Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians—which I’m going to be preaching on starting today and running through the First Sunday of Lent—is relevant for us Christians living in Toccoa, Georgia, in the twenty-first century. So what does today’s scripture teach us about being a Christian here and now? I’m going to focus on two things… Your bulletin says three, but I only have time for two… So good news: You’re going to beat the Baptists to the Mexican place! Just kidding. You know me better than that! The sermon is just as long as usual!
First: today’s scripture teaches us that we Christians are “set apart.” Second: it teaches us that we’re “stuck together.” We are set apart and stuck together. That’s what this sermon is about.
But first, we’re set apart…
Like many of you, I grew up listening to the music of singer-songwriter Billy Joel, and for the most part I like him—“Don’t Ask Me Why,” “My Life,” “Always a Woman,” “Uptown Girl.” These are great songs!
One song I don’t like, however—or at least a song whose lyrics I don’t like—is “Only the Good Die Young.” And I especially dislike the line that says, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints/ ’Cause the sinners are much more fun.”
I don’t like that lyric in part because it draws a sharp line between sinners and saints… as if sinners and saints can be so easily distinguished—at least as far as the world is concerned!
I gather, for instance, that in Joel’s eyes, “saints” are no fun because they’re judgmental, sanctimonious, self-righteous, holier than thou. But if a “saint” is like that, well… they’re proving by their hypocrisy that they’re also sinners!
Besides, First Corinthians makes the same point loud and clear: it’s often hard for us to distinguish saints from sinners!
Consider just some of the sinners who are members of the church at Corinth: Some are dividing into factions and fighting with one another based on which apostle they feel an allegiance to. Some are suing one another in court. Some are engaging in unrepentant sexual sin. There’s even a man chapter 5 who is—oh boy, how do I put this?—having an intimate relationship with his own stepmother. There are men in the church visiting prostitutes—and who apparently see no problem with this behavior!
Many members of the church feel morally superior to other members because they possess what they perceive to be more highly exalted spiritual gifts. Some members are routinely participating in idol worship. Some, who are rich, are mistreating the poor in the church. And some so-called “mature” Christians are looking down their noses at Christians who are new to the faith—and who have a lot of learning and growing to do.
The Corinthian Christians are a mess. Yet Paul can still say something astonishing about them in verse 2: They are “sanctified”—past tense. To be “sanctified,” past tense, literally means to be a saint. And that’s what these Corinthian Christians are, according to Paul! These sinners are somehow also saints! As you see from the cover of the bulletin, there is “more than meets the eye”!
How is that possible?
Usually, when Paul writes about sanctification—and usually when we pastors talk about sanctification—we’re referring to the lifelong process of becoming holy, that process by which the Holy Spirit changes us within, makes us more and more like Christ, and less and less like our old, sinful selves. Paul usually talks about sanctification that way… but not here.
If he meant it that way here here, then to say that these Corinthian Christians are “sanctified”—past tense—would imply that they are already perfect and sinless.
And, as I’ve said, that can’t be true!
So if Paul doesn’t mean “sanctified” in the sense of sinless perfection, what does he mean?
He means that these Corinthian Christians are “set apart” for a purpose: the way the Bible says that priests who served in the temple were set apart… the way Paul was set apart to be an apostle… the way pastors like me are “set apart” when we get ordained…
But here’s the thing: What’s true of priests in the Old Testament, what’s true of Paul in the New, what’s true even of me today… is true of all of us Christians! We’re all saints; we’re all a “set-apart” people! Because we’re all called by God!
In verse 1, Paul says he was called by the will of God to be an apostle. I’m called by the will of God to be a pastor, among other things. But if you are in Christ, you’re also called by the will of God to be something… You’re called by the will of God to do something—to do many things. At the very least, if you’re a Christian you’re called by the will of God to devote your life to Jesus Christ… Because you belong to him. Because he now owns you… Because he purchased you, the Bible says, with his own blood…
Your life is no longer your own.
Because you, dear Christian—even you— are “set apart.”
There is no other kind of Christian than a set-apart Christian!
I became a Christian myself at age 14, and, for whatever reason—I must have had some good guidance and teaching—I understood this truth: If Christianity is true, and Jesus really was raised from the dead, then my life can never be the same! The fact that Jesus was raised from the dead changes everything!
Therefore, I knew even back then that when given a choice between trusting my own thoughts, my own opinions, my own intuitions… or trusting those of my friends… or trusting those of my teachers at school… or trusting those of Jesus—and the very words of scripture that the Spirit of Christ breathed out… I’ll go with Jesus every time! I just asked myself: “Who among this group was raised from the dead?” Because being raised from the dead settles the question! Jesus has proven we can trust him!
