In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
When I was a wee boy, television used to close down at night. And in central Scotland, the end of the night on STV was marked with a 5 minute epilogue known as Late Call, in which a clergyman, or some other worthy, churchy person, would offer a wee thought for the evening. I seem to recall that once or twice our own local minister did a week of Late Calls, which was quite exciting, in a small town kind of way!
All-night TV killed off the epilogue. Yet Late Call still survives in a very different form- on the internet. On You Tube, and you can find parodies of Late Call by that wonderful Glasgow comic actor, Rikki Fulton. For many years, Hogmanay TV wasn’t complete without Scotch and Wry and Rikki Fulton’s end-of-year address to the nation as the perpetually depressed Rev I M Jolly in Last Call.
The Rev Jolly was, of course, anything but. He was a wonderful creation, lugubrious, deadpan, and looking as though he having a miserable time of it. In his very first outing, he sets the tone as he mans to go on. Beginning with a weary ‘Hullo’ he asks the viewers, ‘What sort of day have you had? Has it been a good day? Has it been happy for you? Did something wonderful happen to you, like your train coming in on time?’. And then he goes on to tell us, ‘For myself, I’ve had a helluva day!’
At the risk of sounding like the Rev I M Jolly, I can tell you that I had a bit of a week last week. There was a lot happening. There was a lot of stress, and difficult situations to deal with. To cap it all- and this will sound like an I M Jolly punchline- the central heating packed in. We’re getting a new boiler on Monday. But I can’t be so depressed, because many of you helped out during the week, and I can tell you that the manse family are very grateful for all your care and concern.
Rikki Fulton created laughter out of being miserable, which was a wonderfully Scottish thing to do. But too often, when we get stressed or down, we can become negative. We start blaming others for our problems. We become irritable or angry. Our relationships suffer. We are not at our best. Or at least, I know I can get like that.
One again this Sunday, we hear Paul writing to the quarrelsome church at Corinth. Paul diagnoses their problem in what might seem to us to be a strange way. For he draws a contrast between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘worldly’. He maintains that Christian people, under the influence of the Spirit of God, ought to be different, and to think and act differently from everyone else. For Christians are people who believe that the universe is governed by a loving God. We believe that that in Jesus Christ, God has come into the world, and shared our human life. We believe that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection makes it possible for us to be friends of God, wiping away our sin, setting us free from guilt. How can we not be different from people who do not know, or believe, these things?
So when the people in Corinth split their church into factions, and argue with one another, they fail to be as they ought to be. Instead of showing that they are influenced by the Spirit of God, they seem to show all the worst traits of the ‘worldly’, that is, those who do not know about God through Jesus. So Paul writes,
When there is jealousy among you and you quarrel with one another, doesn’t this prove that you belong to this world, living by its standards? When one of you says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos”—aren’t you acting like worldly people?’.
He’s really saying that acting like this, they are not really acting like people who know Christ and who are influence by the Spirit of Christ.
If the Corinthians were really people of the ‘Spirit’, says Paul, he could talk to them seriously about these things. But they are still held back by ‘the world’- the all-too-human attitudes which make them quarellsome and irritable with one another. In exasperation with them, Paul calls them babies: ‘I had to talk to you as though you belonged to this world, as children in the Christian faith. I had to feed you milk, not solid food, because you were not ready for it.’ For Paul, the arguments, the factionalism, the personality cults among the Corinthians is proof that they are not really very spiritual- that they haven’t quite reached Christian maturity.
This is terribly ironic, because, as I’ve said in previous weeks, what the Corinthians prided themselves on was that they thought they were very spiritual. They were a church with a lot of gifted people. Paul knows that they have been blessed (1.7); there are inspired teachers, preachers and even miracle-workers among them (12.28-29). But they’re too proud of themselves, and that’s causing divisions and quarrels. Those divisions and quarrels are proof, says Paul, that they aren’t really so spiritual after all. ‘When there is jealousy among you and you quarrel with one another, doesn’t this prove that you belong to this world, living by its standards?’
It’s a question which could equally be put to us today. When life’s hard, when things are stressful, when life isn’t easy- when we want to say, ‘I’ve had a helluva week’- it’s easy to become irritable, to fall out with friends, to speak harshly to other people, and for jealousies and fall-outs to happen. But we know, don’t we, in our heart of hearts, that when we do so, we fail, in some sense, as Christians.
I was watching a documentary recently about one of my musical heroes, Johann Sebastian Bach. We do not have a lot of information about his life, but we do have a few letters, and throughout his life he complains about how other people make life difficult for him. He certainly had to up with a lot. In Leipzig, his church employers housed him in a tiny room in a boys’ school. There, surrounded by noisy dormitories, he had to produce new music every Sunday. Somehow he created church cantatas and passions which are some of the most profound music ever written. How he did it in those conditions is impossible to fathom. I can understand why Bach blamed other people for the difficulties of his life. But it was a bit of a disappointment, I admit, to discover that the person whom I consider to be the greatest ever composer of music for the church was such a grump. Yet the music makes up for it!
