February 17, 2019
(1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26)
You’ve heard our country described as rich and poor, urban and rural, conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican, gay and straight, red and blue. This list goes on.
How about Hard and Soft?
A political analyst named Michael Barone has written a book called Hard America, Soft America, and in it he describes a division in our country between those who are Hard and those who are Soft. Barone believes that Hard America is marked by competition and accountability, while Soft America is defined by government regulation and social safety nets.
An example of Soft America? Our public school system. It’s filled with progressive values, including a desire to promote the self-esteem of its students. Playground games that seem to be too competitive and cruel, such as dodge ball, are banned in Soft America. (I absolutely hated that game as a kid! Though, I have no opinion as to whether it should be banned – maybe made optional.) You remember how dodge ball was defined in the Ben Stiller movie, called “Dodge Ball”? It’s the sport of “violence, exclusion and degradation.”
Hard America, on the other hand, is not afraid of competition. Private companies fire people when profits plunge, and the military puts its people through intense physical training along with exercises using live fire. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about Hard America, and very little coddling — unless you happen to be a CEO with a golden parachute.
Hard vs. Soft. Competition vs. coddling. It’s one way to view a divided and polarized America.
It could also describe the church in Corinth when Paul went to visit it, and later wrote his first letter to it.
The early Christian church certainly had its share of divisions, nowhere more clearly than in Corinth, where the apostle Paul had to plead with the Christians to settle their differences. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)
The Corinthian church was a shattered Greek urn, lying in pieces on a cold stone floor. Some of the members were swayed by brilliant rhetoric, others were influenced by knowledge, others were impressed by spiritual gifts, and still others attached importance to wealth and social status.
As example, there was sexual immorality in the church — a man living with his father’s wife — and this behavior was being tolerated by some. There were abuses at the Lord’s Supper, with the rich arriving early and enjoying the very best food and drink, while the poor arrived later and had only the leftovers to consume.
In the face of these fractures, Paul calls for the Corinthian Christians to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1:10).
Unity was a problem then, and it’s a problem now. There’s a huge division between the red and blues; red Hard Faith-ers and the blue Soft Faith-ers.
The Hard Faith people place an emphasis on the obligations of religious life, and they appreciate moral clarity — their scriptural foundation is a covenant with God, an agreement defined by righteous living. If your faith is hard, you’re focused on knowing God’s truth, keeping the Ten Commandments, and living a disciplined life in a community of faith.
The Soft Faith people see religion as a liberation movement. They tend to stress God’s love for the oppressed of the earth, and they trace their spiritual roots to the exodus, when God brought the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. If your faith is soft, you’re focused on experiencing God’s grace, keeping the commandments of Jesus to love God and neighbor, and living a life that is open and receptive to new understandings.
Hard Faith is all about obligation, clarity, covenant, truth and discipline. Soft Faith is committed to liberation, charity, exodus, grace and openness.
We’re not talking right and wrong here, good and bad, because both sides are important to the church, both have deep roots in our Scripture and Tradition, and both are necessary for a fully formed faith. Without both, many good things would fall apart.
But Hard and Soft perspectives create a very tricky tension — they exert a kind of magnetic pull as they draw people of faith in opposite directions.
The apostle Paul had a similar problem in Corinth, where the Christians of that community felt drawn to different leaders in the early church. Some felt they belonged to Paul, others to Apollos, others to Peter, and still others to Christ. Some of these leaders were eloquent, some were not ... some were Hard, and some were Soft.
But Paul rejected these distinctions by asking the Corinthians point blank, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
For Paul, the unifying reality for us is always going to be Jesus Christ, whether we are Hard or Soft, competitive or coddling, obligated or liberated.
The amazing thing about Jesus is that he is simultaneously Hard Jesus and Soft Jesus. The Hard Jesus lays out the obligations of discipleship, and is clear about the Christian way of life. He calls us into a New Covenant, one that is sealed in his very own blood. He is devoted to the truth — in fact, he himself is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) — and he asks his disciples to be so disciplined that they actually deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him. You simply cannot get any Harder than that.
At the same time, Jesus is the Soft Jesus. He liberates us from captivity to sin and death, and challenges us to show Christian charity to the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and the imprisoned. He leads us on a new exodus, one that passes through death to everlasting life. And he shows amazing grace to all who follow him in faith, receiving with open arms the outcasts, the sinners, the brokenhearted, and the sick. He is a Soft, Soft Savior — no doubt about it.
