Family Tree – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

When we speak of the cross as Christians, sometimes it’s easy to forget that the cross is something more than simply a means of execution or death. It’s easy to become reductionistic. For us to speak of the cross is for us to speak of a whole array of matters. In the coming weeks of Lent, we’ll be doing a Wednesday evening study called “Making Sense of the Cross,” so this is your shameless plug to come out for that to learn more about what all “the cross,” as a trope, means. But in a nutshell, for our purposes today, when we speak of the cross, we speak of how God chooses the least expected means to manifest, or bring about glory. God dies to defeat death. “The cross,” as a phrase, for us in most instances, encapsulates not only the cross itself, but goes deeper—to the death of God and what it means, and moves to the resurrection and what that means. And so today, and into the future, when we speak of the cross, ask yourself if we’re speaking of the physical cross per se, or are we speaking more in a shorthand for all of God’s great and mighty acts done on our behalf, in a way that turns our popular way of thinking upside down. Likely it’s the latter…

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

One of the big things that families do is get together for dinner, especially at special occasions. Grandma used to always host a family Christmas dinner at her house. All the aunts and uncles and cousins would get together, we’d have a big dinner made up of one of everyone’s favorite dishes. BBQ spareribs for Lynnie. Macaroni and cheese for Ryan. Cherry pie for Mother. And so on. Grandma always said that was her gift to the whole family for Christmas.

Of course, at dinner we’d all be talking about all sorts of things. You can imagine, since you know me, my family isn’t a quiet group. Til everyone was at the tables between the living room and dining room, there were about 35 people in the house and everyone was talking. The place would be buzzing, or even pulsating with sound. I remember one conversation at a Christmas dinner in particular…

It’s 2008. Uncle Charlie and Uncle Donnie happened to be sitting across from each other at the table. Now—Uncle Donnie was very active in the Mifflin County Democrats. He participated in their monthly meetings. He sat at the booth at the county fair. He’d ride in the car for parades. He was invested, deeply. Uncle Charlie, on the other hand, was invested in a different way. He was invested in the stock market. He was a businessman who owned his own architectural precast company. He was part of the Beavertown Chamber of Commerce. He wasn’t part of the Snyder County Republicans, but he donated heavily to them and was friends with most of the county commissioners and even some of the politicians in Harrisburg, all with an R behind their names.

You can imagine, then, in 2008, what the conversation was about…Uncle Charlie saw the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States as the worst imaginable thing. The markets would tank. Hunting would be outlawed. We’d all be singing L’Internationale instead of The Stars and Stripes Forever. Uncle Donnie, on the other hand, disagreed. By his estimation and his convicted assurance, Obama would usher in a new Pax America, a time of great prosperity, a time free of hatred between people. We’d not only sing The Stars and Stripes Forever, but we’d sit hand-in-hand together singing Kumbaya.

What started out as a conversation didn’t continue that way. Uncle Donnie and Uncle Charlie, both opinionated and stubborn—another family trait—soon got heated. Their voices rose higher and higher, louder than the general hubbub of the dinner conversation. Soon others started to notice. Finally, Uncle Charlie stood up, leaned across the table, and pointed his finger right in Uncle Donnie’s face and shouted at him, “You and that Muslim Kenyan Marxist are going to destroy this country!” And he promptly left the table. You could’ve heard a cotton ball hit the floor…Something like that had never happened at Grandma’s before. Disagreements were typical—like in all families. But this was different. This was fighting and outright scorn. The chasm of difference was clearly wide, and seemingly insurmountable…

In our second lesson today, St. Paul is addressing the Corinthian Christians. They were a community of believers, about five house churches, so not terribly many, but a not-negligible number for the early church—they were a community of believers who came to the faith through the missionary work of Paul. We heard about that last week in the second lesson. “Christ did not send me to baptize,” he tells the Corinthians, “but to proclaim the gospel.” Paul’s mission was first and foremost one of preacher and teacher, not of sacramentarian. He was respected as preacher and teacher. It’s in this capacity that he writes to the small, but not-negligible number of Christians throughout Corinth.

The occasion for his writing is clear from his letter: disagreement. Paul opens his letter, again from our second lesson last week, immediately more or less chastising the Corinthians, although with honey, not vinegar, unlike the opening lines of his letter to the Galatians, but he nonetheless is stern. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,” he begins, “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” invoking not his own authority, but the authority of God, embodied, made real in Jesus, “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.” In other words, “Folks, I’m begging you, get your act together and stop the petty fighting.”

But what’s this petty fighting about?

And what’s this “same purpose?”

