Monday, January 24, 2011

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, "I Appeal to You"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth is a surprising study in how much can go wrong in a church. The books of 1 & 2 Corinthians are New Testament letters to the Christian church that Paul founded in Corinth. Corinth was a prosperous city of major importance in Greece, sitting on a narrow strip of land that connected important commercial routes. A center of commerce, culture, religious pluralism, and philosophy, Corinth was a melting pot. It was infamous for its vices and immorality.

The Christian church that Paul started there struggled with all kinds of pressures surrounding them. The worship of a pantheon of idols and false gods, the popularity of various religious philosophies, the temptation and wide acceptance of all kinds of sexual sins and the low regard for marriage, along with the usual temptations of wealth or pride. It was an easy place for the church to go astray. Many of the Christians at Corinth had been converts from their former godless way of life, but still struggled with old sin. Within the church there were various issues that Paul addressed: spiritual pride, their understanding of sexuality and marriage, Christians suing one another in the public courts, their understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper, issues with spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, and the role of women within the church. This was all surrounded by divisiveness and quarrelling.

Sounds like the church you would search out to join, right? But if we’re honest, we see that the issues are practically the same today, and that Corinth could be any modern day American city, and any modern day church wrestling with the exact same or similar issues. If we’re honest we can see some reflections of ourselves in the people and church of Corinth. Although if anything, the city of Corinth was probably far less friendly a place to start a Christian church. But we still live in a mix of religions and philosophies. We have plenty of forces that can pull us astray as well. We have Christians and non-Christians alike debating the meaning of marriage. Christians are swept into our litigious society, taking disputes to the courts that we should be able to settle ourselves. Issues of speaking in tongues, communion, and the role of women remain hot topics. The “First Church of Corinth” would blend right in with today. Sadly the Corinthian church seemed hopeless. They weren’t the poster-children for a healthy Christian congregation.

But amazingly, Paul still addresses them as, “The church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). Paul called them brothers and saints! Despite all their warts, controversies and blemishes. How does it feel for us as Christians with our struggles and sins, to be called the same? Brothers in Christ and saints! When Paul begins his letter, he sees these saints in trouble. He’s heard a trustworthy report that division and quarrels were splitting the church into factions. What kind?

Apparently the Corinthian congregation was tearing apart, and people were lining up behind their favored leader: “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas, or I follow Christ.” The details of the conflict aren’t clear, but the effect was that cliques and factions were forming, and the unity of the congregation was in danger. It doesn’t seem like it was even really a theological question, since Paul would always strongly set forth the truth whenever the Gospel or a Biblical teaching was at stake. Possibly the factions were based on personality, and certain people gravitated more towards Paul, Apollos, or Peter. Perhaps in high-sounding talk, others claimed to be more spiritual than all the rest, and said they followed none of those, but they followed Christ.

However it shaped up, whether it was a personality cult or something else, this “party spirit” proved divisive, and Paul calls for an end to it all. He expresses disbelief that they would behave as though Christ were divided, as if Paul were crucified for them, or that they were baptized into Paul’s name, not the name of Jesus. What is so interesting about this chapter is how Paul approaches the particular divisions that they were facing here. He doesn’t lean on his authority as an apostle, and he doesn’t command them as he sometimes did elsewhere. Rather, he urgently but gently appeals to them “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one name that should completely overshadow any party names and loyalties. After all, this was the name into which they had been baptized” (Lockwood, 42).

And isn’t that the way it should be when Christians are divided amongst themselves, and are caught in party spirit and infighting? That we should appeal by the name of Jesus Christ for the divisions to cease? When we hear the appeal by the name of Christ to turn away from our fighting and disagreements, and reconcile and agree with one another, shouldn’t we respond? So often pride gets in the way. Nevertheless, whatever divisions there may be in Christianity, both at the national level with denominations, and at the local level with individual congregations, Christ is not divided. Whatever external divisions there may be among us, Christ knows all who are His own. True believers hidden throughout the world form the body of Christ, the church. And the true church, the body of Christ remains undivided.

But how does Paul propose to amend these divisions? His appeal is by the name of Jesus Christ, because it is in Christ and the word of His cross that the power of God is found. The power of the Gospel is in the message of Christ and His cross. Not the kind of power we’d expect to settle earthly problems. Not a power of force or might, but an appeal from the humility and suffering of Christ, who bled for our reconciliation. On the cross God reconciled us to Himself; so that is also the starting place for our reconciliation with one another when there is division. Paul’s appeal by the name of Jesus is that they all agree and that there be no divisions among them, but that they be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

The first part of his solution is to agree with one another and not have divisions. How? When he calls us to agree, it’s literally in Greek, “to say the same thing.” Obviously if everyone is saying different and contradictory things, that is a sign of discord, not agreement. Christians have long valued the unity of voice that’s expressed when we verbally confess our faith. To say out loud together what we believe. That’s what our creeds and confessions are. They’re statements of belief that have been handed down over the centuries, that express our unity of faith with Christians who’ve gone before. The word “creed” means “I believe” and is one way in which we “say the same thing” as Christians who’ve confessed Christ for thousands of generations.

