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January 26, 2020
Third Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
1 Corinthians 1: 10-18
It has been said that “variety is the spice of life.” Imagine being married to someone just like you, no variety—it would be a horror show. That’s why Virginia Satir once said “we come together in our similarities, but we grow together in our differences.” Differences can be delightful, as long as they don’t threaten us. But we also know the painful cost of difficult differences– irritations that turn into resentment that turn into distancing that turn into fractures—marriages break, families break, friends break, churches break.
In our lesson today from Corinthians, St. Paul is writing to the church in Corinth that is in trouble because differences are turning into divisions. Subgroups are competing against other subgroups. There is the Paul group, the Apollos group, the Cephas group, the Christ group. Churches can disintegrate into antagonistic subgroups. Paul’s concern is that these divisions will, like a cancer, eat away at the good tissue of the community so that the bright and beautiful light of Christ will be suffocated by the smoke and fire of personal egos. Somebody once said that the church is like Noah’s ark—if it weren’t for the flood outside, you couldn’t stand the stink inside. But for many in the Christian church through the centuries, the stink has become unbearable, spawning splinter groups and new Christian denominations. Thousands of different Christian groups have arisen through the ages because of painful breakups. How can we keep difficult differences from poisoning our common life? It can happen so easily, so destructively. Many solutions are superficial—be nice, don’t poke the bear, just live with it, don’t speak up because you might not be liked. Good communication techniques have been overrated. Secular research clearly notes that excellent communication skills help a little, but are not the keys to good relationships—life is broken at a deeper level and life needs to be restored at a much deeper level. What, then, are some of the factors that make difficult differences even more difficult and destructive?
First, “tribalism.” We tend to group together with our kind, our species. There is the comfort of the familiar, the safety and security of like-minded others. Birds of a feather flock together. We like to feel kinship in these tribal alliances—sports tribes, political tribes, hobby tribes. However, tribes of alliances that are connected based on shared values can easily evolve into tribes of coaltions that are organized around shared animosity against other groups that differ in those values. If someone holds a different position, it is likely that person will be described as one lacking common sense or immoral. We erase others in our world very easily.
Second, “conflict avoidance.” Many seemingly good relationships are dying inside because conflict is minimized, glossed over, buried and pretending becomes the preferred script. Real talk is replaced with pretend talk. Talking honestly about what matters seems too costly or dangerous. So “be nice” and “be quiet.” People fear that if their voice speaks the truth, they won’t be liked. Silence is safety. Conflict is feared. The lack of authenticity, the absence of vulnerability results in a pretend culture full of good deeds. The church, families, and business groups are prone to conflict avoidance with periodic explosions or quiet departures in the middle of the night—all symptoms of conflict avoidant groups.
Third, “projection of our shadow self.” Freud and Jesus agreed on one thing- we humans seek to feel better about ourselves by thinking worse about other people. If the dirt is on the other, we can create the delusion that we are clean. This is called projection. It’s an unconscious process, meaning that it would be typical to deny that any of this is true. It’s a pervasive, dominant, societal disease. It keeps us from honesty appraising ourselves and coming to terms with the brokenness within ourselves we would rather not face. When we project out, we essentially fear a true encounter with ourselves. So we need targets outside to blame and distract us from a sober assessment of ourselves. Jesus warned us not to focus on the speck in the other’s eye when we have a beam in our own eye. Karl Menninger in his book “The Crime of Punishment” suggested we will never get rid of our penal system because we need the “bad ones” to be behind bars in order for us to feel better about ourselves.
