Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, December 15, 2018
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Christian Unity

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

 January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  It was started in 1908 by the Roman Catholic Church, but now it is observed by Christians of most traditions.  

 What does it mean for the Church to have unity?  And what does it not mean?  We’ll try to answer those questions through the lens of the situation in the Church in Corinth, which Paul addresses.  

 So let’s start with what’s actually going on in this text.  Paul is in Ephesus, just across the Aegean Sea from Corinth.  The two cities are linked as part of the great east-west trade route running through the Roman Empire.  Foreign goods from Arabia, India, and China, traveled overland, through Asia Minor, Turkey today, to Ephesus.  From there they were put on ships and taken to Corinth, and from there onto Rome.  

 Paul hears of the divisions in the Corinthian Church from members of the household of Chloe.  Chloe is no doubt one of the wealthy members of the Corinthian Church, involved in trade.  She is probably a widow, since otherwise her husband would be named as head of the household.  

 The church in Corinth is divided.  The outward expression of the division is that it’s based on leaders.  Now, it’s not the leaders themselves at odds with each other; Peter, Paul, and Apollos are not at odds with each other.  Rather, it is the “followers.”  

 There are other factors as well.  One of the big ones is that up until about the fourth century, the Christian Church had no permanent buildings.  Christians met almost exclusively in private homes, especially in the homes of the wealthy, since they had larger houses.  In a large city like Corinth, there would be dozens of these house churches, and that would make unity harder because all the Christians weren’t gathering together.  It was easier for factions to form.  And there were also issues of ethnicity and social status.  Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians probably belonged to separate house churches.  Wealthy Christians and poor Christians did as well.  All of this made unity more difficult.  

 There are four divisions mentioned.  First, some said, “I follow Paul.”  Paul’s preaching especially centered on salvation by grace alone, and he emphasized freedom in Christ.  So probably the people who looked to Paul as their leader were more likely to be those who latched onto the idea of freedom.  We know that some took Paul’s

teachings too far and saw faith in Christ as a “license to sin,” the freedom to do whatever one wanted to do.  

 Second, there were some who said, “I follow Apollos.”  Apollos was highly educated.  He probably appealed more to those who intellectualized the faith.  

 Third, there were some who said, “I follow Cephas,” that is Peter.  Peter, Paul, and Apollos were all Jews, but Peter appealed more to Jewish Christians who wanted to hold onto their Jewish traditions.  He probably appealed more to the legalists, those who wanted to make salvation dependent on obeying the law.  And perhaps also to the “Judaizers,” those who wanted Gentile converts to become culturally Jewish first to become Christians second. 

 And finally, there were some who said, “I follow Christ.”  These may have been the exclusivist crowd, those who wanted to say, “We are the only TRUE Christians here.”  And those folks are out there.  There will always be some who will basically say, “If you’re not part of our little group, then you’re not really a Christian.”  I saw a claim one time by another denomination that said, basically, “We’re the true followers of Christ.  If you’re a Methodist, you’re following John Wesley, not Jesus.  If you’re a Lutheran, you’re following Martin Luther, not Jesus.”  That’s a pretty poor theology of the Church, but those people are out there.  

 And there certainly can be a danger of attaching too much importance to human leaders.  We can focus too much on another person, to the detriment of following Christ.  I don’t have a problem saying that I’m a follower in the traditions of John Wesley.  But ultimately, I’m trying to follow Jesus, not good ol’ J. W.  After all, what do we call it when we put someone or something other than God as the governing center of our lives?  We call it idolatry.  And there can be idolatry of leaders.

 Let’s look now at Paul’s response.  

 First, he says to them, “Dear brothers and sisters.”  Actually, I don’t think that’s a strong enough translation. Because, literally, what he says is “Brothers that I love.”  Paul appeals on the basis of love.  He loves these people.  And so he wants what is good for them.  It’s a modern fallacy to think that loving someone means you don’t challenge them when they are doing wrong.  

