January 22, 2017 “Non-Partisan” – I Corinthians 1:10-17

I  Corinthians 1:10-17
“Non-Partisan”
January 22, 2017 – Third Sunday after Epiphany

I went to an elementary school named after a comedian, Will Rogers Elementary in Santa Monica, California. When it came to politics, Rogers had lots to say, but he attributed that to the politicians themselves. He said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.” He also said, “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.” You might try a paraphrase of that line when people criticize you for belonging to an institutional church. “I’m not a member of organized religion. I go to a Covenant church.”

More relevant to our text today, Will Rogers said, “The more you read and observe about this Politics thing, you’ve got to admit that each party is worse than the other.” That may have been how the apostle Paul felt when he wrote to Corinth about the parties which had developed in the church there. Each was worse than the others.

The fledgling church at Corinth was seriously messed-up. To Christians who say that we should be more like the early church, my friend Jeff always says, “Have you ever actually read I Corinthians? Why would you want to be like that?” Paul dives right into the mess. The first issue is, he’s heard in verse 11, a report of factions in the Corinthian church.

Paul starts positive, though. Before even mentioning the factions, He insists on unity in verse 10. Christians are to be in agreement. He asks this not in his own name, but “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christian unity is not optional, like more data on your cell phone plan. It’s part of the base package. It’s essential. It’s “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Unity with each other is part of what it means to be Christian.

A literal translation of verse 10 asks that the Corinthians “all say the same thing,” and that they all be of the “same mind and the same opinion or purpose.” Paul is asking and expecting a sameness of word and mind and heart to mark the churches of Jesus Christ. But events like our recent presidential election seem to make that impossible.

In verse 11 Paul carefully gave the source of his information about the Corinthian church. He did not deal in anonymous rumors. That’s good practice for leaders in the church today. It’s not “someone told me this” or “a person I can’t identify said that.” It’s “I heard this from members of Chloe’s household.” Paul and those who spoke to him are willing to own what they say about this church and be responsible for it. Your Church Council asks the same of those who have something to say here at Valley Covenant.

Paul heard about “quarrels among you” in verse 11 and he goes on to give the details in verse 12. This is a crystal clear slice of church life in 54 A.D., and it’s not pretty. It sounds all too familiar. The Corinthian Christians split up around their allegiances to different leaders, Paul himself among their choices.

So there they are, says Paul, each member at Corinth choosing a side by claiming a different spiritual guide. “I follow Paul.” “I follow Apollos.” “I follow Cephas [that’s Peter].” And finally in a great burst of hyper-spirituality, “I follow Christ.”

We don’t really know what these parties in the church were about in terms of doctrine or practice. Paul was the original founder of the church, staying there a long time on his second missionary journey in 51 A.D. So his party may have been the “old guard,” the original converts that had heard him speak and could claim charter membership.

Apollos was an eloquent orator who may have had training in philosophical interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. He came along later and perhaps appealed to an educated, sophisticated minority in the congregation.

Then some Jewish Christians showed up and perhaps adopted the name of Peter for their notion that Gentile believers in Christ should be circumcised and eat a Jewish diet in order to be real members of the church.

All those details about what drove the parties is just speculation. What the “Christ party” was about is anyone’s guess. Maybe they were a disgusted but arrogant bunch who thought they could rise above all the factions by claiming to be the only ones who really followed Christ Himself. Sound familiar?

Whatever the parties were actually about, Paul had no use for them, including the one that used his own name. Would he have any more use for all the ways in which the Christian Church has divided itself since? Would he be any happier that this morning we are separated from brothers and sisters in Christ by parties that have crystallized into the formal structures we call “denominations?” Would he be pleased about the reports he would hear from individual churches about internal divisions and factions?

Yet what can we do? The very fact such divisions showed up in the earliest years of the Church tells how deep the spirit of divisiveness runs in our hearts and minds. We don’t all say the same thing or have the same mind or hold the same opinion, not in the Church, not anywhere.

We certainly don’t do it, as Will Rogers joked about, in politics. Good, faithful, Bible-believing, born again Christians voted on both sides of our recent presidential election, often feeling that those who voted in the opposite direction were badly mistaken, not just about the political choice but about the nature of Christian faith. “How could,” it was asked on both sides, “a real Christian vote that way?”

