What Is Church?: Creating Space for Grace
1 Corinthians 3:3-11
Pastor Elyse Ambrose
July 9, 2017
If anyone has ever told you the early church had it all together, that they were the exemplar for Christian perfection and they hold the keys for showing us all how to get this thing called church down pat…
I would tell them they might want to reread the entire second testament. If there’s anything that we have learned from sacred text and during this “What is Church?” sermon series it is that church is beautiful and messy and nuanced. There are no fast and easy answers for building this type of community.
We know this as we consider that Paul’s letters were usually written to put out a fire that was kindling in any one of the many church communities he served. The church at Corinth was no different as we see in today’s scripture reading. They are a community with some differing views about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They are a church arguing with one another about who is right, and a church with groups that get angry when one side is gaining more power and credibility than the other. They are a church that offers us a glimpse into some of the concerns of the 21st century church and that will be helpful as we continue to think and listen together about what the Spirit may be revealing about “What is Church?”
Like the church at Corinth, we all get into our factions, we commit to our political agendas, we cling to our long-held narratives – we get very narrow and rigid. Many of us cannot be expansive enough to care for both police officers and black lives. To care for both Palestinians and Israelis. To love deeply and fiercely while committing to accountability. We forget that this is a journey about giving to and receiving from others and ourselves the grace that God has freely and liberally granted us in order for us all to be more and more who God has called us to be.
Amidst our differences, we can forget to create space for that grace that is required for much-needed truth, love, and growth to come about, from even the most unlikely places — from those who may not think like us but have something to contribute to that which God is building.
**And so we pray now: God, in this time, grant us the courage to be introspective, to see the ways that we have hindered the space for all of us to grow and flourish, and help us to go another way—the way of your goodness and grace.
Christians argue with each other. Sometimes Christians argue against abortion and for a woman’s right to choose. Both claim to be Christians. Both are pretty sure they are reflecting God’s desires. These conversations almost never turn out well.
Sometimes Christians argue about healthcare, and welfare, and immigration policies. Both claim to be Christians. Both are pretty sure they are reflecting God’s desires. These conversations almost never turn out well.
There’s scripture wielded as weapons from both sides; there’s name-calling and the desire to strip the other of the title “Christian.” There’s self-righteousness. Rarely is there humility.
There’s raised voices and tempers flare and lots of talking and little listening then out of sheer exhaustion the conversation ends. Most often no one is closer to a sacred truth. No one is closer to God. And the parties certainly are not closer to one another.
Don’t get me wrong, I get what is at stake when someone holds a view that brings harm to another child of God. I get that, for instance, when Christians argued about the personhood of black people in the American colonies, it meant that entirely new catechisms and doctrinal teachings were created to justify enslavement. I get that Christian extremism has led to terror and innumerable deaths over the centuries. I get that Christianity is often used to reinforce harmful social policies and to put power behind pretty much any view someone would like to espouse. But, I also understand that day to day, in our everyday being together, the clarity around who is on the side of “right” is not so well-defined and intentions are not so sinister.
Well-meaning people do and say harmful things in God’s name. Good people judge and condemn. Followers of Jesus create roadblocks to God’s love. It’s often easy to see when others do this and call them out. Yet… would it not be short-sighted, or at least reflect a lack of self-awareness, to write them off as foolish, unlearned, “un-Christian”… neglectful in regarding the ways that we all can be or have been “un-Christian”?
If we are honest, we know that we are unsure of many things and we are full of contradictions, yet we love neat little boxes. Still, we are complex. Multifaceted. Uncontainable.
In the words of Carl Sagan, “We are, each of us, a multitude.” Within that multitude is a lot of right, I believe. But also a lot of capacity for harm and viciousness. This is humanity everyday. Take away the extremists, which most people are not. Take away the people thirsting for power, willing to gain it at any cost, even at the corruption of God’s gospel message of grace and love. They are few.
