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1 Corinthians 1:10-18

The Rev. Mark DeVries

January 26, 2014

            There was once a man stranded on a dessert island.  And after years surviving on his own, he was rescued.  When the rescuers came ashore, they discovered three buildings.  They asked the man, “What are these three buildings?”

             He took them to the first and said proudly, “This is my house.  This is where I have lived all these years on the island.”

             “And the second?” the rescuers asked. 

             “That’s my church.  It’s where I go to worship.” 

                       “And what’s this third building?” 

             “Oh, that’s the church I used to go to.”

             It doesn’t take much for people getting sideways with their church.  It doesn’t take much for the church to become the butt of a joke, the easy whipping post of our time (and sometimes for good reason).

             Leslie Weatherhead put it pointedly decades ago: “My faith in the church is not in the … building at the corner of the road, where Mrs. Smith won’t speak to Mrs. Brown because she was snubbed twenty years ago, or where Mr. Jones resigns once a month on hope of getting his own way … or where Mr. Robinson sings lustily that he is ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb,’ but would not tolerate a stranger in his pew and has not paid the milkman’s bills” (Weatherhead, Christian Agnostic, p. 175).

             That astute theologian, Jesse Ventura, had this to say about the church: “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.  It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people’s business” (Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 30, 1999).

             And a character in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters puts it, “If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up” (Buechner, Listening to Your Life, p. 205). 

             Given what the normal church in America looks like, one writer suggested that maybe it might be more honest if churches put a sign like this out front:  Gathering of Comfortable, Apathetic People Who Stopped Dreaming and Growing and Who Feel Good Enough Just as We Are, Thank You” (Brian McLaren, Finding Faith, p. 216).

             It doesn’t take much for us to see problems in the church.  By the time he writes his first letter to the new church in Corinthians, it’s already got problems.  Listen to our text for today…

 The Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

 10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.

             Don’t you like the way that Paul identifies the source of information?  He doesn’t just say, “Everybody tells me.”  He identifies a source: “Chloe’s people.”  Not a bad model for addressing division.  It’s generally a bad idea to give much attention to anonymous complaints.  And Paul doesn’t.

  12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you…

             Here in these next few verses, we get a glance at the way Paul’s mind thinks … a personal self-correcting rambling about who he did, or didn’t, baptize.  He is making a point that no one was baptized in his name, and says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you!”  And then he realizes … Oh yeah, I actually did baptize a few.  So he says…

 …except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18 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.

             The Word of the Lord.

             Based on a very selective reading of the book of Acts, I have heard some people say idealistically, “I wish today’s church could be more like the New Testament church!”  Here in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, before Paul even has had time to wipe off his shoes at the door, he launches into a message about divisions in the church.  As I see it, far too many churches ARE like the New Testament Church!

             Raphael, the renaissance artist (not our music minister), was painting frescos at the Vatican.   A couple bureaucratic churchmen stopped by to watch: “The face of the Apostle Paul is too red,” one pointed out.  Raphael responded quickly, “He blushes to see into whose hands the church has fallen” (Farrar, Point Man, p. 56).

             William Blake said it in rhyme, “Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read’st black where I read white” (Everlasting Gospel).

 Why Church?

             So why church?  Isn’t it more authentic, more real, to experience God on our own?  Doesn’t it matter more what we DO with what we believe? 

             Before I answer, I have to admit that this is a very personal question for me.  I have a deep love for the church – this church in particular.  And I plan to spend the rest of my life gratefully paying this place back the massive debt I owe – for the ways it has shaped me and pointed me to Christ and for the unparalleled role it has played in my children’s lives.  

             I have got plenty of “reasons” for church.  But I am going to save those for another sermon.  Instead, I want to introduce you to a few teenagers, and let their stories answer the question, “Why Church?” 

             Nate was a 15-year-old boy who often came to worship on his own.  Here is how he described church:

 When I leave my house to go to church, I usually begin walking like I walk to school.  But then as I come around my block and see the church building, I start smiling.  And by the time I reach the curb in front of the church, I’m giggling.  And then when I reach the front door of the church, I’m just about ready to fall down laughing because I know as soon as I open that door all of these older folks are going to look over and see me and start smiling.  Then they’re going to come over and hug me and they’re going to ask me all kinds of questions and they’re going to want me to sit by them in the service.  And that just cracks me up.

             You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Nate, as an adult, was working for a Christian organization that served the rural poor.  Who knows where Nate would be without people like you in his church? 

             Meet Daniel.  Meet Jake.  They were in a youth group gathering led by a friend of mine.  I will let my friend Mark tell the story:

 I was conducting a discussion on the difficulty of talking about our faith with people outside the church.  To help stimulate the discussion, we set up a role play. The scene was simple: a high school cafeteria.  One person, hostile to Christianity, was having lunch next to another young person who was reading a Christian devotional.

 I placed a table and two chairs at the front of the room and then asked for volunteers to play the two roles and allow the conversation to be a sort of spontaneous drama.  Immediately Daniel stood up and took the seat of the person hostile to the faith.  Then Sarah walked up and took the seat of the Christian young person who was reading a devotional.