Paul’s question for Christian partisanship, whether it’s church parties or the world’s political parties, is in verse 13, “Has Christ been divided?” The word “divided” has the fuller sense of “divided up and parceled out so everyone gets a piece.” Is that how we are treating Jesus when we separate into parties? Are we carving up our Lord into slices in an effort to try and make everyone happy?

If we split Jesus up, no one really has Jesus. It’s like the Old Testament story of Solomon’s facetious offer to take a sword and split a baby so that two women who both want him can each have half. A piece of Jesus is no Jesus at all. Even the party that claims to “follow Christ” is no good if they mean that other believers follow Him less.

In the rest of verse 13, Paul discounted his own importance in order to argue that all these divisions in the Church make as little sense as cutting up Christ. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” He’s trying to haul them out of their party spirit into a memory of why they are in the church in the first place. It’s not Paul. It’s not Apollos. It’s not Peter. It’s not even some sort of exclusive, privileged, unique experience of Christ. It’s that Jesus died on the Cross for them all. It’s that they were all baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

One point of contention in those parties in Corinth was who baptized whom. Paul distanced himself from that contention in verses 14 to 16 by being thankful he didn’t baptize very many of them. His ruminations here are wonderfully human. As Robert Farrar Capon says, Paul “…produced a rather feeble-minded list of people he thought he remembered baptizing…”[1] He recalls Crispus, leader of the synagogue, and Gaius, who had a big house, right off the bat. Then he must have slapped his head a sentence later, because he suddenly remembered Stephanas, who may have been standing right there with him because he helped bring the Corinthian messages to Paul. His household were the first converts there, according to chapter 16. Finally Paul has to admit, in a way comforting to us older folks, “beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.”

Paul didn’t remember whom he baptized. It’s not that he thinks baptism is unimportant. Turn over to Romans 6:4 to get a picture of the huge value Paul places on baptism. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Baptism is at the heart of death and resurrection, of new life. It matters. But the point is that who did the baptizing is not all that important. It’s the one whose name is used in baptism that’s important. It’s Christ.

That’s why Paul says in verse 17, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to proclaim the gospel…” Paul’s job was to keep the focus where it mattered, on the Good News of Jesus Christ, not on peripheral matters like how and by whom baptism was performed. That’s the same spirit with which Covenant churches hold our view that both infant and believer baptism are acceptable in the Church. It’s not the way or when it’s done but the Savior in whose name it’s done that matters most.

In the end Paul politely dropped the subject of the Corinthian factions as he moved into verse 17 and beyond. He wanted them to get over what divides them and their partisanship and do what he asked in verse 10, to say the same thing, have the same mind, hold the same opinion. But there’s only one way to do that and that’s to stay close to what is at the center of who they are.

There have been many calls for unity among Americans after the election in November. Republicans have insisted that Democrats need to get over it and admit they lost. Democrats respond by wondering why Republicans never got over it when they lost eight years ago. Everyone seems to be digging in and getting ready for more fighting over specific issues and more protest.

My own feeling is a pretty deep pessimism that any sort of American unity is possible unless it is imposed by authoritarian force. The problem is that we can no longer agree about what it means to be American or what is at the center of who we are. Each political party defines that differently. But the Christian church is different.

Christians should still know who and what is the center of who we are. It is definitely not a Republican agenda or a Democratic agenda, though there are legitimate connections to both those platforms. Our center is and always will be Jesus Christ.

The actor Andrew Garfield plays a Jesuit priest in the new movie “Silence.” To prepare for the role, he went through the Ignatian spiritual exercises which Jesuits live by. He says the result was that he came to adore the teaching of Jesus, that he fell in love with Jesus, just like the figure he portrays in the film.

That’s the center of Christian faith and life, to be in love with Jesus. It’s not to love a cause or a denomination or a political party or a country. It’s to love the Lord who loved us enough to give His life for us. That’s the power of the cross of Christ which Paul points to in verse 17.

So the center of who we are is not a good cause, whether it’s saving babies like we heard about this morning or saving people from the cold like we do with our warming center or saving America from racism and violence. Our center is Jesus. It starts and finishes there, in Christ.

