This isn’t a sermon about the 45th President.
OK, I’ll stop.
After this one.
I am blessed by the friendship and scholarship of Daniel Kirk, and (this week) his post on “Working Preacher.” I also got inspiration and direction from Dwight Peterson, Scott Hoezee, the always-awesome Bruce Epperly, Kathryn Matthews, and Andrew Marr. Thanks also to Derrick Weston, who read it over for me.
I’ll preface the sermon (on this blog) with the words of Pastor Ashley Harness, who blessed the Minnesota Women’s March with these words:
(Matthew 5:1-11, adapted):
Blessed are those who protest.
Blessed are the women, cis- and transgender.
Blessed are the poor and those who work too many jobs to make ends meet and those who cannot find a job.
Blessed are the refugees and immigrants, no matter their legal status.
Blessed are the uninsured and those who fear they will lose their insurance.
Blessed are those with preexisting conditions.
Blessed are those who weep and mourn.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are those who have survived sexual violence and abuse.
Blessed are those who speak their truth.
Blessed are those who seek our collective liberation.
Blessed are those who cry, “Black Lives Matter.”
Blessed are the indigenous and blessed are their sovereign, sacred lands.
Blessed is the Earth under the siege of climate change.
Blessed are those who are differently abled.
Blessed are the sacred choices of women about their bodies.
Blessed are the babies and children.
Blessed are the aging and elders.
Blessed are those who are LGBTQ.
Blessed are those who are the Muslim and threatened with a registry.
Blessed are those who are Jewish and threatened with bombs.
Blessed are all those who are persecuted.
Blessed are those who stand in solidarity.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Blessed are we, the people, who inaugurate our resistance this morning.
(Adapted also from Rev. Emily Scott)
(Featured Image courtesy of Kim Kelley, featuring Rev. Lavender Kelley)
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 be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you 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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb? It depends on who you ask: Charismatics? Just one; their hands are already in the air. Pentecostals? Ten; one to change the light bulb, and ten to pray against the spirit of darkness. Catholic? None; they only use candles. Baptist? At least fifteen; One to change the bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the fried chicken and potato salad. Episcopalian? Three; one to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old light bulb was. Amish? …what’s a light bulb?
Christians don’t agree on much, it’s true. There are, as far as I can tell, something over thirty thousand different denominations among Protestants, and more if you include Catholic and Orthodox divisions. We Christians are divided over doctrine, baptism, what the Lord’s Supper means, music, worship styles, Christology, Mariology, Trinitarian theology, role of clergy, marriage, gender roles, and I could go on into infinity. These divisions weaken our effectiveness and make us look utterly ridiculous, at times, to those outside the Christian faith.
But what, exactly, does it mean to be “in agreement,” to have “no divisions,” to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose?” Where’s the bar set — absolute lockstep, where the only way to be acceptably Christian is to entertain no thought that isn’t pre-approved by the General Assembly of the PC(USA)? Should we only have friends and recognize those family members who agree with our beliefs and practices? Should we build walls around ourselves to maintain our theological and ideological purity?
I want to suggest this morning that, as difficult as that kind of rigidity would be to establish and maintain (and there are, historically, individuals, churches, and entire denominations who have aspired to do just that), that this kind of apartheid is the easy way out. Whether it’s encoded in our DNA, or a product of societal training, or the result of a lifetime of commercial conditioning, we humans seek homogeneity: we are most comfortable among people who look like us, think like us, act like us.
And Christ calls us to more.
What Paul is combating in this letter to the church at Corinth is the same thing that has, for millenia, infected the Christian church: a party spirit. Some Corinthians were flocking to Apollos’ smooth rhetoric, which lived up to the day’s worldly display of wisdom. Others embraced Cephas’ Jewish theology that seemed to have a stronger biblical pedigree than what Paul had to offer. Still others laid claim to an exclusive grasp of their own history, roots, and founder in the Apostle Paul. And then there were some who either claimed to be above it all or declared that they alone held to the true Gospel of Christ.
In short, it was a mess.
And what Paul is saying here, very clearly and specifically, is that it’s all garbage. Christ calls us to more.
