Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ordinary Christians

 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

            In the book, “Ordinary Men,” Christopher Browning explores the history of a reserve police battalion during the years of Nazi Germany.  The men of Police Battalion 101 are mostly older men who are too old for active duty on the front lines, so they have been assigned the task of rounding up Jews for the Nazis, and then separating them so that the men are sent to work camps and the rest – the women, children and elderly – are shot on the spot.

            At the beginning of this history, the battalion’s leader explains the new duties to the men and at the end of his speech he makes an extraordinary offer: if any of the older men among them did not feel up to the task that lay before him, he could step out.

            There are over 500 reserve police in this battalion. 

            Only 13 took up the offer not to execute the women, children and elderly Jews.

The writer suggests that one explanation as to why so very few took the offer to be excused from the atrocities was the sudden nature of the offer.  It was unexpected and most did not know how to react.  Browning writes, “Unless they were able to react to the commander’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost” (Browning, 71). Aside from this, the pressure to conform also factors into soldiers’ unwillingness to abstain from the killings at the start.

            The pressure to conform is powerful.

            When it seems that everyone is doing it – whatever “it” may be, joining in is easier than standing up and resisting.

            Even when it comes to one of the most evil crimes of history, resistance is difficult and seems, well, futile.

            After the war, the members of this Battalion 101 were interrogated and many of them denied their responsibility by saying they had were simply following orders; many of them tried to justify their actions.  One member of the Battalion even tried to justify his actions claiming that he only shot and killed children.  He saw them as their savior, rescuing the children from a life without their mothers (Browning 73). 

Throughout most of the book, Browning attempts to answer the question: “how do ordinary men commit these sort of atrocities?”

The answers, of course, are complex, and while he arrives at several conclusions, the writer closes his book with this statement and question:   “Within virtually every (community), the peer group exerts tremendous pressures on behavior. If the ordinary men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” (Browning, 189).

Or put it another way – put this in the language that we used as children and in the language that is used by young people even today – “aw Mom, everyone is doing it.”

You know the conversation: 

Your child: “Everyone else is going to the party. Why can’t I?”

You: “I don’t care what ‘everyone else’ is doing. You can’t go and that’s final.”

Your child: “Why are you so mean?”

            As trivial as that sounds, “everyone else is doing it,” this was the reason why all but 13 of the more than 500 ordinary men in this reserve unit refused to participate in one of the great evils of the 20th century. 

            Everyone else is doing it. 

            The peer pressure is so great.

We see this everywhere.

The pressure of our peers is all around us and at every age.  You find it on the elementary school playground, in the high school prom, in the college dorm, in the workplace, in the retirement community.

Everyone else is doing it.

Take a look at modern sports and the problem of so many athletes taking illegal performance enhancement drugs.  Just a few days ago, Alex Rodriguez, considered one of the best baseball players of all time, was hit with the longest doping suspension in history. Major League Baseball's arbitration judge took the Yankee third baseman out of the game all of next season.

This, despite the fact that there is no positive drug test for Rodriguez. After the decision, Rodriguez repeated that he has never taken performance-enhancing drugs in the years that he's played for New York. 

BUT – while I could not say one way or the other whether Rodriguez has taken drugs, it cannot be denied that this is a major problem in sports today.  And it is a problem because athletes so often convince themselves that everyone else is doing it.

You may have seen last week’s 60 Minutes on television.  Anthony Bosch was interviewed – he is the individual who operates a clinic from which many athletes have obtained illegal performance drugs, and he claims that one of his customers was Alex Rodriguez. 

At one point in the interview, the report talked about how we are not talking about nutrition or massage therapy we're talking about drugs that are banned, that are illegal in the sport and how the use of these drugs cuts to the heart of fair play.

That prompted Bosch to respond with this, “What is fair play? Let me ask you that question. How about this? Follow me in thought. I'm at the plate, and I know that the guy that's throwing the 95 mph pitch is on sports performance-enhancing drugs. The guy who's gonna catch the ball is on a program. The outfielder, the third baseman – they are all on performance-enhancing drugs.  Everybody's on it.”

Of course, not everyone in sports is using these drugs, but it sometimes seems that way.

Everyone else is doing it.

So we do too.

We justify our racism, because others are racist.  We shout angry words at strangers and give them the middle finger because everyone else on the road does it.  We fail to stand up for the weak because no one else is speaking out and we end up doing what everyone else is doing.

We become ordinary men and ordinary women caught up in doing ordinary, or even extraordinary evil, because the actions of those around us suggest it is right.

When Augustine was a bishop in Africa over 1500 years ago.  He had this great quotation about the problem of “everyone is doing it.”  He said.  “Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.”

This is the heart of what the New Testament book of First Corinthians is all about.

            This is really what St. Paul is struggling with in his letter to the Corinthians.  Paul had stayed in Corinth for a year and a half.  He started the church there.  He made lasting friends there.  When he left, he continued to care deeply for that church. 

