A minister was walking out of the church one Sunday after the morning worship service and noticed a bulletin with some writing on it that had been tossed aside in one of the pews. His curiosity got the best of him, so he picked it up and read it. One of his parishioners had apparently been inspired to poetry during his sermon. This member had scribbled out on the worship bulletin: To dwell above/ with the saints we love/ Oh, that will be glory!/ But to dwell below/ with the saints we know/ Well, that’s a different story.
Paul chastises the congregation at Corinth for their divisiveness. They were creating factions around certain leaders. It was all about their own egos and their need to shine brighter than the rest. So the congregation was pervaded by in-group/out-group divisiveness rooted in their own egos and petty jealousies.
Paul calls them babies (infants). Though he does say they are babies in Christ. In other words, he wants them to know that even though they are acting childish, like little babies, they still belong to the Christ. They are still God’s beloved daughters and sons, even though God is not pleased with them.
Paul also says that they are “of the flesh” (in fact, he says this twice). What does he mean – “of the flesh”? Aren’t we all of the flesh? We are, but Paul here is not talking about flesh and blood. Paul uses the term “flesh” in a rather peculiar way in some of his letters that seem very strange to us. Paul invests the word “flesh” with moral or ethical connotations. In Galatians and Romans Paul talks about the works of the flesh – that is, attitudes and behavior that stem from the ego. So from Paul’s perspective, these life patterns and habits and behaviors that are “of the flesh” are of the kind that are self-centered, self-indulgent, and full of pride. “Of the flesh” attitudes and actions tear down rather than build up; they demean and diminish others rather than uplift and affirm them. So Paul calls them out and says, “You are acting like babies, you are of the flesh, you are unspiritual, you are at the mercy of your selfish, egotistical inclinations.” They were acting like brats, rather than the servants they were called to be.
Sisters and brothers, if we aspire to live as the loving sons and daughters of God, if we are to become who we are, then, we too, must confront the ego. The kingdom of God is not about position or place or power. It’s not about accolades or acclamation. It’s not about appearances or achievements. It’s not about prestige or prominence. All of that, all of it, is of the flesh. It is childish and unspiritual.
When I was at Grace Seminary in the early eighties, there was a story that circulated about the president of the seminary, Dr. John Davis, when he was a boy. I love to tell this story, especially because it’s a fishing story. He was an avid fisherman, and when he was a kid he use to go fishing some with an elderly man who taught him a lot about fishing by the name of Frank Lloyd. On one fishing trip he and Frank decided to split up and go different directions on the trout stream and meet back later at a set time. There was a remarkable contrast in their appearance and approach. Young John Davis was fast moving, energetic, decked out in all the latest fishing gear—new fly rod and reel, new chest waders, new box of artificial flies—he had invested most of his grass cutting money that summer to purchase all the latest equipment. Frank Lloyd, on the other hand, was about as crusty as a piece of burnt toast. The gear he used he had for years. He had tape holding his fly rod together. When they met back at the designated spot in the late morning, young John Davis had not landed a single fish; Frank Lloyd had already caught his limit of native, brook trout.
Any authentic spirituality has to confront the ego and struggle to keep it out of the way. We have to confront our longings and desires that are rooted in the need for self-glory, honor, and control. And this can be a real struggle, like Jesus’s struggle in the desert with Satan. I see Jesus’s encounter with Satan in the desert as symbolic of the struggle we all have to have with the little self, the false self, what Paul calls the flesh.
And in this struggle there comes a time and place where we have to decide who we are going to serve. Will we serve our little, ego-dominated, false self? Or will we serve our true self, the Christ self, the self we are created to be. There comes a time when we must decide that we are going to be servants for a greater cause and good. I said last week, being spiritual is not for the purpose of being spiritual. It’s for the purpose of being the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Spirituality is for service, it is for the sake of love. It is for the sake of the world. Paul says to the church at Corinth, “We are God’s servants, working together.” He tells them that they share a “common purpose.” I suppose one reason so many Christians are divided today is because we can’t agree on what that common purpose is. And that is a problem. There is no question about that – it is a problem and a challenge. But what we can’t do, however, is simply dismiss one another.
