SCRIPTURE – I Corinthians 1:10-18
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Feel Free to Disagree
I Cor. 1:10-18
January 23, 2011
This past Sunday evening at Central Christian, several hundred of us gathered to remember Dr. Martin Luther King and honor his legacy of unity and peace. It was a rocking worship service! The choir was amazing, the a cappella group from Transy was just cool and the preacher definitely brought the word of God to us. It was a moving, uplifting time of worship.
Except for one thing. I’m not sure if anyone else in attendance was bothered by this, but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way. You see the preacher, Rev. Victor Sholar from Main Street Baptist Church, when he would want us to pay attention, would say, “Now listen, saints.” I kept looking around to see if he was talking to somebody else. Saints? Really? I’m not sure what kind of congregation Rev. Sholar serves, but I’m not sure anyone here at Crestwood is worthy to be called a saint, me included.
I think what Rev. Sholar was doing to us was a sly trick also used by the apostle Paul in today’s reading. You see, Paul is writing to the Corinthian church to address some of the deep divisions that have torn through that congregation. But notice he starts this section by saying, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters.” Calling a group of conflicted, fighting Christians “brothers and sisters” is about as silly as calling a room full of imperfect human beings “saints,” but there you have it. Like I said last week, sometimes God has a name for us that we need to hear spoken before we can truly live into it.
While Dr. Sholar’s audience last Sunday night was not in active conflict with each other like Paul’s congregation, there was still present in that group at Central Christian Church the hovering ghosts of segregation and racism. As black and white came together in one of the most diverse worship services I have ever seen, we were acknowledging all the things that keep us apart while proclaiming praise for God’s diversity and Christ’s power to bring us together.
And yet, that was only one night. Lasting unity among churches or denominations or races is incredibly difficult to sustain. It’s like Charles de Gaulle said about France, “Only peril can bring the French together. One can’t impose unity out of the blue on a country that has 265 different kinds of cheese.” The church may not have 265 kinds of cheese, but we do have about 265 ways to interpret scripture and to conduct worship and to govern ourselves, and that may be a conservative estimate. So how do we honor Christ’s call for us to be united together when, if you look at the history of Protestantism, we have branches and splinters and schisms that make our family tree look like a bramble bush?
Our own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has been both a proponent of unity and a violator of its principles. One of our founders, Thomas Campbell, broke away from his denomination because of the multitude of splits that had taken place. He got tired of pastoring churches with names like the Old-Light Anti-Burgher Seceder Presbyterian Church, not just because it wouldn’t fit on his business card, but because each word represented a split within his church family. And yet, our own denomination, with unity as its polar star, has splintered several times in its history.
Paul knew what it was like to deal with a church that was becoming untied instead of united. Paul spent 18 months in Corinth helping to found the church there, but after he left the congregation quickly digressed. The church was split into quarreling factions, immorality was running rampant, they were taking each other to court for petty reasons, they flirted with idol worship and they even got drunk at communion. Crestwood, let’s promise not to aspire to this lofty biblical model.
In today’s passage, we learn that the congregation began taking sides, aligning themselves with human leaders instead of lining up behind the cross. Some were saying the belonged to Paul, others to Apollos, still others to Peter and some were using their relationship with Christ as a dividing wedge instead of a cohesive bond. As Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided cannot stand,” and Paul feared for the collapse of the Corinthian church.
So he sends this letter, the first two that we have, but in reality probably just one of many letters he sent them, to try and restore peace, to appeal to their sense of unity and common heritage as children of God. Paul reminds them that at their baptism they were claimed by God, not the person doing the dunking. There is only One to whom we belong, and that is the One who was and is and is to come, our Lord Jesus Christ.
We usually don’t have any problems saying to whom we belong; the challenge comes when we’re called to acknowledge to whom others belong, especially others different than us. Isn’t that the whole source of the schism of racism, that the other person who looks and acts and believes differently than us can’t be from the same God as us and loved as much as us? We know our God; we’re not so sure about their God. Better to build the wall higher than to do the work of tearing it down brick-by-brick.
Sunday’s service was the removal of another brick, but there are still a lot of them left. And they don’t divide only the races; they divide Christians of all stripes. All of us who call ourselves Christians worship the crucified Jesus, and yet we let so many other things get in the way of that unifying truth. How we do baptism, how often we do communion, who can be ordained, what is and isn’t a sin…all these things, as important as they may be, pale in comparison to gospel of Jesus Christ we all proclaim. Church should be the place where people who have no other natural reason for associating with each other come together in unity and love around a common belief.
But that’s not the church today, not even close, and so we have to live with that reality. How do we continue to work for unity in a world that accentuates differences and draws attention to conflict? I think we start by seeking ways to work together as a witness to our common bonds. Once I did a team-building ropes course with a group of junior high kids. We started with a good old-fashioned tug of war, with one half of the group pulling against the other half. Eventually my team emerged victorious, and very demonstratively let the other team know they had lost, which included a lot of name-calling and chest-thumping and finger-pointing. The kids on my team were even worse.
Then we moved onto a series of activities that forced all of us to work together. As we accomplished each one, there was no trash talk because there were no losers. Instead, there was high-fiving and back-slapping as we celebrated what we had all accomplished together. When you’ve got all your oars rowing in the same direction, you stop going around in circles and start moving forward.
Something else we can do to live out this call to unity is to learn how to handle times of disunity. Conflict is a natural part of being human in this broken world, and we’re not always all going to get along. Is there a person in this church with whom you’ve had a disagreement? If not, just wait a few minutes. It’s bound to happen.
In this passage I don’t hear Paul calling for uniformity, where we all have to do the same thing. I also don’t hear Paul calling for unanimity, where we all have to agree on the same thing. He’s calling for unity, a state of wholeness or oneness that exists at a deeper level than anything that separates us. By ourselves, we can’t achieve that kind of unity. But through Christ, all things are possible.
So I believe we should feel free to disagree with each other. And let’s be honest, there is plenty in this world about which we can disagree, isn’t there? It is often through conflict that we grow in our common understanding and kinship. But when disagreement happens, let’s not lose sight of the fact that we are brother and sisters – even, dare I say, saints! – who are united together through Christ in such a way that we simply cannot be divided. We can only act like we are.
That may seem foolish to some folks. After all, if you disagree with someone, why would you still want to be in a relationship with them? Isn’t it better to leave them behind and find someone else who is more like you, who looks like you and acts like you and believes the way you do? That would probably be the easier thing to do, but that’s not the Christian thing to do.
Instead, we are called to hang in there, to keep working for unity, to gather with our brothers and sisters of different races and colors and creeds, to join our hands with theirs and proclaim the goodness of the God we all have in common. And if we keep doing that, if we persevere and work through our differences and agree to disagree while still being in relationship with each other, who knows what might happen? Theologian Frederick Beuchner says, “If all the competing factions of Christendom were to give as much of themselves to the high calling and holy hope that unites them as they do now to the relative inconsequentialities that divide them, the church would look more like the kingdom of God for a change and less like an ungodly mess.” So who’s going to do that work? Who’s going to reach across the aisle? Who’s going to make a stand against the injustice that still exists today? Who’s going to live like the same God that created you and me also created the rainbow of people we brush shoulders with every day? Who’s going to help make the diversity and acceptance of God’s kingdom real here on earth? How about us, saints? How about us?