January 15, 2017
The Second Sunday in Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Neighbor. Oh neighbor.
The church is full of hypocrites. But there’s always room for one more. Amen.
Five or six years ago, my family and I lived in Revelstoke, a cozy little mountain town in B.C.’s interior. One day a group of environmentally conscious people approached our church, wanting to partners with it in the establishment of a Community Garden. Where anyone could rent a plot to grow and harvest their own vegetables. The church had a nice big lawn that wasn’t used by the church often. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the church to show its own commitment to care for God’s creation. It also also seemed like the perfect opportunity to connect to the wider un-churched community. Especially in our search for the church’s white whale: those elusive young families.
And so, every few days I’d bike down to the church. Check our carrots. Clip some lettuce, nurture some kale. And gradually I’d meet all sorts of different people involved with the garden. I walked out of the church one day and there was a hemp-clad woman in here early twenties, dreadlocked hair digging up her celery roots. I remember one thing about the conversation we had. She said the thing she loved the most was the community. The community that formed around that little plot of land. “We’re just so different from each other,” she said. “There’s all kinds of people. Young and old. Richer, poorer. Kids. We’re eating together, having potlucks. It’s just so hard to find community like this.”
Clearly, what drew her wasn’t just the garden. But it was what the garden created. What drew her was the community. The garden created a community. There was a hunger that the food alone couldn’t satisfy. The hunger for community, and deeper relationships. People who care, who share their life together.
This is probably one of the most prevalent hungers people have in our highly connected, shifting, mobile world. The hunger for community. In fact, I’d say that people my age or younger, regardless of what they think about religion or their beliefs are, this is the most attractive thing about church. This idea of deeper relationships. And loving community.
But you know, there was an irony here. We had this beautiful talk about deeper relationships, building community. Diverse people gathering around a common purpose. And it all went on in the shadow, on the underutilized property of a church building. A place where—most church people, at least—would describe as having all of these things. Loving, caring relationships. Different people gathering around a common purpose. Not to mention potlucks. And yet, in spite of this deep hunger, she’d probably never be caught dead in church. Her hungers were satisfied outside the church’s walls. Quite literally.
Why do you think that is? Why, if there is this obvious deep hunger, why aren’t people fighting to get in our doors? And on church committees?
There are a lot of reasons. But a main one, in my estimation, is that most churches sounds a lot like the church in Corinth. A lot like the community that the Apostle Paul addresses in this morning’s scripture passage. Paul starts our letter out by referring to this community as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” But once you find out what’s going on in this congregation, you realize these people sound like anything but saints. The label on the outside doesn’t fit the actions of the people inside.
Paul was a church planter. He grew this church from scratch three years before. Corinth was a big commercial hub, so they had all sorts of different people gathered. Rich, poor. Locals, immigrants, Jews and gentiles. A pretty remarkable thing. But soon enough, things started to fall apart. Soon they were forming factions, throwing their lot in with one prominent elder over another. They were fighting about everything. From tablecloths to decorations. Details over doctrine. Some saw themselves as spiritually superior to others. And if they weren’t fighting over doctrine or speaking in tongues, they were getting drunk off the wine at the Lord’s table. And when they weren’t drunk, they were sleeping around. Paul says a little later that their sexual behavior was shocking, even by the standards of the open-minded, libertine pagans of Corinth. I don’t know if this is what most people think of when they hear the words “loving community.”
You could imagine what this would look like to their neighbors. You could imagine that the spiritually hungry noticed that these folks were hungry for just about anything but spirituality. These so-called “saints” didn’t look like saints at all. They look like holy hypocrites.
And truth be told, this is a big reason why a lot of folks who on the outside of the church think of it. A common criticism I hear among people and see on Facebook is that church folk are holy hypocrites. People who see themselves as “saints.” But when you dig under the forced smiles you discover what the local people in Corinth did: antagonistic control freaks, spiritual narcissists and ego maniacs. People who are consumed by proper doctrine by day. And drunken sex-fiends by night. This is why many people, like our young hippie gardening friend, will go looking for community right outside the doors of the church, but never step inside. And so despite the hunger, the need among people for community. Church is one of the last places they look to fill it.
But you know, I wonder if the problem has less been that church is imperfect, and made up of broken people. But a sort of misunderstanding of community. And what kind of community will actually satisfy our deep hungers. I heard another Pastor once who said that when ever someone says that they would never be involved in a faith community. That when ever someone says church isn’t for them, because quote “the church is fully of hypocrites.” Her response is the one we said together earlier in the service. “Of course it is,” she’d reply. “And there’s always room for one more.”
We can be so naïve about community. Thinking that it’s just a lovely place where everyone is always nice and polite to each other, everyone follows proper etiquette and procedures. People share the same beliefs and political views. That true community is actually doing our best to avoid conflict, annoyance, and hypocrisy. So often in the church we’ve understood the Christian life to present a saintly exterior, and make sure others did to. We’ve thought of our communities as companies of the righteous—as the people who have our act together. Whether it’s through personal morals or the political and social views we hold. And so compete with each to try to climb to the top of the podium of righteousness. Not realizing that the higher the pedestal, the bigger the fall.
But deep community, true community, isn’t about this at all. Paul knew all these things about the church in Corinth. He’s writing this letter in a response to all the numerous complaints he’s received of their behavior. And believe me, he doesn’t let any of it slide. His attitude isn’t “anything goes.” Later in the letter he takes them to task. And yet, he begins his letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” And he goes even further. He takes it up a notch: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Not only are these deeply flawed, broken people saints, Paul says. He thanks God for them!
They are saints because Christ is active among them. They are holy because God’s Spirit is at work among them. Changing hearts and changing lives. In spite of their faults and their brokenness. And Paul thanks God for them.
And this is the beginning point for true community. And this is, maybe, why communities of Jesus—true communities of Jesus at their best—are unique. What we have to offer that other communities may not. That we are drawn here not in our perfection. As perfect people, looking to maintain our perfection. Nor simply as dirty rotten sinners who just need to be put in our place by fear. No, the beauty of a community of faith rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ is that we know ourselves as broken, imperfect, limited. Prone to fail and fall short. Yet we also know ourselves, and each other as beloved and blessed. Set apart, graced by God our Creator. We can be our true selves. Knowing, and trusting that the light of reveals all of our imperfections is the same light that brings healing, hope, and new life. That’s the real draw. This is the kind of community that will satisfy our hungers. Like no other will.
Brothers and sisters, the wonderful thing, and the most important thing about our community isn’t actually about us. The thing that makes our community unique, different than other kinds of community, is the God who has enriched so many of us in speech, and knowledge of every kind. It’s Christ who has mended hearts and reconciled relationships, and continues to do so. The spiritual gifts that flow through so many of us that make such a difference, sometimes small, sometimes huge, in each other’s lives and in the world. What’s unique and beautiful about this community is the presence of the God who called us together in to the fellowship, the community of Jesus in the first place. Who fills all of our hungers who’ll strengthen us until the end. Not because of ourselves. But so often in spite of ourselves.
So, the next time I’m standing beside a community garden. Or some other public place, chatting about our culture’s deep thirst for authentic community. I’ll nod my head and agree. But then I’ll thank God for you, and this community of faith. “The church is full of hypocrites,” I’ll say. “But there’s always room for one more. There’s room for me. And, by God’s grace, there’s room for you, too.”