Isaiah 9:1-4 | 1 Corinthians 1:10-18| Matthew 4:12-23
I remember the first time I heard Isaac Villegas preach. Brie and I had recently moved to Durham, North Carolina, and a friend we had made back in Portland told us she had a friend who pastored a small Mennonite congregation in Chapel Hill, so we decided to check it out.
The church we had come from was very different than Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, affectionately nicknamed CHMF. We had come from a large church here in Portland, where the pastor didn’t even use notes. He memorized his transitions, and his preaching was a combination of memorization and improvisation. And he was good at it. And the church had a big band, and everything was very polished and put together.
So we were surprised when we entered CHMF for the first time, and the music was acapella, and they realized that night (the church met in the evening) that they didn’t have a music leader that day. And then Isaac got up to preach, and he used a manuscript, like I’m using now, instead of going off of memory. And he stayed rooted in his spot, and he read much of it. There was very little presentation.
But I’ll never forget his sermon. It was on Luke 14, when Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister…then such a person cannot be my disciple.” And far from a nice, neat sermon that wrapped things up and made the message of the text plain, Isaac wrestled with it. He questioned it. He wondered out loud what this text could possibly mean. And then he ended the sermon suddenly, without warning. He said, “I want to be a disciple, but I love my wife and my family. I don’t know what to do with that.” And then he sat down.
I loved it. I loved the honesty and authenticity. I loved the way his preaching seemed humble. I loved the way he interrogated Scriptures and let the Scriptures interrogate him. It seemed very brave to me.
I have a great deal of respect for Isaac. I’ve looked up to the way he leads by example, the way he quietly empowers others, the way he stays true to his convictions (he was recently stripped of his credentials because he officiated a same-sex wedding).
I have, at times, tried to mimic Isaac. There have been times I asked myself, and even asked Brie, “Well, what would Isaac do?” Does that sound familiar? Not the classic, what would Jesus do, but what would Isaac do?
But something has become clear to me as I’ve stepped into my role as pastor here at Grant Park.
I’m not Isaac.
Isaac is a wonderful pastor for his congregation. But we’re different people. He’s a little more studious than me, a little quieter than me. And his congregation is different than ours.
If I tried to be Isaac, here at Grant Park, I would fail miserably as a pastor. Not because there’s something wrong with Isaac, but because I’m not Isaac. I’m not supposed to become the next Isaac. I’m not made in Isaac’s image, or any other impressive preacher or teacher’s image.
I’m made in God’s image, and to be who I am, is to follow only one person, and that is Christ. Christ, the One who was not only fully God, but also fully human. To be molded into the image of Christ is to be molded into the image of the fully human. Only Christ shows us how to be us, otherwise we’re just trying to mimic someone else.
But it’s hard to know what it means to be shaped into the image of Christ. I’ve never seen Christ in the flesh. I’ve never sat down and had a beer with Christ, like I have with Isaac. It’s so much easier to mold myself after someone I know, or someone I watch on youtube, or listen to on a podcast. But to be who I am in Christ is difficult, because it means I’m supposed to be me, and no one else.
There’s no other me, so there’s no model to follow. No plan.
The church in Corinth is afraid to be themselves, as individuals and as a body of believers. They’re afraid to let God mold them into something new, to let the risen Christ form them in his gentle, pierced hands to be a “new creation”.
Instead, they want to look at a pattern. Let’s be like Paul, or Apollos, or Peter. Or maybe we can be like Jesus, but not the resurrected one who’s living and active and could lead us into the unknown. Let’s be like the Jesus we heard about in the stories. The one of the past, not the one of the present. We can just look at his teachings and try to be just like Him back then, instead of being who we’re supposed to be in him here and now.
Different factions in the church at Corinth have begun to associate with different teachers, and so divisions are emerging among them. On the theoretical, abstract level we understand Paul’s critique when he says, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” The church should not be divided.
But on the practical level, we understand the Corinthians.
We all have pastors, or theologians, or politicians, or talk show hosts, or whatever, it could be anyone, who we look up to and associate with. And we all have the opposite, those people who we just can’t stand. The people we absolutely refuse to listen to or respect or identify with in any way.
And that makes sense, because there are people we resonate with, and there are those we fundamentally disagree with, so how can we be united, if someone across the aisle from us supports or identifies with someone we morally disagree with? Are we supposed to forfeit our convictions and morals? Is that unity, and if so, is that really what Christ is calling us to?
Unity does not mean uniformity. Later in this very book, 1 Corinthians – in chapter 12 – Paul will talk about the various spiritual gifts people have, and he will equate the church to a body with different parts, and speak to how different parts have different functions. So diversity is good, even necessary.
And the same goes for diversity in respect to various teachers and leaders. Not only is diversity in our various roles good, but it’s good that we listen to and associate with various leaders, too. Now, let me just be honest that there are bad, immoral, unjust leaders. I’m not saying that everyone deserves the same amount of respect. But at a fundamental level, it’s okay that some of us read this author or that author, or watch this news station or that news station, or support this candidate or that candidate, and it’s okay that some of us prefer one over the other, and it’s okay if we disagree. The problem is when those specific people and news stations shape our identity more than Christ, because then we lose our unity with one another.
We’re locked in to following a certain person, or ideology over Christ, and we begin to exclude those who follow other people or ideologies, and suddenly we are divided. We can’t even communicate with one another. One of us starts saying “I am of Apollo” and another says “I am of Paul” and another says “I am of Trump” and another says “I am of Clinton” and on and on, and the implication is that because I am of so and so I can’t be in community with you who are different. And suddenly we have committed to backing a person or political party or religious group, no matter where they go or what they do, instead of following Christ. And what’s worse, we begin to shape ourselves in the image of those we follow instead of being shaped by Christ, who wants to mold us into something beautifully and uniquely us.
