I require your imagination to get started. Imagine a little improv game with two people. It starts with one person pretends to give the other a gift. He picks up an imaginary box, determining its size and weight. He hands it off to a second person. She pretends to open, saying “Oh my, thank you for this beautiful . . . (saying whatever comes to mind) . . . this wonderful teddy bear’s foot.” The first person thinks of a quick reply: “Yes, yes, I got you the teddy bear’s foot just to say . . . I’d give you my right leg if you wanted it. That’s how much I value your contribution to the office.” It’s fun little game; give it a try sometime. I’ll say more about it in a moment. First, I want us to turn our attention to I Corinthians (our reading for Jan. 22 was I Cor. 1:10-18).
The New Testament scholar Richard Hays, and many others who study Paul’s letters, say that the key to understanding this one is the tenth verse of the first chapter. There Paul writes this:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Let’s be sure we’ve caught some of those key phrases: ‘by the name’, ‘no divisions’, ‘united in the same mind’ and ‘united in the same purpose’. Later in this letter we learn that the group to which Paul wrote was divided by differences in their approach to the Christian life. It wasn’t the big theological claims that divided them, it was the ‘how’ of following Jesus. The Christian faith is, after all, more of a way of life than it is a list of timeless ideas. Several things were causing tension among the believers in Corinth: worship practices, matters of sexuality and marriage, spiritual gifts, whether or not in that context a women should wear something covering their hair. There was even tension related to food.
Here in the first chapter, however, Paul doesn’t get into the specifics. He just broaches the general theme if division. He mentions that the believers in Corinth divided themselves up into little denominations based on who baptized them. Some said they belonged to Paul, others to Peter (Cephas) and others still to Christ. Paul doesn’t just discourage this fractiousness, he says it’s unthinkable. As in, there is no ground within the faith for such behavior.
The irony, to point out the obvious, is that we still have these challenges today. We divide ourselves up based on our political views or our moral views. We might not divvy ourselves up based on who baptized us, but we do divide up based on what Christian tribe we belong to (Mennonite, Lutheran, Calvinist and so on).
Later in this letter, I’m thinking of chapter 11, Paul says that the Corinthian’s attention to being one body was so week that their divisions even showed up when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. This is no small thing; they may have celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week. We think they did that by gathering to share a meal and then, in that context, celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The thing is, they didn’t all eat the same chili. Each of them brought their own food. So some had a lot and some barely had anything. Instead of showing how Jesus had overcome significant social barrier and brought them together, the meal reaffirmed these barriers. It made it clear that some of them were rich and some of them were poor. Let’s home the meals we share today don’t do the same.
One of the take-aways, I suppose, is simply that being church is hard work. It was hard for the Corinthians and it’s hard for us.
Let’s think back to that little improve game I mentioned earlier. Here’s the connection. I think many of us are attracted by Jesus. We hear his teaching about the kingdom and about self-sacrificial love and we open our hands to receive what he offers. We’re expecting something wonderful. We open the box and look inside: we get the church. Maybe a pretty amazing congregation in one tradition or another, but still, it’s the church. And that can be disappointing. It’s this disappointment, this disjuncture, that I want us to pick up and handle for a few moments. Let’s hold it up to the light.
As we do this we notice right off an important set of links that connect Jesus to the kingdom and the kingdom to the church. Let’s start with the link between Jesus and the kingdom. In Matthew 4 (our second reading for Jan. 22) Jesus proclaims that the ‘kingdom of heaven is coming’ (v. 17). A bit later (v. 23) we read that along with healing people, Jesus ‘proclaimed the good news of the kingdom.’ The word ‘kingdom’ shows up twice and it’s central to understanding what Jesus was all about. In the same passage there is a quotation from the prophet Isaiah, and that quotation comes from a chunk of Isaiah where the prophet is talking about the coming king. Just beyond the verses that Matthew quoted, Isaiah says this king will be named ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ His reign will be one of peace, justice and righteousness. I can’t write those words at this point in the year without being reminded of how far the politics of nations often falls short.
When Jesus proclaims that the kingdom is near, he is saying that God is at work. He is saying that peace and justice and righteousness are coming our way. There’s a new regime taking shape. That’s the good news Jesus was sharing. And to make it clear that Jesus wasn’t making this stuff up he healed people. That showed divine power was at work, and it also showed the character of this kingdom, this new government of God.
