God’s Holy People 2 – Labels

St Barnabas & St Michael, Jan 26th 2014

Readings – John 1:19-26, 1 Corinthians 1:(4)10-17

How would you describe yourself in terms of your faith … Christian? Anglican? Evangelical? Which label do you put first … are you an Anglican first and an Evangelical second? Or is being Evangelical more important than being Anglican? Are you an Evangelical Christian Anglican, or an Anglican Evangelical Christian? Actually, I think of myself as more of a Baptist than an Anglican (don’t tell the Archdeacon) … while Tim is definitely an Anglican, but was baptised in the Methodist church!

Why do we bother about labels? Well, for one thing, they help us identify those of like mind. It is important to know who you can depend on to see things the same way as yourself … but of course our human tendency is to judge those who are different, rather than using their viewpoint to give us a wider perspective.

Before we look at our reading for today, I want to remind you of the context … take a look at the preceding verses, I Corinthians 1:4-9

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – 6 because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.

Paul says of the Christians at Corinth that they lack nothing in terms of spiritual gifts, that they are eager for Christ to come again, that they are enriched, in speech and knowledge … yet, as we saw last week, Paul is about to catalogue a long list of problems and sins facing this fledgling church.

I wonder how Paul would describe us, here at St Barnabas & St Michaels? If Paul were to write a letter to our two churches today, what would he say?

Well, notice that in this and most of his other letters, Paul’s description of the church to which he is writing, is based on God’s work in them, not on their work for God. In some of the letters he does indeed praise their faith and their witness, but in nearly all of them (there are two notable exceptions), in most of them, he gives thanks to God for evidence of the work of Jesus in the lives of the believers.

So if Paul were writing to us here, he would say something similar … perhaps something like this,

Paul, an apostle called by God, to the church of God in Devonport, those whom God chose to be part of his kingdom. Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God for his work in you, because in Christ you are holy and righteous, saved by grace through our Lord Jesus, and kept by God who is faithful. He has and will equip you for the work to which he has called you, that he may be glorified in all that you do.

Is that how you see the church family here at St Barnabas/St Michael’s? Kept by God’s grace, equipped with every gift necessary for the work of the Kingdom of God in our community?

But what would he say next? What about that list of problems? As we go through this letter, there will be some issues that we identify with, perhaps can’t avoid, and others of which we’ll think, ‘That could never happen here!’ … it’s a long list … this slide is adapted from Tim’s presentation last week …

  • Sexual immorality (chapter 5)
  • Court cases among believers (chapter 6:1-11)
  • Marriage vows not kept (chapters 6 & 7)
  • Pagan sacrifices being eaten (chapter 8)
  • The poor going hungry at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11)
  • Lack of unity (chapter 12)
  • Lack of love (chapter 13)
  • Doubt and denial of the resurrection (chapter 15)

So with all those huge issues affecting the church – and which Paul intends to address in this letter – why does Paul start with this one?

10 I appeal to you, brothers … that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.

Are there any football fans here? Who do you support? (Any sport?) I am a Liverpool supporter. I’ve supported Liverpool since I was six years old. There is no way on this earth that I am ever going to support Manchester United …

Is that the kind of unity Paul is talking about? Being perfectly united in mind and thought? I’m not sure it is. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, there were already churches springing up across the Roman empire. 

map of 7 eclesias

Although we hear most about the churches that Paul visited (the ones marked in red on the map), there were churches as far afield as Egypt … Cyrene and Alexandria at the bottom … and throughout the modern nations of Israel, Turkey, Greece and Italy. They had different languages, different climates, cultures, food, fashions, religions, systems of government. Even in Corinth itself, there were differences between those who thought of themselves as Greek and those who were first and foremost Roman citizens … and they were both well represented in the church … probably alongside those travelling from all corners of the empire to trade at this major port city of Corinth. Paul knew they would never all support the same football team.

So what is the unity of mind and thought that Paul is pleading for?

11 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

There are a couple of things to point out in these verses … firstly, the word quarrels is in other versions translated as divisions, but the base word is schism, or a tearing apart. There’s no indication that this had as yet happened in the church … they are still meeting together, worshipping together, and arguing together, but they are still together. So the Christians in Corinth might well say to Paul in reply … don’t worry, it’s not that bad, we’ll be all right, but Paul knows the inevitable outcome of the current situation will be that the church will be shattered, and the witness of the church destroyed.

You may think I’m overstating the case, that no-one really notices what goes on inside the church they ignore most of the time, but our witness is not simply to the community around us. Our witness is also part of the spiritual battle and has an impact far wider and more profound than we can imagine.

