Ask people to make a list of the things they value most highly in life,
and, chances are, that the word independence will come right at the top.
Indeed, if there is one quality human beings prize above every thing else
it's our independence of action. What's more, the older we get, the
more important it becomes to us.
Knowing what we have long known about the human character, it is curious
that Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychiatry, should have postulated
that sex was our fundamental imperative. For however powerful the
instinct to reproduce might be, it is nothing in comparison with our yearning
for independence. First and foremost, we strive to retain our freedom
I draw your attention to this because all of the lessons appointed in
the lectionary for today deal with issues that directly arise from our
all too human thirst for independence. The fundamental question they
address is: "Who wields authority in the Church?"
This is the question St. Paul is addressing in today's Communion
Epistle. It was written at a time Paul facing what amounted to a
coup d'etat in the Corinthian Church. It was a church particularly
dear to his heart. He had nurtured from its earliest days when it
was just a few individuals meeting in private ñ rather like St.
Stephen's at the very beginning ñ to a large, dynamic and rapidly-growing
Once its survival seemed assured, Paul moved on to found other churches.
Not unnaturally, soon after he moved new leaders appeared on the scene
to serve the congregation. It is these leaders that Paul is criticizing
in his letter ñ and he doesn't mince his words. Listen to
"Ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.For ye suffer,
if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of
you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face." Tough stuff!
If you consult a modern Bible commentaries on the subject, it is probable
that you will find Paul's dispute with the new leaders of the Corinthian
Church portrayed as one of those awful internal power struggles that all
too frequently afflict churches, newly-planted and old-established.
They describe it as a clash of visions. You know the sort of thing...
The old rector leaves and the new broom arrives and starts making changes...
The old rector and his followers object to what's being done and, next
thing you know, a battle royal is under way...
If that were simply the case there would be no point in appointing this
passage as the Epistle for today. If it were simply a clash of visions...
If it were simply a question of "my way is better than your way..." or
"I'm the apostle and you'll do what I tell you..." If this is all it amounted
to there would be no point in recalling this episode as anything other
than a blot on Paul's otherwise distinguished career.
What makes this passage of the epistle so important is that it makes
it crystal clear to us who is boss in the Church. The point that
Paul is making is that men do not rule the church; God does. It is
not the opinion of men that counts ñ even the opinion of exalted
men, like bishops, presiding bishops and Archbishops of Canterbury.
It is God's opinion that counts. And that is all.
Most of us have little difficulty in accepting the validity of such
a proposition... in theory, at least. The problems arise only
when we start putting it into practice. And it is then that our passion
makes itself evident. After all, when it comes down to it, God's
methods aren't very practical, are they? I mean it's hard to take some
of His ideas very seriously ñ for example, His idea that Christian
Church leaders must be "the servant of all."
If you spend all your time acting as a servant, how can you act as leader?
How can you expect to be treated like the boss if you're forced to act
like a skivvy? Nothing gets done if you behave like a dog's body.
Somebody has to take control. Somebody has to lead. This "servant
of all" thing is a very beautiful ideal, but in the real world, somebody's
got to be in charge.
There is one major problem with this way of thinking: It is the fact
that we aren't in charge of the Church, Jesus Christ is. This means
that His opinions count, not our's. What He says goes. What
we think is entirely irrelevant. Our's is not to reason why.
Our's is but to carry out His orders.
That said, America's churches have not been doing things Jesus Christ's
way for a very long time. And it isn't simply a question of folks
trying to persuade their fellow Christians that God didn't say what the
Bible says He said, or mean what the Bible says He meant ñ from
it. All of us are in the business of micro ñ managing God.
How many of us, for example, take Jesus seriously when it comes to Church
management? Not many, I'll warrant. Jesus is quite impractical when
it comes to church management ñ just look at the parable of the
talents. The people who get rewarded are the folks who take big risks.
The guy who gets beaten is is the conservative who is careful with his
These days parsons are admired more for their management skills than
their spiritual qualities. But if Jesus had wanted His Church run
according to business principles He would have called to His ministry people
like Adam Smith, Commodore Vanderbilt, John D. Rockerfeller, Henry
Ford and Andrew Carnegie.
But He didn't do that. He called decidedly unbusiness like people:
Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel, not to mention apostles like
Peter and Andrew, and James and John, who walked away from a perfectly
good fishing business to do His bidding.
If God had wanted His Church run our way, He would have had us write
the policy manual rather than do the job Himself. But He chose to
reveal His word not in Keynes' "General Theory" or Adam Smith's "The Wealth
of Nations" or Das Kapital, but in that decidedly inconvenient tome called
"Inconvenient" rightly described the Bible, because, whenever we take
time to consult it, we discover that things tend to go badly wrong when
adopt our methods in place of God's. The price the children of Israel
paid for declining to do things God's way is that they lost the independence
they valued so much.
Ironically, the only way we can keep our independence is to surrender
it to God. God, you see, knows better than we do. When He tells
us something, it is worth paying attention to Him because He created us
and, thus, it stand to reason that He knows rather more about what makes
us tick than we do.
We don't like listening to Him, of course, because of our taste for
independence, but if we'd just give His ideas a chance, we'd discover,
much to our surprise, that doing things His way makes our lives infinite
This is what Jesus meant when He told us (Matthew's 10:39): "He that
findeth his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life for my sake
shall find it." The paradox is that if we surrender our lives to Christ,
we shall live more happily, more abundantly, than we could ever imagine.
And that, after all, is what life's all about. AMEN.
To the Only Wise God, Our Saviour, be Glory and Majesty, Dominion and
Power, Both Now and Forever. Amen.