If you’ve been following along with my sermons, you might have noticed I generally preach on the Gospel passage, sometimes drawing in the other readings to its theme. When I preach on the Hebrew Bible passage or the Epistle, you know it’s either because it’s a really good reading or I really had something to say. This week was a little bit of both. I love First Corinthians (although my favorite passage comes just after we stopped this week), and the topic of division was just so timely that I couldn’t not preach on it.
If you’re taking a look at the readings (Found here: Lectionary Readings), I spend most of my time focusing on the First Corinthians.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Tim and I can’t watch professional football together. We’ve tried, and we’ve found that it’s very bad for our marriage. You see, Tim grew up in Connecticut, and, I suppose through no fault of his own, is a fan of the New England Patriots. He is also a much more rational person than I am where sports are concerned, and is perfectly happy to root for the Eagles, as long as they’re not playing the Patriots. He doesn’t understand why, no matter who New England is playing, I want to see them collapse in on themselves in a giant, fiery ball of incompetence. So, we don’t watch much professional football together. Our loyalties are too ingrained and too divergent.
We have happily, though, found the higher, shared loyalty of being Penn State fans. UConn not really being known for their football meant that Tim had no previous team loyalty, and we did not have to be divided on that front.
This is a fairly silly example, obviously, because hopefully sports teams are not a real source of division in our society. But real divisions are anything but silly. Real divisions cause pain, fracture communities and families, and leave lasting scars.
The Apostle Paul gets wind that this is what’s happening in the Christian community in Corinth, and writes this letter to them, seeking to address these divisions. Unusually for Paul, he gets right to the heart of the matter in the very first chapter. He often opens his letters with more lengthy introductions, but here, after a brief salutation, he jumps in: 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.”
He’s heard, through people that he trusts, that this church is quarreling amongst themselves. People are separating themselves into groups—some saying they belong to Paul, some to Apollos, some to Cephas. Some are apparently above all of this and say only that they belong to Christ. While that is, in fact, the right answer, you can imagine their sanctimonious attitudes when giving it didn’t help the situation.
Paul is, rightly, really worked up over this. He’s angry. He says he thanks God that he didn’t baptize many of them, so that they can’t use that as a source of division. I started with a silly example of division, but this issue of division isn’t silly at all—it’s very serious. And it’s certainly not one that only the ancient Corinthians struggled with.
Although technology and globalization mean we’re tied closer than ever before, sometimes it feels as if our world is only getting more and more divided. We don’t claim to belong to Paul or Apollos, but what things do we define ourselves by? What loyalties do we give more importance than we give to Christ? Certainly the first ones that come to mind are political. A study out of Stanford a few years ago found parents would be more upset if their children married someone from a different political party, than if they married someone from a different religion. Unfortunately, I think that says more about our feelings towards opposing political parties than it does our growing tolerance of religious pluralism.
While it’s definitely the biggest one, political affiliation isn’t the only thing that divides us. Or the only way that we define ourselves. What about our national identity? Which one matters more to you—to say you are an American? Or to say you are a Christian? There are divides among the generations, distrust between urban and rural communities, frustration and resentment between social classes.
Division hurts us. Division is painful; it drives wedges between us and causes lasting harm to communities. No wonder Paul sought to address first in his letter to the Corinthians. No wonder he was so agitated he couldn’t even remember who he baptized. Our reading from First Corinthians today ends with this verse that gets at the heart of what is wrong: 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.
The individual points of division in Corinth are symptoms of a larger problem. These Corinthian Christians have fundamentally misunderstood what God has done through the cross of Christ. They don’t see that the cross was God’s way of upending how they defined and valued themselves and one another. They claim Christianity but are still operating under old assumptions and old ways of doing things. They are still competing. They are still trying to prove their own worth. They are still defining themselves by who they leave out instead of who they include.
Christ calls us to leave behind old ways of thinking—about ourselves and about others, about the way God operates in the world. When he calls the first disciples, he asks them, quite literally, to leave their old ways of doing things—leave their jobs, leave their families, leave their homes—and come and be part of something new. He completely disrupts these men’s lives and calls them to a different loyalty, creates a new community.
But Christ doesn’t just issue that call to the first disciples. He calls us, too. He calls us to leave behind our old ways of thinking, our old prejudices, our one-upmanship. He calls us instead to be formed as people of the cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and martyr to the Nazis, once said: When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.
When we talk about baptism, we talk about it as participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. It is a death to everything in our lives and in our world that is not of God, and a birth into the new community shaped by the cross.
It would be naïve for me to stand here and say that because we have joined this new community in Christ, that all of our divisions suddenly melt away. Paul writes of what it looks like beautifully in his letter to the Galatians, saying that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. But we don’t suddenly cease to be male or female or genderqueer or nonbinary when we are baptized. We are still defined by our economic realities, we still have religious and political affiliations. To brush over them too quickly only creates a false unity, found in ignoring rather than reconciling with one another.
But we are also given a new identity—one that supersedes all of these others. We are one in Christ Jesus. We belong to Christ. And Christ bids us to come and follow him. To be formed as disciples, as people of the cross. It’s a foolish message, but it is, as Paul says, the power of God. The power of God to cross our divides and boundaries, the power of God to cross the walls we build within our own hearts. The power of God to make a new thing—a new person—out of something old. So come, Jesus says, follow me. Amen.