1/26/2020: How Dangerous is a Divided Christ? I Cor. 1.13

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3 Epiphany, 26 January 2020 C
Isaiah 9.1-4; I Cor. 1.10-18; Mt. 4.12-23; MLK,Jr.
In the season of the Epiphany, we reacquaint ourselves with Jesus who is stepping out with a ministry that is to signify his divine nature. The gospels “credentialize” him. Our readings from the epistles of Paul purport to support those credentials for those who were not among those early followers or otherwise acquainted with that early portion of Jesus’ ministry. Paul wrote letters, many letters, which causes me to be in awe of his prolific activities because, from all biblical accounts, he did not have a private secretary and he was constantly underway, when not detained in jail.
I come to you this morning with two questions: Why did Paul write, and may he be compared to a more recent writer of letters? Immediately clear from the content of his letters is the answer to the question “why.” The answer to the second question causes me to return to a federal holiday which we observed last Monday and which, in the opinion of some, therefore should be locked away until another year. We have done our annual obligation, and so let’s move on. The letter writer, whom I would compare to Paul, is obvious to you: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
All of Paul’s letters should be placed into historical context, and most certainly does that hold true for his letters to the Christians at Corinth. Paul’s first letter, from which a portion was read just minutes ago in our liturgy is ‘spot on,’ to use a modern-day term, regarding a rather sensitive and divisive issue facing that congregation, and gives us evidence on how to deal with such matters. Christ was being divided.
The division: Whom should they follow? Paul? Apollos? Christ? Or Cephas (Peter)? What prompted Paul to write such a letter was not to engage in a philosophical treatise, in order to demonstrate his intelligence. Rather, Paul wrote to address a real, vibrant, divisive and threatening situation. Christ was being divided, i.e. the teachings of Christ were being challenged or ignored. Paul’s concern was for tolerance, forbearance and civility among those who called themselves Christians and who were active in the emerging church in the city of Corinth (situated near the modern-day city of Corinth, in southern Greece).
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is, in essence, a primer on how to address church conflict. Rarely in the history of Christianity has a congregation so excelled in disagreement, conflict, immorality, and a generally fractious spirit. On any given issue, we could get five different opinions from four Corinthians. Living in one of the premier cities of the ancient world, according to existing secular records, the Corinthian congregation was very much at home. Little distinguished the church from the society in which it found itself. At one point in his letter to this church Paul writes: “it is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant!” (I Cor. 5.1-2a)
If we assume for a moment that the Bible is simply a straightforward history text, even the literalists, who would maintain that, as the word of God, all is pristine and without blemish, even those literalists would have to admit that we learn some rather risqué and heady stuff about our Christian predecessors. In addition to condoning an incestuous relationship—I am presuming that the father’s wife was not the young man’s mother, but perhaps a second wife, i.e. stepmother or one of several wives which men still took in that society—the Corinthian church disagreed about everything—who was the best preacher. Congregational life was more like a talent show, a competition between people, than a place for mutual building.
Some in the congregation provoked others by deliberately parading behavior which they knew was offensive. And unable to resolve conflict among themselves, they took to the public courts to exact justice from those who wronged them. Paul lamented these and other actions. Here is a church, the church in Corinth, that is confused in its theology, flabby in its morals, and deficient in its witness. Christ was divided.
A burning question is, then: where does one begin corrective action with such a group? Should one send in a conflict-resolution team? Or a specialist in management techniques to build a vision, develop a mission or strategy statement, identify values, around which this group can rally? Should the bishop intercede with a visit? Clearly something has to be done, for it is no longer clear whether we have a group any longer that is identifiably Christian.
Given the content of Paul’s letter, the beginning only hints at the base problem. Yet, enough is given in his opening lines to alert us to what is to follow. On the surface, an initial reading may hint of flattery, not as a prelude to a deeper, divisive problem. Paul appeals to their intelligence and sensibility. We, now privy to the entire letter, would expect the opening lines of his letter to come on strong, laying down the harshest law or regulations possible, reflecting the difficulties which have been brought to his attention.
