I Corinthians 1:10-19
They weren’t paying much attention to the gospel. Instead, they’d gotten themselves wrapped up in a fight. I suppose we could say that this was the beginning of a long and inglorious tradition. Churches have been fighting for over two thousand years, and in spite of what the Apostle Paul counsels in this passage, I don’t expect that Christians all around the globe will suddenly wake up tomorrow morning and say, “What are we doing? Why are we quarreling like this? Our mission and integrity is being damaged by every fight that we have! Let’s stop fighting, let’s get along, let’s focus more on the proclamation of the Gospel and less on our own needs. Let’s understand that the world needs Jesus, and focus our energies on that!”
That’s just not gonna happen. And it is not gonna happen because the Christian church is made up of people who have no business whatsoever of being together in the first place. We worship, week after week with people we would not invite into our homes. We worship, week after week with people we’d rather not have to know. We worship, week after week with people who have personality traits that absolutely drive us insane. We worship, week after week with people with whom we have nothing in common, except for the fact that we share the same savior.
Now the church at Corinth, while all the members shared the same savior, they didn’t have a whole lot to commend themselves in terms of any other kind of unity. They weren’t very good at focusing on Jesus and the mission to which he had called them. What they were very good at was dividing themselves up into little cult-like groups. And once they had divided themselves up, they got down to the real business of fighting with each other.
Those of us who’ve been involved in churches for our whole lives know that a congregation can fight about almost anything that it wants to fight about. Some of these fights are incredibly stupid, and they involve foolishly trivial matters that have no basis in the gospel truth, but they still choose up sides and have at it. Other fights can often seem to be over more noble causes, but people still choose up sides, and more often than not, the net result is the same. Nothing is accomplished for the advancement of the Gospel. The mission withers.
We know very little about the divisions that developed at Corinth, except to say that the Christians there had created for themselves a very troubled church. The folks in Corinth seem to have taken up sides against each other in some sort of personality cult, but that’s about all that we can say about it. Those four personality cults involve Paul, Apollos, Peter and Jesus. And I suspect that if we could have the four of them here with us in worship this morning, each of them would express deep regret that a cult had formed around them. Like most church fights, we know nothing about how or why these personality cults formed. That’s mostly because the Christians at Corinth didn’t have access to Facebook back in those days, and we can’t read their posts. Not even the Apostle Paul seems to know exactly what’s up. He speculates that his own cult-like followers might have formed around baptism, but that certainly doesn’t work for at least two of the cults. And so he says, “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.” It would help, maybe, if we knew who Chloe’s people were, but about that we don’t even have a clue. Well, they were snitches, that we know, but Paul himself tells us about that.
We can’t even properly speculate or even make stuff up about these personality cults. We do know, though, that Paul was the founder of this church, and among some people, there may be some lingering affection for him, although most of that should have waned away by now. Apollos was the evangelistic teacher and preacher who followed Paul in Corinth. We do know that he was presumed to be a better preacher than Paul was, but that’s really no reason for the followers of Paul and the followers of Apollos to be getting all knotted up in a snit against each other. But the last two present the greatest mystery. As far as we know, the Apostle Peter never set foot in Corinth, (he’s the Cephas of verse 12) and so there’s no obvious reason for folks to be rallying around him. And we know with an absolute certainty that Jesus never once came to Corinth! Well, that’s not entirely true. Jesus was never there in the flesh, but he certainly was there all the time in spirit.
Which makes the Christ cult all that much more suspect over the other three. It may be that the first three personality cults formed relatively spontaneously and somewhat simultaneously. It may be that the remaining folks in the church became so frustrated and so angry over all of the division and infighting over personalities, that they declared, with no small amount of self-righteousness, that “we are the ‘Jesus group’. We follow Jesus, we are too spiritual to get all wound up in your petty disagreements, we will follow our Lord and savior!” Which, of course with an attitude like that, made them no better at all than the ones they were criticizing. In any event, Paul lumps the Jesus group in with the other offenders, and has nothing at all to say about them in terms of commendation, only condemnation.
So what we’ve got is some serious and problematic division among the Christians in Corinth, with which the folk have grown comfortable, and against which the Apostle Paul is determined to speak his mind, with the prayer that those divisions will go away.
Since it’s inception, the Christian Church has been fraught with division. The very fact that there are two other Baptist churches within two miles of this building is evidence of that. Jesus once prayed that all of his followers would become one. I think he’s going to have to wait for that, given the state of the Christian Church world-wide. I haven’t a clue how many Christian denominations there are, but I’m sure that there are hundreds and hundreds of them, all with their own little reasons for staying separate and distinct from everyone else.
Part of the problem is what I alluded to near the beginning of this sermon. The Christian Church is made up of people who have no natural, or earthly reason whatsoever for coming together. We are not a club, we are not a membership society, we don’t recruit people who are of like mind and like purpose, and so it is easy to see how we might degrade ourselves into something like the personality cults that developed in Corinth. People crave connections with other people who are like themselves.
But the church does not provide that. The church is open only to sinners. Only sinners are welcome here. And that can sometimes be a major hurdle to overcome, because sinners come from all walks of life, all social and economic castes and categories, all racial and ethnic backgrounds and from any other heard of or unheard of human division that we can possibly begin to imagine. The truth is that sinners can come from anywhere, and we usually do.
And so, from a human point of view, we start out divided, but with the one exception that actually unites us: our sin. So there’s this stunning paradox. We are as divided as divided can be, but over it all, we are completely united because of our sin. So while we’re pondering that paradox, let’s add one more. We are as divided as divided can be, but at the same time, united by our sin. But because we have latched ourselves on to a savior, we also share something else. We share grace, and the repulsive forgiveness that comes with that grace. Yes grace is repulsive! Try extending grace to someone who does not deserve it. Grace is very repulsive. And because we share grace, the power of divisions ought to be fading away among us. Let me try to put that together as succinctly as I can. From the very outset, we are divided. All humans are divided. But also from the outset, we are united by our sin, which unfortunately tends to further divide us. That’s a bad situation. But then, along comes grace and forgiveness, and that unites us, doing away with the power of sin over us, so instead of being united only by sin, we are now also united by grace, and that’s a good thing, so the net result should be that there are less divisions among us. Now, will we still fight and have divisions among us? of course. We are still human and we are all still sinners. So one wonders, if we are human, and if we are still affected, if not driven by sin, how could such an assemblage of people like us, ever hope to accomplish anything of value for God’s kingdom?
Well, let’s triple up the paradox. We share grace in common, but we each have spiritual gifts that are uniquely suited to us, and to the work of the ministry where we are gathered. We share those gifts in common, but not all gifts are alike, in fact, they are all very different. And they are to be used to enhance the mission and the ministry of our church. you see, when it all boils down to it, we are the church. We don’t go to church, we don’t attend church, we are the church. We are all different, we are all unique, we each have something special to contribute.
The trouble at Corinth arose when they started to fight about how they could all emphasize what they had in common. And so in their struggle to discover uniformity, they broke up into those four personality cults that had nothing to do with being followers of Jesus at all. The only thing they did was take up sides against each other, and because they took up four different sides, they ended up being trapped in a box. Better that we never get ourselves boxed in, but if we do, best that we remember that unity and uniformity should never be confused. Unity can only be discovered within diversity, and that too, is another paradox.