I think it’s significant that, in pointing out the divisions — “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.” — Paul doesn’t talk about what the specific issues were. We know, from elsewhere in the Scriptures, that Paul and Cephas, or Peter, had some deep disagreements, but he doesn’t take time to point them out here.
In fact, while it sounds like Paul rambles a bit, trying to recall everyone he, personally, baptized, the fact that he has trouble listing them all is in itself significant: who does the sprinkling or pouring or immersion is irrelevant, that isn’t what makes a person a Christian.
Our baptism should unite us; instead what’s happened in Corinth is what has all too often what’s happened among Christianity as a whole across the centuries: we’ve allowed mimetic rivalry to take hold — we have become mirror images against one another over things like what it means when we are baptized or come to the Lord’s Table, and we’ve allowed ourselves to embrace rivalry for the sake of rivalry.
This holds true even for churches that don’t claim a denomination: this church or that church has a better preacher or praise team or better music or more comfortable seating or anyone who’s anyone goes here or goes there.
And Paul is saying to the Corinthian church, and to us, that Christ calls us to more. Christ calls us to unity.
Which brings me right back to my original question: what is “unity?”
Let’s begin by exploring what “unity” is not — unity is not “uniformity.” We are absolutely free to disagree — on politics, on which football team is superior, on what TV shows we like, on what kind of ice cream is best, on whether or not cheese or sugar belongs in grits, on what we like in our coffee or whether we even like coffee, on hairstyles and fashion choices and music and whether or not we like to sleep with a fan on, and the list goes on and on and on and on.
I’ll go even farther. We can disagree on how wet we should get and how old we should be when we get baptized. We can disagree on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper — transubstantiation or consubstantiation or virtualism or ordinalism. We can like organ music or piano music or guitar music or acapella or praise bands in worship. We can like high church or low church, we can like to dance in the aisles or not, we can like our preachers to shout or not, we can ascribe to whatever theory of atonement speaks to us most clearly, and we can and I think we should argue about these things often and loudly and passionately.
I have a very few friends with whom I can disagree at length, and can safely, contentiously and passionately wrestle over issues of politics and theology. When we allow iron to sharpen iron, we open ourselves up to the joy of clarifying our thinking and the danger of changing or maturing our beliefs.
We all have something to bring to the table! There’s the deep dedication to the plight of the oppressed that Liberation Theology teaches. There’s the pomp and mystery of the Catholic Church. There’s the unbridled passion of the Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, and like I said before, the list goes on and on and on.
Paul tells us in our reading this morning that these things should not separate us, because what unites us is so much greater: the Cross!
We cannot overemphasize just how ridiculous the Cross appeared to most people in the first century. There were thousands and thousands of gods spread among the cultures of the Roman empire, to say nothing of the barbarians that populated the unconquered lands. And of all these major and minor deities, not one — not one! — had been killed by the government! Not a single one had done something so shameful and repugnant as allow himself to hang, nailed, naked and bleeding, on a Roman device of torture and execution! Who in their right mind would believe such a thing, never mind the whole ridiculous claim that this god had risen from the dead?
And yet those who had heard the message, and who had responded to the invitation to be reconciled to their loving Creator, knew the power of that Cross, knew the joy of new life, knew the audacity of hope.
Is it any more ridiculous today, when the voices of the powerful seek to divide us ever further, to resolve to look past differences of race and age and gender and politics and orientation and nationality, to resolve to stand shoulder to shoulder and speak truth to that power, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and to do all of those things which Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 25 and verses 31 through 46, to be precise, told us mattered if we are to call ourselves sheep and not goats?
More and more, what will set us apart as people of faith in Jesus Christ is not whether we are Presbyterian or Baptist or Catholic or Anglican, whether we are Reformed or Orthodox or Pentecostal. Those things did not matter one whit to Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians, and they must not matter one whit today. Rather, the primary importance must be this: What we do about what we believe? Do we respond to the doomsayers and nationalists by circling the wagons, drawing into ourselves for protection?
Or do we do the foolish, audacious, and powerful thing? Throw our doors and our hearts open wide, tear down the fences around our tables and our lives, and love boldly and without reservation?
For me, the answer is difficult, uncomfortable, frightening, foolish and powerful. Because, yes, Christ calls us to unity. Christ calls us to embrace this powerful foolishness. Christ calls us to more.