January 26, 2020 / Epiphany 3 / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23
In the Same Boat
Last Tuesday it was my turn to lead the devotions for our weekly staff meeting. Since the day before was the Martin Luther King holiday, I decided I would share some memorable quotes from his speeches and sermons. As I did some research online, I was reminded what a powerful witness Dr. King was, speaking truth to our time and to all times. Dr. King was engaged with the political issues of the day, especially Civil Rights and the Vietnam war. Yet his starting point was as a Christian and a preacher of the gospel.
He was gifted at bringing the word of God to bear on current events. King’s words provide wisdom and direction for the present moment. He said: “We should be happy that Jesus did not say ‘Like your enemies.’ It is impossible to like some people. ‘Like’ is a sentimental and affectionate word. But Jesus recognized that love is greater than like.” The quote that really struck me is this one: “We may all have come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” With a simple image, King makes a profound point. However we got here, we’re together now, and we need to learn to get along. Whether our ancestors came on the Mayflower or a slave ship, we are all Americans today.
King’s words speak to the divisions which now are creating so much tension and acrimony in our nation. Americans are divided along political lines, racial lines, and economic lines. People can’t even agree on what the facts are. It would help to reduce the level of anger and resentment if everyone would recall that we are all Americans, inheritors of a great tradition of freedom and justice; that this nation belongs to all of us. And that you don’t have to like someone in order to try to get along with them.
Of course, conflict and division are not new. St. Paul had his hands full dealing with factions and controversies in the congregation he had planted in the Greek city of Corinth. Not long after Paul’s departure from Corinth, conflicts arose among those new Christians on topics ranging from marriage and sexual relations to dietary restrictions to the proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper to spiritual gifts. Some congregation members preferred the teaching of a leader named Apollos to the teaching of Paul. The disputes became quite rancorous and alarming.
Since Paul could not be there in person, he responded through his letters. Given the level of conflict among the Corinthians, it is not surprising that some of Paul’s most sublime words are addressed to them in the 13th chapter of this letter on the subject of love. Paul reminds them that without love, they are nothing.
Paul calls upon the Corinthians to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” He urges them to see past whatever seems to divide them to what it is that unites them, namely Jesus Christ and the message of his cross. Paul reminds them that what they have in common, what truly unites them, is greater than anything that threatens to divide them. Paul points to the cross of Christ as the sure sign of God’s love for all of them, and as the mysterious, yet glorious way that God has brought salvation to all who believe.
Many of the members of the Corinthian Church were Gentile converts who had little or no knowledge of the scriptures or the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. For their sake, Paul tried to keep his message simple and straightforward. For pagans in Corinth, the idea that salvation could be brought about by a man dying on a cross seemed strange, even preposterous. Paul readily admits this, saying, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing….” However, to those who believe and trust the gospel message, the cross is the saving power of God. Paul lifts up this saving message of the gospel as their true and lasting source of unity.
Dr. King’s observation that we are all in the same boat is an important reminder to the church, and to every congregation. The boat is a traditional symbol for the church. The church is the ship of salvation. Like Noah’s Ark, it is a place of sanctuary in a stormy and threatening world. There are many churches, especially in Scandinavia, where a model ship hangs from the ceiling in the worship space, reminding the congregation to stay on board together as they journey through this world.
We don’t have a model ship, but if you look at the ceiling in our old sanctuary, it looks a lot like the hull of a ship, turned upside down, right? The term used to describe the space in a church where the congregation is seated is the “nave,” from the Latin “navis,” meaning ship. (It’s the same root for the word Navy.)
The point of the symbolism is a message about unity, a message that has two implications for us as a congregation. The first is that, like the first century Church at Corinth, we need to be united in the same mind and the same purpose. We need to resist the conflicts and divisions that can disable a congregation. If that happens, all the energy gets consumed in contentious quarrels. This doesn’t mean that everyone will always agree about everything! In a community of sinners there will always be differences and disagreements. What matters is the way in which we resolve our differences, and how we pull together to support a decision once it has been made.
I am glad to be in the same boat together with all of you here at S. James. In spite of our differences, and by the grace of God, we have been able to maintain a very healthy sense of unity in our identity and our purpose. Keeping our focus on Christ and our call to follow him has fostered a strong spirit of community and enabled us to do significant ministry together.
The second implication of our unity is that we can be a sign to the wider world of the power of God’s love. We can demonstrate that people with many differences -- political, social, economic and more -- can actually get along and accomplish good things. What’s more, in these contentious times in our nation, we can serve as instruments of God’s peace, heeding the words in the beautiful prayer of St. Francis: sowing love where there is hatred, union where there is discord, and hope where there is despair.
We can remind ourselves and others that we really are in the same boat. No one deserves to be thrown overboard. Speaking harsh and bitter words is like punching holes in our own boat. As Martin Luther King said so well: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Brothers and sisters, we can be agents of Christ’s light and love in this world. We can be of one heart and mind in this holy purpose.