A couple of weeks ago someone asked a question on Facebook:
Can you be a Christian without belonging to a Church?
What surprised me was how many people answered,
and with the exception of myself, it was unanimous.
Yes, they said with gusto, you can do it on your own.
In fact, the folks in Churches are not Christians.
They are by and large jerks.
Well maybe. I have thought that myself on occasion.
But just as a matter of procedure, we become Christians
when we are baptized,
and when we are baptized, we become church members.
But more than that, the Christianity the Bible teaches
is emphatically a team sport.
The notion that Christianity is an idea someone can
hold in his head all by himself
is a modern Western invention.
It isn’t the Biblical faith we read about in the New Testament.
Speaking of the New Testament and today’s lessons in particular,
1st Corinthians is hands down my favorite Epistle.
Paul is trying to help the Church in Corinth
work though their human frailty
to become the Body of Christ and carry out his Kingdom Mission.
That’s what Paul thought it meant to be a Christian:
part of the Body of Christ --
a co-worker for the Kingdom Mission.
Paul’s Christianity is a team sport.
Paul is teaching the Corinthians how to be the kind of community
that attracts people to Jesus by showing them
who Jesus’ followers become.
Paul wants people to see Christians and say two things:
“I want to be with them” and “I want to be like them.”
Jesus said, “This is how people will know you are my disciples:
By your love for one another.”
St. John said, “Dear friends, let us love one another for love
comes from God. . . .
If we love one another, God lives in us
and his love is perfected in us. . . .
Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters
For those who do not love their brothers or sisters
whom they have seen
cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
200 years later, the Father of Western theology, Tertullian,
summed up our basic strategy for spreading gospel. He wrote:
“’See how these Christians love one another,’ the pagans say,
for they themselves hate one another,
‘and how they are ready to die for each other,’
for the pagans are ready to kill each other.’”
“See how these Christians love one another.
But turning to another kind of Scripture,
in the words of Diana Ross, “Love don’t come easy.”
It didn’t come easy in Corinth.
The first thing we hear about is the friction
over some folks being fans of one apostle
while others liked another apostle.
Paul urges them to put aside those divisions. He says,
“As long as there is jealously and quarrelling among you
are you not of the flesh
and behaving according to human inclinations?”
So stop dividing up according to which apostle you like best.
Then he turns to lawsuits between church members
and says it is better to be defrauded than to sue a brother.
Then there was the biggest fight of all.
It was about eating food that came from pagan sacrifices.
1st Century Christians got as worked up over food
as 21st Century Christians get worked up over sex.
Paul says that the ones who eat the meat are right theologically
but he tells them to abstain anyway
out of love for those who are offended by it.
And so the letter to the Corinthians proceeds
petty issue by petty issue, church fight by church fight,
until he breaks into a spiritual aria to explain his point.
That’s the famous 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians,
the hymn to love we always read at marriages,
but it isn’t about marriage.
It’s about being a congregation.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but have not love, I am a nosy gong . . . .
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful. . . . .
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things.”
That’s what love means.
But it takes practice.
The church is where we practice on each other.
Paul never again wrote anything so beautiful as 1st Corinthians.
But I’m sorry to say they didn’t get it.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending
In 2nd Corinthians, things have just gotten worse.
40 years later, when Paul was dead and gone,
the Corinthians were still fighting.
St. Clement had taken over Paul’s job
and was still pleading with them to just get along
and treat each other in Jesus’ way, not the world’s way.
The Epistle to the Romans - like Corinthians --
is Paul smoothing out a church fight.
The Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians
were going at it.
It got so bad the Emperor Claudius threw the whole lot
of them out of town kit and caboodle.
Paul wrote Romans to say: it is better to be kind than right.
The Romans may not have gotten it right away.
But the point eventually sank in.
Here’s why I think they got it.
Between 165 and 180, a plague swept through
the urban centers of the Empire,
killing one-third to one-half of city populations.
The city of Rome was particularly hard hit.
It’s named Galen’s plague after Galen,
the Emperor’s personal physician.
Galen is famous because he figured out
that people were catching the plague
from contact with each other.
It was the first discovery of contagion in the Ancient World.
So Galen told everyone who had the wealth and ability
to get out of town.
Well, that was fine for the people who could do it.
But it left the sick and the dying to their own devices.
It wasn’t pretty, a city of the sick, the dying, and the dead.
Galen’s plague didn’t discriminate.
It took down pagans, Jews, and Christians alike.
And everyone ran away – everyone -- except the Christians.
The Christians had an odd notion that the love of God,
that is God’s love living in their own hearts, would protect them.
And if it didn’t, then they’d just die in God’s service and go to heaven.
It was like jihadist suicide bombers only in reverse.
It was love instead of hate.
So the Christians stayed and nursed the sick, prayed with the dying,
and buried the dead.
The pagan world looked on in wonder.
They said, “See how these Christians love one another.
See how they even love us.”
Christianity remained illegal in the Empire for another century.
But by the end of that century, one third of the Empire
had converted to Christianity
largely because of the love
Christians displayed during Galen’s plague.
For us human beings, love don’t come easy.
That’s why God gave us the Church as a practice field.
From the Primates working out who gets to sit at the table
to the smallest issue in parish life,
the Church is where we learn that 1st Corinthians 13 kind of love.
We learn the hard art of love here
so we can live it in the world.
Nothing good comes easy.
What is best may come hardest of all.
But the reward is we get to live in God
and have God live in us.
The hardest thing is the thing most worth doing.
The trick it that there is only one way to do this thing: together.