To agree by saying the same thing is also related to what Paul said in his letter to the Romans, chapter 15:5-6, which I preached on in early December. There Paul speaks of unity in this way: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” There Paul uses very similar language to talk about Christians living in harmony, which literally is “to think the same thing according to Christ Jesus” and glorify Him “with one voice.” Unity of voice and mind are key to healing divisions. Yet, as Christian history and our own individual experience can attest, such unity of mind and voice is not always easy to come by.

One commentator points out that Paul isn’t picturing a “colorless uniformity” where no one has individual ideas or expression. But rather he is appealing for a “great consensus” among them. That they stand together on the truth of God’s Word, and not be divided by petty things or personalities or cliques. But that unity in voice and mind be centered on Christ and His word. That is the building ground for consensus and unity. Neither was Paul imagining what has become common today, for everyone to hold their contradictory ideas or teachings, but cover it with one big tent. That is a unity with no unity.

However, Jesus and Paul both taught that the word of Christ would cause division among people, in that it divided truth from error, and believers from unbelievers. This kind of division happened through Jesus ministry and happens still today. The kind of division that centers on a true or false confession of who Jesus is, what salvation means, what the teachings of the Christian faith are. On those matters of faith, there is not room for compromise, and truth and error cannot coexist. Those are necessary divisions. But what Paul laments in Corinth is these unnecessary divisions that weren’t over truth or error, or anything of real substance. But they were divisions and quarreling within the church, and that’s why he appealed in the name of Jesus for them to stop. So when divisions arise, we have to know whether these are over matters of truth and God’s Word, in which case God’s Word settles what is true and false. Or are they divisions over other things that might seem so important to us, but don’t serve the church and it’s unity? Here again God’s Word encourages us and appeals to us to work through our divisions and find unity.

Just as St. Paul rejected the divisiveness and partisanship that was taking root in the Corinthian congregation, so also we should never give room for the “root of bitterness” to spring up among us (Heb. 12:15). We should appeal to one another as brothers and sisters by the one name that banishes all party loyalties. That’s the one name of our Lord Jesus Christ, into whom we were baptized and to whom alone belongs all our loyalty. At baptism a new name is placed on us, the Name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That name is the seal and mark of God’s ownership, that we are his dear children. In Christ there is no Paul or Apollos or Cephas, there is no Jew nor Gentile, barbarian, slave or free, there is no male or female. In Christ, whatever identities would divide and separate us on earth are placed behind the new identity that we have in Jesus Christ. The identity of God’s forgiven and redeemed child. One who finds in the word of the cross the power of God for our salvation.

And if all of us as believers have our identity first and foremost in Christ Jesus, and His cross of our salvation, then there should be no insurmountable obstacles for us reconciling with one another in Christ. And unless we are dividing truth from error, there should be no reason that other loyalties and opinions pull us away from harmony with one another in Christ. The great work of reconciliation has already happened in Jesus’ death on the cross, the power of salvation. Now it’s just a matter of realizing that truth by faith, and watching God’s reconciliation work its way through our hearts and lives and relationships, as we forgive like Christ forgave. May you always remember the name of God and your new identity, given to you in your baptism—in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Read the letters of 1 & 2 Corinthians. Identify the doctrinal and moral struggles they faced. What similar challenges does the church today face, both in matters of doctrine and morality?
2. Despite all their sins and controversies, how does Paul address the people of this church? 1 Cor. 1:2 On what grounds could he call them this? How is the same true for us?
3. What kind of factionalism was developing within the Corinthian church? What are examples of the same today?
4. What is the ground for Paul’s appeal for unity? What is the strength of this appeal? What greater unity did it call them to recognize? How do we know that the body of Christ is truly not divided, despite external appearances? How is this an article of faith, not sight? 1 Cor. 1:13; Matt. 16:18. John 10:14-16.
5. Describe unity of voice and mind. What it means and doesn’t mean. See 1 Cor. 1:10; Rom. 15:5-6; Phil. 1:27-2:7.
6. What is the difference between (necessary) divisions over truth (ex. Luke 12:51; John 7:43; 9:16; 10:19; Romans 16:17; 1 Cor. 11:18) and (unnecessary) divisiveness (ex. 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Gal. 5:20; 1 Tim. 1:3-7; Titus 3:10; Jude 19)? What is the difference in motivation behind each?
7. How is our new identity and name in Christ the source of reconciliation? Gal. 3:26-28; Col. 3:11; Rev. 2:17; 3:12. How does the cross re-center our loyalties? What is the ministry of reconciliation begun at the cross? 2 Cor. 5

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