1 Corinthians 1:10-18 CEB
Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning.
The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.
United, not the word many would choose to describe either our world or the Church at this point in history. Just looking at Christianity, we see splits everywhere, with the big three branches of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions followed by hundreds of smaller offshoots including our own Methodist and Presbyterian traditions. On the other hand, here in today’s scripture, we have Paul encouraging us to have “the same mind and the same purpose,” that somehow we as diverse as we are need to be unified for the sake of the kin-dom. Back in Paul’s day, it was dealing with differences in just this one church in Corinth, but now we have millions of Christians spread across the globe with different expressions of their faith and even different understandings of God. I wonder if Paul were to rewrite this letter today, and if he were to address it to the modern church, what would this discussion of unity look like? How do we name our allegiances today and do we let them become rivalries that divide? After all, some say, “I am an evangelical Christian,” still others, “I am a progressive Christian,” or “I am a conservative Christian,” or “a liberal Christian,” or “Catholic,” or “Methodist,” or “non-denominational.” Has Christ been divided, or can these differences exist while sharing the same mind in Christ?
It calls to mind things people said to me when I first came to Thermopolis over a year and a half ago. I remember that many would ask where my family and I had come from. When I answered Denver, more than a few would follow up with something like, “Well, I bet you are glad to be out of there!” As though, the only way I could have come to Thermopolis and Wyoming is if I had grown to dislike Denver. Still, others made comments about city folks not having any community and cities being dangerous places, and I started to think … “Do folks around here not like Denver?” Well, I am sure that all of us prefer our home, our places of comfort, to any other place in the world, but such preferences can cross the line into arrogance and division. Something Paul understood well in the church of Corinth. People had become arrogant, dividing themselves between followers of Paul, Cephas (Peter), Apollos, and others. They went into their corner and declared it the best, and so every other corner, every other allegiance must be worse by necessity. The only way to have unity for them was for every other side to agree with their side and accept it as their own. I mean, for example, I am sure the followers of Cephas thought everyone could all get along, as long as everyone else agreed to follow Cephas too! In the end, Corinth’s vision of unity had become limited and narrow.
The truth is we cannot all be in the same place, geographically or spiritually. We have different gifts and graces. We value different things and share different experiences. Traditions vary. Everyone thinks their own position is reasonable and rational. Is that it then? Do we all go our separate ways? Do we answer Paul’s question of “Has Christ been divided?” with a reluctant yes?
Except, Paul expects us to answer no, believing the answer to be obvious, after all, “Christ didn’t send [Paul] to baptize but to preach the good news.” Our good news of the kin-dom of God is one of grace. By God’s grace, we have been saved and restored to a relationship with the divine through Christ. By God’s grace, not our own allegiances, we are united in Christ. Look again at his list of rivalries: Paul, Cephas, and Apollos, maybe make sense, but what about when Paul claims that some say “I belong to Christ” as if that is a problem! How could that be, shouldn’t the answer to all these allegiances be to have everyone follow Christ?
Think about it, though, has there ever been a time when you believed that Christ was truly on someone else’s side and you were on the wrong side? On the other hand, how many times have we claimed Christ sides with us, with me, and the other person is not only against me but Christ? Our opponents, like those other allegiances, are not just wrong but they are now anti-Christ. That is the worst thing we can say about another Christian, after all, that they are so wrong that they are not Christian at all. Some Protestant Christians will say that of Catholics. Conservative and liberal Christians will say that about each other. In the end, however, Christ is not our exclusive property, no matter how “right” we turn out to be. We cannot claim that only we follow Christ, that only we know Christ.
We behave as though unity and diversity are on the exact opposite sides of the spectrum, but that is simply not so. Disunity and divisions are the opposites of unity, and those things are not synonymous with difference. Both disunity and division are marked by conflict and hostility toward difference, but people can be different and united. As I mentioned earlier, the many different and varied people of Thermopolis seem to be united in their dislike for Denver! People can be united by causes, united by the love of something, or in our case as Christians, united through and in another. How can I claim to be a Christian without the grace of God after all? Is it not in Christ that I am restored to a relationship, everlasting and eternal, with God?
In fact, to go one step further, would I also not find all of you joined in this same body with me? What about the evangelicals, progressives, liberals, and conservatives? What about Catholics, Methodists, and non-denominational folks? How about folks living in small-town Wyoming and urban Denver? We are all there together in the body, in Christ by our God’s grace not our own right opinions or coming from the right location. As Paul says at the beginning of our passage, “I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” No matter how different we are, we have always been and will remain brothers and sisters, siblings to each other through and in Christ. We are family. If my daughter grows up thinking and believing differently than I do, should I tell her that she is now not my daughter, and that the bond has been cut? In truth, perhaps God has simply shown her a different way to be the body in this world than what I have been shown.
Now, this is not to say we do not have room for improvement or that none of us ever do anything wrong, for Paul would not have had to write a letter to Corinth if the answer was that they could simply do whatever they want and call it good! However, Paul’s reminder to “Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups,” instead being “restored with the same mind and the same purpose” in Christ hits differently. In fact, it reminds me of an aspen tree. Maybe this is a new fact or one you already knew, but an aspen tree is the single largest living organism in the whole world, even surpassing the blue whale which can weigh nearly 200 tons. When you go out to the Rocky Mountain ranges in the fall, there are many aspen groves painted in vivid gold. Tree after tree, one after the other, stretching on for ages, except in reality, they can all be one tree, connected by their roots. The Church is the same. Each denomination, each different group, is like those trunks and leaves springing out from Christ, showing the gold they have found in God to the world. No two are the same. Each shines in its own way, and yes, some can even be damaged or harmful to the whole, but nothing changes the fact that they are all connected.
If disunity and division are marked by conflict and rivalry around difference, unity must be marked by harmony instead. We are all in this together, all in Christ. It changes how we fight and disagree. We don’t sling insults like anti-Christian or even that another is “from the devil.” Instead, we seek reconciliation as we recognize that the other across the way is just as much joined to Christ as I am. We desire community over simply being right. We seek to build each other up rather than tear each other down merely so one can be right and another wrong. It changes how we treat each other! Instead of turning up our noises when another’s faith is expressed differently than ours, can we and will we be curious? Will we look to see how God might be speaking through them in different ways than ours? Will we look to see how God’s purpose of kin-dom building is happening through them? How will we celebrate them and join with them, and invite them to join with us? You see, each is another way the body of Christ is moving and building the kin-dom in this world. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman