1 Corinthians 1: 10-18; Matthew 4: 12-22
January 23, 2011
Paul knew that there was a problem. A huge problem. He knew it as he sat down to write his letter; a letter he dreaded writing because sometimes it is hard to tell the ones you love what it is they need to hear. He knew there was a problem the minute he walked out the door of the Corinthian church; a church he had partnered with in ministry for years. And despite the relationships and ties he had built with the people there as they served God together, Paul still knew there was a problem. And he knew he was going to have to do something about it.
Even as he crafted the opening lines of his letter – standard greeting and common courtesy kind of stuff – even as he did that, Paul’s mind was thinking ahead to how he would say it – the words he’d choose to convey his heart. Words of compassion and love, but strong words to let them know how horrified he was by what he had seen. A church, such a vibrant and strong church, literally being torn apart.
And it was sad, really sad. There was a special place in Paul’s heart for the Corinthian church. Corinth was a seaport town, constantly bustling with activity and commerce. A perfect place for a community of faith to flourish. And for years the church there had done just that. That is, until petty differences and squabbles began getting in the way. Simple disagreements became larger ones; the proverbial mole hill morphing into a mountain. And with the disagreements and discord came the inevitable: everyone had a side they were on; everyone busy determining who was “in” and who was “out.” And it was always the other guy who was wrong, of course; the other “side” that needed to be set right.
Paul had all of this rolling around in his head as he put pen to paper, or quill to parchment as it were, and began to write. He wasn’t going to try and ease into it – that just wasn’t his style. He was going to come right out and say what needed to be said. Listen again to his words, this time from The Message translation:
I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends.
I’ll put it as urgently as I can:
You must get along with each other!
You must learn to be considerate of one another,
cultivating a life in common.
I’ll tell you exactly what I saw:
You’re all picking sides, going around saying,
“I’m on Paul’s side” or “I’m for Apollos” or “Peter is my man.”
I ask you: has the messiah been chopped up into little pieces??
Paul was not a happy camper, obviously! Although the cynic among us might surmise that he really shouldn’t have been all that shocked – that human institutions, including churches, are bound to become divided no matter how noble the cause. By nature we are self-seeking beings. We want things to be the way we want them to be. We don’t always agree with each other, and we’re much more inclined to division than consensus.
Those cynics would have a point, of course. Perhaps Paul was a little naïve to assume that the Corinthian church would be above stuff like people squabbling and choosing sides. I remember a pastor friend of mine telling me about a church he once served and a long-standing conflict that had split the congregation right down the middle. When he first arrived as their pastor, he could feel the tension in the air, as palpable as a strong aroma. It permeated every aspect of the church’s life, from worship to fellowship to missions. And he made it his quest in his first year to dig deep into the church’s history and psyche to find out where it all began. He asked questions and investigated for a solid year. And how surprised he was to find that, in its very earliest forms, this church division began over a disagreement decades before about who was “qualified” to pass out Sunday morning worship bulletins!
Now just in case you’re wondering, in the Presbyterian Church at least, everyone is qualified to pass out bulletins. If only that church had realized this years before, maybe things would’ve been alright. If only they had made the conscious choice to keep from choosing sides, then perhaps the problems would’ve never happened.
If only the Corinthian church has realized this, too – that choosing sides can be dangerous business for the church. And so there Paul was, staring this division right in the face. And you’ve got to applaud Paul for how he handles it, don’t you think? Because while he speaks with “urgency,” he doesn’t beat them up over it. He doesn’t wag his finger in their general direction. He names the division. He describes it, he unpacks it – and in doing so takes away the power that comes with discord left lurking in the shadows. He even throws himself in the mix as an unwitting participant in the side-choosing, so this church knows that their behavior has affected not just them but those outside their fold – in fact, the larger church.
Paul does all of this in the span of a few short verses. And then he offers a radical alternative, a different way of thinking, with a single rhetorical question: “Has Christ been divided?” Or the way The Message puts it: “Has the Messiah been chopped up into little pieces??” And you can almost here a collective gasp rise from the Corinthian assembly when they heard this portion of the letter read. It’s a horrifying, frightening though. As it always is when people in the church start choosing sides.
