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United In Mind And Purpose

Sermon 1/23/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

I have 2 texts to share with you again this morning, as I did last Sunday, sharing the introduction to Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and comparing that to Maya Angelou's poem that she gave in 1994 to the million man march.

And so this morning I also have 2 texts.  And the first continues from Paul's introduction to that letter in Corinthians, verses 10-18:

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloes people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, I belong to Paul, or I belong to Apollos, or I belong to Cephas, or I belong to Christ. 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

The second text I want to share with you this morning was also one that was shared on the Washington Mall, as was Maya Angelou's poem.  This one came from this past Thursday as part of the President's second inaugural address.  I'm not going to read the whole thing, he took 23 minutes, I just want to share an excerpt:

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity and matchless value because they bear the image of the maker of heaven and earth. Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.

Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Amen?  May it be.

Now once again I invite you to reflect with me on the similarities, perhaps dissimilarities, of these two texts, ancient and modern, and how we are called as a Christian people to respond to them in this time and place.

The President's message, much like Paul, acknowledged in his address (if you heard or read the entire thing) that there are divisions within our nation.  But that those divisions do not define who we are.  So instead, the President made a case for defining who we are by appealing to a greater ideal that transcends any divisions.  An ideal to which all citizens can agree, regardless of ideology, political affiliation, race, or creed.  Namely, our love for liberty and our belief in justice for all.

And because these are principles that are so fundamental to our identity as a nation, the President made the case for our mission to end tyranny and oppression in the world as the duty that has now been given to us.  And I have to say while I have had a disagreement or two with the President in the past (you're surprised by that I know J) I found his argument compelling.  The vision and the ideals that he set forward for us to be quite stunning.

Promoting human freedom and an end to inhumane tyranny is a mission I think we can embrace as Christians.  What I cannot, and will not accept as a Christian, is the means by which the President has chosen to do that in the past.  Choosing military supremacy and victory as the way that we achieve liberty and peace, rather than social and economic justice as the primary battle that must be won first in order to end tyranny and terror.

Now, that not so minor difference aside, I was genuinely heartened with how much I could agree in his address.  The President has set a very high standard by which his administration and future administrations can and should be held accountable.  One more note, as an aside that I just have to make on that speech before I move on to Paul's text:  there are those that like to claim that we are a Christian nation.  That we are founded by Christians on Christian principles.  But I noted in his address that the President gave equal attribution to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture, and specifically rejected the notion that our destiny has been set as a nation, chosen by God.  Now, coming from this President, about who's Christian faith so much has been made, I find that highly significant and more than just a token gesture to the non-Christian faith communities in our midst which call this nation their nation as well.  And I think that those were wise words, well chosen, and precisely right for this time.  

So again, my point in citing the inaugural address of the President is not that I agreed with everything that he said, but that the speech illustrates so well the basic message of Paul.  Namely, it is only when we are united in a common purpose that we can transcend any difference.  Or to put it in perhaps a stronger form, the greater our differences, the more important it becomes to agree on that which unites us.  Be it as citizens of this nation or as members of the church.

And make no mistake, the differences faced by Paul in the church in Corinth were just as big or bigger than any that we face today.  And Paul cites just one, here in this opening chapter, the allegiance to different leaders in the church.  Folks would say they belong to Paul, or to Peter, or to Apollos, or to Christ.  But if you read the rest of the first letter to the Corinthians, you know that that was only the beginning of their problems.  There are those that eat meat sacrificed to idols, and those who refrain.  Those who speak in tongues and those who do not.  Those who choose a life of celibacy and those who choose one in marriage.  Men who are circumcised and men who are not.  Women who keep silent in church (as God intended it to be J -- just kidding there!) and women who speak out.  

Everyone seems to think that their way is the correct way.  That this is the way all Christians should be.  Now anyone with common sense and half a brain will agree with me, that my way is right!  Right?  Amen!  There we go, now we're preaching!  

While there are those who think that all Christians should agree on this issue or that, the truth is that Christians are both pro-life and pro-choice.  Support gay rights and believe that homosexuality is a sin.  Believe that creationism is sound science and that evolution is the best theory for the origin of species.  Take the bible literally, and take the bible metaphorically.  And all Christians support regime change -- it's just that some think it should be in Baghdad and some think it should be in Washington DC.  But it's nice to know there's something we can all agree on J.

Now is there anyone here who thinks that all Christians gathered here this morning all agree on one side of any of these issues?  I don't think so.  What does that mean about us?  Name any issue that divides our country and you will find that same issue divides our church.  How can we possibly hope to be on the same mind?  And the answer that Paul gives to us is to remind us of who we are or whose we are.  To hold up that higher ideal and mission, in much the same way that the President did in his address.  

