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Is Christ Divided? 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones
01/23/11

Psalm 27
1 Corinthians 1:10-18

You will recall that we began last Sunday a focus on the early chapters of 1 Corinthians where Paul writes a letter from Ephesus to a church he founded in 50 A.D. The church was small, no larger likely than two hundred members, meeting in three or four house churches, when he writes this letter somewhere around 53 or 54 A.D. Paul begins where we all should begin with the Church, that is, by giving thanks to God for it, because the Church is founded solely upon the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, who calls us together to be saints. Remember the point of this word? "Saint" is never once used by Paul in the singular in Corinthians. It always appears in the plural. It is only in our togetherness in Christ that we are "called to be saints."

And that is the principle problem that gives rise to the whole Corinthians letter. Paul states his thesis for the entire letter in 1 Corinthians 1:10: "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." Paul's appeal to the Corinthian Church is that there be such unity among them in what they stand for that they allow nothing smaller to divide them. Paul is deeply distressed over quarreling among them, as he has heard "from Chloe's people." Chloe may be from Corinth, or she may be from Ephesus, but her people travel between these two vital cities, and carry with them news of the church in Corinth.

We do not know the exact issues for their quarreling, and maybe that is a good thing. Issues that threaten to divide the Church are always present, as is the tendency to let our differences become sources of conflict that lead to division. I think Paul understands that the Church will always be diverse and have differences that distinguish her members. Remember what he says in 1 Corinthians 12? "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord…." Paul is not arguing against diversity in this passage. He knows that diversity is God's idea and finally a great blessing to the Church. The Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, a towering intellectual who thinks about the world morally, has written a powerful book on this called, The Dignity of Difference. Paul affirms elsewhere the God-given dignity of difference.

What distresses Paul is the report of divisions among this small, young struggling church. The Greek word for division is "schismata" – we get the word schism from it, and like the word "exclusive" to Carl Sandberg, "schism" is always an ugly word. For schisms tear apart what God intends to remain whole and united. Divisions in the Church always represent human sin, human pride, human arrogance and human failure, and Paul is overcome with distress at the thought of it in Corinth.

Divisions occur when we forget to whom we belong. Paul has heard what these quarreling Corinthians have been saying. "I belong to Paul." "I belong to Apollos." "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Paul is apparently grieved that there would be a party in the Church bearing his name. That is not why he came to Corinth to proclaim the Gospel and give birth to a church. When there is quarreling and division in the Church, people are always behind it. It is clear here though that Paul does not want to be a part of it at all.

Note that here and elsewhere Paul says nothing to denigrate Apollos or Cephas, to whom others say they belong. And in this conflict-ridden church, the claim, "I belong to Christ," sounds like what Paul wants all of us to be saying. But perhaps this is being said in a boastful or exclusivistic way: "I really belong to Christ," (unlike the rest of you!). You can say all the right things in the wrong way, as most of us have done on some occasion, especially in our closest relationships.

The truth is, we do not know specifics about these parties or groups. What we do know is that folks in the church were dividing up into camps, and Paul is devastated by this news. So he asks three very sarcastic, very biting rhetorical questions. "Has Christ been divided?" "Was Paul crucified for you?" "Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" The answer to each is obviously, "No." Christ is one, and can never be divided and parceled out. And only Christ has been crucified for you. And all of us who have been baptized have been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and that is meant to make us one, not "a house divided against itself." In one of the greatest speeches ever given in American political life, Lincoln borrowed this phrase from the Bible to warn that "a house divided against itself cannot stand."

Jesus died for all, so that we might be one with God and one with each other. And in baptism, God claims us all as His sons and daughters in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Baptism literally welcomes us into the household or family of God. Paul addresses his appeal to the Corinthians and calls them "brothers and sisters." Thirty-eight times in 1 Corinthians he will use this same Greek word "adelphoi" – translated "brethren" or "brothers and sisters" – which is the language of family. That is the power of the cross for Paul – it makes us family. It creates a deep belonging to one another. And it makes our basis for unity stronger than anything smaller that would divide us.

This whole passage raises a powerful question for all of us: How do you live with differences? Do you allow diversity and difference to divide, or do you seek to find common ground that makes a deeper unity and oneness possible? This is a very important matter in life for us all. Intolerance and a lack of respect for others who are different can be very destructive, wherever you are in life. To be afraid of or threatened by difference is never good.

But in the Church of Jesus Christ, such divisions and prejudices are inexcusable. Paul said that he was not sent to baptize, but to proclaim the Gospel, "and not with eloquent wisdom," or literally with "wordy wisdom." Paul was probably not as eloquent or as polished a speaker as those who were contributing to factionalization and splits within the Church. But Paul proclaimed the Gospel, "so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power."

This is Paul's appeal to the Church in Corinth. It is my appeal to you in Nashville. Let us start with the cross of Christ. The community life before God depends entirely upon Jesus' death on the cross. The Church is saved and sustained only by Jesus. And why did Jesus die on the cross? Jesus died to make us one with God and one with each other. Jesus died to reconcile the world to Himself. Jesus died to show us the extent of God's love for the whole world. Jesus died to show us how to live, how to love each other as He loved us. And when we live in that love, the cross speaks with power and a "peace that passes all understanding." When we fail to, when we permit anything else or anything less to keep us from our oneness in Jesus, we empty the cross of its power.

Jesus' cross is our one great ground for unity. And the cross of Christ has the power to hold the whole world together. The modern poet, W. B. Yeats, voices our greatest fear: "Things fall apart, the center cannot hold." Don't you get gripped by this fear sometimes when you see this world being torn apart by violence, selfishness and greed? We fear that nothing can keep this world from falling apart, or being torn to pieces.

The Gospel makes a very different claim. There is a Center that is strong enough, deep enough, true enough, loving enough to hold us all together, to make us one. It is Jesus Christ and His cross of sacrificial, suffering love. Paul said of Jesus in Colossians, "In Him all things hold together." This is the Gospel truth!

AMEN.

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