Create in Me a Clean Heart

Meditation on 1 Cor. 3:1-9 and Matt. 5:21-37

The Presbyterian Church of Coshocton

Feb. 16, 2020

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

       5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1-corinthians-3-9

Did you all have a good Valentine’s Day? I was all set to volunteer at the elementary school on Friday. And then it snowed! I got to school at 9 and thought, “Gee, where is everybody?” It was a 2-hour delay! I should have read my text messages before I got there. But I felt as giddy as the teachers did, probably—not because I didn’t want to go to school, but because I had the gift of 2 hours, actually more, to catch up on some things at home before I went back to school to help in the afternoon.

The first thing I did at home was go out and refill the bird feeders. They were practically empty. When I first started feeding the birds at Christmastime, I worried we wouldn’t have birds. I prayed, “Please God, send us some birds to eat our food.” And one or two would come, then disappear. I think they were all heading to John Leppla’s house down the hill!

Then a few weeks ago, something changed. I got home from church and heard screeching in the back yard. I looked out the window, and it was like a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock movie, “The Birds.” A flock of starlings had arrived to join the mix. There was all kinds of chaos and brutality at the feeders. Even the tiniest sparrows and juncos were at war with each other and the bigger birds. It was every bird for himself.

All I could think of was, “Now, children. That’s enough. Stop fighting. There’s plenty for everyone.”

Seeing the birds jealous and fighting with each other over their food made me think of the church at Corinth—the one that the Apostle Paul planted around 49-51 A.D., Apollos had watered, and the Lord had given the growth. No sooner did Paul head on to Ephesus that he heard from his friend Chloe’s household about all the bad things happening at the church in Corinth. The congregation was struggling with sin—sexual immorality, idolatry and internal strife, arguing over who was in charge.

The ancient city was located on the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow stretch of land that joins the Peloponnese to the mainland of Greece, about halfway between Athens and Sparta.  Corinth had been one of the largest and most important cities of Greece, with a population of 90,000 in 400 BC. But in 146 BC, the Romans besieged and captured it, killing the men and selling the women and children into slavery before burning the city.  Corinth remained deserted until Julius Caesar resurrected the city for Rome in 44 BC, shortly before his assassination. Corinth was rebuilt, under the Romans, as a major city in Southern Greece. In Paul’s time, the city has a large, mixed population of Romans, Greeks, and Jews, and is an important center of activities of the imperial cult, with emperors and their family members worshiped in temples as gods.

The letter we call “First Corinthians,” is really the second letter we know of that Paul wrote to the church. He references his first letter to them in First Corinthians, saying how he already told them to deal with their problems with sexual immorality and idolatry and stop their divisive behavior. So, he’s writing again and is understandably more upset than he was in the first letter, which did no good. They responded by being angry with him and not accepting his teachings or authority. They don’t want to change and be any different from the pagan society in which they live!

Paul’s message is that quarrels and divisions have to stop; they are destroying the church.  What matters is that Apollos continues to nurture their faith and that they become more mature, no longer drinking spiritual milk like infants, but eating “solid food,” as Paul says it so well. The Corinthians are acting as if what is “God’s field” or “God’s building” is just a human organization, living by the flesh and “human inclination,” he says. Stop arguing over the human leadership of the church! We are equally important and will be used by God, if we just do our part—plant and water. The Lord is responsible for the growth. Our witness is our fruitful living, turning from sin and humbly serving others as we walk with God.

