15 Jan 2017
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God … (1 Cor 1:1)
In the name …
One week ago this morning, I was here with you at Mass, and Jesus was here. One week ago this afternoon, I was at the last Service of the South Deerfield Congregational Church, and Jesus was there. This past Monday I was over at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst for the funeral of a priest who served for nearly three-quarters of a century, and Jesus was there. Then finally this past Tuesday I participated in the funeral for my cousin’s wife at a Baptist Church in Derry, NH, and Jesus was there. Each one of these churches worships Jesus differently. Each one of these churches teaches Jesus differently. But Jesus was there in all of them.
What a scandal some would have us think! There’s only one Jesus so there must be only one way to praise Him and to preach Him. Difference, therefore, has to mean something is wrong, has to mean somebody is wrong. We shouldn’t accept that these different churches are as much Jesus’ church as we are. This kind of argument shouldn’t sound too strange to our ears because we’ve become accustomed to it for over the past two years all leading up to this Friday’s Inauguration. This Presidential contest was a mean one. Differences weren’t really debated; they were ridiculed. President Obama in his farewell speech warned us about retreating into our own little bubbles where we only listen and speak with people who think like we do. We insulate ourselves because difference leads to argument not dialogue, leads to confrontation not compromise. And we don’t like that feeling. But can churches help us understand each other, differences and all, even as we worship Jesus in our separate congregations? I think so; I hope so.
Starting today, and continuing for the next several Sundays, we will be reading from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, and we will hear a different message about different. It all begins with Paul’s first words of introduction. If you don’t go to Bible class, and this is a good reason why you should, you may not know that Paul had to constantly defend himself as a real apostle of Christ because other apostles weren’t so sure. Even if you’re not a Bible enthusiast, you can probably hear remnants of this argument in the phrase we’ve all probably heard a thousand times: the Twelve Apostles. These were the men chosen by Jesus of Nazareth to be His closest followers. Paul was not one of them; Paul never even met Jesus. So even in the familiarity of the phrase “the Twelve Apostles,” we hear that old charge that Paul couldn’t be an apostle of Christ. He was different.
Paul’s doesn’t deny that he is a different kind of apostle than the Twelve Apostles, but that doesn’t make him any less an apostle. And the reason he never backs down from saying this because he believed himself “called” “by the will of God” to be an apostle. He wasn’t called by Jesus like Peter and Andrew, James and John, as they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. He wasn’t called by Jesus from his tax booth like Matthew. But Paul never doubted that he was called by the will of God. He was called in a different way and he was called for a different purpose, but he was still an apostle. Difference doesn’t seem to limit the will of God. Difference doesn’t seem to matter as much as being called. Unity is found in the one will of God, not in how we express that one will of God.
And this message filters down throughout all the church. The church is everybody who, as Paul says this morning, has “been sanctified in Christ Jesus,” that is, everyone, everywhere, who has been called to be holy, whoever they are, whatever they look like, however they praise Jesus and teach Jesus, however they try to be like Jesus. The church is all of these wonderfully different people who have been sanctified by their faith in Jesus. In other words, no church is more church than any other church. Paul puts it beautifully: “The church of God that is in Corinth.” The church doesn’t belong to the Corinthians. The church doesn’t belong to us. It’s not our church. It belongs to God, it is “the church of God,” and it just so happens that in this particular case it is located in Corinth. But those Corinthians were church not only with the others who gathered together with them to worship, and who were sitting in the same house. They were church, again says Paul to us today, “with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” What a powerful message of communion this is, and it’s so much more compelling than having to base unity on uniformity. The church has never been the same, but that has never erased that we are all the same “church of God.”
We have a lot to do to better live this truth as church. There’s still far too much separation among us. But we also need to take this truth out into the world even if our own example is not perfect. If we wait for the perfect, we’ll never be able to accomplish any good. And that’s what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr did. He knew in the eyes of Jesus that we were all loved equally, and that’s the truth that inspired him to fight to make that equality real outside the church too. A lot of people today, especially young people, don’t see the value and the connection between what we do as church and what happens in our world. But it was only a generation ago that a pastor began to change our whole society, and to broaden and expand the promises our country was founded upon so that all people could share in the American dream. King was inspired to do this not by politics, not by race, but by his faith. Of course he saw the differences among us, but more importantly he saw what God saw, that underneath, above and all around these differences was the all-pervading equality that was based on the fact that God looks way past the differences. May we learn to do the same, as church, as Christian, and as citizen. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo