Sunday 26 January 2020
The Third Sunday after Epiphany
They were no better than we are. Did you notice? Even in Paul’s time there was division in the church. There’s been division in the church from the beginning. Sometimes we have a tendency to look back fondly on the time of the early church and to imagine that they had everything figured out, that they were pure, and righteous, and united in a way that we are not. In the beginning, they had the real message, they were real disciples, and their church had not yet been perverted by the world, like our church is now.
Nope. According to Paul, that’s not how things went. From the very beginning, there were arguments. There were disagreements over doctrine. There were fights over what the Christian message meant and what it meant to be a good Christian. There were fights over rituals and practice. There were fights over who was in and who was out, who was blessed and who was unredeemable.
According to Paul, there seem to be at least four different factions or parties of Christians in the church at Corinth, each identifying themselves with a different early Christian leader. Some have chosen Paul as their hero. Others have chosen the famously eloquent Christian, Apollos. Still others have rallied around Cephas—which is the Aramaic name for Peter. We know from other biblical writings that Paul and Peter had their fair share of disagreements about what it meant to follow Christ and how those who follow Jesus should live. Finally, some partisans have claimed that they are the only people who are truly following Christ, not some later apostle.
It’s no wonder we have so many disagreements amongst churches today, no wonder we have so many denominations and arguments and divisions. Even in the first generation of the church, Christians couldn’t agree on what the whole Christian message and mission were all about.
I know a lot of us are anxious about the unity of The United Methodist Church. I’ve heard some of you calling it the Divided Methodist Church. There has been division in our denomination over the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. And it is beginning to look as though the only way to include all people in the church is to divide it. In fact, listen to the name of one of the more popular plans. It’s called the “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” Reconciliation through Separation. That sounds like an oxymoron. And yet, at the same time, it is in many ways an accurate description of the current crisis and its proposed solutions. Which is more true to Christ gospel: to maintain one denomination and exclude LGBTQ+ persons, or to divide the church so that part of it can be inclusive?
Of course, if The United Methodist Church does divide, there won’t be two different Methodist denominations in the United States. Don’t forget, there is also Free Methodist Church, the Christian Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion, the Nazarenes, the Wesleyans… There are, in fact, already at least 23 Methodist denominations just in the United States, twenty four, if we include Canada. Twenty-four. How much more divided would things be if there were 25 instead?
It’s not the same in the Lutheran Church, as I’m sure you know. Lutherans in North America aren’t divided up into 24 different denominations. No, Lutherans are divided up into more than 40 different denominations. And again, that’s only in the US and Canada. Worldwide, the numbers are almost incalculable.
My group follows Paul. No, my group follows Apollos; he’s an amazing preacher. No, my group follows Peter, the first of the disciples. No, all of you are wrong. My group is the only one that really follows Christ. Division and schism certainly didn’t start with us. It was there from the beginning. And while our brokenness is painful, while it is sinful, it is at least understandable.
Paul does warn the church in Corinth against these kinds of divisions, against this kind of schism. Mocking their factionalism, he asks them, “Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He wants everyone to focus on the saving message of the Messiah. That’s why he goes into that whole convoluted argument about how he wasn’t sent to baptize. He’s not very successful at it, though. He boldly declares: “I thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you!” He’s trying to say that no one in Corinth can claim special authority because they were baptized personally by Paul. But then he seems to remember that, in fact, he did baptize two people. He baptized Crispus and Gaius. And after he has remembered the two of them, it occurs to him that he also baptized the entire household of Stephanas. Finally he says that and he’s not sure if he might have baptized a few other people while he was there. Nevertheless, he doesn’t want anyone to be able to use him as an excuse for breaking the church into parts.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Truth be told, Paul wants everyone to agree with him. He’s really not about to give an inch. You’re never going to hear him say, “You know, Peter and I disagree on a few things, but it’s fine if you do things Peter’s way.” Never. In fact, we can check the transcript. Peter and Paul also disagreed on the subject of inclusion. And here’s what Paul has to say about it in Galatians 2. (Remember, when Paul refers to Peter, he uses his Aramaic name: Cephas.) Here’s what he writes:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promote circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also joined him in this hypocrisy os that even Barnabas got carried away with them in their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, ‘If you, though you’re Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?’”