 We started the drama, and soon Daniel was ridiculing Sarah for her faith, claiming Christianity was a psychological crutch.  Sarah, playing the role of the devout Christian, did her best to explain that the faith is more than just psychological comfort, but Daniel was persistent.  Soon Sarah became flustered and, in line with the rules of the roleplay, raised her hand and asked for someone to take her place.

 Julie, a freshman, stepped up and began defending the Christian faith using different Bible verses to back her claims.  Daniel, however, was ruthless: “The Bible was made up just like all myths are made up.  How can you believe in a God you’ve never seen?  How can you claim this God is good when there is so much suffering in the world?”

 His emotion was so vivid, it became clear that Daniel was no longer doing a role play.  His anger and questions were his own.  I became worried that the exercise was getting out of hand, but I didn’t know how to close it gracefully.  Julie raised her hand, and Sam came up and tried to respond to Daniel’s questions.  Daniel grew even more upset, setting aside all pretense of the roleplay, and unloaded:

 “Listen, I was born in South Central – one of the roughest parts of Los Angeles. When I was four years old, my best friend and I were walking to the park when a gunfight broke out.  We stood frozen – just watching these gang kids shooting at each other.  My friend Benjamin got hit in the chest by a stray bullet.  I sat there screaming and crying and watched him die.  Now you tell me God is good and loving!  What kind of God allows a four-year-old kid to die like that?”

 The room became starkly quiet.  None of us knew how to respond.  Sam quietly raised his hand.  For a moment everyone stayed still.  Then Jake stood up and said, “I’ll take Sam’s place.”  Jake was the last guy I’d have chosen to respond to Daniel’s outburst.  Five months earlier Jake had been arrested for burglarizing houses for drug money.  His sentence was to attend an outdoor rehabilitation program deep in the mountains of Idaho where, after living with other youth offenders in plastic tarp tents, he was sent out alone to spend a week in the wilderness to survive by his own wits.

 Jake was a big, strong kid who attended church to get away from his parents, and he’d shown little interest in the Christian faith.  I was worried he would take this opportunity to join Daniel in creating a scene and ridiculing Christianity.  But for some reason, I didn’t stop him from heading to the front of the room.

 After walking up to the makeshift stage, Jake removed the table, turned his chair, and sat facing Daniel with open, steady eyes.  There was a minute or so of silence as Jake continued to sit, relaxed and patient, just gazing at Daniel.  Many of us felt awkward, and I stood there, unsure whether I should interrupt.

 Finally, Daniel spoke up and began to accost Jake, “So what do you have to say? That my friend Benjamin went to a better place?  That this was part of God’s plan?  That God makes us suffer so we’ll turn to him?  How can you possibly believe all this crap about God being a God of love?”

 Jake just sat there.  I assumed he was planning a response, when gradually Daniel quieted, sat still, and returned Jake’s gaze.  And then something broke. Daniel’s hard expression softened, his eyes searched Jake’s, and then I noticed what he was looking at.  There were tears on Jake’s face.  Quietly, without looking away from Daniel, Jake let tears fall down his face.

 Daniel gazed at Jake in wonder for a moment, then his eyes swelled with tears, and he lowered his head.  Slowly, Jake stood up, raised Daniel from his chair, and hugged him.  After a few minutes they both stepped down and returned to the group.  Jake never spoke a word.

 Two weeks later, Daniel began showing up to church – not just for youth activities, but for morning worship.  He came to Bible studies and served on the leadership team for the youth ministry.  I never asked him about that night when Jake felt his tears, but I’m convinced that Jake was the presence of Christ to Daniel.  His willingness to see, hear, and feel Daniel’s pain was the good news that Daniel longed to encounter (Mark Yaconelli, Downtime).

 The Perfect Church

             The perfect church is, of course, a purely imaginary state.  It doesn’t exist.  It’s a unicorn.  But the church’s quirkiness and conflicts keeps us focused not on our strength and brilliance but on the outrageous love of God.  Our inability to find satisfying answers to our every doubt and question saves us from focusing on collecting facts about God and draws us to know God for ourselves.  And the friction of living in ongoing relationships without an easy escape clause only serves to train us more deeply in the art of loving.

             Craig Barnes described the healthy church in this way: “We are not defined by our borders (who we keep out) but by our center Jesus Christ.  We don’t just stand for truth; we stand with those who are in error when testifying to the truth (Yearning, p. 180).  The cross, Barnes points out, is a picture of a God whose arms are open wide. 

             And it was from that cross that Jesus connects his mother Mary back to a body of believers, saying to John, “Behold your mother,” and to Mary, “Behold your son.”  He says to his mother, “Don’t hang onto this body.”  He connects her to one of the disciples, with the church, and says, in essence, “Hang onto that body.” 

             In the garden, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “Don’t hang onto this body.”  And he sends her back to the bumbling, doubting, very imperfect disciples and says, “Hang onto THAT body.” 

             Only then, can we be the answer to Jesus’ prayer that we “may be one,” only when we hang onto “THAT body,” the body of Christ made real in very imperfect people like those sitting next to you right now.


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