And think instead about a flawed person you love and respect. Think of grandma. I’ll think about mine. I think about the woman who gave me my first lesson in Christian faith before I became a Christian—she pointed me to a Jesus in the gospels who for chapters and chapters argued with scribes and Pharisees because he could not abide hypocrites—particularly religious ones.
I think about the woman who loved me so much and made me feel like I was precious and good and lovable just the way I was. In my mind, she’s pretty much perfect. But I know she had shortcomings. Behind those wonderfully baked cakes and those loving affirmations was… a human. Beautifully flawed with perspectives that if held by any other person, I might be tempted to write them off. Perhaps some of you have a person in your life who is like my mamá. You know, a human being. A person with a multitude within them—never completely right, never completely wrong, but with great opportunity for growth. And a person with something valuable to offer just as they are. For if we had all “arrived”… if we knew all we needed to know, where would be the place for humble journeying in our lives? Growth? Becoming?
What if every Christian who holds a view a contrary view is simply a human? The one who won’t let others judge the actions of our president; or thinks of the harm they’ve heard a refugee will bring rather than thinking about a fellow human in need; or who zealously tries to uphold what they’ve been taught from their youth about the Bible, even if it hurts someone else—what if they are just human? And you are just human. And I am just human. And we all would benefit from taking a step back, and humbly conceding that maybe we don’t have it all right all of the time… we could all stand to make a little space for God and God’s grace.
I think that is part of what Paul’s example is illuminating for us today. The Corinthian church is one of factions. “I’m with Apollos!” “I’m with Paul!” Maybe, for example, we can think of them as conservative Christians and progressive Christians. Or cousins who are in debate at a Thanksgiving dinner table. They have their arguments and they’re both right in their own eyes, and then Paul points the church in another direction:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
It is this God who offers abundant grace that matters. It is that grace that welcomes and allows space for becoming that matters most. Not our factions. Not our political commitments. Not our capacity to win social media arguments and point out the fallacy in another’s logic. Not carefully constructed straw-men that never allow us to truly understand “the other.” These are not the things that truly matter.
As Jesus, who is the reflection of grace taught us, it is our capacity to offer to others and ourselves the grace that we have abundantly and freely received from God that matters most in the end.This isn’t me saying let people say whatever they want and call it Christianity. This isn’t me saying “oh, just ignore hate-filled words and actions. Put some grace on it; it’ll all be better by and by.” No. But, aren’t we all who we are because someone created the space for grace and was patient instead of sharp and judgmental? Are not we all who we are because someone created the space for grace and practiced holy curiosity rather than dismissiveness? Are not we all who we are because someone created the space for grace and listened before they benevolently and lovingly dismantled our entire argument?
This is what church is: a place where we can bring our entire selves and create the space for grace that allows us all to grow, to become, to flourish as expressions of God’s goodness in the world.
We need patient followers of Jesus. Curious followers of Jesus. Listening followers of Jesus to be the church. It does not mean that we will all completely agree. We as a body of Christ never have and we never will (That’s no fun anyway). But perhaps what we will do is embrace what one another has to offer in the building of God’s kin-dom, even those with whom we disagree.
Apollos had his followers. Paul had his followers. And they both contributed to creating a place where God could cause the increase, the growth that only God can give and our best efforts could never bring.
The message is simple: Let us do our part—let’s create space so that God can do the lasting work among us, in us, and through us.
**And so I invite us now to a moment of silent reflection—to think and hear from the Spirit: How we have hurt ourselves or others by withholding the space for grace that transforms us, and what we can do to right that wrong?
Hear the words of our United Methodist bishop, Bishop Karen Oliveto:
“If we cannot open our hearts and minds to the experiences of those who differ from us, it becomes far too easy to overlook their humanity. We close ourselves off from the truth of their lives, the ways they have encountered God, the ways the world has broken their hearts and their spirits. We approach them with a critical mind instead of a loving heart…
May we view one another through God’s eyes, to see each other as precious, beautiful siblings in Christ.”