Yeah. Paul isn’t really about bend when it comes to theological disagreements. He’s not the live-and-let-live sort. But he still insists that he should not be the grounds for division. He is nothing more than a messenger of Jesus’s pure message. No one should accuse him of being a partisan.
In particular, Paul says that he was not sent as an apostle in order to baptize. That’s kind of funny, because we know from the Book of Acts that Paul and Apollos had different understandings of baptism, at least for a time. But Paul seems to want to sidestep that difference. Paul wasn’t sent to baptize. Instead, he was sent as an apostle in order to preach. The Greek word is εὐαγγελίζεσθαι—evangelize. It means to bring the good news. It’s often used when talking about imperial announcements. If the emperor won a battle or if the emperor had a son or if the emperor was deified: that was the subject of typical good news. That’s what evangelism was.
But Paul has a very different kind of good news to share. He says something very strange about it: he proclaims the good news “not with eloquent words, so that the cross of Christ might not be drained of its power.” What on earth is that about?
Well, let’s think again about the usual good news: imperial proclamations. They would always be proclaimed with eloquent words. Rhetoric was a highly prized skill in the Greco-Roman world. It was the most important part of Roman education, by far. Court cases were usually decided based on the skill of the rhetoric, not on the weight of the evidence. In many cases, the eloquence of words was everything.
But Paul says that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the eloquence of words. Again, this might be a dig at Apollos, who was known as an eloquent speaker. But Paul doesn’t want to be judged on the power of his rhetoric. He thinks that the power of his message comes from something else. It comes from the cross.
Now, that might not sound very strange to you and me. We are trained to think of the cross as powerful. But it would have been completely unthinkable in Paul’s time. Remember, good news usually meant news about the victories of the emperor. Good news was about raw, military power, the ability of Rome to utterly crush any opposition, whether foreign or domestic. Crucifixion was one of the ways that they enforced that power. Rome crucified thousands of people. It was a form of execution that was reserved for rebels and political dissidents. It was meant to be humiliating. It was meant to show just what happens to those who dare to stand up to Rome: they die utterly powerless, nailed up on a cross like a piece of meat. It was completely dehumanizing.
So you can imagine, a cross was never associated with power, at least, not with the power of the one being crucified. The cross quite literally drained its victims of power. But Paul has a completely unbelievable message about the cross. It is the exact opposite of what anyone would ever expect.
Paul says that he is a messenger of good news, but his good news doesn’t need any fancy rhetoric or eloquent words. Just look at the fact of the cross, Paul says, that’s all the power that you need. For Paul, the cross means exactly the opposite of what it usually means. It is usually a means of humiliation. But in the case of Jesus it means something different. You see, Jesus overcame the humiliation of the cross. Jesus overcame the crushing power of the cross. Jesus overcame the ultimate death of the cross. What had been a sign of humiliation became a sign of glory. What had been an instrument of torture became a means of grace. What had been the power of death became the power of everlasting life.
Because that is the unlikely, counterintuitive message of the gospel. The Kingdom of God is not about political power or military might. The Son of God chooses to come to us not as a warrior or as a king, but as a teacher and a healer. The Messiah chooses to spend his time not with the rich and the righteous, but with the poor and with sinners. The Christ chooses to take on our frail human form and to take the road that leads to the cross. God’s greatest power is made perfect in weakness. It is through dying that Jesus breaks the power of death. It is through the scandal of the humiliation of the cross that Christ’s glory is revealed. It is Christ’s self-emptying that we see his power.
I can stand here all day preaching my most finely crafted words, or someone more eloquent than I could do the same. We would never speak a word as profound as the grace and love that is revealed in the cross of Jesus. He became human for us. He died for us. He is resurrected for us. Thanks be to God.