Fourth, “the idolatry of belief.” The heart and soul of the Christian faith is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the enfleshed, incarnate presence of God amongst us—God in the manger, God on the cross, God busting open the closed crypt—unleashing an alternative reality where all things will be made new. This is the centerpiece of the faith, the essence of what matters most. Over the years as Christianity has unfolded across the planet, many different doctrinal positions, biblical interpretations, ethical declarations have arisen in the Christian community along with contentious controversy about who really is a true Christian based on their various beliefs and practices. Douglas John Hall has termed this the “idolatry of belief” when these doctrines and moral principles are elevated to primary status, overshadowing the centrality of Jesus Christ. Of all places, the church planted in the Gospel and equipped with the Spirit should be THE place for robust moral, biblical, doctrinal conversations, centered around Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love.” Sadly, the church often runs the other way, afraid of honest talk on the central issues of the day. Fear and resignation win. Indeed these encounters are not easy, but we are helped by the ten words of the 17th century theologian Rupertus Meldenius—“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” What will all this mean for us in this diverse congregation?
To address these differences with a spirit of learning, the bold voice of truth telling, the open heart of compassion, Paul knows that something other than tips and tricks of good communication is critical. Paul directs the Corinthians and us to a single resource—the power of the cross. Think of it–“power.” Of course, we believe in the cross, but do we allow the power of the cross to invade us and do its transforming work in our encounters with each other? Pray that the Spirit of God in the power of the cross may invade and transform your full being so that you might be well equipped with the one resource for true renewal in difficult encounters. How might the power of the cross renew us and equip us/you for this work? A few ideas.
First, the cross makes a profound statement about commitment. In the cross, God’s love descends deep into our lives, deeper into our suffering, deepest into our dying. God’s commitment to us, for us, with us is unbroken, sealed in love, wrapped in the blood of the cross. By contrast, how easily do we separate from each other when we are offended? How easily do we fear the other will push us away if they don’t like what we say? How easily do we attack those who champion different political or doctrinal views? John Powell once wrote a book “Why Am I Afraid to Tell you Who I Am?” The answer inside was that if I tell you who I am, my deepest feelings and my dearest beliefs…you will not like me, I will lose you. The power of the cross embodies us in a steel commitment that will not be undone by the distress of difference.
Second, difficult differences are supersized in part because of our enormous egos and the well rehearsed defenses we construct to keep ourselves protected from the critiques of others. Paul describes this as the “wisdom of the world”. We know it well. In our confession in the liturgy, we confess “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” We know we hide from others, from ourselves, most importantly from God. The full truth about ourselves may be too difficult to honestly face. Sometimes God needs to do more painful work in our lives so that we are truly open to the truth about ourselves. St. Paul calls this “the wisdom of the cross,” a suffering which doesn’t break us apart, but is intended to break us open, as Parker Palmer writes, to the new mercies and tenderness of God’s care and guidance. When we are broken, but have nowhere to go, we are broken apart. But when we are broken open, we have a place to go, a place called home, a place where we will be filled with God’s great mercy and good hope. Broken open. God cannot fill us when we are preoccupied with ourselves. There needs to be a rigorous plowing of the rocks in our lives so that the ground is tender enough for God to plant fresh growth. When we live repentant lives, honest about the truth of ourselves, more open to the tender mercies of God’s love…how do you think this will all impact our dealing with others in difficult differences? Enormously! This is how, slowly, all things will be made new.
Third, the cross invites us to become more courageous. The word “courage” comes from the Latin word “cor” which means “heart.” Courage is less about bravery and more about being present with a full heart—a voice which speaks the truth of the heart boldly and a care for others which holds the other with open hands. The crucified Jesus is an electrifying presence of truth and love at the same time. As we are crucified with Jesus, the courage of the cross beckons us to not live in fear, but with the courage of truth and love radiating from our hearts in beauty and power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls us to embody a love which puts Jesus between us and the other. See the other through the cross of Christ. Through the cross, see the other as one who God made….the other as one for whom Christ died. Jesus is the space between us where we are invited to meet the other. Allow the power of the cross to work in you and through you. This will be your best blessing, and will release an abundance of courage and beauty within you.
