This was a message for the church in September of 2001, not long after 9/11
It happened again. I sat in front of MTV gape-jawed the other day. I flipped to it during the commercials on another channel and I happened upon a new video of an Elton John song called “I Want Love.”
I admit, I am regularly tormented by MTV, but I don’t think I have ever seen or heard such a misleading, stick-in-your-head little pop poem as this song — and Elton is probably scheduled to perform it at the Kimmel Arts Center when he’s over there to help open it in December! I’m almost afraid to play it for you, but I have to. Because we need to be able to differentiate between the love of Christ and this false love Elton is overwhelmed by. And even though our scripture is not speaking directly about this tonight, at the base of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 3 is his own torment about the plight of the Elton Johns of the world and their influence. Listen to cravings Elton describes as he sings through the vacant eyes of Robert Downey Jr.
Elton John and Bernie Taupin are probably writing about the “love” of drugs and how the obsession with them kills people on the inside with easy ecstasy. Robert Downey Jr. had about ruined his career with drug use and this video is the start of his resurrection. Maybe all the MTV viewers get this backstory, but I am afraid more of them admired the song for “owning” the “reality” of being isolated from true love and being “brave” about it, as follows:
I want love on my own terms. Don’t be nice to me because I can’t feel anything. I’m dead in places where other people are liberated. Don’t make me submit to anything. Don’t ask me to be surrounded by anything. It is what it is.
That’s the kind of I-want-it-the-way-I-want-it “love” scaring Paul when he is writing to the Corinthian church. In chapter 13 he gives them a little love song of his own, which is a worthy alternative to Elton’s. But here, in chapter 3, he is just trying to get people to look at the symptoms of caving-in to what is worst about us as people. He is not judging people, or saying we should never struggle, he’s just trying to get the love of Jesus at the center of inevitable troubles we face and cause.
Elton’s kind of “love,” the kind of relating he’s describing, kills souls, as I think Elton knows. He can see it makes him dead in places where other men feel liberated. I see that kind of unlove killing whole churches which should be all about liberation. When struggle turns to strife and trouble turns to trauma, we’re into the kind of thinking and acting that killed Jesus. Thank God Jesus rises again! That’s chapter 15.
So let’s check out 1 Corinthians 3. Here’s an outline of what Paul is saying to them, and, by extension, to us:
- The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (1-4)
- So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (5-17)
- To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (18-23)
The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (vv. 1-4)
Paul says (I’m paraphrasing):
“People, I won’t talk to you as if you are spiritual because you are worldly–mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, because you weren’t ready for solids yet. And you apparently are still not ready. You’re still stuck in pre-Jesus habits of the heart. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not just like the world has always been? Are you not acting like humans out of relationship with God? When one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ what’s new about you?”
Can we agree on this? Jealousy and strife are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. One thing, among many things, that has really made me stop and think since September 11 is that many people are amazed that anyone could hate the U.S. so much as to bomb the Trade Centers. It is as if seeing people fight each other surprises them; it’s as if they missed the history of the last century. It is like they never heard themselves going off on their children, or never had anyone go off on them, or never stopped talking to someone because they would just as soon they moved away and were never heard from again. It is like they didn’t know that thousands of children die each day of starvation because no one cares for them. It is like they never heard of the Native American eradication project in the 1800’s in our own country.
We can be so blind. We really need a savior. Jealousy and quarreling should surprise no one. They are our mother’s milk. Most of us think fighting our rivals is an essential way to get justice, even as a way to have a self. We don’t think anything bad is happening among us sometimes, because we think it is “normal.” But it kills us and it kills the church.
The whole point of being the church is to undo this “carnality, this being-a-human-without-God-lifestyle” in us. The love of Jesus is at work among us to free us from being stuck in the world-as-usual. Paul is telling these good people that the rivalries they think are normal and right are going to kill their church. They will close the door to the Holy Spirit in their hearts and close the door to the Holy Spirit in the midst of them as a church if they keep it up. We need to be open to the Spirit of God to feel anything but we are pitted against this group, or excluded from that group, or suspicious or jealous of that group.
We have a lot of love here, but you can see how much we need the Holy Spirit of God as people assess their rivals and feel jealous or opposed to others. Just listen to some innuendo or actual quotes I’ve heard lately:
The artists in our church don’t care about racial reconciliation.
Center City people talk about living simply but they obviously don’t.
I haven’t been to worship in ages because there aren’t any good churches in Philadelphia.
A few people in the church make all the decisions.
I’m not in a cell because I doubt that people would be deep enough to handle how I share my soul.
I’m not going clear up to Germantown. No one goes there.
I don’t fit in because everyone is so young.
I don’t fit because everyone is a Democrat.
I don’t fit in because I am not such an evangelical Christian.
It goes on.
