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St. Paul’s & St. Stephens – Epiphany 2 – 1/15/2023

To listen to scripture is to overhear a conversation between God and God’s people at a time and place other than our own with the conviction that God will use scripture to speak to us in our time and place. Thus, we gather this morning, in the season after the Epiphany–Epiphany means revelation, manifestation–with the expectation that the Holy Spirit will work in and through this ancient biblical text and reveal and manifest something to us here and now.

Let’s begin with the Gospel and that short but powerful invitation….Come and See. The invitation to come and see is an invitation to leave our comfortable vantage points, and dare to believe that just maybe, we have been limited and wrong in our certainties about each other, about God, and about the world.  To come and see is to approach all of life with a grace-filled curiosity, to believe that we are holy mysteries to each other, worthy of further exploration.  To come and see is to enter into the joy of being deeply seen and deeply known, and to have the very best that lies hidden within us called out and called forth.

Of course, seeing is always selective.  We have choices when it comes to what we look for, what we prioritize, what we name, and what we call out in each other.  The selves we present to the world are layered and messy, and it takes both love and patience to sift through those layers and find what lies at the core.  But there is great power in that sifting, too.  Something healing and holy happens to us when we are deeply seen, known, named, and accepted.

Today’s Gospel story is not just about our seeing; at its core it is about what Jesus sees.  It’s a story about Jesus’s way of looking, and about what becomes possible when we dare to experience his gaze.  Jesus looks at John’sdisciples, and calls forth their hunger, their curiosity, their hope, and their trust.  He looks at Simon and sees Peter, the Rock.  He looks at us and sees what lies beneath the fumbling, the fear, the mixed motives, and the doubts.

Each of us, in other words, benefits from a second look, and a third, and a fourth.  To offer that second look, that deeper, kinder, and more penetrating look, is grace.  It is the gracious vision of Jesus, and it is the vision we are called to practice in a world that too often judges and condemns at first glance.  Is there anything, after all, that feels lonelier than the experience of being unseen, misunderstood, and prematurely dismissed?  And is there anything more life-giving than the experience of being seen for who we really are, deep down beneath the fragile defenses we hold up out of fear?

This was some the difficulty for the church in Corinth. Now, we don’t know for sure all the problems that plagued First Church Corinth. But, reading between the lines of Paul’s letter, we know that here was a divided congregation. Our ears should perk up because we also, for any of this congregation’s virtues, have some divisions. We are a congregation where different folks have different perspectives on the gospel. We have varying opinions about our congregational priorities. We gather here today from assorted backgrounds and differing experiences. So perhaps it’s some comfort to know that differences, diversities of perspectives and beliefs, have been present in the church from the very first–at least from around 55 B.C.E. when this letter was written.

What do you do when there are divisions and disagreements in the church? What is important to think about when you are discouraged in your discipleship? When you sincerely try to be faithful and live a good, Christian life but fall flat on your face and fail, what’s important to remember so that you can get back up and get moving in the right direction?

Let’s listen in on Paul’s opening and see if in his ancient word to them we might receive a fresh epiphany here and now. First verse: From Paul, called by God’s will to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and from Sosthenes our brother. Right here, first verse, first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians since he helped plant their congregation Paul identifies himself as called by God’s will. Paul is not a self-made Christian. (Who is?) Paul is writing to the church, giving them guidance and correction, not as a free agent or because he’s got something he needs to get off his chest. Paul writes as one who has been called, put here by God, given a job to do. His authority is not that he is smarter or better than the rest of the church; he writes to them as one who is called. Vocation.

Furthermore, Paul writes as an apostle of Jesus Christ. He is writing under a commission. (Apostle means sent.) Paul is accountable to something larger than himself–the mission of Jesus Christ. Later in this letter he will do some tough talking to the Corinthians but that’s not because he’s angry with them or that he wants power over them. He writes, not as a freelance journalist, but as one who is under orders (that’s where we get our word ordained for clergy like me) to speak in behalf of Christ.

Paul greets the church from Sosthenes our brother. This fellow disciple is not Paul’s biological kin. That’s not why he calls him brother. This man who once was a stranger to Paul, someone who is not part of Paul’s family, is now, because of Christ’s call, to be looked upon by Paul as brother. Get it? To be called by Christ as a disciple is also at the same time to be put in the church where perfect strangers are now known as your siblings. To be a Christian is to be put by God in a new family otherwise known as church.

To God’s church that is in Corinth. This isn’t St. Paul’s Church, or even the property of those who are members. This congregation is founded, sustained, and accountable to the one who made the congregation in the first place. Maybe every Sunday we ought to remind ourselves that the church, our congregation, is God’s, not mine, not yours.

That’s why it’s never enough to say, Here’s what I’m looking for in a church, or I expect my church to be… The question has got to be, What does God, who  established this church, hope for in our church? And using the question for 2023 the Bishop’s Committee came up with: Asking God…..How do we reveal by word and  action, the Good News of God in Christ.

To those who have been made holy to God in Christ Jesus, who are called to be God’s people. That’s why I can never speak with finality about my congregation, or you can say my life. By the action of God in Christ, we are owned, named, claimed. God has made us holy to God. We have been summoned, commandeered, enlisted, activated, mobilized to be God’s people.

I thank my God always for you. As a priest, that ought to be my prayer everyday, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. I didn’t create this congregation and you are not dependent upon or accountable to me. You are a gift, a gift to me and to the whole church.

And why are you called and gifted? Christ calls people to himself, forms us into his body, the church, gives us spiritual gifts, why? Paul gives answer in verse 9: You were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

That’s us. Partners with Christ on the basis of Christ’s call of us. It’s an amazing claim. The savior of the world, Emmanuel, the one whom we welcomed just a few weeks ago on Christmas as the very incarnation of God makes us partners in his work in the world. He calls us, not for spiritual privilege or easy lives free from pain and  difficulty. He calls us because he’s got work for us to do with him in his world.

Who are you? How do you explain your presence here this morning? You are here because in various and diverse ways God has put you here. We who, in our culture, are so adept at explaining our lives as the sum of our human choices and determination are surprised to discover that our lives are gifts of God, the sum of God in Christ choosing, calling us. What is expected of our congregation? To live our lives together as those who are called, congregated, and owned by God.

So, as you go about your week, if someone should ask you, How did you decide to be a member of that church? or What led you to commit to membership in that congregation? you can respond in all seriousness, I didn’t. I was put there. Amen!

Let us pray…..

Lord Jesus,

we are here today

because you have summoned us to be here.

You have found a way to call each of us

to join together in your name.

Our following you was your idea before it was ours.

You not only came to us but called each of us

before we came to or called upon you.

In our time of worship,

we are bold to pray that you would give us the gifts we need

to be faithful to you,

to live our distinctive vocations as you would have us to live.

Give us the ability to live together in this congregation

so that the world might see how you love to bring together

all kinds of people in your name.

Enable us to have the courage to join you in your work in the world. Equip us to be the faithful disciples that you deserve.

We don’t know why you called us–

considering our many weaknesses and shortcomings.

However, we know what you called us for–

to be part of your reclamation of your world,

to show the world the lives that are made possible by your grace working in the lives of ordinary people,

and thereby to glorify your name in all the earth.