Boy… the more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?
When you’ve been around long enough in a church, or in a workplace, or in a family, or really in any group of people, you realize one, indisputable fact: people can really get on each other’s nerves. Maybe it’s the way your coworker bites her nails during meetings… or the way your husband sets the thermostat a few degrees too cool for your liking… or the way this person does x, y, and z, versus the way you would do x, y, and z. “At times such tension might seem harmless; but more often than not, tensions in a local church can be quite harmful, both to the people involved and to the gospel” (Peterson).
A pastor tells a story about a church he had served early on in his ministry. This was a pretty active church, with a healthy number in the congregation. But the church had divided into “two different groups who each ‘owned’ a locking (and locked) cabinet in the church basement with their own tableware and cutlery, which each group refused to share with the other” (Peterson). Plates, forks, knives, whole sets of dishes that each group held dearly as “theirs.”
The pastor who tells this story goes on to say that, “When he visited that church decades later… the cabinets were still locked, and the fractures within the community had yet to be healed… divisions [that] were the result of personal antipathy and showed themselves in the availability (or not) of plates, knives, and forks at church functions” (Peterson).
On the surface, this little anecdote is rather silly. Really, if we pause long enough to think about many of the things that can separate us, we can see the silliness in much of it. However, “this kind of ‘silly’ division in a church is really not silly at all. Divisions like this make it difficult for the community actually to be a community. Worship, Christian formation, fellowship, works of kindness and mercy- all these and more are compromised and even made impossible, by division” (Peterson).
In our text from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, we find a community of faith struggling with issues of, in a word, bad behavior. You have heard me say before that understanding the context of any scripture lesson is incredibly important to our understanding of the text. This is particularly critical in Paul’s letters because they were written to a specific people in a specific time for a specific reason. “Far from being abstract treatises of systematic theology, Paul’s letters provide us with parts of the ongoing conversations between Paul and various early Christian communities” (Gaventa).
One of the interesting things about this text is that Paul never names the reasons for the division. Now, he will go on to address some of the issues at stake for this group of Christians, but here, in the relative beginning of the letter, he does not, “partly because he wishes to deal prudently with the Corinthians, partly also because he is reproving the division itself rather than its cause” (Grosheide 34).
“From persons he identifies only as ‘Chloe’s people,’ Paul has received disturbing news about the behavior of Christians at Corinth. Presumably, these agents, perhaps even slaves, of a prominent woman at Corinth have brought Paul a report about the church at Corinth that differs from the report contained in the congregation’s own letter,” which he refers to later in chapter seven (Gaventa).
The way I imagine this interaction is, the Corinthians have sent off their annual report to Paul to show him all the great, good things they are doing, along with some questions about how to resolve some “misunderstandings.” However, Chloe, or someone in Chloe’s household, sent a messenger in person to give Paul the “real” story, which is a much bleaker picture than they painted in their letter.
At best, the divisions in the church are bubbling just under the surface, with nasty glances between parishioners, and whispered rumors in parking lot meetings. At worst, it is all out chaos.
Whatever the situation, “the matter reported to Paul by Chloe’s people becomes a major pastoral issue in this letter- namely, the presence at Corinth of dissension within the Christian community. The nature of this dissension remains a matter of debate, but Paul’s reference to various leaders (‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘I belong to Apollos,’ and so forth) suggests that factions have aligned themselves around key personalities and their teachings” (Gaventa).
The issues in Corinth don’t matter to Paul, and he is, wisely, not going to take sides, though the will address some of the issues later. F.W. Grosheide points out in his commentary that the Greek word for division used here means “fissure,” a type of opening or breach, or “rent,” as in a torn piece of fabric. Both of these indicate something that has been horribly broken. However, Grosheide also points out that a secondary meaning of the word is “‘discussion,’ [or] ‘difference of opinion.’ In the [New Testament] the word does not per se have a bad meaning but it may simply be ‘difference of opinion’ (Jn. 7:43; 9:16; 10:19). But difference of opinion easily leads to sin and division” (34).
We have to be careful here because it would be really easy to read this text as a rebuke of all diversity in the Church. In fact, later in this letter (chapter 3 verse 6 and following), Paul clearly does not oppose diversity. He does not oppose differences of opinion. What he does oppose are the unbrotherly and unsisterly attitudes that have taken root in the community. When one becomes so wrapped up in one’s own identity, pride and looking down on others seems to be what follows.
