|Minister's Sermon - 2nd February 2020|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Bible Study for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church |
Sunday 2nd February 10.30am 2020
1 Corinthians 1:9-18 and 13.4-7
The most famous passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is the one that we often hear at weddings. And I read the list of things it says love is earlier. I always tell couples that this isn’t a poem about love for their wedding day, but a poem about love for when times get tough, when they’ve fallen out with each other and can’t agree. Because it’s part of a letter Paul wrote to a church that was in crisis. A church that was divided and in danger of tearing apart. Before I come to the passage I’ve just read, let me tell you something about the church in Corinth and what prompted Paul to write as he did.
In Paul’s time, Corinth was an important trading city, a transport hub for the Eastern Mediterranean. It attracted travellers from all over the world and they bought their religions and their cultures with them to the city. Politically, Corinth was a Roman Colony, the highest status a city could be given in the empire. So, there were many people with considerable power, wealth and influence, and their life was built on slaves and a large pool of poor workers. Whether or not it was justifiable, the city had a reputation for having a “superficial cultural life,” and its abuse of the poor. So much so, that it was known as, “Sin City.” (1) And just in case we think that’s only about sex, Paul’s letters suggest that the world the church is embedded in, is one of “injustice, greed, status-seeking, and violence, in which it was usual to use and abuse people, and that the wealth some enjoyed, was built on the poverty and enslavement, of others.” (2) The divisions in the city were reflected in the church. Very few believers were rich. Most were poor. Yet wealth plays a significant role in their divisions. The names in the letter suggest that some were of Latin descent, some were Greeks, and only a few were Jews. And the issues they raise confirms that the vast majority were gentiles who were struggling to work out how to live as Christians in the city. They’d been taught the scripture and traditions of Israel by Paul and the Jewish members. (3) But they lived in a culture that values those with power and authority. And they struggled to discern which of the many preachers arriving in the city preached the Gospel. These contested issues are expressed in a wide variety of ways in both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. And he wrote in response to the things they raised with him or he thinks they need to pay attention to. Sometimes, he expresses himself with frustration, and even anger. But it’s because he’s so passionate about them. And he longs for them to witness to the Gospel so that their life might draw others to Christ.
So, that’s some background, that helps us understand some of what Paul writes. What I want to do this morning, is to look at what the passage I’ve read, says about what it means to be a fellowship of God’s people. I began by reading this. “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” And everything Paul goes on to say is about how fellowship is to deepened. The fellowship the Christians in Corinth, and we, have been called into by God. He says a lot. But I want to focus on just two things. The first is about being united in mind and purpose. The second is about how we maintain the unity he appeals for.
Paul tells the church in Corinth what he expects of them in verse 10. “Now 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.” This serves as an introduction, not only for today’s reading, but for the first four chapters of the letter. And Paul reinforces it at the beginning of the 4th chapter, where he says he wants to ensure that the Corinthians are no longer “puffed up in favour” of either Paul or Cephas or Apollos “or one against another.” (4.6) He’s learnt about their divisions and quarrels from Chloe’s people. He’s heard that people are divided by their claims to belong to different teachers. Some say they belong to him or Apollos, while others say they belong to Cephas or the Christ. We can hear his frustration and anger in the next verse. “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” What on earth are you thinking! It isn’t absolutely clear what the divisions here are about. But this is simply the first of many sorts of division he explores in his letter, and maybe it doesn’t matter too much to us, since the divisions that occupied them aren’t the ones we get hung up on now. And even ‘though there are many, what Paul is inviting us to do here, is to put them all in their proper place. So that we leave behind divisive quarrels of any sort, and become united in the name of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” The reason? Well it’s Christ we and they belong to, not Paul, Cephas, or Apollos or anything or anyone else. So, before we can speak about unity, we need to know who we belong to.
What or who determines what we do, what we choose, what we think? Is it a person or a group of people who share our beliefs, our politics, our understanding of the world? Is it the status we gain from work, our wealth or our achievements? Is it the things we like doing or a way of life that’s been hard won? Or is it the church or the Christian fellowship we belong to? Paul doesn’t use the word here, but the biblical term for all of these things, is idolatry. Idolatry is something that we’ve put at the centre of our life, something that rules our lives, that is not God or Christ. Because when we properly belong to Christ, all these other things take on a proper secondary place, or are removed from our lives. I’m not suggesting that’s easy. Putting Christ first is a task that takes many of us a lifetime. But it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, for when we are baptised or confirmed, we choose to belong to Christ. So, the Corinthian Christians who are saying they belong to the teachers who baptised them, are wrong. And Paul is glad he didn’t baptise anyone, except Crispus and Gaius, “so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.” He backtracks for a moment, as he remembers that he also baptised “the household of Stephanas,” and it is possible he baptised others. But that’s not his main point. He wasn’t sent to “baptize but to proclaim the gospel.” If you think that sounds like a bit of a detour, you’re right, because although it doesn’t contradict Paul’s main point. It isn’t his main point. And that’s that the divisions that not belonging to Christ creates, get in the way of the Gospel, because the Gospel requires unity.
