January 26, 2014 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Epiphany 3 Jan 26, 2014  

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1 Corinthians 1:10-17

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 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.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?   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.)  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.

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There’s an ancient proverb that says – Wherever two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name…. pretty soon there will be a church fight. So what’s up with the apostle saying, “I appeal to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another – so that there be no divisions among you – but that you be perfectly united in the same mind and purpose?”

What planet could the apostle Paul be living on? I mean, Jesus himself prayed for unity among his followers (John 17) and even Jesus’ prayer doesn’t seem to have been answered affirmatively (at least not yet)…

Isn’t this still the world that so loves to fuss and fight and always seem to be looking for conflict – picking up sides and going at it, til one side or the other drops from exhaustion or extinction, whichever comes first?

And we the church, still seem to have much the same kinds of divisions as the world around us. There are reportedly now some 33,000 distinct Protestant denominations, along with many orders and sub-divisions in the Catholic and Orthodox branches of the church. Sometimes our differences in belief and practice are small, sometimes huge. Sometimes we argue politely over differences. Other times we fight pitched battles, even wars.

Yet the word of God tells us – be in agreement, no divisions – united in the same mind, for the same purpose. Which seems virtually impossible for us humans. (Though we know with God all things are possible…)

Though sometimes we’ve got to be very creative (as God, in whose image we’re made is always creative…) and think… expansively…

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Which reminds me of the story of a young Rabbi, newly installed in his first synagogue… having difficulty understanding the ways of the congregation. As soon as he thinks he’s beginning to understand how things function, someone come along and tells him something different, contrary to what he’s just heard… His confusion grows and grows… till it becomes almost despair…

Finally he goes and seeks out the elderly retired former Rabbi, asking help with understanding, saying, “Rabbi, half of the congregation always prays sitting down, heads in their hands, speaking as if to the ground… And they say ‘this has always been the tradition of the congregation.’”

“No, no… that was not the tradition,” the elder Rabbi says.

“Rabbi, the other half all pray standing, looking up, shouting their prayers aloud… and they say ‘this has always been the tradition of the congregation.’”

“No, no, no… that was not the tradition,” the elder Rabbi says.

“But Rabbi,” the young Rabbi continues, “they both do this at the same time – one half praying sitting, speaking as if to the ground, the other half praying standing, shouting as if to the heavens.”

Ah, yes.” the elder Rabbi says. “That was always the tradition.”

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And maybe being of one mind in Christ is not quite as impossible as it sounds… if we can visualize how large… and inclusive… the mind of Christ is…

We know from the rest of this letter (indeed all the rest of the bible) that unity in Christ doesn’t mean agreeing on all the details. Scripture isn’t telling us we all have to like vanilla better than chocolate or vice versa. We don’t even all have to root for the home team. Even Yankee fans and Bronco fans are welcome in the one church along with Red Sox and Patriots lovers. Fox News watchers and NPR radio listeners alike are both always welcome in the one church.

Unity in Christ doesn’t obliterate individual personalities and preferences. Later in this same letter we’ll hear – diversity itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives different gifts to different believers, always all for the good of the one body of Christ. Different opinions and different angles of vision help the church see the one big picture better. (As long as we show grace… while comparing views.)

We also know from reading the rest of Paul’s letters that the apostle’s well aware church life isn’t all harmony all the time. In his letter to the Galatians Paul argues strenuously even with other apostles – saying if the good news is turned into law, not grace, we’re crucifying Christ all over again. In Philippians the apostle pleads more gently, urging the whole church to persuade two strong-willed women leaders, Euodia and Syntyche, to agree with one another in Christ. Most of the New Testament letters contain ample evidence of disagreements and divisions – nowhere more so than the Corinthian correspondence, where this early call to unity puts us on notice that we’re not all the way there yet.

Yet unity indeed is our calling. And as the saying goes – the difficult we’ll do right now – the impossible may take a little longer. Remembering again also – even the impossible – is doable in Christ.

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We began reading First Corinthians last week, listening, as the apostle outlined the theme of the letter – God’s call to all believers to live holy lives, together, for Jesus. Last week we heard how, together, we the church have been richly blessed by God, equipped by the Holy Spirit with all the gifts needed for ministry…

Now we’re starting to unpack our calling – and what it means to be Christ’s church, the body of Christ together.

Paul starts by telling us a little about how not to be church. Paul, writing probably from Ephesus, has heard through the grapevine that all’s not well in the church he planted a few years earlier. Chloe’s people (reliable witnesses) tell me there are quarrels and divisions in the church. Some say ‘we’re following one church leader,’ others say ‘well, we’re following another.’ Which is probably only superficially the problem. (Much like baptism’s not the real issue. Paul’s only bringing up baptism here to make the point that everyone in the church has been baptized into Christ, not baptized into following any human leader.)

So too, elsewhere in this same letter (3, 6) we see Paul and Apollos on excellent terms, sharing in ministry, no division between them. Later Paul also mentions Cephas (another name for Peter) twice more in this letter (9, 15) with no hint of rivalry between them. The leaders aren’t divided and the real divisions are not a result of anyone actually following one leader or another.

There are divisions in this church, later we’ll hear examples. But the fundamental problem – which Paul is trying to talk about a little bit indirectly, since it was considered rude in Greek culture to talk about such things directly if there was any alternative – the real problem – is that members of the church are letting individual preferences become more important than Christ. Division is happening when members insist on their own preferences in how we do worship and fellowship, and what kind of teaching we prefer – making our preferences more important than unity in Jesus. Ending up with worshiping our preferences more than Jesus.

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And again, there are divisions and there are divisions. Not every division or difference of opinion is avoidable or even a bad thing. Later in this letter Paul will even say some divisions may be necessary, temporarily at least. The context there (in chapter 11) is that richer members are devouring the church’s communion meals before poorer members even get off from work and arrive. That’s got to stop. Which will be divisive. But necessary.

Yet the main message of the letter remains – get over all our divisions, quickly as we can, so we can get on with multiplication. Growing the church requires our best energies. Growing the church requires all the unity possible. Our eyes need to be on the prize of Jesus and his love. Even a little too far in any direction away from Jesus – and we’re no longer really for all people. Whenever we locate ourselves by any criteria other than the love of Jesus we’re into division, not unity. As soon as others see us as just a conservative church or just a liberal church, a church just for older people or just for younger people, soon as we become a church in which not everyone is made to feel fully welcome – now we no longer serve the unity of Jesus Christ our Lord that we’re called into.

Which is why Paul takes us to the cross of Christ, quickly as he can. The cross for Paul is shorthand for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – through which the new age of Christ and his kingdom has already begun. (Which is why what’s impossible for the world… isn’t impossible in Christ.)

In Jesus’ death and resurrection we are now a new creation… able now to include even those once regarded as enemies… as friends and sisters and brothers now in Christ…

The way of the cross is the way of love that changes everything. The way of the cross is our ultimate division – that divides us from death and sin –  oppression, injustice, and hate…

The way of the cross is our ultimate unity – the sign of the love of God that reunites the guiltiest of sinners and the most-nearly saintly (though all have sinned) together again, for the first time in Christ.

Because of the love of God shown in Jesus Christ on the cross – the cross empty, the grave now robbed of it’s power – now we have true unity in Christ. Now because of Jesus and his cross…when we work, pray, love and serve God and neighbor together, we’re already living in the unity of Jesus.

Unity comes to us as God’s free gift… as we keep our focus on Jesus – his life, his death, his resurrection… his call for us to be like him in love.

This is where we are united, already, in the love of God. This is our joy zone. This is where we’re called to live…

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(Thanks be to God.  Amen.)