Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Path of Least Resistance



Maisy’s best friend Elsa was over the other day, the two of them alternately building a space ship out of boxes and stabling horses in the great wide ranch of our backyard.  Into the middle of their limitless imagination dropped some real world advice when Elsa sagely observed, “Maisy, watch your thoughts, because they become your words, and your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your character and your character becomes your destiny.”
“Ok.” Maisy responded. And they continued mucking out the dirty stalls.

Andy and I looked at each other and grinned.  But Elsa’s words have echoed in my head this week thinking about Paul’s exasperated words to the Corinthians.

We are bombarded with the message, from very young childhood on, that it is me against the world. We are trained in self-protection, competition, honing our herding instinct.  So we congregate with those we know, those we have something in common with.

I know I do this. I show up at an event and I look for my friends. If my friends aren’t there, I look for someone I know. Barring that, I look for other moms, women, people around my age.  We seek out those that appear to be most like ourselves. I heard a social scientist this week describe it as “the path of least resistance.” We know those like us, they’re familiar. It’s easy, intuitive. But with people different than me, I have to work. I have to extend myself differently, to listen and pay attention. I have to draw on different stories than the shared stories, different assumptions than the shared assumptions, different awareness than the easy non-thinking groove I can get into with those of my “group.”  Left to our own devices, we might try to get away with living our whole lives on the path of least resistance.  Thoughts, words, actions, habits, character… and so it goes.

We are so immersed in this way of seeing and functioning in the world that we import it into the church. We forget, and not just at a mental level but deep in our being – in our habits and our unthought actions, we fall back on the path of least resistance even when we are consciously trying to live otherwise.

The Corinthian church was a congregation of dozens, not hundreds. And perhaps they were a bit like us –when people ask if we have a 3rd grade Sunday school class or a young, single adult ministry or something fancy and specific like that, I sometimes tell them that we’re more like “one of everything,” all together in community.

They too had just a few of everything. The church at Corinth was smallish, with an astonishing range of cultural, religious and socioeconomic diversity: slaves, free people, Jews, gentiles, wealthy, poor, men, women, no one “group” in charge, all fully involved in the life of the church and serving in church leadership. With all these groups represented, on the one hand, it was a little cross-section of the cosmopolitan port city of Corinth, a microcosm of life in their larger community. 
But on the other hand it was the opposite - a little cross-section of the Kingdom of God, a microcosm of life where all are One in Christ Jesus, valued and honored, where the labels used in society to define and restrict people had no power to sum up or limit them from full belonging and participation.
Out there, things were one way, as though it was a fact that some were better than others, and that differences defined their worth and roles.
But when they came together, when they crossed the threshold into wherever they were gathered that day, or encountered each other on the street the next, they saw sister, brother, equal, child of God, fellow believer, friend.

We are one in Christ Jesus.  The labels and categories we use every day to rank and divide and separate and compare, in the truth’s unflinching light they are exposed as lies.  We all belong to God.  We all belong to each other.
Corinthians: You’ve believed this. This is changing you. You are glad to be church with each other.  You are forming a community around new shared stories, shared assumptions, shared awareness.  The message of Pentecost has penetrated your hearts and has transformed you – one faith, one baptism, one Body. All are welcome at the table, and you’re on board with that message. Done and Amen.

But when you show up, where do you sit?  
Who do you chat with about your annoying boss or your teething baby, your citizenship application or your brand new boat? 
Who do you call when your embarrassing heap of a car breaks down again?  
Who do you ask to watch your kids in a pinch?
Path of least resistance: Find someone like you. 

Sin is insidious, and it doesn’t stop at the front door to the church building, or the edge of conscious thought. The Corinthians are aware of the obvious trip wires (though, as well see later, that doesn’t stop them from stumbling over those either). They are consciously already doing the work to see and accept one another despite society’s overt divisions of rank and race and class and gender; that is on their radar.  
It might even be what compelled many of them about the gospel to begin with, what brought them to this community in the first place – the shocking witness of God’s love in seeing human beings blatantly disregarding what seemed to be set-in-stone distinctions, facts about who people are and what they are worth, instead these people welcome each other freely and wholly.

But nevertheless, thoughts, words, actions, habits, character… the path of least resistance…
Being intentional about seeing each other takes work, whereas falling into factions is effortless.  And if the regular possibilities are clearly not options, then a tantalizing new division prospect arises: Whose crew are you?
I was converted by Paul.
Appollos was my Evangelist, his stuff is better; you should hear the guy preach!
Cephas is the best, actually. I belong to his way of thought.
Look how petty you all are! I belong to Christ.

Sin – as Paul will blast them for in many other forms later – Sin is that internal bent to separate ourselves from God and each other, and even our very true selves. To silo and bunker. To hunker and protect.  To compare and compete. To degrade and destroy. And sin doesn’t often look like blatantly terrible stuff. It often hides inside pretty good stuff. Loyalty, camaraderie, carefulness, ease and support.

