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Chaos or Community?

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland on January 22, 2017 at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.

Text:       1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Chaos or Community?

I just heard a funny story about a certain three-year-old boy:

Apparently this three-year-old had yet to speak one single word.

As you can imagine, this created a great deal of concern and anxiety for his parents.  And so, being good, concerned parents they took him to his pediatrician who eventually referred the boy to specialists.

But the specialists discovered nothing wrong.

Then one morning at breakfast the boy suddenly blurted out, “My toast is burned.”

“You talked! You talked!” shouted his shocked mother. “I’m so happy!”

“But … why has it taken this long?”

“Well, up till now,” said the boy, “things have been okay.”

Most three-year-olds would have complained about something looong before a burnt piece of toast appears on their plate.

If only we could hold our tongues as long as this three-year-old!

The same could perhaps be said about the members of “First Corinthian Church”.

The founding pastor, Rev. Paul–the Apostle Paul—receives word that “quarreling” has broken out among church members, and that it’s becoming destructive to the community.

Even though Paul is no longer in Corinth, he still knows these people well.

They didn’t suddenly change into different people after he left.

The Greek word he uses here, eris, refers to a particular kind of quarrel: interpersonal bickering (as opposed to conceptual or philosophical/theological disagreements).[1]

Paul knows that this quarreling is all about personalities.

He saw all of this first-hand when he was there.  And he knows the important back story:

Church members aligned themselves according to their loyalty to particular authority figures.

Most are aligned with Paul, the founding pastor, as the main authority figure.

But a significant number of members prefer Apollos, the most recent pastor who was a gifted preacher with excellent knowledge of Scripture.

Others aligned themselves with Cephas choosing to only accept one of Jesus’ original disciples.

And then there was a group which rejected any/all human authority, determined to wait for Christ’s promised return, until then deciding only for themselves. [2]

Each group may have had solid faith practices which, ideally, could contribute to a healthy diversity and shared vitality.

But this wasn’t happening.

Instead personal loyalties were effectively dissolving their shared identity in Christ—a problem which continues to plague the church to this day.

Whenever our identity in Christ is defined by our allegiance with someone or something other than Christ, interactions inevitably devolve into superficial bickering driven by arrogance and insecurity and fear.

And the basic underlying fact is that any and every community struggles with personality clashes.

It’s inevitable.

And this is not unique to the church. But the church must confront and resolve these clashes.

The difference between thriving communities and dysfunctional communities is whether or not they have a foundation strong enough to keep the community together in spite of personality clashes.

Without a unifying foundation communities break down from the chaos of escalating (personality) conflicts.

Communities built on a unifying foundation stay vital in spite of inevitable conflict.

One great contemporary example is found in program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

People seeking to live sober are a volatile mix of personalities.

Putting a bunch of recovering drunks and addicts in a room should be a recipe for disaster.

And yet these AA groups survive and thrive more often than not because they share one purpose: to carry the AA message of experience, strength and hope for sobriety to alcoholics who still suffer.

Each meeting and group exists to carry the message of sobriety  Every group agrees that any purpose other than sobriety is just another road ending with addiction.

Millions have experienced sobriety because of the singular purpose of AA.

One of AA’s slogans is “principles before personalities” — the principles outlined in the 12 Steps leads to a new and better life of sobriety through a higher power.

These principles keep people united and sober even with the ever-present reality and threat of relapse.

Paul’s response to the quarrels wreaking havoc at First Corinthian Church is to, essentially, place principles before personalities.

Church members were identifying their belonging to Christ in terms which had more to do with personalities (Paul; Apollos; Cephas) than with Christ.

With the question “has Christ been divided?” Paul declares that whenever Christian experience is defined in terms of loyalty to a particular person this effectively divides the body of Christ.

And for Paul “a divided Christ is a destroyed Christ.” [3]

Paul understands how this happens.

He understands that we bond with someone who has introduced us to the faith or who may have baptized us or who helped us along in our faith.

And that’s wonderful. As long as the person is always pointing toward Christ and beyond self.

What Paul sees happening in Corinth is that strong personalities have come to replace rather than refer to Christ, confusing people’s allegiance and obedience to Christ alone.

Paul warns that this happens with preaching and preachers.

When power is located not in the message but in the person’s charisma or in their mastery of language or psychology, this empties the cross of its power.  Which leads Paul to remind us that

“… the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

A relationship with Christ defined in terms of relationship with an authority figure–whether it’s Paul, Apollos, Cephas–points away from the grace and the love of God bestowed on us in Christ alone.

A community united by the love and grace of Christ embodies the saving forgiveness and life God enfleshes for us in Jesus Christ.

Without this embodiment, even the most gifted preaching is empty.

“Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has served as a crucial treatise on Christian unity.

“Though this passage addresses divisions occurring between individuals, the scope is naturally much broader, encompassing any situation where the Body of Christ is being threatened whether at the committee level, the church level, denomination, and so on. [4]

Whenever squabbles threaten our unity, the most constructive response is to emphasize the unity we already share in Christ.

Paul teaches us that unity in Christ already exists by virtue of our baptism.

Together we are grafted onto the body of Christ through baptism.

We are already united by Christ himself.

Christian unity is not something created by human effort.

It’s not something we must wait for or watch for.

Unity is already implicit within Christian community.

Whether or not it becomes explicit depends on how we relate to each other.

The choices and loyalties we make in times like this determine whether we shall experience unity through the power of Christ, or division through a divided Christ …

MLK Jr asked nearly fifty-years ago the question which remains before us today:

Where do we go from here: chaos or community?

For us, there is only one answer.  Let it be community.

[1] Carl R. Holladay Preaching through the Christian Year – Year A  Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, Tucker.  Trinity Press International, 1992; p.91

[2] Holladay, op. cit. p.92

[3] ibid

[4] Holladay, op. cit, p.93

Main source:

Carl R. Holladay Preaching through the Christian Year – Year A.  Craddock, Hayes, Holladay, Tucker.  Trinity Press International, 1992

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should 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.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 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.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.