Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Wednesday, 12 March 2014; texts: 1 Corinthians 1:10-31; Matthew 16:21-28
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There’s a fair bit of negative press for disciples of Christ Jesus in these two readings, or at least intense criticism. Simon Peter, trying to understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, having just declared that to be true, really steps in it and is called “Satan” by Jesus. That’s not a good day. And Paul, in writing to a congregation he founded, to people he loves, in the very beginnings of this letter to them, pretty much tells them they weren’t necessarily the cream of the crop of Corinth. Not wise by human standards, not powerful, not of noble birth. There is little danger that after these two descriptions either Peter or the Corinthian disciples are going to have difficulty with too much self esteem.
Yet these two situations speak profoundly to what it means not only that Jesus is the Messiah of God but also what it means to be a disciple of such a Messiah. It may be that Jesus sounds a little harsh to our ears, but if he doesn’t lay out in no uncertain terms that Peter’s heading in the wrong direction, it’s not likely we’ll pay the attention we need, or that Peter will, for that matter. It may be that Paul sounds a little insulting to his people, but if he doesn’t speak clearly about their reality in terms of the world’s standards, it’s not likely we’ll take seriously our reality as disciples, either, nor will they.
The critiques are related to each other, and both are necessary. We need to understand just what kind of Messiah the Son of God is in the world, what he is about. When we understand that, then we need to recognize the implications of that on us, on our discipleship and status in the world.
On these Wednesdays in Lent this year we will be considering what it means that we are a community of faith, we Christians, a Body of Christ, as Paul says. Our central texts will be taken from this first letter to the Corinthians, and will be in dialogue with readings from the Gospels. But our question in these readings today is the question we need to consider all Lent: what does it mean for us, what does it look like, and what is our call, as the community of Christ in the world?
Before we can consider that, though, we actually need Paul to convince us that we are joined together in this Body.
We can’t understand this letter to the Christians in Corinth without grasping the foundational reality Paul and the early Church assumed: the salvation we know in Christ Jesus is only found in the Body, the community, the Church.
This may seem obvious, but consider the way the Church has tended to speak of salvation. Don’t most people seem to think it’s a personal question for each to decide or know? Lutherans don’t speak of “personally accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior” as the beginning of being a Christian, but we act as if it’s just as individualistic for us. As if the only question is whether or not each person is saved, whatever we mean by that.
I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with Lutherans over the years that involved speculating about the saved status of this person or that person. I can’t tell you how many times it’s been clear to me in conversation with folks that for most Christians, even Lutherans, salvation is only about one thing: am I going to heaven after I die?
There’s not much community in that question, to say nothing of understanding what Jesus meant by life eternal.
For us, it’s not that “accepting” moment that defines us, it’s Baptism, but it certainly feels as if for most Lutherans that’s an individual matter. Anxiety over whether someone’s Baptism still counts if they’ve fallen away from regular church participation: I’ve heard that all my ministry. Anxiety over whether someone can be “saved,” which almost implies “loved by God,” if they haven’t been baptized: again, it’s a constant theme.
Yet Paul begins his letter to his people in Corinth with this criticism: you are divided amongst yourselves, you are not in unity. As if our life together was the important thing. “I appeal to you,” Paul says, “that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
Clearly there were lots of cracks developing in the Corinthian church, along all sorts of fault lines, since this is how Paul begins his letter. But this is how we understand the whole of this letter, really: Paul is exploring what it is to be the Body of Christ.
He addresses it in terms of a call: that is what we are. And in terms of how that affects all sorts of things within the community: divisions, disagreements, differences in status, differences in gifts. So to enter this letter and get what Paul is doing means grasping first and foremost this understanding: we are baptized into the Body of Christ, and it is together that we find life.
And really, the rampant individualism is not always just of persons, as we see in Corinth. It seems as if there was an individualism of communities, ironically. The Apollos followers were sniping at the Paul followers, who were biting at the Peter followers.
So as much as we are called by Paul to set aside this sense that salvation is only about each individual person, we also are challenged to set aside our sense that our congregation is the main thing. Or that our denomination is. Or any other subdivision lesser than the Church of Christ on earth.