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is calling us to what seem almost impossible standards. And yet his advice is sound. He’s really talking about anger, and what can happen when it gets the better of us. He reminds his listeners of the old laws- if you commit murder, you’ll be brought to trial (recall, of course, that most murders are committed in a fit of rage). Jesus takes this idea and sharpens it- even if you are only angry, you deserve to go to court, to be put on trial:
But now I tell you: if you are angry with your brother you will be brought to trial, if you call your brother ‘You good-for-nothing!’ you will be brought before the Council, and if you call your brother a worthless fool you will be in danger of going to the fire of hell.
Harsh words, startling words. Jesus is almost saying that being angry, that lashing out verbally, is as bad as committing murder. ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, But names will never hurt me’, says the old saying. Jesus disagrees. He knows that words can hurt and wound, and sometimes those wounds take longer to heal than mere flesh wounds. It’s said that many people who would enjoy singing don’t do so because, when they were a child, someone- a grumpy teacher perhaps- told them that they cannot sing. And so a life is blighted- in a small way, perhaps. It’s really hard to take something back once you’ve said it- like trying to push toothpaste back into a tube.
So, don’t get into arguments, says Jesus. And if you have, fixing things is really, really important. Even more important than worshipping God.
[I]f you are about to offer your gift to God at the altar and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, go at once and make peace with your brother, and then come back and offer your gift to God.
Imagine we enforced that? Imagine we didn’t let you into church on Sunday until you had made up with anyone you’d fallen out with?
Jesus gives another example- don’t let your anger so overwhelm you that you can’t find a way to settle before it all gets out of hand: ‘If someone brings a lawsuit against you and takes you to court, settle the dispute while there is time, before you get to court. Once you are there, you will be turned over to the judge, who will hand you over to the police, and you will be put in jail. There you will stay, I tell you, until you pay the last penny of your fine’. Solve your arguments, fix your relationships, don’t let things fester, and try not to get angry in the first place.
These chapters of Matthew’s Gospel- the Sermon on the Mount- have been much discussed over the centuries. Some have suggested that Jesus’ teaching here is simply too hard. They call them ‘counsels of perfection’- telling us how we ought to live. But, they say, we’ll never manage that all the time. These are just examples of what we have to aim for. But as I looked at these words again this week, it seemed to me that they were just airy-fairy perfectionism, but hard-headed, sound advice. I wonder if Jesus had seen this happening?- a man taken to court, and because he won’t settle informally, he ends up in jail.
And it’s good practical advice to not allow anger to get the better of us. Count to ten. Remember how important your relationships with other people are. Asked what the most important commandment is, Jesus said we were to love God with heart, soul and mind. But another is like it, he added- love your neighbour as you love yourself. Even if you have to leave off worshipping your God, make sure you make things right with your brother or sister.
Paul despaired of the Corinthians, blessed with so many spiritual gifts, but somehow failing to quite put behind the ways of the world. He were, he said, ‘children in the Christian faith’. But if they were children, they were Christian children. Paul may have been harsh towards them, but he didn’t deny that they were Christians. And that reminds us of an important fact. If we do let our anger get the better of us, if we do mess up our relationships with others, if other Christians exasperate us as the Corinthians exasperated Paul- they- and we- are nevertheless ‘in Christ’. ‘You belong to Christ’, says Paul to the Corinthians later in this chapter (3.23).
We may fail- we will fail. But it makes good sense to keep our anger under control, to make sure our frustration doesn’t spill over into angry words or pointless quarrels. But we belong to Christ- and we belong with one another. The Corinthians had named their factions after their church leaders, including Paul himself and Apollos. But Paul says he and Apollos are like workers sent by a landowner out into the fields. ‘After all, who is Apollos? And who is Paul? We are simply God’s servants’. It’s not Paul and Apollos who matter- it’s God who matters, the one who sent them.
We may have favourite church leaders, or favourite church buildings, or favourite beliefs, or favourite hymns, or favourite ways of worshipping. But all these are things which are secondary. Paul and Apollos were not important- God is the one who is important, for it’s God on whose behalf they did the work. Quite often our arguments are about things which are of secondary importance. That’s why sometimes we should keep silent, count to ten before we speak, and remember who we are- whose we are. We belong to Christ. And as Paul says of himself and Apollos, ‘we are partners working together for God’.
As I have said before about this Corinthian letter, it’s a reminder to us that there’s no such thing as a perfect church. But it’s full of insights, for if we listen closely to this text, we see ourselves, and our church, reflected in it. For Paul, out of his experience, shows us how to emulate Christ. Like Jesus, he warns against the dangers of anger, and the importance of keeping our relationships on the right track. There is much wisdom here, wisdom which was born, not just out of Pauls’ faith in Christ, but also out of the hardships and difficulties we know he put up with. For in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:
Five times I was given the thirty-nine lashes by the Jews; three times I was whipped by the Romans; and once I was stoned. I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent twenty-four hours in the water. In my many travels I have been in danger from floods and from robbers, in danger from my own people and from Gentiles; there have been dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and dangers from false friends. There has been work and toil; often I have gone without sleep; I have been hungry and thirsty; I have often been without enough food, shelter, or clothing. And not to mention other things, every day I am under the pressure of my concern for all the churches. When someone is weak, then I feel weak too; when someone is led into sin, I am filled with distress (2 Corinthians 11.24-29).
There must have been times when even St Paul wanted to say, ‘For myself, I’ve had a helluva day!’ And yet, to the church at Rome, he could write these words which remind us, when we’re tempted to get angry, that Christ is on our side:
Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death?… there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord’
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo