Deep witness

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

“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,” writes Paul to the young church community in Corinth. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…”

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This past Tuesday I bumped into someone I hadn’t seen in close to thirty years. About the same time I was finishing up my theological studies in Toronto, I’d heard from a mutual friend that this guy had left Winnipeg to study at a Baptist seminary, and then a few years after that I heard he’d taken over the pastorate of a congregation on the east coast. Otherwise, I was a good twenty years out of touch with his story, and it was actually pretty amazing that we even had that flicker of recognition when we ran into each other. Truthfully, he had the flicker of recognition… I’d have walked blithely past him.

I asked what had brought him to Winnipeg, and he said something about being “between things.” I told him that the last I’d heard he’d been in ministry on the east coast, and he smiled and said that yes, he’d just ended a twenty year run as the pastor of a congregation in Halifax. “Did it end well?” I asked, and right away I saw the strain in his expression. “No,” he answered, with a slight shake of his head and a sigh. “No, it didn’t.” We had only a minute or two to talk, so made a tentative plan to get together for coffee—which I really hope will happen—and then I was on my way. But those words—“No, it didn’t”—and that look on his face; they’ve stayed with me all week.

That same morning I’d been talking with Steve Bell, and he brought me up to date about a mutual acquaintance who had moved to the west coast a few years ago to pastor a church. It sounds as if it had been pretty tough right from the start, and then one morning he arrived at the church to find that the locks had been changed. Not exactly what you’d call subtle…

“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…”

A church joke: A Scotsman is marooned on a deserted tropical island, and when after several years a ship arrives he proudly shows his rescuers the compound he’s constructed. He’s built a cottage, a storehouse for the food he gathers each day, and not one, but two little chapels. “Why two chapels?” the ship captain asks. “That’s the one where I say my prayers every day,” the Scotsman answers. “And that one over there” he adds, pointing his finger accusingly, “That’s the one I won’t set foot in.”

My version of the joke features a Scots Presbyterian, yet you could easily substitute any number of church traditions and still make it work. And it is only funny because it is sadly true.

“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you…”

Several years ago one of our saint ben’s breakfast book groups read A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins. Just 250 pages long, it is meant to be a light-hearted overview of Christian history. Think about that for a minute: two thousand years in 250 pages, which means Tomkins covers off every century in an average of 12 pages.

In the end, it wasn’t all that fun to read, and one of our book group members found it downright discouraging. Page after page, century after century, Tomkins focuses on divisions, splits, controversies, heresies, corruption, collusion with political power, more divisions, persecutions, fragmentation. This is our story?

“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you,” Paul writes, yet he is not content to let that be the dominant story. He knows that they’ve been fighting, and that they have begun to divide along lines defined by whose leadership they each recognize: “‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” Paul asks them, clearly wanting them to say no, for Christ cannot be divided. If they can truly see that, maybe they’ll get past the fighting.

He’s trying to return them to first things, and though over the course of this letter to the Corinthians he will offer some very concrete counsel on some very concrete problems and issues, what he most needs to do is to tell them that every common-sense assumption about how things work has now been upended. They think they know some things about the way of the world, but until they admit that that none of it actually matters—until they can embrace what he calls the foolishness of the cross, and begin to live in a way that the dominant society will call madness—they’ll just keep fighting. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” Paul writes, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

A few years ago our other book breakfast group read The Rise of Christianity by the sociologist of religion Rodney Stark. Stark’s basic question was simple: in the course of some 300 years, how did an insignificant religious movement founded by a Galilean peasant teacher become the dominant faith of the Roman Empire? In answering this question, Stark wore his sociologist’s hat, and so he effectively bracketed off divine intervention or the work of the Holy Spirit. Our group found this book quite exhilarating, in all that it said about the heart of this faith we share. At risk of completely oversimplifying Stark’s work, at the heart of his conclusion is the fact that those ancient Christians did at least two things really, really well. Firstly, they embodied an ethic of radical inclusion, such that there was a real place for otherwise status-less people: slaves and women and landless people living in urban centers.

Secondly—and perhaps even more critically—they affirmed the fundamental worth and dignity of each and every human life. This translated into two very crucial practices: where the dominant Roman culture would think nothing of leaving newborn girls or deformed infant boys out in the elements to die—at birth they were considered disposable—the Christians would rescue those exposed infants and raise them as their own. Think of this as a kind of baby boom, in which the community grew by birthrate… but also consider the impact of this witness on other powerless people in that world.

The other truly crucial practice that defined those ancient Christians was their care for the sick and dying, particularly during times of disease epidemics. Where common sense told the dominant culture to flee the cities when an epidemic struck, the Christians would stay put to care for the sick; and not just their own sick, but also the neighbor who followed pagan practice. And why? Because each and every human life had a basic worth and a fundamental dignity, and no human person should be abandoned to sickness and left to die alone.

This was, in the eyes of the dominant Roman culture, utter foolishness. To stay in a city filled with sickness, to sit by the bedsides of the dying and then to take those dead bodies and bury them… it made no sense whatsoever. And yet in Stark’s view, it is precisely these kinds of actions that bore deep witness to the truth and integrity of the Christian message. And you know, the courage of those ancient Christians to do such things was born of a willingness to follow the Christ who gives life by his death. If he could do this, then death has no power over us. If he could do this, then we have nothing to fear.

When you think about it in those terms, it puts church quarrels—from the pettiest disputes to what seem like the most insurmountable of differences—into a very different perspective.

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Indeed.



One Response to Deep witness

  1. Byron O'Donnell says:

    You’ll get no argument from me on this one Jamie.

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