Tuesday, January 17, 2017

To the Church of God

I Corinthians 1:1-9
January 15, 2017

To my dear friends, my sisters and brothers, in the church of Shawnee,
            To all of you who have been made new in Jesus Christ, to all of you who are called to be saints, along with all the other people in every place who call on the name of Jesus, their God and our God; God’s grace and peace to you and to your loved ones.
            Everyday I give thanks to God for each and every one of you, because you have been grace from God through Jesus. Because of this grace, you are all amazing people. You have such incredible gifts – gifts of speech and knowledge of all things. God’s grace that enfolds you has strengthened the witness of Jesus Christ in your midst. None of you lack any spiritual gift, and these spiritual gifts will help you and abide with you as wait for the complete and total revealing of Christ Jesus. Not only will the spiritual gifts that you have been given strengthen you as you wait, Jesus himself will strengthen you as well, until everything in this world is complete. Because you have been given such strength, so many gifts, you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that God is faithful. It is through God, not any human being, but through God that you have been called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus our Christ. It is through God, not any human being, that you are a church.
            The first time I learned the word epistle was in a letter that my dad wrote to my sister, Jill. I don’t remember where she was living or what she was doing at the time, but she must have been struggling. My dad sat at our dining room table, carefully typing on our old typewriter, a letter of encouragement and love. I offer my apologies to both my dad and my sister for reading over his shoulder as he typed; but honestly I don’t remember anything else about the letter other than he closed it by saying that he was sorry for writing such an epistle. For some reason, that stuck with me. An epistle was a letter. That memory came back to me when I was in seminary, not only studying Paul’s epistles in New Testament, but also struggling. My dad sat down, probably at our dining room table once again, and wrote me an epistle of encouragement and love.
As often as we refer to the letters of Paul, sometimes I still forget that he was writing letters. I know how silly that sounds. Of course they’re letters. But so often we turn to a particular chapter and verse somewhere in the middle a book, and it easy to forget that the chapter and verses are not something we consider in isolation. They are part of a larger context. They make up a letter written by Paul to the churches that he started and ministered to. David Hay, in his opening remarks about this first letter to the Corinthians, stated that Paul felt a deep responsibility to these churches. He kept in touch. He would send his associates to the churches if he could not go. He planned return trips. And he wrote letters.
            I suspect that Paul did not have the luxury of sitting at a table as my dad did, but his letters, his epistles, were meant to encourage, to discipline and to share the love of Christ. Paul was a master of rhetoric; in other words, he wrote some mighty fine letters. Paul knew how to use language to persuade, convince, and exhort. That does not mean that Paul was manipulative or sneaky. I think Paul was sincere in his passion and zeal for Jesus and the gospel. But let’s not underestimate what seems to be Paul’s innate understanding of how to phrase something to capture his readers’ attention.
            The church in Corinth was a divided and fractured church. They experienced conflict and strife. There were misunderstandings about Paul’s earlier teachings to them, and misunderstandings about the purpose of spiritual gifts. The church in Corinth was home to both wealthy people and poor people. As converted gentiles, the Corinthians would have brought practices and understandings from their pagan context into their life together. They were people in a particular time and place, just as we are here in Shawnee, in the United States, in North America, in the 21st century. The Corinthians were struggling to live out their faith. They made mistakes. They bickered with each other. Some in the community believed that they were superior to others in the faith community. Perhaps some believed that they really did not belong to the church at all.
            So Paul wrote a letter. If you remember later sections in this first letter to the Corinth church, Paul was not afraid to call the church folks on the carpet for taking wrong paths. But his opening greeting to them, the words we read today, sets the tone for the rest of the letter. He writes to them in the love of God made manifest in Jesus, God’s Son. The love of God is at the foundation of the letter. Paul reminds them that it is the love of God that is the foundation of the church as well.
            In spite of the fact that Paul had heard disturbing reports about what was happening in the Corinth church, he did not begin by admonishing them. Instead, he gave thanks for them. He gave thanks for them because God’s grace had been given to them in Jesus Christ. He gave thanks for them because of their knowledge and spiritual gifts – both of which are the source of many of their conflicts. He gave thanks because the testimony of Jesus, the witness of the gospel, was strengthened in their midst.
            It may seem strange that Paul started off in this way because the Corinthians were messing up big time. If we look only at their errors, their mistakes, their false assumptions, it would be easy to conclude that they were failing to be the church of God. Wouldn’t it make more sense that Paul would begin his letter by telling them to knock that nonsense off? Wouldn’t we expect a letter written to address the conflicts and issues they were experiencing to be a rebuke from beginning to end? As I said, Paul excelled at rhetoric. I suspect that he knew if he started off by telling them they were blowing it, they would stop reading. His words would have fallen on the proverbial deaf ears. Paul understood that, so he began by giving thanks for them. He even gave thanks and lifted up the sources of their conflicts.
            Again, I do not think that Paul was trying to manipulate them. I think Paul was sincere. But his opening words of thanksgiving and love not only made his later, harsher words more palatable, they serve as a stark reminder that the Corinthians were a church not because of themselves, but because of God. The people were not responsible for creating that church. Paul was not responsible for creating that church. God called their church into being. God blessed them with grace. The gospel of Jesus Christ was made strong among them because of God. They were a church because of God’s grace and because of God’s love through God’s Son.
            It seems to me that this is a reminder we all need to hear. How is that we are a church, a congregation? Yes, we keep on keeping on because we are determined, because we love one another in spite of our differences, and because we feel called to be a witnessing presence in Shawnee, Oklahoma. But first and foremost, we are a church because of God and God’s grace. God called us into being in the earliest days of Shawnee, and God called us into being when two churches merged into one, and God calls us into being right now. We are a church because of God. We are God’s church.
            Yesterday in officer training, we studied and discussed some of the creeds and confessions that are a fundamental part of being Presbyterian and in the Reformed tradition. At the General Assembly last summer, the Belhar Confession was adopted and added to our Book of Confessions. This is a confession that comes out of the Reformed church in South Africa and apartheid. As apartheid was dismantled, this confession came into being to state clearly the need for reconciliation and unity; the reconciliation and unity that is given witness to in the gospel of Christ. The church in South Africa offers this confession as a gift to the larger Reformed body, because we are all in need of reconciliation – one with another.
            One statement of belief that we read yesterday was this: “that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.”
            “That the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands.”
            I have been repeating those words in my head since yesterday morning. I need to be reminded that this church is not ours. We are the possession of God. God created us, claims us, calls us – as individuals, and as a congregation. How does knowing that, how does understanding that, change how we view ourselves, our situation and our future together? I so rarely have the answers to the questions I ask you, but I do know this: we are the church of God. God is faithful. God keeps God’s promises. We may not know what will happen in our future, but knowing and trusting that God makes of us a church is trusting that we are in God’s good and gracious hands. Knowing that means that we also that there is always, always, always, always reason to hope.
There is always reason to hope. Thanks be to God!

            Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.

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