Seventh Sunday after Epiphany A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
1 Corinthians 3:10-23
Last summer, I worked for six weeks as a counselor for Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Summer Seminary Sampler, a program that invites high school youth from across the country to live on campus, engage in daily service projects, learn from seminary professors, and engage in self-reflection.
Since they were living together for the weeks they were on campus, each group had to come up with a covenant, or a list of rules, that helped guide their communal living. The rules they came up with included showing each other respect during discussions, lifting each other up, rather than tearing each other down, and my favorites, “Thou shalt flush” and “Use thine own toothbrush”.
Both groups of kids were great kids, but they did not always live up to their covenantal expectations. At times, they would get upset with each other and speak hurtfully to one another, tear each other down, or not show each other the respect expected of them. I don’t recall flushing or toothbrush use ever being an issue, but there were other times when the community stood on shaky legs. They were only together for three weeks each, and they left the program with a stronger sense of identity and community, but it was not without its challenges.
It turns out that living in a community is not always easy.
We human beings are amazing creatures. No other creature on the planet lives in communities quite like we do. Our social webs and interactions are highly complex and integrated. We gather in groups as small as families and as large as cities of millions. We freely associate with others in different ways, in person and through electronic communication, and build enormous networks that connect people all over the world.
We have established every kind of community under the sun. We have built strong, lasting communities.
And yet, at the same time, our communities are also broken. The unrest that has plagued Ukraine, for example, or the “Arab Spring” of recent years, or the many wars I mentioned a few weeks ago are all evidence that our communities don’t always last and can come to bad ends.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he was writing to a church that was beginning to fracture. I hate to break it to you, but there was never a golden age of the church when everybody got along all the time. Church conflict is as old as the church itself.
One of the many issues in the church in Corinth (and there were many) was the formation of factions. The Corinthians had begun to align themselves based on who their favorite teacher was: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and others. Each honestly thought that their way, their teaching was best.
They were a community trying to do the right thing, and they placed their trust in their leaders to guide them. They were faithful, and they cared about their community. They wouldn’t have invested so much in their leaders if they did not honestly believe in them. Their devotion is admirable. Unfortunately, that devotion was also tearing them down.
The Corinthian community had forgotten upon whom they were built. Instead of being united together, they were separating themselves into camps rallying around individual people. They had forgotten that their foundation was Jesus Christ crucified and risen, and that they, the church, could and should stand on that alone. Paul describes them as a temple built on that foundation, but built by many different people. The resulting temple was now breaking apart because of the conflicts between the builders.
Is this not our story, too?
Tell me if this sounds familiar. When I was a kid, my church called a new pastor. She served the congregation for a good number of years. But near the end of her tenure, there was a growing unrest in the congregation. Some were not happy with her leadership, while others strongly defended her.
It got to the point where someone sent anonymous letters to each member of the congregation accusing the pastor of being—and I kid you not—a terrorist. This was a senior citizen from Denmark we’re talking about. But that’s how polarized some people had become.
Eventually, the congregation decided that her time as their pastor had run its course. The decision was met with praise from some and anger from others. While it didn’t split the congregation, it caused enough turmoil that some left the community, and the wound was fresh enough that when they called their next pastor, two years later, they asked her to leave as well.
Does that sound familiar?
It is a story that repeats itself over and over. Last week, I attended a leadership formation and theological conference at Fortune Lake Lutheran Camp. I had the honor and pleasure of hearing our Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, speak about these first few months of her term, speak about her greatest joys and her greatest challenges.
One of her greatest challenges has been dealing with the fallout from the 2009 social statement on Human Sexuality. It was and continues to be a source of conflict that is deeply, deeply emotional on all sides. What Paul feared for the Corinthians happened to us—we split. There is a gaping wound across the ELCA. We are wounded congregations in wounded synods that make up a wounded church. At times, it seems like there is not much hope to go around.
Bishop Eaton asked a poignant question: can the center hold? Furthermore, what is our center? When everything else starts to fall apart, will the church lose itself?
Paul reminds us that as long as the foundation stands, the church goes on. As long as it is built on Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, the church will not collapse. As long as Christ lives, so too does the community of faith.
Paul knows what’s going on in the Corinthian community. It’s not the first time a church has fallen into conflict and threatened to pull itself apart. But he also knows, without hesitation and without doubt, that they are the church. They are a dysfunctional and messed up church, but that doesn’t change who they are and who they are called to be. At the very beginning of the letter he greets the church as “holy ones”. Holy ones. They don’ t sound too holy in some parts of this letter. Yet, even in their broken state, they are still set apart by God.
You see, Paul, Apollos, Cephas—they are not the foundations of the church. The fate of the church and the faith don’t rest on their shoulders—it is not their burden to bear, but Christ’s.
The shared life of the community is still holy and sacred, even though they don’t have it all together, because it doesn’t depend on them. If the church in Corinth didn’t have Christ as their foundation, but actually had Paul or Apollos or Cephas or anyone else as their root, then they would be a lost cause. A church whose identity is wrapped up in a particular leader, or pastor, or even an issue, can only fail. But a church whose identity is the crucified and risen Lord is built on a foundation that can never break, can never fall.
Where does that leave us, then? This is Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. This is a congregation that knows division, that knows pain, that knows loss. I see it in your eyes when I visit you and hear it in your voices when I talk with you. This is a congregation that looks into the future and isn’t yet certain what it sees, and that’s frightening. This is a congregation ready to embark on God’s mission, but doesn’t yet know how to take those first steps.
If this congregation stood alone, by itself, I would not give it much chance if any.
But this community of faith, first of all, is not alone. It is a congregation of the Northern Great Lakes Synod, united in mission with all the churches of the North Woods and Upper Peninsula. It is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, connected to every church across the country. It is descended from the centuries-old Lutheran tradition, itself descended from the millenia-old Roman Catholic tradition and its ancestors, the original Eastern churches founded by Paul.
Most importantly, its foundation, its identity, is Jesus Christ. In the end, those associations, those traditions, could all fall apart. The ELCA could split again or collapse, the Lutheran tradition could disappear, but Christ remains, and upon Christ this community is built. That is its center, and to answer Bishop Eaton’s question, yes: center can and will hold.
I do not know what the future holds for Faith Lutheran. What I do know is that, even in your woundedness, your brokenness, your uncertainty, you are holy ones, called out and set aside for the work of Jesus Christ. That is your identity. That is why you come to this table, to be fed with living bread, straight from the source. That is who you are, sent out into the world, bearing the promise of the good news on your lips and in your hands.
You will be the ones through whom the reign of God is brought near, not me. I belong to you, not the other way around. And you belong to Christ, and to God. Christ as the foundation and center of your work and your identity will hold. Of that, you can be certain.