“Going to Church: What’s In It For Me?"
a sermon based upon I Corinthians 8:4-6
In his first letter to the Corinthian Church, the Apostle Paul makes the bold statement that “there is no God but One”!
“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet for us there is One God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist… and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
(I Cor. 8:5-6)
St. Paul’s claim sounds perfectly natural to us, having grown up in Christendom. Western Civilization has done its damnedest for the past 1500 years or so to drive out, stamp down, and belittle any other option than “monotheism” (the idea that there is only One God).
However, for the Corinthians – in fact for nearly all of Greek and Roman culture throughout the Empire of his day – Paul’s assertion that “there is no God but One” – namely the divinity that he calls “the Father” – would be a shocking idea.
Did Paul not know about Zeus, for goodness sake? Zeus was re-named “Jupiter” (or “Jove”) by the Romans, but the pantheon of Olympic divinities (which we today call “mythology”) was the norm. (!)
I’m sure you have heard of Mercury & Venus, Mars & Jupiter, Neptune & Pluto… if for no other reason than that we’ve named planets in our solar system after those characters of Roman religion.
Fifty years ago, we sent astronauts to the moon in a space-race mission named “Apollo”. Well, in St. Paul’s day, the Corinthians would have known that “Apollo” was the ancient Roman god of light & healing… of music, poetry & prophecy! One of the preachers that came to Corinth after Paul had moved on was named “Apollos” (I Cor. 1:12 & 3:4-6, 22 & 4:6) and Apollos’ leadership seems to have stirred up “factions” in that congregation.
Paul says that “for us there is One God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist…” Just one god? That may be a basic Jewish teaching, which St. Paul learned from his mother and which was reinforced when he went through his training in Jewish Law at the Temple in Jerusalem – but it was a “foreign concept” to the Greeks in Corinth and to the rest of the Roman Empire.
There were huge Temples dedicated to those divinities for whom our “planets” are named. Jupiter, for example (by Jove!), was the supreme deity of the Roman pantheon, who ruled the heavens and the weather. Pluto is the name the Romans gave to Hades, who maintained the realm of death. Mars was the god of war – and Venus (or Aphrodite) was the goddess of love and beauty, the goddess of gardens and spring! Mercury was the ancient Roman god who served as messenger of the gods (which is why Mercury is depicted with wings on his head and wings on his heels, carrying the winged caduceus of medical science) – as a herald, Mercury was the god of eloquence, of commerce, and of thievery! And who could ever forget Neptune (carrying his “trident” pitchfork) who was the god of the sea.
Two thousand years of reading St. Paul’s letters in churches has made his radical monotheism – the idea that there is only One God, namely “the Father” of our Lord Jesus Christ – quite mainstream… (!) almost boring, in fact, when you hold it up against the dynamic set of divinities that populated the Acropolis in Athens or the Pantheon in Rome.
While Judaism insisted that there was only One God in Israel – the God who was revealed in the Bible, who called Abraham and Sarah to start a new nation, and who sent Moses to free the slaves and to give them Torah Law – that idea had only been for the Jews. What the Apostle Paul is doing in today’s text is to apply that idea to all people, whether you were born a Jew or you were not. The idea that there is only one God became a part of St. Paul’s core doctrine.
“Although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth” he writes to the Corinthian Christians, “as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” – yet
for us there is One God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist… and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
With those words, the stage was set for the institutional Church (some three hundred years later) to claim to be speaking for that One & Only True God – the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ -- and (under penalty of Roman Law) no other theological options were to be allowed.
When Constantine made Christianity the “official” religion of the Roman Empire, he asked the ruling elders and bishops of the many churches of that day to compile a set of doctrines which would define for the Emperor what it meant to be “Christian”. The result was called a “creed” -- from the Latin “credo”, meaning “I believe”. You see, if there is only One God, and there was now an official set of beliefs that a person must hold about that God, all other options were called “heresies.”
The word “heresy” (by the way) is simply the Greek verb meaning “to choose.” The principle of monotheism (one god, in place of the many gods) allowed the Empire to establish One Church, One Way, enforced by centralized edict. Anyone who chose a different approach was branded a “heretic” and silenced. (!)
I am sure that St. Paul had not intended -- by disparaging the multiple divinities of the ancient world as “so-called gods” -- to pave the way for a centralized, politicized, hierarchical, institutional Church to come to power, but that’s what happened… eventually.
When I speak about “Church” – as I will do for the next several weeks in my Sunday sermons – I do so as a Congregational Minister. What that means is that I’m not speaking about the institutional and creedal churches like the Roman Catholic Vatican, or the Lutherans, Episcopalians, or Orthodox traditions.
For the UCC, the basic unit of the church is the local congregation… the gathered people: us here. It’s not our denomination, with its national office in Cleveland, on whose behalf we are collecting today’s “Neighbors In Need” offering. No. Because “congregations” are “autonomous”, we don’t have to take that offering if we choose not to. We relate to other churches on a voluntary basis. We choose what we want to emphasize by way of mission in our community. We own our own property and hire (& fire) our ministers. We cooperate and collaborate with other congregations in order to be more accountable and effective, but that’s by our choice. So, I repeat, for the Congregationalist: the basic meaning of the word “church” is the local congregation.
