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Unity in Diversity: Paul’s Message to the Corinthians and Our Community

By Brittany Mangelson, Pastor

Scripture Text: 2 Corinthians 4:5-12

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’s sake.  For it is the God who said, “Light will shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed,  always carrying around in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For we who are living are always being handed over to death for Jesus’s sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us but life in you.

Our scripture today takes us back to Corinth. We’ve set the stage for this community before, but remember, we are reading someone else’s mail from about 50-60 AD. Paul had spent time in Corinth and was on his way to establish churches elsewhere. He kept in touch with the Corinthians through letters. This particular letter is likely Paul’s third letter to the people of Corinth, but he indicates in 1 Corinthians 16 that his second letter was lost. Paul is frustrated and a little defensive. 

In today’s text, we see him trying to establish his authority, God’s authority, which is also becoming a little vulnerable. Again, he is frustrated! He has been trying to plant and establish Christianity in a diverse community. He’s had a tough go around trying to unify the group. There is a lot of contention, and Paul’s emotions, as seen in his letters, are all over the map. We meet Paul today, having just spent time in prison, and he pleads with the people to remember what unifies them: their faith and trust in Jesus. 

The verses just before today’s text start off his thoughts on finding strength in persecution and hard times. Today, he finishes those thoughts. He is tired of church drama, feeling a little defensive, and is doing what he can to plead with the people to remember what has brought them together: the message of Jesus Christ. 

Paul starts his words with a thesis statement. He lays it all out. His bottom line is this: We proclaim not ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ. He also uses slavery imagery (not my favorite, but we’ll roll with it) to show a commitment to serving God and your neighbor for the rest of your life. Previously, Paul had been accused of putting himself above Jesus; he has spent time in jail. I suspect he is tired. Here, he is trying to be very clear and intentionally spell out that his message has always been about putting himself aside and proclaiming the gospel of Christ. 

Ego and cutting each other down have no place here. Followers of Jesus are compelled to spread the peace of Jesus. Paul does not shy away from the reality that community building is tough. He conflates this with the death of Jesus, again directly to a community that is likely still living under a collective trauma. Paul uses the imagery of treasures in clay jars to show vulnerability. Clay jars protect what’s inside, but they are fragile; they easily break. There is no need to boast because, like clay jars, we are fragile and can easily break. 

Paul uses the collective “we” when talking about the jars. He is right alongside his community in the fragility of life. He is no better than the “least” in his community. Yet Paul reminds us that what we each have inside of us is the light of God. That’s not a small thing! This light is our reality and gives us hope as individuals and as a collective community as we do our best to live out Christ’s mission.

Now, what does this mean for us today? I have to be honest; I have a complicated relationship with Paul, but man alive, do I relate to him in this passage. So many of us in this room today and joining on Zoom realize that community building and even having faith are challenging tasks. Many of us have had religious leaders who have claimed to speak directly to God but whose words divide and cause harm. 

Today, this group is diverse and has many reasons for being here. We have pulled apart our beliefs, examined our values, and decided to give the community—this community—a chance. And it hasn’t been easy. We have lively discussions about our beliefs, doubts, inclusion, and what it means to have hope after intense faith transitions. I don’t think a single person here would say it isn’t challenging. Still, we have committed to finding unity in our diversity. 

Since Christmas, we have formally welcomed six new members into our community; we are in early conversations envisioning what it would look like to plant more ministries and eventual congregations in Utah–We have been through a lot, but we are committed to sharing the peace and welcome of Jesus. 

 Our community is wrapping up our walk with Harmony and figuring out what it means for us to be welcoming and affirming. Guess what? While we all agree on the end goal and our values, we have disagreed on how to get there. We have realized that language matters and want to be realistic in the welcome we can offer while pushing us to do more. I have watched brave members and friends of the congregation engage in respectful yet passionate dialogue with each other about what it means to be inclusive. Egos have been put aside, and we have recognized that we are fragile. 

We are entering our sixth month of these lively discussions. I have noticed that when things get tricky, we always return to our Enduring Principles—specifically, the Worth of All Persons, All Are Called, and Unity in Diversity. Our understanding of the gospel has a bedrock foundation in the Enduring Principles, and I LOVE THAT. 

Never again will this community allow harmful readings of scripture to write the narrative of our faith. Never again will dogmas or walls of division lead the way. No. “Here in this holy place, in this gentle space, there is no lack of grace here in this holy place.” (Is There One Who Feels Unworthy?, Community of Christ Sings 526)  

I feel for Paul. I’m not sure what he would think if he were plopped right into our congregation, but I’d like to think he’d give us props for trying to figure this out. We recognize each other’s vulnerability, humanity, and worth. 

That means something.

So, today is Communion Sunday. In Community of Christ, we celebrate the sacrament of communion on the first Sunday of the month. This is also the first Sunday in Pride Month. The LGBTIA+ community has so often been left out of the sacraments and even fellowship of the Christian church. Centuries of harm and erasure have happened, and many in this community have been harmed. “Here in this holy place, here in this gentle space, there is no lack of grace here in this holy space.”

All are welcome at our table. Communion, much like Paul, has been a tricky thing for me. When I was ordained to the office of priest, I knew I needed to face this sacrament head-on. Yes, in this space, women officiated communion, which was great, but theologically speaking, I wasn’t sure where I was with it. In my life, it had always been a ritual that focused on perfection, scrupulosity, and leaving people out. If I was going to serve communion to others, I had to reframe it.

Thankfully, around the time my call was presented to me, Rachel Held Evan’s book, Searching for Sunday, came out. This is a faith transition book. In the text, she faces both deconstruction and reconstruction head-on—not in a thick, cloaked theological way but with approachable narratives that really give the gospel teeth and purpose. Rachel is nostalgic throughout, and you can hear her desperation as she’s trying to hold on to morsels of faith.

Her thesis statement is similar to Paul’s: Ego has no place here. We proclaim not ourselves; we do not put anyone above the other, but we proclaim Jesus. 

Regarding communion, Rachel wrote,

“This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”

The whole thing changed when I realized the communion table was a radical act of symbolic hospitality and love. There is no worthy or unworthy. There is no place for ego and dogma here. There is only room for love—a love that shines through our clay jars—the broken vessels that each of us is—clinging to hope, light, and each other. 

This is the only way forward, the only way to bring peace and unity, the only way we will settle on a Harmony, Welcoming and Affirming statement, and the only way to have a thriving community. 

And because theology is important, Rachel goes on to say,

“I don’t know exactly how Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but I believe Jesus is present, so it seems counterintuitive to tell people they have to wait and meet him someplace else before they meet him at the table. If people are hungry, let them come and eat. If they are thirsty, let them come and drink. It’s not my table anyway. It’s not my denomination’s table or my church’s table. It’s Christ’s table. Christ sends out the invitations, and if he has to run through the streets gathering up the riffraff to fill up his house, then that’s exactly what he’ll do. Who am I to try and block the door?”

With those words, I knew I could confidently serve communion. It was a huge step in my reconstruction that made ordained ministry feel less scary. I committed right then to always having my ministry be one that opened doors. Since then, I’ve realized our doors here will not only not be blocked but flung open as wide as they can go, with a proclamation to “come and see.” Come and experience the peace of Jesus. 
The invitation to the table is an invitation to all. A table for clay jars—for imperfect vessels that are broken and complicated, yet who hold the light of God within them. That is who this table is for. It is for everyone.

So, while it’s just a few nibbles of bread and crackers and just a few sips of grape juice, I hope we have made it clear—there is no lack of grace. YOU—all of you belong and are celebrated at our table today.

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