“The Corinthians are plagued by party spirit” (Kirk). Even by acknowledging that he heard about these divisions from “Chloe’s people” shows how divided things are. Part of the problem seems to be that different groups have aligned themselves with different leaders: Apollos, who we learn about in the book of Acts, Cephas, who we know better as Peter, and Paul himself.
Isn’t it amazing how we often identify ourselves as a part of a larger group, unconsciously identifying ourselves as “separate from” others? “For identity markers, we still look to things like race, age, economic circumstances, education, and geographical region to create meaningful boundaries and to identify our tribes” (Shore). Now don’t get me wrong! Those differences are hugely important and should not be whitewashed. Diversity brings color and flavor to the community. “Paul’s call for unity… [is not] a threat to diversity of viewpoints and opinions… [we often] confuse unity with uniformity. Later… Paul will defend the plurality of judgments about whether Christians may eat what has been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8) and yet call for care in practice so that the unity of the church and the faith of its members are not damaged. In a similar way, when Paul discusses the gifts of the Spirit and their place in worship, he acknowledges the diversity of gifts, but only as they come from the one Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:4-11). Unity in faith does not mean uniformity in thought and practice” (Gaventa).
For Paul, the important thing he reminds the congregation is that we need to remember our commonalities, and for him, it is our baptism. The rhetorical questions he uses in verse 13 are his way of reminding us of this: “Has Christ been divided?” he asks… well… no, is the obvious response. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks… well, no. Obviously, it was Jesus. “Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” No… no, we weren’t. And while he never says it, the response I am sure he was biting his tongue from writing was, “Well, you sure are acting like it! You’ve divided yourselves into special interest groups, and that shows that maybe you do think Christ has been divided.”
“Standing behind these questions is the unspoken assumption that dissension among Christians is inappropriate because they have in common the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is not Paul or Apollos or Cephas” or John Calvin, or Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King, or Pastor Kyle “who was crucified or in whose name believers were baptized. The very notion that Christians would identify themselves in terms of their teachers or their favorite preachers rather than in terms of Jesus Christ seems ludicrous on the face of it. The introductory verse in our passage confirms this reading of Paul’s response. Paul lands his appeal, ‘by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Far from being a mere slogan, this statement grounds all that follows in the single reality of Jesus Christ” (Gaventa).
So who do we see ourselves aligned with? We may not have locked cabinets with two distinctly separate sets of flatware, but we do have our differences. Do we see ourselves as traditionalists vs. progressives? Patriarchal vs. feminist? Straight vs. gay? Presbyterian vs. other denominations? We were all baptized with the same water, and when we celebrate communion, we eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup. In Christ all those divisions are swept away; they are put to the side. Note that I do not say they are “erased” because our differences are important. When we allow those differences to tear us apart, however, that is when we have fallen into sin.
This morning I would like to invite us all to reflect on how many of us have, over the course of the past year, fallen prey to the stubbornness of knowing that “I’m right and they’re wrong!” It is really easy to cast the finger of accusation on one group of people, or even one leader or another, but it is far harder to look inward and reflect on how we have contributed to the divisions of the world. Yes, we must confront those who would divide us, but we must also confess how we have divided.
One of the problems that contributed to the division in Corinth “is the fact that members [were] ‘puffed up’ against each other” (Thompson). If we are honest with ourselves, what in our lives puffs us up with pride? How might that pride have created divisions in our families? In our church family? In our community? In our world?
Humility is a hard lesson, but Paul models it for us amazingly this morning. “We should not forget… that Paul resists the temptation to side with the ‘Paul party.’ ‘Was Paul crucified for you?’ (1 Corinthians 1:13) anticipates a negative response. Rather than accepting that division is a given and that those who support his authority and/or positions are in the right, he renounces his own claim to primacy and draws the church back to Jesus Christ, the Crucified” (Kirk).
Only Jesus is our living hope. Only Jesus died that we might live. This morning, let’s remember that in our one baptism, in our one communion, we are all Christ’s brothers and sisters, and no amount of division will ever change that. Amen.
Gaventa, Beverly R. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary, Based on the NRSV, Year A. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1995. 114-15. Print.
Grosheide, F. W. Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians: The English Text with Introd., Exposition and Notes. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979. 34. Print.
Kirk, J. R. Daniel. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 23 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Peterson, Dwight. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 27 Jan. 2008. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Shore, Mary Hinkle. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 22 Jan. 2017. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.
Thompson, James W. “1 Corinthians 1:10-18.” Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013. 92. Print.