6 Epiphany A; 1 Cor 3:1-9
Zion CC; 2/11 & 12/17
It was a typical Sunday morning in my field education church in the inner city of Philadelphia. Everything and everyone was running about 15 minutes late, including the church musician. Besides the normal delay, however, the service went relatively smoothly, which was always a blessing at this particular church. The only thing that seemed a little off was that during the service, the Chair of the Worship Committee, Clyde, and the Chair of the Women of the ELCA chapter at the church, Ellen, seemed to be more obvious about their feelings for each other than usual.
When I say “feelings,” I don’t mean the warm and fuzzy kind. I mean the “I hate the way you look, I hate the way you smell, I can’t stand to be breathing the same air as you” kind. Clyde and Ellen had disliked each other as long as anyone could remember. They had a sort of “sibling rivalry,” in which they tended to vie for similar leadership roles and get on each other’s nerves while doing it. Both were on Church Council, and the Pastor (and I!) had to spend much of our time keeping them from being at each other’s throats during meetings, and everyone knew of their constant feuds. Members of the congregation typically took sides each time they blew up at one another.
And most recently, both of them had run for the position of chair of the Worship Committee—and Clyde had won. Ellen was very upset about this, and was very vocal about her disapproval of being “beat out” for the position. Shortly after that, she was voted into the chair position of WELCA—probably because congregation members wanted to appease her, and thought that giving her another leadership role to excel at would keep the two from strangling each other in their sleep.
The Sunday in question was about 2 weeks after both of these positions had been elected, and after worship service Ellen and one other church member were in the back of the church counting the offering taken up during the service. Clyde, probably knowing that using his power as the newly-elected Worship chair would irk Ellen, began to berate Ellen and the other counter for not counting the offering “correctly,” or how he thought the correct way should be. This display of power of course sent Ellen into a rage, which sent Clyde into a rage, which resulted in the screaming of obscenities, name-calling, and hand gestures that I wish I could forget. When Ellen came to the pastor and I about what had happened right after the incident, both of us calmly suggested that, although Clyde’s actions may not have been appropriate, perhaps her actions may not have been Christ-like. Her response? “I know they weren’t. So I looked up to Jesus before I said it and said “Lord, forgive me for what I’m about to do!-- And then I let him have it!”
As you probably guessed already, arguments about leadership in the Church are not new. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we see similar things happening. It seems that there are at least two major leaders in the congregation at Corinth—Paul and Apollos. Both have worked hard. Great things have happened through their leadership. People were excited about what they saw happening. All would be well if it ended there.
But it doesn’t end there. Church members end up taking sides, based on which leader they like better. There is a Team Paul, and a Team Apollos. “I belong to Paul!” shouts Team Paul. “I belong to Apollos!” shouts back Team Apollos. And people taking sides, people joining one of these two teams, has effectively split the church. And not only that, each church member’s identity is wrapped up in which leader they follow and prefer. Who they are and how they think about themselves is based on which leader they identify with. It’s that one leader, and how that one person does things, that defines each person at Corinth.
We would be kidding ourselves if we said that this was not a problem for us today. We still cling to certain leaders for our identity. Having able-bodied leaders is great—under great leadership, a community flourishes. It’s when community members cling to a certain leader at the exclusion of everything else that problems occur. The focus of the community becomes a certain leader-- but eventually something will change. Another leader will come and work with that first leader, or that first leader will leave and another will come in his or her place. And factions form. Arguments ensue. People leave. A community that has its identity wrapped up in a certain leader for too long will ultimately deteriorate.
And it doesn’t just apply to choosing sides with certain leaders. We let many other external things define who we are, define our identity. Our jobs. Money. How many possessions we have. Having a certain degree. Living in a certain area. Owning a certain car. Our spouse. Our children’s accomplishments. These things are part of who we are, yes, but we sometimes cling to these things, let them define our identity. Who we are, how we see ourselves, is wrapped up in these things.
