Who are your people?
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Belmont UMC—February 23, 2014
Pam Hawkins, preaching
Audio - MP3
“Who are your people, child?” the woman asked as she poured me a glass of ice-cold lemonade. I was sitting with a passel of other hot, sweaty children on the stoop of the woman’s front porch in Columbus, Georgia. “The Cunninghams on Eberhart,” I replied, to which she said, “Hmm, Annie Tom and Leon” before going back inside, seeming satisfied with my answer. I was about seven years old at the time, and during that long summer learned that belonging to my grandparents was a good thing – edged with privileges of new playmates, trips to the community pool, and fresh lemonade. Knowing to whom I belonged was good.
But before I turned nine, I learned something else about belonging that, to this day, is also imprinted on my heart.
Because of my father’s work, we moved overseas the year I was to begin third grade and one day, as part of getting to know each other at my new school, our teacher asked my classmates what church we each belonged to. One by one, some of the more confident children named things like “Baptist,” “Quaker,” and “Catholic.” And when I finally got the nerve to speak up, I said – “Christian.”
I still remember the giggling and snickering that made my whole body blush in embarrassment when I gave my answer. Even the teacher laughed as she said something like, “we’re all Christian. Don’t you know what church you belong to?” But the fact was, I didn’t. For whatever reason – ignorance or forgetfulness – I could not remember “Methodist” for the life of me.
I knew I was a Christian, but that I was a certain kind of Christian had not yet invaded my religious identity. At the age of eight, I didn’t yet know that what Christian faction I belonged to would matter to other people. But on that day I had my first painful lesson that being a Christian for one person is not the same thing as being a Christian to another.
When Paul writes the letter from which we read today, he too is facing a painful lesson about Christian divisions. Even though the new Christian community at Corinth is still wet behind the ears, having been founded by Paul just a few years before this letter is written, word had already spread that the once-enthusiastic community of Christ-followers is beginning to bicker and compete within itself about who are the better and “real” Christians.
Although many factors contribute to the growing fractures in the young Corinthian church, one of the striking obstacles to unity is rooted in their diversity. Corinth was an urban center where wealth and poverty, free persons and slaves, Jews and Gentiles, refugees and locals made up strands of the city’s fabric. Consequently, the church too was made up of diverse ranks – uneducated poor, slaves, those who had won their freedom, patrons, clients, and at least a few community leaders. And each baptized member brought into the church different and often competing cultural biases and social experiences. It would take time, patience, and love to bring all hearts and minds together in the ways of Christ - a truth we are still learning today.
Paul knows this – and he knows – personally – that shedding old ways, prejudices, and beliefs in order to take on the “mind of Christ” is not easy for anyone. For the people of Corinth it means that they can no longer equate poverty with inferiority. It means that the socially accepted practice of boasting at the expense of a neighbor must stop, and that shaming and ridiculing “undesirables” – a politically correct way of Corinthian life at the time – can have no place in the church. But Paul also knows that the roots of social, cultural, and political “belonging” run deep in the veins of every human being – so deep that only Christ can clear them for new life to flow.
Teach Christ, follow Christ, belong to Christ, Paul preaches and the church begins to flourish and grow. Then when the time comes for Paul to leave Corinth for Ephesus, he leaves it in the hands other committed, trusted preachers and teachers, including Apollos, Cephas, and Chloe, and he stays in touch through letters, some of which – like our reading today – remain for us to hear.
But the news from Corinth, once good, doesn’t stay good for long. Rumors of problems begin to spread – members of the church are returning to ways that are not Christ-like. Paul hears that the new Christians are choosing sides about which preacher is better, whose baptism is real, and whose spiritual gifts are most important. Cliques in the church are sprouting over worship and Holy Communion, church finances and beliefs. Devotion to Christ is being overgrown by devotion to favored church leaders, and even Paul’s ministry is becoming suspect, criticized, and set aside as less than stellar.
Sisters and brothers, this letter may be old, but the message has no expiration date, for we also know how hard it is to follow Christ together – to hold in holy tension, perspective, and love what can divide us, if we let it – our cultural biases, our social experiences, our interpretation of scripture, our political perspectives.
What was happening in Paul’s day is still happening in ours. One group in the church pits itself against another, both claiming to be the more faithful interpreter of Word and tradition. Threats to follow one leader over another cast a shadow of separation over a once united faith community. One set of church members ostracize another because of deeply held convictions that differ so much, neither group can find a way to listen to the other. Sadly, we know, from first-hand exposure that factions, cliques, and differing opinions can and do exist within the church – and we know that harm is often the result if not held up to the forgiving light of Christ.
And I believe that we know as well, in the depth of our souls, that when one of us is harmed by the divisive words or actions of another, all of us are harmed. And all of us have been on both sides of such harm – adding to it and bearing under it.
Friends, if we do not place Christ at our center, as the compass point of our life together, then the gift of our differences, of our diversity, can become the source of pain and disunity. This is what Paul is writing about to the church. What makes life together possible in the church - with all of our unique, colorful, one-of-a-kind, God-given stories and ideas, callings and opinions, agreements and disagreements - is that we all belong to Christ first, before we can find our way of belonging to each other through love.
And Christ does not ask us to leave our differences at the door of the church, but rather to bring them inside, to use our differences, one beside the other, generation by generation, like building blocks – in Paul’s words again – to “build people up.” “Love build’s people up,” Paul writes to the disintegrating church of Corinth, if that love is grounded in the love of Jesus.
When Christ’s love is the foundation into which God traces our names side by side, like children on a freshly smoothed sidewalk, then Christ’s love will always be there to sustain us and remind us, as we come and go our separate Christ-following ways, that we all belong here.
We belong first to the Christ of love, and that foundational love makes us one, which means that we belong to each other. Isn’t that the beauty and power of the welcoming statement that some of you wrote for all of us and that is always in our bulletin now at the bottom of the insert? In those few lines, by which I think the apostle Paul would be deeply moved - we claim Christ first. And then we bless and celebrate each other – unique and different as God has created us – before following Christ out into the world again and again and again.
And then, when we are out wandering through God’s neighborhoods around the corner or around the world, someone’s likely to wonder out loud -“Who are your people, child?” “Whom do you belong to?” To which we can reply in unison, “we belong to Christ. We are each other’s people – all of us – no exceptions.”
May it always be so, for together we have much work to do.
Sunday's Closing Prayer
At the end of our sermon on Sunday, Pam closed with a prayer that she wants to share again. It comes from the Upper Room Worship book: Music and Liturgies for Spiritual Formation (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), and was written by Chuck Wilhelm.
I pray that Christ may come to you early in the morning, as he came to Mary that morning in the garden. And I pray that you find Christ in the night when you need him as Nicodemus did. May Christ come to you while you are a child, for when disciples tried to stop them, Jesus insisted that the children come to him.
I pray that Christ may come to you when you are old, as he came to old Simeon’s arms and made him cry: “ Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
And may Christ come to you in your grief as he did for Mary and Martha when they lost their brother. May Christ come to you in joy as he did to the wedding of Cana. And may Christ visit you when you are sick, as he did for the daughter of Jairus, and for so many who could not walk, or stand straight, or see, or hear till he came.
May the Lord Jesus come in answer to your questions as he did once for a lawyer and a rich young ruler. And in your madness may he stand before you in all his power as he stood among the graves that day before Legion.
May Christ come to you in glory upon your dying day as he did to the thief hanging beside him that Good Friday. And though you seldom come to him, and though you often “make you bed in hell,” as I do, may you find Christ descending there, where the apostles in their creed agreed he went – so you would know there is no place he would not come for you.