So when, at age 14, I heard about Jesus’ command to fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples and to bear witness for Christ—even if it meant having scary conversations with my fellow eighth-graders—when I heard about how the Lord wanted us to make churchgoing a top priority, to make prayer and Bible study a top priority, to do what the Lord commanded, even when it was deeply countercultural, I didn’t question it. It just seemed to follow, logically. If Christianity is true, and Jesus was raised from the dead, this is what I’ve got to do. My life is no longer my own.
I’m not saying I obeyed Jesus perfectly well, then or now… I’m just saying that I certainly tried!
It’s funny: My parents saw the difference Jesus was making in my life right away, and they got scared. They were afraid I was becoming what they feared most for their children: they were afraid I was becoming a “fanatic.” They warned me about “being a fanatic” a lot! And without my knowing it, the two of them even arranged a meeting to talk to Bill Bullard, who was my youth pastor.
The Wednesday night following their meeting with him, Bill called me aside and wanted to talk to me. “Uh-oh! What did I do?” And Bill told me what my parents said, what my parents thought… and then put his arm around me and said, “Don’t change a thing! Don’t change a thing!”
Incredibly sweet! And incredibly encouraging!
Because we are set apart, and that changes everything…
In fact, each of us, if we’ve received Christ, could say something like what Paul says in verse 1… [Update examples as necessary.] “Buster, called by the will of God to be a furniture store owner and manager for the glory of God.” “Betty, called by the will of God to be a great-grandmother for the glory of God.” “Noah, called by the will of God to be a Chick-fil-A hospitality professional for the glory of God.”
As Paul himself will later say in this letter, in chapter 10, verse 31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” That’s your purpose in life. That what it means to be set apart: We live for God’s glory; we live to please God; we live to bear witness to his Son Jesus. That’s it.
And that’s Point Number One: We are set apart.
Point Number Two: We who are set apart are also, at the same time, stuck together…
As in all of Paul’s letters, we can learn a lot about what Paul is going to be writing about in his letter by looking at what he says in the letter’s opening words.
So, for example, in spite of all the many, serious problems that the Corinthians were facing in their church, Paul says, in verses 4 through 7, that he thanks God “always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus,
that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ…
Paul is perfectly sincere: Paul can see for himself that the Holy Spirit is doing powerful, supernatural, even miraculous things in them and through them!
We should notice, however, what Paul doesn’t say in these verses: He doesn’t say, “I thank God always for the love that characterizes your fellowship. I thank God that in spite of theological differences, in spite of your many sins, in spite of rampant licentiousness and idolatry—I thank God that your hearts are overflowing with love for one another. I thank God that you just love your brothers and sisters in your church, and it’s just obvious to everyone how much you love one another!”
If Paul could say that about these Corinthians, I’m sure he would love to. But he can’t. By all means, the Corinthians have got spiritual gifts in abundance, they have power from on high, they have miracle-working power, but they don’t have nearly enough love!
In fact… This particular theme culminates in a masterpiece of ancient literature—the love poem that Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Do you see how these famous words hearken back to Paul’s thanksgiving in verses 4 through 7—God has truly blessed these Corinthians with all the spiritual gifts, with miraculous power! But without love for one another, Paul says, these spiritual gifts mean nothing.
Alongside their confusion about the resurrection, which Paul addresses in chapter 15, their lack of love for one another is their biggest problem.
So with this in mind—I’d like to apply Paul’s words to the biggest contemporary challenge that is currently facing our church—by which I mean Toccoa First United Methodist… not the biggest problem facing our denomination… No, the one facing our local church.
See… I know that many of you, at this moment—especially those of you who want our church to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church… many of you are upset or at least deeply disappointed about this “pause” in the disaffiliation process, which Bishop Sue announced in a letter from December 28—after consulting with the conference Board of Trustees and the incoming bishop, Bishop Dease.
I share your disappointment…
Without giving examples of what she meant, the bishop cited “misinformation” as the reason for the pause. I can only speak for our church and say that the lay leaders in charge of the process that we followed acted with complete integrity, and none of us—if we came to all the meetings—including the one with our district superintendent—none of us could possibly be a victim of “misinformation.”
It seems to me that if some churches were not acting with integrity, then punish those churches; not ours.
In saying this, of course, I’m not advocating how any of y’all should vote—remember, I don’t get a vote, just as April and I didn’t vote with the Admin Board to request a vote.
The question of whether or not our church should disaffiliate is not a pastor’s decision to make: I’m not a member of this church; I’m a member of the conference. This is your decision. And nothing I say in this sermon or in any future sermon or teaching should be construed as advocating for one side or the other.