            So while Paul was in Ephesus, news arrived from Corinth, and the news was not good.

            Now – I need to stop here and tell you a little bit about the city of Corinth.  It was a big place.  Not far from the city of Athens, this city had, in Paul’s day, about 80,000 people.  It was a commercially successful city.  It was thriving.  But it was also a place of immoral behavior.  In Paul’s day, if you said someone was a Corinthian, it MIGHT mean they were from the city of Corinth.  OR it might mean that they were just downright, immoral folks. 

            Corinth was a city filled with sexual immorality.  Abuse of alcohol was extreme.  Crime was rampant.  People were selfish and would do what they could to get ahead and stay ahead, even if it meant hurting other people.  There was a lack of concern for the poor and hungry. 

            In a city of 80,000, the church MAY have been as large as 100 by some generous estimates.  And these young Christians felt the peer pressure.

            Everyone is doing it.

            Paul addresses a lot of problems in his letter to the Corinthians, but that is basically the problem in a nutshell. 

            The church was guilty of bad behavior because – well – everyone else in town was doing it.

            And Paul starts his letter by saying this:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints …”

            Now I know, on the surface this sounds like a long winded way of saying, “Hi Guys.  Paul here.”  No – these words are more than a long winded “hello.”

            He writing, he says, “to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”


            That’s one of those religious words that we don’t use much outside the church.

            Do you know what it means?

            It means “to be made sacred.” 

            More literally, it means “to be made holy.”

            It means – “to be set apart.” 

            It means – “to be different.”

            And who wants to be different?

            Many of us want to blend in.

            Many of us feel the peer pressure. 

            Everyone is doing it.

            Sometimes, it is something simple like a hair style.  Or wearing a style of clothing. 

            A generation ago, peer pressure meant smoking.  Everyone was doing it.  Even on airplanes.  And people died prematurely, because everyone was doing it.

            And now today, young people often submit to using illegal drugs – because the pressure of those around them.  After all, in the culture of some young people, it seems that everyone is doing it.

Last year, a 12 year old girl died.  She jumped off an abandoned building.  She had reached the point at which she simply couldn’t take the constant, unending texts she was receiving or the postings in online social media.  Time and again she read messages to or about her like, "nobody cares about u," or "i hate u,” or "you seriously deserve to die."

Bullying is something everyone does.  And don’t think it is new.  Before text messages and social media, there walls the school bathroom and notes being passed in class. 

But at some point, one has to say, “Wait a minute.  I am sanctified.” 

Christ expects me to be different.

In our New Testament lesson, Paul describes the Christians as saints who are sanctified.  Saints. 

Now to be a saint in the New Testament is different from what many people think of as saints in the modern world.  We think of people who performed a miracle as a saint.  Mother Teresa – that’s the kind of person we think of as a saint.  Someone who lived the Christian life in an extra ordinary way.

But no – to be a saint, in Paul’s mind, was to be an ordinary Christian. 

And ordinary Christians are not ordinary men – or ordinary women.  They are sanctified – set apart for holy living.  We ordinary Christians, are meant to be different.

So when there is bullying in school, and ordinary people let it happen – the Christian is to be different.  We show kindness where others show hate.

And when someone tries to suck us into conversation that is racist or sexist or mean spirited – we stand up and speak out in love.  Because the ordinary Christian is not an ordinary person – we are called to be different.

            I started this morning’s sermon by mentioning a book, Ordinary Men, about ordinary people who gave into the pressure to do enormously evil things.

            I’ve been reading that book this week, along with another book, which has a similar title, No Ordinary Men – which is about two men who also lived in Nazi Germany.  One was Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the other was his brother in law, Hans von Dohnanyi.  Both found the strength to stand almost alone against Hitler and the Nazis.  They paid a high price. They were arrested and put into prison.  Less than a month before Hitler committed suicide, the Nazi leader ordered Bonhoeffer and his brother in law to be executed.

What made them resist while others bowed to the pressure to do what the majority were doing?  Neither of these two was perfect.  They suffered greatly for their faith.  How did they find the strength to be – well – ordinary Christians in an extraordinary world?

The answer is in that word “sanctified” that Paul uses in today’s reading. For Bonhoeffer, “Sanctification is a most simple biblical doctrine.”  For him sanctification was simply understanding the biblical language of being set apart, consecrated, or holy. And in another sense, it is … the application of sacred Scripture to all of life.”  (  Set Apart to Die and to Live, by Burk Parsons)

So when you see bullying take place, or racism occur, or the poor abused, or the weak victimized, or feel the pressure of those around you to abuse drugs or alcohol, or to reject marriage vows for a brief affair – whatever everyone else seems to be doing -- at all these times, remember who you are.

You are sanctified.

You are set apart.

You are to be different.

You are Christian. 


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Maynard Pittendreigh