We all belong (A sermon from 1 Cor. 3:18-23 and Matthew 5:38-48)
In this paragraph in Paul’s correspondence with the church in Corinth Paul returns to an earlier theme where he contrasts the foolishness of the world with the wisdom of God. Here the point he makes is that the church expresses the foolishness of the world in their boasting about human leaders. Paul’s response, I think, is wonderfully creative and constructive.
He basically questions why the Corinthians would want to sell themselves short. In their greedy attempt to claim the biggest slice of the pie, what they don’t realize is that the whole pie is already theirs. Paul says, “Everything is yours. We all belong. We are one people. And no one has more than anyone else” (see 1 Cor. 3:21-23).
Unless you are familiar with Paul’s view of God’s new creation Paul’s words here may seem strange. Paul heralded Christ as the mediator and representative of God’s new creation. God’s new creation breaks down all kinds of barriers and brings us all together as one. Paul speaks of this new creation later in this epistle when he says that we are one body in Christ. He writes, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13). One Spirit, one body.
Some want to limit the new creation to Christians, but I don’t think we can do that, and I don’t think Paul did that either. There are indications in Paul’s letters that Paul understood the new creation to be universal and all-inclusive. There is good reason to think that Paul viewed everyone in Christ even though he also clearly taught that it was necessary to live that out practically. In 1 Cor. 15 in his discussion on resurrection Paul claims that all things (no exceptions) will be brought into subjection to the Christ and therefore to God. Paul says this in 15:28: “When all things are subjected to him (that is, the Christ), then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.” I hope you can see how universal and inclusive and sweeping that affirmation is. God will be all in all. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he says that all people will come to submit to Christ’s Lordship. He says that every tongue will confess and every knee will bow to Christ’s Lordship. That doesn’t leave anyone out.
I believe some of Paul’s followers spelled out even more clearly how all enveloping, universal, and inclusive God’s plan is. In Ephesians the writer says (scholars are divided on whether Paul or someone later in the Pauline tradition wrote it) that God’s plan is that in the fullness of time God will “gather up all things in him (the Christ), things in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:10). In the letter to the Colossians, the writer says that God will reconcile “all things” (there is that phrase again) to himself through the Christ (Col. 1:19). And in Colossians the writer links this universal reconciliation to the cross – to the way in which Jesus died – as somehow (and the writer doesn’t spell this out) instrumental in making peace between all people and creation. The language is universal. Everyone will come to submit to Christ’s lordship, all things will be gathered up in Christ, all things will be reconciled to God through Christ, so that God will be all in all.
It seems that Paul went about forming churches with the idea that these local communities/assemblies of Christ followers would give the world a taste of the new creation, a preview of what life will be like when God’s plan for the creation is realized and everything and everyone comes together in peace and oneness. Paul believed it was the calling of Christ followers to live now in light of the new creation – to be the new creation now. Paul taught that the Spirit of Christ is at work in the church presently to form new creation communities.
I can imagine how disappointed Paul must have been after a few years of forming churches when he realized how poor and pitiful we Christ followers are at actually living out and embodying the new creation of God. We have not done this very well have we? I suspect this probably accounts for some of those passages where Paul expresses his frustration. I think there were times he was just flustered with the church. I believe he was expecting and hoping for so much more. Paul was looking to create and nurture faith communities – local churches – that modeled the oneness of God’s new creation. But what he got were communities not much different from the rest of society. Almost every letter Paul wrote was in response to some problem or problems the church experienced. And of course this is true today. We don’t do a very good job in modeling – in being an example and preview – of God’s new creation.
Now, this doesn’t mean that are supposed to be some exclusive club that has an inside track on the things of God. There is more truth in the world than we will ever know ourselves and people don’t need to become just like us to be part of God’s new creation. We chide the Corinthians for their arrogance and one-upmanship, but when you think about it, that very attitude, often disguised and manifested today in more subtle ways has been behind much of the missionary enterprise of the church over the years.
What we are supposed to be as a church and what Paul hoped we would be are faith communities living out unity in diversity, embodying an expansive and inclusive love, sharing our lives with one another in a way that points others to God’s plan to bring about a new creation. If we are participants in God’s new creation then shouldn’t we be living like it? If I am yours and you are mine, and we all belong to one another, then we should be living like it shouldn’t we? This is why Paul says in chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians that of the three great spiritual realities of life – faith, hope, and love – love is greater than all. Because love is what brings about oneness. As important as faith may be or hope may be, it takes love to bring about oneness. Only love can bring about God’s new creation. The new creation is only realized to the extent that we love one another and come together in peace for the common good.
But then there is the question of: How do we respond to those who don’t see the world the way we see the world, who have no trust in or commitment to the kind of love and generosity and justice that marks God’s new creation? How should we respond to those who live almost completely out of the false self? Who believe in the survival of the fittest? Who relish subjugating others by force and lording it over others? How do we respond to those who have no intention of being at one with us? Who regard us an inferiors? Or who, for whatever reason, don’t like us and may even want to harm us? How do we respond as God’s people of the new creation? Now, this is where it really gets hard and most of us fail. Certainly the church at large has not modeled the new creation very well. The passage we read today in Matthew’s Gospel gives us some very specific instruction on how we are called to respond.