As a matter of conscience and pastoral responsibility, however, I feel compelled to tell you that I believe our church’s time-tested doctrines on marriage and sexual intimacy are faithful to scripture… And thirteen years ago, I defended my belief in these doctrines when I appeared before the Board of Ordained Ministry. In fact, back then—what I said and wrote about those doctrines was considered the “correct answer,” officially. And nothing, I believe, has happened in thirteen short years to convince me that God is now revealing something else in the holy scriptures that his Spirit breathed out. 1
I believe that if our denomination changes doctrines related to marriage and sexual intimacy—or simply ignores provisions related to them in our current Book of Discipline—the UMC would be making a tragically misguided and, indeed, sinful mistake. I urge them to remain faithful to God’s Word as reflected in our current doctrines; I urge them not to change or disregard these doctrines… just as my fellow clergy from bishops on down advocate for something else.
Obviously, we disagree. Is it okay even for us clergy to disagree?
And surely, nothing I’m saying now is controversial… For me—a United Methodist pastor—to tell you that I actually believe in the doctrines of our denomination’s current United Methodist Book of Discipline… well… that should should be the least surprising, the least interesting, the least consequential, the most boringthing that I—a United Methodist pastor—could tell you!
But we are living in interesting times!
Regardless, none of y’all have to agree with me on my theological convictions and opinions to be a beloved member of this church! And my door is always open if you want to talk further about the doctrines of our church!
And here’s my most important point… to have convictions on these church doctrines is entirely separate from the question of what we’re supposed to do with our convictions… including the question of whether or not our church should disaffiliate. I know that some of you agree with me on what the Bible says about doctrines related to marriage—indeed, that you are a “traditionalist,” to use the fashionable term—yet you don’t think our church should disaffiliate.
And that’s perfectly okay…
I believe that God is telling us through this letter of Paul that the biggest challenge facing our church is not possible disaffiliation; it’s not even disagreements over the doctrines of marriage and sexual intimacy; and it’s not disagreements over how to love those who identify as LGBTQ… The biggest challenge facing our church is how, or whether, we love one another… even in the face of disagreements. And I’m not talking about how we love people “out there,” in the world beyond the walls of our church, but how we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, right here, in this local church called Toccoa First United Methodist… Or maybe in the future it will be some other kind of Methodist Church… or maybe not; maybe it will remain exactly the same. Only God knows what the future holds.
But let’s face it: Sometimes it’s far easier to love hypothetical people “out there,” in the abstract… the hard part is loving flesh-and-blood people in the pew next to us!
Our biggest challenge is, Are we willing and able to love one another, right here at this local church, even in the midst of all this denominational strife?
Because it’s easy enough to paraphrase 1 Corinthians chapter 13 in light of the current challenges facing our denomination. Maybe it would sound something like this: “If I hold all the correct doctrines, if I perfectly understand the truth of God’s Word, if I say, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”…
Or… “If I boldly advocate for righteous change, if I stand up to defend people whom our denomination has harmed for far too long, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
There is simply no cause, no matter how important, that justifies a failure to love our brothers and sisters right here in this church.
Because… If we’re angry at our brothers and sisters for disagreeing with us on this or any other important issue, the problem is not so much the disagreement itself; the problem is our anger.
Did we hear that—and I’m taking to myself, too: If we’re angry at our brothers and sisters at Toccoa First for disagreeing with us on this or any other important issue we face, the problem is not so much the disagreement; the problem is our anger.
Do I exaggerate?
Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount that anger is on the same spectrum with murder itself. He doesn’t mean that anger is exactly the same as murder… And I’m not saying that the sin of anger is equal to the sin of murder in God’s eyes… But Jesus himself warns that anger comes from the same sinful place in our hearts, and we will be judged accordingly! And he’s especially concerned about the words that we speak in anger. He implies that our words can commit a kind of spiritual murder.
And I say this as a “recovering angry person.” By “recovering,” I mean, I still get angry, far too often, but at least I feel bad about it… and I confess it as a serious sin… and I repent. But I used to justify my anger by appealing to Jesus: “After all, didn’t Jesus get angry when he overturned the money-changers tables in the temple? Isn’t there such a thing as ‘righteous anger’?”
There is righteous anger… Jesus got righteously angry… But guess what? I’m not Jesus. I can’t handle anger—righteous or otherwise. When I get angry, it’s rarely righteous anger, or even if it starts that way, it doesn’t remain that way. Even so-called “righteous” anger quickly becomes a proud, self-centered, egotistical kind of anger… a kind of anger that harms my soul.
So you know what?
