Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 26, 2020

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Commentary

The Reformed expression of the Christian faith’s many strengths have not always included Christian unity.  Reformed Christians’ actions have sometimes tweaked an old saying to sound something like, “Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name … there you have three or four Reformed denominations.”  Presbyterians sometimes talk about “split p’s”.

So this Sunday’s RCL’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might think of this as a good text for our Reformed siblings in the faith to hear.  Paul begins it, after all, with his appeal to the Corinthian Christians to “agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you are united in mind and thought” (10).

Yet while Christian unity is certainly a prominent theme of 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, this text also touches on a couple of other themes.  In verse 17, for example, Paul insists that Christ did not send him to baptize, but “to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Chris be emptied of its power.”  The apostle then adds, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (18).

Those who proclaim the entire text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may want to explore how its apparently diverse themes of unity, the gospel and the cross are united.  In that light, I think that J.R. Daniel Kirk (Preach This Week: Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, January 23, 2011), to whom I owe some ideas for this message, is onto something.  He sees the cross as that which unites these various themes.  In fact, Kirk writes, “We discover in 1 Corinthians that the cross creates its own economy.”  He then goes on to explain that the cross transforms both our personal and actions’ value.  Those who view the world through the lens of the cross view that world differently than other people.

This may seem like a tall order.  We, after all, naturally view everything from our own perspective.  But as we noted in last week’s Epistolary Lesson sermon commentary, Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by insisting that God has graciously given God’s adopted sons and daughters all we need to faithfully obey the Lord.

That means that the Spirit equips God’s adopted children to do things like view the world through the cross.  The Spirit also fully empowers God’s people to be, among other things, united rather than divided.  God will in fact, the apostle promises, keep God’s children strong in that unity until “the day of our Lord Jesus” (8).

So Paul can beg his readers to view their fellow Christians through the lens of the cross.  He does so “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (10).  As Kirk notes, that’s important because not only is Jesus’ name the authority by which Paul calls Corinth’s Christians to unity; it’s also Jesus’ name that unites God’s adopted sons and daughters in the first place.

Yet, of course, Jesus’ isn’t the only name that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 1.  And therein lies the rub.  Christ’s name and saving work on their behalf makes God’s beloved people one.  But Paul at least implies that his Corinthian audience is using others’ names just as often, if not more often than Christ’s.  “Paul’s our guy,” some of them are insisting.  Others claim that they take their marching orders from Apollos.  Still others insist Cephas is their “main man.”  And a few, Paul seems to almost sheepishly add, “follow Christ.”

Kirk suggests that even the sources of Paul’s knowledge about those divisions hints at those factions.  Some folks who meet in Chloe’s small group have told the apostle that the Corinthian church is splintering.  So while we don’t know much about Chloe or her household, we sense they’ve perhaps taken on themselves the role of being Paul’s eyes and ears.  Might we even think of them as “tattle-tales”?

Yet while factions have “united” around people like Paul, Apollos and Cephas, the apostle begs them to unite themselves, instead, around Christ.  Isn’t it, after all, Christ, not Paul in whom the Corinthian Christians are “sanctified” and on whose “name” they call (2)?  It is in Christ, not Apollos that God has given them God’s grace (2).  It is Christ, not Cephas for whose return Corinth’s Christians “wait” (7).  And it is Christ with whom God has graciously called God’s adopted sons and daughters into fellowship (9).

“Is that Christ divided?” Paul asks rhetorically and with perhaps a strong sense of exasperation in verse 13.  Was it not Paul but Christ who was crucified for all of God’s beloved people, including the members of the Corinthian church?  Was it not Paul but Christ in whose name they were baptized?

Last week we noted how Paul soaks 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 in God’s person and work.  Now we find him continuing in that vein in today’s Epistolary Lesson.  In our hurry to make our preaching and teaching “relevant,” those who proclaim the gospel sometimes dash past God’s work to get to the meat of our preaching that is human work.  Those who proclaim the gospel do better when we imitate the apostle in making our proclamation first and foremost about the God whom we worship and serve in Jesus Christ.

In fact, even when, as Scott Hoezee notes, Paul seems to ramble a bit toward the end of our text, he keeps a kind of laser focus on that triune God.  In verses 13b-16 he talks about baptism.  The apostle notes that he didn’t baptize anyone in his own name.  He remembers baptizing Crispus and Gaius (14), as well as the household of Stephanas (16).  Yet Paul can’t remember whom else he baptized.

While we may find Paul’s incomplete list of people he baptized either humorous or poignant, he may actually be employing a powerful rhetorical tool here.  After all, by mentioning baptisms he’s already forgotten, he takes the focus off the baptizer (himself) and putting it squarely where it belongs: on the Lord Jesus Christ in and into whose name God’s children are baptized.  In doing so the apostle reminds Christians that our unity stems from our shared connection through our baptism in Christ’s name.

It is a unity that remains under attack in the 21st century.  In fact, we might even think of the Church as continuing to engage in a kind of civil war.  Sometimes the battles rage over theology – over baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the return of Christ.  Other skirmishes seem to merge the political and theological – debates over climate change, abortion, same sex attraction and immigration.

Those who proclaim 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 might explore our primary identity in the midst of our divisions over those “hot button” topics.  We no longer take our cues from Apollos or Cephas.  But Christians remain tempted to take our cues from our political party, socio-economic status or racial identity.  God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters are tempted to view the world and its citizens not through the cross, but through various lenses that we let others put on us.

The gospel we join Paul in proclaiming invites us to see the world from a biblical, not politically partisan perspective.  So we sometimes first ask, “Is that a Democratic or Republican, or Conservative or Liberal perspective?” Paul, however, invites us to ask if it’s a perspective that’s consistent with our understanding of God, humanity and God’s creation.

Paul ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson by talking about the cross’s wisdom and foolishness.  The Holy Spirit grants the cross of Christ enormous power, not only as a means of God’s children’s salvation, but also to transform the way God’s people think about the world and other people.

But Paul also notes a couple of things can diminish that power.  It can be “emptied” (17) through reliance on human wisdom and cleverness in talking about it.  Paul is determined to simply preach the gospel so that the Spirit can powerfully use it.

What’s more, the cross, quite simply, doesn’t make any sense from a human perspective.  It’s “foolishness” (18).  It was, after all, an instrument of torture used to humiliate and subjugate both criminals and ordinary citizens.  The cross’s only apparent power lay in its ability to intimidate people.

Yet Paul insists that the cross has enormous “power” (18) for those whom God has adopted as God’s sons and daughters.  It makes sense only to those whom the Spirit equips to see it as God’s means of salvation for the world God so deeply loves.  Through the death and resurrection of the crucified Jesus, God brings life to those whom God is graciously saving.

Illustration Idea

Barbara Lemmel (“Makeshift Communities, The Christian Century, January 6, 1999) tells a story that reminds us that congregational divisions are not unique to the Christian tradition.  It seems that a young rabbi discovered a serious problem in his new congregation.  During Friday services, half his congregation stood for prayers while the other half remained seated.  Each faction shouted at the other that they were observing the true tradition.

Since the rabbi couldn’t find a way to solve the dilemma, he had a conversation with the synagogue’s 99 year-old founder.  When he met the elderly rabbi, he described his problem.  “Tell me,” the young rabbi pleaded, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?”

“No,” the elderly rabbi answered.

“So,” the younger rabbi responded, “then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers.”

“No,” the elderly rabbi again answered.

“Well,” the younger rabbi pressed, “what we have is complete chaos!  Half the people stand, and the other half sits and screams.”

“Ah,” said the aged rabbi, “that was the tradition.”


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