The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings: Psalm 27:1, 4-9, Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 22nd 2017
I recall watching a skit that featured two guys who meet together and begin talking about the churches that they went to. It went something like this.
The first says, 'I go to the Baptist Church'.'
'Really' replied the other 'Me too'. '
'Yeah, Second Baptist'.
'Second Baptist, American?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal?'
'Yeah! Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal?'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial,King James only, Second edition hymnal, that meets at 10:00 a.m?'
'NO WAY' replies the other 'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal, THAT meets at 6:00 p.m.'
The first one exclaims;
'I knew there was something weird about you!'
and walks away.
As he leaves the other shakes his head and shouts after him; “HERETIC!”
The Church United? Paul writes : “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."
I'm preaching a series titled “The Conundrums of Corinth (And their legacy in the Church)” You may not know this, but January 18th through the 25th is the “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” Seemed like a good week to ponder whether Christian unity can ever be a reality and visit again Paul's teaching to the divided church of Corinth.
Throughout it's history our own Presbyterian Church has divided numerous times into different camps over what seemed at the time to be irreconcilable differences. From attitudes towards slavery, to debates over evolution and creation, from women in ministry, to what creeds we adopt.
The big dividing issue of recent years is sexuality. Who should and who shouldn't be allowed to exercise ministry in the church, and who in our society should be permitted to marry... and... the larger debate in the light of more folk co-habiting and divorce rates spiraling... just what constitutes a marriage in our times?
I know if I raise a subject like this there are going to be a lot of contradictory views in the room. There will be strong differences of opinion. Some may feel that their belief is so deeply held... that all they can do is walk away from those with whom they differ. Which is... an enormous shame.
Jesus prayed that we may be One, as He and His Father were One. And we've already heard Paul encouraging us to have no divisions among us, but to be of the same mind. Which is, of course, very hard to do, if you are not of the same mind! Is there a way through times of disagreement? What does it take to be the church that Paul invites us to become, the kind of church Jesus prayed we would be? Is Church unity an impossible dream?
In our reading today a key verse is 1:13, Paul puts three questions before the Corinthians; “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” “Was Paul crucified for you?” “Is Christ divided?” I'd like to think about each of his questions.
1. Were we baptized in the name of Paul?
Baptism is one of those huge historic issues that has divided the church, so there is a strange irony to the question Paul places before us. Where any of us baptized in his name? Of course not. Paul is clear that he saw his mission as preaching the gospel. He says 'I thank God that I didn't baptize any of you' but then backs up a little and says, 'Well actually I did baptize Crispus and Gaius, oh yeah, and the household of Stephanas, but I think that was all!”
It is as though he's saying that baptism was significant, but there were far more important things, in particular preaching and demonstrating the gospel of the love and grace of Jesus Christ. That task was so high above all the others that it made him forgetful when it came to lesser matters such as baptism.
Baptism marked a beautiful way to begin the life of discipleship. It was a sign of belonging. But of belonging not to the person who baptized you, or even to the denomination that administered the sacrament, but belonging to Jesus Christ. No matter who performed the baptism or in which church it took place, a person was baptized into the name of Jesus Christ.
Baptism is a sign of our Christian identity. Paul was concerned that it was being misused in a way that identified the act with a person or an institution rather than being an act of identification with Jesus and His Kingdom. He suggests that one way to get over our disagreements is by asking whose name we were baptized into.
Of course there will be those who will suggest that our way of baptism isn't really the right way of baptism so it doesn't really count whose name it was in. There are those who use baptism, not as a way of including people, but excluding them! Such did not seem to be John the Baptist's intention when he went down to the waters and invited everybody to turn their lives round. And Jesus identified Himself with us by going forward and receiving the baptism John offered... (even though, he had nothing to repent of.)
If we can get over arguing about the mode we were baptized with and actually remember whose name we are baptized into; then we could recognize that all those who are baptized into Jesus name are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Recognizing each other as brothers and sisters creates a good foundation for unity.
2. Was Paul crucified for you?
According to historic tradition Paul ended his life at the time of Nero's persecution of the church, not through crucifixion, but by being beheaded near or in Rome. Paul at the time he wrote this letter had no knowledge that such would be his fate. We could be pedantic and argue that Paul did give his life as a sacrifice in the service of a church that would be formed by his teachings, but to argue that meant Paul, and not Jesus, died for our sins, makes no sense.
And that is Paul's point! He could not die for another persons salvation. Only Jesus could do and had done such a thing. Only Jesus was the Son of God, born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph. Only Jesus had an amazing ministry that backed up every awesome word He spoke. Only Jesus was crucified and prayed 'Father, forgive them for they don't know what they are doing'. Only Jesus was raised to life on the third day.
Paul's point, very simply, is that only Jesus is our Savior. That no matter what denomination we may belong to, that no matter how correct we feel our particular interpretation of theology is, no matter who we think should be in or out of the Kingdom, no matter how many prayers we pray or services we attend, no matter how generous are acts of charity we accomplish... at the end of all things, only Jesus is our Savior.
Furthermore, Jesus is also our neighbors Savior. Even that neighbor we don't get along with. Jesus did not just die to save us, His salvation will redeem that person we don't see eye to eye with, the one who has a very different understanding of what Christianity is and the one who attends a church with a very different history, culture and tradition from ours. Paul... and even our interpretation of Paul... is no help when it comes to salvation. That's why he teases us; 'Was Paul crucified for you?” Which brings us to our final observation.
Is Christ divided?
The answer is 'NO!' The Church is divided. The church needs a “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”. Christians around the world often find it impossible to get along with each other. We are experts at thinking only we have got it right. We are giants when it comes to building walls, breaking down bridges and fixing what isn't actually broken. We have an innate ability to think that our preferences are God's requirements and our words and doctrines and views are the only ones which carry truth.
But at the end of the day there is only, as the hymn writer so perfectly pictures it, there is only 'One Faith, one Church and one Lord'. And maybe, if we can dream of what will eventually be the reality, we can, in our better moments, step back from judgmental attitudes and shallow opinions and build toward what really matters. That in God's eyes there is only one faith... a faith defined by trusting in God, only one church, the one that Jesus invites us to be part of, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ whom God sent into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved though Him. Christ is not divided.
Let us pray that there will come a time when we see Him as He really is, when our desire for unity, is a strong as His and all things come together as they should!
Paul offers us some pointers as to how unity can be found.
- By recognizing our mutual baptism into Jesus name, We are sisters and brothers.
- Be realizing our only hope for salvation is in and through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus,
- By understanding that despite all our attempts to pull apart from each other, it is ultimately a futile task, because we (and those we separate from) are the body of Christ.
I invite you this week to join with others around the world in praying that our historic divisions may be healed and the unity that Jesus prayed we may find, a unity that resembles that which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit, may be achieved.
Disunity is as old as the church itself. It was one of the conundrums of Corinth that is still with us. My prayer is that deeper fellowship and understanding may not be seen as an unreachable goal, but a genuine part of the Kingdom that we pray may 'Come upon earth as it is in heaven'.
That one day people really will know we are Christians by our love... our love for God... our love for each other... our love for those we totally disagree with and that maybe we'll even get as far as thinking about what Jesus said about loving our enemies. To God be the glory. Amen.