June 15, 2014

“Something to Be and Do”
Psalm 8 – 2 Corinthians 13:5-13

I hope you will not be too disappointed if on this Trinity Sunday I do not spend much time trying to unpack the mystery of the Holy Trinity in a way that is easy for us to understand. Instead, I want to share with you a text about a pastor who is under fire and a congregation that is in conflict.

The assigned reading is a short and sweet benediction of sorts. I thought it would be good for you to hear the paragraph that precedes it:
5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to pass the test! 6I hope you will find out that we have not failed. 7But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have passed the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. 8For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 9For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may become perfect. 10So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. 12Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.
13 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

St. Paul has come to the church in Corinth at the height of their disagreement. We do not know what sort of whispering behind the scenes has been going on. We do not know what small group has rallied about some preference of practice that is being changed. If someone was disappointed at the singing of an unfamiliar hymn or the rearrangement of the furniture we are not privy to the particulars.

We do know that that this disagreement is unbecoming of a Christian church. Passive aggressive behavior may well be acceptable outside in the world, but not in the church. Dividing and conquering, that great Napoleonic tactic, is not appropriate. Bullying others into cooperation or at least resignation is not ok.

It is a bit surprising to me that Paul doesn’t address the Corinthians directly, saying, “Where is the gospel in all this?” After all, that is the point of the church, the spread of the gospel in word and deed. Everything else is just a happy accident.

It is also surprising that he doesn’t spend a great deal of time defending himself. Despite the obvious amount of personal pain that this friction is causing him he turns instead to the basic message of the faith and urges the Corinthians to ‘do something,’ and to ‘remember whose you are.’

First, Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘test themselves.’ It is the path of least resistance to cling to our own interests and understanding of events. Something comes up that we don’t agree with or is inconsistent with our own practices; the first response is usually to question the other. And, if we are thoroughly honest with ourselves we often enter into this questioning only to discredit the other and not in a spirit of openness or inquiry. And so Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘test themselves.’

To do this means that we have to pause, to take a step back, honestly unpack our own motives and reasoning. It is a time of self-examination that intends to foster self-improvement.

This advice is not always taken well. See, to enter into it means that you need to assume, even provisionally, that the problem is not out there, but rather in here. It is ‘Pogo’s’ famous quote “We have met the enemy and they is us.”

I understand this. I have been in the midst of more than one disagreement between otherwise nice church folk who have a tendency to hurl accusations at the other and to assume that they (or I) am the innocent victim, the one who is right.

Without self examination and entertainment of the idea that the other position may be correct, relationships become tenuous, and in the worse cases, break. More than 600 years ago, Ignatius of Loyola wrote a guide for spiritual growth; and one of these exercises might just be helpful in this situation:

…it should be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement that to condemn it. Further, if one cannot interpret it favorably, one should ask how the other means it. If that meaning is wrong, one should correct the person with love; and if this is not enough, one should search out every appropriate mean through which, by understanding the statement in a good way, it may be saved (SpEx 22).

This exercise may seem difficult and even ‘abnormal,’ but that is why it is called an exercise.

What Paul seeks to remind the Corinthians of is that, without an intentional change in our way of reacting, these conflicts allow the unity of Christ to become more and more frayed, sometimes to the point that someone will claim ‘you do not belong to Christ.’ Whenever we insist that the other no longer belongs to Christ we give ourselves over to that which is not Christ. We give ourselves up for inappropriate anger, or self-righteousness. Where is the gospel in this?

In previous correspondence, Paul urged the Corinthians to remember that ‘you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.’ This is a call to remember whose you are. If the admonition to ‘test themselves’ is to do something; the second admonition, to ‘pull yourselves together,’ ‘or put things in order’ actually means to maintain the body of Christ. This is a plea for wholeness, not in some medicinal fashion but rather in an organic way; evidenced in the protective way that Paul seeks to ensure the survival of this flawed and fragile community that he birthed. This begins as we remember whose we are. We are God’s own people.

Paul’s scripture was the Psalms. He may have turned to Psalm 8 to help the Corinthians. When I consider the moon and the stars, the whole of the cosmos that God has created, why does God pay so much attention to us? Paul knows this. His concern is not only that they maintain the faith he gave to them, but rather that they find a way to maintain the unity of the church. Pastors will come and go, members are born and will die. What remains? We are not the first of God’s people and we are not the last. In that same Walt Kelly, Pogo, comic strip, Porky Pine once said, “don’t take life so serious son it aint nohow permanent.”

It would also be good if the people over in Corinth would remember that they are a little less than God. I know, I know, some people act like garbage sometimes. One morning this winter I looked out and saw our garbage cans overflowing with trash from holiday festivities. I thought, ‘that’s awful.’ That very evening it snowed and the next morning the garbage can looked so clean and white, a splendor of glory.

It would be tempting to remind the Corinthians of what Paul told them in his previous letter, in chapter 13, the love chapter we like to read at weddings. In practice, however, I think that this second letter is better for relationships. When all is sweetness and light it is easy to look at a friend and recite that treatise on love. It is better to hear these words when a day of difficulty has arisen. It is on those days it is good to remember that the other person is a child of God. It is good to try and hear what is good about what they are saying, and if you can’t find it, ask them to explain it to you again. If you still don’t agree, simply tell them that. It need not have an effect on how they feel about you or how you feel about them. Your commitment to one another is all you ever had in common anyway. Listen to what Paul tells the church. Then, take a look at the stars tonight and remember how small you are. See if that doesn’t give you some perspective.

How does Paul put it? “Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”