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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Midweek Lent 2014 + A Servant Community (Paul's first letter to Corinth)

Week 2: “Why Not Rather Be Wronged?”

Vicar Emily Beckering, Wednesday, 19 March 2014; texts: 1 Corinthians 6:1-8; Matthew 18:15-22

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week, we heard that we have been formed by the Holy Spirit in our baptisms to be the body of Christ. As that body, we are to pattern our lives after Christ and his cross: we too, will give of ourselves for the sake of the world.

This week, this call comes to life in very real ways, for we hear from God what it means to be a servant community when we face difficulties in our relationships with one another.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul is counseling the church of Corinth against using Roman courts to settle their disputes. The real issue here, however, is not the proper use of the legal system, but how we are to deal with one another when we disagree. What are we to do when we hurt each another? How are we to live when this happens?

The Corinthians have tried to address their hurt by bringing each other to court. The problem with these practices—settling arguments in court, demanding payment for wrong done, seeking their own interests at one another’s expense—is that all of this behavior is patterned after the world rather than after Christ. These are attempts to gain power rather than give it away.

The Corinthians are dealing with one another in ways that are incompatible with who God the Father, through Christ the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit has called and formed them to be. They have lost sight of who they are and how they are to live.

“Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?”

This is the crux of Paul’s argument, and through it, Paul offers the Corinthians a lens that can restore their sight.

The lens is Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, and he shifts everything into focus: how they see themselves, one another, and their disagreements. Through Paul’s letter, God is reorienting the Corinthians to the way of the cross.

God is doing the same for us today.

Through the words of Paul and Jesus, the Triune God is reorienting us to see through the lens of the crucified and risen Christ so that we can actually live as his body, especially in the face of difficulties and disagreements.  

Looking through the lens of Christ is not like looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. On the contrary, Christ exposes things as they really are.

Both Jesus and Paul take sin seriously. Both of today’s readings make it clear that we cannot do whatever we want in our relationship with God and with one another. We actually have to love each other in profound ways.

In order to help us do that, Christ our lens reorients us first by functioning as a mirror in order to expose our own sin. 

When held up to these texts today, the lens reveals that we are not that different from the Corinthians or Peter; we share a common reflection.

At Mount Olive, we are not in the habit of suing one another, but how often do we willingly submit to being wronged? Who does that? Are we not more likely to insist on our own way? To defend ourselves, our reputation, our value to the group, to tear others down when we feel threatened? When we do this, we—like the Corinthians—hurt, wrong, and defraud one another. We, too, have lost sight of who we are and how we are to live.

And don’t we, like Peter, sometimes find ourselves praying, “How many times must I forgive? How long do I have to put up with this Lord? Where can I draw the line?” I, admit that I, along with Peter, would like a formula: a perfect absolute that I can apply when relationships don’t go according to plan.

For this reason, it is tempting to interpret Jesus’ words here as a list to check off:
Step 1: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Check.  If they don’t listen to you…
Step 2: “Take one or two others along with you.” Check. If that doesn’t work…
Step 3: Bring them before the church. Check. If that still doesn’t work…
Step 4: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

At first glance, this may seem like good enough reason for justifying our anger, our bitterness, and our desire to give up on those who hurt us.

But when we take a second look through the lens of the crucified and risen Christ, things shift dramatically.

What did Jesus do to Gentiles and tax collectors?

He ate with them. He sought them out when everyone else gave up on them. He drew them back into the community.

We are to do the same.

This is made even clearer by the context in which we find today’s Gospel reading. Jesus’ words about disciplining members of the church are intentionally book-ended by two parables of mercy so that we do not lose sight of what is most important.

The first is the parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus warns us not to despise any of the little ones who are prone to wandering off. Instead, we, like God the Father, are to leave the 99 in order to seek the one. It is not the Father’s will that any one of these little ones be lost.

The second is the parable of the unforgiving servant, which we hear immediately after Peter asks how many times he must forgive his brother. Jesus’ answer is the same that the master offers the slave: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”

Through these bookends, we discover that the lens of the crucified and risen Christ reorients us not only to see our sin, but also shows us just what God has done to deal with that sin and brokenness. 

Christ chose to die rather than to have any one of us be lost. God has responded to our own sin through the foolishness of the cross. God deals with us by forgiving us and continually offering a relationship; that is how we are to deal with one another.

Framed in this way, we see that today’s gospel reading is not a proof-text to justify exclusion, revenge, or giving up on those who hurt us. These patterns will only lead to more hurt, to more broken relationships.

The way of the cross, however, which Christ has traveled to bring us all back in, leads to forgiveness, to mercy, to love, to healing, and to restored relationships.

So why not rather be wronged?

If we are to be of the same mind as Christ, then we will risk being wronged, looking foolish, forgiving, and offering relationship in the face of rejection—all for the sake of love.

We know what this love looks like from our relationships with those who are dearest to us. Because we love them, we make decisions which may cause us to suffer: we get up in the middle of the night to rock the baby no matter how exhausted we are because that’s just what you do when you love and are a parent or grandparent. We say no to ourselves in order to say yes to them. We give up our own pursuits or desires sometimes in order to care for them. To truly love our children, our parents, or our partner/spouse, or our friends, we will embrace their losses, yearnings, and brokenness.

Doing this for those whom we love the most is hard enough, let alone for the little ones—the ones whom, according to Jesus, we are most tempted to despise. But this is the call on our lives today. This is how we are to deal with disagreements. This is how we are to treat those who hurt us, those who perhaps even make our lives in this community difficult. This is how we are to love those who, for whatever reason, always seem to push on our bruises that are still tender.

God is reorienting us to seek out these little ones. They see themselves as outsiders, and we need to love them back in. We are to seek them as God the Father seeks us all, even if that means that we will be wronged.  For it is not the Father’s will that any one of them be lost.

This time when we hold up the lens of the crucified and risen Christ, we see ourselves and one another differently. 

We realize that we are all the little ones who are prone to wander off, yet we all belong to Christ. Reoriented to the way of the cross, we will say no to ourselves in order to say yes to them. We will embrace their losses, their yearnings, their brokenness, and we will expose our own.

When we deal with our disagreements in this way as a servant community, we might be wronged. We might be defrauded. But the Triune God will continually be reorienting us through it all so that we will feel, hear, and see the healing power of Christ’s radical forgiveness at work. Our vision will no longer be blurred by rage or clouded by insecurity. Through the lens of the crucified and risen Christ, we will see one another clearly and treat one another differently because of it. Then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we—and all the world—will witness God’s kingdom coming into focus.


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