(Click the title link above to hear a recording of this sermon from the 6PM service)
I Corinthians 1:10-18
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
January 26, 2014
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.
Whether it is a friendly argument about which rock band is the greatest of all history or a political election, we like to win. We like to be right. We want to be on the winning side and we like to be number one. It feels good to win and no one likes to lose. Our culture seems to be built on winning and losing. We fight for our candidate to win elections to push our favorite agendas. We use any means necessary to discredit our opponents in the political arena. There are those in baseball and other sports that can tell us that the end justifies the means when it comes to winning and breaking records set by someone else. We push ourselves to the max, we abuse ourselves and others, and we sacrifice all in the name of winning.
In Paul’s day, in Corinth, it was not the sports, but the politics of the community that seeped into the church. The leaders and teachers of society were judged by the eloquence of their arguments. Persuasive teachers crafted carefully worded arguments for their own position. Those that were deemed the most persuasive were called wise and worthy of being followed. The people in the church at Corinth took the same means of reflection to Paul’s teachings. They began to notice that Paul’s arguments and teachings were not as clever as some others. Whether they actually formed groups or parties around various teachers is debated, but there do seem to have been some divisions within the church. Some still supported Paul and his stance that the Jewish roots of Christianity were not that important, but others began say that some other teachers and preachers were more persuasive. Some were persuaded by Peter and his high regard for the Jewish roots of Christianity. Some were persuaded by the philosophical ideas of the Hellenistic Jews espoused by Apollos. This is not to say that Peter or Apollos were actively seeking followers of their own or trying to divide the church, but apparently there were those who identified with one over another.
The rivalry grew; each group vying for dominance in the church. Which group would have one of THEIR people as head of the vestry? Which group would get THEIR person elected Bishop? Which of their ideas would predominate the preaching and teaching or be incorporated into the catechism? Each group fought for their own view and sought to overpower the rival views. The rivalry grew and the difficulties increased until the divisions spilled out into the community. It got so bad that it finally got back to Paul because “Chloe’s people told him”. Why did Chloe or her people even care? Were they supporters of Paul who were afraid of losing their position or were they neutral observers who feared the consequences of the escalating tensions? We don’t know.
What we do know is that where rivalry grows and a score-keeping mentality dominates, there is no true community. In a relationship with trust and true connection, we do for others as they need and we have every reason to expect that they will do for us. In a healthy relationship, interactions are marked by respect, openness and honesty. But when one person or group has to win and one has to lose, then relationships are based on competition. Interactions are guarded and the words of others are treated with suspicion. If we are not sure the other has our best interest at heart, then we mistrust everything they do and we are careful to keep score to make sure we get what we think is fair. True community cannot exist where such interactions occur. Someone has to win and someone has to lose. I have met so many couples through the years that have lost the sense of trust in their partner. They have grown suspicious of the other’s intent or actions. It gets so bad at times that one person can say, “Look at the beautiful blue sky” and the other says, “What do you mean by that?” or “You have no idea what a blue sky is”. It is very difficult for us to come back from such a place when the level of resentment has grown to that level.
It almost sounds foolish when Paul simply writes, “Be of the same mind and let there be no divisions among you.” That is like a parent saying to their arguing kids, “you two stop that. You need to get along with each other.” That is great, but what does that look like? How are we supposed to make that happen?
As I was reading this passage, I couldn’t help but think of Bill Cosby from “Himself” when he talks about parents dealing with arguing kids. He says, “Parents are not interested in justice — they want QUIET!” They don’t care who started the fight or who said what; they just want it to stop. What results in the kids is not a true understanding or resolution to the conflict, but a false peace. For the kids it is like, “My mom just makes me say, “I’m sorry”. I don’t have to actually BE sorry.” In this way, we might think that Paul is just calling for everyone to be…“Polite”. We don’t have to get along; we just have to pretend that we get along. We speak civilly to one another, but tear each other down behind our backs. We pretend to agree while harboring deep judgment or disgust for the other. This is what we in the therapist business call “False Community”. It is one of the early stages of group dynamics. Everyone wants to get along, so everyone pretends to get along even though they might not get along. This may be a short-term coping strategy (like some of you used with your in-laws over the holidays), but it is not a path to true community. For “true community” to develop, false community has to be replaced with something more meaningful.
Paul is not advocating for “false community” and its superficial agreement. In fact in Chapter 11 of this same book, Paul says that the existence of differences is necessary in order to find the truth. What Paul does, however, is point the church members beyond their focus on their arguments to something bigger than themselves. Paul’s response to the church is NOT an attempt to make a more eloquent argument for his own position and reinforce any divisions there. His response is to get to the heart of the conflict. Paul says, “No, I was not as eloquent as some, but if you are persuaded by the eloquence, then you have robbed the message of the cross of its ability to speak for itself.” The message of the cross is foolish for those who do not get it, but it is the power of God for those who are being saved by it.
Paul goes on in the following verses to make the contrast between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom. What the world sees as important, is rubbish in God’s economy. Paul notes that while the people have boasted to one another about which great teacher they follow, they really have nothing to boast in besides Christ. While they have inflated their own importance, they have nothing without Christ. Christ died for all of us because of the sin in all of us. If we are all in need of salvation, then none of us is any better than any other of us and the only value we have is as a child of God. If we understand each person as fellow child of God and we are seeking to value the things that God values, then whether or not we win the argument becomes less important. If we are having heavy discussions, but we are guided by love and respect for the other, the conversation will end very differently than if we seek to defeat the other. The world will tell us to protect our own, to defend our position, to win at all costs. It is utter foolishness to say, “Love your enemy”. It is folly to seek the honor of your rival.
This time last year, my oldest daughter was studying in South Africa. She had the chance to visit Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for most of the 27 years he was imprisoned. When he was released from prison in 1990 it would have made sense by our usual standards for him to seek revenge on those who held him in captivity. It would make sense for him to want to defeat them, but Nelson Mandela seems motivated by something else. He invited his former jailer to dinner. He invited his former prison guard to his inauguration and he once had lunch with a man who had tried to have him killed. He was once quoted as saying, “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don't have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”
We can learn from from his example. We can learn from the apostle Paul. As we have discussions within the body of Christ, let us not forget the leveling message of the cross and the love of God for each one of us. May we reflect that love in all that we do and all that we say. Amen.