Sunday, February 05, 2012

Who are We In Christ? A Sermon

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Rene Descartes declared these famous words – in Latin of course – Cogito ergo sum.   That is, “I think, therefore I am.”   According to this famous philosopher the ability to reason and to think defined human identity.  Many people, especially today, would find his definition rather limited, because it seems to exclude a lot that makes us who we are.     But who are you?  What makes you, you?   

I can’t answer this question for you, but I can say something about my own identity.   I do like to think, but I’m more than my ability to reason.  

I am a middle-aged, well-educated, middle-class European-American male, who has been happily married for going on twenty-nine years and who is a father of one adult child who also happens present in the room.  My maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Holland, while ancestors on my father’s side came to Massachusetts’s Bay Colony not long after its establishment.  I’m a Christian, a pastor, a historian, and a writer.  I was born in LA and grew up in Northern California and Oregon.  Except for a short period spent in Kansas, before we moved here, I lived my entire life on the West Coast.   I’ve been an Episcopalian, a Pentecostal, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist.   I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and I like the music of Neil Young and Miles Davis.  Of course, I enjoy all things Star Trek and Big Bang Theory.  I love pizza, Mexican food, and of course, I like pie!!   I could add to this list but you’‘d get really bored!  

Last week I asked the question: Who is Jesus?  This week our scripture asks a related question: Who are you in Christ?   That is, what difference does Jesus make to who you are as a person?     

Paul answers this question in terms of his vocation.  He declares:  I preach the gospel, not out of choice, but out of obligation.  Therefore, I have no reason to boast, and the reward I receive comes from the fact that I preach without charge.  As you can see this is a very dangerous passage for those of us who preach and get paid, but I think we understand the point.

What Paul is most concerned about is that the good news of Jesus gets preached.  This is his passion and it defines his identity to such an extent that he says that he’ll do whatever is necessary to recruit Jews and Gentiles, strong and weak, into the body of Christ.  Therefore, he will become “all things to all people, so that I can save some by all possible means”  (1 Cor. 9:22).   What guides him in this course of action is the Law of Christ, which Jesus identifies as having two planks:  love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

Paul has offered his answer to the question of who he is in Christ?  But the question for us is: who am I in Christ?  What is Christ compelling me to be and to do?    

Knowing who you are as a person helps answer the question of who you are in Christ.  Paul has a strong sense of purpose.  Perhaps that Damascus Road experience imprinted on him a sense of calling that he couldn’t get away from.  

Although you may not have had a Damascus Road experience, or like Augustine heard a voice saying to you:  “Pick it up and Read,” which led you to pick up Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps a still small voice has spoken to you, inviting you to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and you have responded – Here I am, send me. 

As we think about this question of identity in Christ, I’d like to suggest four possible markers of identity.  Although I’m not a fan of using acronyms and acrostics in sermons, I think that the words Disciple, Inclusive, Sharing, and Healing are good defining words of Christian identity.  So, when you think of your identity – think DISH.  

I realize the word DISH has no theological meaning, but maybe it will help us remember this definition of our identity: We are Disciples of Jesus who seek to be inclusive of all people as we share the good news of Jesus Christ and engage in healing ministry.  

We are DISCIPLES of Jesus

We are disciples of Jesus, which means that we are marked by our allegiance to him.  As the revelation of God for us, he defines who we are and what we do through his life and teachings.  We may not have had the luxury of personally walking with Jesus, but the gospels serve as our guide, and the Spirit of God empowers us to live this life of discipleship in the world. 

Who Seek to be INCLUSIVE of all people

It’s possible that I’m stretching this phrase “all things to all people,” but I hear in it a call to be inclusive of all people. Exclusive groups build walls and set rigid criteria for membership, while inclusive groups focus on people.  They put out the welcome mat and treat people with honor and respect, whether they are rich or poor, male or female, young or old.  Ethnicity is not a barrier nor is what we consider to be disability.         

An inclusive community is hospitable, open minded, willing to learn and grow, to forgive, and when necessary to forget.  Although it is open, it’s also tethered to Jesus.  Like astronauts taking a walk in space, in our freedom we remain tethered to the gospel.  An inclusive community focuses on what holds us together rather than on what divides us.  Now as we know, this isn’t easy.  As one of our own pointed out in a meeting this past week: “Worship is easy, Church is hard.”  
 As we  SHARE the good news of Jesus

As disciples of Jesus who form an inclusive community of faith, we are called to share the good news in all its forms.  In his sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus defined the good news as a word to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).  This is a message of reconciliation that can change lives and liberate our creativity and imagination.  

