“Telling the Story”
1st Corinthians 1: 10-15, 17&18
By Pastor Tim Woodard
In order to tell the story, any story, you must first know how to tell a story and secondly you must know of what story you wish to share and you will need to know the story details and background of it, if you hope to do it well! Preachers, such as me often tell the story of Jesus by proclaiming the gospel! We know by its definition that: to proclaim or proclaiming something, is when someone announces or declares, or even praises or glorifies, openly and publicly. One can do this insistently, proudly or even defiantly, it is up to how the person who choices to proclaim something feels about the subject at hand. As an example: when the Apostle Paul speaks of proclaiming the gospel, one must assume that he does so to: proudly praise or glorify what he believes deep in his heart, regarding what the gospel story truly means. Any good story teller knows that to tell a story in this way is the best way to get the hearer excited and perhaps, at the very least, to get them interested in the story being told.
As we look to the gospel story we know that it is the written words that describe the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the four formally recognized gospel accounts as recorded in the Bible, specifically in the New Testament. Therefore, before one can begin to tell the story of Jesus, that is to say: before a preacher can begin to announce and proclaim the gospel, it is imperative that the one sharing this story becomes fluent in what is contained in these four manuscripts. Looking to today’s scripture lesson and from the conversation we hear Paul having, with the early church in Corinth, one can easily assume that the Apostle Paul did not feel that this grouping of Christians were accurately speaking of the gospel story. Unfortunately for them, the gospels had not been written down as we know them today. That is to say: the Jesus story was still an oral tradition, the first gospel to be written was Mark and that did not happen till after Paul’s written letter to the church in Corinth. So you see, the Apostle Paul was very concerned about the story being told correctly. Specifically, Paul is criticizing how they are choosing to affiliate themselves with different teachers or leaders of the church, rather than staying on course and saying they belong to Christ.
At the core of Paul’s critique of the situation, at that early church, is his understanding that there are divisions in the church. Imagine that! Thank God! Thank God that disagreements of this sort within churches, ended back in the time of the early church! What a sin it would be if disagreements, quarrels and such still persisted in modern times! No, I am really not this naïve. Yes, I know that churches, lots and lots of churches have disagreements within their fellowships. Unfortunately, as we know, division and strife are real and alive in the modern church. Paul’s scolding of that early church in Corinth did not end the conversation.
Imagine if you can how this early Disciple, an Apostle even of Christ, would feel… to hear of how modern churches now argue over the color of their hymnals or worse yet, what style of music they might use to praise and worship God. And we also know that is just the start of things. Churches, that is to say church communities, argue and squabble over most everything you can think of. Without a doubt, I don’t want to list them all here and now. Certainly Paul understood clearly that the purpose of the church was to spread the “good news” of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; the “good news” of the gospel story. I can actually feel the words of the Apostle Paul as he proclaims to those early Christians: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” It must have pained him to see those early followers wrangling over things and causing divisions among themselves. He wanted to see them back on track and proclaiming and telling others about the story of Jesus.
What is the Jesus story and why were the gospels finally written down for us? We can safely assume that this was done so the story, the accounting of Jesus’ life and ministry would not get distorted or forgotten. We can also safely assume that the story is meant to cause unbelievers to come to believe in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, so that their lives might be transformed and their very souls saved! The gospel is there for all who believe in the story of Jesus to be reminded of his teachings and his ministry. Also, that they might study these written words and keep the story clear in their hearts and minds. This needs to be done so that clarity can be had: over how one is to share the “good news” with others.
Worship was developed, over time, primarily as a tool to help accomplish this need to nourish one another with the ‘Old, Old Story’ of Jesus as recorded in the gospels, and to be a gathering place to bring the young and the new to learn all about these writings, these teachings of Jesus and the experiences of other early Christians; as-well-as to take time to pray together and worship God in community. Worship was and is also a time to receive in new members of the Christian fellowship; just as we have done today, and to share in the sacraments as we know them.
Furthermore, Christians, in those early centuries, used the Psalms to nourish their very souls when they gathered, as did the Israelites before them, by reading them and even putting them to tune and singing them together; as they nourished their souls by these primitive acts of worship and praise to God. This has been done in the two styles of worship being used here in this church. The Psalm has been read in the first service and sung during the second; very much in line with ancient custom. As we continue our discussions about combining the two worship services we will continue to use the psalms in worship, but perhaps use them in new ways so that we all experience them the same.
In like manner modern Christians have sought to use more contemporary efforts at music, music that oftentimes appeals to the un-churched and younger generations. Many large evangelical ministries use these methods to appeal to this segment of our society, many very successfully. Most of our neighboring mainline Christian churches have used both traditional and contemporary music in efforts to shore up their sagging congregations. Yet, there is also strong evidence to support the use of old tried and true hymnody to sway the reluctant sinner to turn to God through Christ. There are churches in our area, many large churches even that rely entirely on traditional music selections for their Sunday worship services. What is crucial to remember is why we use music at all during our times of worship. Let us be reminded: it is to nourish our very hearts and open our minds as we praise God, while lives are transformed and our spirits are lifted through the “good news” of the gospel; the story of Jesus, the Son of God.
As we reflect on the importance of retelling that Old, Old story I want to share with you an article that was written by Tom Ehrich. He is a church consultant and Episcopal Priest based in New York. In his writing he is talking about how the direction is clear, or the way forward for mainline Protestant churches, like our-selves, is clear. He indicates that “the tragic decline of progressive Christianity in America is a self-inflicted wound; we have done it to ourselves.” He offers up four suggestions to the way forward and four aspects of the will to move forward. Let me briefly recap his thoughts for us this morning, and as we do so let me encourage you to look and see if any of his examples apply to this church. If not then consider that they do apply to many churches and we, the Riviera United Church of Christ, are the fortunate ones who have already moved beyond his examples.
Let me warn you his suggestions may seem overly simplistic yet rather radical at the same time. His first suggestion: “Apply basic practices. Learn from churches that are growing.” His second suggestion leans toward looking at our churches as businesses: “Focus on people not institutions. Be customer-driven, and listen to the marketplace.” The third suggestion, which I believe has shocked a good many pastors and churches alike: “Stop relying so much on Sunday worship. It hasn’t been enough for 45 years, no matter how much we have tinkered with it.” His fourth suggestion is just common sense: “Let go of magical thinking and easy solutions – buckle down to the hard work of nurturing a healthy congregation.”
This church consultant is trying to help modern churches much like the Apostle Paul was trying to help the early church; churches like ourselves and that early group of Christians in Corinth. Both are giving honest and direct feedback to struggling churches. Paul says this very clearly – he is begging the church to unit in purpose and to not look back to their old ways; rather look forward to how they can strengthen their work. He points to the gospel story to remind them that they are called to Christ and nothing else.
Paul and Tom, both being church consultants, are saying to churches: “the challenge is in front of you not behind you!”
The history of the Riviera United Church of Christ has not been fully written yet. Each one of you here this morning is a part of this church’s evolving history. Yes, some of it has been written and there is no way to change any of it. But the full story of this church has not yet been told; nor is it complete! Your actions today will have an effect on this chapter of history now being written. When your children or your grandchildren are telling the story of this church, what will they say? Will they remember the story that you have envisioned for them to tell? Will they? Commit yourselves today in unity and work hard to ‘lift up the ministry’ of this your church in a way that no one shall forget – what this community of faith stands for!
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
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.