January 22, 2017
The Third Sunday in Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Rev. Ryan Slifka
This week we continue with our sermon series looking at what it means to live in community together. As seen through the lens of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. If you were here last week, you’ll remember that it’s a community that he established—he planted—three years prior. One that began to flourish. It’s become a diverse community. There are rich people, and poor people. People who are locals, and people who are immigrants. And people who come from different religious backgrounds—Jew and Gentile alike. Here all sorts of people gather round Jesus and his Way. It’s quite amazing what’s developed here. But you’ll also remember that Paul is writing this letter in response to letters that the community has written him. Letters asking for his help. Because as flourishing as this community may have been it still has major issues. This letter is Paul tossing a life preserver. One in response to their community S.O.S.
This week, we discover one of the major causes of division. “Now,” Paul begins our passage. “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 (the real problem 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." We’re not exactly sure who Chloe is, or who her people are. But she’s likely a prominent member of the community. She reports that people are rallying around certain leaders, and pledging their loyalty to them. Whether it’s because they are wise. Or charismatic. Or just plain old trustworthy. The “I belong to Christ” faction is probably made up of people who alway like to take the high ground in an argument. Sort of like, “you guys go ahead and follow Paul or Peter. But I follow Jesus. Or “I just do what the Bible says.” You know those people. Regardless, loyalty to one leader in the community means tension with another in the community. Belonging to one faction pits them against others. This is the source of their conflict. And it’s tearing them apart.
As much of a problem as it is, though, Paul doesn’t see this as the main problem. You see, Paul sees something else going on below the surface. These dividing loyalties, these opposing sides, these leader-driven factions. These are the symptoms, not the problem itself. This conflict is the outcome, the manifestation of something more, something deeper.
“Has Christ been divided?” he asks. The answer, of course, being “no”—it’s a rhetorical question. Jesus hasn’t been chopped up in to different pieces, and they are supposed to be his body in the world. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks. The answer again is, of course, “no.” Jesus was crucified. Or “were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Again, the answer is “no.” They were baptized in Jesus’ name. “I thank God,” he says. “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).”
The problem isn’t just that people are drawn to in-groups, or are inspired by compelling personalities. The problem is that their loyalties to their factions and their leaders have pushed their way into the center of their world and their community life. And it’s causing them to forget, to miss their common purpose. The thing that brings them together in the first place. For Paul, they’ve substituted following their own agendas, and the agendas of their leaders for following Jesus. So they’re divided as a community because they’re divided as to their reason for being. They’re at cross purposes. They’re missing the point.
In community, it’s so easy to forget the point of things. To insert other less important things in the place of the most important thing: common purpose, common purpose, common mission. This is what’s happening in Corinth, and what so easily happens in any community. It just seems to be the way we humans operate. Politics, especially now, considering the events of the last week is probably the prime example of competing personalities and visions sowing division and strife. Division and conflict in our own lives, in our families, communities, and workplaces, is so often rooted in a lack of shared purpose or conflicting visions of where we should be going and what we should be doing. Workplaces can be dysfunctional when people are working at cross purposes. There’s no doubt that a common source of strife in relationships and marriages is that couples have competing visions of what their lives should be like. It’s easier, maybe, when you have children because raising children can be a shared purpose. But what are we raising children for? And for what ends? Where’s the purpose? What’s the point?
And it happens in the church. The community where you might expect people to have a common vision. To have their priorities most straight. It could be leaders, sure—“I belong to Ryan. I belong to Ray Brandon.” But sometimes our loyalties are more subtle. Could be our personal preferences. When it comes to worship style, when it comes to architecture and décor. When it comes to how things are done—i.e. they’ve always been done this way. We can be loyal to the past, to a particular era, the golden age. Or we can be loyal to the idea of change for its own sake, newer is always better. We can be loyal to our own vision of the way things should be, so much so that we’re willing to alienate others and cause division for it. And, hate to say it, this can be one of the biggest turn-offs for newcomers, especially non-church people. That we’re always in danger of confusing the way we want things to be, or like them to be, with the way things need them to be. We can be obsessed with maintaining a building, or maintaining our particular job, or our particular ministry. And so we can pull others, or be pulled as communities into factions. All the while never asking the question as to why these things exist in the first place.
For us, like the Corinthians, it’s so easy to miss the point of all this stuff we do. And like Paul says, this is a sure road to conflict. And division.
Without a common purpose, or with conflicting purposes, any family, any community, any organization—or even any nation—can so easily fritter itself away with competing agendas. It’s a given.
Paul’s solution to this problem, however, isn’t begging for tolerance among factions—“Why can’t we all just get along.” Paul also doesn’t suggest striking up a committee, or short term task group, so the community can discern, or democratically decide for itself on a mission or vision statement. No. Paul points to a purpose that’s already been given. One that’s ready made andshovel ready:
“For Christ did not send me, he says. “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.”
Where the community is missing the point as to its purpose, Paul points to its purpose. Which is found in the gospel, the good news it carries. He points those who are missing the point to the cross. And when Paul says “the cross,” he doesn’t just mean the cross (we’ll go more in depth in to the cross next week). But he means the whole story of their reason for being. He means the mystery of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. “For the message about the cross,” he says, “for the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul knows that so much of the world is perishing. He knows it’s filled with such despair, brokenness, poverty, violence anger and hatred. He knows that so many are in need of love, hope, strength, and encouragement. So when personalities, factions, and secondary issues are crowding out the center stage Paul lifts the cross up high. And shines a spotlight on it. He reminds the community of their common purpose. That everything they do as a community and members of it are meant to carry the good news they’ve been given. To shine the light of God’s grace and peace into the world’s dark places. And its broken places. A message that brings with it the power of God. The power for life.
Friends, it’s so easy for us to miss the point. To miss the point of our families, neighborhoods. To miss the point of our community of faith. It’s easy for us to allow different personalities and competing agendas to take over. To cause division, and to give ourselves over to struggle and strife. But we have been sent to this community for a purpose. Everything we do as a community of faith, from signing our hearts out at Sunday worship, to showing the welcome of Christ to a new guest at coffee time. From caring for those who Jesus calls the least of these at soup kitchen, the food pantry or the drop in. From giving someone food and a place to stay when they’re in need. When we’re protesting the treatment of First Nations brothers and sisters. Or watching the neighbor’s kids because they don’t have the money for day care. From the smallest detail to the biggest movement. Everything we do as the people of Jesus, inside these walls, and outside them, is there to proclaim the message of the cross, to carry this great good news to the world. To point away from ourselves. And to point our friends, our family, our neighbors, and a world that is perishing towards God’s life-changing love. Which makes all things new.
Friends, it’s so easy to forget. It’s easy to get caught up in all sorts of things, ones that so easily lead us to conflict and disunity. But today, we are reminded of the common purpose we have been given as a community of faith, one that flows to us from the source of the universe. To proclaim the message of the cross—of God’s life-changing, unshakeable, unbreakable love for all people, and all creation. One that may seem like foolishness to those who are perishing. But for those of us being saved… it’s the power of God.