Third Sunday after Epiphany
Sometimes the Lectionary knows exactly what we need to hear. Sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary (which we use most Sundays) speaks directly to what we’re facing and experiencing in our lives. It’s as if it holds a secret wisdom or knowledge. On this Inauguration weekend—in a nation torn and divided over the election of President Trump, when we’ve witnessed violent protests and historic marches across the country, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever, in this country—we’re given this text from the Apostle Paul writing to Christians in Corinth. “For it has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you…”(1 Cor. 1:11). Near the beginning of his letter Paul begs, urges, “…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”(1 Cor. 1:10). We could say that the church in Corinth was a “hot mess.”
First, a word of caution. Paul wrote his letter to a small, yet influential community of Christians in Corinth. He wasn’t offering a social commentary on how the city of Corinth should be organized. Neither was he writing to the authorities of the Roman Empire or to Caesar. Paul’s not writing to the U. S. Congress and he’s not writing to the people of the United States. He’s writing to the church—a particular church. His first concern is the witness of the church. However, what he offers here might have something to say to the entire church, to the many divisions that continue to tear at the fabric of the church today. And it’s only then, when the church deals with its own divisions and models a new way of being, that maybe—just maybe—we might have a leavening effect on society as a whole. Perhaps, then, the Church might have something constructive, redemptive, and healing to offer the nation, especially when a nation is in crisis. When the Church steps up and becomes the Church of Jesus Christ, when the Church is really the Church, the world is blessed for it. When the Church fails to really be the Church, the entire world suffers for it.
So what’s going on in Corinth? Competing personality cults. These competing alliances or groups are causing divisions, schismata, in Greek. Schism. Schisma refers to a tear in a garment, which often had political associations, as in political factions struggling for power, thus tearing apart a community. Paul, writing from Ephesus, across the Aegean Sea in Turkey, received word about the quarrels. It must have been serious enough for someone to send a report to Paul, who, you’ll recall, was the founder of the church in Corinth. What were these factions gathering around? Troublesome preachers. Religious figures. These different groups were claiming or seeking power over others in the church. Party spirit. Factions. Cliques. Allegiances. “I belong.” I belong to Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Christ. Political parties at this time were named for individuals. The parties were clusters of power around a personality. There were people who said, “I belong to Paul.” These were folks committed to Paul. You imagine people saying, “I was a charter member of First Church, Corinth. We were here from the start. Paul is our man. No, he’s not the greatest preacher; he can be a little dry. But we stand with him. He’s hard working and committed to the gospel.” (We know that Paul wasn’t an eloquent speaker.) Others said, “I belong to Apollos.” We know from Acts that Apollos was a learned Jew from Alexander who settled in Corinth who preached the gospel (see Acts 18:24-28). Apollos was a passionate, eloquent, silver-tongued preacher who dazzled his hearers with his impressive rhetorical skills in the pulpit. “We just love when Apollos preaches. He’s so entertaining.” There was another faction around Cephas, whom we know little about. And there was even a group that claimed, “I belong to Christ.” This was a group of purists that effectively said, “We’re the real Christians, with direct access to Christ, unlike the followers of Paul and Apollos and Cephas. We know what it really means to follow Christ.”
Competing personality cults. In each party, Christ is treated as a commodity or possession to be haggled over. But Christ doesn’t belong to us. We belong to Christ.
We also know that there were some in the church who believed that they were more spiritually sophisticated than others; they felt they knew more. Paul calls them the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones, these so-called spiritual elites—and they were arrogant. And we also know that these factions had something to do with the way the divisions win Roman society, beyond the worshipping community. Roman society was highly stratified and these social stratifications made their way into the worshipping community. We know there were very wealthy people in the community living in homes large enough to accommodate worship. These socio-economic divisions—from the very rich at the top down to the very poor at the bottom, with the free at the top and the slave at the bottom—these socio-economic identifications that formed Roman society crept their way into the church, causing considerable damage and division in the fabric of the worshipping community. Why? Because when the church gathered for worship, the wealthiest members of society broke bread and shared the cup, shared the Lord’s Supper, with slaves.
