Today we join the Apostle Paul as he writes to another church that he helped start up during his trips around the Mediterranean area telling people about his experience and understanding about Jesus. Last week he was writing to the church he started in Thessalonica and this week he is writing to the church he helped start up in Corinth.
He’s writing to the church in Corinth because, well, they’re fighting with one another. They’re getting a bit off track fighting with one another over relatively unimportant things. They’re using whoever baptized them as the reason for conflict, saying things like: “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,”. Paul didn’t think much of that and reminded them of the fact they are baptized into Christ. That’s it. Full stop. Everything we do as people of faith comes from being baptized into Christ.
The church of 2000 years later has its own set of conflicts. Music and style of worship are perhaps the common examples. And as people of faith, baptized into Christ, we seem to be able to find any number of reasons for conflict. This happened to the church I grew up in but I was already gone and serving in the Air Force when it happened. Someone died and they received about a million dollars. With a restriction. It had to be used for construction. You want to cause conflict in a church please combine a bunch of money and construction. We seem to be able to come up with all kinds of reasons for conflict and that is what Paul is trying to address in his letter.
More broadly, because not everything is about church, when it comes to conflicts, think about some conflicts in your life. Maybe that is a conflict here at church, which is what Paul is addressing. Maybe that is a conflict at your office. Maybe it is a conflict at home. The question for all of us is what are we doing to resolve it? The question for all of us is are we part of the problem or are we part of the solution?
One of the difficulties that we run into with conflict is that those with the power, and this is particularly ironic but not limited to church circles, frequently try to silence whoever it is they’re in conflict with by playing what I call the ‘Jesus wants us to play nice and love one another so sit down and be quiet’ card. No one is called to be a doormat and just take whatever life dishes out at you. Oh no, not at all.
At the same time neither are we called to be the antagonist wielding our righteous indignation as justification for our actions. There have been, and continue to be, too many examples of horrific acts done in the name of faith.
Martin Luther had something to say about this kind of thing. What he had to say is something that is sadly lacking in almost every public discourse we hear today and it is especially pointed for those who follow Christ. That is found in his explanation of the 8th commandment. The 8th is the one that tells us not to bear false witness about our neighbor. On its face it simply says we’re not to lie about our neighbor. Luther doesn’t leave it at that, taking it a step further when he says, “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor. So far so good, right? The challenge is that Luther continues his explanation with, “ but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”
I hate it when Luther does that. It is fairly simple to not lie about a neighbor, isn’t it? It’s kind of related to the idea that “if you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all”. That’s all well and good but as followers of Christ in the Lutheran branch of faith we don’t get to stop there. We don’t get to just ‘not say anything.’ Instead, we get to put that whole ‘best construction on everything’ as we defend our neighbor. As we think and speak well of our neighbor. That is a real challenge sometimes.
You know what’s really irritating about Luther’s explanation of the 8th commandment and putting the best construction on everything? It makes no space for the ‘unless it contradicts your firmly and long held beliefs’ about something. We’re supposed to put the best construction on EVERYTHING! Yes. Yes, we are.
Let’s try this. Take a minute and think of the politician you dislike the most. They can be in office or running for office, either way. Think of all the things they’ve done and the things they stand for and why the things they’ve done and stand for make you dislike them. Now put the best construction on their actions. Think well of that person. Speak well of that person. What would you say?
If the phrase, “Yeah but…” comes to you now, you are having the trouble that most of us run into. If you are coming up with reasons for not putting the best construction on what he or she has said or done, you are having the trouble that most of us run into. Luther doesn’t throw out a bunch of space for qualifying comments that allow us some wiggle room on who we put the best construction on. He just says do it.
Now, that activity is on the national and somewhat disconnected stage. What happens if we bring it down to something more personal. Think about some conflicts in your life. Maybe that is a conflict here at church, which is what Paul is addressing. Maybe that is a conflict at your office. Maybe it is a conflict at home. The question for all of us now is how does it look if we put the best construction on what others are saying or doing? How does it look if we defend them? How does it look if we think and speak well of them?
That will likely be a bit of a challenge for most, if not all, of us. It is usually easier to hold onto our righteous indignation defending on deeply held beliefs but doing that so rarely serves to Bring Christ’s Love to Life.
It doesn’t mean just go along with everything anyone ever says. It DOES mean that instead of starting out with that righteous indignation that we’re so fond of, we begin with the best construction on what others are saying or doing. I suspect that Luther knew what Paul was up to and if we’d keep our perspective centered on who has claimed us in baptism, if we focus on Jesus claiming us in baptism, we’d have a lot less conflict. If we would look to Christ for guidance when we’re in a conflict, that conflict would turn out better.
Luther nor Paul give the exact solution to any given conflict. Instead they give us a starting place to work on conflict. Look for the best in people because we are followers of Christ. This may not always be easy but in those difficult moments when we’re trying to get our heads and hearts around this idea, remember the last verse in today’s reading. 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It may not be easy to be a follower of Christ and to do what Christ has called us to do. Doing what Christ has told us may even sound like foolishness. The truth is, doing what Christ has called us to do is the power of God.