The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
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What Divides Us Today
“Grace to you and peace from God the Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Pray with me …
Paul set us up last week. And so this week we get started.
Last week we “opened someone else’s mail.” Paul greeted the church in Corinth and completed a theologically pointed thanksgiving for God’s work in and grace among the Corinthians. And after expressing deep gratitude for what God has done in this fledging mission church in the past and expressing his hope for the future, Paul rolls up his sleeves and abruptly confronts them in verse ten of chapter one of first Corinthians:.
Listen for the Word of God: Read 1 Corinthians 1:10.
(The fundamental theme of this letter is sounded in verse ten … repeatedly: no divisions, be in agreement, be united.)
Read 1 Corinthians 1:11-17 … The Word of the Lord.
So this is us, for the next few weeks anyway. An exploration into some of the matters that Paul brings to the attention of the Corinthians in so far as they may or may not be part of our community. And first up: an appeal to brothers and sisters in Christ to be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
The gap between what the church should be, what Paul hoped it would be almost two thousand year ago, and what it actually is, is glaringly evident in our verses this morning. It’s clear that no matter how many times Paul, or any one else who came after him in the millennia that has followed, admonished the early church about divisions, they never succeeded in bringing full unity to the churches that came after them. From Catholic-Orthodox splits, to Protestant splintering, to intra-denominational disputes, divisions reign. The question we ask ourselves this morning is not “do divisions exist among us,” or even is “why do divisions exist among us?” The question we explore this morning is “what is it” that divides us?
In Paul’s letter, I don’t think that he’s is writing about “doctrinal orthodoxy.” He’s not writing to tell this community that they are divided in “what they believe.” He’s not asking this community to all “believe the same way.” I also don’t think Paul is asking the community to all speak and behave in the same way. I mean, in just a few chapters he’s going to celebrate the fact that a church community has many members and a huge variety of gifts and ministries and every one of those ministries and every one of those members, as different as they are, has their place – every member has his or her call. Paul is not chastising the Corinthians for not believing, speaking or acting “all the same.” Uniformity is not a requirement for unity.
Paul’s concern seems to be with the way this community is seen from the outside, by those looking in. Internally, there are many members – varied and speical. Externally there must be one body. “However you speak, however you act, however you share your belief, do it so that no one will doubt you are brothers and sisters … in Christ.” Unified, one …
We’ll take a closer look at some specific ways that an outsider looking in at this community may see a fractured population, but overall it has to do with how the powerless, often the “poor,” are disregarded, or at least marginalized, just as they are “in the world,” and with the way in which individual freedoms and opinions are emphasized at the expense of the whole community.
Paul – and Peter, and Chloe, and Apollos, and the early apostles, all, are attempting what scarcely anyone else has tried before: To create a community among people of incredibly varied backgrounds. A “church” composed of rich and poor, Jew and Greek, slave and free, a church that didn’t include nearly the ethnic ties and family connections that make up churches today. In many, if not most, cases the only thing that those gathering may have had in common was Christ … and the cross of Christ.
No, the divisions are not about theology. In fact, Christian orthodoxy of belief won’t be established for about three centuries. The dissension and discord most likely have to do with the community’s, or with particular individual’s, understanding of what it means to be “powerful” in Christ. Jealousy over leaders and access to leadership roles, and the way in which the practices of leaders in this new community are carried out are creating divisions. We can well imagine that those with leadership roles in their “civic lives” – that is, in the city of Corinth, itself – are shaping this new community and their common life in ways they are not only familiar with, but comfortable with, and that isn’t sitting well with all. And not to single out only the movers and shakers, we can imagine there are those who are accustomed to getting by on others hard work who are sitting back and expecting to be served in this new community, as well. The quarrels among them are not about belief in this early community, but about how God in Christ defines their new relationship with one another and for the rest of the world – sacrificially.
What about us? What divides us as a church today? What, indeed …
I know I’ve shared with you on a number of occasions how there are weeks when a sermon message comes with more difficulty. I humbly submit that much of the time the Spirit moves pretty easily through me as I discern not only what to offer as “sermon” on Sunday morning, but how to present that offering to those that gather here, what words to use, all to the glory of God, I trust. Now that’s not to say that I always discern the most engaging, challenging, or provocative way to deliver the gifts of the Spirit. I know, and you do, too, that I’ve used the same stories or sermon illustrations on different occasions. My theology has grown since I began here, but my scriptural interpretations have very consistently sought out the “more-than-literal” meanings and directions for us as Christian community found in our bible, so on occasion in the past eight years I’ve delivered a sermon or two that are not … “dis-similar” to an earlier sermon (!). My point is, I’m not often at a loss for words on Sunday morning.
