This morning I want to turn to my little black book that I keep with me at all times to make notes if something exceptional happens or so I don’t forget something. The older I get, the more I use it. I find it reminds of things that would otherwise slip my mind. Today, I want to quote from it directly. Three or so weeks ago when I was back in the United Kingdom, I got into a taxi at Paddington Station late at night to go to my hotel. The conversation I had with the cab driver was one of the most instructive, encouraging, and also challenging conversations I have had in a long time. So-much-so, that when I got to the hotel I decided to write it down. I don’t want to bore you with all of it, for it was a thirty minute cab ride, but the gist went like this:
Cab driver: “So where are you coming from?”
“Toronto” I said.
Cab driver: “But, you are not from there, right?”
I said, “Well no, no, but I have been in Canada forty years.”
He said, “You are that old, are you? What brings you home?”
I said, “Well, I am actually on my way to Oxford.”
“What do you do when you are there?”
“Well, I study Divinity.”
“Divinity,” he says, “that is all about God, right?”
I said, “Yeah, it is all about God.”
He said, “Well, let me ask you one thing then, mate. Why is God responsible for all the wars in the world, and what is wrong with your God?”
Well, I knew this was going to be a long cab ride. So, I said, “Well, what do you mean by God?”
He said, “Oh, well, I suppose, I don’t know, you know the Creator of, you know, God and love and stuff.”
I said, “So where do you get your idea of God from then?”
He said, “Well, you know, I am a Roman Catholic and I grew up in Bognor Regis, and went to church there, and that is I guess where I got that from.”
I said, “So, in other words you are basing a lot of your views of God on Jesus.”
He said, “Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, that is right. Jesus, that’s right. Yes, there’s a lot about him, and I think the Mass was generally about him and stuff like that. Yeah, yeah, that is right, Jesus.”
I said, “Well, is there anything in Jesus and your knowledge of him that would lead to war?”
He said, “Well, no mate. No, nothing I can think of right away, anyway.”
I said, “So, why are you blaming God then if that is how you know God, through Jesus, for war?”
He said, “I guess it is people believing God does really, I suppose. That is probably it.”
By this time, we were getting around Marble Arch, and there was quite a bit of traffic, even late at night. He stopped in the traffic, turned around and looked at me, and he said, “Yeah, yeah, you are right, you are right. It’s people.”
I said, “Yes it is. It is cultures, powers, historical events.” I continued, “Isn’t part of the problem that we lose our foundation because we think that is all there is?
He said, “Yeah, you are right. I’ll give you that.”
Then, we just carried on. We talked about football, we talked about rugby. Nearly got into a fight! Had a wonderful time – just thoroughly enjoying each other! Finally, I said, “You don’t get to talk to a London cabbie very often in life. You really should do it more often.”
Anyway, I noticed something on the dash, and since we were getting near the hotel, I said, “I see you have a great, big Union Jack on your dash.”
He said, “Yeah, yeah, that is right.”
I said, “So, you are proud of Britain.”
He said, “It is about bloody time that Britain was great again.”
I paused for a moment, and I said, “Okay, so you have some strong views on this matter.”
He said, “Yeah, I do.” And then he went on about all the politics of Brexit and stuff.
We were getting closer to the hotel, and I said, “Would you be willing to fight for Britain and your convictions on your country?”
He said, “Yeah, my son belongs to the Fusiliers.”
I said, “Where in Jesus Christ and in God would you find the foundation for that war?”
We pulled up to the hotel. He looked at me, and he wasn’t really sure at that point what to make of me. There was this pregnant pause, and with a wry smile, he said, “In other words, people make wars, but the God that we know in Jesus Christ isn’t really the one who is responsible for them all.”
“Point made, Guv’ner! Point made!”
I gave him a good tip. He deserved it! He said, “Canadians always tip really well, you know.”
I said, “I am a Canadian now, am I?”
He said, “Have a great trip to Oxford.”
I have thought about that conversation. I loved it! He was a great guy! And on honest one. He asked questions that a lot of people are thinking, but don’t have the courage to ask. When people this past week locked arms with each other around mosques, and religious leaders stood up, supported and encouraged one another, sharing a common fear that religions can become the source of conflict, which is true, and that sometimes religions are used by empires for their own purposes, I felt a sense of peace. Similarly, when people get it in their own minds that religion or a particular section of it is responsible for the world’s problems, I think it behooves us to ask ourselves some serious questions, don’t you? I think one of the serious questions is not an abstract conversation; it is about how we really, genuinely, see God.
