+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen +
Paul was a tentmaker. This is a detail that often gets overlooked when we think about this pillar of the New Testament church. We remember him as a faithful apostle, a fanatical evangelist, a frequent visitor of prisons, and a fervent letter-writer, and all of these things are, of course, important aspects of his life and ministry. But Paul was also a tentmaker. He worked with animal hides, stretching and stitching and sewing and setting up tents that could be used for all sorts of uses. In reflecting on this week’s texts, I’ve come to the conclusion that this detail is much more than simply a throwaway, something the author of Acts includes to add incidental information about Paul. On the contrary, it’s my conviction that this seemingly insignificant fact bears greatly on Paul’s mission and on the ministry we share with him.
You see, I’ve made my fair share of tents. No, I’ve never trafficked in animal hides myself, and I’ve never been much for stitching or sewing, but I know my way around a tent – or at least I did in my younger years when I went on frequent camping trips as a member of the Boy Scouts of America. During my time in scouting, I was a part of dozens of trips to various sites in Michigan and Ohio and West Virginia, and though the details of all of those campouts differed greatly, there was one constant – the tents. Whether we’re talking about the small tents that we used to sleep and hold our gear or the large open air tent that served as our central meeting space, there was nothing more important when we showed up at our campsites than setting up the tents that would be our shelter during our stay. When they were constructed well – and when the weather cooperated – things were good. When we cut corners or didn’t take our time – or when the weather conspired against us – well, let’s just say things were much less enjoyable. By and large, the tents made or broke every trip I ever took.
It’s not just my past experience that makes me think Paul’s tent-making is a significant detail in today’s readings, however. There’s also the matter of another tentmaker whose story is told in Scripture: God. Let me explain with just a few examples. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapter after chapter is devoted to God’s instruction to Moses and the people about the construction of the wilderness tabernacle – also known as the “Tent of Meeting – within which the people of Israel could bring proper worship and encounter God during their years of wandering without a home. Later, at the opening of John’s Gospel, the evangelist tells us that the Word of God (who was with God in the beginning and was himself God) became flesh and dwelt among us – or, in a more literal rendering of the original Greek, “set up a tent and camped among us” (John 1:14, my translation). One last example: the New Testament book of Revelation closes with a description of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth. What does it look like when God establishes a home in that city? Scripture says, “Watch this! God’s tent is in the midst of humanity! He will set up camp with them, and they will become his people, and he will become their God!” (Revelation 21:3, my translation)
Still think Paul’s tent-making is a meaningless detail? At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, this morning’s passage from First Corinthians has everything to do with how we set up camp as God’s people. Let’s turn to that reading now:
Now 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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:10-18, NRSV)
Paul, the tent-maker, urges the church at Corinth – a church he established himself – to be careful about dividing themselves into different factions and, as a result, causing the community of Christ to be torn apart at the seams. The problem of division that faced the Corinthians is, of course, a problem that faces the church of today just as acutely. Instead of being content to live under the big tent established by God in Christ, we and our fellow Christians have set up our own smaller tents – Lutheran and Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Reformed, and on and on and on. Even worse, we’ve allowed other labels to divide us further – liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive, liturgical and charismatic. We’ve certainly come a long way from the prayer of Jesus that we would all be one for the sake of our witness to the world.
So – in the words of Paul – what are we to say about these things? Is there anything we can do to stop the trend toward division and disunity? If there is, it starts with acknowledging our complicity in the fragmentation of the church, and continues by looking to the one in whom we find our identity: Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified and who has been raised. He, after all, is the one who set up camp in our midst, and who drew us to himself when he was lifted up on the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world. In a very real sense, the tent established by Christ is held up by the cross that was once planted on a rocky hillside outside Jerusalem called Golgotha, and that same cross has now been planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. As Christians, people who have set up camp in our own communities so that we can welcome others into relationship with us and with God, we would do well to make sure that our tents are held up by that same cross rather than by our own ideas or innovations.
Today, brothers and sisters, we celebrate the power of the cross, which brings us all into God’s camp, and we bear witness to that power made real in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. As Ike is baptized into Christ, we will have the joy of welcoming him into this community, a community that bears Christ’s name, and his life will be forever marked by the cross that brings the promise of healing and wholeness to our world. Let us pray that we might remember today and always that we, too, are marked with that cross, the sign of God’s love and the seal of our unity in Christ, and that we might devote ourselves to the task of welcoming all people to dwell with us in Gods camp, in the light of God’s presence, and in the power of Christ. May it be so among us. Amen.