That’s where today’s second lesson picks up…

“Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…”

This is the heart of the disagreement, mostly in all of Paul’s ministry, really. The disagreement between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Remember—Paul was a Jew, called by Christ, to missionize in the lands that weren’t historically Jewish. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, but after the Babylonian captivity, the Jews—so called first by the Babylonians because they had lived largely in the Palestinian province of Judea—didn’t all return to Judea, but dispersed throughout the Persian empire, which subsequently fell to the Greeks under Alexander, and now in the time of Paul, was under the control of the Romans.

Paul’s ministry was bigger than simply sharing the good news with Jews, but with all people—that also meant the Gentiles, or the non-Jewish people. And so in Corinth, a Greek trading city, a crossroads of commerce in the ancient world, where cultures from as far as Arabia, China, Spain, and North Africa intersected—in that place Paul is called to minister, to teach and preach, among people of vastly different backgrounds. These people have different experiences, stories, and convictions. And this creates problems…

The same is largely true for us today, as well—the church is still comprised of people with different experiences, stories, and convictions. And this creates problems at times. We have our disagreements. We have our different ideas. How we worship. How we spend money. How we spend our time. But we are united in one purpose. “We proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul says. This is what holds us together… “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.”

This is our central purpose…Our same purpose. Sharing, telling and living, the gospel. Sharing, telling and living, by our very lives that nothing can stand in the way of God’s love for us and for all creation in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is what binds us together despite our differences, what we all prize and hold dear. Our differences and disagreements are manifestations of sinfulness when we allow them to drive a wedge between us who are united to one another and to God through the foolishness of the cross. For God chose what is foolish according to popular opinion to shame us when we think ourselves wise, and God chose what is weak according to popular opinion to shame us when we think ourselves strong. We proclaim Christ and Christ crucified…

In September 2015, I had the honor of preaching at Uncle Donnie’s funeral. In December 2009, he had been diagnosed with lymphoma, which he beat back through chemo and radiation, but in 2015, his cancer came back, and he decided he wasn’t doing treatment again. He died, the first of Grandma’s brother’s and sisters. The funeral was packed. I remember standing in the pulpit preaching at his funeral, and looking out and seeing all my family there. People related in many and various ways. And there, in the congregation, was Uncle Charlie. And unlike most who just attentively listened respectfully, Uncle Charlie was crying. Not teary eyed alone, but crying. He was crying at the funeral of Uncle Donnie, the man he had vehement disagreement with, a seemingly insurmountable chasm of disagreement. And yet here he was, crying at the funeral of this man he’d so heatedly fought with. In the end, the family bond was stronger than the disagreement…

Even though Uncle Charlie and Uncle Donnie didn’t see eye-to-eye on most things, they were still united in the bond of love, part of the same family tree, bound together by something far bigger, with roots running deep and branches spreading out in different directions—into different experiences, stories, and convictions. But the same trunk, as it were, held them together. What held Uncle Donnie and Uncle Charlie together was far stronger than what split them—love. And that love held them together even beyond the grave, even as we commended Uncle Donnie to the care of God at his funeral.

We Christians are held together in a family as well—a family with different experiences, stories, and convictions. Yet fundamentally we are held together around the central message of the cross. We Christians, with our different backgrounds, are held together by our family tree—the tree of the cross. At the cross, it doesn’t matter if you’re wise or foolish. It doesn’t matter if you’re insider or outsider. At the cross, it doesn’t matter your race, gender, age, occupation, sexual orientation, education, culture, or political affiliation. At the cross what matters is the righteousness of God through relationship with Jesus Christ for everyone who lives like that matters. At the cross, there is no distinction, for the cross is our Christian family tree. We, like everyone in any family tree, share a bloodline, the bloodline of Jesus, whom God chose to make us and all creation right with himself, by blood—not by our own doing, but wholly by love.

And it’s this love that Paul shared with the first Christians in Corinth. It’s sharing it, telling and living it, that is the same purpose Paul appealed to the Corinthians to remember holds them together much more than what separates them. And it’s this same love, poured out for in the blood of Jesus on the family tree of the cross, that Paul shares with us today, that holds us together with those first Christians in Corinth, in Galatia, in Ephesus, in Rome, and with each other today. It’s this same love that holds us together despite our differences and disagreements.

This love humbles us and reminds us that God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than our strength—and yet we are filled with God’s wisdom and God’s strength, as members of a large family, to share, tell, and live this love. For we are convinced, not by our own understanding and strength, but by the goodness of God in our own lives, to welcome more and more into our family, a family of love, of love that, we believe, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and overcomes all things—even unto death itself.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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