We may not have a program for every issue, but we can love people with the love of Jesus. The world outside these walls isn’t looking for an institution to join, it’s looking for a community that loves God and loves all that God loves.   

      I remember going with high school friends to a bible study, not because I felt separated from God or because I was looking for answers to questions.  I went because I was lonely and needed a place to belong.   I found that and more, and it changed my life.  I’ve continued to grow and change over the years, but that was an important starting point on a very interesting journey with Jesus.
And engage in HEALING Ministry

Healing has a variety of definitions and as followers of Jesus we may be engaged in a variety of healing ministries.  It can mean touching bodies, minds, spirits, and relationships.  Healing means to making whole that which is broken, and our focus as God’s people is engaging in ministry that leads to reconciliation and wholeness in all of its dimensions.   

On one occasion when I was making a pastoral visit at a nursing home a woman wheeled herself into the room I was visiting.  She asked me:  Are you a minister?  I said yes.  And when I told her the name of the church, she told me that many years before she had been a member of that church, and from that day on I became her pastor.  What’s more, through her I gained the opportunity to minister to her friends in that nursing home.   Isn’t it amazing what God does when we’re just out and about in the community?  Without expecting it, we can become instruments of God’s healing presence.  

As disciples of Jesus we’re called to include the excluded, share the good news, and be God’s instruments of healing.  We don't have a magic wand that can instantly take care of everything, but if we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, things will happen.

And as we hear from Isaiah, when we get tired God is there to lift us up and empower us:   
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding  is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the LORD    will renew their strength;  they will fly up on wings like eagles;  they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.  (Isaiah 40:28-31 CEB).  
Who are you as a disciple of Jesus Christ?  What is your calling?  What is your passion?  Where is God leading you?  What is, that is, your identity?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 5, 2012


Kate said...

I am about to write sermon in response to your sermon. Ready? Ready.

Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing, and almost certainly the fact that I have not read the bible from cover to cover, but I didn't know before yesterday that the phrase "all things to all people" was a reference to the bible. I understand the passage as read as a call to Evangelism, a call to be a healing presence in the world, to embody Christ's love. But the language of "all things to all people" is highly problematic for me.

You see, I had always heard the phrase like this: "You can't be all things to all people," often offered as consolance after I had performed less than excellently,or hadn't made a friend or connection that I had craved. It was a comfort after disappointing someone. You can't be all things to all people was a reminder that I was limited, that there were others that might be able to do what i had wanted to do better or easier. You see, we all have gifts.

the way the passage is written, in the translation offered, suggests three things to me. One, it suggests that expanding the body of christ is all about acting in the most instrumental way possible. I am reminded of a story that my Mega Church Christian grandparents told about the small church that they went to when they lived in rural Oklahoma. At the morning service, someone came forward to be saved. At the afternoon service, they asked that woman to repeat the performance. In a more secular context, I am reminded of the common conception of networking -- find people who can do things for you, people who can provide you with connections to get things done. It feels so cold and heartless to me, without real, right relationship, but it is apparently the only way to get things done. Is this not inclusive, to do everything it takes to have someone join the body of Christ?

Two, it suggests a lack of boundaries to me. To be all things to all people is to not know when to say no to requests. It is to take on more and more until you are overwhelmed and have no more left for yourself to have in relationship with God. It is to give of yourself and your resources and become poorer for it, instead of richer. When we joined the Church, you told us that you were weary of asking us to do too much lest you scare us away. That some people in the congregation were over extended and needed to be relieved, but were refusing relief -- in my mind, they were trying to be all things to all people. Is this not sharing, to be so involved in your church?

Kate said...

Three, it suggests paternalism to me. To be all things to all people suggests that you know what all people need, that you know what they require. To the poor, you become a source of gently worn suits for job interviews -- except that most poor people who interview for jobs are interviewing for jobs where suits are rediculous. They don't need suits to apply for a job at McDonald's. To mothers on welfare you become a baby sitter so they can go look for jobs, jobs they'll be unable to keep because of childcare costs.(The paternalism of cutting people off of welfare given this catch-22 is an entirely different story. Is this not an attempt at healing, to offer what a person lacks?

