Sunday 26 January, 2020
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Being the lucky country ©Suzanne Grimmett
Aristotle once defined luck as “when the guy next to you gets hit with the arrow”.
Most of us would agree, I think, that this definition still has uncomfortable potency in what it says about the human character. We all know the tendency we have as a species to turn inward upon ourselves, embracing an incipient narcissism where ‘there is only me and that is all I care about’. But within the human nature there is another driving fear- that of death, and our own life being lost. A desire for a greater meaning beyond ourselves drives us to build our identities in such a way that they can endure beyond the grave. We don’t want our selfishness to define us. This leads us to invest in our families, our businesses, our social group or our nation in such a way that they will outlive us. This positive desire for our lives not to be reduced to choices grounded in narcissistic self-interest but rather to have some eternal significance unfortunately becomes the cause of divisions between us as we create and defend tribal groups. It can also be what creates economic inequity and violence as Ernest Becker notes when he states that, “Making a killing in business or on the battlefield frequently has less to do with economic need or political reality than with the need for assuring ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth.”
Yet the desire to identify with a person, a group or a tribe is strong within us. The same was obviously true in the fledging church in Corinth, where Paul writes in some exasperation that there are quarrels amongst the believers as to which leader they follow. Some say they identify with Christ, but others say they belong to Paul, some to Peter (or Cephas) or Apollos and it seems that these groups are in some kind of competition over and against one another. We humans have an amazing ability to create idols- whether that be personalities or nations or religion itself. In Corinth the early followers of the way are identifying with different charismatic leaders, hitching their lives to this person to increase a sense of belonging and meaning and busily defending their own perspective.
But Paul will have none of it- he makes it clear that faith in Christ cannot be identified with religious ideas, with a particular understanding of baptism, or with the beliefs and practices of a particular person or group. The cross is a place of self-giving and transformation. Far from giving us a “big other” to depend upon or enabling us to have the false security of group allegiances, it actually calls us to have the courage of self-emptying and vulnerability. Tribal groups of any form can give us the illusion of life because we think our tribe will survive us. In reality, all such tribal allegiances are idols that lead away from the wellspring of life. Paul is striving in his letter to encourage the Corinthians to die to all such attachments and place their hopes instead on the foolishness of the cross, thereby, paradoxically, choosing life.
Of course this is hard- Paul has attempted what no one had really tried before. It is a grand vision of death to all identity markers and a radical embrace of equality. A church composed of rich and poor, Jew and Greek, male and female and slave and free lacks the normal bonds of social mores, ethnicity and family that hold a community together. With such diversity, the factions mentioned in this letter were probably inevitable.
Given this inevitability, and the human tendency to seek our own self advancement over others and the resulting violence of one tribe over another, where is the hope for our species? Where can meaning be found if not in the attachments we so naturally form amongst our communal groups? The reading from Isaiah is a prophetic voice from an ancient time of great social and political division and violence but proclaiming that for those under the shadow of death, a light was dawning. Even at a time when imperial ambitions were wreaking havoc across the stage of the known world, the prophet is forecasting new possibilities for creation through human and divine effort. God is doing something new.
In the Gospel reading we find these same words of the prophet Isaiah invoked, and the writer of Matthew tells us that through Jesus there is a new way that will transcend all of the darkness of violence and self interest that has dogged humankind, bringing life, healing and liberation. Today, like the ancient times of the prophet, we are still trapped by the security of our tribalisms and need the light to dawn in our hearts anew if we are to embrace a more inclusive and global vision that will empower the human potential for love.
Australia is a land of many people groups. I realised when attending a recent prayer vigil for the bushfires that it had been a long while since I had heard people singing lyrics like “We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on earth we come.” If we are to follow Christ and seek unity in the way Paul indicates, dying to our attachments to the bonds of ethnicity, family or national identity, how are we to approach Australia Day? How do we claim what is good and to be celebrated in a way that can include all? What does it mean for the way we tell our story together, that our national day falls on a date that celebrates the arrival of the first fleet? How can we deal honestly with the history of colonisation and the suffering, both past and ongoing, of First Nations people? What do we as Christians have to bring to this national conversation? These are all difficult questions, but ones we cannot shy away from if we are to be kingdom people who look to the light that is dawning in the lands under the shadow, proclaim freedom for the oppressed and excluded, and enable the peace and healing that is the promise of God.
We are called the lucky country, but we do not want to be lucky in the sense of hoping that the arrow will strike someone else. Neither do we want to try to get rid of such selfish impulses by becoming generously tribal in our allegiances to our family, our class or our nation and excluding others who do not belong. But what if our self-interest-whether that be individual, or familial or national- didn’t have to define us and limit the love and freedom of our lives? As we allow the searching, liberating light of Christ to dawn in our hearts and lives, we can find that we are set free from our fears so the burden of our self interest is lifted. It is of this that Jesus spoke when he said;
Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light and you shall find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28-30)
We seek to create safety and purpose for ourselves and a freedom from the tyranny of the self but with all our human striving, we end up recreating the same patterns that divide us and take us further from the peace for which we long. It is at this point of utter helplessness and frustration at our human condition that we begin to understand that the greatest power on earth is revealed in the shame and foolishness of the cross. Because we have been crucified with Christ, we no longer have anything to hide, or anything to prove. Our identification with Christ crucified transcends all other identities, enabling us to die to all that would separate us from one another. Our death to these divisions is also our liberation- we are set free to love one another and to welcome and embrace our kinship and our belonging with all of creation.
We are many, but we are one.
This may shake the certainties of our identity and make us sometimes feel like aliens in a strange land, but it also makes us prophets- those who speak the words of freedom and herald the new dawn. I think a nation filled with such voices of hope, love and courage would be a lucky country indeed.