I don’t know about you, but I often find myself feeling the need to know ‘what’s going on.’ What this often reveals in me is that I’m practically an atheist. That’s because when I want to know ‘what’s going on’ I usually want the news of the day. My mind has yet to really be shaped into the consciousness of Jesus. What’s really going on, of course, is that God is at work and the kingdom is taking shape among us. What else could be so important? This is news of cosmic proportions.
Now, here’s one of the interesting things about the way Matthew put his account of the life of Jesus together. He gives us these hints that Jesus is the king Israel has been waiting for and he shows crowds following him. Then Matthew tells us that Jesus went up a mountain. What other leader of crowds in the Bible ascended a mountain? What about Moses? On a mountain in the dessert Moses received instructions for being the people of God. It’s what we sometimes call the law.
Now, in Matthew 5 we get a reiteration of the same thing: a new version of the government of God. We call it the Sermon on the Mount, but it’s a new set of instructions for how to be God’s people. It’s the law of Jesus’ administration.
Let me remind us of some of what Jesus says: in the government of God
you are blessed if you are humble,
you are blessed if you mourn,
you are blessed if you seek righteousness,
you are blessed if your motives are pure,
you are blessed if you make peace,
you are blessed if you are merciful,
you are blessed if you suffer for things that are right.
Jesus goes on: seek to be reconciled to your sisters and brothers, he says. Seek it, don’t just avoid the issues. Take pains to honor your marriage vows. Speak truthfully. Don’t retaliate. Give to the poor and pray without making a scene. Love your enemies (you all have them), and relax—remember it is God who keeps you alive.
This is the policy of the kingdom of God. This is Jesus’ executive order.
Now the second link, the one between the kingdom and the church. The thing is that the Sermon on the Mount is pretty hard to do. It is too (I don’t like this word but it’s true) . . . revolutionary. Jesus wasn’t killed because was nice or because he blessed the status quo.
It’s pretty hard to live by this revolutionary code and it’s pretty hard to believe it’s the real thing. I doubt I’m the only one who suffers from bouts of practical atheism—wondering what’s going on and forgetting the power and providence of God.
This is where the church comes in. We say that the kingdom of God is here already but it’s also not yet. We are called to live as citizens of this new government, believing that Jesus really is the one in charge—but we live amidst the rubble of powers that have rebelled against God. What does God give us at such a time? Two things at least: the presence of God’s Spirit and the church.
I remember hearing from a theologian who travelled to Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain was still in place. He talked to several Orthodox priests about what it was like to continue life and ministry under communism. Incidentally, they had found Anabaptist theology helpful in that context. The theologian I knew had asked these fellows what they thought of the totalitarian government: they shrugged and said that governments come and go but the church remains. It is an alternative political order sustained not by the will of the masses but by God’s gracious Spirit.
It’s in the church, that is, in the company of others where we learn to follow Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is simply not doable alone. Partly because it’s hard and partly because being in the kingdom implies knocking elbows with others. And this is true too: believing is also pretty hard to do alone. If it’s just you trying to believe alone in a wilderness of practical atheism, you’ll probably lose.
So we open the gift box and we find the church. We were probably hoping for something else. However, at its best the church is an outpost of the government of God. Or maybe we could call it an ‘embassy’ or perhaps a ‘demonstration plot’ or a ‘concept car’, to switch metaphors entirely. Like a concept car the church can honestly look a bit silly. After all, the story we tell centers on a carpenter-turned-rabbi-turned-king-crowned-with-thorns-turned-torture-victim-turned-political-criminal-turned-public-specticle-of-an-empire’s-power. It can seem rather silly.
‘Foolishness’, is the word Paul uses. He has no illusions.
But, lest we forget, the story of Jesus continues to the resurrection and then to a community continually being shaped by that resurrection power.
Let me wrap up with this familiar picture: Paul says the church is like a body. He writes, ‘For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body’ and we are all nourished by one Spirit. And that Spirit gives gifts to members of the body, gifts of prophecy, gifts of leadership, gifts of assisting others, the list goes on. However, the most important gift or outworking of the Spirit’s presence amongst us is simply the gift of love. Loving others even when there’s nothing in it for us. How’s that for a new policy? Loving others even when there’s nothing in it for us. That’s the summary of the way of life in the kingdom and that’s what God is teaching us through the church.