Paul is struggling with the church in Corinth. There’s no surprise to that. As we have been reading and learning, we have seen that the church is a.) divided into factions, “I belong to Paul and I belong to Apollos,” sinful, divided by class distinctions, and overly tolerant of sin within the body. They are divided by politics within. And b.) they are divided by politics without. This group of “super-apostles” as Paul names them here are pushing the church everywhere to take up the law and keep the traditions of the religion in place of the relationship with Christ.
Paul wants Christ for them and from them. Paul wants the church to cling to nothing but Christ and to offer nothing but Christ and his love to each other and the world.
But Paul is desperate by now. Though we have two letters, we know there is at least one more referred to in the text. Paul loves them, prays for them, thanks God for them, and they belong to Paul as Paul belongs to them. They have been placed in his care.
The United States is a bit like that for us, here in our little outpost of the Reign of God. Our family, our community, our city, our state, and even our nation have been placed into our care. Have you loved it? Prayed for it? Thanked God for it? As a Christian?
This year has been like a moment that happens in relationship. This year we have all become less naive. You’ve been through it when you have that bitter awakening that the person you love is not the ideal that you have held until then, and now you have to choose to either love the ideal or the real person.
My mom always told me after a certain age that she “loved me anyway.” It was a hard thing to hear when I was already so painfully aware of my shortcomings, but it was honest and I am grateful for her faithfulness in my life. Not everyone gets that at home.
Jesus didn’t. He goes back to Nazareth from Capernaum and his travels in ministry, bringing the Reign of God with him both in word and in deed. They had heard of him and were at first proud of their hometown boy.
But he was still just that hometown boy in their minds, and when he stood before them they faced the choice to either accept him and change their minds about what God was doing or reject him for a world they knew, and it did not include God’s chosen being a carpenter and son, brother to friends and neighbors. They refused to see God at work if it challenged what they already assumed to know.
Now I always hesitate to say much about the nation from the pulpit for a simple reason: it is not the Gospel. Being blue or red will not get you one whit closer to being robed in white. The truth is that you can reject America and still belong to God. It’s weird to say that on July 4th, but I need you to hold that for a moment, or else we will both slip here.
The Gospel is that Jesus Christ has come into the world to bring the Reign of God, not the reign of a party or even a religion. He brought that Reign of God’s to us, but it has always been the reality of the world as it was meant to be. It is true even if we have not yet realized it or known it here.
God is Lord, beyond all kings, rulers, potentates, and pretenders. He loves rather than coerces. And God made us, you and me and all humanity, to be the children at his table. To care for the world he placed into our care and each other in his name. We blew it and blow it, and God sent Jesus to us to take away our sin and open the door to the house we left for the distant countries of our own creation for us to come home, to live as God’s own children, God’s own ambassadors of love, care, and responsibility. To live as human beings. God knows us and “loves us anyway.”
We sometimes know all of this too well. We know it like an old friend or a relative and we can forget how amazing it is. And like the people of Nazareth, we deny its glory and lose its power.
But think about it for a moment with me. If that is true and you were planted here, you have become part of the work of this church to bring to bear in some small way the Reign of God in this place, and that includes this country. And that is both a blessing and a terrible responsibility.
It is a blessing because we get to work in pretty good conditions. We have freedom in ways that most of humanity has not and even does not in many places around the world. And that freedom is matched by a safety that is rare in history. I might get harassed verbally if I preached on the street corner but I could rely on the justice system to protect me in important ways. This is not a small thing. That freedom has meant that for centuries the church has been able to work in people’s lives but also in our national life to call us back from sin and toward that vision of God’s Reign in our personal and communal lives.
When others have not had that same protection we could work to correct injustice.
Abolitionists could work in America because we had those freedoms in view even when they were not yet a reality for everybody. We can still do that work today.
The bitter revelation that I spoke of earlier, this moment where we see someone we love in their real self without the lens of their ideal selves and have to love them anyway, this revelation has been happening for many again in painful ways this year. We are reminded that we are not yet the nation we have hoped to be, and some let even the ideals themselves fade from view, no longer even hoping for a land of the free, the rule of law, or justice, some resorted again to despair and some to violence.
I am not going to claim to know how to address the evils nor call the nation to Lincoln’s better angels, but I do know this: If you are planted here, you are called to bring the Reign of God with you in this place
Like Jesus’s disciples, when you get to this place in the story, they move from being only Matteo to being Apostolos from being students to being sent. Now the great thing in the gospel is they are both still, and I suspect so are we. We humans never really get to stop seeking Jesus because we are not perfect yet, we can still boast in our weakness with brother Paul.
But we are sent. You were sent here. And you were sent here to bring the Reign of God in a way that only you can. Bring the God revealed in Jesus to bear on your civic life. Vote as a Christian. Bring the love of neighbor and the call to a holy life to bear on your work life, your political speech, your engagement with the world. Do not neglect the poor, the orphan, the widow, or the stranger in the land.
But know that you do not do this merely as a blue American or a red American, you do not do this first as an American at all. You are first and foremost a child of the living God of Jesus Christ. You are sent as God’s ambassador. You are to bring his Reign, first in your life and in your family’s life and then into the world, into this nation, where we are blessed to care for this land, this people, this history, yes, and this hope for a more just, more loving tomorrow.