a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
preached on January 26, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As you heard earlier in the announcements, today is the annual meeting of the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone. This annual gathering is a wonderful tradition that gives us space to celebrate the life of the church in this place over the last year and to look ahead into the coming year together. While we do approach some serious business in our congregational meetings, this is largely a ceremonial affair. As much as our Presbyterian polity is built on something of a democratic system that trusts that God speaks through the voices of God’s people as we gather together like we do today, there are only five or six things that we are allowed to do in our meeting today. But even more than that, when the groups that are reporting and bringing items for action have done good work of listening for the movement of the Holy Spirit and have made reasonable decisions and present them in constructive and helpful ways, people will ask good questions and then go on to affirm the work that has been done to get us to today without much dissension.
It is very rare—though not entirely unheard-of—to have dissent and division in the annual meeting—unless you were the church in Corinth. The church in Corinth is remembered even after two millennia for its conflict and trouble, and I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to have been in an annual meeting there! Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians were written to a group of people who seem to have been divided over nearly everything: who baptized them, how to sit together for meals, what sorts of sexual behavior were to be accepted, whether to deal with petty conflicts between church members in the church or civil court, how to deal with people of different backgrounds, what sorts of food was acceptable to eat, whether to cover your head when you pray, whether women should be allowed to speak in worship, even what to do with the weekly offering!
Paul knew that things were bad there, and he right up front in his first letter to them he named the issues:
I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master.
I’ll put it as urgently as I can:
You must get along with each other.
You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common. (The Message)
In this particular instance, different church members were claiming greater authority, power, and privilege based on who had baptized them. While they had originally come together as one church from their different backgrounds, united by the gift of God in the cross of Jesus Christ, they were now focusing on their differences. While they had once understood their life to be shared in common, connected by a common faith and hope, now they were pointing fingers at each other unnecessarily.
This situation isn’t totally surprising. The early church was itself an offshoot sect of Judaism, with no central authority or even structure to give guidance along the way, so individuals would obviously put greater confidence in those who had been instrumental in guiding them into their understanding of faithfulness. But Paul knew that even if this was an important initial step, it would be disastrous for the long term. If early Christians weren’t careful, they would soon divide up this message of hope and salvation, and in their actions of division they would keep others from wanting to be a part of this new way of life.
So Paul turned the Corinthians’ focus back to Christ, the unifying force in their faith and life. Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s words so clearly here:
God didn’t send me out to collect a following for myself,
but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him.
And he didn’t send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own,
lest the powerful action at the center—Christ on the Cross—be trivialized into mere words.
The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction,
but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense.
This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out.
Ultimately, Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that the divisions of the world, the human distinctions that emerge in our lives, and even the confusion that emerges in our life together cannot overwhelm the message of the cross.
Now this message of the cross would seem to be the last thing to focus on, really. The standards of the world would never place the cross, a symbol of death, at the center of thinking about new life. The thought that such a powerful God would be so humble as to die a human death was crazy in that day and age. And all the other good messages of that time were presented with flowery words and careful arguments that seemed far greater than the simple proclamation of Jesus through the cross. Yet Paul was convinced that this message was at the center of everything the church ought to stand for. This message was worthy of setting aside all conflict and division—in fact, this message was the only way that the church could come together amidst all divisions.
In our day and age, when so much of our world is more polarized than ever, when even the church keeps fracturing further because of disagreement on things that are pretty small in the big picture, when we need a witness to unity and hope more than ever, Paul’s urgent request echoes across the centuries: “You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common.” This isn’t something we can just will into existence in our midst by pretending like conflict doesn’t exist. If we just set aside our disagreement and paper over our dissent, we don’t actually become “united in the same mind and the same purpose” as Paul so desired.
So as we approach an annual meeting this afternoon that seems to be pretty routine in a congregation where we usually all get along pretty well, it was interesting for me to spend this past week at a workshop on mediation and conflict transformation. Even if we don’t always express a lot of dissent in our annual meetings, conflict and disagreement is a natural and good part of the life of the church and our world. Believe it or not, we actually communicate better with each other when there is some healthy disagreement—so long as it doesn’t get out of hand and we keep talking to one another! Yet in these days our world suggests that we should have as little as possible to do with those we disagree with, so we in the church can offer a gift to others if we can simply keep talking with one another and loving each other even when we disagree.
I was reminded this week that we are at our best when we are hard on the issues and soft on people, when we take the things we believe and do just as seriously as we take our relationships with one another. I think this is what Paul was really hoping for, too. He was looking for the church at Corinth to recognize that they needed to keep their focus on the most important issue at hand—on the proclamation of the wonderful and strange message about the cross—and so to work through their quarreling and disagreement while living together in faith, hope, and love as best they could.
So what would this look like in our life together? Does this mean that we need to have a big verbal argument at the annual meeting today so that we can be focused on the cross—and kick out anyone in our midst who isn’t as focused as I am? Does this mean that we should just let anyone among us do anything they want, without worry or consequence for its impact on others? Or does this mean that we need to spend a little more time listening to one another as we try to discern how God is leading us in these changing times? I think that third option is the better way, for we are bound together in the cross of Christ and given the hope and possibility of a new and different way, not just in setting aside our differences but in welcoming the opportunity to learn more about the gifts of God in our lives and in discerning how we can be more faithful together in this changing world.
So as we do this important work later today and in the year ahead, may our foundation be Jesus Christ our Lord, may the cross be our hope of the power of God, and may all our conversation—and even any disagreement—reflect the joyous gift of God that brings us new life for all the days ahead. Thanks be to God! Amen.