SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
and at All Souls’, Morven
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY (8th February) 2004
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
A week ago (in 2004) some of us were encountering that best known of all Paul’s passages, the hymn to love: faith, hope and love, these three, and the greatest of these is love. In all Paul’s writings, and especially in those moments in his writings when he breaks in to the telling of his own story, his emphasis is on grace, charis, the idea that the encounter with God is not and is never earned or merited. This understanding lies at the very heart of Paul’s faith and action and teaching: we cannot earn our way into relationship with God the God of Jesus Christ. Or, to put it another way, it is and always is God only who makes the move in the divine-human relationship. This was the profound understanding that broke into his consciousness as he met the risen Lord on the Damascus Road: not I, but Christ.
As a result of that new focus, and of the joy of the encounter with God the God of resurrection, Paul recognized that the Christian community must be a community of love. He recognized that such love could not come from human effort: human love could be profound, but the deepest, profoundest love could only come by emptying the human self of selfhood, and opening to Christ, to the crucified but risen Messiah. Not I, but Christ.
Love was to be the advertisement of the truth of Jesus: they would know the truth of the gospel, Paul knew, by the quality of love. For as long as the people of God were a powerless people, as long as they sought to present Christ without the barrel of a gun, that was the case. It was when Christianity became powerful, became a state religion, that it lost much of its credibility and, ironically, its power to transform lives. In the great missionary expansion of Christianity it was the authentic missionaries and martyrs, those who touched lives by the quality of their love rather than the power of their politics, who genuinely transformed God’s world. Not I, but Christ.
So, in the twenty-first century, we are forced back to a position of powerlessness. Our history is partially one of the abuse of opportunity, and, worse the abuse of power. We became a dominant religion, expecting if not forcing those around us to believe. We expected our children to believe because we had believed, and often, tragically, forced our faith upon them. We disciplined them to go to church, disciplined them in church, and were surprised and perplexed when the controls broke down in the 1960s, and they left in droves. Yet this is a God-given opportunity. Not I, but Christ. We cannot force others to believe, nor force ourselves to witness: Not I, but Christ. We can only be faithful to the Christ within us, and pray, and live to Christ ourselves.
By so living – and by familiarizing ourselves utterly with the habits of faith – we can become the advertisement for Christ that Paul asks us to be. Our acts of worship are, in part, the telling of the story that was the key to the early spread of the gospel. Paul boils the story down to its basest ingredients: For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared.
By our words, that is, by our story-telling, and by our actions of love, compassion and justice, which are a part of the story of Jesus itself, we become advertisements of Christ. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” We are to be as Isaiah, aware that we are inappropriate bearers of God, but leaving the rest to God. With Paul we learn to exclaim “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”
In the twenty-first century we have little choice – we live in a world persuadable by love, but unpersuadable by power plays and power games, or by neon displays of phoney power. So we proclaim and so you have come to believe, says Paul. So be it.