Here's the sermon text from January 26, 2020...
The church in Corinth… well, the church in Corinth wasn’t the most peaceful of churches. Paul’s letter addresses all manner of problems… and in trying to address these problems from a Christ centered point of view, he ends up writing some of his most inspiring theological passages. Sometimes the challenges we face actually do make us better in the end.
In our second reading this morning, Paul begins to tackle the first problem within the letter… the church is dividing into factions because of misplaced loyalty to individual leaders. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it continues to speak to you this morning now from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.
READ 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I constantly meet people who… once they learn that I’m a minister… proceed to try to convince me that they are just a good, generic Christian. They don’t want to identify themselves with one form of Christianity or another. Besides… they try to reason to me… aren’t we all the same anyway? Does it really matter that we are a Baptist brand of Christian, or a Catholic brand of Christian… or a Methodist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian… or even a so called non-denominational Christian?
Well, yes and no.
On the one hand… yes… yes it does matter because we are not all the same. There are some very distinct differences between the denominations… and even between the non-denominations. So it matters very much because it is more truthful and honest to identify ourselves with one form of Christianity or another rather than to think that we can be some kind of good, generic Christian. Sometimes simply knowing the differences can help us gain a better understanding of our own personal theology. Where we stand… how we understand Christ... where that personal starting point is for us in how we live out our faith… or filter our understanding of the world around us through our faith.
You see, somewhere along the way we got it into our heads that there was a time when there existed such a thing as a good, generic Christian… that at some point in Christianity such a being existed. We imagine that all the apostles were of the same mind. But is that true? Does scripture even support that idea? Clearly by the time Paul came on the scene, there were already significant differences between people who called themselves Christians… and this only continued as the years went past and more and more people came into the movement. Many of Paul’s letters contain sections where he has to defend himself and his teachings against other Christian teachers who are visiting his churches while he is not there. Paul pushed the envelope with his work and in doing so was often in conflict with the central church back in Jerusalem… the one that was led by Jesus’ brother, James. There are other stories in scripture where Paul is in direct conflict with Peter as well. So very early on there were theological differences and there were conflicts. The uniformity that we might think must have existed at one time… never really did. Even in the gospel stories, the apostles can’t agree on Jesus even with him right there among him.
So it’s no real surprise that factions had developed in the Corinthian church. There were different teachers and… just like today… different people were being drawn to those teachers in whose message they felt a connection… or a loyalty to those teachers who brought them into the faith. In much the same way we are drawn to different churches where we feel a connection… or hang onto feelings about the church of our birth. So again, yes it matters that we are honest about these differences if only to keep us honest about ourselves. For one thing, such honesty helps us to unapologetically share our faith with one another and with others outside of our church. I may have told you this before, but the greatest gift that my seminary experience gave to me was that I can now tell you what I believe and why. Because of that, I don’t feel the need to insist that you believe the same way I do. Nor do I feel threatened that I must believe as someone else does. I can stand before God free in my own conscience.
Now some may argue that such feelings are dangerous because it means that it is okay that we are all different and unique in our faith. Some would argue that without the lack of uniformity, we are left with only chaos. But I would argue that it is the desire for uniformity in our theology that actually causes the conflict. An example… and see if this sounds familiar to your experience… in many of the congregations I have been in there always seems to be one group or sometimes just a single person who believes that it is their mission to completely remake the congregation according to the image of their own personal faith. They are right and everyone else is wrong. And this group or person is always a source of stress and misery within that congregation. They constantly criticize every aspect of the congregation’s life… always complaining about why it does not match up to their standards and how it needs to change to meet their standards. For this group or this person to conform to the congregation… never. That would be a betrayal of their faith. Everyone else must come into line with them. Have you ever had such an experience? I have found that many of the conflicts in congregations are created by just such people, who instead of seeking to experience how the Holy Spirit may be working among them in ways that may even be new or surprising to them… instead insist that there is only one way to be… and they know without a shadow of a doubt that their way is that way. The saddest part in all of this is that often there is a church not too far away where if they would fellowship with them, they would find the uniformity that they crave.
In the church in Corinth different factions were forming. And when factions arise, the big question becomes which faction will be the one to which the others must conform? Which faction will set the pattern for uniformity? Who will win? Thankfully God was able to speak through Paul who could have written in support of the faction that followed him, but instead turned the focus of the church away from both him and Apollos… and back onto proclaiming the good news of Christ.
The problem with the desire for uniformity is that it often confuses itself with the gospel… as if it can contain the vast richness of Christ within its small self. It’s when we declare that one faction is closer to the gospel than another in its being… that one faction contains more truth than the other… or that one faction is somehow more Christ-like than the other… based not on their fruits, but simply on that factions own sense of self-righteousness… that we begin to replace the gospel of Christ with that faction. So it becomes enough to be associated with that faction. That faction becomes the real church, and everyone else is a false church. That faction becomes the whole of Christ, and everyone else has no part in Christ. In his letter, Paul is quick to call the Corinthian church to task… it’s not about which faction they belong to… or who baptized them… or whatever else it is that they want to use as the foundation of their factions… what is most important is their work together at proclaiming the gospel of Christ. And Paul is quick to remind them of the cross at the center of that gospel. Is the cross clearly seen through their proclamation… is that the good news they are spreading?
So, here is where our “no” answer comes in. No, it doesn’t matter if we are a Baptist brand of Christian, or a Catholic brand of Christian… or a Methodist, Episcopalian, or Presbyterian… or even a so called non-denominational Christian. It doesn’t matter because the gospel is about Jesus Christ and is not about any of us or our limited theological understandings. Our oneness is in Christ alone. We all, in our own ways, both promote and distract from the gospel. We all, in our own ways, both proclaim and obscure the gospel. We all, in our own ways, touch the greatness and fall short of the gospel that has been given to us.
We are Presbyterians. I hope we are able to state that unabashedly. We have a particular theological outlook. We have a particular form of government. We do church in a particular way. And it’s important that we are fully aware of our particularities and what they say about the faith we profess. But without the proclamation of the gospel… without the cross at the center of that proclamation… then the name Presbyterian is meaningless as a Christian description. If our particular theological outlook, our particular form of government… if any of our Presbyterian particulars are not equipping us in the proclamation of Christ crucified… then they are worthless and need to either be reexamined or abandoned. The proclamation of the gospel is ultimately what we should be judged upon. Paul is right in pointing out all the other little inconsequential lines in the sand that we draw. Who baptized us? How was it done? Does the church’s message align itself with this or that political outlook? Does it take this theological or social stance or not. Pointless questions and a waste of time if we cannot first ascertain whether or not we are proclaiming the gospel… if we cannot first figure out if we are living out the gospel… if we do not know whether or not we are first standing at the foot of the cross. That is where our ministry begins.
Now what that answer looks like for a good, generic Christian… I don’t know. Nobody does. But our Book of Order describes how it is supposed to look for the PC(USA) brand of Christians. So I’m going end my sermon this morning with words from the Book of Order and leave you to ponder if Parkway is living towards this vision.
These are pieces from F-1.03 in the Book of Order… the section on the Calling of the Church.
The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.
The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.
The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.
The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.
Unity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. Just as God is one God and Jesus Christ is our one Savior, so the Church is one because it belongs to its one Lord, Jesus Christ. The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone.
Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one. To be one with Christ is to be joined with all those whom Christ calls into relationship with him. To be thus joined with one another is to become priests for one another, praying for the world and for one another and sharing the various gifts God has given to each Christian for the benefit of the whole community. Division into different denominations obscures but does not destroy unity in Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity, and is willing to seek and to deepen communion with all other churches within the one holy catholic and apostolic Church.