However, what we do find is a tone of reconciliation. We find a firm gentleness, a conciliatory approach. “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Cor. 1.2-4)
Paul continues in this vein, not only in this chapter, but in every chapter of his letter. “I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus.” (I Cor. 1.4) ”When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom…And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (I Cor. 2.1-5
Paul’s greeting and prayer, the first nine verses, seem anything but abrasive and accusatory. Rather, they appeal to all that is good and community-centered. Patiently and prayerfully, he reminds them who they are: saints, although from all accounts they were anything but! Paul recalls a journey which they have already taken: a journey from spiritual poverty to enrichment through the gospel. He tells them that they lack nothing and will lack nothing, that God has blessed them thoroughly and will preserve them to the end in Jesus Christ. And Paul does this so well that it begs the question: How can people to whom God has been so good, behave so badly? If Christ has given his life for us, doesn’t gratitude demand that we glorify God with our bodies? Do they not have a basis for working out their disagreements in a spirit of charity?
This allows me to fast forward to the 20th and 21st centuries and to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. An obvious first similarity is that both men, Paul and Dr. King, wrote letters because they could not appear in person to confront their dissidents or accusers. We are, consequently, beneficiaries to some of the best thinking and down-to-earth theology one can find anywhere.
16 April 1963, 57 [years] ago, while confined in jail, Dr. King wrote in long-hand his now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and he was in jail because in his mind the church in the United States had divided Christ into small “c” and large “C.” Like the church in Corinth, the American church had adapted itself to the behavior of the country. Dr. King gave evidence that the churches condoned the practice of first-class citizenship for some Christians, and second-class citizenship for others. As sisters and brother in Christ, so said Dr. King, this was unacceptable for God in Christ is not divided. God does not play favorites.
Had Paul been able to confront in person those who so badly corrupted the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is most unlikely that a scribe would have captured Paul’s discourse so accurately as Paul has done for us in his own language. Likewise, had Dr. King been able to meet with those mainline clergy to whom his letter was addressed and who had accused him of wanting too much, too quickly—after years of enforced servitude, physical, spiritual and emotional abuse, all that a hundred years after the declaration that freed the slaves—the media would not have been present to record that discussion, and copies would not have been preserved even to this day.
I admit readily: St. Paul was not Dr. King, and King was not Paul. Yet, they shared a common goal: And that goal was to bring God’s kingdom closer to realization on earth, as in heaven. This was none other than what had been prophesized by Isaiah and as taught by Jesus of Nazareth, whom we recognize as the very Incarnation of the Godhead.
Both Paul, a former lawyer, and King, a professor of theology and a pastor, had dynamic personalities. Both had a way with words that was persuasive, a way that put the word of God squarely before those who claimed to be followers of God’s word. Dr. King saw in our great land the possibility of fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy: “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Isa. 60.3)
On Monday last, the day set aside nationally to remember Dr. King and to further his legacy, I attended a Community Unity Breakfast in the Town of Watertown where, as you know, I reside. The keynote speaker up from Atlanta shared with us the results of a series of conversations [that] he had had with a group of boys and girls of middle-school age. What, he asked those young people, would they like adults to do that would keep them in the church? According to our speaker, the response was short and sharp: “Stop lying to us. You tell us one thing, but then do the opposite!”
There was a loud, audible gasp when the speaker said this, for no one in the assembly of ca. 500 people had anticipated such a response. But that is precisely why both Paul and Dr. King wrote what they did. We who claim the faith of Jesus, as one hymn reminds us, we Christians are the living, walking examples of God’s love for the creation. We stewards of the Good News are charged to make known and to share God’s grace. So, two men, separated by untold centuries, but yet united in their love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, give us an example for working out our disagreements in a spirit of charity.
As we raise questions and seek connections, we are beginning to understand Paul’s strategy as described in today’s epistle reading. We might also be rediscovering a strategy for the orientation of the church in our day. Paul’s premise—you might even call it faith—was that, if people knew, really knew, what God has done for them in Jesus Christ, it might just make them grateful enough to live together like saints. And that, too, was Dr. King’s dream. For Christ divided cannot stand.