Who Comes First?

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Who Comes First?

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 Matthew 5:21-26

People can get tied into knots worrying about approaching God. That anxiety often gets transformed into rules: “You have to wear your best clothes to church” is one I remember from my childhood.

There is a long history of stricter rules, like: “You can’t take communion without confessing your sins first”. That one has a formal structure around it in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions but is harder to nail down in the Reformed tradition where we did away with formal confession 500 years ago.

In my first pastoral charge, communion was held four times per year and one congregation still followed the old Presbyterian tradition of the Preparatory Service. The original idea was that you went to the service where general prayers of confession were shared and then you were given your communion token, a rectangular coin that you had to present on Sunday to be allowed to take communion. Presumably you also had to avoid all sin between Thursday night and Sunday morning.

We had the services and the prayers, but the coins were long gone. They didn’t prepare us for those ancient services at seminary. It’s a good thing I already had an idea of the history involved so I could cobble together a service that seemed to satisfy the congregation.

But at the core of all of this is the idea that God is big and scary and potentially very judgmental. The particular concern about taking communion in an unworthy manner has led to people refusing communion all their lives just in case they were somehow unworthy and might fall into judgment.

Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth has a kind of resonance with this, not so much with the idea of God judging us, but with the idea that God is at the core of everything we do, at the core of all we believe in and stand up for.

Who is Paul? Who is Apollos? Clearly this question divided the congregation, but Paul made the point of reminding the people that neither one of these leaders had any position except as servants of God working for a common goal: God’s goal.

Paul was reminding people to put God and the work of God ahead of divisive personal loyalties.

What do we do, then, with the advice of Jesus? He tells his hearers to leave their gift for God at the altar and run off to reconcile with someone they have wronged, before offering anything to God.

It is almost like Jesus is putting direct human relationships ahead of our formal standing with God. The teachings of Paul and Jesus aren’t in direct conflict, but there is a question of priorities here that is worth exploring.

Jesus wasn’t concerned about the rudeness of getting up to the priest and then dropping everything and running off. Not good behaviour: the priest would be inconvenienced and might well have some strong words for this flaky person who appears to be abandoning their duty to God in favour of some personal drama.

Jesus clearly thought it was worth it. As shocking as that must have seemed to his first listeners, Jesus says it is necessary to be reconciled with each other before we try to be reconciled with God.

What is common to these two lessons is the need for reconciliation: we are not supposed to be part of the kinds of divisions that tear communities apart. That is worth remembering in this era of extremist views where people seem to have trouble even talking to someone who disagrees with them and where it seems so natural to troll someone or criticize them while remaining safely anonymous online.

At the core of both Jesus’ and Paul’s messages is the need to hold a higher perspective. Paul talks about it in terms of each person belonging to God. Jesus talks about it in terms of needing to sort things out with our fellow humans before we can claim we’ve sorted things out with God.

This is not a new rule to create obstacles between us and God. There are times when someone refuses to even talk, when they simply won’t try to settle differences. That sort of thing can go on for years, and since reconciliation involves both parties, I don’t believe that God will allow someone else to drive a wedge between us and God.

But I also think that God doesn’t want us to give up on someone. Even the most stubborn of people are still God’s children. It doesn’t mean we have to give unreasonable people whatever they want, but the way Jesus presents it is if we have wronged someone else, it us up to us to go and try to heal the relationship.

That’s always the temptation for people: if you believe that God has forgiven you, you feel less urgency about doing the messy work of getting that person you hurt to forgive you too. This is about taking personal responsibility for our lives; not trying to use God as a way to avoid it.

This isn’t about strict rules around approaching God. In fact, it is about preventing that kind of rule-bound thinking from interfering with real life, with our relationships with each other.

Saying the right prayers isn’t enough. Offering the right offerings isn’t what we need. Following the right rituals and rules won’t swing God into a position to let us off the hook.

We need to reconcile with each other if we want to claim we are right with God.

There are lots of implications to this principle: reconciliation with indigenous people obviously comes to mind and since it is our culture that has wronged theirs, the onus is on us to seek reconciliation, to leave our offering at the altar and go to re-connect. Yet how often have we relied on them, the wronged party, to take the first step?

But there’s more. Jesus used the example of personal relationships to make his point. And he did that because he knew very well that each one of us has something that we need to sort out with someone. His words could include actual family: sister or brother, all the way to someone who may not be personally related but may feel they have cause to begin a lawsuit.

Jesus is saying that in all our relationships: personal, business, social, whatever; we are to be reconciled in every aspect of our lives.

Symbolically, reconciliation ties in to the idea of communion, not as a rule, but as a statement we are making with the sacrament: when we share the bread and cup we are claiming a connection with each other that is so close that it turns us into one body.

That kind of connection takes work; that level of reconciliation is profound and it is our calling to try to achieve it.

No wonder Paul called the squabbling Corinthians “spiritual babies” if they were taking sides between leaders, as if they were competing sports teams. Paul knew from personal experience that reconciling with others could be very hard indeed but he considered it important enough to publicly put his own ego aside and invite us to consider a higher calling where God comes first, of course, and where we realize that to approach God we must not put ourselves first but instead seek to reconcile in all our relationships.


One thought on “Who Comes First?

  1. Forgiveness and reconciliation can indeed be hard work–but necessary. I enjoyed reading this sermon and agreed with the ideas expressed. Thank you.


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