A Church Prepared for Us

Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis

June 9, 2024, Annual Meeting Sunday

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 2:1–13

The church in the world remains a peculiar phenomenon. That may surprise some people who see churches everywhere, how culturally religious the United States is, or how politically powerful and influential religious institutions are. By those measures, one could likely conclude that the church is a known and understood quantity. But the church as a phenomenon or an institution is peculiar because the idea of it in the human experience doesn’t make much sense. People of different races, tribes, traditions, ethnicities, social status, and economic status don’t usually coalesce in community. And to be gathered in the name of a crucified Jewish peasant rabbi, who announced the inbreaking of God’s reign, is not the most apparent way humans organize themselves. This new alternative collectivity, called the church, included all God’s children, male and female, slave and free, Jew and Greek. That kind of organization confounded the conventional wisdom about who was inside or outside, honored or shamed, who mattered and who didn’t. That kind of organization, which brings together people that history, tradition, biology, and anthropology tell us do not associate, is a disruptive presence in a divided, competitive world.

This is not how we talk about church in the world today. However, in the Apostle Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, which he planted and built, he highlights the peculiar nature of the church of Jesus Christ. The occasion for this letter is Paul’s response to some issues or questions posed to him by the Corinthians. We don’t know what they asked him, but in these words we read today, we see Paul attempting to remind them what the church is and who they are called to be in it. And what the church is and should be does not resemble the institutions the Corinthians were a part of or that were active in the Roman empire.

The church in Corinth was filled with people who were more familiar and comfortable with the cultural and religious practices of a Roman imperial outpost, a port city with vast wealth for the few and poverty for the many. For the people joining the church in Corinth, the worship and practices of the gathered community of God asked them to relinquish their reliance on the world’s wisdom, practices, and understanding of what it means to be a community. It had to be disorienting for a wealthy landowner find himself seated next to an enslaved widow or for men to see a woman take a seat at the head of the table. So, they struggled to be this new thing, this church. This new thing called church had no use or place for the beliefs, practices, and expectations that determined one’s status, conferred status or shame, and defined the privileges and benefits to which a selected few may be entitled.

Paul’s response to these struggling saints is surprising and unsettling. Humans did not create the church. The church is nothing like the imperial cults of Rome, with its idols, temples, and shrines, which were human-created institutions that would eventually die off. The church is not just another one of Caesar’s temples. The church is not a product of the world’s wisdom, values, practices, or expectations. Paul may have planted this church, and he may be their father in the faith, but the idea of this kind of gathered community didn’t originate with him. Paul’s words, knowledge, or imagination did not create the church. Paul forthrightly tells them that his wise words or persuasive and exciting pitch did not bring the church into being. In his weakness, fear, and trembling, Paul preached, “Christ and him crucified.”

The power of God is responsible for the existence of the church. The Spirit of God reveals to us the wisdom that kindled the faith that draws us to the doors of the church. According to Paul, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love the Lord.” This witness, this place of God’s wisdom, the embodied gift of God’s love and liberation for all, was prepared just for us. I’m not talking about “us” to mean Plymouth or even those who identify as Christians. “Us” is not a limited group of specific people or any one tradition or denomination but the “us” who are open to the idea and experience of a gathered community around God’s action and movement in the world as revealed in Jesus and revealed in a love that transcends all that separates us. It is a community that transcends our earthly classifications, drawing us into a beloved community that is more ultimate than our tribe, race, ethnicity, or status.

God’s idea of us as a gathered community preceded anything we humans could conceive and create. The church is God’s dream, God’s doing, and God’s creation, to which we are welcomed and embraced. It is a gift of grace that nobody can take away from us. That’s what makes the church such a disruptive, unsettling institution to the empire. It’s God’s explicit alternative to a world replete with temples to Caesar, shrines to a range of gods and idols, and the practice of domination, oppression, and exploitation of the vulnerable. This is why Paul can say that there is something bigger than me, bigger than us, that makes “us” possible, that makes church possible. Whatever concerns, critiques, expectations, or disappointments we have with the church, remember that God prepared it for us before we ever showed up. Whatever else we can commend to ourselves, like our own smarts, ingenuity, or imagination, the church’s existence is a gift beyond what we could have imagined or constructed.

If we doubt the peculiarity of this expression of the loving, liberating God, we need only recall the early history of Plymouth Church. Just like the church in Corinth, on more than one occasion in the first 25 years of its existence, our Plymouth forebears wondered if the church would survive. If it were judged by the world’s definition of organizational success, Plymouth would have been counted out. Oh, there is something about God, a wisdom beyond their knowing, that gave Plymouth Church the life and legacy we hold today. Here we stand, finite, imperfect, and willful, yet blessed to be a part of the wondrous gift that has endured. God’s church has survived the test of time, faithlessness, war and genocide, persecution and being the persecutors, schism and reformation, victimization at the hands of imperialism, and the domination of others through imperialism. God’s idea and wisdom gave us the church, and it lives and thrives. The church remains a living and thriving dream in which we get to participate, find beloved community, and experience liberation.

I hope we remember this every time we find ourselves immersed and overwhelmed by the business of being church. Something more significant and profound than our wisdom or expertise is going on that keeps the church alive and thriving. We may put on the trappings of nonprofit businesses. We may avail ourselves of the corporation’s financial and organizational tools, systems, and practices. We may be indistinguishable from the mass of organizations with our managerial and financial profile. We have benefitted from the wisdom and expertise of educated and experienced clergy, staff, volunteers, and professionals. And yet, we are a part of God’s wisdom embodied and manifested in the church for all the world to see. We are a part of something dreamed up and created by God. We are not just worshiping in a sanctuary; we are living God’s dream for God’s people in the sanctuary God envisioned before anything came into being. We are the eventuality of God’s wisdom. So, we are not bound by the limitations and boundaries of human conception of what we should be but are part of a unique vision for a church prepared for us. This is why I don’t understand those who gate-keep the church-house door.

Churches are wrestling with what it means to be a community gathered in the name of Jesus in a world enthralled by human wisdom. The pressures of culture, ideology, politics, and economics divide us, oppress us, inflame us, and discourage us. As the reputation and estimation of the church continue to fall, remember who and whose name we are and in whose name we gather. Allow God’s presence, God’s wisdom, and God’s dream for God’s people to move and inform our planning, proceedings, and business. In all we do and decide to manage the church business, God prepared this church for us.

11 a.m. service