Year A, Epiphany 2
In April, after my skype interview with the St. John’s search committee, but before the small group from the search committee visited me, I made a clandestine visit to St. John’s with my parents and my aunt who were in town. It was the Monday after Easter and no one was around. I wanted to go inside the church, but the doors were locked and I really didn’t want to look as though I was lurking and have someone call in a suspicious person. So we mostly just walked around the grounds. It was a beautiful day and the flowers were blooming. As I walked down one of the lovely brick paths, I said to my family, “I don’t have a chance here. Look at this place! They are never going to call someone like me.” I became a little more hopeful as I proceeded through the process and got to know your search committee. I never lost the feeling that I would be the most fortunate person in the world if I was called to be your rector.
I remain grateful for that call. I am so thankful that you all would take a risk hiring someone younger than your average rector of a church this size and with such an historical legacy. I am thankful that while you are a serious church, you do not take yourself too seriously. I am thankful that as your parish profile said, you sought a rector who has a respect, but not reverence for your long traditions. And I am thankful that you have been patient with me as I get to know you and your customs. So far, no one has slapped my hand when I have made a mistake. You have been nothing but gracious and generous. I thank God for each one of you.
You might be wondering why I am buttering you up. Perhaps you think I am about to ask for money. This is not the case. I am merely following the model that Paul, the author of 1stCorinthians used so often in his writings. Paul almost always began with a greeting and a thanksgiving; even when he was a little ticked off at the community, even when he was writing from prison. He always gave thanks. If I had followed his exact style, it would sound more like this: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…”
When Paul wrote the Corinthian people he was very careful to thank them for the gifts that God had given them. While we often proclaim that everything we have comes from God, we tend to take credit for the good things. It’s hard not to, especially when those accomplishments come as the result of hard work and practice. Yet Paul was pretty careful in this letter to the Corinthian Church. This was an important community. They were on a port and consequently had more money than most. They were also exposed to more people, more education, and more culture. They were the elite and they knew it. It would appear from other parts of the letter that they actually took pride in the spiritual gifts that they acquired and used these gifts to make them feel superior to other communities or even people in their own community.
Because of all of that, Paul took a fairly subtle approach in the beginning of his letter. This is unusual because if you know Paul, you know that he was rarely subtle and in this particular case, the subtlety only lasts about 11 verses. Enjoy it while you can. Another rather subtle point that Paul made was in his greeting: “To the church of God that is in Corinth… together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…” As you can see, he started by acknowledging them as the church of God, which is exactly what they expected to hear. However, they were not THE church of God, they were “the church of God in Corinth…”
He went on to add: “together with all those who in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” This probably does not sound very scandalous to any of us. I doubt that any of us are under the impression that we are the only church God loves and cherishes. However, in Paul’s day and age, there were the chosen and the unchosen. People believed that God’s love did not reach all people, but only a limited number. And even if they did believe in their head that all people could call on the name of Christ, in their heart they believed that they were the ones who God would actually answer. It’s like that saying, “God loves everyone, but I’m his favorite.” Some of the people in Corinth had started to believe that they were the especially holy ones, the especially gifted ones. So in this simple greeting and thanksgiving, Paul was saying that not only was Jesus Christ the God of all people, but all were loved equally as well.
It is important to be thankful for the church we are members of and to have confidence that we are God’s people and following the word of God to the best of our ability. Yet it is also important not to get too insulated, too congregational. When Paul was writing to the church of Corinth, there were no denominations or dioceses. There were communities and even then people found a way to seclude themselves from others. I fear that it is even easier in this day and age to segregate ourselves from other Christians and other faiths and consequently make judgments on others.
In 1956 Martin Luther King delivered a sermon to his Baptist Church in Montgomery. He called it, “Paul’s letter to American Christians.” He started by saying how impressed he was by all the advances we had made over the last 1900 years but he quickly moved into what he felt were our lack of moral and spiritual advances. At one point he spoke to the division of the church, just as Paul had so many years before. He said, “They tell me that in America you have within Protestantism more than two hundred and fifty six denominations. The tragedy is not so much that you have such a multiplicity of denominations, but that most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth.” When I heard that line I thought, what would he say now? Some estimate that there are over 30,000 denominations. It’s impossible to keep track of them all so no can claim to know the exact number. One thing is certain, we are still warring against one another. Usually that war looks more like disregard and apathy than actual violence.
I love St. John’s and I still find myself in awe of this church and in awe of my place in this church. Yet we are all called to remember that we are only as good or as holy as our acknowledgement of God’s gifts to us and our reliance on God for all that we are and all that we have. I know that we have been going through some difficult times for the last couple of years. Everyone is ready to grow and reclaim the greatness that was once St. John’s. Let me say this: you never stopped being great. You never stopped being loved by God. God never left this place. We won’t ever go back to who we once were. Why go back when we can go forward? Why be great when we can be loved by God? Why be THE church of God when we can be one of the many churches of God? When I arrived to St. John’s, nailed to my door was a piece of paper that said, “We have been waiting for you for approximately two years or 730 days or 17,520 hours…” There is a lot of waiting when the church is in transition. So let me tell you this: you are the church you have been waiting for. You are the church I have been praying for. I will conclude as Paul ended his letter, “The favor of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love to all of you in Christ Jesus.”
Paul’s Letter to American Christians by Martin Luther King Jr.