Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 22, 2023
1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Commentary
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson brings to mind the novelist William Faulkner’s lament about the post-Civil War American South: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It also in some ways resonates with the historian and philosopher George Santayana’s “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
If Christians didn’t know better, after all, we might deduce that Paul borrowed 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 from this month’s pages of The Christian Century or Christianity Today. We might even suspect he cut and pasted this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson from today’s CNN or Fox News headlines.
That nonsensical nature of such assertions doesn’t diminish the Church of Christ’s haunting echoes of the causes of 1 Corinthians 1:10-18’s lament. Christians from Vancouver, British Columbia to Miami, Florida grieve the way that 21st century divisions among Jesus’ North American followers mimic the 1st century divisions among Jesus’ Corinthian followers.
We grieve how the Church’s divisive past isn’t, to paraphrase Faulkner, yet dead. It isn’t even past. Jesus’ followers seem to have failed learn much from either our Church History classes or George Santayana. We, after all, repeat Christ’s Church’s divisive history nearly every day.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10 Paul begs Corinth’s Christians to follow a more cruciform road. He pleads with us to “agree with one another” (to auto legete pantes) so that there may “no divisions among” us (me e en hymin schismata) and we may “be perfectly united in mind and thought (katertismenmoi en to auto noi kai en te aute gnome).”
His plea is nearly as difficult to understand as put into practice. Yet it’s also central to not only this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, but also to Paul’s entire first letter to the Christians in Corinth. So it’s worth preachers’ investment of time in trying to understand it.
What English versions of the Bible often translate as something like “agree with one another” literally means something like “to all speak the same thing.” By asserting that, Paul may leave room for Christians to believe different theologically peripheral things while also trying to keep their message unified. Or might he be implying that, as the biblical scholar F.W. Grosheide (Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians, Eerdmans, 1953) suggests, as Jesus’ followers all say the same the same thing, the Spirit also aligns our beliefs with each other? After all, the Greek conjunction hina (“so that) suggests a strong link between God’s adopted children speaking “the same thing” and being united.
Schismata (“divisions”) literally refers to “fissures.” Grosheide suggests that the word may simply refer to differences of opinion. Yet the context of 1 Corinthians 1’s use of it at least alludes to something far darker and more sinister. The “divisions” to which the apostle refers in verse 11 may at least be threatening to become insurmountable walls between and among Jesus’ friends.
Paul echoes that verse’s rejection of divisions among God’s dearly beloved Corinthians with his call to katertismenmoi en to auto noi kai en te aute gnome (“be perfectly united in mind and thought”). Two things are striking about the pivotal word katertismenmoi. Its middle or passive voice suggests that the apostle is claiming that the Spirit is acting on Corinth’s Christians to unite them rather than that those Christians are uniting themselves. What’s more, katertismenmoi’s participle form suggests that the Spirit’s knitting together of the Christians in Corinth is an ongoing project rather than an already completed work.
But the goal of the Spirit’s unifying work may be the “rub” of the preaching of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. Paul, after all, insists that the Spirit is working to perfectly unite the Corinthians’ noi (“minds”) and gnome (“purpose”). It’s a unity that not just 1 Corinthians 1 but also the apostle’s whole letter suggests Jesus’ Corinthian followers aren’t demonstrating.
So what might preachers whom the Spirit guides do with this text? A key may lie in exploring what Paul intends for Corinth’s Christians to understand to what he refers as perfect union in “mind” and “thought.” He’s literally pleading for “sameness” in Corinth’s church. After all, it’s as if he says, “Say the same (auto) thing so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may have the same (auto) mind and same (aute) thought.”
Yet what exactly does such complete unity entail? The New Testament scholar Dwight Peterson has written, “Unity … does not mean uniformity. But it does mean that the church ought not allow itself to be divided by things like human leaders … but instead ought to keep the Gospel and the power of the cross of Christ firmly in view.”
Yet many denominations (including the one in which I serve) and even churches seem to be at least trending toward defining unity of mind and thought more narrowly than focusing on the good news of God’s saving work in Christ. The 21st century Church perhaps increasingly especially privileges complete unity of thought and mind regarding human sexuality. But, of course, denominations and congregations also continue to divide along lines of political affiliation, as well as views about climate health and race relations.
The levels of Christians’ surprise about those divisions is at least a bit surprising. After all, both Protestantism and Orthodoxy are products of a split from the Roman Catholic Church. What’s more, many denominations, including my own, as well as churches are the results of schisms. Add to that individuals and families’ sometimes almost-serial “church-hopping,” and what we have what sometimes feels like a seething cauldron of division.
Preachers will want to reflect on those divisions in the context of their own faith traditions, denominations and local churches. As we do so, we want to be careful not to focus on other individuals and families that have divided from churches. We always want to let the Spirit speak through us most clearly to our own contributions to the divisions that still plague not just the Church, but also our own churches.
But it’s also critical that those who preach this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson remember that we proclaim the gospel in the context of growing despair about divisions among Christians. So we want to speak to the hope of Christian sameness of mind and thought to which Paul summons Corinth’s Christians.
That may begin with relentlessly focusing our preaching on the Christian essentials on which the apostle focuses. While Paul spends time talking about what divides the Corinthian church to which he writes, he also talks extensively about the Lord Jesus Christ, baptism, and the cross of Christ. Preachers who want to promote the unity to which Paul invites us may, as a result, deliberately focus on those essentials as well.
Just one note of caution: understandings of baptism are among the things that sometimes most deeply divide Christ’s Church. As a result, preaching might focus not on the sacrament, but on baptismal dying to the old self and rising to a new life of faithful obedience.
What’s more, church leaders who want to cultivate unity among Jesus’ friends may also want to encourage the churches they serve to find ways to work together with Christians whose understandings of the faith differ from our own. We may not yet be able to worship together on Sundays and Wednesday evenings. However, God’s adopted sons and daughters can find ways to work together for the common good, especially for people who have great material needs.
That, after all, is one potential meaning of the unity of thought and mind to which Paul refers in verse 10. Christians can unite in thought and mind about our neighbors who are materially needy. We don’t think of them as, first of all, as immigrants, undocumented people, or welfare recipients. Our neighbors are first of all people whom God created in God’s image. Christians don’t first of all think of our neighbors as black, brown or white, Republican or Democrat, LGBTQ or “straight,” but as those whom God deeply loves and whom God wants to enjoy God’s shalom.
The food pantry ministry of the church that I serve continues to model united thought and mind about our neighbors who are hungry. It continues twice a month to serve 600-700 of those neighbors’ household. But we couldn’t do that were it not for the unity of thought and mind about those neighbors that we share with fellow Christians from all sorts of churches and denominations.
A Roman Catholic Church holds a bi-weekly food drive that solicits donations from its members for our Pantry. Volunteers at our Food Pantry come from nearly every type of denomination and church that one can imagine. Some of those volunteers are observant Jews – but that’s a topic for a whole other discussion and reflection. Our Pantry volunteers tell us that they’re drawn to our pantry not just by a united perspective on our neighbors who are needy, but also by the united nature of our ministry with and to those neighbors.
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