What transpired between that cabbie from Bognor Regis and me was a microcosm of what is facing us. It is not new. In our passage from First Corinthians, Paul was dealing with something very similar. Corinth was, as someone called it recently, a city with a hybrid of identities. It was never quite sure what it was. It didn’t know whether it was Greek or Roman; at times, it was both. It was caught between two worlds and two empires. It was also between two port cities, and was the centre of commerce. Corinth was a pluralistic city and it had a myriad of perspectives, not only on politics, but also on God and religion. In the midst of this comes the Apostle Paul, establishing a fledgling Christian church. Not long after Paul had helped form this church, there was concern by those Corinthians about how they were going to adapt. How were they going to deal with the other religions around them? With Gnosticism and Mithraism, and the worship of the gods.
Some were proposing that all they needed to do was reduce the Christian faith to a series of propositions, a series of nice ideas, you know, wholesome stuff: forgiveness, love, tolerance, truth – and maybe if that was the case, then it didn’t matter if you followed Paul or Cephas or Apollo, the principles you based your life on were nice and solid. They were grounded, for who doesn’t want to be nice and kind and truthful? That was one of the solutions. Paul knew that was attractive in the short term at one level. Even the great Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I love a lot of his writings, but I profoundly disagree with him when he said that the person of Jesus Christ was a “wearisome irritation” that should be removed and pushed to the side, and that all we needed were the things that Christ stood for, but not Christ himself. Nietzsche took it even further and said that there is no longer any use for God at all because human beings have come of age to the point that we basically know the right and the wrong, and we have got to move beyond the notions of good and evil. There is an appeal to that, and there is an appeal to reducing the faith to simply some nice ideas.
Here is the problem: Those nice ideas can very often shift and change. While one person thinks it is a nice idea; it is not necessarily embraced by somebody else. Or it has no foundations to it. It is particularly the case for people who live in a comfortable world. Mircea Eliade, the Romanian philosopher once said that we forget about the gods when we feel we no longer need them. In other words, when life is comfortable or going along nicely, we can then simply have our nice ideas, and that is all that really matters. Well my friends that may be true in a benign world, in a world of comfort, in a world of civility, but that is not the world we are living in now. It is naive to think that a series of nice ideas is enough to see the world through its current situation. For the Apostle Paul, there was a complete sense that our talk of God, our understanding of God, our appreciation of what God is like is not based on a principle, but based on a person, and that person was Jesus of Nazareth. For Paul, in the Cross and the Resurrection, in the life and the ministry of Jesus Christ there was the foundation of our understanding of what God is like and what God does. Paul makes this incredible declaration, “We have no other foundation on which we can build, except that which has already been laid, which is Jesus Christ.” He is reaching out to the Corinthians, who are troubled, who don’t know what to make of God anymore, who are not sure if God is violent, or on the side of a particular culture over another, whether God is Greek, or Roman. They are spinning around not knowing where to go.
Paul focuses them not on the wisdom of all the people with their many and myriad ideas, but on Christ. Remember the foundation on which you were built! A great preacher, Fred Craddock says this foundation has two parts. The first is what he calls the substructure of our faith. By the “substructure” he is simply meaning the life and the death and the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. When we look to Jesus, when we listen to Jesus, when we see the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, we see God. It is that foundation that is the substructure on which everything else is built.
A few years ago, I had a deep conversation with a friend of mine from university in South Africa. He spent his life working with what are known as the Khoisan bush men of the Kalahari and the Namib desert. He grew up as a social anthropologist, but also became involved in missions, and particularly missions as it related to the supply of water to people in need. Philip is a good man! He was telling me about how, because of the artificial boundaries that the nation states had created in southern Africa, those who were herdsmen, relying on the free movement of their herds, now had artificial barriers built; national barriers preventing them from moving with their herds to the water and to the grasslands as the seasons changed. Whether they were going north to the Okavango Delta or through the Namib desert, because of national boundaries, wars, and the division of southern Africa on the basis of colonialism, many of them found that they weren’t able to keep their herds alive as their access to water was diminished. But Philip also found that these people were not only tremendously adaptive, but tremendously faithful. Many of what I knew as Khoi-Khoi, now Khoisan bush men are actually devout Christians, although some of them still have their traditional African religions. The Khoisan have no buildings in which to worship. Rather, they create impromptu places of worship where they can celebrate Communion. Philip was telling me that one of the things they do is actually create a bit of a foundation, and build a sort of mini-church on the ground, consisting at first of a crossbeam.
