Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
12 February 2023
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
The worship committee met on Tuesday night. I read this Sunday’s Gospel as part of our devotion because I think it a useful practise live with a reading for a few days before we hear it together in this space. As God gives us God’s full attention, scripture requires our attention for the Holy Spirit to open it for us.
When I read our passage from Matthew on Tuesday, I heard it but it did not speak to me. It sounded harsh and demanding. It reminded me that I am a sinner, but also that together with my brother we are probably the best thing our parents did together. And the threat of hell never does anything for me either.
Maybe your reaction this morning was similar.
As I pondered the text in the days since Tuesday, I realized that all four of the sayings we heard today, about anger, lust, divorce, and truthfulness have to do with relationships. From our own experience we know that relationships can be healthy or unhealthy. In elementary school I had a teacher who not only threw chalk at students but also his keys.
When I was growing up we spent little time together as family. My mother later said that my father had a darkroom so he could say, “Don’t come in here.”
A church I served had a history of conflict. I knew this going in. What I didn’t understand was how it would connect to my childhood experience of conflict. However, in this church the issues had become systemic and because the conflict usually ended with the pastor leaving, the congregation never got to do the work required to establish a different pattern and different practices. How it manifested itself in some way was not so different from the Corinthians. The people had been there longer than the pastors. They knew that unless they left they would have to live with each other. Thus their loyalty to each other was stronger than their desire to deal with dysfunction. They did not see that this was not a matter of Paul over Apollos or vice versa, but a matter of Jesus being Lord of their life.
We know about lust. Looking at another person and undressing them before your eye is the regarding of the other as an object instead of a person. It robs them of their personhood. Seeing others as an object, as someone whose body, expertise, influence, or property can be of advantage to us prefers personal gain to meaningful relationship.
I know a father, not my father, who continued to make promises to one of his sons from his first marriage. The son did everything he could to please his father in order to receive his father’s affirmation. One day, by then he had become an adult, he realized that his father would never fulfill the promises he had made and that he would never receive his father’s affirmation. It was liberating for him but his father remained trapped.
So we know what bad relationships look like. And knowing what bad relationships look like we have tasted hell. A hell of our own making, not a hell that God would wish on us or bring on us.
I think that Jesus begins with anger because of the four it the one closest to the surface, for who has not been angry, and who has not been angry and regretted their anger. I have been noticing less civility in traffic. Maybe only because I am getting older and my expectations have changed, I do not know. What I do know is that aggressive driving by others raises my ire. And being angry makes me neither a better driver nor a better person. And I wonder how I could be so centred in God that it would not phase me. That I would remain focused on what matters.
In our reading from Deuteronomy the people stand on the threshold to the Promised Land. They are about to enter the land of Canaan. And while the plan is for Israel to live there alone, the constant calls of the prophets against the worship of Baal are sign that in the promised land Israel was tempted to follow other ways and other gods, just like we are. Yet, God’s invitation is to choose life, to choose what is good, to choose God.
The million dollar question is how we would become the kind of people who choose life. And the question already provides part of the answer. Because this is not about avoiding sin, which always involves some kind of keeping track, some kind of keeping score, and the feeling to be a failure, but rather how can we become the kind of people who choose life, whose words are true, whose desires are for the good of others, and whose ways are peace?
Or put another way, how can our lives become redemptive so that the redemption we have received is the redemption we give, to become people who do not keep score, who do not seek our own advantage, and whose lives are true?
Many of us have been Christians for many years so we know that there is no magic involved. We do not suddenly become better people in our baptism, nor are we morally superior to others.
And yet we all know that among people there are those who bring out the best in us, and those who bring out the worst in us. This is not their fault and it is not about avoiding people because Jesus did not and does not avoid people. But this is about staying close to Jesus because Jesus brings out the best in us. It means to spend time with God for God spends time with us.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Edmund betrays his siblings to the White Witch. Later the White Witch accuses Edmund with a long litany of his sins. She does so to control him, to keep him in his sins, and to keep him loyal to her.
But Edmund does not focus on his sins but keeps his eyes on Aslan, who is the stand-in for Christ. And keeping his eyes on Aslan frees him from having to repeat the past.
It seems to me that often Christians have focused more on their sins, or the sins of others, than on Christ’s redeeming work.
For the Israelites this meant to remember that God had brought them here, that God remained with them, and that the commandments were God’s gifts.
For us it means to stay close to Jesus, in worship, in prayer, in song, in the community of the church. God will do the work, all we have to do is show up. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews (in the translation of Eugene Peterson), it sounds like this,
May God, who puts all things together,
makes all things whole,
Who made a lasting mark through the sacrifice of Jesus,
the sacrifice of blood that sealed the eternal covenant,
Who led Jesus, our Great Shepherd,
up and alive from the dead,
Now put you together, provide you
with everything you need to please him,
Make us into what gives him most pleasure,
by means of the sacrifice of Jesus, the Messiah.
All glory to Jesus forever and always!