The apostle Paul knows this, which is why he calls for unity in the midst of the Christian community’s diversity. He doesn’t expect the Corinthians to have identical views and perspectives on all things, nor does he expect them to live out their Christian faith in exactly the same way. But he does expect them to be united in their determination to follow Jesus, and equally dependent on the power of the cross of Christ.
In fact, Paul doesn’t want to do anything to distract people from the cross — the clearest possible symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial death and life-giving resurrection. He doesn’t want to baptize or speak with eloquence or do anything that might turn people away from the central image of what God has done for us through Jesus.
The cross of Christ is what unites us, according to Paul. It is the perfect symbol of Hard Truth and Soft Grace.
So, what does this mean to us today? Hard and Soft divisions are going to continue to plague us, but their existence does not mean that we have to lose sight of the centrality of Jesus Christ. Some of us will naturally practice a Hard Faith, and we’ll be clear about our beliefs, our practices, our Scriptures and our morals. But at the same time, some of us will embrace a Soft Faith, and we will show charity to others as we focus on hospitality, inclusiveness, outreach projects and unconditional love.
What unites us is always going to be more powerful and all-embracing than what pulls us apart. The way for us to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (v. 10) is to remember the message.
The message is the message of the cross and that message is “the power of God.” (1 Peter 1:5)
That’s what we’re about. If we stay on message, we’ll stay together. Which recalls Benjamin Franklin’s famous advice: “Brothers, let us all hang together, for if we don’t, we most assuredly will hang separately.”
The trick is to remember that it’s about the message. It’s not about me.
Dan Wakefield writing in Spiritually Incorrect: Finding God in All the Wrong Places, tells of meeting one of his heroes of the faith, theologian Henri Nouwen.
Flustered by his proximity to his idol, Wakefield stuttered a question: “Father Nouwen, I’ve read your Prayers from the Genesee. What bothers me is that if someone as advanced as you has doubts and difficulties with prayer, what hope is there for someone like me who’s just starting out?”
Nouwen looked at him sternly and said, rather sharply, “Mr. Wakefield, Christianity is not for ‘getting your life together.’”
He said he was “taken back, abashed. Was I getting it wrong? In a way, yes. Nouwen was telling me that Christianity was not simply another scheme for the never-ending satisfaction of the self; it went beyond an ego trip and grew into service to others, and the giving up of self, surrendering to God. Christianity offered a journey that was not just sweetness and light but thundering darkness and doubt, thorns as well as doves.”
No, it’s not about “getting your life together.” It’s not about Paul, Apollos, Peter or Chloe. Or you. Or me or us.
It’s about the message. Hit the message hard, or hit it some, but stay on message.
It is certainly appropriate to teach a class on Christian doctrine, but don’t look down upon those who feel called to feed the homeless when you might think there is a more urgent need.
And you are to be commended if you do political work on behalf of peace and justice. But don’t neglect your prayer life.
Hard Faith and Soft Faith. Both are required if we are going to follow a Hard-Soft Savior.
Let us pray.
We pray that we be not diverted by the excessive pursuit of material things and false happiness but listen closely to the Word of Christ which leads us ultimately to eternal happiness. We pray to the Lord.
As the Church comes under increasing attack throughout the world, we pray that all Christians stay loyal to the Christ Saviour who gave his life for us on the cross and take solace in his promise that their reward will be great in Heaven. We pray to the Lord.
For Presiding Bishop Dean, Bishop Robert and all clergy: that God will inspire and make fruitful their efforts in helping others to come to know Christ. We pray to the Lord.
That those engaged in business will serve society by working to make goods of the world accessible to all. We pray to the Lord.
For the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the marginalized; that they will find consolation in being close to Jesus. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the victims who were killed in the shooting this week in Chicago, that they may rest in peace eternal; and for their families and friends to be graced with much love during this horrible time of losing their loved ones and rest I the assurance that their loved ones are now with our Heavenly Father. And for the shooter, may Christ fill his heart with knowledge of the horrendous crime he has committed and find true repentance. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
God our Father, help us to seek you in all things and above all things. Help us to take a fresh look at our lives and at what we regard as being important in this world. You bless those who are in distress and reward those who trust in you. As you answer our prayers, keep us faithful in your service. Jesus promised your blessings upon those who are poor, hungry, weeping, excluded, or insulted. Therefore, we also call upon you, our heavenly Father, with our prayers for all those in need. May we always stay true to your message. We ask all these things, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA