With texts from Isaiah 9 and a great narrative in Matthew 5 this week, I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Paul’s letter to Corinth will be left aside by most preachers, not least because he takes on the thorny issue of Church division. Which would you rather hear a sermon on? Jesus’ soul-stirring call to the disciples to become “fishers of people”, or a sermon on the sort of church in-fighting that makes us all squirm? I suppose it might depend on circumstances, right? But I promised last week to take Paul on, so leaving Matthew’s fishing nets aside, here goes….. Here’s a link to the passage: http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=162494140.
The passion which infuses these verses of Paul’s letter is what immediately grabs my attention. “I appeal,… be of the same mind, the same words, the same focus, the same passion, the same purpose..” he says. Presumably because they’re not. Not at all of the same mind, the same anything.
I imagine the poor soul elected to read the letter aloud to the gathering (that’s how it would have been done). Imagine Chloe’s people on one side of the room, a gaggle clustered around Apollos on the other side, then Cephas’ group – all with their tell-tale beards and fish pins huddled together in the corner by the door. Paul is not there, he’s in Ephesus, but his words are, and it’s almost as if he can see them, as if the skype camera is on them and they don’t know it. But his “appeal” acts like a spotlight. They know they are a church divided. And apparently he knows they know. Barely has the warm fuzzy feeling of his opening greeting been captured in the room and he hits them with his long-sighted gaze.
“You, Corinth, the community I give thanks for because you have soooo much going for you, are more faction than fellowship.” And boy, does it bother him. A lot.
We might think, yet again, that Paul protests too much, expects too much. After all, what can you expect in a city that’s as cosmopolitan as Corinth? Corinth was the Liverpool of this quadrant of the Roman empire; a sea port and transportation hub, gateway into Greece. People from all over the Mediterranean called Corinth home base; sailors, traders, manufacturers, factors, ex-soldiers, ex-slaves. A more diverse city would be hard to imagine. So, surely Paul’s appeal to be ‘the same’ is a little over-the-top idealistic, utopian?
So what’s he getting at? The clue, I think is in v. 13, where he suddenly shifts his focus from the cliques and divisiveness of the people to a strange-sounding ‘theological’ question: “Has Christ been divided?” What is that supposed to mean? And what does it have to do with the cliques of Corinth? It’s a bit later in this letter that Paul shows us what this means. He talks about the community of faith as being a body. All parts belong, and work together; the eye showing the feet where to walk, the heart compelling the hands to acts of compassion, and so on. It’s a metaphor we’re very familiar with in Cedar Park, thanks to Sharon’s preaching and teaching over the years. But a community of faith isn’t just ‘a body’, it’s ‘the body of Christ’. When Paul sees Chloe ratting on Cephas, or Apollos sweet-talking folk to do things his way, it’s as if he is watching a body – Christ’s body – being ripped apart, right before his eyes. “Has Christ been divided?”
This short little passage acts like a spotlight in the dark, casting light over small churches, and the global church too. “I appeal to you… be of the same mind, soul, heart, body….. be Christ in your corner of the world, and in all the world. For Christ’s sake.” Worth pondering, not just about the newborn church in Corinth, but for us, now. Cedar Parkers, Christians all; “Has Christ been divided?” If we find ourselves, like those Corinthians, looking sheepishly at our feet, perhaps it would be a good idea if we came back to this text next week to see what Paul suggests we do about it.
Your comments are always welcome, either here, or over coffee at Church.