Building Walls

Building Walls

2 Corinthians 2:1-12

by Daniel Harrell

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Wall this week. It’s been hard not to. Depending on which side of the aisle you sit, it’s become quite the symbol for so many things: protection and power, power and principle, principle and passion, passion and privilege, privilege and prejudice, prejudice and paranoia, paranoia and petulance and whatever else might start with the letter P. Without even being built, the Wall has already reinforced a seemingly impenetrable divide in our country and consciousness. This divide has risen beyond the ideological and political: the partial government shutdown, now the longest in history, is making so many people miserable. Hope you’re not flying to Florida next week.

The whole thing is stoking so much anger—as if our country wasn’t mad enough already. Cables news and social media, late night talk shows and websites, arguments around family tables over the holidays, broken friendships and marriages, so much of it fueled by zeal that borders on the religious. Churches may be on the decline in America, but our religious drive as people remains fervent. Science and psychology show how humans are wired for faith—we are natural born believers in something. And as pundit Andrew Sullivan puts it, if organized church and classic Christianity aren’t doing it for us, we’re going to find some other outlet for our religious impulse, some other cause or cult or charismatic leader as a replacement.

In America we see this on the left and the right. Sullivan writes how in the social-justice cult on the left, faith is in the dogma of progress. Heresy gets fiercely censured like apostasy of old with confessions of white privilege sounding a lot like vestiges of original sin. Christians get born again; social activists get woke. On the right side, conservatives profess nominal Christianity but demonstrate everyday how far behind they’ve left it. Leaders twist Christian faith into tribal identity and loyalty tests toward a demigod who can do no wrong. Wealth and nationalism are embraced as core goods, contrary to every teaching of Jesus.

Author Charles Duhigg asserts in an Atlantic cover story that America has always been an angry nation. “We are a country born of revolution. Combat—on battlefields, in newspapers, at the ballot box—has been with us from the start. American history is punctuated by episodes in which aggrieved parties have settled their differences not through conversation, but with guns. And yet our political system was cleverly designed to maximize the beneficial effects of anger. The Bill of Rights guarantees that we can argue with one another in the public square, through a free press, and in open court. The separation of powers forces our representatives in government to arrive at policy through disagreement, negotiation, and accommodation. Even the country’s mythology is rooted in anger: The American dream is, in a sense, an optimistic reframing of the discontent felt by people unwilling to accept the circumstances life has handed them.”

Here’s the thing: Anger works. It is “one of the densest forms of communication. It conveys more information more quickly than almost any other type of emotion.” Scientists who look at the brains of people who are expressing anger find they look very similar to people who are experiencing happiness. 

We have it on record that Jesus got mad—at hypocritical Pharisees, at Temple moneychangers and at a fruitless fig tree. The Old Testament prophets from Moses to Malachi let loose against the Israelites constantly. The Psalmists shook their mad fist at God. Job expressed honest anger against God too and was called blameless. I get angry. So do you. A lot of you get angry at me. “Anger does an excellent job at forcing us to listen to and confront problems we might otherwise avoid.” But here’s the other thing: for anger to do its job, at some point, it must stop. Ordinary anger can rightly deepen into moral indignation, a powerful force for good. But unchecked and unchanneled, this same indignation perverts into a thirst for revenge and violence, bending anger into one of the seven deadly sins.

Here in 1 Corinthians, which we’re going to troll during Epiphany, the apostle Paul is irritated with his church plant. As born-again believers, the Corinthians experienced the thrill of victory in Jesus, but weren’t so crazy about the demands of discipleship. They liked unwrapping their spiritual gifts and took pride in their access and privilege before God, but didn’t really want to do the hard work of mercy and goodness and grace in line with ethics of Jesus.

A lot of this morning’s passage is a little confusing. It’s difficult to understand exactly what Paul’s means by mystery and the varieties of wisdom? Who are the mature and “the rulers of this age doomed to perish”? And what about God’s secrets decreed from the beginning of time for our glory and now known to us through the Spirit who searches the depths of everything including the very fathoms of God? I was speaking to the Middle Schoolers on Wednesday about the cohesion between Christian faith and science, attempting to show the connection between the ways of God and the behavior of quantum particles and genetic mutation—you know—words like quantum indeterminacy and entanglement and evolutionary symbiosis. Afterwards, one middle schooler boldly delivered her verdict: “You make no sense.”

Paul smartly dispensed with the lofty language—no big words or smart-sounding talk. Instead, “I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” He wasn’t scared of the Corinthians or nervous about middle schoolers; no, his fear and trembling was in regard to the enormity of his calling from God. Paul was a border-crosser and a wall-breaking missionary, called to preach the Jewish gospel to Gentile outsiders. He came to Corinth in weakness: without pedigree or credential as far as the Corinthians were concerned. All he brought was Holy Spirit power and his word: an offensive message about you being a sinner in desperate need of salvation and how God’s come to your rescue by dying like a criminal.

Somehow it took. In the two hundred centuries since, Christianity has transformed billions of lives for the better, it’s shaped benevolent cultures, formed just governments, performed social good, fueled moral conviction and righted so many wrongs. A recent, deeply researched and confirmed study by Robert Woodberry at the University of North Carolina, demonstrates historically and statistically how Protestant missionaries who likewise crossed borders and broke down walls for the sake of the gospel “heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracy around the world. They were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organizations, and colonial reforms, solutions to poverty, creating the conditions that made stable democracy more likely.” Want a blossoming democracy today? According to the data the solution is simple—send a 19th-century missionary.

Andrew Sullivan concurs, “It is Christianity that came to champion the individual conscience against the collective, which paved the way for individual rights. It is in Christianity that the seeds of Western religious toleration were first sown. Christianity is the only monotheism that seeks no sway over Caesar, that is content with the ultimate truth over the immediate satisfaction of power.”

