Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 22, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Commentary
In the previous sermon commentary on the first 9 verses of 1 Corinthians 1, I riffed on Tom Long’s suggestion that Paul wrote those opening verses with tongue firmly embedded in cheek. He praises the Corinthians for the very things Paul knows full well they were in deep trouble over. He names as would-be compliments the core of the arguments that were threatening to tear the tiny congregation to pieces. Paul uses a little irony, a little sarcasm, a little humor to set the agenda for this letter and perhaps to shame the Corinthians for their small multitude of problems.
But now as we get down to verse 10, Paul stops poking the Corinthians gently in the ribs and instead rolls up his sleeves and gets down to brass tacks. “OK, enough of the sarcasm” Paul as good as writes, “let’s be honest here: I know full well that you are getting divided as a congregation seven ways to Sunday!” Paul knows that rival factions are cropping up and he knows that each group is claiming a different person as their leader and champion.
“We take our cues from Apollos” some were shouting. “Oh yeah,” others shot back, “well no less than the Apostle Paul is our guy!” “Ha!” yet a third faction retorts, “Peter has been around longer than either one and he is the leader of our band!”
Who knows exactly how this state of affairs came about or what motivated the Corinthians to seek varying leaders. For his part, Paul makes it clear that their unity is to be found in the Savior who died for them and that Paul himself, Peter, Apollos, or anyone else you could name come under his Lordship. Unity is found in Christ alone and in the work he accomplished on the cross.
But then Paul seems to ramble a bit. He mentions that they were baptized not into the name of Paul but of Christ. And since there seemed to be some confusion in Corinth as to the value of various human leaders, Paul says he is glad he did not baptize too many people lest they put their faith in the one who did the baptism as opposed to the Lord into whom they were baptized. But then Paul seems to be a bit forgetful—it’s nearly humorous—as to who all he did baptize. A couple more come to mind but Paul’s not 100% sure even that accounts for everybody.
Well, I guess if you are in ministry long enough, you do forget who all you baptized. “Did I baptize you?” I have had to ask college-age kids when I run into them somewhere. I don’t always remember right off the top of my head either so we can give Paul a break here! The main point, however, is that who did the baptizing is completely unimportant. Only Jesus matters, only his work on the cross matters. And preaching that message is even more important than baptizing folks. Paul goes so far as to say no one ever per se commissioned him to baptize anybody but Jesus had been VERY clear that preaching the Gospel was Paul’s #1 job.
I guess we could point out that there is no necessary disparity between those two things. If you preach the Gospel effectively, people will convert and will then need to get baptized. So these are definitely not mutually exclusive categories here. But Paul puts it the way he does because he’s winding up for his first big piece of teaching about the meaning of Christ’s cross (and that comes up in next week’s Lectionary selection).
If we stay within the confines of this particular reading, what we can talk about as preachers is that the Corinthian tendency to lose sight of the main thing did not exactly end with the Corinthians 2,000 years ago. How easy it is in the church also yet today to be distracted from the primary things involving Jesus and his cross. Oh, maybe we don’t claim a single leader as our faction’s champion in just the ways the Corinthians were doing but there are other ways to accomplish the same thing. If we come to think that ONLY our own denomination matters and has a corner on truth in a way no other communion or tradition does, we start to shift our focus from Jesus alone.
If we come to think that our congregation is more important than others because it’s so much bigger, more successful than others—that our video production values outstrip that pathetic little church on the other corner and so naturally people flock to our church—we lose sight of Jesus alone. Or when in our congregations we make the quality of our music the be-all and end-all of worship and our spiritual life together . . . or when we make the excellence of our education program the primary thing we focus on week to week . . . or when we pride ourselves on being so much more socially engaged than so many other congregations . . . or when we ________, well, fill in the blank. There are 1,000 ways to distract from the power of Christ and of his cross and so drain the Gospel of its true source of power.
When we read 1 Corinthians 1 and hear Paul report that Christians in Corinth were saying “I follow Peter! I follow Apollos!” it’s easy to shake our heads. “Goodness, that is so OBVIOUSLY wrong,” we want to say. But to others from the outside looking in, might it not sound just as obviously wrong to hear people say “I follow Luther! I follow Calvin! I follow Pope Francis! I am Reformed! I am Anglican! I am Catholic! I am Baptist! I am high church! I am low church! I am Pentecostal! I am ____” Again, fill in the blank. Is any of this really so different or so less obviously problematic than the Corinthians’ claiming Paul, Peter, Apollos?
It is worth pondering. It is worth wondering about out loud from the pulpit. All these things tear at our larger unity as the Body of Christ. All of these things cause ugly arguments to erupt that detract from the beauty of the Gospel. No, for the foreseeable future we will not be finished with identifying ourselves as Baptist or Reformed, as Calvinist or as Lutheran. But even as Apollos, Peter, and Paul were all under Christ, so we are all still under Christ now and the larger unity we have on Gospel essentials needs always to be more important than the outward demarcations among us that can so easily come to dominate everything we associate with being a Christian.
As we will see next week, if you believe in the outrageous message of the cross, then whether you are Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican or whatever matters far less than the fact that you share with believers everywhere the gift of faith that alone lets you embrace such a radical, paradoxical message like the Gospel. That very simply is the most important thing in the world.
We do well to rehearse that fact as often as we can when we gather for worship.
Theologian Robert Jenson once made a curious point. Jenson said that in history, the Christian Church has, of course, found itself in a host of very different cultures, times, and places. As we are now in the early stages of this third millennium A.D., we know that our modern world looks and feels vastly different from the world that existed even a century or two ago, let alone a thousand years ago. Our easy use of miracles like the telephone and computer, our understanding of planet Earth’s place in the larger scheme of outer space, our familiarity with cars and jets–all of this makes us very different from most of the people who ever lived.
Even so, Jenson observed, when it comes to the basic beliefs of the Christian faith, we ought to have more in common with someone like the apostle Paul from long ago than with non-Christians alive right now. If third-century Christians could see a modern church sanctuary, they would likely be stunned. But no matter how agog such folks would be to see electric lights or to hear a pipe organ, even still, if they could somehow across the centuries listen in on our worship, then we could only pray that the message that they would hear from us in the year 2017 would be the same gospel they heard back in the year 217. If it were not, if we had allowed the modern world to alter our Christian proclamation and beliefs, then we could not properly claim to belong to the true Church. No matter how bizarre the setting of the modern world would be to Christians from the distant past, the message that gets proclaimed should still be so true to the Bible, that any Christian from any time or place would be able to hear what we say and respond, “Yup! That’s my hope, too! That’s still the same gospel message of God’s love that changed my whole life so long ago!”
Long ago in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the world began again. History changed because of Jesus. One of the things that changed is that a new group known as the Church appeared on the scene as the gathering of all those who know and love Jesus as Lord. It’s a wonderful thing to know that we are part of a holy community that is now about 2,000 years old, that spans the globe, and that includes so many untold millions of people, each of whom truly is a spiritual brother or sister. But how easy it is to forget the larger unity we share with people from long ago, from far away, from different settings even right now in this present world.
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