Sermon #169: Division & Unity in the Church

Sermon #169 St. James the Less #76 1/26/20


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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For 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. 1 Corinthians 1:10-18


The Reading Group

This past week I was a part of a reading group that consisted of a few Roman Catholic nuns and priests, a lay leader, and a handful of Episcopal clergy as well. We have decided to come together monthly and discuss where our faith traditions agree and where they disagree.


We met at Aquinas College near Belle Meade, in a quiet room overlooking the back part of campus; it was really peaceful. We were all just sitting around on couches talking about life and faith and what’s going on in our different ministries.


Before the meeting, we had all read a rather dense document that compared how our different churches are structured and governed. It was all about how dioceses and local congregations’ function and are organized, and how they differ around the world. And so, we ended up talking about that as well.


But if you are picturing in your head a boring meeting where everyone is solemn and serious talking in a monotone voice, well then you should’ve been there, we really had a good time. Thankfully for me, we even started discussing baseball, but unfortunately, the two nuns I met were Cubs fans.


In the end, I think we really enjoyed being together and had fun. And when I mean fun, we were talking about the Netflix movie, The Two Popes, and what we liked and disliked about it.


The Episcopalians in the room asked about the role of the pope, and what’s the big deal with the pope? Why can’t he just be the Bishop of Rome instead of the Vicar of Christ? The Catholics, in turn, asked as politely as they could, “Now what does the Archbishop of Canterbury actually do?”


It was a place where we could ask some honest questions of each other, while not feeling like we were going to offend, or even try to win one another over to our perspective. We came together knowing our differences and being okay with that. This only happened because we started our conversation from a place of mutual respect.

We talked about what it would look like for us to walk together even amid our differences. And maybe the best place to start is to sit on couches and talk about this stuff, and then to pray together.


Catholics and Episcopalians have their differences. But even here in Madison, I think about the number of denominations we have around us who interpret Scripture a little differently than we do.


Normally when we talk to someone from a different denomination or another faith tradition we either say for the sake of unity that the differences don’t really matter or for the sake of right belief we say that the most minute details matter just as much as the big stuff in our faith.


But the more I talk to folks, the more I realize that of the two, the real danger is saying that the small stuff doesn’t matter. You believe this and I’ll believe that, but we’re all good. As nice as that sounds, it doesn’t take their perspective or even our own perspective very seriously.


What I appreciate about the group I was with this past week, is that we knew there were differences and we were neither going to shoo those away and say they don’t matter, because we all believe they do, but we weren’t going to let those issues hinder us from having a fruitful conversation.


Personal Experiences

A conversation in the midst of differences. You’ve probably had to balance this tension with someone before, maybe even a close friend or family member. You know how it goes: You get on the topic of what you believe, and then start checking off the things that you do believe and don’t believe, and the conversation, or argument, goes on from there.


Before we know it, we are nitpicking our differences, and our blood pressure rises, and we have forgotten to say at the beginning of the conversation that we are committed to being one even with the knowledge of our disagreement.


Can you think of a conversation you’ve had where this has been the case?

I say all this because it is a hard balance for us to take seriously our differences while also being committed to our unity.


Corinthians

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians this morning gets to the heart of this matter. Sometime before this letter was written, Paul had come to Corinth and after preaching to good news for a while he was able to create a small house church in this budding metropolis.


Not long after, he went on to the next city to do the same thing. While away he heard that this little house church he helped create was now experiencing some division in their midst.


After Paul had left Corinth, a man named Apollos from Alexandria in Egypt had come to town preaching about Jesus as well. Some in the community said they preferred Apollos’ preaching and teaching style to Paul’s. They would say they followed Apollos. Then some in the community said they belonged to the Apostle Peter, and what he was saying.


And then another group, fed up by all this said, “Y’all go ahead follow whoever you want. We’re just gonna follow Jesus.”


Sadly, it didn’t take long for the Christians in Corinth to start splintering into different factions.


The historian N.T. Wright says, “It’s a sobering thought that the church faced such division in its very earliest years. People sometimes talk as if first-generation Christianity enjoyed a pure, untroubled honeymoon period, after which things became more difficult, but there’s no evidence for this in the New Testament. Right from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but struggling to hold together in a single-family those who had obeyed its summons.”


Corinth was like many of the major cities in the Roman Empire in which brilliant teachers and philosophers would visit and expound their theories to the locals as they walked by. Most times a group would form to hear what they had to say.


These traveling philosophers and sages hoped to gain a few disciples as they went from city to city--people who would continue to teach their ideas when they eventually left. These disciples would sit around arguing over ideas and who was the greatest teacher.


Paul realized that the church in Corinth was treating the Christian evangelists like the traveling philosophers. Some would say they belonged to Paul, some to Apollos or Peter or even Christ.


And yet Paul begs this misguided Corinthian congregation to let “No divisions be among you…Be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”



When Paul says this, he is calling on these new Christians to put away their worldly concepts and expectations, and instead, share in the common mind and purpose that we have in Christ Jesus.


Paul says that it is by the grace of our baptism that we are knit together as the body of Christ, and thus we should be of one mind with our Lord.


Application

Now think back to those tense conversations we have from time to time. In the church, we argue about a plethora of things. Some have immense importance, theologically and spiritually, and others are just personal preferences like the color of the carpet or the brand of coffee, but we argue, nonetheless.


But with Paul’s words in mind, I’ve started to wonder what it means for there to be plurality and yet unity in the church?


How can we, as a faithful church that is filled with a number of different thoughts and opinions, somehow still claim to be one?


How can all of us in this church who represent different generations, who come from so many different backgrounds and lifestyles, who have lived in different parts of the country (and the world), and who even hold different political affiliations still walk into the church and pray next to one another, share the peace, and break bread together? How is that even possible?


There is only one answer, and it’s Jesus. It’s Jesus who is the great unifier--who speaks to all of us where we are and calls us to himself. He calls us into his love, and to share in his same mind and purpose-that all might know his truth and love.


In a day and age when we are divided as a country more than ever, the Church’s message is that we are all one in Christ and that above all else, we are to seek after that unity and holy fellowship with Jesus. Our disagreements take a backseat when our gaze is focused on our Lord.


We need this. Our country needs this.


Sitting around on those couches with the Catholics the other day was just a small example for me of what we are all called to. The church is big enough for our differences, we just have to be willing to listen to each other, to respect one another, and to be united in the same mind and the same purpose.


And we can do this because we are sharing in the very mind and purpose of the risen and reigning Savior, Jesus the Christ!


3rd Sunday after the Epiphany. 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. N.T. Wright, 1 Corinthians for Everyone. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.

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