To conclude, I want to move forward 1500 years from Paul in Corinth, Greece to Marburg, Germany…specifically October 1, 1529. The Protestant Reformation in Europe is in full swing. Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door in 1517. The flames of protest are spreading through Europe against the Roman Catholic Church’s domination and its concurrent diminishment of the power and purity of the Gospel through mechanisms like indulgences which were in essence purgatory punch cards, yielding good revenue for the domination of the Holy Roman Empire. At that time Luther was the most famous man in Europe, spearheading the reform and going head to head with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. But there were other reform movements in Europe, including Ulrich Zwingli’s leadership in nearby Switzerland, based in Zurich. The Reformation was a mass movement with political implications as well. Princes, lords, and rulers in Europe wanted unification in the protest in order to gain strength against the Holy Roman Empire. Reformers fighting against other reformers endangered political unity.
Bring in the German Luther and the Swiss Zwingli. They agreed on many things. But they were at war on one thing—their interpretation of the Eucharist which was based on different interpretations of the Bible. In short, Zwingli believed the Eucharist was simply a memorial meal to remember the life of Christ. Luther was repulsed by this dilution of the text. Luther insisted this was not just a memory meal, but was the actual, real body and blood of Jesus. Why? Luther simply stated “Because Christ said it.” And when asked how could this be, Luther replied that many things about God are mysterious, and this is one of them. This one dispute wound up their anger. Luther called Zwingli a “heretic.” Zwingli called Luther “boorish, godless, and ridiculous.” Degrading names were flying back and forth. They had true convictions. Philip, one of the regional lords, was worried the Protestants would break the alliance. He needed unity to move against the Roman Catholics. So he called Luther and Zwingli and their entourages together at the Marbug castle for four days in October, 1529, about 50 people total. Discussions, harsh debates, blood boiling. At one point Luther took out a knife and carved in the table “Hoc est meum corpus”—this is my body…he was indignant and insistent. If you would have told these men that respectful conversations are not about being right or wrong, they would have been shocked and repulsed. When a lot is on the line, there will be strong convictions of right and wrong, and we will attempt to convince others of our positions. It would be foolish to suggest that “respectful conversations” do not include the fire of conviction around truth.
After four days of sweat, they agreed on 14 articles including the Trinity, justification by faith, the person of Christ, original sin, the sacraments, the Holy Spirit. But they could not come to agreement on the 15th article about the Eucharist and concluded with these words: “And although we have not been able to agree at this time, whether the true body and blood of Christ are corporally present in the bread and wine [of communion],each party should display towards the other Christian love, as far as each respective conscience allows, and both should persistently ask God the Almighty for guidance so that through his Spirit he might bring us to a proper understanding.” This statement was so important—in spite of the fire of their judgments, they acknowledged that their lives were anchored in Christian love and that they needed to be attentive to how God would continue to birth in them fresh insights and understandings. The God of the future would lead them to new places.
So what might we learn from the Marburg summit? Difficult differences have marked the church’s history, and still do. But this should not instill fear, but a commitment to encounter each other as they did in Marburg. This is the cross at work. We are also invited not to be timid about speaking our truths and to unpack how we got there and how we are linked with the story of faith. We should not be hesitant to take positions of being right and wrong. This is not disrespect, but bold honesty. We should also be mindful about agreements as Luther and Zwingli did in their 14 articles, only differing on the 15th. Often we focus on differences only and miss agreements. We should also pray that we might hold positions as open learners. Note the words of the 15th article—we couldn’t solve it all, but Christian love will prevail…and we will be open learners attentive to the Spirit’s guidance. These are powerful words of Christian hope in the swamp lands of harsh differences.
I want to conclude with a prayer, the prayer Zwingli said as the summit began, a prayer for all seasons, for us now. Zwingli prayed: “Fill us, O Lord and Father of us all, we beseech Thee, with thy gentle Spirit, and dispel on both sides all the clouds of misunderstanding and passion. Make an end to the strife of blind fury…Guard us against abusing our powers, and enable us to employ them with all earnestness for the promotion of holiness.” May this prayer of power and beauty in dealing with difficult differences be ours today and always. In the name of Jesus. Amen.