Serrmon: "All belong to you, and you belong to Christ"
Text: 1 Corinthians 3
Speaker: Joel Miller
Last weekend our family went to the Mennonite Arts Weekend in Cincinnati. Columbus was well represented with quite a few you also there. During the Friday evening keynote, artist Jerry Holsopple described one of his many creative loves – painting icons – or more technically, writing icons – something he studied on a Fulbright scholarship in Lithuania under the mentorship of Father Vladimir.
One of his icons he showed us was Maximillian, a 3rd century North African born to an official in the Roman army. At age 21 Maximillian was obligated to enlist, but refused, declaring that as a Christian he could not swear allegiance to the emperor or serve in the army. Because of this, he was beheaded. There were likely others before him, but Maximillian is the earliest recorded Christian conscientious objector.
Another icon was St. Maria of Paris, a more recent martyr. Maria was an intellectual and a poet who took monastic vows. Rather than being confined to a monastery, she was allowed to live in a rented house in Paris that served as a sanctuary for refugees and the poor. During World War II the house became a haven for Jews. The story goes that when the Gestapo entered and asked whether there were any Jews in the house, Maria answered “Yes,” after which she went and got her statue of Mary the mother of Jesus and handed it to them. Maria and her helpers were arrested, and in 1945 she was taken to the Ravensbruck prison camp gas chamber.
Jerry showed us another icon. It was a painting of himself, as an icon, complete with a halo. After some initial chuckles from the audience, Jerry explained why he had created this. It was not, he assured us, an attempt at self-glorification. Quite the opposite. If you look closer at the icon, he said, you will notice that the texture of each part of the image is made of names, written out. Jerry had selected over 400 names – if I remember that number correctly – of people who had influenced him. People, others, of whom he is composed. And he created this image of himself out of those names. He called it his un-selfie. It was his attempt to de-center rather than exult the individual self. In case you’re wondering, the criteria for being part of his halo was that you had to be dead.
I couldn’t find that image online but I’ll link to his other icons on the sermon webpage.
This kind of vision of self-in-community, or even self-as-community, is similar to what Paul is addressing when he writes to the Jesus followers in the Roman colony of Corinth.
In our Bibles it’s called First Corinthians but in chapter 5 of 1 Corinthians Paul makes mention of a previous letter he had written them, of which no known copies survive. He also mentions, in chapter 7, that he’s now responding to a letter they had written back to him, which we also don’t have. What we do have is this letter we call 1 Corinthians which is at least the second letter Paul had written to the Corinthians, not to be confused with Second Corinthians which is another, later letter that got included in the Christian New Testament. It’s good to remember that reading these letters is like dropping in on a conversation. Kind of like starting a podcast part way through and trying to get your bearings.
And, as strange as it may seem, these and other letters from Paul – Romans, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon – the seven letters nearly all scholars agree are from Paul and not a generation after him writing in Paul’s name – these were all written well before any of the four Gospels that focus on the life of Jesus.
So what we’re getting in these letters is a window into what these little communities of Jesus people that were popping up around the Roman empire in the first few decades after the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth – what these fellowships were like.
And if 1 Corinthians is any indication of the whole, it wasn’t always pretty. Truly, anyone who says they wish the church could just go back to its original unity and harmony has not read these letters closely.
The lectionary reading covers the first 9 verses for chapter 3 but we went ahead and read the whole chapter.
One of the issues at hand is the different allegiances the Corinthians were giving to teachers who had come among them. Some were saying “I belong to Paul,” others were saying “I belong to Apollos.” Later Paul will mention Cephas as a third teacher. In a culture made up of patrons and clients, everyone belonged to someone, from the slave up the ladder to the paterfamilias on up to the emperor who belonged to the gods themselves. Having received spiritual guidance from multiple sources, the Corinthians can’t agree on who their common patron is.
For this, Paul has little patience, calling them “infants in Christ,” even portraying himself as their nursing mother, wishing they’d grow up already and start downing some peas and carrots or something solid. Rather than being rival patrons, Paul suggests his relationship with Apollos is like a fellow farmer, working the same field - one a planter, one doing the watering, one common purpose. The goal is growth – growth of that garden in Corinth made up of them - a miracle only God can provide.
