Real World Corinth: a study of 1 Corinthians
OMEGA: "Divisions in the church"
1 Cor 1: 10-17
When the flood recorded in Genesis ended and Noah’s ship finally made it to land and he lowered the ramp of the ark to let all the animals out, Noah told the animals who had gone in two by two to “go forth and multiply.” Well all the animals obeyed Noah except for two snakes who sat sulking quietly in the corner. And so Noah yelled at them – “I thought I told you to go forth and to multiply.” And the snakes said, “We can’t. We’re adders.”
In all seriousness, I’m not going to talk to us tonight about multiplying or adding. Because we’re going to begin our spring segment of Omega talking about division.
And we’re studying a fascinating book. It’s a book with big stories about big characters that make big mistakes. It’s a book about God, greed, and grace. It’s about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayals; about siblings, squabbles, and sex. It’s a book about power and prayer and passion.
And it’s not by Grisham. Or Clancy. But it was written by a tentmaker – Paul of Tarsus. I’m talking about 1 Corinthians.
And I want to begin our study by saying that I’m blessed with a lot of friends that aren’t really religious. If you don’t have any non-religious friends, I’d suggest finding some. I’ve learned a lot from my non-religious friends. But one of these friends in particular once told me that he can’t be a Christian because he’s not as “good” as the people in the bible. I still haven’t been able to track down whatever translation he was reading. Because in my Bible, Abraham – our father in the faith – pretends that his wife is really his sister and then tries to pimp her out on two different occasions to foreign kings. In my Bible, the prophet Elisha has his feelings hurt when a few kids laugh at him for being bald. And if you’ve read II Kings you know that Elisha immediately prays – not for their forgiveness – but that God would send a bear to eat them. And in my Bible the rock of the church denies the Lord of the church three consecutive times. And so to be honest I was relieved when he told me that he wasn’t as “good” as the people in the Bible.
Because the truth is, people in the Bible are just as broken and flawed and sinful as we are, and because of that, they experienced just as much conflict and division in their lives as we do in ours. By a simple show of hands, in the last six months, how many of you have been asked about a certain relationship or friendship – whether it’s your own or that of a friend’s – and then used the following word to describe it – DRAMA. (I’m banking on all of women’s group.)
As we dive into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians – as we seek to understand Paul’s words to the Corinthians and the implications they have for our life – we need to imagine what the Corinthians were like. After all, this letter is a living piece of history. Paul wrote it to address specific issues in a particular church community. And so whenever we think about the church at Corinth, this is the lens that I want us to read it through – (DRAMA). Make no mistake about 1 Corinthians. Paul is dealing with some pretty serious drama.
Now, here’s a little background info that might be helpful. This is a church that Paul founded himself – a “church plant” to use modern language. And it’s very diverse. There are women and men, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, educated and un-educated. And so within this community, there’s sexism, racism, classism, a bunch of other “isms” that wedge people apart. And on top of that, the Corinthians have a lot of theological squabbles over the same things that we still wrestle with in the church – spiritual gifts, sex, the Eucharist, whether or not it’s okay to eat meat sacrificed to pagan Gods.
And so the Corinthians are all about drama. They are at odds with one another. And by the time Paul writes this letter, they’re at odds with him too. And so with that in mind – looking through this lens (DRAMA) – listen to a passage from the first chapter of this letter.
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
Perhaps you’ve woken up to “the sounds of the birds singing” before. If you haven’t, it’s absolutely - ANNOYING. People have compared the birds chirping and speaking and whistling to a symphony. They must be listening to birds much more talented than the ones in my backyard. Because if they are singing, they’re all out of key and they’re all singing a different song. But, does anyone here know why the birds sing? Any bird majors?
Well, usually it’s the male bird that “sings,” in part to attract a female of his same kind, but more importantly to tell all the other birds to stay away. It’s a territorial claim. When a bird chirps what it’s saying to the other birds is “this is my tree. Or this is my garden. And you don’t belong here.” It’s not that much different from a dog urinating on a tree.
Now, I hate to leave you with that image, but that’s kind of what Paul is dealing with in Corinth. There’s a lot of noise and squeaking and whistling, and it all means the same thing: this is my vision of what Christianity is, and if you think differently, you don’t belong here. The Christians at Corinth are divided. Different groups are staking out their own territory. And course, each group thinks that God is on their side.
And so looking again at our passage for today, it seems that Paul has heard a rumor. And this rumor is the reason that Paul is writing this letter in the first place. And the rumor comes from Chloe’s people. We’re not totally sure who Chloe is – but she’s important – because she has “her people.” And so if anyone ever asks you why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, the answer is simple: “Because Chloe’s people told Paul a rumor that there was serious drama at Corinth.” And the root of that drama is allegiance to different teachers. Listen again to a portion of our passage.
For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ."
It’s not that hard to imagine what’s going on with this community. Some are claiming allegiance to Paul. After all, he’s the founder of the church. Paul’s the first one that ever preached the good news to them that Jesus was Lord of the earth. Bet here’s the problem.
Paul wrote this letter 20 years after Jesus died and rose from the dead. And Jesus’ resurrection was like the big bang – it was so powerful that teachers and missionaries and apostles were catapulted throughout the Roman Empire. And just because Paul founded the church didn’t mean that he had the luxury of staying put. Paul was a traveling missionary. He had other churches to plant. In other words, Paul may have been the first Christian teacher in Corinth. But he wasn’t the last.
Because not long after Paul left, an eloquent and charismatic speaker arrived. His name was Apollos, and according to the Book of Acts, Apollos had been converted by some of Paul’s friends. Well, Apollos visits the Corinthians and guess what. A lot of the Corinthians like Apollos’ teaching and way of doing things a lot better than Paul’s. And Paul may be a gifted writer, but he tells us himself that he’s pretty unimpressive in person. Paul’s power came from what he had to say, not from how he said it. But Apollos, he’s eloquent and charming. And so some of the Corinthians liked Apollos more, and where Apollos and Paul disagreed, some would say “I belong to Apollos.”
But that wasn’t all. Some were saying they belonged to Peter – or Cephas which is his name in Aramaic. After all, didn’t Jesus say that Peter was the rock of the church? Now, we don’t know whether Peter ever visited Corinth. My guess is that some traveling Christian preachers had passed through claiming to teach what Peter himself taught. Because when some where saying, “I’m with Paul,” and others were saying “I’m with Apollos,” others were saying – “your vision of Christianity is wrong. Because I belong to Cephas. And if you think differently, you don’t belong here.” And so when it came to staking out their territory, some sided with Peter.
But that wasn’t all the squeaking and chirping and whistling going on. Because there seems to have been a fourth “party” claiming that they were the real Messiah people. In other words, while everyone else was following this leader or that, some were saying “Oh, I’m just following Jesus.” Now, I know this sounds good – but don’t be fooled, it’s the oldest power-play in history of the church. It’s the modern day equivalent of the person who says, “I’ll just do what the Lord tells me,” and then does whatever they want. Or it’s when a person says, “I don’t need the church thank you very much, because I just do what the bible says.” But if we think that it’s “just” that easy, then my guess is that we just haven’t read it. Because the Bible itself says we need one another.
But do you get a sense of the drama that Paul’s dealing with? I mean, I haven’t even mentioned “the issues” they’re divided over yet, and because we have all semester, I’ll save a lot of that for later. But I find it both sobering and relieving that the church experienced such division – such drama – in its very earliest years. There wasn’t much of a “honeymoon” period for the early church. Because from the start, Paul found himself not only announcing the gospel of Jesus but also struggling to maintain unity.
And so the question is, why?
Why is unity so important? Why does Paul write a desperate plea to the Corinthians begging them to be united, to stop fighting, and to end the drama once and for all? Why is the rumor from Chloe’s people so troubling?
Because the Gospel, in one word, is about reconciliation. You see, behind this passage, behind this letter, behind the entire New Testament is Paul’s message of the cross. Because the drama and the division we experience with one another has never been our primary problem. Our drama with one another isn’t a problem, it’s a symptom. It’s a symptom of the drama and division that we experience with God because of a separation that exists between us and God. And so behind this passage and this letter and the entire New Testament is Paul’s message that Jesus’ cross has healed that rift between us and God – that God took initiative and ended the drama between us and him so that we might be united to God. And if God really did that, if God really ended the drama that exists between us and Him, what on earth are we doing fighting with one another? That’s the question that Paul is asking the Corinthians.
Can you hear the blend of anger and sarcasm in Paul’s voice? “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” You see, Paul took baptism pretty seriously, because for him it was the formal and outward sign before God and one’s family and the entire church that someone was leaving their old identity behind and entering a new life with Jesus. Baptism for the Christian was like crossing the Red Sea for Israel during the Exodus – it meant coming out of slavery into freedom.
And so when Paul asks rhetorically, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” what he’s essentially asking is, “are you still a slave? Are you not free? Didn’t you get the memo that God put an end to the drama?”
And so back to our question – why is unity so important? I’ll let y’all discuss that a bit in your small groups, but here’s my answer in a nutshell.
First, God is one. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – a perfect community of oneness. By definition, God is Perfect Community – a communion of persons so close that we believe not in three Gods but in One. And so unity is important because God is one. And God aims to make us His children.
Second, Jesus prayed for the unity of His church, and Jesus died for the unity of His church. To quote his prayer in the Gospel of John, “I pray that they may be one as we are one.” The second person of the Trinity becoming human, praying for our unity, and then dying on a cross is not a small matter. Because Jesus died to end the drama – to end the division – between us and God. And so unity is important because Jesus died for it.
And so don’t be like the chirping birds staking out your territory and singing out of key. But like it says in Colossians, live in harmony with one another. Because as clear as the Bible is that we still wrestle with petty divisions and immature drama, it’s even more clear that God’s desire and commitment is to see all division and all drama come to an end. And so please – whatever you do – do not be as good as the people in the Bible. Because Jesus invites us, and the Spirit empowers us, to be much, much better.