Saturday, January 26, 2008

Not Me, But You O Lord

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

If you go to Beijing, you’ll find the body of Chairman Mao nicely entombed. And if you go to Moscow, you’ll find Lenin’s body on display, although he’s not as popular as he once was. Many seeming larger than life figures, both living and dead, have been elevated to seemingly divine status. Back when Paul was writing this letter to the Corinthians, his audience knew all about personality cults. The Roman Emperors were experts at cultivating them.
In our day, we have a different set of idols. They may be sports heroes or celebrities. Although there are some who relish tearing down society’s idols, sharing the most intimate details of their lives in the various tabloids. But for most of us, these people – human as they may be – seem larger than life and almost unapproachable. If we get the chance to meet them, we do so with a great deal of shyness. Our palms get sweaty palms, our voices stammer nervously.
Interestingly enough this can happen in the church, and it’s not just the big time preachers who get this treatment. Sometimes even small church pastors get put on a pedestal. You might not get sweaty palms, but you know what I mean! Yes, personality cults come in all shapes and sizes! There’s a flip side to this, of course, life has a way of knocking idols off their pedestals.

1. It’s Not About Me
Being a pastor, I sometimes struggle with the way people see me. I must say I’m flattered when you all say nice things about me. I do feel the love! But I have to keep things in proper perspective – because it’s not about me. Nor is it about Bill or Dee or Norma or any one person. It’s not about party or faction. At least that’s what Paul seems to be saying to the church in Corinth. For some reason they had gotten all tangled up in factional fighting. And so Paul says – It’s not about me, or Apollos, or Cephas. Interestingly he even adds in Christ – just in case someone wanted to take the “high road” and claim that they were just doing it the way Jesus wanted. As a pastor, I hear Paul saying – it’s not about me – and I think, yeah that’s right, it isn’t about me, it’s about you O Lord.

And the truth is, personalities can mess things up and get in the way of unity. It doesn’t have to be the pastor; it could be any number of people in the life of the church. This stuff often happens because we’re all different in our thinking, our interests, and more. And whatever you want to say about the Corinthian church, you can say this: it was diverse. And not only was it diverse, but like a couple of siblings, it could fight with the best of them. Kathleen Norris writes:

The Corinthians remind me of my niece and nephew in their younger days when they fought ferociously over things both large and small. One afternoon as they raged over the question of who would sit in the front seat as Mom drove them home on the daily commute, I asked, “Is there anything you two won’t fight about?” The shouting stopped as both children looked at me. Beaming, they happily declared, “No!” and resumed their squabbling. Of course they love each other, and always have. (Christian Century, January 15, 2008, p. 23).

Norris thinks that Paul was hoping that this would be true of the Corinthians – that they would ultimately find unity in their common heritage of faith, in spite of their differences. Because ultimately, it’s not about me, but you O Lord.

2. Unity in Our Diversity

One way to make sure there’s unity in a church is to make sure that every one thinks alike, talks alike, and looks a like. It wasn’t that long ago that church growth experts were telling us that birds of a feather flock together, so the quickest way to build a church was to find your niche. So, you have churches for the young and churches for the old, churches for the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. You have black churches, Hispanic churches, Korean churches, and white churches. They called it the homogenous principle, but the problem with this is that ultimately this principle doesn’t allow for diversity. Oh, it may alleviate a lot of “problems,” but the question is: Is this what God really wants for the church? Does God want uniformity or does God want us to find unity in our diversity. In other words can the organ crowd live together with the guitar crowd? Just to give an example!
I’ve just started reading a book about forming multi-ethnic/economically diverse congregations. I got this book because this is the kind of church I want to be part of. I enjoy being with people who are different. The author of this book says that the era of the mono-ethnic congregation is coming to an end. The question, then, is: What do we do with our diversity? (Mark Deymaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, Jossey Bass, 2007).

3. Rooted in the Cross
Again, we hear Paul say to us: It’s not me, but you O Lord. But as we say this, we hear a voice say to us: Why should I accommodate the needs of the other? If they want to come here, why can’t they assimilate and be like me?

Ultimately, it has to do with our witness to the Gospel. If we want people to hear the message of the love of Jesus, then we need to think about how people perceive us. Paul says, it’s ultimately not about me or my eloquence, because if it’s about me then the cross is emptied of its power.
Our unity in the midst of diversity can only be found in the cross. The scandal of the cross, according to Paul, is that it’s a sign of humiliation and weakness. To die on a cross is to experience complete powerlessness. To experience unity in the midst of diversity, we must be willing to let go of our need to be in power – and that word goes to the pastor as well as the members of the church.
I haven’t seen The Golden Compass movie, but I did read Philip Pullman’s trilogy that provides the basis for this controversial movie over Christmas vacation. I read it because I’d heard so many Christians condemning it as an atheist manifesto written for children (Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials, Yearling, 1995-2000). I don’t know if reading it will make you an atheist – it didn’t convert me to atheism, but it’s an interesting read.

The point I want to make has to do with the nature of power, and how in these stories it’s a boy and a girl, nearing puberty, who save the day. I won’t go into the story, but the question arises – why children? Donna Freitas and Jason King offer an answer. They try to reinterpret the books from a Christian perspective, and they say that in the books it’s not that children are especially innocent that they are more capable of being compassionate than adults, it’s instead because they have little access to power that they’re more likely to rely on love (Donna Freitas and Jason King, Killing the Imposter God, Jossey Bass, 2007, p. 93).

Be like little children, Jesus says to us. Paul says to us, in your dealings with one another; follow the way of the cross. Then the gospel will have power to change lives and we’ll find unity in the midst of our diversity.

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