All of this division was extremely disturbing for Paul, as he watched his ministry there unravel. He throws important questions back to them. “Has Christ been divided?” The answer is, no, of course. There is only one Christ. Then why is the body of Christ divided? By the way, the Greek word Paul uses here for divided, memeristai, was often used to describe a divide or split into political parties. Paul asks, “Was Paul crucified for you?” He could also have asked, “Was Apollos or Cephas crucified for you?” Then why are you investing them with so much power and authority and give them devotion? Or, were you baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas? If you were baptized into Christ, then why are you giving greater meaning to your association with them? In fact, Paul confesses, “I thank God that I baptized none of you,” well, maybe a handful, “so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.”
This is the nature of their “quarrel.” The word Paul uses here speaks of intense strife, a hot dispute, an emotional flame that ignites whenever rivalry becomes intolerable. It seems that this community is at the breaking point. Paul appeals to them to be in agreement, to mend their ways. The Greek word Paul uses here is often used to describe the mending of fishing nets. In other words, he urges them to restore the fabric of the church, heal the division. He begs them to harmonize their lives with the same purpose, the same mind.
And that same purpose and mind, the only purpose, the only mind, that should claim their allegiance is, as Paul says, the “message of the cross.” It’s the cross of Christ, which has a kind of power, dunamis (as in “dynamite”), Paul tells us; it’s the power of God revealed in and through the weakness and foolishness of a Roman cross. And that, if you think about it, is just plain odd and weird, bizarre and scandalous that God would act decisively through a ghastly Roman cross. Cicero (106-43 BC), the Roman philosopher and politician, once said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.” Crucifixion was ghastly, horrifying, a form of execution reserved only for enemies of the state, of the Roman Empire. But Paul essentially says, “Don’t avert your eyes. Look at the cross.” Yes, it was scandalous and foolish for Christians to claim that the God of love could be viewed there, on a cross. But Paul says, from his own personal experience, that there’s wisdom and power there. The cross has power. And it has the power to reorient our lives. Christians are to be about the “politics of the cross.” It was William Stringfellow (1928-1985), the noted attorney, theologian, and activist, who spoke of the “politics of the cross.” The politics of the cross, he said, is the most radical form of politics because when we align ourselves with God’s power displayed in Christ’s suffering on the cross, then every other allegiance we have to any other ideal, collective, principality, and power is called into question. “It means,” says Stringfellow, “acting politically in a manner which confesses insistently, patiently, fearfully, joyously that Jesus is the Lord [not Caesar] and that the Lord already reigns.”
And, so Paul calls the church back to its Lord, to Christ. Our allegiance must be with Christ. Christ alone. Our baptismal identity is in Christ. The church gathers around its Lord, one Lord. Not Caesar. This is the basis of our unity.
All of this is tough because we are, by nature, tribal creatures. We like to break ourselves up into tribes or families or parties or teams or ethnic groups or nations. We then allow these associations to define us. Orioles fans disparage Yankee fans. And Yankee fans disparage Orioles fans. Growing up outside New York City, Giants fans have little in common with Jets fans; it’s as if they live in parallel universes. In Glasgow, Scotland the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers soccer clubs was at one time very intense. Celtic was once the Catholic team; the Rangers were Protestant. So you had Protestants and Catholics competing out on the soccer pitch. Yes, it’s natural to have teams or associations. Conservative and liberal. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist. These designations reflect who we are and direct our steps in the world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But when they take priority over our identity as Christians, then something is seriously wrong. And when these categories are combined with the word “Christian,” as in “liberal Christians” or “conservative Christians,” or these associations supersede our identity in Christ, then these categories, which are extraneous to our common life in Christ, tear the body of Christ asunder. And when these extraneous categories take on more power and authority and meaning than Christ himself, they separate us far from Christ and they tear the church apart.
One of the prevailing tragedies of our time is the way identifications, categories, and associations in the wider culture have seeped their way, like a toxin, into the church, adversely affecting our ability to be the church, to engage in ministry, to be the body of Christ. We need to remember that the words “conservative” and “liberal” are not biblical categories. You won’t find these words in the Bible. In fact, I wish we would stop using these categories or labels. “Conservative Christians” should not be questioning the faithfulness of those “liberal Christians.” “Liberals Christians” should not belittle their “conservative” brothers and sisters in Christ. I wish we didn’t say, “I’m a conservative Christian” or “I’m a liberal Christian.” What does this really mean? And how does such a designation help us, together, be faithful to Christ? These designations are often made to control or judge people. How does behaving this way advance the Kingdom of God?
