A sermon for the third Sunday after the Epiphany, and the first Sunday after the Inauguration of Donald Trump as POTUS and the worldwide Women’s March.
A few years ago, driving home from another church, I saw a billboard advertising a place, “Where winners worship, and God is praised.” I confess that my first and overwhelming response was, “But what about us losers?” Because Christianity is a religion for losers, for the lost and the left behind.
Paul writes to the Corinthian church, riven by division, and the hope that he sets before them is the cross. It is the ultimate defeat at the hands of the authorities: crucifixion of the innocent by corrupt self-interests and the idolatry of imperial power.
“It is foolishness,” says Paul, “to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The problem that the Corinthian church is having, as far as we can read between and behind the lines of Paul’s letters, is that instead of following Christ himself they are backing Christ’s workhorses, investing their interest and their self-worth in the winning ways of one or another preacher instead of hearing the gospel that they preach, and hanging their hopes on that: on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the foolish and fond love of God.
The twentieth-century commentator William Barclay diagnoses the Corinthian problem as pride, and the trouble about this pride, he says, is this:
It is always disputatious. It cannot keep silent and admire; it must talk and criticize. It cannot bear to have its opinions contradicted; it must prove that it and it alone is right. It is never humble enough to learn; it must always be laying down the law. …
… It tends to cut men off from each other rather than to unite them.
The identification with some party is the acceptance of slavery by those who should be kings. In fact they are masters of all things, because they belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God. The man who gives his strength and his heart to some little splinter of a party has surrendered everything to a petty thing, when he could have entered into possession of a fellowship and a love as wide as the universe. He has confined into narrow limits a life which should be limitless in its outlook.
Barclay wrote in 1954 about the letters of Paul to the Corinthians; one wonders what else he had on his mind at the time.
It seems slightly impossible to preach on these passages today and not to mention the events that have taken place in our country over the past few days: the inauguration of a new president, followed by a rather astonishing wave of solidarity rallies and marches, led by women and lifting up the equal dignity of all kinds and conditions of people, not only the women, and not only here but on the seven continents of the world.
Each of these things matters and will have some kind of impact on our lives together. The Episcopal Church, as a body, has found itself involved with the whole gamut of activities and opportunities for gospel witness, for gospel values that the events have presented. There has been no small disputation around that involvement.
On Friday morning, before the inauguration, Mr Trump and Mr Pence and their families and some others attended a private prayer service at St John’s Episcopal Church, close to the White House. A little later, the choir of our National Cathedral sang to God and to the crowds gathering on the National Mall. The next day, yesterday, a multi-faith prayer service was held within that cathedral for the new President, Vice-President, and so on. And after that, many took their prayer to the streets.
How would Paul judge our corporate and collective actions? Where have we borne witness to the gospel of Christ, and where have we followed our own pride, substituting the philosophy of Apollos, or our personal loyalty to Peter or Paul, on the altar which belongs only to God?
I find it interesting to note that the proper name of the cathedral in Washington is the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Peter is translated Cephas in this letter of Paul to the Corinthians; but it is the same man. Peter and Paul, Cephas and Paul had many differences between them; but each man knew also that his first, last, and only loyalty was to Christ. This is why Paul had no wish to win the fight for the Corinthians, only to point them towards the cross. Peter and Paul would willingly nail their hopes of winning any argument to the hard wood of the cross, and find their hope in its humility, and their glory in the death of their own egos.
Of course, there are different opinions as to the fitting role of the National Cathedral in the political events of our nation. Peter and Paul would no doubt have argued about it, too. As William Barclay says, Oliver Cromwell once wrote to the Scots, “I beseech you by the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” But when our prayer is guided by the Gospel, we cannot go too far wrong.
To my mind, the prayer service at St John’s on Friday morning is a different animal. I wasn’t there, and I am not privy to the thinking of the Rector of that parish when he allowed a man with proven and published anti-gospel rhetoric: hateful speech against Catholics, gay people, Muslims; to preach at the pre-inauguration service. So, by the bowels of Christ, I could be wrong, but I do believe that this is where our church fell into the trap of following Apollos, of putting philosophy before the gospel, and following a leader who puts his ego and the number of his followers ahead of the gospel. This does not sound to me like a man who is fishing for people in order to feed them with the bread of life, since hate and hatefulness is poison to us all; but rather to feed his own glory.
I believe that our Episcopal Church got that one wrong. There is no room for hate in the Gospel of Christ. There can be no room, no provision made for hateful speech in our churches. As our own Presiding Bishop has been known to say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
And then there’s what happened yesterday, in Washington, DC, and in Spokane, WA, in NYC, and in Cleveland, where I saw Episcopalians of every order: bishops, deacons, lay people, and priests, gathering and marching alongside all kinds and conditions of people for the sake of the dignity of every person who is made in the image of God. For the love of God, and for the losers who keep getting nailed to the cross, and for the sake of the Gospel.
This, says Paul, is the way to heal our divisions. This is the end and aim of our baptism: the offering of ourselves, our souls, our bodies, our lives for the love of God, and for the love of every neighbour, loving them as ourselves. For this is the way of the cross: not to put ourselves first, offering to others only what we have left over; but loving each one on equal terms with ourselves; proclaiming by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and actively striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being who is made in the image of God.
The message about the cross is sheer foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It is the call and commission and the encouragement of Christ who gave himself for us, who gave everything for all of us, rather than win a fight with Pilate, rather than give in to division, and disputation. He chose the way, always, the way of love.
Our Collect today is both call and encouragement:
“Give us grace, O lord, to answer readily the call of our Saviour Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation,” which seems foolishness to those who cling to their own perishing pride; but to those losers who cling only to the cross, it is the very power of God.
William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series (The Westminster Press, revised edition 1975), 34-35