Audio is available here: Can Christ Be Divided?
Last week, Jay Koyle introduced us to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and its call to that very gifted and very struggling community to remember who and whose they were. They were, you will recall, the church of God in Corinth. That is, a community called out from their city(that’s what the word translated “church” means), to bear witness to the Gospel to their city—that God is re-ordering the world through the work of his Son, the Messiah, Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. They were sanctified by Jesus the Messiah. They were, in other words, made holy, set apart, because they were united to Jesus. They were called to be saints, as are all who name Jesus as Lord. They were in other words expected to grow into their sanctification. They were already holy. And they were to become God’s holy ones. They were to live as though Jesus really was Lord. What a high calling!
Moreover, they were rich—both materially and spiritually. They excelled in speech and knowledge. They were not lacking in any spiritual gift. The testimony of Christ was being strengthened among them! Sounds like a perfect church, doesn’t it? Well, here we need to exercise a little caution. This is a description of what the Corinthian Christians could be if they remembered who and whose they were. As it was, they were not this community. Indeed, this list—wealth, learning, spiritual gifts—each item was one that Paul would later address as a problem in the Corinthian church. As things now stood, the testimony of Christ was not being strengthened among them. In fact, by their behaviour, it was being weakened. They were an embarrassment to their city.
And we begin to get a glimpse why in our Epistle for today.
Its climax comes in the question that begins verse 13. “Has Christ been divided?” To determine what this question means, a lot depends on how we hear it in the first place. What tone to we hear? What volume? For while it is true that this question comes from a letter, it was a letter dictated orally by Paul to a secretary, probably Sosthenes, the companion who is named in the greeting we read last week. Imagine yourself as Sosthenes this afternoon. How do you hear the question?
I hear it as the climax of a torrent of exasperation with a church community that was, by its many problems, failing its city. Rather than a community of holy ones called to bear witness to the beauty and truth and of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus in their words and works to their city, the city of Corinth, the church in Corinth was an embarrassment. Their behaviour made their non-Christian neighbours blush. Their behaviour drove Paul to distraction.
Now, it took a lot to embarrass a Corinthian of the first century. Corinth was not a city devoted to culture and learning like Athens. It was not a city of the aristocracy, like Rome. Corinth was a port city, it was a major trading center, cosmopolitan in every conceivable way. It was, one commentator put it, the Las Vegas of the ancient world. In fact, scholars have discovered and translated in various documents from Paul’s time, before and after, a whole series of risqué jokes in which Corinth was the punch line. I won’t tell you any of them this morning. But we can say that “Whatever happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth,” is a true, if rather tame way of telling us what kind of city ancient Corinth was.
Paul came to this city, this city flowing in wealth and in cosmopolitan learning and experience, and in idolatry and licentiousness. He planted a church in this city. Now, you need to grasp just what this means. It does not mean a humongous Gothic cathedral was erected in the center of town. It means 4 people meeting in someone’s front room at one side of the city, and a half-dozen on the other. And as was his method, after getting this little community of Messiah-followers established, he moved on. But he was not gone long before some of Chloe’s people found him, bringing a letter and an oral report of what had been taking place in Paul’s absence. And Paul, quite simply, is shocked at what he hears.
So it is that when we come to the question that is our theme for this week of prayer, we need to hear it like this. “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.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
Paul is exasperated. So exastperated, he can’t remember who he baptized. His heart is broken for the church he planted. For that little community was broken itself. Were we to go through the letter, we would find that it is broken in many ways—it has pitted rich against poor; it has made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper; it tolerates the egregious sexual sin of one of its members likely because he was a major donor; it abounds in every spiritual gift except the gift of love; it has lost sight of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, its union with the risen Lord, and its identity as His Body—His ongoing presence in their city. But the first issue Paul addresses, and the one that bubbles away under all the others, in this pastoral letter is disunity. Has Christ been divided? Do you hear the exasperation? The discouragement? The apostle’s breaking voice? His breaking heart?
Eugene Peterson, in the Message, translates Paul’s question provocatively: “Has the Messiah been chopped up in little pieces so we can each have a relic all our own?” Timothy George, a baptist theologian, adds that the word translated divided is “memeristai,” means “to divide into parties or sects.” We could translate Paul’s question this way: Is Christ a partisan? Is Christ sectarian? The very idea, of course, is ludicrous. Christ is not divisible.
