Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sermon, Epiphany 3A, 1 Cor. 1:10-18

Today is our Annual Meeting, and today we get the traditional Annual Meeting letter that Paul sent to the church in Corinth. Annual Meetings are a time to reflect on the past year, as well as a time to look forward and dream of what is to come. And in some places they are a time for arguing, conflicts, grandstanding and ugly politics. Which makes me wonder if the lectionary committee selected this reading from 1 Corinthians for that very reason.

While I don't for a minute think we have those issues and factions here that were prevalent in Corinth, I do think it is something we need to be aware of. In all reality, we are human, and humans tend to congregate around other humans who share the same interests, goals, concerns etc. We as a group congregate here at St. Luke's because we are Episcopalians, we love good liturgy and the Episcopal church strives to make room for all people. And within our congregation are people who group together based on more tightly defined interests or social interests (altar guild, quilting group, men's breakfast) or personality traits. We have different groups; we need to ensure that those different groups don't become different factions.

When first reading this passage from Paul we might get hung up on the first sentence:

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.

Does anyone else hear their mother in there telling us to play nice, quit fighting and reminding us that family is all we've got so we had better love each other?

I don't think that's what Paul is doing here, though. I don't think Paul is trying to get everyone to play nice all the time. Conflict can be good and healthy – sports and debates being prime examples; not to mention that Paul was never one to shy away from it. Conflict can open our eyes to new ideas and new ways of being.

Notice that Paul brings his rant against various factions back to baptism: baptism, one of the great sacraments of the Church; baptism, that event by which we are adopted into the household of God; baptism, by which we are buried with Christ, reborn by the Holy Spirit and by which we share in Christ's resurrection. Baptism washes away our old identity and bathes us in a new life and a new way of being. If we recognize that we have all been born anew into one body, then we must recognize that there is no place for factions. And this is exactly where the Corinthians were having problems.

They had all been baptized, but they failed to understand that their old ways of being needed to be relinquished in favor of living as one body. They failed to live into the theology of dying to their old lives and living into their new lives. In short, they weren't actually living what they proclaimed at their baptisms.

So Paul going off against the faction problem in Corinth didn't really have to do with factions. The faction issue is really a secondary issue. It's the presenting issue to an underlying problem. Like Miriam's headaches were the presenting issue to her brain tumor, the Corinthian factions were the presenting issue to their refusal to let baptism change their lives.

Their faction-based quarrels were not simply over who baptized whom; they were, in essence, over the fundamental issue of who should be part of the Church and who was not part of the Church. It was, in some sense, one of the first fights over orthodoxy.

In his Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, St. John Chrysostom says as much. He wrote that their quarreling wasn't trivial, but that it could be broken down to a fundamental issue:

Even those who said they were of Christ were at fault because they were implicitly denying this to others and making Christ the head of a faction rather than the head of the whole Church.

Christians today are having the same fights and it looks like this: You can't be a Real True Christian ™ unless you do or believe X, Y & Z. And it's there that they deny Christ to others.

Unless you had a Believer's Baptism, unless you vote for the right candidate, unless you drink no alcohol, unless you believe the earth is 6000 years old, unless you believe in a literal world-wide flood, unless you believe in the rapture, unless you home-school, unless you have never been divorced, unless you do and believe these things you cannot be a Real True Christian ™. And that list of unlesses is practically unlimited.

Not only is it practically unlimited, but it's also tailored to the specific requirements and agendas of each specific faction. You could probably even call it a form of idolatry.

Setting up these factions as a basis for determining whether or not a person is a Real True Christian ™ is exactly what Paul was addressing in Corinth. When we do that, we deny Christ to others and begin to worship an idol rather than the head of the whole Church. And in this case, Jesus was as much of an idol as Baal. Because idols, remember, approve and condemn those very same things which we ourselves approve and condemn. How convenient.

As we get ready to move into our Annual Meeting where we reflect on last year and look forward to the coming year, let us keep this passage from Corinthians in mind. Differences between us are to be expected. Arguments may happen. But let us never devolve into factions where we hold that if you aren't part of our group you are not a Real True Christian ™. And let us never allow this place to become a faction of the wider Church where we proclaim that unless you do and believe exactly like us you can't be a Real True Christian ™. This is what Paul was saying to the Corinthians, and this is what Paul is saying to us.

What should define us isn't whether or not we are labeled as Real True Christians ™.

What should define us is how we choose to live into our baptismal covenant, how we allow our baptism to define our lives, and how we work to proclaim Christ as head of the Church – not as head of our faction.

This is what should define us and this is how we should move forward in 2014.



First time comments will be moderated.