Decently and In Order

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By the Rev. Eric O. Ledermann
January 23, 2011
First Presbyterian Church, San Bernardino, CA
Matthew 4.12-23

It is human nature to want to “belong” to something—to be connected and “be known”. It is human nature to find those who share our values, those with whom we agree, those who affirm our self-identities. It feels good to be affirmed; it makes us feel good, it helps us like and appreciate ourselves. To “belong” and “be known” helps us think better of ourselves. It is natural to want to be connected to something larger than ourselves individually I can’t help but think of the theme song for the TV show, Cheers:

Making your way in the world today
takes everything you’ve got
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away.

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name. [1]

We want to belong and be known.

Paul writes about this human tendency to belong and be known in our text today Jesus recognizes it and uses it for God’s purposes as he calls a community together in the form of his disciples It is not a bad thing to want to belong and be known, it is how God has made us—to be in relationship, to be in communion, both with our God and with one another.

Paul recognizes the challenge of people living in community together He writes to the church in Corinth, Greece, which is embroiled in all sorts of controversy and division: I belong to Paul, I belong to Apollos, I belong to Christ People are taking sides and standing behind their hero against the others They are arguing about right belief, right doctrine, the right words to use and when And Paul writes, “I appeal to you,” calling them sisters and brothers—he is a part of them and they are a part of him “I appeal to you,” he writes This is more than a recommendation, but it is not a commandment—it is an earnest plea He asks them to consider the bigger picture here—this thing you are doing, this thing we have called “Church” (gathering, communion) is not about doctrinal orthodoxy or any sort of uniformity other than our coming together from our diverse experiences, perspectives, and personalities and gathering around the cross, bringing our differences to the cross so that we might discern together how to move forward.

John Frederick Maurice, a 19th century English theologian, wrote: “As self-will and disobedience are the obstacles to the communion of men [and women] with their Creator, so are they obstacles to communion with each other.”[2]

Paul is calling us to a Christian life marked by self-sacrifice for one another, giving oneself up in response to and care for the “other” in our lives He does not mean self-denial, for even Paul knows that Jesus was careful not to completely exhaust himself, but to give ourselves up in joy for the “other”, whether that person be a friend, a family member, a fellow Church goer on the other side of a debate, or even a stranger This is the mark of the Christian community, marked by the desire to be together and working toward reconciliation and peace, grounded in “Christ as a life lived.”[3]

Christian community is more than something to which we simply “belong”, it is a way of life It is the way we are known both by God and our sisters and brothers in faith It is a way of life grounded in the truth of Christ as a lived life, not as a metaphor, not as a myth, but as God incarnate

When Paul appeals to God’s people to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose”, he is not calling them to give up on their individual convictions or causes about which they may be passionate, for that is no more the Church of Christ than one like the one in Corinth that is divided by infighting and disagreement. No, through Christ, Paul is calling us to a way of pursuing our passions while keeping in mind our connection to the larger Body of Christ, allowing ourselves to be held accountable to Christ, accountable to one another

Our own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is embroiled in all sorts of divisions over what defines “right belief”, who should and should not be ordained, who is allowed to be married, what language we should and should not use to express our faith, and even how we should be governed at all levels of ecclesiastical governance Sisters and brothers, in many ways we are the Corinthian Church to which Paul was writing nearly 2,000 years ago

In the coming months our presbytery, the Presbytery of Riverside, will join the other 172 presbyteries across our country in voting on a number of significant amendments to our denomination’s Constitution We have a unique form of government whereby congregations hold autonomous power in certain areas of church life, while promising to honor the authority given to higher bodies of governance from the local session to the presbytery to the General Assembly for other areas of our communal and covenantal life We are unique in the Christian world in the sense that our lines of authority both rise from the bottom and descend from the top at the same time At times it makes for a confusing system of decision-making Yet, it also provides for a process of discernment where the authority for decisions that affect the entire church are dispersed across the entire denomination We pride ourselves in the motto coined by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14.40: “all things should be done decently and in order

As with our text today from 1 Cor. 1, “decently and in order” is more than just about agreement or disagreement—it is a bigger picture vision “Decently and in order” is about more than whether we agree or disagree, it is about how we work through those disagreements. Decently and in order is about a process of group discernment, coming together as the Body of Christ and living in to our decision making process whereby we accept our differences and seek understanding rather than “rightness” or “wrongness. It is the way we live in communion both with God and with one another It is about self-sacrifice for the sake of the body, for the sake of the “other”, especially when the “other” is on the opposite side of a debate This is not self-denial, but a desire to be fully present to one another and, at the same time, passionate about our convictions while holding in tension our passionate desire to stay together as the Church of Jesus Christ—an incarnational life, living in to our own desire to “belong” and “be known”, while recognizing the other persons’ desire to “belong” and “be known” in Christ

Friends, being a Christian is not about believing the right things or saying the right things, as though theology were some sort of science that gets us the equation to heaven Being a Christian means responding to Christ’s invitation when he says “follow me”, and living in Christian community, with all its challenges and all its diversity Being a Christian means living in Christian community in order to live an incarnational life of the loving and living God who meets us here when we are together, and reminds us of where we belong when we are apart It is a lived faith to which we hold. It is a lived life that we follow It is a living and incarnational God who invites us on this journey and then meets us on this road, and guides us compassionately but delicately.

As we walk this road these coming months as significant votes become known in both our mainstream news media as well as through various church news media, I pray we may seek to live in to Christ’s vision of the Body of Christ so beautifully described by Paul, that no matter how the votes come down we may recognize our calling to stay together, to be the Body of Christ to the world, to be known in this world as a Church that sees itself as bigger than the issues that divide us, so that others may wish to come, learn about our life together as imperfect as it is, and join us on this journey of faith with Christ Friends, this is my prayer and I invite you, I do not command you, I appeal to you, that you might pray this with me.

Let us pray:
Loving God who calls us, gracious God who loves us, and living God who guides us, help us as well as our sisters and brothers around the world to remember that you have gathered us together We ask for your Spirit to be specifically with those in our denomination who will be voting in the coming months, that we may all join together in a spirit of honest discernment as we seek to find your way forward We ask that as we all gather from all different places theologically, geographically, and even politically, that we may be united in the same mind and the same purpose: that is, to be your people, to be your Church May we forget ourselves enough to realize the passions of others, and recognize that we all care deeply for this Body, though we may differ on some of the details about what it should look like We pray for gracious space to disagree, compassionate debate that is not without passion, and a sharing of faith grounded in your incarnational and resurrection promise made through the cross of Jesus Christ Lord God, creator of all things, redeemer of this world, and the One who sustains us, not our will, but may your will be done Amen

[1] “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”, by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, 1982.
[2] F. D. Maurice, The Kingdom of Christ, ed. Alec R. Vidler (1842, repr. London: SCM Press, 1958), 2:68-69, as quoted in Feasting on the Word, vol. A-1 (2008), p. 280, 1)
[3] Feasting on the Word, vol. A-1 (2008), p. 281-82, 1.

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