I recently saw an encouragement to fiction writers that said something along the lines of, “You can never write a true villain until you understand how he is the hero of his own story.” We are all heroes of our own story; we all think our motives good, right and true.

One of the hardest and greatest gifts of community, of relationship with other people, is what these Corinthians are in the process of finding out: it holds up a giant mirror. This mirror reveals that we are not all good, our motives are not all right and true.  Being in community exposes the places where our own inability to see ourselves and the world honestly makes us collaborators in behaviors we’d never overtly choose. 

It strips off the layers and the lies and forces us to see how our actions impact others, how, even despite our good intentions, our thoughts or words or habits might, in fact, separate us from God and each other. 
In other words, being in this together with others reveals our sin.

But, by the grace of God’s foolish wisdom, revealing sin’s hold on us creates the possibility for death and new life to emerge.  Being in relationship with others who are not identical clones of ourselves creates the fertile ecosystem for God’s truth to bloom and grow, because where there is offense, there is also the possibility of forgiveness. 
Where there is pain, there's the bearing of that pain with each other, and healing. 
Where confession, there’s grace. 
Where honesty and heartbreak, there’s true, shared joy.  
It is here, in community, that the Kingdom of God is tangible, that the real reality can be experienced: that everyone is a precious child of God; we all belong to God and we all belong to each other.

The Corinthians’ keep mixing the way of fear with the way of God, falling back into paths of least resistance, that make us behave as though others are objects or barriers instead of sisters or brothers, or that God favors certain of us over others. 
And as we will see going forward in this letter, Paul has no problem, over and over again, calling out specifically where he sees them ruled by the messages of the dominant culture, and calling them back to the true community of Christ.

In his opening telling-off, Paul is calling the Church in Corinth to be vigilant about divisions. To notice the seemingly innocuous way divisions creep in and invade, and then dig them out before they take root in our thoughts and our words and actions and habits. 

We can testify to what it looks like when they take root.
We could show Paul what happens centuries later when good things like loyalty, camaraderie, carefulness, ease and support cover for the path of least resistance, and actions become habits become character.
The Church today often defines itself by factions and litmus tests that allow us to claim that while we may be one in Christ, some of us are closer to Christ than others, you know who you are.
How long, I wonder, would it take him to notice how much more welcoming and gracious we are to those outside the Church than we are to each other?  Paul, Appollos, Cephas, conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, progressive, Evangelical, Mainliner, who do you belong to?  
We are not that kind of Christian, or the more subtle, This is the kind of Christians we are.  (finger pointing strongly implied).
Has Christ been divided?
Was Evangelicalism crucified for you?
Were you baptized in the name of the progressives?

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, Paul writes, to be united in the same mind and the same purpose!  
To be one body, to be united in the same mind and the same purpose, is a great and intimidating prospect, but it is also the most true thing, the real true thing.  And yet, we treat it is as impossible. We act as though our divisions and factions are more powerful definers of us than Jesus Christ and the wisdom of the cross’s foolishness.

But this is God’s Church.  
WE are God’s Church.  
One in Christ Jesus.

Being One in Christ Jesus doesn’t mean having the same faith heritage or the same theological tradition; it doesn’t mean liking the same music or way of praying, it doesn’t mean believing exactly the same things, even, or living out your faith in exactly the same ways.  
It means, trusting Jesus Christ, who claims and forgives and transforms, and who calls the whole human race back to God and back to each other.
It means being led and compelled by the Spirit who makes unity real among us, and draws us into deeper truth, 
and deeper faithfulness, 
and deeper letting go of the lies we hang on to protect and divide ourselves, 
and deeper connection with God and each other.
It means knowing we are all in this together: sister, brother, equal, fellow believer, child of God, friend, knowing that despite all the many differences between us, the love of Christ is at the very core of each of us.  
In other words, as Paul would say, it means being united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Falling into factions is effortless. 
Being intentional about seeing each other takes work.  

But our unity is not just so we get along. 
It is actually a defiant promise to a world steeped in division and feeding on factions.  
In the face of entrenched tribalism, and stomach-turning animosity, unity is a fragrant taste of truth, a clean glimpse of the real reality. 
It is hope.

You are going to hear these phrases a lot this summer: the kingdom of God, the real reality, the big picture, the truth that we all belong to God and we all belong to each other. 
Because the whole book is a letter Paul writes to a church community dealing very directly and practically with how to be Church, and how to remember whose they are and who they are.  
He breaks it down. He gets mad, he rambles, he loses his train of thought sometimes, but this message keeps getting pounded home – You belong to God. You belong to each other. Your living this truth is a vivid witness to the world.

The Spirit who now shapes and defines them as Body of Christ gives them new shared story, shared assumptions, and shared awareness. These are the thoughts, words, actions, and habits that Paul is wanting to cultivate in the Corinthians, and that we will be actively cultivating together this summer.

May we take to heart the gift of being in world-witnessing, faction-busting, sin-exposing, pain-sharing, hope-trumpeting, truth-telling community with one another, One in Christ Jesus. May we welcome the Spirit’s work in and through us.
Amen.

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