Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, RCL
1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37
Most preachers who are bound to the lectionary have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. We appreciate the large swath of the bible readings that we engage with each year. We enjoy that we do not have to choose what scripture we are going to preach on each week. Yet there are times when the lectionary forces us to wrestle with passages that we would rather avoid for one reason or another. Sometimes they hit too close to home. And as preachers, we receive as much meaning from the homily as we offer the congregation. I preach to myself as much as I preach to you.
Let’s face it. Today’s Gospel message is difficult. Even if we think we are without conflict in our lives this passage does not leave anyone untouched. As one of my friends said, “I might hear one of these categories [Jesus mentioned] and not be convicted by it, but with enough strung together… no one gets out alive.” His point is true. No one walks through today’s Gospel passage without losing an eye, a hand, or at least some degree of our heart. Conflict is an unfortunate reality of life.
If we look at the Church of Corinth, we find that Paul receives word that there is conflict within that church. The issues confronting the church concern leadership, immorality, religious ritual, lawsuits, and marriage. These are many of the same issues Jesus points to in the Gospel. Even though we are specifically looking at leadership in today’s passage, we have to keep in mind that all these issues are at work and the church of Corinth is at a critical state. The people of the church are split into many different factions across these different issues.
I guarantee that no one here has lived a life without conflict. It is natural for every community to go through times of discord. Conflict is one of the reasons Stanly Hauerwas, an Episcopal theologian, says that living in community is dangerous and takes courage. He says, “I don’t want to kill the people I’m against … I don’t know that I love them but I’m not trying to kill them though I sometimes am tempted.” He continues with, “Matthew 18 where Jesus says, ‘If you think your brother or sister has sinned against you, you are to confront them.’ [Jesus] doesn’t say you might consider confronting them. He says you confront them.
Now, you [might] think, ‘Gee, on the whole, I’d prefer to get along by going along,’ but conflict is at the very heart of being a true soul community through which we are confronted [and] we confront our brother and sister which we think has done wrong in a way that hopefully would bring reconciliation… I think therefore, conflict and peaceable-ness are necessary allies because you only become peaceable to the extent your community is willing to speak truthfully to one another in a way that false presuppositions do not determine our lives which oftentimes breakout in terrible violence later on.”(1)
Hauerwas didn’t say these words about this parish or any parish in particular. These words are true about all communities; even our families. This acknowledgment of conflict is what Paul is doing in Corinth. He can’t sit by and allow life to go on as if there are no problems. He addresses the issues, even acknowledging how he fits into the conflict. Paul says, what is Apollos? What is Paul? We are just servants of the Lord; doing the work the Lord has assigned us. One planted, one watered, but it is “only God who gives the growth.” Through disagreement or not we have one common purpose; “we are God’s servants, working together.”
Paul’s example shows that each of us plays a part in the conflict. When we live in community together, if there is a conflict with a few of the members, the whole community is affected. Even if we are not directly involved we feel the pain. Think about your feelings with regard to the division in our national politics. I don’t know anyone who is happy or feels good about the conflict in Government. Or maybe you are able to remember a time when your parents were arguing. Even though we were not in the argument itself we were affected on some level.
If we continue to chapter 5, Paul equates the bystanders of conflict to yeast. Paul says, “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” The people on the periphery can unintentionally inflate the conflict much as yeast does to dough. If we ignore conflict, it tends to increase. If we take sides, we enhance the pain that is already present, and if we tell others, we spread the yeast, creating conflict where there was none to begin with. Paul continues, “Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”(2) We find that the unleavened people walk beside the people in conflict to guide them toward peace.
Christ is the paschal lamb; he knew plenty of conflict in his ministry. There were conflicts with the disciples. There were conflicts with religious leaders. His death and crucifixion were born out of conflict as well. But the story of Christ does not end with conflict. Christ's story continues with resurrection, new life. This new resurrected life is given to us each time we turn and follow the Lord; doing what we are assigned whether our job is planting, watering, or building. Our assignment is that of a servant; to walk with and take care of God’s people. For it is “only God who gives the growth.” Each week we pray for the spiritual growth of our church. And I pray that through the conflict in our lives, God will grow our faith in him and our love for one another.
1) The Table Podcast, Biola University Cent for Christian Thought. Evan Rosa and Stanley Hauerwas Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Divinity and Law, Duke Divinity School. April 8, 2019 https://cct.biola.edu/stanley-hauerwas-death-church-america-suffering-love/
2) 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8