January 22, 2023

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
Matthew 4:12-23

“Called into Community”

There’s a beautiful line in this morning’s psalm that religious people often like. It says, “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”

It sounds like a wonderful escape from all the troubles and trials of living in the world every day. We come to the place of worship and we enjoy the experience of singing and praying and drawing close to God, and receiving God’s love and protection. The Psalmist explains that God “will hide [him] in a shelter in the day of trouble; [God] will conceal [him] under the cover of his tent.” The house of the Lord is a place of safety where the Psalmist is “lifted up above [his] enemies all around.”

I wonder if that’s what it felt like for the earliest disciples when they responded to Jesus’ call to follow him. After all, God had come to be with them in the world in the person of Jesus Christ. And these fishermen not only had the opportunity to hear from God in his preaching and teaching, and to see God’s power in his miracles and healing touch, but to encounter God as a person who loved them, and to stay with God as a companion and guide.

They could keep on struggling every day with their heavy labour and the challenges of daily life, or they could go with the Lord on the way – seeking God’s face and beholding God’s beautiful presence right in their midst. They got to drop their fishing nets, leaving behind the drudgery of their daily existence, and choosing to live in the “house of the Lord,” seeing God’s beautiful face in the anointed one who had come to reveal it to them.

But what the Psalmist did not emphasize was that the “house of the Lord” is not a private residence where a religiously-motivated person may choose to commune with God and be lifted up above all the concerns of this world. I believe it’s quite the opposite actually. It’s more like a bustling multi-generational household with people coming and going, working and playing, sharing and arguing, caring and struggling together in community.

I’m pretty sure that’s more like what the first disciples experienced when they joined Jesus’ travelling group. They didn’t just sit and pray with him peacefully every day. They walked, and they worked, and they struggled with new challenges like where they would sleep, and where they’d find food, and what kind of response they’d get from the people they met along the way.

And even if each one of them loved being with the kind, gracious, wise, and charismatic Jesus, they probably didn’t always like being with each other. There are a few instances where the Gospels mention the disciples arguing with each other as they walked along. And I can only imagine that conflicts and arguments would have happened pretty regularly in a group of diverse personalities and experiences living together in challenging circumstances.

The fact is that when we are called to follow Jesus, we’re not just invited into a relationship with Jesus, but we’re called into a community. It’s very much like when you decide to get married, you don’t just marry your beloved, you also become a part of their family and the people who are closest to them. And they become a part of your family too.

And when you struggle with those new relationships, like perhaps disagreements with, say, your mother-in-law… sometimes it is the love you share for that person who brought you together, the commitment you have to that person, and the fact that that person loves you both… that encourages you to keep trying, to be patient, to be kind, and to forgive.

The church is like that too. Although some of us may have joined up because we really wanted to spend time with Jesus, we’ve undoubtedly discovered that it was more than just a call to follow him, but a call to do it together with others. And although some of us may have searched for a congregation or a denomination where we could just peacefully gather for spiritual experiences of God’s love and protection in the “house of the Lord,” that’s not really how church works.

Our church families experience all the same kinds of stresses and strains that our nuclear and extended families do. We’re drawn together because God has loved us, and we have loved God in return. And God has said to us so clearly in Jesus, “Just as I have loved you, you ought to love one another.” So here we are, trying to do that in our congregation, in our denomination, and even in the worldwide Christian Church.

The First Christian Church at Corinth is a good reminder for us that Christian communities have struggled with conflict from the beginning. At Corinth, the Christians had arguments over how to share the Lord’s Supper, which spiritual gifts were most important, and which leader they should align themselves with.

But the Apostle Paul, who was the one who first brought them the invitation to follow Jesus who called them into community, appealed to these Christians to stop arguing. He called them brothers and sisters, siblings in the family of God, and reminded them of their reason for being together – that they all loved the Lord Jesus Christ, which made them a family.

Paul begged them to be in agreement with one another, and urged them to put away their quarrels and divisions as they united around a common purpose with a common mind.

It seems that the Corinthian Church had divided itself into at least four factions, with each group identifying itself with a particular leader, each of which probably emphasized some important priority or focus for the church. It was reported to Paul by “Chloe’s people,” (perhaps a faction of its own) that there were quarrels among the people with some saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

Now, I expect that each of those leaders had some wonderful gifts and ideas that they were promoting in the church’s ministry and mission. Paul was a great evangelist to the Gentiles, and Peter was the Rock of the Church keeping it connected to Jerusalem and its foundation in Jesus’ ministry. I have also heard that Apollos may have been an excellent preacher and teacher.

But rather than celebrating that diversity of gifts, each arising from the Holy Spirit, and making space for each one, the community was arguing, excluding, and dividing from those who were different.

You may have noticed, of course, that one of the groups proclaims their allegiance not to one of the apostles, but they say “We belong to Christ.” A commentary by Rev. Dr. Stephen Farris calls this group the “spiritually superior” ones. These people would, of course, be “right,” that they don’t belong to a human leader, but to Christ himself. But being right can still be a problem.

Farris explains, “People are as likely to be wounded by the group that is right as by the one that is wrong. In a situation of church conflict, being right is never good enough, if there is no love. Paul will also return to that point in chapter 13 (the love chapter)… and more directly in connection with the eating of meat offered to idols, the point that being right is not enough.”

I wonder if there are disagreements or conflicts coming into your mind as I talk about Paul’s message to the First Christian Church at Corinth. After all, we’ve been called into community here at the First Presbyterian Church at Regina, and we’ve had the experience of working, worshipping, serving, caring for each other, and reaching out to our neighbourhood together for nearly 100 years.

Over that time, I know there have been disagreements and conflicts. Whether you were deciding together which minister to call, or which colour of carpet to put in… whether you were choosing how to invest church finances or how to use your resources for mission or education… whether you had disagreements over worship styles or music or how much to charge to the outside groups that rent space from you… there’s always plenty to argue about when we are called into community.

I think it’s important to remember that when Paul references “agreement” and “no divisions,” this is not a plea for “no differences” or “no variety” in the church. Rather, “Paul wants the Corinthians to be more like the Christ in whom they dwell – committed to new values that align with a new Christ-defined identity, and unwilling to regard dominances as the means towards securing greatness.”

Even though some of the Corinthians have aligned themselves with Paul himself, Paul removes himself from the popularity contest that seems to be going on. He doesn’t want people claiming that they belong to his group or bragging that the “great apostle Paul” baptized them. And then he goes on to talk about the cross of Christ.

He reminds Christians then and now that Jesus’ way was not to claim his rightness and demand our allegiance. His way was not to claim a position with power, and separate himself from those who disagreed. His way involved speaking the truth in love, engaging in dialogue, being patient with rejection, and loving his neighbours till the end.

Paul rightly says that “the message about the cross is foolishness” to most people, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” This way of love, of humility, of faithfulness, and of forgiveness is the way that leads to glory – the way that leads us into the house of the Lord where we may dwell forever.

It’s not an easy call because it’s not just about “me and Jesus,” but it’s a call into the difficult work of living in community. It requires not only that we drop fishing nets like we saw the first disciples do, but that we leave behind ego, selfishness, perfectionism, and judgment. We are invited to follow Jesus’ way into a community of love, and it will be our humility, our patience, and our grace to one another that will make it so.