There’s a scene I vividly remember from the movie Remember The Titans, the true story about Virginia’s T.C. Williams High School football team during desegregation in the early 70’s. It was the start of the fall season and things were in total disarray, and it had nothing to do with football. New coach Herman Boone, an African-American, had been placed in charge of the formerly all-white school’s football team at the height of desegregation. The seeds of racial fear and hatred were running deep, and everyone had chosen their side: black or white. Coach Boone realized he had more work on his hands than just X’s and O’s.
Their transforming moment came on a 3am morning jog during the team’s two-week training camp at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Winding through woods and back creeks as the sun rose, they wound up in front of a graveyard, gray tombstones poking through the morning fog. Hunched over and gasping for air, the players were wondering why their coach had brought them out here. Looking back over his shoulder at them, Coach Boone told them this:
This, men, is where they fought the battle of Gettysburg. Fifty thousand men died right here on this field, fighting the same fight that we are still fighting among ourselves today. Listen to their souls say: Hatred destroyed my family. You listen, men, and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don't come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just as they were.
If you’ve seen this movie before – and I don’t feel like I’m giving anything away since it’s based on actual events! – but if you’ve seen this movie you know that this becomes a turning point of sorts; the beginning of a transformation for the football team. Those players began to see more in the other person than just the color of their skin or what part of town they’re from. They learned to depend on each other, be it the blocker leading the way or the line holding off the D or the kicker making a field goal. And it didn’t matter if they were black or white. The only side that mattered was the team. And rather than fall prey to the forces within and especially outside that were trying to tear them apart, the football team stayed together – all the way through an undefeated season, all the way to the state championship. When it would’ve been so easy to crumble into a million pieces and start choosing sides all over again, the T.C. Williams football team chose the only side that mattered.
All of which begs the question: what side matters for us in the church? When divisiveness threatens to tear the people of God apart, what is it that keeps us together? What message did Paul so want to communicate to the Corinthian church?
Could it be that the answer is found some twenty years earlier, found by the seashore on an early sunny morning? Two men are standing in the surf at dawn, busy doing what they do every day – casting their nets into the surf. It is tireless work, being fishermen. It is thankless, but it is all that they know and they do it the best that they can.
A man approaches from the distance. He is dressed like them, but his hands do not show the wear and tear of the fishing trade. He watches them for a minute or two, not saying a word. He seems to take simple pleasure in the rhythm and flow of their actions, casting the nests and drawing them back in. But it’s almost as if he’s looking at more than just how they fish along the Sea of Galilee.
The stranger then opens his mouth to speak, and what he says is both simple and profound: Come with me, and I will help you fish for people. And later that day, he would say the same to two others further down the beach. And in both instances, Peter, Andrew, James and John dropped their nets and went with Jesus. “Immediately,” we are told. There was no discussion, no indecisiveness, no question: they followed Jesus away from the seashore and into the new life to which they were called.
Amazing, isn’t it, that they did that? But you know what’s even more amazing? It wasn’t that the fisherman followed Jesus. It was that tax collectors and doctors did, too. Farmers and carpenters and other tradesmen. Men and women; Jews and Romans. All kinds of people, from all kinds of sides, followed Jesus.
You know, Jesus did many wonderful works over the course of three years. But perhaps the greatest miracle Jesus ever performed didn’t have a thing to do with turning water into wine or raising a man from the dead or making a blind man see. Perhaps Jesus’ greatest miracle was in bringing together such a wide diversity of folks, all with different personalities and agendas and ideologies. It couldn’t have been easy. I’m sure the tax collector and fisherman got into it a time or two. I imagine the Jewish zealot didn’t always see eye-to-eye with the Roman centurion he was sharing space with.
But at the end of the day, what separated those who chose to follow Jesus couldn’t hold a candle to what brought them together – Jesus himself. And therein lies the lesson for that Corinthian church, and the lesson for us, and for all who make a habit of choosing sides from time to time – the only side that matters is Jesus. As long as we live our lives in the way he would have us live it – honoring and serving others, resisting hate and fear, listening to and loving everyone – as long as we do that, we can withstand anything that might divide us.
I think it was the pastor of that church divided over Sunday bulletin passer-outers who, in a heartfelt sermon one Sunday as he was trying to bring them all together, quoted the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann: The nearer we come to Christ, he said, the nearer we come together. Let it never be said that this church, or any church, chooses sides over choosing Jesus. Let it always be said that our focus is on the things that bind us together, rather than the things that pull us apart. For as long as we do that, we won’t have to worry about whether we’re on the right side or not. We’ll already be there. Along with everyone else. Thanks be to God. AMEN.