This past week was one in which I found myself struggling more than usual. As I sat down on Friday morning (and that’s late for me) with little or nothing to say about 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, I realized what was blocking me this past week. It was about 10:30 in the morning and I was at home with my “inspirations” – bible, commentaries, newspaper – and I realized as I sat down to try again to be articulate and prophetic, that the inauguration events for our 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, were underway in Washington D.C. I moved to the television to watch some coverage and as the screen and sounds came to life. Michelle Obama and Melania Trump were just getting into their limo, Vice President Joe Biden and Vice-President elect Mike Pence were soon after, and then came Barak and Obama, all on theier way to the Capital. Coverage transitioned to that location as members of the Republican and Democratic parties were coming in, along with former Presidents Carter, Bush, Clinton – Hillary with him, and Bush. And it hit me like a ton of bricks … there it is.
There it is …
You feel it, too. Right now … What divides us today. It’s not theological, at least not overtly, not initially. Like the church in Corinth so many, many years ago, that which divides us today in not doctrinal orthodoxy or behavioral uniformity. I daresay we in the PCUSA, and me even more so in my Pastoral identity, encourage multiple expressions of faith and articulations of belief. It’s not a matter of “right or wrong” in how we express and articulate our faith, it’s a matter of what results from our expressions and articulations: do we find ourselves in deeper relationship with God and have we created within us a greater capacity for compassion, for other human beings and for the natural world, God’s creation. With the convictions and confessions of a Christian community, I don’t care how you get there, just get there – deeper relationship and greater compassion.
No, what divides us is not theological. It’s “this-worldly” political, social, and ideological. It has to do with the “activities we associate and identify with that concern the governance of our country, especially the debate or conflicts between those having or hoping to achieve power;” It has to do with the “way in which we organize ourselves to accomplish the responsibilities of a common population,” for us the United States of America. Those are online and Webster’s definitions of “politics” as it concerns the governance of a country, state, or local community. There’s nothing theological about the divisions that are a part of our church life because of our civic life.
The Roman Catholic church split from the Eastern Orthodox church in the early eleventh century over disputes on the origin of the Holy Spirit. The Protestant churches split from the Roman Catholic church in the early sixteenth century over matters of the authority of Scripture and the mediation of God’s grace. Protestants further divided among themselves in the century that followed over doctrinal disputes and church practices. We can claim no such ‘holiness” for what divides us today, in the 21st century church. Our divisions have to do with worldly politics.
What’s he going to say now about President Donald Trump or the Republican Party? Or what isn’t he going to say. What’s he going to say now about former President Barak Obama or the Democrats? Or what isn’t he going to say? What he going to preach to us about race, gender, poverty, LBGTQ, or other political and social issues. Because either way, and any way, someone or “ones” will be unhappy, feel divided from me or from others in this congregation. That’s what divides us today.
Well … I’m not going to say anything about Presidents Trump or Obama or their U.S. political parties. Or the women’s march yesterday, or the ongoing and necessary conversations about race and gender realities. I’m not going t say anything, and I’m going to say everything we need to hear: Like Paul before me, I speak to this community – and that includes me – and to all the realities of our lives here and outside these walls in the name of our Christ.
This the third time I’ve said this to you as your Pastor (and I’ll say it three more times, or three-times-three more times – those are good biblical numbers): In this community, and in our lives, we are first and foremost Disciples of Christ, not citizens of a country (as beautiful as this country is). No matter who wins our elections, is seated in our inaugurations, and governs our country, our directives to them as people of Christian faith should be the same: feed the hungry, care for the poor, release the captives, let the oppressed be free, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As good citizens we do our civic duty. As faithful disciples, we must live into our Christian identity and demand that those who have govern do their devoted best in justice for all.
It doesn’t matter to me as your Pastor or, quite frankly, to your church what earthly political party you belong to, what stance you take on worldly issues, or domestic policies. Your response as a disciple of Christ in holding our civic leaders, our domestic policies, and our global stances to account does. We must “be about the ministry of healing and reconciliation” in every corner of our own lives, our country, and our world.
I’m not naïve. And I’m only a little obtuse. The Gospel has been used, abused, stretched, reduced, and all around worked over to accommodate the lives of church members since this dream began two thousand years ago. The letter we read is proof of divisions and dissension from the very beginning. In every age, it is for each of us to discern whether our lives beyond these walls, personally, spiritually, fiscally, politically, measure up to the standards that Paul, in Christ, sets for the church. I’ll rid us of any suspense – they don’t. And so, within these walls the appeal goes on, brothers and sisters by the name of our Lord, that we all be in agreement, and there be no divisions among us, that we be united in the same mind and the same purpose: sharing the Love of God in Christ with the world. We will seek to deal with the tragedy of what divides us today as we focus not on the power struggles in our country or the knowledge we have accumulated about any social issue, but as we focus on the sacrificial love of Christ in all we do.
We’ll search for this sacrificial love and the power of the Cross in the weeks ahead as we continue to explore 1 Corninthians. For now, at least in these remaining moments we have together this morning, let us be of one mind, one purpose, one mission: That all may know Christ’s love.
Maybe it will make a difference in our lives all week and far beyond. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 22, 2017