I Corinthians 1:10-18
St Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome
January 26, 2020
The Right Rev Brian Cole
Now that I’m a bishop, my sympathy for the Apostle Paul grows daily.
Much of his ministry appears to involve dealing with church communities in crisis. These communities are spread out far from him and each other geographically. He tries to help mediate these conflicts by writing letters to them. Apparently, some of the letters Paul received in response included the basic sentiment, when boiled down in the vernacular to, “Back off, Paul, you’re not EVEN from Corinth.”
But Paul did not back off. Instead, through the written word, he appeals for a healing to conflict, for wholeness to emerge, for one people to live one common gospel life.
This is a very good letter to hear, this letter to Corinth, at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In Rome and around the globe, Christians who remain divided over doctrine have chosen to gather together in visible ways, to pray as we can, knowing even as we embrace, there remains very real places in us where we stand far apart from each other and from ourselves.
St Paul’s letter to Corinth is a good letter to read this morning because he shows us the Church’s division did not begin in our modern times. It did not begin with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century or the Great Schism in the 11th century. No, Paul’s letter to Corinth reveals a community, even in the self-contained location of Corinth, that is already divided.
Welcome to the Church.
“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.’”
This translates into our modern times as “I really like that priest from Atlanta, the one with the hair.”
From the beginning, Jesus called disciples to follow him. But from the beginning, almost immediately, we end up following our favorite teacher’s interpretation of what it means to follow Jesus instead of Jesus. I belong to Paul. I belong to Cephas. I belong to the guy from Atlanta.
St Paul rejects this thinking. The teacher is not there, in Corinth or Rome or Atlanta, to point to themselves, but rather to point beyond themselves to the Jesus who called us to follow him.
In following Jesus, we follow someone who took a foolish journey to the Cross. As he walked towards the Cross, Jesus turned towards us and said, “This is the way.” What foolishness, to follow the Teacher to the Cross.
Paul makes us aware there are factions in the church in Corinth. Apparently, people want to know, “WHO baptized you?”
Who baptized you is so less important than into what were you baptized? We are not baptized into the personality cult of our favorite teacher. No, we are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are baptized into foolishness. We believe one should walk to the Cross and, when you see the Cross, you should keep walking towards it. What foolishness.
It is always risky to write a letter, to put your thoughts down on paper. Now there is a paper trail. “Once you said this, now you say that.”
St Paul chooses to air our dirty laundry from the start. From the start, he confesses that we are fractured and fragmented. From the start, Paul makes an appeal, not to the greater ability of Paul or Cephas or Apollos, but to the “weaker” place of the Cross that held the broken and divided body of Jesus. The broken One had prayed we would be one. After praying for us, Jesus was broken.
Perhaps, that is the way forward for us now. Before we are visibly one, we must be broken. Before we completely express unity, we must first walk to the place that breaks us open. There, at that place, we reveal the divisions in our respective Christian bodies and in my own divided heart.
No wonder that it is more appealing to say I belong to Paul or Cephas or Apollos. I belong to Rome or Lambeth or Geneva.
Left to my own divided heart, I seek my tribe. Left to my own divided heart, I sport my team colors. Left to my own divided heart, I turn from the cross and seek to win the argument, using any means necessary.
I first heard a sermon preached from this Corinthians text when I was 21 years old. The preacher was a Church history professor, originally from Texas. That day he was preaching in Louisville, Kentucky.
It was unlike any sermon I had ever heard. He told us that the call of the Christ was a foolish one, that we were to be fools for Christ. To illustrate his point, he spoke of the Judy Collins song, Send in the Clowns. Can you quote Judy Collins in a sermon? Well, he did, and I was listening like I had never listened to a sermon before.
And he talked about growing up in Texas and going to the rodeo in Fort Worth. Are there rodeos in sermons? Did Jesus ever walk the streets of the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo? Well, in that sermon he did, and I was listening like I had never listened to a sermon before.
At the rodeo, when the preacher was a little boy, he saw the rodeo clowns. They were silly, they were foolish, they were clowns. Compared to the bull riders, they were the sideshow entertainment.
Until the rider fell from the bull.
Once the rider was on the ground, the clowns were no longer silly or foolish. They were brave and courageous behind measure. They were no longer the sideshow. They were the main event. Their task was to save the life of the rider, to do a very foolish thing.
Once the preacher finished that sermon, I realized then I had only begun to hear it.
I hear it still.
The only way Jesus invites us to walk is along a foolish path. The only gospel we have been given is the Cross, and the Christ crucified.
Maybe you belong to Paul. Maybe you belong to Cephas. Maybe you belong to Apollos. For much of my life, after hearing that sermon about foolishness and rodeos and clowns, I would have you told I belonged to that preacher, whose name is Bill.
But Paul and Cephas and Apollos and Bill and all our true teachers know that no one belongs to them. They do not point to themselves. They point to the one on the Cross, the fool on the hill.
As this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity comes to an end, it does so with us still divided. We feel that division most deeply in the Eucharist. It is a meal intended for feasting, yet we do not share in it equally. So, we continue to pray as we can for a time when we will all feast together.
The Eucharistic meal bears witness to our division. The Cross, however, holds a way forward for our unity.
If we do not yet share fully in the feast of the table, we can confess we already share completely in the fasting and suffering of the Cross. Even in our divisions, we are kindred fools of the Cross.
The noise and the chaos and the divisions of our world, and the broken Church in that world, all fall silent in the sight of the Cross.
From that place, from that stillness, we are already One. That oneness has been written on our mended hearts, with a sacred letter sent to us from across time.
From the edge, from Galilee, Jesus is passing by us again, calling us, calling all of us to follow. He is leading us to a future meal of Thanksgiving. But before we feast, we must walk towards the Cross which breaks and mends, which swallows up death and shame and the things that keep us apart, from God and each other.
In the Cross, we are already one.