Epiphany 2-A: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42
Twenty years after the crucifixion and resurrection, Paul, under the direction of the Spirit, plants a church in Corinth, stays a year and a half to get it going, and then heads off to plant another one, this time in Ephesus. Imagine how hard it must have been to grow a church in the middle of a cosmopolitan city in Greece. Corinth, which sits on the narrow isthmus between Athens to the north and Sparta to the south, is described by Paul, according to N T Wright, as “a lively and lascivious city, with its class distinctions and its law courts; its temples, markets, and brothels; its dinner parties, wedding, and festivals.” Paul: A Biography, Page 209
How would you even start to do such a thing? My first church was only a year old when I arrived as a newly minted Deacon and then priest, but most of the members had grown up in a church and knew what it meant to follow Jesus Christ. Paul is working among folks who don’t have a clue what it might mean to follow Jesus.
This letter is most famous, of course, for its 13th chapter, the “Love Chapter” which begins, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels and have not love I am a sounding gong and a clanging symbol” and twelve verses later ends with, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
This is mostly read at marriages which is a good thing, for the bride and groom are sometimes too young to hold an understanding of Love based on the cross of Christ, and instead hold to the ideal of romantic love which lasts about as long as dew on a summer morning.
Paul would have us know that it is possible to talk Love, and miss Love. It’s why parents who want their children to learn only about right and wrong but not learn about Jesus are missing the source of true goodness.
But Paul first makes sure Jesus is at the center of his message by naming Jesus Christ 8 times in the opening 9 verses of his letter.
Then, 20 verses later, he reminds them who they were before Jesus entered their lives: he says, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption….”
In the months ahead as All Saints’ goes through a discernment process led by a diocesan consultant, it will be important to remember both the centrality of Jesus Christ and the inability of any church to be faithful without relying on the faithfulness of God.
In broad terms we know what God’s will for All Saints’ is: to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to Love your neighbor as yourself. But that needs to be brought down from 30,000 feet to ground level in concrete decisions, practices, and actions to make that love as visible and transforming in the years ahead, as it has been in the years past.
The discernment process requires faithful work that is built on Jesus as Lord and Christ, and not built on making All Saints successful as the world counts success.
We saw the movie Little Women two weeks ago: half-way through I realized this was the most visually beautiful movies I remember seeing. From landscapes to fabrics to families in embrace it is simply Breathtaking.
In one scene it’s Christmas and the mother and her four daughters are by themselves while the husband and father is fighting in the Civil War.
Christmas day the four sisters come downstairs to a table laid with a fulsome feast. But then the mother says she’s just been to the home of a poor family—a mother with hungry kids who have nothing—and wouldn’t it be nice on Christmas to share their meal with them.
The girls don’t seem immediately taken with this idea, but they wrap up the food and themselves and head out into the snow. Along the way, on a ridge above, you see the town’s faithful walking into church, while the family is walking in the opposite direction to deliver the meal.
It’s a message that can’t be missed: there is a large group going to church and a small group being church on Christmas morn.
When the women return home, they find their table is now filled with an even greater feast, delivered by their well-to-do neighbor.
Abundance isn’t a description of how much a person has in his house, but how much a person has in her heart. Anyone can live an abundant life by simply believing that the abundance of the ever-present God is with us here and now.
The disciples feel a profound sense of scarcity when Jesus tells them to feed the 5000 with only 5 loaves and 2 fish. But when they hand what they have to Jesus, they witness the abundance of God.
Much of Paul’s letter is taken up in criticisms of things he has heard are going on in the church: there’s immorality, some people getting drunk at the Eucharistic feast while others go hungry. And then there is the problem of too many people speaking in tongues during worship without someone to interpret, so newcomers think the people are out of their minds. (Not an everyday problem at All Saints!)
But Paul, the faithful pastor, doesn’t start his letter with those issues. He doesn’t start with a rebuke—rather as we’ve seen, in the first nine verses he opens with today, he starts with Jesus Christ and then he reminds them of the abundance they already have in Christ.
Because next Sunday will be my last Sunday with you, I suddenly see these words in a much more personal light, as Paul builds up this church that he loves but can’t be with in person.
I want to use these words as my own, addressed to you, All Saints Church, using The Message, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:
“Every time I think of you—and I think of you often!—I thank God for your lives of free and open access to God, given by Jesus. There’s no end to what has happened in you—it’s beyond speech, beyond knowledge. The evidence of Christ has been clearly verified in your lives.
Just think—you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale. And not only that, but God himself is right alongside to keep you steady and on track until things are all wrapped up by Jesus. God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, shares with us the life of his Son and our Master Jesus. He will never give up on you. Never forget that.” 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 The Message