The kingdom of God preached by Jesus, inaugurated in his death and resurrection, and set afire at Pentecost, is a salvation of the world worked through the servant followers of Christ, the Body of Christ. We are saved together, as a Body, a Church, a community, that we might change the world.
And our unity comes from the cross, not anything else. That’s the next thing Paul claims.
This community, this Body, is the community created by the cross of Christ Jesus.
There are lots of ways for groups to find unity, most of which are destructive; it’s important we understand what truly unites us.
Paul’s description of how unimportant the Corinthians are is related to his sense of his own unimportance, and how that is linked to the humiliating death our Lord suffered. What’s the point in bragging about your leaders, Paul says, whether me or Cephas or Apollos? We’re not important, nor were we called to be eloquent and impressive.
And what’s the point in bragging about yourselves, either? Paul says. Or finding unity by banding against other groups, other people? Or finding unity by believing you’ve got all the right answers? Be honest, Paul says, you’re not that impressive a group of people.
But that’s OK, Paul says, because we belong to the One who to the world didn’t look impressive at all, who suffered a humiliating death, who was a failure in the eyes of the world. And the wonder of that, Paul says: this is the heart, the center of what God is doing in the world. It looks like foolishness, but only because God’s wisdom is incomprehensible to the way of the world.
That’s the most important thing: the way of the cross, the way of losing, the way of death, is the way God is saving the world. Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death is not a dire warning, or a complaint, or a frightened whimper. It is Jesus declaring that this is the path he will walk, that this is the way he will bring life.
Now, of course, this is why Paul calls this God’s foolishness. And why Peter resists so strongly Jesus’ description of this way. It looks like a terrible thing, that the Messiah will die. Peter legitimately thinks that means the Messiah fails. He doesn’t understand what it really means.
But it is this that unites us, Paul says: not our prominence, not our eloquence, not our wealth, not our intelligence, not our gifts, not our correct answers, not our institutions or organizations. It is that we are claimed as a servant Church in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and nothing else.
That is our unity, our connection, our life. And in that unity, as Peter learned, we are called to follow our Lord’s model.
That’s the inevitable result: the life of the community of Christ is to model such servant giving, such losing, such foolishness.
This is one of the worst results of individualistic salvation focus, of concern only for whether I’m not going to hell when I die: the Church misses the whole meaning of salvation. The kingdom Jesus proclaimed in his ministry he begins by his dying, his giving up of all power, because that is the way the world will be changed, be saved.
Not by the Church becoming yet another power-hungry group that dominates others to get its way, who thinks that force will accomplish what God wants. Whenever the Church has gone that way it has been devastating and horrible, and undermined everything Jesus our Lord intended.
No, the world will be and is changed when the Church becomes as foolish as the Triune God, and as willing to lose, to be run over, even to die to bring life to this world.
Jesus’ call to take up the cross is his reminder that as his followers, we take his path, too, or we aren’t really following him. You are called to be servant people in the world, he says, losing yourself for the sake of others, giving up of yourself for the sake of the world, dying, even, to bring life.
You can see why it’s easier for Christians to reduce the cross to the means by which we get to heaven. The call to follow Jesus’ way is frightening. But in the history of the Church that is where salvation for the world has always happened, when we were a servant community standing in the face of evil with love and transforming it from within.
If any one of us fears what that might mean individually for our lives, our choices, our decisions, that’s fair. But isn’t it marvelous, then, that we are not alone in this, that we are called together as a Body? Being a servant Church together means we support and encourage and embolden each other in our service, our sacrificial love. It means we can do more together than alone. The servant life is a lot easier to handle together, and a lot more joyful and profoundly beautiful.
Jesus knew what he was doing.
So for now, this is where we leave it: we know who we are and what we are called to be.
This is the work of the Spirit we ask God to make happen among us, that we are prepared and strengthened for our work as the kingdom of God, as the servant Church. Everything else we need to know about how we are together as Christ’s Body flows from this center.
And yes, Paul’s right, God’s way does sound foolish. But we have met our Risen Lord, and we know how things aren’t always what they seem. We know this is our life, and the life of the world. God grant us the courage to live together in the world as if that were so.
In the name of Jesus. Amen