During Reverend Lori’s Children’s Moment, she brought a little box with her showed the children that you need to balance it with a foundation in order to be able to build on it securely. A cross-brace for the bush men created a foundation on which they could then put leaves and twigs and straw and various things to create a floor, and on that build a little place for them to celebrate Communion, like a communion table. Then they would all gather around, sometimes with their animals, and worship. But, they did it with kind of a cross-brace at the foundation of it. I thought what Philip was getting at, is that this is like the Church. The Church has a foundation of a Cross at it, and that is really the most important thing! The thing on which you build. The foundation is Christ himself.
This last week I had two people come and visit me here at the church. Their responses when I brought them into this incredible building were very different from one another. One was in awe of the construction, and said, “Wow, just look at the stone! Look at the windows! Look at the wood! The carving and the beams! This person was overwhelmed by the architecture of it all. These magnificent, arches, and engraved wood. How fortunate people are to be able to come into a beautiful place like this. And I said, “Yes, it is beautiful.” I mean there are other beautiful churches in the world too, but yes, this is a beautiful church. The second person came in and she went up into the balcony, looked at the ceiling and said, “Look at this place! This is a place that absolutely shouts out to you ‘Worship God’! Everything points upwards! Every archway goes upwards. The ceiling goes upwards. The windows go upwards. They send you to Christ and your eyes go upwards. Everything in this place is worshipful. This is what a church should be
It might on the surface of things, and it certainly did to the Greek thinkers in Corinth, seem like foolishness to think that you are worshipping someone like Jesus of Nazareth, who died and rose again, and that becomes the foundation of your knowledge of God. That his teachings and his life and his ministry is the cornerstone. It seemed like foolishness, and when you really think about it and the foundations of the early Church, they seem also foolish. I love what I read about the very first church, “The first pastor was executed as a criminal. The first Chair of the Board went around saying he never belonged to the Church in the first place and had no idea who the pastor was. The Treasurer went out and committed suicide – Judas. The members of the Board scattered wondering whether or not what they believed was true. In fact, the only people who seemed to hang around for any length of time was the Women’s Auxiliary, and they alone could be trusted.” It didn’t look good, did it? The history of the Church in its very earliest days was not good. It might seem foolish to make a foundation based on that. Yet the very same person who was committed as a criminal, and executed, rose from the dead. The very one who was denied by Peter became the foundation of the witness to the Church throughout the Roman world. Judas Iscariot, well, that was poor Judas! But the other disciples committed their lives and souls to the belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. And the women who were at the tomb of Jesus when they found it empty risked their reputations by saying that they believed it to be true.
On the surface, the foundation might have seemed a little rocky, but it was based on a sacrificial, self-giving, crucified love of Christ. The man for others. There is also a sense, Craddock says, that there is a superstructure on which we build. The superstructure is what the Church builds on. It is not for it to re-imagine itself as if somehow it has another foundation that it needs to be meaningful. Rather, it is for the Church to renew and to reform itself in order that it can be rooted and grounded in the very foundation itself. There is nothing else solid on which to build. There is nothing else to go into the world other than to bring the grace and the love and the self-giving power of God in Christ to it. When you look at the world, at the problem of politics being based on your identity, your culture, your religion, your ethnicity, and the racism and hatred that often accompanies that divisiveness, you can understand why the cab driver said to me, “Why is God in all the various forms in which God is spoken about, the source of all this violence and lack of cohesion in the world?” I get it! I do! But if we, as Christians, build on the superstructure of what has been laid, then the voice against hate, bigotry, and division is rooted in Jesus Christ himself. This is God Incarnate! This is the Lord of Life! Regardless of who we talk to, or whatever situations that we find ourselves in, or whatever conversations with cab drivers we might have. It is a powerful thing to let them see Christ, in what we believe, in words we speak, to feel the love of Christ in the embrace, to experience the power of Christ in the knowledge and the love of God himself. The time has come, I think, for those of us who truly want to follow Christ in this world, to understand that every single breathing moment, everything that we do as a Church, everything we do as people of faith, we do on the foundation of the overwhelming power of the Cross of Jesus Christ. For, Paul says, “There is no other foundation, no other foundation on which we build.” Amen.