I Corinthians 2:1-16
Our gospel reading this morning is kind of a pep talk from Jesus; he wants his hearers to make the world a better place for other people. But then he turns the pep talk into a warning; if we don’t keep rules and laws even better than religious freaks do, then we won’t go to heaven. Maybe the pep talk and the warning are really the same thing – maybe we make the world a better place by keeping laws and rules, and maybe entering heaven is another way of saying “make the world a better place”.
Saying all that does not contradict the truth that we are saved by the grace of God. – we exist by the grace of God. But God is gracious and has given all of us free will and allows us to choose whether or not we will either join God in making heaven, or obsess on ourselves and make hell. We all know that we choose a little bit of both everyday (that is why the grace of God is so necessary to free us from those hell-bound choices). We also now that almost always, those choices are about tiny things: using or not using turn signals and letting or not letting people in our lane on the highway, cleaning up or not cleaning up our messes, repeating or not repeating gossip. We have the choice to turn all those situations into tiny bricks to build either heaven or hell. Maybe that is why Jesus says we are salt, because salt is usually not even noticed until it is missing, and you don’t need a lot to bring out the flavor of everything else in the recipe. But then again, sometimes those seemingly small choices have consequences that are bigger than we will ever know. Maybe that is why Jesus also says we are light, because we never know when our good actions will enlighten the path and show others the way to heaven, or our bad actions will darken our world and cause others to stumble into hell.
Our actions are important, because even though we exist only by the grace of God, God does not put us in a universe populated solely by God and ourselves. We have to live amongst other things and people, and the way we live has consequences for ourselves and those other things and people. If we act in a selfish way (in other words, if we sin), then everyone including us is hurt. Only the grace of God can undo that sin and hurt, and the grace of God does undo that sin and hurt, but if we would only listen to and obey Jesus and choose actions that do not cause the hurt (in other words, refrain from sinning), there would be less hurt in the world, and who would not want that? We do all try to live in a less sinful way, but we all know we fail a lot of the time. Even though the grace of God is growing us into less sinful people, none of us in this room are there yet. So we need to spend a lot of time and effort training ourselves to be obedient to Jesus and sin less. We need to spend a lot of time with Jesus in the scriptures, at the communion table, in prayer, and in communion with each other so that we do grow into full maturity as images of Jesus. But until we get to that full maturity, we need to work hard to ensure that our choices are ones that build up heaven around us, and spread the light of Jesus to our world, and spread the salt of goodness around us.
The prophet Isaiah whom we heard this morning is telling his listeners that they need to change their actions from sinful ones to righteous ones. Part of the sinful actions he describes are religious observances that don’t do anything to help the practitioners or the people around them. Some readers have taken those and similar descriptions as a decree that all religious observances are fake and the people who practice them are fakers, but that conclusion is not correct. Religious observances can be a very helpful part of one’s growth into the salvation that God’s grace has provided for us, but we do need to be mindful of the reason we do them: their purpose is to glorify God, not ourselves. The more we do things that glorify God, the less we are apt to do harmful actions. The more we do things to glorify ourselves, the more apt we are to do harmful actions.
And so we get back to the warning form Jesus in our gospel story: if we aren’t more righteous than religious freaks, then we don’t go to heaven. If our actions glorify ourselves, that means we are hiding the light of Jesus and souring everything and building hell for ourselves. If our actions glorify God, then the light of Jesus can shine through us, and the things we touch will have a good flavor, and we are making our small part of the world into heaven. Fostering growth by turning attention away from ourselves and toward God might not make sense in our consumer society that advocates self-fulfillment through material gain, but that might be just what Paul is talking about in our second reading when he mentions the wisdom of God and how much it differs from our conventional wisdom. It is not all about us, and as soon as we start living in that truth, life really becomes much better for us and for those around us. We won’t succeed living that way all the time, but we have tools to help us get better at it, and the grace of God will bring us to heaven eventually. We don’t have to understand it all, we just need to try to trust. AMEN