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Celebrating Differences

1 Corinthians 1: 1 – 18
Matthew 4: 12 – 23

Third Sunday of Epiphany

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Prayer

Holy God who calls the worlds into being,
who calls us into Christ’s church
we thank you for the church that is our true home.
Enable us to be open to your spirit this morning;
give us ears to hear and eyes to see your will for us this day.
Amen

I guess I am a collector at heart. I collect stamps, Canadian stamps only. I collect vases. I collect Canadian glassware. I collect stories.  But I have discovered lately, that without knowing it I have become a collector of lists.  Now I know I love to make lists.  Each day I start with a list of things I want to accomplish that day.  I make lists of things to do in a week, lists of things to get ready for a trip, lists of sermon topics; well, you get the idea.  But I was not aware that I was a collector of lists until the other day I was going through my scrap book of stories and ideas for sermons and noticed that I had a great number of lists in my scrap book.

One of the lists was a list of answers given by school children on their religion exam.  Here are some of the answers they wrote down:

v Noah’s wife was called Joan of Ark.

v A myth is a female moth.

v The Fifth Commandment is “Humour your father and your mother.”

And this one I like the most:

v Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire by night.

While these are humourous, the point is that right answers are important.  But – have you thought about this – right questions are important too.

The church in Corinth was having trouble and so they wrote a letter asking a series of questions to the Apostle Paul and Paul tried to provide some answers to their questions.   And so we have the First Letter to the Corinthians as his response to their questions. [1]

Let me give you a little bit of background.  The first thing to note is that Paul never wrote general letters to the church, although we tend to treat them that way.  Paul always wrote his letters to address a particular problem, in a particular situation, in a particular place.

Here the place is the city of Corinth.  The situation is the congregation, which is made up of people from a wide spectrum of differing social and economic classes from the very rich to the very poor – the haves and the have-nots,  both Greeks and Jews, both slaves and free.  This was a small congregation, maybe about 50 households, which had been founded by Paul five years earlier.  And the congregation is in deep, deep trouble.  The problem is conflict –  conflict over a whole bunch of issues ranging from what food to eat, hairstyles, policies about marriage, the role of women, belief in the resurrection and gifts of the spirit.

Now I think Paul has gotten a reputation as a homophobic, woman-hater and slavery supporter unfairly.  He was writing in the context of the Greco-Roman world which was very brutal and had little respect for life.  So Paul wrote in reaction to this violent society.  Rather than repressing woman, slaves and homosexuals, in fact, he made – for his time – progressive rules for the inclusion of all of them in the Christian community.

In our reading this morning, we heard how the people of Corinth had created different factions, following different leaders.  Later in the letter we get more clarity about their differences, they are each boasting about having the best gift.  They are in conflict over who is the better Christian.  So I want to reflect on this whole letter as we seek to understand this conflict and Paul’s response to it.

Now conflict is a reality of life.  Basically, the only time we will not experience conflict is when we are dead.  The issue is not how to get rid of conflict, which is impossible, but how to deal with it creatively, in a Christian manner, in a Christ-like way.  There are several sources of conflict, but it seems to me that one source of conflict is our lack of knowing ourselves well.  This often results in acting out of our stereotypes and prejudices about other people.  When we know ourselves well, when are centered in our own being,  when we are secure in our own being, we are then less threatened and less tempted to engage in needless conflict.

Let me illustrate this with my own story.  When I was going to University and working towards ordination in the United Church (about 40 years ago) I was led to believe that by the time I had left school and got a little experience under my belt, I would have it all worked out.  I was led to believe that if I played out my life according to the script that “I would have it all together”.  But just as I felt I had it all together – it began to fall apart.  I found out more things about myself than I ever felt possible.  In fact, I’m still finding out things about myself which are unexpected.

Let me explain: as a young person I thought I knew who I was, but I didn’t really. I just knew who other people were, and by knowing I was not one of “them”, I thought I knew who “I” was.  But that didn’t work for very long.  This is the way I used to think.

First, I knew I was not a Jew.  That is how I was supposed to know that I was a Christian.  So we told stories and jokes about Jews to make it clear who they were so that we would know we were not like them.

Next, I knew I was not Catholic.  That is how I was supposed to know that I was Protestant.  So we told stories and jokes about Catholics to make it clear who they were so that we would know we were not like that.

Then, I knew I was not Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal.  That is how I was supposed to know I was United Church.  So we told stories and jokes about people in other churches to make it clear we were not like that.

I knew I was a boy because I was not a girl, and we told stories and jokes about girls.  I knew I was gay because of my attractions to other men, and joined in when homophobic stories were told to protect myself.  I knew I was English because I was not French, and we told stories and jokes about the French.  I knew I was Canadian because I was not a foreigner, and we told stories and jokes about immigrants.

You see, we told stories about everybody.  But we didn’t tell stories about ourselves. Why should we? We were just “regular” people, we thought to ourselves.  By defining everybody else, I thought I knew who I was.  This worked fine as long as all those other people acted like they were supposed to act, according to my views of them.  That is, my identity was secure as long as they played their role according to my stereotypes and my prejudices.

But of course, they would not always act like they were supposed to act.  I met Jews who didn’t act like Jews were supposed to act, and all of a sudden I was not sure what it meant to be Jewish or Christian.  I met Catholics who didn’t act like Catholics.   They started eating meat on Fridays and singing Gospel songs.  And the first time I met a Baptist who drank alcohol and an Anglican who didn’t, it just blew the whole thing!

