Our passages for this sermon are Matthew 28:16-20 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.
This morning marks our last week in in summer series in 1 Corinthians. We still have some lovely warm weather ahead of us this year before autumn truly starts, but the kids are all going back to school, we’re going to be celebrating Labor Day next week, and pretty soon we’ll be moving back to 11 am services because the sanctuary will no longer be a sauna. I love this time of year because even more than spring, it’s full of possibility and newness. We start our calendar year on January 1, but in reality, it’s September that marks a new year in our culture.
We’ve covered a great deal of ground this summer. 1 Corinthians is a full letter. Paul includes a little bit of everything in it. The letter starts out talking about wisdom and what that truly is: The wisdom that comes from God – the wisdom of salvation in the cross - is counter to what comes from the world. He then shows us examples of what this wisdom looks like in action in the world. He explains how the church is meant to operate.
Christians are to disagree in ways that don’t cause division in the church. They are to love one another even in the midst of argument or disagreement. Christians are to embrace everyone and be sensitive to the fact that the church is a place of diversity that welcomes those of all backgrounds. This is hard work – it’s work that we have to train for. We are to set aside all idols and fears that stand in our way. The church affirms and celebrates community and unity in Christ, and receives God’s grace through the gift of Communion. The church is like a body, of which all the parts play important roles and are to be celebrated, encouraged, and lifted up. And ultimately, the body gathers to bring Glory to God.
In the final chapter, Paul brings the letter full circle back to Jesus. Paul says to hold on to the Gospel. Hang on to what he’s said. Paul says, “I was a mess. I was mean. And now look at me! I am what I am because of Jesus.” In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples to take the Gospel to the whole world and in 1 Cor, we see Paul doing just that. He’s concerned with furthering the Gospel. Here’s the thing. . . this is no small message that Paul is trying to deliver. This is huge. We just spent all summer with it and we barely scratched the surface.
And this letter is just one tiny piece of our scriptures. 66 separate books are combined together to make the Bible. That’s not counting a group of books called the “Apocrypha.” The Apocrypha is a group of books that are generally considered to be less important than the books we usually include in the Bible. But they are historically important Jewish and Christian writings that are included in some Bibles, especially in the Roman Catholic church.
Our pew Bible is 1939 pages long. Just to put that into perspective, my bookclub has a page number cap on our monthly books. We can’t pick anything longer than 350 pages because I kept picking 500+ page books that were nearly impossible for anyone for a life to finish in a month. So the Bible, without the Apocrypha, is the equivalent of nearly 6 months of book club books. Even in Paul’s time, before the New Testament as we know it formed, the volume of scripture was huge. In comparison to that, this letter is pretty small.
With all that scripture to draw from, with all the knowledge about and experiences with God that people wrote down and shared through the years, Paul manages to pare it down. When it comes down to it, it’s about Christ crucified and it’s about our unity with one another based on our unity to Christ. How we behave toward others, how we behave and worship in church, how we behave outside of church, that’s all connected to this idea that we are God’s and therefore we belong to one another. He starts and ends with Jesus. Which is exactly where he’s telling the church to start and end. The Gospel starts and ends with Jesus. That is what makes the church the church. It’s not about always getting all the details right or agreeing on everything. It’s about being united to one another and to God by Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit in order to glorify God. As we’ve seen, he fleshes that out more, but that’s his main framework here.
What is it, then, that we have to remember when we set out to obey the “Great Commission” – which is what this morning’s passage from Matthew is called? How do we take all these things from this letter that we have spent months studying together, as well as all the things from the other 65 books of the Bible and share them with the world when we’re only barely able to scratch the surface in our time together on Sunday mornings?
We have to start and end with Jesus.
I used to work at a mega-church in the youth ministries department. The fact that the church had departments should tell you something about its size. It’s a friendly place, in spite of its size. It’s a diverse church. There are people of every age, color, income bracket, background, etc. It’s a socially active church, deeply invested in bettering the community around it. We eventually left the church because of irreconcilable theological differences – I felt a call to ordained ministry and they are part of a denomination that maintains a stance against ordination of women. But we only mostly left. We had many friends there who we’d grown to love – including a few of the pastors and their families. It’s a big part of the community that we love and live in. So we became members at a small Presbyterian church near our house – Tim and I both grew up Presbyterian - and got actively involved there, but we didn’t cut all ties with the big church. We kept in touch with our friends there. I went to Bible study there every Wednesday morning for a few years. And our kids kept going to weekly kids clubs there. In fact, our kids STILL go to weekly kids clubs there.
This has, mostly, been good. Most of the people there were actually happy for me when I was ordained and several came to my ordination service. But sometimes, it stimulates interesting conversations with the kids. And by interesting, I mean awkward. Conversations like, “Mom. . . how come none of the pastors at the kids club church are women?”
“Well, they don’t believe in ordaining women as pastors or elders.”
“Well that’s dumb.”
“It’s not dumb. They have read the same Bible as us and they have interpreted certain passages differently than we have. It’s hard to read such an old book in such a funny old language and figure out exactly what it means.”
“But how can we study the Bible and worship together if we don’t all agree on everything?”
We’ve had that conversation over a few different topics: how God created the world, marriage, divorce, etc. And each time, the conversation boils down to this:
“Who do they worship?”
“God sent Jesus to save us from sin.”
“Did God save only Presbyterians or only people from kids’ clubs church?”
“That’s how we can study the Bible and worship God together.”
The Bible is big. We’re imperfect. Not a one of us can get it all perfect in our own lives, let alone in our translation of it to the people around us. We’re going to disagree on some of the smaller points. That’s why Paul starts and ends his letter with this: It’s not our work. It’s not our wisdom. It’s God’s. It’s the wisdom of the cross of Jesus Christ.
It’s a work and a wisdom that don’t always make sense to us, but that we can rely on to start and end with Jesus.
This is our last week in 1 Corinthians. Next week, we’re going to jump back into the lectionary – that good old trusty list of scriptures for different weeks of the year. This is a good passage to end the series on. As we prepare to launch back into the rhythm of the school year, of the lectionary, of everything else, we have this framework to hang it on: we have the wisdom of the cross and our unity in Christ. We are what we are, we do what we do because of the Grace of Jesus. We have a few weeks before Christ the King Sunday and the beginning of Advent. Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the church calendar and the first day is the first Sunday of Advent when we start off our journey in anticipation of Jesus. We start and end with Jesus.