the Third Sunday after Epiphany

1st Corinthians 1. 10-18
Faith – and church – begins and ends at the Cross!

According to The Handbook of Denominations in the United States, there are over two hundred – count ‘em, two hundred distinct Christian bodies, here in America. Distinct must be the keyword. I’m sure it’s a low number. Firstly, the figure’s from an edition of a quarter of a century ago. And the number has to have gone up, since then. Secondly, I did a search for the number of Lutheran denominations here in the States … there were forty! Forty! And that’s not counting gatherings of two or three. Meeting in living rooms and around coffee tables across the country. Freedom of religion at work! Nobody’s going to tell us what to believe! Or how to believe! And if they try, we’ll, just, go someone else! We’ll join something else! And last resort, we’ll do it all by ourselves!

Truth is, it’s impossible to underestimate the variety, the diversity, of believing in this country. And that’s just among Christians. A year ago tomorrow, we marked our one year anniversary without a building to call our own. We started over. And since then, the one thing that’s caught my attention is the number of churches in this city. They’re everywhere! We’ve got Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Catholics. Disciples, Churches of God, Churches of Christ. There are Episcopalians and Anglicans. Mennonites and Methodists. Nazarenes and Mormons and Orthodoxists. Pentecostals. Presbyterians. And probably, more than one flavor of each one of those. There are old congregations and new congregations. Brand name churches and generic ones. There are congregations that split from other congregations and other congregations that split from the splits. And according to Paul, none of it – none of it – has to do with Jesus! None of it has to do with the cross!

The first thing we need to know about the church … there have always been disagreements … there have always been disputes … there have always been divisions … Wherever two or three are gathered, there have always been four opinions. That’s why we need Jesus! Not to serve as referee! Not to serve as umpire! But to save us! Save us from ourselves! After all, it wasn’t the heathens, the pagans, responsible for the witch trials. It wasn’t sinners who burned heretics as the stake. It was the church! The saints! And they– we – still do it today! Even here in Midland! That’s why there are two hundred denominations in the United States. That’s why there are hundreds of churches here in Midland. Nobody gets it right. At least, no one gets it as right as me! And so, we keep forming one church, one congregation, after another, after another. Trying to find, trying to create, that one perfect community. Like Cheers! That peaceful place away! Where everybody knows your name! Who’re always glad you came!

Only problem? We’re, still, people. We’re, still, just people. Every single one of them! Every single one of us! People with opinions. People with thoughts. People with personalities and temperaments. People with history and baggage. Struggling to make it. Straining to get by. And those who happen to make their way through the door, they find this. They find us. The church. The people of god. The body of Christ. One of hundreds, of thousands, of tens of thousands, of – believe it or not – hundreds of thousands scattered across the country. And most of them are just like this! Most of them are just like us! Thinking there’s no one quite like us … Believing we’re different … Believing we’re right … Wondering what the world would be without us …

But there’s something different about us … Really different … We’re starting over … We’re beginning, again … And there’s something humbling about that. About second chances. We know how the story can end. No pie in the sky. No happily ever after. We know the cold, hard reality of it. The knot in the stomach. The lump in the throat. The worries that hound us, that haunt us, in the middle of the night. And we’re doing it, anyway. But this time, we go slowly. Go slow and we do it the best we can. And we start with the basics. And that’s not a building. It’s not a hymnal. It’s not, even, a book. It’s Christ! It’s the cross! That’s Paul’s advice …

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

Agree! Don’t be divided! The same mind! The same purpose! That doesn’t begin in baptism. It starts at the Cross! It starts with Christ!

Of course, we still argue about anything. About everything. Maybe not in this place. Not right now, anyway. But we have. Just like all the rest. About the songs we sing. About way we worship. About whom god loves! About whom god doesn’t! Someday, we’ll, probably, argue about the thermostat in heaven. And Paul stands off to the side, arms crossed, head shaking back and forth, and he sighs. “I don’t believe it. Can’t believe it. You are the church. The chosen. The called. And you act like this. Over two hundred denominations. Forty groups of Lutherans. If you’re going to argue … If you have to quarrel … at least, make it about something worth fighting over. Something worth fighting for. Something important. Something that means something. Something that matters. Something like … Jesus! Something like … the cross!

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us
and for his sake – for HIS sake – God forgives us … God forgives us all!

By grace! For Christ’s sake! Through faith!

Now that’s worthwhile! Inerrant! Infallible! So many times.” Paul says, “you waste your time on words stained on paper. Chapter and verse. Letter-for-letter. Word-for-word. But you become so fixated, so obsessed with the book, so fixated, so obsessed with the literal and superficial, that you miss what really, truly matters … Jesus and the cross! The sacrifice and the love! You overlook, you ignore, the one thing – the only thing – that makes you church, to begin with!” It doesn’t start with baptism. Christ didn’t send me to baptize, but to proclaim! Proclaim the gospel! Plainly! Clearly! Simply! So as not to drain the cross of Christ of its power!

My friends, there are only so many breaths in a lifetime. There are only so many heartbeats. So I ask you … what, for you, is worth all the time? What, for us, is worth all the trouble?