Partisanship has no place in a Christian church. It has no place here at Valley Covenant Church. It’s not about who baptized you or how it was done. It’s not about whom you voted for. It’s not about “eloquent wisdom,” Paul says in verse 17, which means it’s not about hearing a good sermon. If we make our faith about those things, then Paul fears that “the cross of Christ [will] be emptied of its power.” It’s Jesus who died on the Cross which is at the center, just like you see a cross displayed here above us in our sanctuary.

You and I will want to consider some of that divisive stuff we may put at the center instead of Christ and His Cross. We will want to reach across the aisle between those of us who prefer praise songs and those who prefer hymns. We will want to bridge the distance separating those of us who in our church who are Democrats from those who are Republicans. We want to find a way to work together for those of us who can’t imagine us not doing the warming center ministry and those who are fed up with its problems and scared of the safety issues it raises. We will need to bring together those who want our church budget to be a great leap of faith and those who want to be conservative stewards of what God actually gives us.

All that and more can and does sometime divide us here at Valley Covenant. You may prefer one Sunday school teacher rather than another. You may feel slighted by a clique you perceive in our midst. You may just believe some of us aren’t very spiritual. It all pushes us apart, but the big question is what Paul asks, “Will Christ be divided?” Will we let partisanship carve up our Lord Jesus so that His power and His salvation get watered-down and lost in all the confusion?

Look at our Gospel lesson from Matthew 4. Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Him. Jesus Himself is the center of that first church we typically call the “disciples.” But while Jesus asks these people to follow Him, His concern is much larger than just them. He calls them “fishers of people” and, in the next few verses, they join Him in a ministry of sharing good news and healing people in a wide area which crossed national and political and social boundaries.

The center of Christian faith and Christian community is a person unlike those leaders who utilize our natural tendency to divide from each for their own purposes. Jesus constantly points His followers to His purpose, to reach beyond their own interests and immediate concerns to the needs of others, including those outside one’s own community. The Spirit of Jesus is the only source of true non-partisanship in our world, the only hope of any larger unity.

I’ve no idea when President Trump’s first State of the Union Address will take place or what he will say or do. But there’s an old presidential tradition about a State of the Union speech that has to do with that comedian my school was named after.

Will Rogers’ home state of Oklahoma honored him by making him one of that state’s two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection housed in the Capitol. Rogers consented to the honor on the condition that his image would face the House Chamber so he could, “keep an eye on Congress.” His image is the only one facing the Chamber entrance. According to Capitol tour guides, every president entering for the State of the Union address rubs Rogers’ left shoe for good luck. President Trump will need it.

Paul wants us to know that we are not just wishing for luck when we come together and seek to be one in Jesus Christ. Much better than touching the foot of a dead political wit, you and I are invited to fall down and touch the foot of the Cross.

I invite you to look at and touch the Cross today. If you are not already a Christian, if this unity and love that we’re talking about seems like a dream, then I encourage you to reach out and touch and accept the Cross of Jesus as your own salvation and your own welcome into a community that rises with Him above the parties that divide us.

If you are a Christian, if you are part of this church, then may I encourage you to touch the Cross when you feel tempted by party spirit, when you feel anger or jealousy or superiority or even fear separating you from brothers and sisters here. Look to the Cross and remember that Jesus died for you and He died for that other Christian across the aisle. Reach out and touch the Cross in prayer and let God heal the brokenness that divides us from each other.

Before our Covenant logo that you see every Sunday on our bulletin and in the stained glass above us, there was a more pictorial logo. It’s on the front of our bulletin this morning. Hands are shaking above an image of a Lamb recumbent, with a Cross. A slogan runs across it, saying Conjuncti in Christo, “Joined in Christ.”

Some of us who’ve been around awhile miss that old logo with its sophisticated Latin motto, but our new logo says the same thing. The Lamb of God, Christ with His Cross, is at the center. We are gathered around and in Jesus Christ our Lord who gave His life for us. He is our center. He is our unity. On that we may all agree. We may all say the same thing, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” We may all have the same mind, the mind of Christ. We may all hold the same opinion, the same purpose, to love and glorify and be in and with Jesus, forever and ever.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] The Third Peacock (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), p. 79.