Paul’s letter and Matthew’s gospel have overlapping themes. Christ teaches us how God’s children should live out our faith, in light of the good news of the Kingdom Christ ushered in. This passage from the Sermon on the Mount never fails to challenge us, as Paul’s letters challenged the Corinthians. More than likely, though, Paul would not see the spiritual fruits in the church of Corinth in his lifetime. But his teachings would be heard and heeded by generations of Christians to come. All that the Lord required of Paul was that he do his part, be guided by the Spirit to share the gospel—plant and water. As he so wisely taught us, it would be up to the Lord to give the growth.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew interprets the Ten Commandments for our daily lives. Adhering to the law against murder isn’t enough for righteous living in the Kingdom of God. We have to let go of our anger against one another and continually seek to reconcile with one another and with God. Because if we don’t have peace with our brothers and sisters in the Lord, we don’t have peace with God. “If you are offering your gift at the altar,” Christ says, “and you remember that a brother or a sister has something against YOU, leave your gift at the altar,” Christ says, “and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister and THEN come and offer your gift.” In other words, Jesus is saying, when someone has a problem with you, it isn’t just their problem. It’s your problem, too. And if you don’t deal with the problem right away in a loving way and be reconciled, it becomes a problem for the entire community of faith.

The most painful part of this passage, for me, is the reference to divorce. Jewish men were permitted to divorce their wives with a certificate since the time of Moses. Women were not permitted to divorce their husbands. Jesus is speaking up for women’s well-being, especially, when he says that divorce isn’t OK in the Kingdom of God. He isn’t saying that women or men should submit to abusive relationships. He is saying that men need to love their wives and honor the covenant of marriage.

Today’s Christians have come to accept divorce as a sign and symptom of the brokenness in this world, while at the same time, we know that divorce doesn’t fit with the abundant life God desires for us. The wounds from divorce and domestic strife are long-lasting and hurt the entire family.

Is there hope for the healing of relationships in this world?  Yes. We shouldn’t give up working for peace right where we live. But we must first acknowledge that we each have played a role in the brokenness. We have failed to love our neighbor, especially when the neighbor is a friend or family member who betrayed us. Sin begins in our hearts, as Jesus will say in Matthew 15.

Healing IS possible with persistent prayer and trusting in the power of God, present in the community of faith. God’s love IS here for us. Healing begins with each one of us seeking forgiveness, reconciliation, and recreation in Christ’s image. It starts with each of us praying, “Lord, create in me a clean heart.”

***

After starting my day with feeding hungry birds, I returned to the elementary school Friday afternoon to help with Valentine’s Day parties. I had forgotten how stirred up the children get on Valentine’s Day. And I remembered how I felt overwhelmed sometimes as a teacher on party days—wanting the children to have fun, but also wanting to maintain some sense of order and discipline.

But the second graders were sweet, funny, and affectionate. And I found my happy place when Mr. Gill asked how I felt about crafts. “Oh, I’m good with crafts,” I said. He led me to a table with room for 5 second graders at a time and all the ingredients to make paper bag puppets and hearts of foam with Valentine stickers.

And in between scrubbing Elmer’s glue off every surface but the paper bag puppets, and including my pants, I looked for every opportunity to encourage the children. For some of the kids looked really stressed. It was near the end of the day, and I wasn’t the only one out of my comfort zone with this change in routine. One little boy kept saying he didn’t think he could do it, and yet, when I encouraged him through the task, the next thing I knew, his puppet was finished and was one of the best I had seen that afternoon! I felt a peace come over me, amidst the chaos, when I realized that I only needed to do my part and look for openings to reveal my faith through words and acts of love and mercy. All God ever requires of me, all the Lord ever requires of us, my friends, is to plant and water. For it is God who gives the growth!

Let us pray.

Holy One, we are grateful for your everlasting presence in our lives, that we are never separated from your love. Teach us to love as you do, Lord, and be merciful, forgiving others as you have so graciously forgiven us. We repent from our sins of divisiveness and selfishness, Lord. We confess that we each have played a role in the brokenness of this world and haven’t wanted to admit it. We confess that hurt and fear have held us back from the abundant life in your Kingdom that you want us to begin living right now, right where we are. Give us hope, patience, and joy as we await your healing. Let us see your growth to encourage us as we do our part, planting, watering, and working for peace. In Christ we pray. Amen.

 

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