Our culture doesn’t have quite the same patron/client dynamics as the ancient Roman world, but our need for belonging is just as strong. From the time we’re born and first held in our mother’s arms, to the time we’re eating solid food and running around exploring the world, to the time we’re all grown up offering ourselves back to the community in whatever ways we do, we have a powerful need to belong. To belong to others, to belong to a place, or at least to the little space we create as our home. And maybe most difficult, to belong to ourselves.
Belonging….It’s that thrill of discovering a writer, a thinker, who lays out a world, a way of understanding, in which we feel we belong. It’s the joy of finding a partner, the warmth of a sustained friendship, the grace of that protective shelter loving parents and mentors provide us. The meaningfulness of finding a community of shared values, even if those shared values are the commitment to loving each other amidst some different values. Congregations are places of belonging. Gangs are places of belonging. We’re not just floating out there by ourselves. Everyone belongs to something and when we don’t, then we really need to watch out.
One of my very favorite poems is about this. It’s called “The House of Belonging,” by David Whyte. Whyte imagines the state of belonging, as a house that we are then able to invite others into, even as we sustain a sense of contented aloneness within us – that belonging to ourselves piece. I want to read the final part of that poem. And when David Whyte reads his own poetry he’ll occasionally repeat a line here and there so I’ll read in that style as well:
This is the bright home
in which I live,
this is where
this is where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.
This is the temple
of my adult aloneness
and I belong
to that aloneness
as I belong to my life.
There is no house
like the house of belonging.
After Paul’s opening volleys about breast-feeding and co-farming, it’s this metaphor of the house, the building, the temple, that he develops. This is where he wants those partisan Corinthians to rest a while – in a house of belonging.
Verses 10 and 11: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” The second part, by the way, was Menno Simon’s favorite verse. He would put it at the top of his writings: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
We have a pretty good idea what that meant to Menno in an age when the church had veered off into bureaucratic self-preservation and violence. It’s a little less clear, to me at least, what that would have meant to Paul and these Corinthians before they even knew the stories of Jesus that would be circulated later in the gospels, at least in the literary form we have them. Maybe, like Paul’s first letter, there were some early writings of the stories that didn’t survive. And in an oral culture, stories were likely circulating by word of mouth.
What we can safely guess is that Paul wants these Corinthians to see Jesus, rather than himself or Apollos, rather than the emperor, as their highest patron. The one to whom they give honor. The foundation. The one in whose house they fully and completely belong.
And not just belong in the house. But belong as that very house themselves.
Paul goes on: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that’s God’s Spirit dwells in you?” What’s missing in our English language translation is that the you here is plural. Paul will later speak of each person’s body being like the temple of God, but here it is a collective image. It’s a ya’ll. Ya’ll are God’s temple. You, together, are this holy house of belonging, and it is in the betweenness of your relationships where the Spirit dwells.
If Paul were to team up with Jerry Holsopple as a co-artist, we can imagine them creating an image of a temple with the structure made up entirely of the names of the Corinthians. To that they could add the Philippians. And the Galatians and the Romans, and Maximillian and Maria of Paris; eventually adding in each of us. Which would get to be a pretty big temple.
And this is where Paul is headed with this. He goes big. Really big.
The final three verses of chapter 3: “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours. I’ll repeat that. All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future -- all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
A paraphrase for us might be: All things are yours: Whether “New” Testament or “Old,” whether Buddha or the Tao or the philosophers, whether science or poetry, whether history or a hoped-for future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
That’s a big temple. That’s a big house of belonging.
Can we even imagine what it might mean that “All things are yours…all belong to you?” Can we embrace that in a way that isn’t poisoned by our cultural notions of acquisition and private property? That if something belongs to us we have sole claim to it? That if we belong to something or someone or somewhere we can’t also belong elsewhere?
If the foundation is the one Jesus taught and lived and died for, it’s going to be a spacious temple. The stories of Maximillian and Maria of Paris – their courage and compassion – they belong to you. They’re part of you. David Whyte’s poem and all poetry that helps us see more clearly – they belong to you. The Bible and other scriptures that illuminate what it means to be human and what it means to be part of the unfolding story of God – they belong to you. Every adult and child who has taught you something – their names are written in your icon. Some of them in the halo. They belong to you and you belong to them. And we belong to the temple of this world – the human and nonhuman world – in which the Spirit dwells, in which we live and move and have our being, in which the resurrected Christ dances and delights.
There is no house like the house of belonging.