In the first paragraph (5:38-42) Jesus says, “Do not resist an evildoer.” A better translation would be: “Do not violently resist an evil doer.” Jesus is not saying don’t resist. He is saying don’t do it violently. In fact, there are some things we have to resist, but we must not do it violently. What follows that admonition are some examples of how Jewish people in bondage to Rome might protest injustice and retain their dignity in a society that did not allow for protest. Roman society was an authoritarian society, not a democracy. In our society, thank God, nonviolent protest is our constitutional right. That wasn’t true for Jews who were Roman subjects. So, turning the other cheek, giving one’s cloak as well as one’s coat to the oppressor, and carrying the oppressor’s baggage an extra mile, were all creative ways a Jew living as a non-citizen under the power of Rome might protest the injustice of Roman society in a non-overt way – in way that might not get you killed. Jesus creatively offered his Jewish followers a strategy to protest oppression and injustice in an authoritarian society that did not allow such protests. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. developed their own strategies of nonviolent resistance drawing on the spirit behind these examples.
In the next paragraph (5:43-48) Jesus addresses motive. Jesus makes clear that any attempt at calling attention to injustice through non-violent action must be done in love for the oppressor, not hate or revenge. You see, God wants to redeem the oppressor, not get even, and we must want that too, because such is the love that marks the new creation of God.
God loves all of God’s children. God loves those who don’t know they are God’s children and even those who want nothing to do with God. God loves even those who take pleasure in hurting and harming others –those who do terrible things. God doesn’t withhold good things from evildoers. Jesus points out that just like the sunshine and the rain, God’s love is poured out on all people indiscriminately. So then, sisters and brothers, if we aspire to live as God’s children in this world, then we must aspire to love the world the way God loves the world. God can’t force anyone to change, but God will not give up on anyone. So we can’t either. Perhaps we can find some creative ways to oppose injustice and still love the oppressor.
In his book, Jesus Is the Question, Martin Copenhaver writes about the special relationship a church he served as Associate Pastor had with Lloyd and Maisie Vactor who were missionaries with the United Church of Christ. Lloyd served as president of Dansalan College in the Philippines. While his primary goal was to provide a quality education for all the students who attended, his secondary goal was to improve the relationship between Christians and Muslims. Where the college was located in Marawi there had been four centuries of hostilities between Christians and Muslims. Violence was common.
On March 9, 1979 eleven armed men, members of a Muslim sect, kidnapped Lloyd from his office and held him for ransom. The senior minister where Copenhaver served as Associate sent out this report and request to the congregation: “Pray for Lloyd in his captivity. Pray for his wife, Maisie, as she anxiously awaits word. Pray for both the Christian and Muslim communities in the Philippines, that the violence might stop. And pray for Lloyd’s captors, that they might know the peace of God.”
Rev. Copenhaver says that he remembers well some of the reactions to the request to pray for Lloyd’s captors. Some questioned why they should pray for their captors. Others said they would pray that the captors would get what they deserved.
While Lloyd was held captive, the church received word that his wife, Maisie had died. The church started a memorial scholarship fund in Maisie’s name for American women who might want to pursue ministry or social work, as she had done.
After twenty days of captivity, Lloyd was released as quickly and inexplicably as he was abducted. No ransom was paid, but they released him. In the weeks after his release, a question arose about how the money should be spent. Lloyd was given the choice as to how the funds would be used. He decided to keep the money as a scholarship fund, but he did not want it to be used for American students. He wanted the money specifically earmarked for Dansalan College students who are part of the very Muslim sect that kidnapped him and threatened his life for those weeks he was in captivity. Copenhaver says that while they decided to help one of their own, Lloyd decided to give aid to his enemies. Lloyd did not regard them as his enemies. He regarded them as children of God who needed to start living out that reality.
We are to love our enemies because Jesus told us to and they, too, are children of a loving God. Love is the only thing that makes peace possible. Remember sisters and brothers, the kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God. God’s new creation is all about relationships. Just maybe – I know it doesn’t happen very often – but maybe our willingness to channel God’s love toward those set against us, just might turn an enemy into a friend. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.
Everything is yours sisters and brothers. We all belong. I am yours and you are mine. And so are those people down the street who don’t like you. We are one people. Our hope is that someday that oneness will be realized. We are called to model that oneness, to treat each other with respect and dignity, and to work toward reconciliation. We still have to speak out and tell the truth and stand up for the marginalized, but we don’t have to do that in a vengeful or hateful way. Because even the oppressor is our brother and sister.
Great God, I pray that we might experience your love in such a deep way that our hearts are changed and we are able to love others with your kind of love. Help us Lord to do a better job giving the world a taste of what your new creation will look like and feel like. Amen.