Even on a simply human level, when things go wrong in a church, people notice … when I first went to London to train as a nurse, I joined the hospital Christian Union. Some years before, the CU had been a large and vibrant affair, until they had a major split over a point of doctrine, quite a minor issue really. However, the CU went overnight from being an influential outreach, that had an impact at every level of the hospital, from junior nurses through to senior consultants and management, to a small, struggling fellowship that had to battle for the right even to meet on hospital property … and Christians throughout the hospital, at every level, whether they’d been involved in the CU or not, were condemned and sidelined as a bad influence. That went on for years … and I felt the impact of it even as a junior nurse when I arrived.

So Paul wants to nip this issue in the bud, and won’t allow the Corinthian believers to brush their differences under the carpet.

What were those differences? Look at the list of names in verse 12, Paul, Apollos, Cephas (that is, Peter) and Christ himself. It seems that each of these factions had a different perspective or list of priorities … Paul himself was the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’, so perhaps those that considered themselves his followers belittled those of Peter whose main ministry was to the Jews. You can imagine the arguments … ministry to the Jews is a waste of time, you’re focussing on a lost cause etc etc.

Apollos was a learned and erudite teacher. Did his followers pride themselves on their depth of knowledge, despising those who could be ‘all things to all men’ as shallow?

Peter’s disciples perhaps thought those of Paul had missed the point … Jesus himself was, after all, a Jew, and to understand him and his teaching you had to immerse yourself in the culture … maybe they felt a sense of superiority being Jews themselves. We don’t know.

And those that followed Christ, or said they did? You can imagine it, can’t you .. we’re purists, we’re not distracted by your silly arguments, we go right to the horse’s mouth, to the heart of the matter … we don’t need Paul’s letters to explain it to us, Jesus’ teachings are enough. There is an unholy pride about them, and incidentally, that same argument is still alive in the church today.

None of these may be our issues as a church … and indeed, none of them are wrong in themselves. So what is Paul’s point?

13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptised into the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptised into my name.

Quite simply, they are focussed on the preacher not the message. I have no doubt, I’m confident, that Paul, Apollos and Cephas preached the same gospel, that there is salvation in no other name, that Jesus alone is the way, the truth and the life, that only in Christ can our sins be forgiven. But the Corinthian believers had allowed themselves to become distracted by their preferences and personal experience … for those believers from a Jewish background, Paul’s ministry was uncomfortable. For those who enjoyed an intellectual debate, Apollos suited them. And gradually, instead of rejoicing in their differences, they became judgemental, and lost sight of the great truths they shared with all these other groups.

And Paul, in his wisdom, sees in their divisions a threat far greater than the failings he will address later in the letter. You see, all those issues he plans to raise, can be dealt with by the grace of God. Chapter 5, a man sins by having sex with his step-mother … if he repents he can be forgiven by the power of the cross. Chapter 6, believers taking each other to court … the situation can be transformed if those involved remember to love one another as Christ commanded. Chapter 7, when marriage vows are broken, restoration is possible, just as Christ forgave the immoral woman who wept over his feet. I could go on … but you get my point.

The question is, why does Paul see this situation of divisions among believers as such a threat, when for the moment, on the surface, all seems well enough?

17 For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

How could the cross of Christ … his death in our place to pay the price for our sins … how could the cross lose it’s power? All those other difficulties Paul will address depend for their solution on the cross. How can the cross be made of no effect, useless, worthless?

Because when we live according to our own wisdom, our own choices, our own preferences, whether in our daily living, even doing good things for those around us, or in our worship and in our prayers, if we are depending on our own, human wisdom, the cross can do nothing for us. It is only when we are totally dependent, totally reliant on God’s mercy and grace, that transformation is possible. It is only when we hand over all our self-determination and control, that God can step in. We are not God’s co-pilots.

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven … it’s not going to happen unless we let go of the steering wheel.

That’s why Paul paid such attention to this report of divisions … it came from a reliable source, it hadn’t yet made the local papers, the gossips weren’t yet enjoying a juicy story of failure, on the surface all seemed well and church life was lively and inviting. But someone from Chloe’s household knew that Paul would want to know … thank God for that one person who understood the potential impact of a little in-house disagreement.

So when Paul appeals to the believers to be perfectly united in mind and thought he is not talking about being in total agreement with each other over every little detail of doctrine and practice. He’s not even saying that we all need to worship the same way, or to like the same songs, or support the same football team. Paul is pleading with the Corinthian believers, with us, to recognise our total dependence on God’s power and wisdom in everything, in every aspect of our lives together as a church, to put the cross at the centre of our worship. And, to be aware that anything that distracts our focus from the cross as our only hope and the source of all grace and mercy, is the greatest danger we face.

So next time someone asks you what church you go to, or what sort of Christian you are, what will you say?

LB

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