As I began to accept myself, I discovered I had a lot more questions than answers.  All my stereotypes and all my prejudices did not fit my experience.  Suddenly, I realized that I had never given much attention to who I was.  So, I took to heart the old Socratic idea of “know thyself”.

However, this is a new discipline that is not taught in school, so I am engaged in whole new education process.  I expect to be struggling with this question right up to the time I die; and my faith tells me that this quest will continue even beyond.  It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s full of growth potential and it’s part of the process of self-discovery.

Now it seems to me that my journey of discovery might help us to understand what Paul’s message to his friends in Corinth in midst of their conflict.

Now, I want you to imagine with me that congregation in Corinth.  We are going to visit them in our minds.  There are four groups gathered in different corners of the church.  Each group is doing its own thing.  Let’s listen to what they are saying.

First, let’s hear from the group that I call the enthusiasts (they are gathered up here in this corner of the room).  They say: “Yes, we are all Christians here.  We all believe in Jesus, we read the Bible, and we are trying to do the best we can.  But you and I know that enthusiasm is the most important thing in the Christian life.  Those of us who are really full of the Spirit know that.  Sometimes when we’re talking about our faith we get carried away and start talking in languages we don’t even understand.  The gift of speaking in tongues is the most important gift.  Now it is the people who have that kind of faith who are the first-class Christians around here.”

Back in the other corner there’s a quiet group of thinkers.  They look up from their books for a moment and say: “That is very interesting the way you are acting over there.  We also believe that there is a place for emotion in religion, but isn’t it really more important that we understand our faith – it’s Biblical basis, it’s theological shape, it’s historical development, and it’s contemporary ethical relevance?  Isn’t it more important that we be able to make, on behalf of the faith, not scrambled, babbling statements of enthusiasm, but clear, cogent and responsible statements of understanding.  Now, it is those of us who have this kind of understanding who really are the first-class Christians around here.”

Over on the other side, there’s a group down on their knees, praying.  They look up, and say; “Yes, enthusiasm is fine, and all those theological ideas are interesting, but you and I know that it is prayer that really matters.  When the Church moves forward, it moves forward on its knees.  It is those of us who have mastered the art of prayer who are on to the real thing.  When we pray, people get well, God hears us and answers us.  Where would the Church be without the spiritual empowerment of our kind of praying?  We are the ones who really understand what it’s all about.  We are the first-class Christians around here.”

Out in the hall by the kitchen, some people stop what they are doing and say: “All that enthusiasm is fine, and all that theology is interesting.  We get worked up once in a while.  We read the lessons.  Every once in while we even know what the preacher is talking about.  We pray every night – we haven’t moved any mountains lately, but you and I know that when there’s some work to be done down at the church, something real, something important –  like cooking a meal, visiting the sick, writing letters to Amnesty International, helping at the Food Bank or raising money for the Mission & Service Fund  – we are the ones who are there.  We are the ones who understand what is really important, we are the first-class Christians around here.”

It seems that when the people gathered as a church, they began fighting, because each one was wrapped up in their own understanding of their gift.  They wanted everyone to do things their way.  The very gifts they were given so that they could work together for the good of the church became the basis of conflict within the Church.  And when the situation became so bad that things were on the verge of falling apart, they finally asked, “Now what are we to do?”

Paul responds by pointing to the cross as an illustration of the love of God shown in Jesus, and urges that we also love to one another.  He also later talks about accepting each other’s gifts.  He states that all the various people and various gifts are needed to make the church whole.  But the one gift which is over all other gifts is the gift of love.

This continues to be an issue for the church today.  How are we to be an inclusive church and welcome all people, regardless of who they are, and what gifts they bring.  How do we welcome their various gifts, regardless of race, gender, ability or sexual orientation?

People of our world are struggling for love and acceptance.  The one gift we can offer as a congregation is a message of love, of welcome and acceptance.  We can reflect the fact that God loves each one of us by showing our love for others.

Yes, Paul’s message to Corinth is also a message for us today.  We all have different gifts to share, but we all have the common gift –  the gift of love.  Now we all know this, but for some reason, we find it hard to believe it and to live it.  We need to affirm that each of us is a creation of God, unique and precious in God’s sight and therefore, worthy of our own acceptance.  I need to know myself, accept myself, love myself, so that I can love and accept and care for others.

Part of my own discovery is how I can be the person that I am, and use the gifts I have been given, while also appreciating others as I find them – to encourage others to be themselves, no more, and no less.  As we find our place in the body of Christ we know that God is with us in our faith journey.  The God who is the creator of all our parts, the author of our wholeness, the lover of this world, the one who has got you and me and them and the whole world in his hands, with room left over, this is the God who invites us to live in unity and harmony, accepting and even celebrating our diversity.

I pray that, for you and me, God’s gifts are not given in vain.  So I say with Paul, “By the grace of God, I am who I am”.  And I say to you, “By the grace of God, you are who you are”.  You are a part of the body of Christ. You have God-given gifts; don’t waste them, be proud of them, and offer them in service to the God of love, and for the building up of the body of Christ.

Amen.


[1] see I Corinthians 7: 1 where it says “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…”

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