So, I want to return to verse 10, where he suggests three ways to express unity. First, they are to “be in agreement.” Second, they are to have the “same mind and purpose.” And third, because they agree and have the same mind, they will be united and that will be far more powerful than the things that are pulling them apart. The church in Corinth isn’t the only church Paul speaks to about needing the same mind. He also says to the church in Philippi, “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not” grasp that equality “but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death…” on a cross. (Adapted from Phil. 2.2b-8) Being “in agreement,” and having the “same mind and purpose,” could sound like coercion. But it doesn’t mean us all being the same. The further we read into the letter, the more it becomes clear, that Paul does not confuse unity with uniformity, so neither should we. Unity – whether within one church or with other Christians in the same place – doesn’t demand that we all think the same. Even if John Wesley says so in one of his hymns! Nor does it mean we all have to do the same things. As Paul make clear in his image of the church as the body of Christ, the church can’t function if we’re all hands or feet or mouths, it needs every part of the body and that’s why the Spirit gives us a variety of gifts. Nor do we have to look the same or come from the same race or culture. One of the amazing things about the Christians in Corinth, is that Jews, Gentiles, Greeks, Romans, seem to get on without disagreeing! The point Paul is making by drawing attention to the differences Chloe’s people have told him about is that, however many differences there may be between them, their unity is rooted in the cross – and I’ll say more about hat after you’ve had time to talk.
• What is the “purpose” that unites Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church?
• How far do we have the “same mind” in this fellowship?
• What do we need to do to be more united in fellowship?
Paul’s answer to the Corinthians disunity is the cross. “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The mindset and intention Paul wants for the Corinthians is cross-shaped. He wants them to take seriously the need for self-emptying for the sake of God’s purposes. There are a number of things we don’t immediately pick up when we hear these verses. One is the phrase that’s translated as “the message about the cross.” This may lead us to think that Paul is talking about how the cross might be explained in powerful speech. And it plays into the Corinthians expectations of those who bring the Gospel to them. It appears, that Paul was not an eloquent speaker, especially when compared to Apollos. So, in a culture which valued the wisdom of powerful, charismatic speakers, Paul was at a disadvantage. Especially among those who believed that God would use someone powerful, rather than someone so unimpressive, and weak. But the Greek term for “message” is logos. And it doesn’t just mean “word” or “message,” “it’s a way of speaking of the deepest forms of wisdom, the wisdom that underlies the creation of all that is. For Paul, the cross,” reveals the nature of God. Of, “God’s willingness to suffer for the benefit of creation, and in the power of God to bring life out of death.” (2) God’s wisdom is seen not only in Jesus’ death on the cross, but in his birth, his life and his ministry. But the idea of God’s power and wisdom being perfectly revealed in weakness, in suffering, in self-emptying is challenging. It was then. And it is now.
Yet says Paul, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” The pattern of the cross is central to the way Paul is inviting the church in Corinth to overcome its divisions. Over and over again, he invites them to pay attention to the cross because he says, “it is the power of God.” The cross is his shorthand for everything Jesus was and did. It stands for the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry, as well as his death and resurrection, because all of it is a sign of God’s grace in caring for humanity and creation. One commentator says, “we might say that Paul removes the cross from the hands of Rome, as an instrument of terror, and gives it over to the power of God to re-knit the fabric of relationship.” (2) Not only to re-knit the relationship between God and humanity. But also, between human beings, and between human beings and nature. In other words, it’s the cross, that shows us how the divisions that Chloe’s people have told him about, are to be mended. He tells them later in his letter what love looks like. And this also need to be hard in the context of the cross. It’s the passage I spoke about earlier. The one that couples getting married often choose to read. At the heart of it is a long list of verbs. “Doing words.” The only piece of grammar I can remember from school! It’s an exhausting list of 15 actions. ‘Though the way it’s translated into English doesn’t always make this clear. Love means doing this and this and this… Love mean not doing this and this and this…. Love is expressed in practice. It’s seen in the way we live. In the way we do ordinary things in every-day life.
At the heart of all of this, is “mind” that was in Christ that led him to let go of equality with God and empty himself of all but love to share God’s grace and love with us. And the invitation to us, is to do the same, in all our relationships. With God, with ourselves, with other Christians in our own and other churches, with other people in this country and around the world, and with the planet. A pattern of life rooted in the cross is, I believe, the only way these relationships can be mended or rebuilt. The invitation to die to self in order to receive full or abundant life – which is what resurrection is about – is a challenging one. It asks more of us than loving others through caring and helping and giving money, it requires us to let go of our own wishes and even our needs in order to make space for others, especially those who are weaker or less powerful than us. And, just as that wasn’t the way of the world in Paul’s time, it isn’t in ours. Which brings us back to the question Paul asked at the beginning of his letter. Who do you belong to? Those who belong to Christ, are willing to make these sacrifices, so that all might live and thrive. But just in case you think this is all too hard, and that you’re failing or not doing as well as you think you should, you don’t need to worry. Because Paul reassures us when he says that the wisdom of the cross is God’s power “to us who are being saved.” Listen again. It is God’s power “to us who are being saved.” In other words, we don’t have to be like Christ, or have the same mind or purpose as him, in one day. Of course, we want to, but the fact that we’re not doesn’t mean that our witness can’t be powerful. Because our weakness, our imperfections, our foolishness, don’t stop God working in us. For Paul, we are not saved, in a once-in-a-lifetime event. Being saved is an ongoing process. Not just of the transformation of people, as individuals, churches, communities, nations and a world. But it’s also a process that stretches across the entire creation – remember how Paul speaks to the Romans of the creation groaning. As divisions are mended, as people are included in and accepted, the wisdom of the cross is made real. And even ‘though the world may think it is weakness and foolishness, to want to seek unity and have the same mind and purpose, the transformation that happens when we do reveals God’s grace and God’s power.
• How important is the cross in creating and maintaining an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion in our church?
• How do we need to change in order to live according to the wisdom of the cross in our fellowship?
Sue Keegan von Allmen
2nd February 2020
References(1) Based on J. Paul Sampley’s commentary on 1 Corinthians The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X 2002, pp773-5
(2) Jane Lancaster Patterson https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4344
(3) Based on J. Paul Sampley’s commentary on 1 Corinthians The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X 2002, pp777-8
(4) Based on J. Paul Sampley’s commentary on 1 Corinthians The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol X 2002, pp776-7