Sunday, February 07, 2010

First Things First -- A Sermon

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Those of you who’ve been part of the God is Green study know that we’ve been talking about the ways our lives impact the environment. Although God may have given us a beautiful world to live in and the job of being good stewards of this gift, too often we’ve muddied the waters and trampled down the pastures (Ezk: 34:18). As we’ve been talking about our impact on the environment, a troubling question has emerged: “How much is enough?” That is, if our pursuit of bigger and better has a negative impact on the environment, what am I willing to live without? What would I be willing to sacrifice?

That’s one way to ask the question of priorities, but we could ask it in other ways. For instance, since we seem to be in an ongoing economic crisis, one that grips our nation, our state, and our local communities, including the city of Troy, we might ask the question: what services do we consider important and essential?

1. Back to Basics

I’m not sure that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians answers either our environmental or our economic questions, but it does raise the question of which beliefs and practices are essential. In this chapter of his letter, Paul focuses on what defines the Christian faith?

Now, Paul is writing to a congregation that he founded, and so he feels a certain sense of ownership and responsibility for them. From the letters he’s been getting from church members, he’s concluded that they’ve gotten off track. Since his last visit they’ve become embroiled in bitter disputes over matters of sexuality, food, idolatry, spiritual gifts, worship, and more. You name it and they’ve raised the question? And so in his attempt to get them back on task, he calls them back to basics.

Two hundred years ago, a Presbyterian pastor living on what was then the American frontier – Washington, PA – encountered people without a shepherd, who seemed hopelessly divided over what this pastor considered minor issues. You see, as people crossed the mountains from the East, they left behind their spiritual homes, but brought with them their spiritual baggage. Now, living on the frontier, they often found themselves without a community like the one they left behind, and so many of them simply gave up on their faith. Thomas Campbell decided to help them, but in doing so, he got in trouble with his superiors. That’s because he tried to provide this very diverse lot a place to call home, by going back to basics. He decided to emphasize what he believed where the common threads of the Christian faith, and no more. It was on the basis of this simple faith that he invited people to the table of the Lord.

2. Paul’s First Things.

Paul was trying to do something similar with the Corinthians. In trying to respond to their questions, he laid out for them what he believed were first principles of the Christian faith. This was the gospel that had been delivered to him, and it’s the gospel he had passed on to the Corinthians, so now it made sense to call them back to these basics.

Paul’s gospel has three basic elements: The death, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus. He tells the Corinthians to hold firmly to this confession of faith that focuses on events that transpired over a three-day period – from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

Now you might disagree with Paul’s list of essentials. You might think it’s a bit too narrow. Maybe you’d like to add some points between Christmas and Good Friday. And that’s okay, but remember Paul is dealing with a very conflicted bunch, and he needs to get them on the same page. If they’re going to tackle all of these divisive issues that were confronting them, then they would need to agree on some first principles, and these are the ones Paul had laid out for them from the beginning.

At the heart of his message is the risen Christ. It might be worth noting that this passage could be the earliest written witness to the resurrection tradition. He wanted them to know that the one who had died on the cross was alive and present in and with the church. He goes on in the verses that follow to emphasize how important the resurrection is to his gospel. If Christ is not raised, he says, then their faith and their hopes are in vain. Paul was writing this because, some of the people had gotten the impression that this life was all there is, and so you could live however you pleased. And, of course, things had gotten a bit ugly. Hoping to bring them back together, he reminded them of the basics, that simple straightforward faith that he had passed on to them at an earlier time.

So what does Paul’s gospel have to say to us? What are our first principles? What binds us together and guides us when things get difficult? While we might disagree on the color of the carpet, the styles of music, or what goes up on the walls of the sanctuary, at the end of the day it is our faith in God as revealed to us in the risen Christ that binds us together.

As we consider this question of what is essential, consider for a moment the story of the one whom Brennan Manning calls the Man of Sorrows in his book Patched Together. We first meet the man of sorrows when a young Mexican boy named Willie Juan tries to give water to a figure hanging on a crucifix in the church. He quickly discovers that this is a carving, but he will reencounter this Man of Sorrows many more times in life, and in those encounters this boy, whose body and spirit are scarred, finds hope and healing. He discovers that it is the Man of Sorrows who bears our griefs and our scars, and in return offers healing. The healing that he receives is a gift freely given, and it is life changing, but it also requires something of him and of us – a willingness to put our lives into the hands of another.1 Paul offers the risen Christ to us as the basis of our oneness, so that we might find wholeness. If we can do this, then perhaps we can boldly sing the words of Brian Wren that are found in our opening hymn:

Christ is risen! Raise your spirits from the caverns of despair,
Walk with gladness in the morning. See what love can do and dare.
Drink the wine of resurrection, not a servant, but a friend;
Jesus is our strong companion. Joy and peace shall never end.
(Chalice Hymnal, 222).

3. Our Witness: The Practice of Faith

As Paul shares his gospel, he invites the Corinthian church – and us – to share in his witness. As you listen to his invitation, you may get the sense that there have been other voices claiming their allegiance, and its these voices that have gotten them off track. In defending his own mission, he starts with an apology. He is, he writes, one who is untimely born. Unlike the twelve, he’d never had the opportunity to walk with Jesus in life. He wasn’t among the five hundred, nor was he James, who by then led the Jerusalem church. In fact, while those he named were receiving visitations from the risen Christ, he was trying to destroy this new faith that he now proclaimed. He was, by his own admission, the least of the Apostles. And yet, despite all of this, he too had received a visitation from the risen Christ, and it was out of that revelation of grace that he now wrote these words to this congregation.

This morning we gather as servants of the risen Christ. We come as those who have been called to bear witness to the Man of Sorrows, who has born our griefs and brought wholeness to our lives. It’s out of this encounter with Christ that we’ve become, like Paul, apostles. We are now witnesses of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

Therefore, as followers of the risen Christ, how should we bear witness to his presence in our lives? Is it simply believing the right things? Or does it involve the way we live our lives? Last Sunday we spoke of the power of love, and as we left the building we sang – “they will know we are Christians by our love.” In what way are we living out this affirmation?

In deciding to follow Jesus, we’ve embrace a way of life. As John’s gospel puts it, Jesus said to the people “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). That is the message of the resurrection, and so as we ponder the question of what this means to our lives, I’d like to add a note from Dorothy Bass’s book Practicing our Faith:

A way of life abundant: this is God’s gift in the midst of the ordinary stuff of existence. This way of life – abundant not in money and possessions but in mercy and hope – is given not only for the sake of those who are its members. It is given that these might live for the sake of others, and indeed for the sake of all creation. The challenge is to discern how to live this way of life within a specific context, at your moment in history.2

So, how shall we live, as we embrace the call to follow the risen Christ? In her book Dorothy Bass, along with a series of other writers, introduces us to twelve practices that range from hospitality to dying well. Each of these practices can help us live fully into God’s grace.

Another way to live into our witness to the gospel of the risen Christ, is to be begin making ethical consumer decisions. As Julie Clawson puts it, in her book Everyday Justice, this involves the principle of ethical consumption. Ethical Consumption “implies that we will apply our moral values and ethical standards to our consumer habits. We don’t opt out of a necessary system, but we redeem it by trying to live by a more consistent ethic.”3

So the questions of the day are these: Who is the Risen Christ, and what does it mean to be his follower?

1. Brennan Manning, Patched Together: A story of my story, (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010).

2. Dorothy Bass, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. 2nd ed., (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2010), p. xiii.

3. Julie Clawson, Every Day Justice, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2009), p. 26. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
February 7, 2010
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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