So that our disagreements around means and actions and policies will not deter us from that larger purpose.  So in the event that there might be any disagreements among us -- let's say, to pick an issue. . . randomly. . . . perhaps what we do with our personnel budget and how we staff the church -- you know, should there be any disagreement around such issues?  Hear again what the apostle Paul says to us:

I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you all be in agreement, and that there be no divisions among you.  But that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.  For it has been reported to me by Dan's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  What I mean is that each of you says 'I belong to the first service', or 'I belong to the second'.  "My allegiance is to the youth ministry", or "mine is to the children", or "mine is to the seniors".  Has Christ been divided?  Was Elaine crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Dan?  For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel and not with eloquent wisdom so that the cross of Christ might be emptied of its power.  For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to those of us that are being saved, it is the power of God.

Does that give you new understanding and perspective?  Paul's message to us -- we are a people united by the cross of Christ.  Therefore our allegiance is to God and God alone.  All else is but a question of means to a greater end.  Differences, even disagreements, are OK.  They're welcome, they're to be encouraged.  But division is not.

We can disagree on styles of music or how loud the organ is played -- do we ever disagree on anything like that? J.  We can disagree on how much to spend on this portion of our budget on that, or how we should staff the church.  We can disagree on where we should place the flag or what time we should hold the service, or in what order.  Or on what team to root for -- as long as it begins with 'Ducks'.  It's not that we ever disagree on any of these things, but in fact we can and do have from time to time strong disagreements on such.  Just as there are strong disagreements on our foreign policies and the war in Iraq.  That does not make any of us any less loyal as citizens to this country or as members of the church.  

Indeed, a church without strong disagreement is probably not doing anything worth getting excited about.  Of course, the corollary of that means that if you want an exciting church, go and find one with a lot of disagreements!  And I don't think that's where we want to go.  But disagreement should not and cannot cause us to lose our focus on our identity and mission.  For it is only by such focus that we transcend any differences and we prevent or heal any divisions.

So I would remind you, just in case that we ever do have any disagreements:  of the three components of the vision which guides our mission that we might be of the same mind and purpose.  And you'll find that vision on the inside cover of your bulletin where it is printed every week.  We are called by God to be a light to the world in the heart of Eugene.  By the way, a very timely vision for the season of epiphany, the season of God's coming light into the world.  And our three components, then, of that vision:

  1. First of all, that we will commit ourselves to live as a spirit-filled, Christ-like people.  Spirit-filled meaning we take seriously the life and the presence of the divine spirit that is given to all, baptized in the name of Christ, and we seek to nurture that presence in our own lives that it might be real and visible to others.  And that we are open to that presence.  To that spirit that occurs outside, even, of the Christian community.  Christ-like:  we are called to do as Jesus did.  To be the body of Christ present in our world today.  Making God's love tangible in the flesh through our actions and deeds as the second verse of our opening hymn says 'we are the hands of Christ'.  
  2. Secondly then, we commit to grow in the community of God as envision by Jesus.  In the language of the Lord's prayer, to make God's kingdom come, and God's will be done on earth as in heaven.  Jesus' frequent use of kingdom of God language (or kingdom of heaven to use the synonym in Matthew) was his way of contrasting the reigns of Herod and Caesar to the reign of God.  Or as Dominic Crossan says, 'it was his short-hand for saying this is what the world would look like if God were on the throne'.  And Paul took that concept and applied it to the emerging Christian communities in places like Corinth, and Ephesus, and Philippi, and Antioch, the capitals of the provinces of the Roman Empire.  And even to Rome itself.  To call then to live as alternative models of community where the reign of God was made a reality -- a microcosm of what God seeks for our entire world.  And this is our challenge -- that even if God's reign should not be visible anywhere else it should be visible here in how we live and work together as a community of God's people.
  3. Third and last, that we commit ourselves to strengthen our relationships with God, with each other, with families, and with our world.  Our faith is a relational faith.  There is no Christianity outside the community of Christian people.  

Robert Welsh, the Director of Disciples Council on Christian Unity, was here this week and met with area clergy.  He told me something very interesting and in conversation we had afterward about the theological implications of some of the inter-faith work we do.  About the orthodox tradition and their understanding of the doctrine of trinity -- that notion that God has three manifestations.  Traditionally expressed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  What he said to me was that in that tradition, the trinity means there can be no individual salvation.  For God as the model for humanity, is by God's nature relational.  And therefore so also humanity.  That we are saved in and through our relations, not only to God in Christ, but also to each other in Christ.  Thus we are saved as a community or we are not saved at all.

Now, granted that tradition -- the orthodox tradition -- is different from our own, in our tradition we have traditionally have emphasized more personal salvation and de-emphasized the trinity.  But there are some insights here for us that are well worth pondering, especially given the fact that that tradition is about 1600 or 1700 years older than ours!  They've been working on these issues longer than we have.

The basic ideas, then, and principles of this vision statement express how we understand the power of the cross and the meaning of our faith.  It is the purpose to which we are called to be of the same mind even while we may have differences of opinion.  It is who we are.  Or at least who we strive to be as it binds us together in God and calls us forth by the holy spirit to be a light to the world here in the heart of Eugene.  In Christ.  May that be so.


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