Today’s Sermon. Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, (Epiphany 3, Year A)
The couple of us here that are older than thirty, do you remember where you were and what you were doing in 1989 when you heard the news of the Berlin wall coming down? I remember listening to my radio late into the night as news reporters standing by the wall described the events as they unfolded, the emotion, the sheer joy that was all around. As sledgehammers were taken to the wall and big chunks of the graffiti-clad concrete crumbled, interviews were taking place with people who were so excited and overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with family and friends from whom they had been separated for decades. There was a time when the collapse of Communism in Europe seemed an impossibility; the ‘Cold War’ seemed as if it would go on for ever and yet, the impossible happened…
Look at the church today. There are more divisions than we could number, divisions between East and West, between North and South, divisions that are new and many that are old, and every single one is because of human greed and power struggles and that rather unfashionable word, sin.
People are the same today as they always were, that is why we can look at the church in Corinth in AD 55 and learn from their mistakes, because exactly the same mistakes are being made today. The church in Corinth resembled the society in which she lived. Corinth was a divided city: there were rich and poor, slave and free, educated and uneducated, Jew and Gentile. The church should have been different, a place where every one of these different groups could come together, with Christ as the common ground between them, but this was not the case. The Christians had taken their eyes off Christ and had instead become obsessed with the differences that there were between them.
So in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. (10)
He appeals to them, he pleads with them, he calls them his brothers and sisters in Christ. They are all part of the same family – for heaven’s sake!
Division is a tragedy. At the time I was writing this sermon I was also following on the news the unravelling of our government. In some ways, watching and listening to all the infighting and power struggles has been so ridiculous it has been almost funny, like a pantomime – perhaps it would be more funny if it were not so serious, these are the people we have elected! Yet it is not only our politicians who are sometimes a laughing stock, how many times has the church been in the spotlight of the cold eye of ridicule “look at those Christians fighting with each other, I thought they were supposed to be full of love!” Because of the kind of world we live in we can be absolutely sure that news will travel far and fast when we fall out with each other, the world loves to make fun of Christians and yet time after time it is our own fault that we are seen as weak hypocrites. It was the same in Corinth. Paul was in Ephesus, hundreds of kilometres away across the Aegean Sea and yet long before the days of Telephones, T.V. or Twitter, news got to him about what was happening in Corinth. Look at verse 11:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.
Bad news travels fast. The Apostle Paul had spent eighteen months in Corinth, but since he had left the church had split up into various groups. One group were loyal to Paul, another group were followers of a preacher called Apollos, another group were followers of Cephas (the Apostle Peter) and another group thought they were superior to the rest saying that they followed Christ. Paul goes on to tell them how completely absurd and foolish this is:
Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (13)
Christ died so that all who believe in Him might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). There is only one Christ, not one Christ for Protestants and another Christ for Roman Catholics, not one Christ for Eastern Orthodox and another for Pentecostals, not one Christ for the Church of Ireland and another for every Community Church, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker and Mennonite! There is only one Christ, so the logical conclusion is this: there is only one church. That’s right, there is only one church. Every Christian in Corinth, despite their differences had one thing in common. Every Christian today, despite our differences, has one thing (or rather One Person) in common. Christ. How can division be allowed to remain when we all belong to the same Christ? How can we have doctrine and theology, laws, articles and canons that divide God’s people up, putting the sheep in different pens? Not only is it crazy, it is sinful and how God must hate and detest the barriers that we have put up. We have lost sight of Christ and we have focused on our differences and that is the reason why so much of the church today is dead or dying. What did Jesus say?
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…” (John 15:5,6, NIV)
In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Christians all around the world “become aware of the great diversity of ways of adoring God. Hearts are touched, and people realize that their neighbours’ ways are not so strange.” When we take our eyes off those things that divide us and together focus on Christ, it is something very profound, special and exciting. I hope that as time goes on we will be able to do more and more together with our brothers and sisters in Christ that worship elsewhere within this Parish and that in time the differences between us will diminish to the point that we can no longer remember what they were! When we look back a generation or two and see how far we have come, there is much to give us hope for the future.
At first glance it seems a bit strange that verse 18 is tacked onto the end of today’s reading because it clearly belongs to the next section. But with church Unity in mind, it is the perfect verse to end with. Here’s what it says:
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.
As far as the Apostle Paul is concerned, there is only one dividing line between people, the cross of Christ. Many of us like to sit on the fence about different things; about politics, about religion or sport. But there is no sitting on the fence when it comes to the cross of Christ, either we are with Christ or we are against Him (Mark 9:40). The Corinthians were supposed to be in agreement about the cross, and if they were then all the other human-made differences would have melted away. The same is true of the church today, the cross should be the only dividing line between those who put their faith and trust in Christ and those who do not.
Being much concerned about the rise of denominations in the church, John Wesley told of a dream he had. In the dream, he was ushered to the gates of Hell. There he asked, “Are there any Presbyterians here?” “Yes!” came the answer. Then he asked, “Are there any Baptists? Any Anglicans? Any Methodists?” The answer was Yes! each time. Much distressed, Wesley was then ushered to the gates of Heaven. There he asked the same question, and the answer was No! “No?” To this, Wesley asked, “Who then is inside?” The answer came back, “There are only Christians here.”
Wouldn’t it be great if one day someone would say to us, “Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the walls of division within the church came down, the day when we finally realised that we were one in Christ?” One day it will happen … Amen.
 Roger Ellsworth, ‘The message of 1 Corinthians’, Evangelical Press, 1995, p.22