Sermon for January 26, 2020
A memory that has stuck with me all these years involved teaching Sunday School at the church I served in Alberta, Canada. A new family had moved to town, a single mother with two children, a boy ten years old and his sister a few years older. The boy was in my Sunday School class. It became apparent that he was not well liked. None of the other boys in the class wanted anything to do with him. He was faithful in coming to Sunday School and I did not want him discouraged; I wanted to find a way for the others in the class to connect with him, to give him a chance and get to know him. Over time I found out that no one in the family had been baptized, mother and children. Mom agreed to be baptized along with her two kids, and the kids were quite excited. The Sunday of their baptism came, and afterward, in Sunday School, I told the class about their classmate’s baptism. This meant they were brothers and sisters in the family of God. I do not remember the name of the boy baptized but for some reason I recall the name of his chief antagonist. His name was Sean. I don’t think Sean was too thrilled by being in Sunday School to begin with, but then being told he was a brother in Christ with someone he did not like was just too much. Next Sunday Sean had an announcement to make. He had proof that he was not a “brother in Christ” with his unpopular classmate. It was interesting that he must have been thinking about this during the week until he came up with what he thought was a loophole. He apparently had talked to his parents about baptism and discovered that he had been baptized in another congregation: The Anglican Church of Canada. You probably know where this was going. With confidence he announced that he was baptized “Anglican”, and his classmate was baptized “Lutheran”, therefore they were not brothers in Christ. The regular lesson was shelved for that Sunday as we took the time to talk more about baptism. You still hear such talk today with folks saying “I was baptized Catholic, I was baptized Methodist, I was baptized Lutheran.” Such talk does reveal the existence of divisions among the church of Jesus Christ. But denominational names are not the main thing. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We receive the mark of the cross signifying the power of Christ’s redemption and our calling to live a cross-shaped life, to have the mind of Jesus Christ.
Our New Testament reading today was written by the apostle Paul, a letter to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. He began his letter with the customary thanksgiving for the grace of God evident among the congregation. The gospel had been preached and they were enriched by the good news of Jesus. And the Holy Spirit was active among the members so they were not lacking in any spiritual gift. It sounds like everything was just fine. But then Paul made a strong appeal, almost a command, that “By the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and there be no divisions among you.” Paul’s letters were written in Greek, and the word ‘division’ is where we get our English word “schism”, a word that literally meant to tear apart. It was a strong plea for the congregation not to be torn asunder, to fall apart. Then Paul told them what worried him: he heard reports of quarrels among the people of the congregation. This was not a matter of friendly disagreements for the word meant “heated discussion”, turning the redeemed into rivals.
When there are rivalries people tend to retreat into their favorite corner and so Paul heard this report, “each of you says, “I belong to Paul”; or “I belong to Apollos; or I belong to Cephas, or I belong to Christ.” Everyone knew Paul, but others preferred Apollos, another evangelist with strong ties to the Corinthian church know for his wisdom and eloquence, others preferred Cephas or Peter an acknowledged leader in the church and a disciple who knew Jesus firsthand. Then there were those who felt they were above “who is your favorite evangelist” by saying ‘we belong to Christ.’ Today we hear people say “I am Lutheran, I am Catholic, I am Baptist’ which is fine unless such statements have an underlying meaning of superiority thinking ‘I have no need of you.’ Such quarreling will keep Paul’s pen or dictation busy with damage control in the congregation.
Paul responded with rhetorical questions: “Has Christ been divided?’, no. Was Paul crucified for you? No. Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? No. It would have been ridiculous to answer yes to any of Paul’s questions. But when there is strife and division in the congregation the unity we have in Jesus Christ is forgotten. In his letter to the Romans Paul said “Welcome one another, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions….then he went on add further meaning to Christian welcome, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Just think of the welcome of Jesus: if you are tired by life’s burdens Jesus said “Come to me and I will give you rest as your learn the power and gift of prayer, of casting all your anxiety upon Jesus for he has compassion for you. Just think of the welcome of Jesus: in the gospel of John Jesus said his cross will draw us to him, not for guilt trip or condemnation but for salvation, eternal life, or a permanent relationship of welcome and love from him. Just think of the welcome of Jesus at the time of death: Paul wrote eloquently that nothing, not even death can separate us from him, and that whether we live or whether we die, we belong to Jesus. Just think of the welcome of Jesus: like Andrew and Peter, James and John, Jesus calls us to follow him. We have our ministry from him which calls us to understand one another as brothers and sisters Jesus died, and rose again to save by grace. A church in Florida was having a meeting. The people were talking about the diversity in their congregation. The congregation was made up of Haitians, Latinos, Caucasians, and African Americans. As the meeting continued one of the group became agitated until she banged her fist on the table. That quieted everyone down so she could explain what made her angry. She said “We are not a social experiment! We are a church; we are the Body of Christ. We are all God’s children.”
We know congregations can have their quarrels. No one can be expected to agree on the burning topics important for churches. Everyone should be heard and disagreements can help bring clarity and insight. The danger is resentment overshadows reconciliation, or power struggles push aside the peace of Christ. The apostle Paul reminded us that Christ is not divided, and so he wrote in today’s text “Be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Disagreements and hurt feelings are common because we are human and we are not always sensitive or patient with each other. It is spiritual healing to remember your baptism daily. You are beloved beyond measure, and are part of a beloved community. Yes, the church is not a social experiment, or an exclusive club, or only a denominational entity. We are the Body of Christ. Christ is the Head of the Body. There is diversity yet our unity is from Jesus whose love motivates our mission in this world of need, and we are gifted by the Holy Spirit for the common benefit of all. Our purpose in Christ, to have the mind of Christ, is to bring his love into the community, to be blessings for others.
Paul told the Corinthian Christians that he was not really sent to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent, admirable, wisdom, so that the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. Martin Luther King wrote that the cross is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.”
Today the church remembers three of Paul’s co-workers, Timothy, Silas, and Titus. They are not as well-known as Paul the apostle of course, but they remind us a person’s name, age, status is not what counts, but the name of Jesus Christ. We are called with the same calling: united with the same mind—that is the mind of Christ, and the same purpose, that is the ministry of Christ. I liked what one commentator pointed out that not only are we to proclaim the gospel but to “gospel”, that is through our actions we can show others we are carrying the cross of Jesus compassion for others. Baptized into Christ Jesus, we are blessed with his name and marked with is cross, steadfast love forever. Let us go out and “gospel”, let us not be quick to quarrel, but to embody the love of Jesus.