Sermon - 3 Lent
In the Name...
A young child wasn't paying attention to his Sunday School lessons and got a few things mixed up. So, he told his parents that "Lot's wife was a pillar of salt by day, but, a ball of fire by night."
There is a common proverb about being "under a cloud" which is none too complimentary, but, in the passage from 1st Corinthians we heard today, that's not what St. Paul was talking about. He was telling the Corinthians that their ancestors had been blessed by being under God's cloud.
This cloud to which he refers was the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night which led the Hebrews to safety during the Exodus from Egypt. Paul then goes on, in just a few short verses to recap all the blessings which the Hebrews received from the hand of God - the parting of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, and the water which flowed from the rock. But, then he reminds his audience that even though the Hebrews were treated so well the vast majority of them did not appreciate these blessings and did things, such as idolatry, adultery, and calumny, as a result of which they were destroyed.
It's sometimes hard for us to relate well to the Old Testament. For one thing, it's ancient history and ancient history was probably not everybody's favourite subject in school. And then again, a lot of good Christians have a perception that the Old Testament is something we can forget about now that we have Jesus and we should just focus on what he said and did. In the 1970's, when the Episcopal Church began the practice of having an Old Testament lesson on Sundays, I can remember some complaints from people that they didn't come to church to hear the Jewish Bible.
But, the thing is that the so-called "Jewish Bible" is 80% of our Christian Bible and without it the 20% that's left doesn't make much sense. John 3 says that God so loved the world that gave his only-begotten Son, and that's great, but, the reason he did so is to be found in Genesis 3 and the story of the Fall. Indeed, the Old Testament, with all its lengthy stories, unpronounceable names, grammatically difficult prophecies and other faults which we can pick apart, ridicule, and dismiss, is relevant to our lives today because it is as much the word of God as the Gospels. And that's why St. Paul used it in his letter to the Corinthians in which he told them that outside of repentance and faith, there is no salvation. Or, to put it another way, even church members can blow it.
The Corinthian church to which Paul wrote was, in many ways, the kind of church people call successful. It was growing. New members were joining daily. It was wealthy. No money problems. It had a tremendous social life complete with well-publicized church suppers. It was active in the community, reaching out to the poor. And, it had a well-run liturgy. And yet, Paul said, there was just one thing lacking. The lives of the members were not being changed. The lives of the members were not being changed. They called themselves Christians, but, they were living no differently to pagans.
There was a sense of complacency in Corinth and this was a serious weakness in what could have been a dynamic church. The Corinthians had fallen into a seductive trap. They equated church membership with salvation.
They were all baptized, they all received the Eucharist, they all believed that Jesus was the Son of God, and they all believed that that was enough to go to Heaven. But, Paul said it wasn't and went back to the Exodus to prove his point. The Hebrews had passed through the Red Sea, and this was the prototype for baptism, they ate the manna, the prototype for the Eucharist, they were sustained by the water from the rock which represented Christ.
And yet, many of them were destroyed because they put their trust in being part of a Chosen People and didn't do anything about becoming choosing persons. They thought that being part of a protected group meant they could do as they pleased as individuals and not lose that protection.
I once had occasion to minister to a woman whose son was going through a divorce. He was very much the guilty party and his mother was deeply troubled. I remember she said that she couldn't understand why he did what he did because, and these were her words, "I always sent him to Sunday School." As if that was somehow a childhood inoculation which would stop him from committing immoral behaviour as an adult.
Back in 2012, I was visiting someone in hospital and while I was in the building a nurse asked me what church I was from. I told her and she said that was good because she had a patient who was Episcopalian and asked if I would stop by and see him. Of course. So, I went to the room and introduced myself and the man was glad to see me but admitted he hadn't been to any church for a while – since the 70’s, in fact. But, now, in a moment of personal crisis he turned to a long-neglected corporate label as a sort of divine rabbit's foot.
St. Paul was worried about the Corinthians. He believed that the 12thC B.C. Word of God had meaning in his modern 1stC A.D. world. And he believed that unless they took notice, the Corinthians' would fall into the same trap as the Hebrews and think that baptism would get them into Heaven regardless of how they behaved. Yes, baptism gives eternal life. But, there are two places we can spend eternal life and the choices we make as individuals determine the neighbourhood.
The Hebrews learned there were no group rates to the Promised Land. The lessons are the same for us. There's more to being Saved than which church we once went to or even the one to which we still go. It's how do we model ourselves individually after the One who died for us.
So, we should always strive to be under the cloud of the Exodus, the cloud of blessing. The cloud of the proverb - that one we can do without.
In the Name...