Of course, Christians are complicit in plenty of historical evil too: European imperialism, cultural destruction, racial subjugation, ruthless colonialism and slavery. You’re familiar with the conversations I’ve had with internationals and others about the name of our church—Colonial Church. While for us it hearkens back to early American congregationalism, for others it implies abusive power and oppression. I’ve asked our West African friends who meet here to worship on Saturdays how they explain our name to their African friends. They say it has its challenges. Thankfully they speak French so at least it sounds better.

At the same time, our West African friends were so delighted to be part of our family Christmas Eve service where we affirmed God speaks neither French nor English, nor German or Swedish or Swahili or Kikongo, but only the language of love. Show up any Sunday night and you’ll experience much hipper worship at Upper Room, another congregation who gathers to praise God in this building. All together we’re our own colony of heaven, transcending the differences that could otherwise divide us.

It’s popularly noted how so many Christians voted for our President despite his blatant departures from Christian faith and practice. According to surveys, it turns out most of this Christian base doesn’t go to church. The further out you reside on the spectrum—left or right—the madder you are and the less likely you are to gather with God’s people to worship. Paul always addresses persons in the context of congregations because only together in relationship can we truly be the body of Christ, surrendered and anchored to the Spirit, tamed by grace and our perspective expanded to see with the eyes of God. It takes a continual immersion in humility and mercy to learn to love mercy.

Here’s the Hebrew word for mercy (רִחַ֣ם). If you know anything about Biblical Hebrew, you know that it doesn’t have any vowels. A group of rabbis came along later and added dashes and dots as vowels later to help distinguish one word from another. Change few dots, and the same mercy becomes the synonym womb, an intentional connection to connote how mercy is akin to the ferocious devotion mothers feel for their children, along with the pain such devotion entails entails. Paul compares childbirth to the love and mercy he feels for God’s children. I should probably add that if you change the dots once more, mercy becomes the word vulture, proving once again how easy it is for our passions to pervert.

Our safeguard is the Holy Spirit whom Paul declares we have received from God that we might fully understand all God has given us. Again, Paul’s focus is on our spiritual life together. We’ve adopted as our strategic focus: “cultivate a deeply relational community” which everyone seems to like. The second half of our strategic focus reads, “cross the gaps that divide” whether among us or with others or elsewhere in society. There’s not as much agreement on this. But community and cross are like mercy and womb: interconnected words for Christians. You really can’t have one without the other. Paul keeps it simple: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Not mangers and angels, not miracles and parables, not ten commandments, fruits of the spirit or even the empty tomb. Ours is a religion where huge crosses hang on the wall because mercy is nonnegotiable. Jesus died on a cross for your sins and you didn’t deserve it. Theology calls the cross the passion of Jesus, a righteous anger that’s righteous because its endgame is the reconciliation of all things; a fierce power that taps into long-suffering motherlike mercy for the cause of new birth. 

It takes practice to live under the cross. Each Sunday you’re invited to pass the peace to your neighbor—every introvert’s nightmare. It’s a practice that reaches back centuries because crossing gaps and making peace takes practice. The idea is that if you show up at church mad at your neighbor, you get to leave reconciled. Do it enough and you become peacemakers whom Jesus blesses and calls the children of God.

It’s not enough to go through the motions of mercy. Jesus says it has to come from your heart. Writer Anne Lamott compares faking grace to “drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Martin Luther King Jr. called it “adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Dawn and I don’t agree about everything. Most married people don’t. We get angry and argue and fight. But we’re committed to trying to listen and understand and compromise and make up. And we try to always do it in front of our daughter because we want her to understand it’s OK to get mad as long as the energy finds resolution. The same with us as pastors on staff. We get mad at each other and get emotional now and then. But we’re Christians committed to grace and love and so we talk it out and pray and make peace. And of course we pray the same for us all. In Christ we can cross every gap that divides us even if it kills us to do it—which really is the point. As Paul famously confessed elsewhere: “I have been crucified with Christ and no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” 

It doesn’t make any sense. If your plan is to save the world as God, why die to do it? “None of the rulers of this age understood this,” Paul argues, because if they had, they would have never gone along with the plan and killed Jesus. “But as it is written, ‘“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” We’re not exactly sure who Paul’s quoting here. The first part comes from the prophet Isaiah, but Paul appears to add the last line about love. It’s a set up, no doubt, for all that’s coming later in this letter. Eventually we’re going to get to 1 Corinthians 13 and Paul’s magisterial exaltation of love as the spirit of Christ enabling us to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things.” Love never ends.”

Note how Paul’s last line doesn’t read “for those whom God loves.” That’s the given. Instead we read, “for those who love God.” Paul puts an onus on us to respond—to love God and our neighbor—the two greatest commandments according to Jesus. Scroll down in the New Testament and Jesus’ brother James says the two are really the same thing: if you don’t love your neighbor you don’t really love God.

We’ve read and heard and experienced firsthand what our hometown newspaper has labeled “the unchurching of America.” I get it. Who wants to come to a place where you’re told you’re not always awesome, but a sinner who still needs salvation and needs to forgive and make peace and not let the sun go down on your anger? Who wants to hear how God loves you and shows you mercy and fills you with Jesus so you can be different? We’ve determined as Christians to know nothing more important than Jesus Christ and him crucified on a cross for our sake. It doesn’t make any sense. Grace is offensive. To forgive is an outrage. Reconciliation feels like a death sentence and a sure admission of weakness. Mercy hurts like a mother. Cross the gaps that divide us? Sweet Jesus, crucify me now.