Sunday, August 30, 2015

Transformed by the Cross: Factions within the Community

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning. (I Corinthians 1:10–17)
You know, it didn’t take Paul long to get down to business, did it? In just the previous pen stroke, Paul was thanking God for his spiritual children. Yet as soon as Paul moves through the customary Greeting and Thanksgiving, he, as a parent to his children, begins the process of correction. And Paul’s main concern comes to us in verse 10. This is Paul’s main reason for writing this letter. If not for this one issue, Paul may never have picked up the pen in the first place. There, he writes:
Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose.
Like so many children of God who have lived before them, and like so many that have walked upon this earth afterward, the Corinthian Christians had a problem with maintaining unity. My prayer this morning, and in the future, is that God gives us the humility to view one another through the lens of the cross. Because only then will we break the cycle of division that has plagued us from the beginning.

Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote this letter. Three or four years earlier he had been in Corinth. Paul spent about 18 months in Corinth. He started the Christian Church there. He built relationships there. But some time around AD 54, Paul received word that all was not well in Corinth. Now we know that Paul regularly received letters from the Christians in Corinth and Paul undoubtedly wrote letters to them other than what we have here in the New Testament. But Paul didn’t learn about their divisions from his own correspondence with them. He tells us here that “Chloe’s people” told him about their fights. Most believe that Chloe was actually a businesswoman in Ephesus. She had workers move back and forth across the Aegean Sea between Ephesus and Corinth (about a two-week journey). Some of these workers had become Christian and they visited the Corinthian congregation when they were there. When they arrived back home, in Ephesus, they gave Paul an earful! They told him about the dissension and division that was destroying the Corinthian church.

But they had not always been divided, and we see that through the language Paul uses here in the opening verses of the letter. The particular words he uses here for “dissention” and “united” are important and unusual. Here in verse 10, when Paul writes, “Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups.” This is a word commonly used to describe “tearing” or “renting” or even the “plowing” of a field. It indicates that something whole or united is being torn apart or separated. Likewise, when Paul writes in the same verse, “Be restored…” This word implies the idea of mending together something that has been torn apart. In the gospels, this is the word used to describe the mending together of broken, torn fishing nets. When Paul left Corinth, we have to assume this congregation (or group of congregations) was united. But in his absence, in the 3-4 years since he’d been there, something had gone wrong. And this united church became a divided church.

We will see in the coming weeks that they divided over many issues, and Paul talks about the first one right here. Some said, “I’m a disciple of Paul…” “After all, he is our spiritual father!” “He brought to us the gospel for the first time!” Others were saying, “Oh, yeah, well, I’m a disciple of Apollos.” “He’s much more important than Paul.” “He’s smarter.” “He’s more eloquent.” “You know, he’s from the city of Alexandria, where all of the philosophers are!” “He’s just like they are!” “He’s brilliant—much more important than plain ol’ Paul!” Others said, “I have you all beat. I’m a disciple of Cephas (Peter).” “He was with Jesus!” “One of the 12!” “One of Jesus’ closest friends!”

The Corinthians were using the accomplishments or personalities of great Christian leaders to build walls between themselves. For example, they were putting great stock in the individual who might have baptized them, or, the teacher to whom they felt the most allegiance. Perhaps the most puzzling statement of Paul in this opening section comes when he writes, "And some are saying, 'I belong to Christ…'" He writes this statement as if there is something wrong with that! Aren’t we all supposed to belong to Christ? It seems, however, that those who were making this claim did not have the purest of motives. Just as those who claimed Paul as their own or Apollos as their own or Peter as their own… others were doing the same thing with Christ. “We are the ones who really belong to Christ, but we aren’t sure about you.”

Church, does this sound familiar? We certainly have not been alone in our exclusivistic claims throughout history, but we certainly have not been innocent either. In America, the objects of our allegiances have different names. The Lutherans may say, “I belong to Luther…” The Methodists may say, “I belong to John Wesley…” Some in our family may say, “I belong to Campbell…” Or, worse: “I belong to Christ…” as if no one else does! Instead of perpetuating division, Paul reminds us here in I Corinthians that we are members of one body. In fact, in order to really emphasize this reality, Paul, here in verse 10 uses the same word three times. He writes, "I appeal to you to say the same things, have the same mind, have the same judgment."

