A COMMUNITY OF RESPECT: Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Cor 10:1 –17; Luke 13:6-9
A few weeks ago, we were told that the sickness that has fallen on the mainline churches in Canada is tied to the unrepented sin of residential schools. I’m not sure that is quite right. My sense is that the attack on native residential schools and those who taught in them reflects a culture that is now hostile to Christian faith and wants to blame it for all the world’s problems. The missionaries make easy and convenient scapegoats for a situation that is a big and multi-dimensional mess.
We live in a narcissistic culture. It is all about me. I’m the centre of the world. My tastes and opinions and consumer preferences are what count. The customer is King. In such a culture, the vast majority of people resist worshipping with any particular congregation or joining a religious community. Why? Because they are beyond all that. “I’m spiritual but not religious” is the cliche which we now hear all the time. It means that I fashion my own spiritual preferences according to my own taste. I’m in charge hear. But if you listen to such people, you discover that they all tend to say about the same thing. Their spirituality consists of healthy life style choices, exercise, diets and finding God in a sunset at the top of a mountain or over the ocean. We are supposed to be impressed by their creative originality and superior sensitivity as human beings. They are not like those of us who are so uncreative, rule bound, judgmental – pick you word – who still go to church and seek to attend to thousands of years of religious traditions. Why both with all THAT, since it is all about ME and my creative choices, anyway.
I have come to find such talk extremely predictable and such attitudes very boring. It amazes me that people can still pride themselves on their creative originality when everyone around them is saying more or less the same thing. You – and everyone else in North America. Anyone can find a god of their imagination in a picturesque sunset. The miracle is to be shaped by God into a new being in the company of other people who are just as annoying as we are. Which brings us close to what Paul says about communion to the Corinthians.
There are some big egos in Corinth. People who are sure that they have a better handle on the gospel than Paul does and who have been bad mouthing him in his absence. They are very impressed with themselves and their spiritual gifts. Not surprisingly, such behaviour has led to tensions and divisions within the congregation. It has divided into cliques and factions organized around personality cults: There were those who claimed to belong to the party of Cephas, or Apollos, or Paul. There were those who prided themselves on their wisdom or their ability to speak in tongues. The congregation was also badly divided along lines of wealth. Even when people gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the wealthy went home stuffed and tipsy, while the poor watched in hunger. There behaviour makes it obvious to Paul that they just do not get this communion thing because they seem to think it is all about them.
Paul is scandalized. How can they treat each other with such disrespect, with such contempt at the table of the Lord. Do they not realize what a grave risk they are running? How close they are to judgment and condemnation?
Then comes the warning. Consider Israel. Look what happened to them in the wilderness. Simply because they had been called by God to be part of his people and for the fulfillment of his purposes, was no guarantee they would arrive safely at the Promised Land. Most of them didn’t. The first generation of slaves who escaped from Egypt all died in the desert because they tested God’s patience and wore out God’s mercy.
“I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
“Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. “ Without repentance and change, you, too, will suffer their fate. So be warned. God is not mocked. Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols – whatever it is that is creating rivalry and division, pridefulness and wordly ambition that lead to division and contemptuous behaviour of each other. Do not presume on God’s indulgence if you persist in such behaviour – but prepare for judgement. You will die, thirsty in the wilderness without every entering God’s promises.
At the Continuing Education week at Presbyterian College that Anita and I attended on study leave a couple of weeks ago, Dr. Clyde Ervine – whom many of your know – had much to say on the subject of respect, honour and authority. He is writing a book on congregations and pastoral ministry, and looking at the subject through the lens of respect. His thesis is that many Christian congregations in this part of the world are tearing themselves apart because of a culture of disrespect that has infiltrated them from society at large. We treat each other with contempt because that has now become the cultural norm in our society as it was in the Corinth of Paul’s day.
It is this culture of contempt that Clyde identifies as a major factor in the collapse of the mainline church. The disappearance of an ethic of respect is naturally accompanied by a loss of authority on the basis of either position or accomplishments. This is true a congregational level and it is also a dynamic that corrupts church bureaucracies that become wasp’s nests of careerism and ambition. If media rumours are to be believed, the next Pope has a big mess to clean up in the Vatican bureaucracy – which seems to run much like the Italian government in general. So how to root out the rivalries and the cliques, the slander and corrupting ambition and scullduggery that have poisoned the atmosphere and led to public scandal?
Such is the context that Paul addresses, and having pointed to the example of Israel and issued a warning not to presume on the mercy of God, he then points them to the more excellent way of Christ. Get over yourselves, say Paul. It is not about YOU.
Faith in the God of Abraham is not a solo act. It is about being part of the covenanted community in all of its complexity and contradiction and sinfulness. But also about treating it and each other with extraordinary respect because, together, you are the body of Christ. The good news is that you are part of something which is beyond you, and part of a family of faith that goes back thousands of years. Part of a tradition that is bigger than you are or will ever be. So learn some reverent humility. Learn your place. You are not the measure of all things in heaven and on earth. God is. We are summonsed to a reality and a way of being that is beyond us.
Open you eyes and realize what the sacrament of communion is about. “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say, says Paul. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
So get a grip. Realize that you true life is hid with Christ in God in the power of the Holy Spirit. In comparison with that, all merely human ambition and worldly talents and gifts are insignificant. There is no place for human boast or giving yourselves airs. Treat each other with the respect that comes with their being fellow members of the body of Christ. The sacrament has nothing to do with your deserving or merit or preeminence in any respect. You have been summoned to a great banquet solely and wholly on the basis of God’s grace.
The church is God’s sacrament of the great counter-reality that has begun in Christ, the counter-reality that challenges all human pretension. So repent and believe and be converted to the more excellent way of the God marked out by our Lord in his cross and resurrection, a way already there, for those with eyes to see, hundreds of years before in the writings of the prophets.
The community that God has called inbeing in Christ and nourishes at his table is not to be purchased with cash or plastic. Now there is a subversively counter-cultural thought. Listen to Isaiah: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
God offers gourmet food to all, regardless of their economic status. The feast of the Kingdom is for all. It is not limited to those with this world’s wealth. In fact they are often the ones furthest from the Kingdom. God’s grace is not a commodity to be purchased. Strange as it may seem in a materialistic society, there are some things that are just not to be bought. They are not for sale. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
God’s covenantal promises to Abraham and to David are beyond price and beyond the imaginations of those who just make up their own spirituality – which inevitably turns out to be just extension of themselves and their preferences. God has summoned his people to something higher, something nobler, something more excellent than being pigs with their noses in the trough, Paul insists. The pagans may behave like that, Paul says, but you have not so known Christ.
A community of mutual respect – is it not that for which you thirst. And it is not something you achieve on your own either with money or hard work. It comes as a gift. A pure gift and sheer unmerited grace bestowed on all who gather around the table on exactly the same terms. In comparison with the infinite grace of God, the human differences between them fade into utter insignificance. Instead of such differences leading to quarrels, division, rivalry and animosity, ‘Paul urges them to be united in the same mind and the same purpose’ and to understand their diversity as a wonderful gift. This is the means God has provided for the blessing and the wellbeing of his people. Our task is to honestly discern our gift and to contribute it freely and willingly to the common good of the body.
Taking in sunsets alone at the top of a mountain isn’t going to cut it. But “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”