Genesis 1:1 – 2:4a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13: 11-13; Matthew 28:16-20
The Rev. James M.L. Grace
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
“Agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” Those are the words Paul concludes his second correspondence to the church in Corinth with. Three simple statements: agree with one another, live in peace, and God of love and peace will be with you. They are deceptively simple sounding, aren’t they?
I can almost imagine Paul just finishing his letter, saying “oh just get along, be cool with each other, and everything will be alright.” It’s easy to think that those pithy statements which conclude the end of 2 Corinthians were simple add-ons to his letter, a simple “oh and by the way…” But they’re not.
The thing about reading Paul’s letters is that there is always a reason behind what is written. The problem is, we don’t know exactly what the reason was for Paul to write those words. See, reading the letters of Paul to his church communities is kind of like listening to one half of a telephone conversation. Imagine you are in a room, the phone rings, and someone answers, and this is what you hear: “Hello” “yeah, okay” “No, it needs to be there by Tuesday, not Thursday.” “She needs it for her class Tuesday” “I’m not sure where but I know she can get it by then” “She’s in New York City.” “Okay” “Love you, too, bye.” Well, you don’t really know what that conversation was about, but your intuition would suggest that it was about someone who lived in New York City who needed something by Tuesday, and that the person talking on the phone obviously was in close relationship with the other, why else would they say “love you too”?
It’s the same when reading, or hearing Paul’s letters – when we read, or hear, Paul, we are witnessing one half of a conversation. A little context here. Paul started a church in Corinth, Greece, but he left, to start churches elsewhere. Probably what happened was that after leaving Corinth, Paul received a letter or something that conveyed to him things were not going great back at that church he started in Corinth, which is presumably why he writes this letter in the first place.
If Paul is offering three statements to close this letter, there must be a reason why. When Paul says “agree with one another,” then that probably means, people in the church weren’t in agreement, about something. People were probably arguing about something. When Paul says “live in peace” that suggests there was conflict of some kind. And finally, Paul’s admonition that if they agree with each other and they live in peace, then the God of love and peace will be with them. Perhaps that suggests to us that the church Paul started was uncertain God was even with them in the first place.
What all of this suggests is this: from its very beginning, the church there has been no stranger to conflict! So why does any of this matter? I think this is why. When I hear Paul say “agree with one another” I don’t think what Paul meant was “everybody think the same.” And I don’t think he meant “everyone has to agree about who or what God is.” What I hear is different: that the church is large and diverse enough to embrace a variety of belief and practice. The church is large enough for disagreement. It is large enough so that one person doesn’t need to be right. That’s the kind of agreement Paul was encouraging – not an agreement of ideas or belief, but an agreement of love which gives space so that people can disagree, and it’s okay.
When Paul says “live in peace” he’s saying exactly the same thing, but just in a different way. And finally, when Paul says “the God of love and peace will be with you” he’s simply restating, for a third time, what he said in the beginning: agree in love, because it is love that holds everything together.
And if that message falls on deaf, cynical, or jaded ears this morning – I understand. The news, the stories of global violence, conflict in our government, people hating each other, all of it makes me feel cynical, too. But then I read Paul, and I hear something said three times, because once is not enough: Agree. Peace. Love. All variations on the same theme, and I remember yet again that we are called by God to be united, not uniform; peaceful, not passive; loving, not judging.
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day that tries to acknowledge how God exists in many ways, and yet somehow is one. I’ve been to seminary, I’ve been a priest for twelve years – I still don’t understand the idea of the Trinity, which is fine, because as author Karen Armstong says, “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the Trinity . . . which has preoccupied later Christians. Instead he went around doing good and being compassionate.”
Today Paul offers a triune agreement to model our lives upon. Agree with one another, live in peace, and know that God is with you. Maybe that’s what the Trinity is: a model of love that turns and turns, reaching out, reaching in, always offering, always knowing. AMEN.