Brothers and sisters, this sounds so good, so easy, doesn’t it? Then why has it proven to be so difficult? Why, 2,000 years later, are we still struggling with division in God’s family? Let’s be honest with each other. This issue—division within the church—this issue keeps more non-Christians away from the church than anything else! Jesus said:
This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other. (John 13:35)
If our love attracts the world, the opposite is also true. Our hate, our fights, our divisions—they actually repel the world. Church, the unity of God’s people is serious business! That is why Paul devoted an entire letter to it!

Paul reminds us again and again in this letter that the basis of our unity comes from one place: The cross of Jesus Christ. Church, the challenge for us is the same as it was for them, we must be careful that we are uniting around what God intends for us to unite around. And we must be careful to refrain from anchoring ourselves to anything else.

I will share with you one of my concerns with the contemporary church. In the last few years or even decades, we’ve witnessed a greater willingness to set aside denominational loyalties in the favor of Christian unity. For that I am truly thankful! For that I think God is thankful! Yet, I fear that in our recent zeal for unity, we have often traded one set of exclusivistic alliances for another. Let me explain to you what I mean. There have been times in our history when we viewed as our brothers and sisters in Christ only those who worshipped in a building with the name “Church of Christ” on its marquee. And if we allowed that simple fact to separate us from other brothers and sisters in Christ, we were wrong! In the present context, however, I witness more and more members of Churches of Christ setting aside one exclusivistic alliance for others. What I mean is that each one of us says “I belong to Evangelicalism” or, “I belong to the emerging church movement” or, “I belong to the Republican party” or, “I belong to the progressives” or, “I belong to the conservatives.” Just as there was nothing wrong with Paul or Apollos or Peter, there may be nothing wrong with any of these things in their own right. The problem arises when we use these things to separate ourselves from one another, with the idea that because I am a part of this group, I am somehow more right or closer to God than you.

Those who are transformed by the cross stare these alliances squarely in the face and say boldly, "My allegiance is to Christ alone.” My bond to you is not based on: Politics, Church governance or Worship style. My bond to you is based solely upon our common allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and in terms of God’s family, all other allegiances are meaningless.

Notice, Paul does not tell the Corinthians to stop fighting in the name of expediency or humanitarian tolerance or to maintain peace. He tells them to stop fighting because they belong to Christ, and Christ is not divided. If the image of God in this world is displayed through God’s people, then church, what kind of an image are we revealing to the world? I think it is interesting that one of the first signs the Corinthians were not being transformed by the cross were their divisions. Those who truly die the death that Jesus died do not form sides. We do not build walls between ourselves and other Christ followers. We do not refuse to fellowship with people because they disagree with us on some issue, even some theological issues. For some reason, we’ve created a culture that says I cannot fellowship with you if we disagree on something. I’ve seen it so many times, “Well, I can’t go to that congregation anymore because of what they believe about:

The end of the world

Or social justice

Or the role of women in public worship

Or the role the Holy Spirit plays in the lives of Christians.”

Folks, there are so many things wrong with that line of thinking that I hardly know where to begin! First, you’d be hard pressed to find out what a specific congregation believes about any of these things! Because we are so diverse! If you take any of those issues and poll the room, you will find a great diversity of opinions! The church has always had diversity of opinion and belief. So, be careful about saying, "I can’t fellowship with them because they believe…" The fact is, there has always been a great degree of diversity among the they. There is even diversity among the leadership of the they. Lance, John, Steven, Jerry, Tim, and I are great friends, but we do not agree on every theological point. I have great respect for our elders, but I do not agree with them on every theological point. Nor do they agree with each other on every theological point. We all love God. We all honor Scripture. But we sometimes do not see eye to eye. Brothers and sisters, just because you disagree does not mean you have to divide! This line of reasoning is why we have too many Christian denominations in our city to count. Brothers and sisters, if we just get past this one issue, wow, I cannot imagine what God would do with a united church! A loving, united, diverse body of Jesus followers! Folks, armed with the Spirit of God—what kind of revolution do you suppose a group like that could start?

The questions for us are simple: Will we continue to perpetuate divisions? Or, will we become truly transformed by the cross? Because church, it is impossible to do both!

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