The second meaning of the word “Church” refers to the collective experience of all Christians all over the world and throughout time since Jesus founded this movement in his day.
In the United Church, we take seriously Jesus’ prayer: “That they may all be One.” (John 17:20-21) Every baptized Christian in every denomination (& “non-denominational” as some Evangelicals like to call themselves) are our sisters & brothers in the faith as they, like us, try to follow Jesus, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. In that regard, there is only One Church, whose head is Jesus Christ.
Next week I’ll be in Kalamazoo at the Michigan Conference UCC Annual Meeting. (Rev. Keith Titus and Rev. Ginny Titus will be our guest ministers leading worship here.) When I am in that setting, it is still the Church that is meeting -- to confer, to associate, to celebrate, to collaborate, to encourage, to equip one another for ministry. But there is no “power over” us as a local church, no hierarchy implied. Each “setting” of the church – the local congregation, the association, the conference, and the national offices – are respected as equals.
When I come back from the Michigan Conference, I’ll talk a bit more about our 850,000 member denomination, and why I think it is good for society in general to have churches like ours.
In that sermon (on Oct. 20), I will reflect on what I think churches do for our culture in general. But we have to admit that times are a-changing! Many local churches do not attract families like they used to; young adults in particular have little use for churches like ours. As our number of members decline and people in the pews grow older, we might say we are “shrinking and wrinkling”!
The Sunday after that, I’ll have been on a mid-week retreat with the focus on understanding people who say they are “spiritual, but not religious” – folks who have no religious preference (“none of the above”) or who have tried a church or two and decided to have nothing more to do with Christianity (the “I’m done with it” crowd). I’ll talk about that on Oct. 27 – the day we welcome new members!
I’ve been putting thought into what it means to “Be the Church” in today’s culture. I believe that people have the right to choose to go to church, or choose not to. What we’ve got to find is some way to tell people why we would rather go to church than play golf on Sunday morning. Oh, yeah, we can know God and we can serve God without necessarily coming to worship… so why do we come?
I think people appreciate their local church for very “personal” reasons. We have experienced its value first-hand. In other words, “church” is not important primarily because of what it does for “others” – what it does “in general” for society – even such good things as our annual Neighbors In Need offering, or helping the Cub Scouts raise funds through a Taco Dinner, or volunteering to help unload a semi-truck full of food to be given away on Oct. 19.
Those social actions for the betterment of our community are all well and good, but for many people, the significance of belonging to a Church is (as I put it in my sermon title): “What’s in it for me?” -- “WIIF me!” is not a put-down or “snarky” attitude about being “selfish”. It is a testimony to the importance that a person puts on being a part of a Christian community. (!) The church feeds our soul like the loaf that we broke for the communion service a moment ago: although we are many individual parts, the Church is like “One Loaf” which all of us “take and eat”; we partake as a community, as a communion, or, (to change the metaphor) we are a gathered Body for which Jesus Christ is our “head”.
That “abstract” notion of a common Loaf (or a Body of Christ) puts on flesh-&-blood when we experience Church as “supportive of my life”, or as “helping me with my problems”, or “feeding my unique needs at this time in my life”, and (perhaps even) “satisfying me”.
For many people, that is the bottom line. While what the Church does for the larger society is necessary and good for the flourishing of all, ultimately people become active in local churches because of “what’s in it for me”: a very personal decision, relationship, belonging.
The Mythology Class that Ginny Titus has been leading these last four weeks pointed out that every human society (from Cave- dwelling days of hunter-gatherer tribes, through horticultural gardening people, to agriculture, to industrial, to modern post-industrial technologically-advanced urban societies) have certain religious practices and rituals that support the rhythms of daily life from its beginning to its end. Many of the services and rituals in our Churches revolve around the movement of human beings from birth to death.
Some people think of the Church as a place for marrying… and for burying. They would not feel “married” without a church wedding, or at least a Minister or Priest’s “Blessing” on their union. And they would not ever consider having a family member “interred” without the blessing of the Church accompanying their burial. These people may ignore the Church at all other times in their lives, but these moments are somehow essential. They want the church’s blessing, sacrament, or ceremony to mark important milestones in a person’s life.
On Saturday, Oct. 19, I will baptize Cindy & Jim Straley’s grandson Levi in Barksdale Chapel. (You are welcome to attend, if you like.) Infant baptism -- or as some Churches call it: a child’s “dedication” -- marks the beginning of a person’s life’s journey. Along the way, we offer programs of Christian education and Spiritual nurture to help instill in that child a sense of self-worth in God’s eyes and “belonging” to a larger family than one’s birth-relatives. When they come of age, we ask the young adult to “confirm” their baptism and we welcome them as full “members” of the congregation.
For many people, Churches exist primarily as a place for them to mark a birth, a marriage, and a death. In other words, when they are “hatched, matched, and dispatched.” (!) For them, that’s all they want. That’s “what’s in it” for them. And we do what we can to make that happen here in Alpena, regardless of a person’s background or lifestyle. We say: “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here!” and we mean it. Come as you are! You are welcome at the table, part of the communion, part of the family. And then, beyond that, whatever else you need, we’ll do it, if we can. You know what you’re looking for; that’s what’s in it for you.