The reason we can’t simply dismiss one another is because Jesus won’t let us. Jesus compels us to find some way in which we can be reconciled and come together. Of course, that’s not always possible. But Jesus will not let us off the hook either. Jesus tells us to rid ourselves of all anger and contempt, and pursue reconciliation. And this shouldn’t surprise us because Jesus made love of neighbor the fulfillment of God’s will. And our “neighbor,” according to Jesus, is anyone and everyone. Common sense tells us that we can’t possibly love anyone and everyone to the same degree or in the same way. But how we love each other, how we relate to one another matters greatly, because such is the kingdom of God.
In fact, Jesus makes the point that relationships take precedence over religious ritual and devotion. Jesus is not by any means denigrating religious ritual and devotion, but he is saying in this passage that how we treat one another is the main thing. And to make his point he employs a rather shocking example. If you are at the altar ready to offer your gift or sacrifice, but then remember that someone has taken offense at you, then leave your gift there, and go to your brother or sister to make things right. Jesus doesn’t even offer any kind of judgment on whether the offense taken is justified or not, he just says, go. Why is that? Because the kingdom of God is about relationships.
Professor Tex Sample tells a story about Allen Knight Chalmers who taught at Boston University School of Theology. Chalmers was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. He would teach during the week, then over the weekend he would travel and participate in civil rights marches and demonstrations. During those years Chalmers became good friends with a black student at the seminary. The black student was from Alabama and one year at Christmas decided to go home for the holidays. His wife was pregnant, and pretty far along, but their doctor said it would be okay. The trip home was fine. They had a great time visiting with family and friends. But on the way back, somewhere in North Alabama his wife started having sharp pains. They began to rush to find a hospital. The first hospital they came to told them that they didn’t take colored people, and denied his wife treatment. By the time they found another hospital she had lost the baby and nearly died herself. When they got back to Boston University, this black student was in the words of Sample a “cauldron of fury” and who wouldn’t be. He would have nothing to do with Chalmers, even though they had been warm friends.
Chalmers would meet him in the hall way and this young man would turn away. Chalmers made phone calls and tried to meet him but to no avail. One day when Chalmers was in his office, he looked down the hallway and he saw this young man walking in his direction. So Chalmers stepped back into his office so the young man couldn’t see him, and when he was about in front of his door, Chalmers, who was a big man, reached out and grabbed this young black student, pulling him in and practically hurling him across the room. Chalmers shouted, “Listen, you have got to talk about this. You’ve got to talk and you are going to talk to me now. You are not leaving this office unless you go right over me!” The young man tightened up and in anger lashed out, “GD you, GD you, If it weren’t for you, I could hate every white man on the face of the earth.”
Where can the marginalized, the outcasts, those who are criminalized simply for being different and for fleeing war and poverty and death, where can they find someone to trust, someone who will stand with them and stand for them and be their allies and advocates? Can you be that person? Can I? Can we be that church?
I love the poem written by Cynthia Kirk titled, Kin-dom Without Walls. (Not Kingdom, but Kin-dom)
Imagine a place / Where mercy resides, / Love forms each heart, / Compassion lived out with grit and determination. / A place where lavish signs / Mark each path barrier free.
Imagine a place / Where skin tones are celebrated / Like the hues of tulips in springtime. / Where languages inspire / With symphonies of diversity. / Where Respect schools us / In custom and history / And every conversation / Begins with a bow of reverence.
Imagine a place where each person wears glasses, / Clarity of vision for all. / Recognizing each one, everything / Made in the image of God.
Imagine a place / Where carrots and pasta / Doctor’s skills and medications / Are not chained behind barbed wire - / Food, shelter, health care available for all.
Imagine a place where / Every key of oppression / Was melted down to form public art / Huge fish, doves, lions, and lambs / On which children could play.
Imagine a place where / People no longer kept watch / Through the front window / To determine whether the welcome mat / Would remain on the porch.
Such is the work / The journey / The destination / In the kin-dom of God.
Can you imagine such a place? Can we be such a place?
Gracious God, as we join one another in sharing the bread and juice, let us be reminded that this is what you want for all humanity. So let us be empowered today to express your love to our wider community and world every way we can. Amen.