We might even go so far as to say that such division for Paul is impossible. Christ simply cannot be divided. And if Christ cannot be chopped up, made a partisan, then neither can those who have been united to him in faith and through baptism. And yet, what cannot be, is. Christ cannot be divided. The Corinthians, Christ’s own body, was divided.
And as a result, they could not preach and live the Gospel to their city. Their disunity distracted the Corinthian Christians from the message of the Cross and its power. Their disunity prevented them from living lives that, in love for the brothers and sisters, in care for the poor, and in the pursuit of holiness, radiated the beauty and goodness of Jesus. Their disunity prevented them from doing and being that which they already were—those who had been made holy by their union with Christ, and were called to become God’s holy ones in their everyday lives.
A colleague of mine once said to me that 1 Corinthians is the most immediately applicable of Paul’s letters to 21st century Christians. I hope, that the truth of that remark is now obvious.
For in our world as in the world of the Corinthian Christians, what cannot be—the dis-membering of the body of Christ—is a fact. An obvious fact. On the one hand the theological argument is plain: Christ cannot be divided; we are united to Christ; we cannot be divided. On the other hand, we are divided—and the divisions I have in mind are far closer to home than the big ones you might be thinking of—the divisions that we highlight during this Week of Prayer for Chrirstian Unity that ends today. Remember the community to which Paul writes—four here; 10 across town; a dozen one neighbourhood over. The divisions he has in mind are divisions that come within close quarters. Those are the divisions I have in mind, too. For Paul, as for us this morning, it is division in the local parish (a word foreign to Paul, but you get the idea) that mutes effective Christian witness.
What are we to do? Well, first, two things not to do. #1 One mistaken response to division is denial. To be not all that bothered about it. Some of us pretend that such divisions are unreal or are over trivial matters. #2 A second mistaken response is to gleefully perpetuate them, look for occasions to renew them, to perpetuate them, to fan the embers into a consuming flame.
What to do then? The advice of St. Paul is still germane. First, repent of our divisions and reconcile to each other. Repentance here, as always, does not mean to make a huge emotional display. It is, simply, to change direction, to change our mind. But—and here is the hard part—it is no mere mental shift. It is intensely practical. Authentic repentance is always accompanied by the hard work of attempting reconciliation. Paul takes up this theme more explicitly in his second letter to this struggling church. And to explore it here would take us far afield from our passage for today. Suffice now to say that for Messiah people (whether they find themselves in Corinth or Sudbury), for those people whom God has called out, sanctified and called to be saints, made one through the proclamation of the message of the Cross, the ministry of reconciliation is not an option. It is the Christian mission in the world. And if it is the Christian mission in the world, then it is first the Christian way of living together.
For the testimony of Christ to the city of Corinth to be strengthened, the Corinthian Christians has some repair work to do. Not with their non-Christian neighbors, but with each other. For the testimony of Christ to the city of Sudbury, in downtown Sudbury even, it may be that we have some repair work to do, too.
In concert with repentance and reconciliation, Paul advises the Corinthians to turn again to Christ who is our one foundation, to the message of the cross, which is the wisdom and power of God, to find in Christ’s body—his body risen from the grave, and given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit in bread and in wine, our identity as Christ’s body here on earth. A body of diverse parts, united in mission, accomplishing the will of him who is our common head.
In place of lining up behind popular preachers of the day (Paul, Apollos, Peter (we might say, Borg, Wright, Williams)), Paul says, you should be lining up behind the message that was brought to you. The message of the cross. Namely, that here is where the reconciliation of God and human beings was accomplished. This is why you live to be reconciled and reconciling people.
Now, we are about to come to the table. The site where we remember, we celebrate, we participate the great reconciling act of God. And here, I am going to be really practical. Practical at the risk of causing offence. But just so we’re sure that if anyone is offended they are offended at the right person, I’m going to quote Jesus: “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Here, we will offer the gift of ourselves, our souls and bodies, as the BCP puts it. Here we will receive the gift of Christ’s incarnate life and so, through the Holy Spirit, participate in the life that is the very life of God. To so offer ourselves is to publicly proclaim that we have been reconciled through the message of the cross, not simply to God, but also to each other. Here, as nowhere else, Paul’s question hangs over us. Has Christ been divided? How will you answer Paul’s question this morning?