I think I know one thing we all believe in at this church: cars. I know we all believe in cars because we all drive them to church when we come. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of this as an act of belief, but it is. When you get into a car, consider what you are doing. You are pledging to move your body at speeds in upwards of a mile a minute—speeds so spectacular that people never dreamed of traveling so fast a mere century ago. And you move your body at this breakneck speed on a road, a surface designed to not to give way or be soft, while other 500 to 6,000 pound machines hurtle around you at similar speeds. Now who on earth would ever do such a thing?
No one would do it who did not believe in cars. But the fact is that we do believe in cars. We believe in the engineers who design them and in the workers who build them. We believe that the brakes will hold, that the steering will work, that the safety features are indeed adequate. If we did not believe these things, we wouldn’t touch a car; we would regard it as a pulverizing machine that could only hurt and maim us. But because we believe, we regard it as an invaluable tool and indeed, in suburban culture, we’d feel lost without a car. Belief makes a real difference in how we act—belief is sort of the root level, and a minor shift in belief can trigger a major shift in the way we think and act otherwise.
And in the same way, what we believe about God—our theology—sets up how we approach life. Say you meet two people—one believes that God’s love is unconditional, and one believes that God’s love depends on whether or not we do the right things. Those two people are bound to approach life in different ways. One is simply bound to be more content, less afraid of God and probably less afraid of life. The other is bound to be more anxious, never sure that God is happy with them, and probably never sure that anyone is happy with them. Or take two people—one believes that Jesus was the Son of God, and died and rose from the dead, and the other believes that nobody really rises from the dead, that it is just a pleasant myth designed to teach us about staying positive. Those two people are bound to approach life differently; the one who believes that Jesus is risen from the dead is bound to be less afraid of death. The one who believes that there is no resurrection from the dead is bound to be more anxious about death, believing it is the final end. Our theology impacts our emotions and our actions.
Paul knew this, and all this is a long way of telling you that Paul is now moving from theology in the book of Corinthians to action. He has shared an important theological message in the first couple chapters, that we have to cling closely to the simple gospel. Now he is going to talk about the difference that theology should make in their lives. If they have embraced this simple and beautiful gospel of Christ crucified, what difference will it make in their lives? Paul is now moving from what’s going on in their hearts to what’s going on in their hands and feet—what difference does it make that Christ is crucified? How should a church at the crossroads live that out?
In this section, Paul talks about the way that some people in the church have been taking each other to court. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a church where this has happened, but it really sounds ugly, doesn’t it? Right now, there is a bit of that happening in the Episcopal church at the national level, as the national denomination has been suing individual dioceses. And regardless of how you feel about certain issues, there is the undeniable air of sadness about it. Paul says, “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” Keep in mind when he speaks about the saints, he’s talking about the church. So he is saying, “Wait a minute…when one of you disagrees with another person, you take it before the state rather than taking it before the church?” Paul was incredulous about this—Christians were an embattled minority in that world. Christians believed that they had been in touch with the creator of the universe and that in Jesus, they had the secret to eternal life. And the state was not exactly in favor of all of this; there were varying levels of toleration of Christians, but that was the most the state would do—tolerate them. And so Paul says, “When you have a dispute, you need to work it out with these people, not by dragging it in front of people who don’t understand you, don’t like you and at best tolerate you. You need to take it to the church for some prayer and discernment and work it out.”
The concern Paul had was that a church that was willing to come under the state’s authority was a church that didn’t really believe what it said about itself. If you really think you’ve been in touch with the deepest wisdom in the universe, if you really think you’ve met God face-to-face, why would you let people who mock you for that make crucial decisions for you? Keep it in the family, keep it among the believers.
But then Paul said that once again their wrong actions were rooted in wrong beliefs, in wrong theology. Paul says the fact that you have lawsuits at all reveals something deeper going on in you. Paul says the lawsuits are a signal that the church has already off on the wrong foot. He says, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” In other words, the fact that you want your pound of flesh, the fact you want revenge, is in itself a sign that all is not well among you. Like Jesus, you should not be constantly in need of getting your way, of having your rights, of getting what you deserve. You should be comfortable getting the short end of the stick from time to time, and the fact you’re all up in arms about your rights suggests that something is wrong with your heart.
Perhaps the concern of these chapters can be summed up in one word: mistrust. The people in the church trusted the state—the same state which was throwing them to the lions and stoning them—more than they trusted the church. Even worse, the people in the church did not trust each other enough to lay down their arms and quit demanding their own way in everything. If they had trusted each other, they wouldn’t need to be so defensive all the time, always striving to get their own way. But they don’t trust each other.
Trust can be a difficult thing for a church at the crossroads. Trust is not usually a difficult thing in a little small-town church, where you go to church with the same people you see at the benefit barbecue for the local fire hall, or the same people you see at the local school board meetings. When you know someone well, you begin to trust them; they stop being an outsider and start being an insider. So a small-town church where people rarely move in and rarely move out can be a great place to build trust, because the people know each other.
But trust is a difficult thing in a suburban church. A local benefit dinner for the fire hall is hard for us because we all live in different towns. Forget seeing each other at the school board meetings—when I was trying to get the summer mission trip together last year, I realized that we had kids from 7 different high schools in the youth group: Coatesville, West Chester Henderson, D-town East, D-town West, Twin Valley, Owen J. Roberts, and Great Valley. In our church at the crossroads, we share fewer life experiences, and so as a result, trust can suffer. I don’t mean that we’re openly hostile with each other—thank God the same issues aren’t happening at Exton that happened in Corinth. I simply mean that it can be easy for a church at the crossroads to assume the worst about each other rather than the best about each other.
A classic example of this is when a family hasn’t attended church for a few weeks. You know what this is like; one week turns into two weeks turns into a month turns into three months. And pretty soon, something funny happens. The people at church assume that the person who hasn’t come to church doesn’t like the church anymore. And the person who’s stopped coming to church wonders, “Why hasn’t anyone called me? I guess that church just doesn’t like me.” And so what has happened is that each thinks the worst of each other rather than thinks the best of each other. What we forget is that that if we are truly a family—especially at the crossroads—we have to trust each other. The pastor has to trust the people; the people have to trust the pastor; the leadership of the church has to trust the members of the church, and members have to trust their leaders. If there is no trust in the community, we resemble this old Corinthian church that felt like the courts were better equipped to handle disputes than they were internally. In fact, if there is not enough trust in the community, we demonstrate that we don’t really believe the things we say about ourselves. We say we are a family, but family doesn’t assume the worst about each other, it hopes for the best and gently seeks it together. We say that we are content in God, but if we do not trust each other, we are rejecting one of the good gifts God has given us.
So I say there must be deeper trust between us if we are going to be the best church at the crossroads that we can be. How do we do that? Sometimes I give deep theological answers to questions, but building trust is actually a fairly simple thing. Well, it’s simple and it’s difficult. We eat together. We get to know each other, we call just to say “hi,” we go out for coffee, we catch a movie or a ballgame or a girls’ night out together. We make time and space for each other in our busy lives if we truly want to trust each other, if we truly want to be a community here at the crossroads. If we want to become a community, there is no way to build it but time.
And so as I gather this family around this table, it is with the profound hope that this will not be the only table you gather around with the people sitting near you. It is my hope and prayer that this will not be the only time you break bread together, but that many more meals will be shared, many more jokes told, many more memories enjoyed, many more tears shed, many more friends made, many more lives changed, and one stronger community here at the crossroads—for our own sake, and for the sake of all those we can touch with such a community.