And this is a huge problem. Because these things are not eternal. They will go away, or die, or change. If your identity is based on your job, you will have an identity crisis when you are laid off, or retire. If your identity is based on how much money you have, you will freak out when the economy goes downhill. If your identity is based on your children’s accomplishments and they stop performing as well as they were previously, you will wonder who you actually are. We can let these things define us, and when they change or leave or go away we no longer know who we are or what we should be doing.
I saw this happen when I lived in a town of 800 people in the cornfields of Nebraska. In many rural communities, the big thing on everyone’s mind is their high school football team. Practically the whole town shows up for games. Most of the town follows the team when they play away games. Cheering for their high school football team is a big part of the town’s identity.
And the high school football players on these small town teams are the same way. A lot of times, their identities are wrapped up in being a football player on that team. It’s their life, literally. And when they graduate and are no longer on the team, they lose their identity, who they are. They end up as older adults, still meeting up at the bar every Friday and Saturday night, talking about their glory days on the high school football team. Without that identity as a football player, their lives lose meaning. They no longer know who they are or what they should be doing.
And the church members in Corinth were the same way—because their identity was wrapped up in certain leaders, they became lost. They no longer knew who they were. They no longer had any direction.
But Paul offers up a new way of looking at things. “What then is Apollos?” he asks. “What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
What Paul is saying is pretty clear. It’s not about the leaders! It’s not about whether you prefer Apollos, or you prefer Paul. They are just doing the work God gave them.
And not only that, but God is the one who “gives the growth,” who makes things happen. It wasn’t the leaders on their own. They were given the task by God, and given the gifts to do that task by God—and God the Holy Spirit is the one who brought faith to this community. It is the Holy Spirit who gave the Corinthians their many gifts. It is the Holy Spirit who grew the church at Corinth. And it is God the son, Jesus Christ, who gives them each their life’s purpose, their identity. They are followers of Jesus, workers in the kingdom. That is their identity.
And that is our identity. We no longer have to base our identities on what our kids do, what job we have, how much money we can spend, who our leaders are. Those things can always change, can always go away.
But our identity through Jesus doesn’t. It never changes. It never goes away. Jesus died for you, so that you can be free to live for him-- and that will always define who you are.
One of my friends grew up in a house where Christianity was a huge part of their family life. And whenever she and her siblings would leave to go to school in the morning, one of her parents would always yell out the door as they left: “Remember whose you are!”
Now most neighbors hearing that would assume her parents meant that they shouldn’t forget that they are a member of that family. But my friend and her brothers and sisters knew that it was more than that—it was to remind them that they are God’s children. Still today when she leaves the house to go to work, she hears her parents’ voice in her head, reminding her not to remember that she is God’s child.
And we hear that voice, reminding us that we are God’s children. We hear it through Scripture—Paul reminds us through his words to the Corinthians that as followers of Jesus we are God’s own, and God gives our work growth. We hear it through other people—when others share God’s love with us, when someone forgives us. We hear it through Holy Communion, when we experience God’s love and Jesus’ presence through the bread and wine and remember Jesus’ death and resurrection, for us. We hear it through God’s creation, when we look around at what God has created and know that God created us too. We hear it when we hear God’s still, small voice telling us that we can do it, when everyone else tells us we can’t.
We are God’s own children. And because we are God’s children, we are all working together for God’s purpose. As Paul says, we all have a common purpose, whether we plant or water-- whether we teach or count money, whether we play an instrument or fix pipes, whether we counsel people or make coffee-- we are God’s own field, God’s own building. We all have been given different gifts, but all for the same purpose—to work for the glory of God. We are united in our purpose. We are united as followers of Christ in our work to share God’s love with others, to help those who need our help, to bring Christ’s light into a world longing for light. And while we work, we know that it is God who gives the growth, who provides us with what we need as we serve in our common purpose.
You are God’s child. And you will always be God’s child. You are claimed by God, forgiven by God, loved by God. And as you go from this church later this evening/morning, as you go about your day, as you go about your week, hear that voice in your head, that reminder: “Remember whose you are!” THAT is your identity. Amen?