Sunday, January 26, 2014

Third Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 1
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] 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. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 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.
18 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.

Some called me eccentric, with my dial phone plugged into the wall, until that whole ice storm thing.

Sure we only lost power for fifteen minutes, but the whole time I thought to myself ‘I could go upstairs right now and dial a number.’ I mean literally, dial a number. But who would I call? Someone with a cordless phone? Yeah, right, like they’re going to pick up.

I still remember fondly the day my son learned that the phone still works when the power fails, and that in fact there was a tiny bit of electricity coming from the phone socket. Immediately he hit on the idea of using the power to power something—anything—to prove that he could.

Of course my brother, the engineer, only encourages the boy, and so within hours we had a tiny little LED light powered from the phone socket. Ten years later, I’m still convinced the phone police are going to carry us off the big house.

So my dial phone is looking cool again, and I’m told vinyl records are enjoying a mild renaissance, but I think we can safely say that there are lists of things that we can say goodbye to forever: floppy disks, video rental stores, deposit slips at the bank, and maybe even letter-writing.

The last one is difficult to imagine, since BIMD (back in my day) we wrote letters, with a pen, on paper, sent by post, in an envelope, with a stamp. And then the world changed. And so, for those of us who spent countless hours writing letters, this realization: We have more in common with St. Paul, writing 2,000 years ago, than we do with the 25 year-old who has never hand written a letter and walked it to the postbox.

So Paul, like us, wrote letters. Lots of letters: letters to the churches he founded, letters to other leaders within the nascent church, letters that needed to be sent based on the issues that faced an entity that was just beginning to take shape.

But unlike most of our letters, these letters were collected, and cherished, and reprinted: passing from church to church and believer to believer and eventually becoming scripture. And you can tell throughout Paul’s letters that he was trying to be memorable—certainly not scriptural—but he was clearing writing with the sense that these letters might be saved and reread.

And they were. Nearly a third of our New Testament belongs to Paul, or written as Paul, and so the shadow cast by these letters is large: large enough that we might say that while Jesus inspires the faith, and Peter is the founder, Paul is the architect of almost everything we now recognize as the Christian religion.

(Just as an aside, and because I know you like five-dollar words, the books where Paul’s authorship is in doubt are called pseudepigrapha. Books such as Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy are written as Paul might write them, but few agree they are actually written by Paul. The early church debated these things, and decided that the ideas contained in some of the letters were too important to lose just because they couldn’t agree on authorship.)

A letter that no one doubts, a letter to give us a perfect snapshot of Paul’s mind and Paul’s approach, is 1 Corinthians. Writing from his temporary home in Ephesus, some time between 53 and 57, Paul follows his typical pattern of praise and admonish. He gives thanks that the gifts of God are visible in the community, and them he lets them have it.

The issue, we quickly learn, is disunity. It has been reported to Paul through Chloe, one of the leaders of this church, that the people are divided by affiliation: some take their cue from Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, and some only Christ. What is a matter of practice, or belief? The passage is fairly vague, but whatever the issue, Paul is not impressed. In fact, he’s snippy:

Has Christ been divided up? Was I nailed to a cross for you? Were you baptized in my name? 14 I thank God[c] that I didn’t baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius. 15 Not one of you can say that you were baptized in my name.

I really love the next verse, mostly because I can relate: “I did baptize the family of Stephanas,” Paul writes, “but I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.” Oh, Paul, we’re all getting older: you gotta write these things down, it’s the only way to remember.

And so, this passage is being preached around the world today, by those who didn’t choose the other readings, and they will no doubt use it as a tool to encourage their people to get along. It is the go-to passage for churches in conflict, a handy resource for preachers that need Paul’s help to underline the danger of disunity.

I know that in some settings these kind of sermons just write themselves: I read an article this week about a church in southern Indiana that had a service of reconciliation with their last four ministers, all of whom quit, were forced out, or ended up in the hospital. Even the current minister who has led this ministry of reconciliation has developed heart trouble, but has carried on for the sake of Christian unity.

But what about the churches where people get along, and even enjoy each other? Where there is a sense of common purpose, and conflict is largely absent and resolved quickly when it infrequently appears? What does Paul have to say to those people, and to you?

Two things, I think. The first is a lesson about emphasis. Each of us, when defining the heart of our faith, will use words or phrases to convey this most subjective matter. Some will say ‘to reach out’ or ‘serve others.’ Others will say ‘to bring healing’ or ‘become whole.’ Still other will say ‘seek justice’ or ‘mend the world,’ and finally some may say ‘to be saved’ or ‘share the Gospel.’

Reflecting on Paul, I am fairly certain that this is the type of disunity that fell upon Corinth. Following Paul or Peter or Apollos may have largely been a matter of emphasis, with each of these figures bringing his own idea of the heart of faith. Paul is able to step out of the conflict to say ‘I didn’t die for you—it was Christ: and it is his way you must follow to be faithful.’

And this, I think, leads to the second thing Paul would say to a church that doesn’t have drama, just people being people. We may disagree on emphasis, and we may disagree on our approach, but we should never disagree on the heart of the message: that God came into the world to renew us and redeem us, and set us free to serve God. Whenever we lose sight of the heart of the message we will end up in conflict, or worse, go in completely the wrong direction.

One of the primary ways we stay on track, keep our hearts and minds in tune with the core message and each other, is communion. It is no accident that communion is called communion, because it is designed to remind us of who we are and to whom we belong: to recall the story of renewal and redemption and unify us around a single table.

The words for the Great Thanksgiving we will read this morning come from Hippolytus, written 1,800 years ago. And like the words of Paul, the Great Thanksgiving is a call to unity of purpose and understanding, and gift to the church for all of time. May God bless us and strengthen our fellowship as we gather around this table once more, Amen.


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