Living Together in a Messy Church

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

2 Corinthians 7:2-16

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity
! (Psalm 133:1)

That is a beautiful sentiment, a lovely sentiment from the Psalmist… but I’m thinking the Psalmist never met the Corinthians or the members of many of the early churches.

I assume many of you know the famous fights in Corinth that threatened to divide the church—fights over spiritual gifts… speaking in tongues,  fights over who was their best pastor or leader: Paul or Apollos—people taking sides. It got ugly.

Some even questioned the authority of Paul as some other preachers came to town and undermined his message and authority. These preachers had come from the head office in Jerusalem and wanted to bring the Corinthian Christians into compliance with the Jerusalem church—making sure those new Christians, those Gentiles (who weren’t raised as Presbyterians— I mean, Jewish) were circumcised… you can’t be a real Christian unless you are circumcised first. You do know that don’t you?! As for Paul teaching that one is justified by grace through faith—not the works of the law.  He was wrong. Keep the law, follow the rules and you will be right with God… acceptable to God…Truth is, who did Paul think he was? Paul didn’t even have the qualifications or authority needed to preach to them.

That’s what those preachers were saying who followed Paul..

You know this just ticked Paul off when the news got to him of what was happening in Corinth.

Thank the Lord there was no email back then. Can you imagine what Paul would have put in the email or on facebook about these preachers? Imagine how upset he was by them: they were undoing all the hard work he had done. They were attacking his integrity, his authority, his faith and theology. This was cutting Paul to the core.

While there was no email, we do know he wrote an angry and tear-filled letter to the Christians in Corinth. We no longer possess it. Maybe Paul had someone destroy the letter.

And you have to feel for the Christians in Corinth. Paul did not have the standing with them that he has with us. No one called him St. Paul back then. Who were they to believe? Paul or these other leaders?  Which Christian leader were you to listen to? They began to listen to people other than Paul. This led to that angry and tear-filled letter from Paul.

We don’t know what it said, but we do know Paul was worried about how they would take it. As is true with email, you cannot hear the tone of voice or intent in a written letter. It is not the same. They might misunderstand him.

We think Titus may have personally delivered the letter which would help. He could explain what Paul meant. It had to worry Paul as he wondered how they would receive it.

But Paul would have to wait to hear how the angry letter was received. He’d have to wait for Titus to return.

Today in our text we hear the good news from Titus. It was a great relief and wonderful comfort and consolation to Paul that the letter was well received—even leading to “godly grief”—the kind of sorrow and repentance that leads to reconciliation and understanding. Turns out that the Corinthians had regretted what happened, they were eager to show him their support. Relationships were healed. They wanted to make things right.

And yes, they could likely join in praising God using the Psalmist’s words:

“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live in unity.”

You may not appreciate the gift until you live with disunity and misunderstanding.

The more I learn about life in the early Church and leaders like Paul, the longer I live with the present church and think back over my ministry in several congregations now… the more I think about some hard lessons I’ve learned about life in the church—which is to say, life among Christians… the more I have learned an important truth: Simply put, life together is messy and hard sometimes. Life in the church can be as messy and hard as living in your own family!

It is not always “we are one in the spirit we are one in the Lord.”

Sometimes hard truths are spoken… sometimes angry and tearful letters are written…tears are shed.Sometimes people leave the church hurt because of how someone else treated them… and (thank God) yes sometimes we also experience grace… and reconciliation and those are beautiful moments. Moments to treasure.

But the longer you live with other Christians, the more you realize that life together is just messy!

This can be disappointing to people.Sometimes people come to church expecting heaven on earth…. Filled with dreams and ideals about you and me– … but Dietrich Bonhoeffer who wrote the book, “Life Together” reminded his community that dreams and ideals get in the way of real community.

Life in Christian community is messy. And more than one person has left when they come to that realization.

But others like Paul and Titus… like Dietrich Bonhoeffer… and many others… never gave up. For even with all of the faults of the church, they loved it still…They were able to see beneath the mess and see the beauty of the church—of being joined together with other Christians.

Often people don’t appreciate it until they are kept from being a part of the church.

This was true for Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and theologian who spent the remaining years of his life alone in a prison. He was martyred at age 39 by the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer wrote his book while he was leading an underground seminary and community during the Nazi years. He writes how we take it for granted that we have the privilege of living among other Christians… to live in the fellowship with others… he reminds us that not all Christians experience this: some are in prison… some are missionaries in far off lands (without internet!), some are the scattered lonely, some are shut ins or sick… some hiding in fear…

But for those who live together – even in the messy thing we call church… it is a source of incomparable joy to the believer.

In his book he talks about how our life together is sustained by very simple things like singing together, living together, worshipping together, working together, serving together, and reading together. Activities, because we do them all the time, we take for granted… until, until they are gone. Ask those who are confined to nursing homes.

Our elders being ordained and installed today and those remaining on the Session are being called to lead the church… and to love the church— as Paul loved the church, even in all of our messiness.

Why? For one simple reason. This is the place God has chosen to dwell.

For Paul the church wasn’t just another charity or organization or institution or club or team… it was the very Body of Christ  that the Spirit had formed to continue the work of Christ in the world. The very Body of Christ in and for the world!

Eugene Peterson put it this way: “God created church as a place on earth accessible and congenial for being present to us, listening to us, and speaking to us on our home ground. Simultaneously it is his gift to us, a place in our neighborhood within walking or driving distance for being present to God, listening to God and speaking to him…Church at its simplest and most obvious is a protected place, an available time for God to have conversation with us and for us to have conversation with God in the company of God’s people.”

This week I was especially grateful for the church. For the world needed the presence of God in places like Boston, West Texas, China and so many other places of crisis… I can tell you the church was there!It seems that whenever there is tragedy, many people turn to the church. Even those who don’t usually attend church…

So again people gathered this week in the church to be present with God, to listen to God and to speak to God.

They gathered in places like the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston…. To hear God speak through the words God gave the church…

President Obama quoted heavily from the scripture of the church as he spoke the words we hear in church all the time: words about the triumph of good over evil in the face of tragedy (sounds like good Friday and Easter faith to me)… The president shaping his words around passages like Hebrews 12:1 telling the nation to “run with endurance the race that is set before us,” and from 2 Timothy saying that, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of by Text-Enhance”>power, love and self-discipline.”

Powerful words. Coming not from the President, but from the church speaking to the President and to those who gathered…

Today I would have you remember this: Those are our words… that come out of the mouth of the Body of Christ… the place—the messy place—but still the place where God has chosen to dwell.

In times of crisis, in weeks like these, it seems everyone turns to the church for a word… for help… And we are glad to gather to speak a word to people in their time of need…

And when the crisis is over, we will remain- gathering here week in and week out… doing what we always do in our messy church: singing, praying, worshipping, serving… Always there for anyone who needs to find their way home… home to God.

I am reminded of the story Anne Lamott tells about the little girl who was lost.

“The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark. She was frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman and then she told him firmly, ‘You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from there.’”

Anne Lamott then adds the following: “And that is why I have stayed so close to mine – because no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their voices, I can always find my way home.”

May the Lord help us in our messy little church called the Kirk—to be a  place where people are always able to come into the presence of God… a place to be with God, to be with each other… to speak to God… and to listen to God. A place, they can call home.  Amen.