To be all things to all people is not who I want to be in Christ. I do want to be inclusive, sharing, and healing -- but I don't want to be all things to all people.

Pastor Bob, you hinted at the basics of identity politics in your sermon. You said, "I can't answer this question [of identity] for you," and I believe as you presented it in the sanctuary, even said that to do so would be paternaliistic. This was a lesson that would be well served at Central Woodward. In the faith and politics class we talked about this, many older members getting frustrated that "We used to call them south asians! Now they want to be called Indians, or Phillipinos, or wheverever they're from. How are we supposed to know?" I told them this: "Avoid labelling people until they tell you who they are. Be open to the possibility of people defining themselves differently than you expect them to."

To be truly inclusive is to practice this kind of empathy, this waiting and seeing for someone to slowly unfold themselves before you, accepting them all the while. It's to be hospitable, to offer yourself first. It would be to say, "I'd love to have you over for dinner. I was thinking of making roast, do you eat meat?" rather than assuming that everyone eats meat just because you do. It is to practice intentional networking to build your intentional community, as I have discovered recently to come to grips with networking as essential for success in life -- it is to give of the value that you add, to discern what someone needs first instead of asking from them.

Kate said...

To be truly sharing, you need to have boundaries. In the Sinai experiment, where we talked about living the 10 commandments affirmatively, the book posited that the first commandment given to moses in the desert was to instruct the Israelites not to hoard the manna. To only take what they needed, and to give away what they did not need. Since hearing about this, I have made it a practice to give away what we no longer need. I had a friend who I gave much of our need-fulfilled baby stuff to -- she asked me why I was so generous. I told her that I was only giving her what I didn't need. I would not give her the baby sling we still use, or the swaddling blankets that were so useful to us. I would not give away the sound machine we just bought, either. They are what we need, they are not for giving away. God wants us to keep what we need. Further more, I only gave her what she could use, and I asked her what those things were -- avoiding paternalism.

To be truly healing, you need to abandon your privildge and paternalism, and again practice empathy. You are not the minority that you are trying to help. You cannot know what they need without asking them. The translation from the Message of this passage exemplifies this best: I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I've become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life.

If you are not black, gay, a woman, you can't truly know what it is like to be black, gay, or a woman. You need to experience things from their point of view, not become all thigs to them. You need to empathize, accept their explanation of the way they see the world, even if you don't understand it. If a black person tells you it's racist, it's racist. If a gay person tells you it's homophobic, it's homophobic. If a woman tells you it's sexist, it's sexist. And if another person who shares that identity disagrees,that's fine -- we're talking about individuals here, it doesn't make them wrong in their perceptions.

I suppose this is an exploration of who I am in Christ. I want to be inclusive, sharing, healing -- but not all things to all people. I want to walk beside another person, learning from their experience, giving from myself first, giving what I do not need to survive, keeping only what I need to function. I want people to define themselves to me, I want to give them what they need, not just give.

Being all things to all people is especially harmful to women, I think, but is pernicious in every situation where someone in power has expectations about how someone should act. It's harmful to women who are taught to be submissive wives, perfect hosts, not stand up for themselves, not speak up. That is what "all people" want of them. It's harmful to men who are taught that they must be tough, they must be the bread winners, that money and career is more important than family. That is what "all people"" want of them. It's harmful to LGTBQ, who are expected to be straight. To racial minorties who are expected to be white. The message is not about being a chamelon for Christ, though I am afraid it might be taken that way.

Robert Cornwall said...


Thank you for your sermon in response to my sermon. You have so very thoughtfully worked on the implications of the text and my engagement with it. You have brought into the conversation your perspective, and pushed us to see the other side of the question.

The point about boundaries is helpful, and helps us again look at this from a different perspective.

I remember in seminary a class presentation on black theology by one of my classmates. He told us that unless we were black we really wouldn't get it. We didn't like hearing it, but over time I have begun to understand that I don't get it, or at least not fully, nor will I ever truly get it. That's not a bad thing, it's reality, and so as you note -- we must listen to each other with empathy.

Thank you for blessing us with your sermonic response!!

John said...


And it all begins with listening and doing so after having set aside one's own agenda.

You really are such a blessing.