When I was in seminary classmates tried to put me in a theological camp—it’s what one does a lot at seminary. After dinner one evening, I left the table before others and went back to my room. A little later, a friend from my floor, who was at that table, said, “We were talking about you after you left.” He said, “We couldn’t figure out if you’re liberal or conservative.” I just smiled and didn’t say anything. I wanted to say, “Don’t project upon me.” Some might view my theology as very liberal or progressive, but there are also aspects of my theology that some would say is conservative, even evangelical. Actually, I tend to view myself as a liberal evangelical. But then I would have to define for you what I mean by the word “evangelical.” All of these labels or designations don’t help us mend the fabric of the community; they don’t help heal the body of Christ.
In my home church there was a women, Myrtle McMahon, a senior member of the congregation, who was a good friend and a dear soul. She used to pray for me every day, especially when I was at seminary. She used to say, “Kenny, I pray for you everyday that you don’t become too liberal.” She was so worried about me. Why the fear?
I’m convinced that these so-called liberal or conservative identifications are more ego-driven than Spirit-driven. We hide in these camps. We use these words to protect our fearful egos from the other, from the imagined threats of the other. How does living this way build up the body of Christ? God is neither conservative nor liberal. There are places in scripture where God acts in ways that one might call liberal or radical, and other ways that can make the most ardent progressive recoil. And there are places in scripture where God acts in ways that one might consider to be conservative or traditionalist, and ways that can cause the most conservative soul to feel uncomfortable. Truth is, God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. God judges every political party equally, especially those that presume their party platform is an extension of the Kingdom of God. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) said, "The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism."
At this painful moment, what might offer some healing? What should we do? Maybe Christians should try giving up our labels and associations and parties—or, at least, loosen our identifications with them—in order to find our unity in Christ. This isn’t easy, I know, but it’s what we need to strive after. “Unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ.” That’s how the Confession of Belhar put it, a confession of faith now part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which emerged from the Reformed Church of South Africa in the 1980s. It’s a remarkable statement or confession aimed as reconciliation between the white and black Christians of South Africa, post-Apartheid. They knew that they needed to first confess the sin of racism within the church, work to heal divisions within the Church, if reconciliation was to then overflow into society.
How can the church take up its call to be an agent of healing in society, of binding up the wounds of God’s people, without first tending to the wounds of division within it? The Christian body is broken, diseased, and slowly breaking up all around us. And as the Church breaks up, as the fabric of our cloth unravels, the society around us follows suit. The Church can’t heal everything that ails American society—that’s an impossible and overwhelming task. Perhaps what we can do, without becoming self-obsessed and narcissistically turning inward, is attend to our wounds, our divisions, mend the things that need healing in the church. For, I believe that our nation at this time needs the church of Jesus Christ to really be the church. Perhaps a healthy or healthier church will, in a small way, help to bind up the nation’s wounds and help heal our divisions. The more we are faithful to Christ and faithful to the “message of the cross,” the more we are clear about what it means to be Christ’s disciples, the more we embody love and grace and compassion and justice and kindness toward one another in the church, the more we stand where Christ stands—and Christ always stands with the most vulnerable among us, the hurting, the weakest, the poorest, the marginalized—when we suffer with those that suffer, the more we make space for the weakest and most vulnerable among us, the more we give ourselves to one another, the healthier and more vibrant the church becomes—along with everyone else. Then we can really be salt (Matthew 5:13) in a world that’s increasingly subject to destruction and decay and be light (Matthew 5:14) in a world that’s precariously sliding toward darkness.
We are called to step up and be Church, united in our work, called to really be the Church, with the same mind and purpose, rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17), rooted and ground in Christ, as we engage in the politics of the cross.
Image: Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
 Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 23.
 William Stringfelow, The Politics of Spirituality (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), 44.
 Stringfellow, 45.
Confession of Belhar, Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA).
This is a central theme of Belhar, “…the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands.” I encourage you to read the entire confession, which may be found here.