 Second, “I appeal to you by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.”  It’s not Paul that wants them to stop fighting.  It’s Jesus.  Christian unity isn’t the idea of a Roman Catholic priest in 1908.  It’s not the idea of Paul in 55 AD.  It’s the idea of Jesus who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “May they be one as you and I are One.”  

 “Let there be harmony.  Be of one mind, united in thought and purpose.”  Our unity is based on a shared story.  We have the same story of being saved by the grace of Christ, who loved us so much he died on the cross for us.  Our unity is based on a shared identity.  We are all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.  Our unity is based on a shared purpose.  We are to love and serve the Kingdom of God and proclaim the good news, “Christ is risen, and he gives new life to those who love and serve him.”  

 Unity is not uniformity.  My brother in Christ, Norris Mason, pastor at Valley Grace Brethren is fond of saying that.  Unity is not unimformity.  Unity doesn’t mean that we all look the same, sound the same, think the same.  Differences are good for the Church.  Paul reminds us in this very letter that have different gifts, but different gifts given by one Holy Spirit and given for one purpose, to build up the Body of Christ.  

 We don’t have to agree about everything.  We can each have our own unique emphases.  Some churches emphasize worship.  Some emphasize discipleship.  Some emphasize evangelism.  Some emphasize service to the world.  That’s not a problem.  They’re all part of the work of God.  We can have our own traditions.  We can have our own style.  We don’t all have to sing out of a hymnbook, and we don’t all have to project words on a screen.  

 I don’t have a problem with there being four different churches in the “little town” of Seward.  Some people say, “Why are there so many churches?  Can’t these Christians get along?”  I don’t think unity means we have to all get together.  We can each keep our own unique identity, as long as we are all worshipping Christ and working together for his Kingdom.  

 That’s where I do have a problem.  There are four churches in the “little town” of Seward.  And no, they don’t work together.  There are three churches in the “little town” of New Florence, and they don’t work together.  There are three churches in the “really little town of Armagh.”  And they don’t work together.  And the list just does on.  

 We can even have unity while we disagree about some things, as long as we’re not disagreeing about things that are essential.  

 It really bothers me when I see how a lot of Christians act about politics.  I know sincere Christians who are Republicans, sincere Christians who are Democrats, and sincere Christians who belong to other parties.  And I hate to see when Christians degrade people who disagree with them about politics, because in so doing, they are degrading other Christians.  I think at the end of the day, when it comes to politics, we all basically want the same things.  We just don’t agree about the best way to get there.  And it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable!    

 Unity doesn’t mean we agree about everything.  But it does mean we remember and focus on the source of our unity.  

Paul asks, “Was I crucified for you?”  We have a common need for God’s grace, a common need for salvation won on the cross.

“Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”  To be baptized into someone’s name meant that you belong to them.  We are baptized into Christ.  We belong to Christ.  We have a shared experience of death to self and new life in Christ.  

Paul says he’s glad that he didn’t baptize many in Corinth just so they couldn’t say, “I was baptized in the name of Paul.”  Paul mentions three people, or rather three households that he did baptize.  The first is Crispus.  Acts 18 tells us that Crispus was the ruler of the synagogue in Corinth.  The second is Gaius.  Romans 16 tells us that Gaius was the owner of the home where Paul was a guest in Corinth, during which time he wrote to the Roman church.  And the third is Stephanas.  1 Corinthians 16 says that he was the very first convert in the city.    

Paul goes on, “I wasn’t sent out to baptize, but to preach the good news about the cross of Christ, a message the world calls foolish.”  The Hebrew mind said that anyone who was hung on a tree was cursed by God.  The Greeks and Romans valued power and social status, and a crucified man had neither.  

That’s the source of our unity, a message the world calls foolish, the idea that God came to us in the flesh, died for our sins, and rose again to deliver us from the power of death.  We are united by that message. That is our unity, not the name on the building, or the name of a person, but the name of Jesus only.  

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