January 19, 2014
Downtown Pulpit Exchange for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
“Has Christ Been Divided?”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
1 Corinthians 1:1-18
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
10 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. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 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.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 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. 18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Just as I was sitting down to write this sermon an email popped into my inbox from one of our young adults who grew up in the church and has since moved to Houston and is attending a big Presbyterian church there. The email was to update me on conversations we had had before about this church moving to leave the denomination, and he was letting me know that the leadership had indeed voted to leave and join a newly formed denomination.
Paul asks, “Has Christ been divided?” and in answer we would be forced to say yes, still it is happening. There are churches on every corner in our city, and more denominations in the world than we can keep track of.
Christ is not only divided out in the world, but also in here – inside the walls of our churches. I came across the story told by the pastor of a church where, in the basement, there were two locked cabinets, each with a set of plates and silverware, and each cabinet lorded over by a group that would not let the other use their stuff. After a while the pastor left, and when he returned decades later, there were still two locked cabinets in the basement.
I won’t tell some of the stories I have about table clothes.
Is it comforting or disheartening to realize that we have struggled with this problem for almost two thousand years?
Dan, the other associate pastor at the church, was working on a sermon on this same passage and he popped into my office and said something to effect of: why is it that we have this idea that there shouldn’t be any conflict in our lives, no disagreement, or that that is a terrible thing? We disagree with our spouses, our boyfriends and girlfriends, our parents, our children, our bosses and coworkers. Research shows that young siblings will have an altercation every 9 minutes (and that is certainly true in my house). The forces of our lives seem to push us further and further apart.
One commentator shared this story about attending a conference in Austria attended by many young seminary students, and the Dutch reformed students put on a skit parodying their own churches propensity to split into increasingly smaller and inconsequential denominations, and the audience had to match a list of denominational names with absurd criteria, like typical length of sermons, style of music, formality of dress, type of breath mints, what constituted being acceptably late, and so on. And he writes, “I still remember the name of one of the denominations: “the really, truly, totally, absolutely, fully, re-, re-, reformed Dutch Church.”
In his book “The Great Divorce” C.S. Lewis paints a picture of hell as a dim and grimy place – the narrator in the story finds himself waiting to catch a bus for heaven and striking up a conversation with a fellow passenger about how empty the grey town is.
“It seems the deuce of a town,” the narrator says, “and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?”
“Not at all,” said the other passenger, “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbor. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move . . . Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of town and a build a new house . . . that’s how the town keeps on growing.”
And the other passenger goes on to describe how the earliest arrivals have been moving on and on, getting further apart – and you can only see the lights of their houses with a telescope, millions of miles away, and millions of miles away from one another.
Paul is writing to a community moving away from each other. Paul hears about quarrels; he hears about people pledging allegiance to particular leaders in a way that said to others “I belong to this person and I no longer belong to you.”
Some were saying I belong to Apollos, and some were saying I belong to Cephas, just like we would say, I belong to Luther, or Wesley or Calvin.
Some were saying I belong to Christ but they were saying it in a way that implied that they truly belonged to Jesus and others did not.
Paul urges them to be in agreement, literally to “say the same,” and later on in the letter Paul tells them that what they should “say the same” is “Jesus in Lord.”
Paul calls them, and us, to unity, to be mended, as fishing nets are mended, to have the same mind and same purpose. The verb Paul uses in v. 10 for unity, katartizo, is significant. It is translated as “you be united,” but really there is more to it than that. It is a term used in medical vocabulary to express setting of a bone that has been broken; it has a political significance meaning the elimination of civil discord; it is used in the Gospel of Mark to describe the disciples sitting in a boat mending their nets. So, the meaning of katartizo is much fuller than simply “being united.” It expresses the idea that things be set in order, that the “bones” of the Body of Christ be gently restored or carefully mended.
To be mended, to have the same mind and the same purpose – what on earth does that look like now?
To have the same mind, does not mean that we think the exact same thing. Paul wasn’t proposing uniformity – he was in fact a champion of diversity. Later on in the letter he paints the powerful picture of the church as a body, where each person matters, not because they look the same or act the same or have the same thoughts – each person matters because of their unique contributions to the whole.
To have the same mind, is to have the mind of Christ. To think of the world as Christ does. To see the world as Christ does.
To see the 28 million slaves in the world, most of them women and children, as those needing the literal freedom Christ came to bring.
To see the 20,000 people a day who die from hunger-related causes, as those that Christ came to feed.
To see the 14 million children orphaned because of AIDS, as the children Christ came to embrace.
To see the men, women and children living on the streets of Winchester, as actual brothers and sisters, and to care for them as we would our literal brothers and sisters.
Brothers and sisters, translated from adelphoi occurs 38 times in 1 Corinthians, more than twice as many times as in any other letter Paul wrote.
It is Paul’s way of declaring that what unites the church in Corinth ought to be far more powerful and comprehensive than what pulls them apart.
We must never lose sight of the basis of Christian unity, of our unity: the shared death with Christ in which God began our new life in Christ. We are united in that we share the same slavery to sin, the same desperate need for God’s grace, and the same redemptive power of God’s love.
Our unity rests on that shared story.
It is not accidental that Paul refers to baptism when he is thinking about unity, because in baptism we are joined together as God’s family, brothers and sisters.
Seven years ago, here in Winchester, a group of like-minded followers of Christ convened and said together, we cannot let people die on our city streets from exposure to the cold. We agreed that we could open our doors and offer shelter and food. And the Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter was born.
And almost two decades ago, the downtown churches came together to say we needed a better way of helping the many people who came in our doors looking for assistance. And CCAP was born.
So perhaps we cannot have a unity of building or a unity of denomination, but we can have a unity of mission, a unity of purpose. We can say together “Jesus is Lord” and we can join together in following God’s Spirit out into Winchester and the world.