It makes sense that some people identify more with Apollos than Peter, and vice versa. It makes sense that I look up to my former pastor, Isaac. It makes sense that we identify as Baptists and not some other denomination. It fits who we are. It corresponds with our understanding of the church and Scripture, and our experience. All that’s okay. What’s not okay is when our identity with one group or person causes us to exclude others. Being Baptist is good, but excluding Catholics because we’re Baptists in not good.
It’s like, if Christ is the light, all these different people/groups/denominations/etc. are mirrors, and it’s okay that because of the way we’re positioned, because of the experiences we’ve had, some of us see the light through some mirrors better than others. For some people, Peter reflected Christ in a way that was easier to decipher for them, but others, because of their position, saw Christ better through Paul’s teaching. And other saw Christ better in Apollos. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t also see glimpses of light in the other mirrors, it’s just that one revealed the light more fully for them.
The problem is when we begin to identify with the mirror more than the light it’s supposed to be reflecting. When we begin to identify with the teacher more than the Christ they are teaching us about. If we are identifying with the light, we have the freedom to look to different mirrors, or to acknowledge that the mirror we used to watch more closely has perhaps become dull, or cracked, and it’s okay to look to others. But if we start to identify more with this mirror or that – this person or that – then we can’t see Christ in the multitude of ways he reveals himself. We can’t relate to those with different perspectives. We get locked into one perspective and that’s dangerous.
But when our desire is to see the light better, and when we recognize that same desire in others, we find that we have unity, even in our differences.
Just this past Wednesday, my friend Brett and I were grabbing a drink down at 10 Barrel, and this guy I knew from my days at the coffee shop, who owns a few restaurants in town came in and saw me, so he came over and started chatting. He found out that Brett and I had both gone to seminary, and he started talking about the church he goes to and the theologians he’s been reading. And I’m going to be honest, I have some serious problems with the teachings of the church he goes to and the authors he likes to read. I could have shut down when he started talking. “I don’t agree with that theologian. I don’t like your church, and this is why…” But, even though I have my issues with his church and his choice of theologians, I saw his love for Christ clear as day. I saw that he was seeking God, and that his journey, which is different than mine, had led him to the place he was currently in. I found that a lot of the things he was saying about his faith resonated with me, despite our different spiritual “role models.”
Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t care about those areas where we disagree. If we ever get close enough to talk about it I might bring those issues up, and he might talk to me about issues he has with the people I choose to read and the theology I affirm. But those differences don’t have to divide us. If we are more concerned with following Christ, we can handle critiques of our favorite thinkers, or politicians, or denominations, because we already know they aren’t perfect. We’re not “of” them, we’re “of Christ”. And we can recognize Christ in another’s perspective, even if it’s not our own.
This week Donald Trump was inaugurated as our country’s 45th president, and the election season that led up to his becoming president was devastatingly divisive, as we all know. I’ve seen the way both sides have resorted to completely demonizing those who voted for the opposing candidate.
Don’t get me wrong, I have STRONG feelings about this election. It’s even difficult for me, at times, not to address it up here, but that doesn’t mean that I will stop listening to those whose opinions are different than mine, that I will demonize them, or assume I know everything about them based on who they voted for. If we divide ourselves up so easily, we are like the Corinthians, letting our identification with a specific candidate or party outweigh common bond in Christ.
That doesn’t mean we don’t disagree. It doesn’t mean we don’t confront one another. I’m not trying to promote some kind of fake unity. But where does the buck stop? With the candidate we voted for, or with the One we were baptized into?
During the election I was emailing with my aunt, and we did not agree politically, but the encouraging thing is that our conversation was not just about “who” we should vote for, but who we should vote for as Christians.
The encouraging thing was that we were both using Christ as our measuring stick. The fact that we were both saying that being Christian was our primary identity opens up the possibility for discussion. Both of us can come to a deeper understanding of one another if we go into conversations with the goal of how the other makes their political decisions based on their identity in Christ. The discussion quickly becomes about who Christ is, what Christ cares about, and what Christ is calling us to as his followers, and that will move us beyond polarizing discussions of politics that reduce everything to liberal/conservative, democrat/republican, etc.
If we let anything other than Christ define us, we will begin to look like the world, trapped always in binaries: us and them. Ugh. Aren’t we sick of binaries? I am.
The only way we can remain unified as the church – big C and little c – and yet maintain different opinions is to remember who we were baptized into: Christ. Not Paul or Apollos. Not Rob Bell or Mark Driscoll. Not Trump or Clinton. Not Democrat or Republican. Christ.
I know that as a church there are many issues we agree on. A lot. We agree on most things, I think. But there are some things we disagree on. And that’s okay.
I want to tell you right now, as your pastor, I’m glad for who each of you are. I’m glad for your convictions and beliefs. And I also want to tell you, as your pastor, that there will be times you disagree with others in the congregation, including me. I hope that we can decide now, today, that we will not let those disagreements divide us.
That we will always seek the mind of Christ.
That we will listen to on another with open ears and open hearts.
That we will trust Christ to guide us.
That we will not seek to look like anyone else, except Christ, and that in so doing we will come to be our fullest selves – of the same mind and of the same purpose as one another.
In the name of the God of unity
The Triune God