Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Every Way

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

It would have been easy for Paul to just walk away. His joyful and celebratory opening to this letter to the church at Corinth doesn't tell the whole story. The church in the Greek city of Corinth was one of his “babies.” He had spent 18 months there, preaching, teaching, and evangelizing to build up this new community, and he did it all while facing extreme pressure and persecution from the establishment. And things didn't get much better after he left.

In addition to opposition from outsiders, things started going wrong on the inside of the church. Divisions arose, along with a corruption of practice and preaching. Factions argued about who was more spiritual. Immorality was running rampant. Brothers and sisters in Christ turned on one another with lawsuits. Worship was a mess. The church was arguing and bickering and drawing arbitrary lines in the sand about who was in and who was out.

Few people would have blamed Paul if he had ignored the pleas of those who apparently begged him to stay involved, to guide them back to effective ministry, but in the opening of his letter back to the Corinthians he tells them exactly why he didn't ignore them, why he wouldn't end their relationship. He tells them exactly why he believes they shouldn't turn away from one another, but find a way forward in the name of Christ. It all comes down to one word for Paul, a word he uses four times in this opening greeting.

Paul, called to be an apostle. The church, called to be saints. Together with all those who call on Jesus. By God called into fellowship. For Paul, it seems, it all comes down to call. He couldn't ignore the Corinthians because God called him and sent him to that place and those people. He couldn't and wouldn't shut the relationship completely down, because the relationship wasn‟t something he had formed from his own desire, on a whim. He was in relationship with the Corinthians, even if he was no longer living among them, because God had called him to them. God had joined them together in the Spirit.

Likewise the church at Corinth wasn't meant to be just a gathering of like-minded people who thought it would be fun to get together every once in a while. The church wasn't and isn't a social club created by its members for their own enjoyment, for the support of their own positions, or even to help out the community every once in a while. The church wasn't and isn't, at least as Paul understands it, some random voluntary organization that people join because the mission statement sounds nice, they seem to do a lot of good around town, and it looks good to the neighbors.

The church is the church OF God. The church is assembled by a very special invitation, an invitation that comes from God. The bounds of the church are not set by human minds nor human rules, but are instead set far and wide by God, the Father and Mother of us all who calls us children together into one body. Who are we, the ones who are called, not the ones doing the calling, to decide who is in and who is out? Who are we to even exclude ourselves from the body of Christ when it is God who calls us together, when it is God who calls us imperfect creatures together?

There have been and will be times in many of our lives when we will face a temptation to take ourselves out of the body of Christ, maybe a particular congregation, maybe the universal gathering of the people of faith all together. There are many and varied situations that might lead someone down this road of discernment, and I do believe that there are legitimate and Spirit-filled reasons to come to the decision that it is time to leave a congregation. I do believe that God can call us from one gathering of God's church to another. However, it is never a light decision and it should never be because we believe the new body is any more perfect than the last.

Paul says that the church called together is sanctified, made holy, but he never says it is perfect. Actually, I think the word sanctified really points to how imperfect we are. We have to be called together ansd made holy by God and God alone because we could never do it on our own. We could never be called the saints Paul says we are by our own power and practice of living. It would be easy to hear mistakenly in that word “perfect, above reproach, right.” It would be easy to hear in that word that we are better than others, holier than the rest, but we shouldn't allow ourselves to fall to that temptation. Being sanctified means first that the church has NEEDED God's blessing.

God takes imperfect, unholy, even sinful people, and calls us together into one body, setting us aside for God's purposes. Again, who are we to judge God's call?
There was a time in the history of this church, like many or most churches, when its members were faced with that decision. There was a time when people were deciding if God was calling them into other communities of faith or if God was calling them to remain in relationship here. As I can only imagine and as I understand from your telling, it was a painful and difficult time. It was a time that pointed to the humanity of the people of God, to our imperfections, our brokenness, and ultimately our dependence upon God. It was a time like Paul faced when people probably wouldn't have blamed you from just walking away.

But it also turns out that it was a time when God's call was made clear, because some people stayed. Some people stayed to work together and work things out. This is not to say that those who left were any less faithful. No, I do believe there are times that God calls us to new churches and new relationships in the family of faith. But what we celebrate today is that some people realized that this gathering of the saints of God was not a haphazard gathering. This church was called into being by God, and covered in the grace and the Spirit of God they committed themselves to the hard work of learning what it means to be called by God to be here together with all their different gifts, with all their different blessings to bring to the table.

Key to accepting the call to be together for this or any church is remembering that God is at the center, remembering that we are the church OF God. It is not by our own choice, but by the Spirit's leading that we are called to this or any church. It is God who calls us here; it is God who desires our diversity of gifts and expressions of faith. It is God who ensures that we who are gathered are enriched with every spiritual gift that is needed to carry out the call before us, the call to lift our voices and our actions in praise of our Lord Jesus Christ. The result is a community that is not monolithic, a purposely mixed and varied family of faith.

It is purposeful, but that doesn't make it easy. The challenge as Christians in the midst of diverse community is to stay in relationship for the sake of Christ. The challenge is to understand that as strongly as one holds an opinion about the music, the walls, the children's education, the adult education, the role of the session, the direction of our mission, there is someone else who holds another opinion just as tightly. The challenge from Paul and from this history of our church, the challenge that this five year old building testifies to is the challenge to respond to God's call with a resounding yes. Yes, I will stay in relationship with your people. Yes, I will stay in relationship with you. Yes, I will sacrifice my comfort some of the time for the benefit of others, because I trust that yes, they will do the same for me later.

Five years ago, the Our Town Presbyterian Church family in Christ was called to move into this new building and begin worshiping, and learning, and growing here. Many who were here then speak of it as time when our call out of division toward unity in Christ was fully embodies. In moving to a new space with a new commitment to be together enriched in every way by our diversity, we were called and rededicated to a holy way of life, with God at the center, blessing each and every member with gifts to contribute to the gospel ministry. Intentionally or unintentionally it was a fresh start. It was a unique chance to bring the best of what the church was and leave the rest behind. It was a chance to reassemble under the grace and peace of God.

Even today, this new building challenges us to be the church that Paul describes; it challenges us to see ourselves and others as apostles of Jesus, called and sent to make the gospel, the good news of God's re-creation, known in the world. It challenges us to live in holy community with another, not perfect, but sanctified. Forgiven and forgiving when mistakes are made, loving when personalities clash. It challenges us to remember that the building is not an end in itself, the building is the means by which we live out our calling to be followers of Jesus.

In the final report of the Building Workgroup to the congregation five years ago, it was said, “One thing we need to be cautious about is looking at the new building with an attitude of 'what can it do for me?' On the contrary, we should be wondering 'how can we use this building to better carry out our mission in the community?' As proud as we might be of it, it is not 'our building.' It is just 'ours to use.' Hopefully, it will be used a lot and for many different purposes all of which are in accordance with God's will. Knowing this congregation as I do, I am optimistic about us doing just that and I know we can do it if we all participate.”

The building is where we gather to worship God together in community regularly, but it's not the only place we ever have to worship. The building is where our educational ministries are anchored, but we can learn in a variety of settings in the world. The building is where we meet to organize and plan our ministry in the community and hopefully around the world, but the building is not the end all be all of who we are in this church. We celebrate five years in this beautiful, beautiful, inclusive space, but we dare not hide in our new building. We dare not point to the day this congregation moved into this building and say, “There we finished what God wanted us to do.” That was just the new beginning. And from that new beginning we
are called to serve Jesus in many different ways, in every way that we have been blessed.

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