These weren’t the kind of differences Paul was planning on.
Things had started well. Some 17 years after the death of Jesus, and some 14 years after his own conversion, Paul came to Corinth.1 The book of Acts tells us he had connections with some in the Jewish community, folks who made tents just like he did. Acts 18 tells us that after some settling in he began to build a community. But in a place like Corinth, I imagine Paul was worried about differences. The city was an important port for much of that part of the Mediterranean – there were people coming and going from all parts of the world, all the time, bringing with them not only their goods to trade but their language, their culture, their religious practices. It was a busy place, a transitory city, ‘a superficial place,’ one ancient historian called it.2 Archaeologists have found evidence for temples to different gods all over the place, some 2 dozen different kinds of temples and shrines, including a place in the forum at Corinth that was ‘a temple for all the gods.’ I imagine he was worried with differences between this new Christian community and the culture around. How would they see themselves? Would they know that they were to be different from the rest of the world?
But as today’s text makes clear it was another set of differences, internal ones, which threatened the church. It seems as though there was at least one letter exchanged between Paul and the church before this, a letter that has been lost. Others in the church have been writing him on the side. Paul begins I Corinthians in customary fashion – with gratitude and formal greetings. In 1:9, right before today’s text, he reminds them that God is faithful.
Then he lays his cards on the table. He pleads with them to be in agreement, no divisions, of the same mind and purpose. For it has been reported to him by Chloe’s people – he reveals his source – that people have been whispering. Folks have been lingering in the parking lot because of quarrels, more literally, strife among you. Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring note that all sorts of competing groups had formed within the church, but the Corinthian Christians didn’t necessarily see this as a problem. But Paul did. These quarrels weren’t a matter of personality conflicts or personal differences – though socio-economic distinctions popped up frequently. They weren’t competing organizations like denominations. The factions were religious cliques promoting their favorite leader within the one church at Corinth.3 Apollos, we learn in Acts 18, was a Jew from Alexandria, a passionate and gifted teacher, but there were some theological differences about baptism. Cephas is the disciple Peter, named this by Jesus in the text Betty preached on last week. It seems as though these were leaders who were generally on the same page about things. But the heart of what Paul seems concerned with is that ANY of these differences, any of them, get in the way of their allegiance to Christ and his Church. As he writes later on – one lord, one faith, one baptism. Be clear on whom you worship, he says. No one but Christ.
The thing that I think is interesting is Paul’s approach to difference. Often in response to all sorts of distinctions we trumpet listening, understanding, working together. And these are good, important, important things. But I also think Paul is realistic. He knows that in any community there are going to be differences. I am not only talking about theological and political ones, though those can be particularly tricky. I am talking about differences in background, in education and finances, in where you live and what you do, in where your kids go to school. These differences get at class, race sometimes. They get at who we think we are and where we fit in, or feel like we don’t fit it. These differences can get really hard and really painful.
But, the problems come – I think this is where Paul is going – when we elevate these differences more than we elevate the truth that we are bound together in Christ. When we worry more about who we are seeing after worship than that we are here to worship. When we a pay too much attention to those differences. When we get more caught up in the jersey we wear for whatever team than that we are part of Christ’s team. I am not only talking about Duke or Carolina or State, though idolatry comes in many forms, but as liberal or conservative, partisan of whatever stripe. There is nothing wrong with having strong opinions in whatever area. I love it. It is one of the things that make communities rich. The problem comes when we forget – and I have surely been guilty of this, too – that our allegiance to Christ comes first. The world whispers to us, calling to us to listen to our team, listen to one kind of media, put assumptions together about the other, those who look or seem or believe or grew up differently than us. Listen to those differences, the world tells us. Those differences make you who you are.
But NO, Paul says. Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, he says with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Then he gets distracted up in what I think are a couple of funny verses, where he thanks God he didn’t baptize all of them, so he wouldn’t be burdened with that baggage, then he forgets who he has baptized, except Crispus and Gaius. Maybe. Well, maybe Stephanus, too. Oh heck, he says, I forget. Then he rallies: FOR Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel. It is not about fancy words or elaborate arguments, but testimony that is deep, and true, about what God has done. The most elaborate philosophical proof pales in comparison to one of you who can say, "In my most difficult hour, I felt held by God. Someone in the community reached out and in that way I felt God’s love. As the music soared, I glimpsed the divine." It is through this love, found in weakness on the cross, which binds us together. Not to make our differences go away. But so that we might KNOW that our differences are infinitely less important than the One who claims us, Jesus the Christ.
Last Tuesday night I got sucked onto an extraordinary documentary on PBS about JD Salinger. Already determined to be a writer, he carried the first 6 chapters of his most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye, as he stormed the beach at Normandy, in seasons of difficult combat, as he was in the first wave of troops to see the horrors of Dachau. Already a complicated but brilliant man, he came back, isolated himself further, and wrote. His short stories in The New Yorker in the late 1940s made him famous. The Catcher in the Rye, as Holden Caufield voices his angst about the superficiality of the age, made him a celebrity. But he soon retreated to New Hampshire, largely isolating himself for the rest of his life, writing, brooding, watching movies and walking in the woods. From the center of the Manhattan literary scene, he disappeared. Many years later a young woman who had lived with him for a couple of years, a writer named Joyce Maynard, decided to write a tell-all memoir of her years with him. While I don’t like her choice, the public appetite for any information about this brilliant recluse was so high. She started writing, and decided that she would make the trek up to his New Hampshire home and tell him. But rumors had made their way back to him. She knocked on the door, nervous. After a while he opened it, trembling with anger. She started to speak, but he interrupted her. "You know what’s wrong with you?" he said. She stood there, dumbfounded. "You love the world too much," he said, and slammed the door in her face.4
Paul says it is foolish to believe we can be more. Foolish to believe – not that we don’t have opinions, but that those opinions matter less than what we know about Christ’s opinion. It is foolish to believe – not that we won’t get into arguments, strenuous ones, even – but that those arguments are done in a way that honors the other person’s faithfulness. It is foolish to believe that all other identities, all the other things that can make us feel different, melt away in the face of the love of God through Christ Jesus. Jesus’ love is what makes you most fully who you are. In a world that tries to seduce us with difference, with division, as we label and categorize, might we believe, Paul says, might we love the world less than the One who made us, holds us, and pours out grace upon us. Foolish? Perhaps. But also, through the cross, the very power of God.
All praise be to God, who binds us together in love. Amen.
1. Much of this background comes from both The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) , pages 773-780, as well as guidance from Acts 18 and notes and maps in The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008. ).
2. NIB, 775.
3. Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 509-510.
4. Learn more at American Masters: Salinger.