I’m done with it… God help me, as much as it depends on me—and I need lots of grace—but I’m done with the anger… which too often drives a wedge between me and my brothers and sisters in Christ!
So here’s what I am resolving:
The United Methodist Church, or the Global Methodist Church… the Wesleyan Covenant Association, or the Reconciling Ministries Network… The hashtag #BeUMC, or the hashtag #LeaveUMC… my outspoken clergy colleagues on Twitter or the Council of Bishops… These people and these institutions—operating in good faith, as I’m sure they are—simply do not have the power to make me angry… either angry at them, or angry at someone else… They don’t have the power to rob me of my joy, or to make me feel afraid for my future, or to take away my peace, which surpasses all understanding…
They don’t have the power!
Or if they do have that power, it’s only because I gave it to them… and that’s my problem… If they have the power to make me angry, then that means that I have sin in my own heart that I need to deal with!
So God help me, I’m taking that power back! That’s my prayer.
And these people and these institutions don’t have the power to make me stop loving my brothers and sisters at Toccoa First United Methodist Church—whether we agree or disagree with one another on any particular issue.
Maybe… maybe… God has allowed this “pause” in the 2553 process—because, remember, God is in control here… God isn’t sovereign only when we like what’s going on; he’s always sovereign… But maybe God has allowed this “pause” in the process as a means of testing our faith: And the test is something like this: Who or what are you trusting in right now? Are you trusting in the Lord… Do you believe that Jesus holds your future in his hands, and therefore you don’t have to be afraid? Or is your faith in an institution? Or is it in a particular denomination? Or is it in a particular group of leaders, or bishops, or pastors, or caucuses, or lobbyists, or lawyers, or interest groups?
“But as for me and my house…” “But as for me and my house,” dear Lord, please give me strength to trust in you! Enable me to pass this test! Enable me to remember your promises… Psalm 118:6: “The Lord is on my side. I will not fear. What can man do to me?” Romans 8:31: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God us a spirit not of fear, but of power, and love, and self-control.”
Paul understood that members of the local church at Corinth are supposed to be “stuck together” as members of the Body of Christ. He understood that together they had everything they needed to accomplish God’s will, to fulfill his mission, to make disciples and baptize, to love and support one another, to build one another up, and to work always for God’s glory. But they—the members of the local church at Corinth—needed to remain stuck together.
In today’s scripture, by the way, we see where our English Standard Version, and all the other modern translations fall short. Verse 5 is misleading: “in every way you were enriched in him.” I much prefer King James here. It says, “in every thing ye are enriched by him.” “Ye,” in case you didn’t know, is just an old-fashioned word for “y’all”!
Paul is talking to “y’all”: Only together, as the local church at Corinth, do y’all have everything you need to love God and neighbor, to do God’s will, and to glorify him.
And Paul understands that there are Satanic forces at work in this local church at Corinth that sought to make the members of the church angry with one another, to drive them apart, and, and, and… to quench the Spirit that up to this point had so evidently been at work in their midst.
Remember, Paul says that we Christians have the power to quench the Spirit. 2 And if we let the devil prevent us from loving one another, I’m sure we will find that we are far less able to fulfill God’s mission for our church in this community.
And remember what’s at stake: If we fail, people outside our church risk going to hell instead of hearing the gospel and being saved.
That’s what’s at stake.
And maybe what I’m about to say hasn’t happened yet; I pray that it doesn’t… but… if you become so angry about denominational politics—and where a brother or sister stands on one side of the issue or the other—that you just can’t stand coming to worship on Sunday… because you just can’t stand siting in the pews alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ who may disagree with you on a particular issue… or you can’t stand listening to me preach because we disagree on particular issue… how is this not a symptom of the problem I’ve just been describing?
If you’re boycotting church, you’re not functioning as a member of the body of Christ at this local church, you’re not exercising the spiritual gifts God has given you to use within the context of this local church, you’re not encouraging or building up your brothers and sisters, you’re not learning about how you can best pray for them and care for them… If you’re boycotting church, you’re harming your brothers and sisters at this church who are depending on you!
So please repent!
Disagree with your pastor, or disagree with your brothers and sisters in Christ, or disagree with bishops and denominational leaders… disagree with them all you want… but please, please, please… Keep showing up at church. You are a member of the body of Christ that meets at 333 E. Tugalo Street. It doesn’t matter, by the way, what name that local body calls itself… We are together the Body of Christ that God has assembled here. And you are a particular member of that body, and you have a necessary God-given role to play.
Be on guard against your anger! It will harm you!
Let’s pray that that God protects us from this anger, no matter what does or doesn’t happen with our United Methodist Church.