Sermon, January 22, 2017 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
There is an interesting symmetry between today’s Gospel reading from Matthew and the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. In the Gospel Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and calls on a motley crew of fishermen to follow him and be leaders in the church. Then we read Paul’s discussion of the problematic factions in Corinth, with each faction following a different leader. It seems like the perfect combination of passages to demonstrate how we always seem to ruin what God calls us to do. God calls us to be leaders in his church and we turn around and break apart into factions, each following our chosen leader to the detriment of the church.
I do wonder if they thought of this interesting connection when they drew up the lectionary readings. In any case, let’s look at Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and what it tells us about unity and division in the church. To begin with, it is very important to understand the cultural context of the ancient Greek world in which the Corinthian church existed. Once we understand that, we can see what Paul was getting at in this passage.
The Greeks fancied themselves as very sophisticated and philosophical people. Philosophers and intellectual teachers would wander about and attract disciples to themselves. These teachers and philosophers were often puffed up and pompous and their followers would argue and quarrel with each other. Keep in mind that in the ancient world, there were no televisions, radios, or social media. Most people had no say in elections. There were no sports teams to cheer on. Instead, people enjoyed hearing teachers and philosophers spouting off, and they were quick to divide into teams, following one teacher or another.
Trading good natured trash talk is all part of the sports culture in North America. We wear our teams jerseys and call out insults about the opposing team’s star players. On a less light-hearted note, my Facebook friends span from those that are politically conservative to those that are liberal. Over the past year, I have seen all sorts of political postings and discussion. Typically, these devolve into a lot of name calling and hysteria, with insults flying back and forth. People don’t listen to each other and are more concerned with putting down their opponents than they are with constructively engaging anyone.
This sort of tribalism is in our human nature, and just as we engage in this sort of behavior today, the Christians in ancient Corinth apparently did so as well. Scholars don’t think that the factions were actually led by the individuals mentioned in the text, but rather that people were attracted to perspectives represented by the named leaders. Some scholars suggest that the Paul faction were those who regarded themselves as being the true followers of the apostle Paul and so followers of the true authority in the church. The Apollos party is thought to have been a group that regarded themselves as the intellectual elite of the church. The Cephas, or Peter, faction probably represented Jewish Christians who regarded themselves as the purest group within the church. And finally, the Christ party were probably a group that opposed any leadership at all, thinking that they were the most spiritual and may have even tended towards Gnosticism.
So basically, each of these factions was infected with pride and self-importance. Their factionalism turned the focus away from the Gospel and towards themselves. Instead of focusing on Jesus Christ, they were focused on themselves and why they were the best Christians in the church.
We face the same problems in the church today. There are some Christians who are quite convinced that they are better than others because they follow the oldest and most correct teachers or traditions. Others, including many in our tradition, think that they are far more intelligent and intellectual than other Christians. Still others fancy themselves as being the only Spirit filled Christians. Yet others see themselves as the purest and most authentic followers of Jesus because they don’t bother with doctrine but instead practice a social gospel as community and political activists.
The problem is not that Christians serve the poor, or study doctrine, or take teachers and traditions seriously, or seek to engage the intellect, or are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Nor is it bad that Christians focus their time and talent in specific areas. God created us each with unique personalities, interests and talents. Some are called to serve the poor, others to advocate for the less fortunate, others to study theology, others to have a greater sensitivity to the spirit. None of this is the problem.
What is the problem is when we become prideful in our areas of interest and shift our focus from Jesus Christ and the Gospel to our own agendas. Does the spiritual revival point people to Jesus Christ, or is the focus on magical signs and wonders? Does the social advocacy show God’s love for people, or is the focus on the political perspective of the activist? Does the theological discussion support the Gospel message, or is does it build up the intellectual egos of the participants? These are the questions to ask.
In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul sets out some corrective guidelines for us. He does this through three questions. He asks “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Each of these questions communicates an important truth.
In the first question, our Bibles translate Paul asking “Is Christ divided?” The Greek word is perhaps better rendered “Has Christ been parcelled out?” The point here is that Christ cannot be broken up and divided up. The Gospel is not a smorgasbord where we each only take the parts that we like. Later on in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.”
Paul’s point here is that while we each might have different roles to play in the Church, we must never forget that we are all part of the same body of Christ. Not one of us can vainly imagine that we or our chosen faction are more important than other Christians.
Paul’s next question is “Was Paul crucified for you?” Here he is pointing to the fundamental message of the Gospel – that Jesus Christ died on the cross for us to take away our sins. It wasn’t the imagined leaders of the various factions that died for us, it wasn’t our ideas, our advocacy, our charismatic practice, or anything else. Jesus died for us, and that is where our focus needs to be.
Theologian John Stott writes that the Eucharist is vitally important as a sacrament of reconciliation. He says “to be continually reminded of the cross is one of the healthy results of regularly sharing in the service of Holy Communion.” Stott argues that “reconciliation and unity between Christians is the fruit of the atoning sacrifice of Christ at Calvary, and that the service of Holy Communion is therefore where we begin to demonstrate that unity which is God’s gift to us through the reconciling work of his Son.” Specifically, he writes, Christians “all come together to the Lord’s Table as sinners redeemed by his blood; we there acknowledge the disunity caused through our sin and guilt, then gratefully and joyfully celebrate our unity in forgiveness and cleansing.“ Focusing on the cross should always remind us of our sin and guilt and instill humility in us. Humility is the great antidote to pride and self-congratulation.
Paul’s third question is “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Remember how I told you that the ancient Greeks loved to follow intellectual teachers and philosophers? Well, these teachers often staged initiation rituals where followers would become their disciples and would thus come under their authority. Scholars believe that this mindset had infected the church, and that some Corinthian Christians regarded baptism as an initiation where they became the disciples of the person who baptized them. So if Paul baptized you, you were in Paul’s tribe. If Apollos baptized you, you were Apollos’ man.
This is why Paul says “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” He is saying that he was not sent to create factions in the Church, but to proclaim the gospel of the cross of Christ. We should all be disciples of Jesus Christ, not of one faction or another.
And so what is Paul’s message to us today about unity in the Church? I think that is quite a simple one. If we stay focused on the Gospel of Jesus and the cross of Christ, we’ll be okay. We’ll remember that, even though we all play a different part, we are all an equally important part of the body of Christ. We’ll remember that we “all come together to the Lord’s Table as sinners redeemed by his blood” and not by our own cleverness, goodness or actions. And finally, we’ll remember that we are all disciples of Jesus Christ, and not of our own little factions and cliques. This is how Christian unity can be restored. It starts at the bottom and works its way up.
So as we move to the confession of sin and sacrament of the Eucharist, let us confess our innate sin of pride and tribalism, and remember – for each and every one of us – it is only through the cross of Christ that we are redeemed. And redeemed, we are all part of Christ’s body because Christ is the one who invited us.
Let us pray,
God of all mercy, your Son died on the cross so that we might be freed from our bondage to sin and death. Grant that we may come together to your table as sinners redeemed by your blood, and gratefully and joyfully receive your body and blood as food and drink for us proclaiming our unity as fellow disciples of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.