I don’t know whether those things are true or not. But I do know they cause strife. You may have gotten a little steam building up in you just thinking someone said one of them. They make for quarreling. And I know, even deeper, that they are often spoken under the spell of jealousy.
Jealousy is hostility toward someone, often a knee-jerk feeling about a rival who seems to have an advantage over you. I think we are all born jealous of God’s advantage over us. Jealousy let loose in God’s church, where the Holy Spirit resides, is a disaster. It is the anti-love that acts like a computer worm taking over your reactions. Jealousy makes you suspicious, it makes you guarded and defensive. Jealousy makes you competitive, makes your rivalries more important than your contribution to building community. Jealousy makes what others seem to have and what you lack the most important thing to you.
Paul says, “I can’t even talk about God to you! When you pass the division test, maybe we can get somewhere. But as long as jealousy is making you all rivals and not family, we’re back at square one, and even that square is in danger.”
So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (vv. 5-17)
This is the idea: God is reclaiming the world from the wilderness. In Jesus, he is the sower, seeds are growing, and the farm is being tilled in territory that was once overgrown with weeds, infested and unproductive. It is like God’s farm, the earth, was overtaken by the jungle, like one of those Mayan cities in Yucatan that Gwen and I saw. One temple near Copan was so covered by vegetation that it looked like steep hill, not a pyramid (like in the pic). The Corinthian church is like part of God’s farm that has been placed back in cultivation and it is growing good things. Paul says, you’ve got to keep it free of weeds. Rivalry is like kudzu. It takes you over. It tangles you up and chokes out love. If you are one of those people who are forming a group around yourself, or even if you just are stubborn enough to want “love” the way you want it, you are like some big thistle of division planted in the middle of everyone’s life.
There is a lot more in these verses we could learn about, but the main thing I want to emphasize is this picture of what life is all about, because farming with God is what our church is all about. Farming is such a great organic picture and we want to thrive with the life of the Spirit growing in us. Being God’s farm is what being a cell, being a congregation and being a network of congregations is all about.
Let’s concentrate on the small group, the cell. Being God’s farm is what a cell is all about. We were discussing this at our meeting the other night. We aren’t similar people in our cell. Some of us would be natural rivals. But we are together because our common faith and love has given us this radical notion that we can grow something new in the world. It crosses divisions. We are God’s fellow-workers in this. So take note about how you relate to cells. If you like to go there and argue so you can feel like someone, you could be a weed. If you want them to give you love the way you want it and get mad if they disappoint you, you could be a thistle. If you can’t even get next to a group of people face to face at all and love them for Jesus sake and for the sake of reclaiming the farm with him, you may need to check out how he wants you to get involved another way.
To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (vv. 18-23)
Paul thinks his argument is pretty compelling. And don’t misunderstand him, he writes in a particular style that seems sort of combative. But it is just a style. He’s trying to get across God’s heart, not just win an argument. He says, in essence: If you are hearing me, if you agree that division kills and God has a plan for his farm, then, let’s give up the rivalries! All things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are ours. We are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
Jesus has opened up the way to eternity. The best is ours — even the best of these different groups in Corinth, the best of Paul or Apollos or Peter, or whoever or whatever, is ours. We don’t have to fight for it. God is delivering what is best to us. He started by giving himself in His son.
I think this is a profound way to live and I am trying to go with it. For instance: Periodically people ask me “what are you guys?” Maybe they mean, “What denomination are you against?” If they wonder if we are Presbyterians, I say, “Basically.” Baptists? “Of course.” Pentecostal? “Yes.”
When I answer that way I am not being cute, because all are mine. One woman asked me if I were a priest. “Pastor” didn’t make any sense to her. So I finally said, “Sure, I’m sort of a priest.” I am of Christ. Who cares about being this or that other, I have the best of them all.
We are looking to be the new humanity without race or class, where there is no Jew or Arab, low-class or high-class, majority or minority, male or female, simple-liver or entrepreneur but Christ is all and is in all. In our church, where Jesus is in his temple, we are trying to get our minds and hearts around something bigger and deeper. Sometimes we call it the “both/and,” but that is too philosophical. In Christ it is just all – no balance necessary because Jesus personally holds everything together in love.
I don’t know what all this is meaning “practically” to you.
- I at least think it should mean you look around the room tonight with Jesus eyes rather than the old, killer-instinct eyes of sorting out your rivals.
- We should at least ask ourselves if we can pass a basic division test to see if we are more than just pre-Jesus humans.
- At best it could practically mean that we can all breathe easier, now. We’ve got it all. All we can do is get better at accessing all that God is trying to get to us.
So we can let go of that painful, disappointing process of trying to find ourselves in comparison to another person, for better or worse. And we can stop trying to get for ourselves the life that God is desperate to give to us. We’ve got it. Connected to Jesus we have access to all of it, and it is just going to get more complete. I want that love.