Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Christian Unity

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fifth Sunday of Easter (April 24, 2016)
Acts 18:1-4 / 1 Cor. 1:10-18 – “Christian Unity”

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus. He had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul visited with them. Because they practiced the same trade, he stayed and worked with them. They all worked with leather. Every Sabbath he interacted with people in the synagogue, trying to convince both Jews and Greeks.

Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name? Thank God that I didn’t baptize any of you, except Crispus and Gaius, so that nobody can say that you were baptized in my name! Oh, I baptized the house of Stephanas too. Otherwise, I don’t know if I baptized anyone else. Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news. And Christ didn’t send me to preach the good news with clever words so that Christ’s cross won’t be emptied of its meaning. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those who are being saved.

The Corinthian factions clearly gave Paul a headache. And who could blame him? Paul spent years sailing all over the Mediterranean, preaching the gospel, establishing these communities, and spending significant chunks of time in each one. He would send letters periodically to check in and “tighten the screws,” so to speak. Corinth was special to him, being the cosmopolitan town that it was, and the church was an interesting mix of classes and religions.

But then… they started splitting into factions. Rival preachers were coming to the church saying, “Paul had it wrong. This is what Jesus really meant.” Folks were getting territorial and lining up into camps. You can almost hear them now: “I’m with Paul!” “I’m with Peter!” “I’m with Apollos!” And then there were those people who fell into none of those groups, saying piously, “I’m with Christ. Forget these others; I know what the man himself would have wanted!” All this ankle-biting has Paul fuming, to the point that he writes, “Thank heavens I only baptized a couple of you because, if I had baptized more, you would be parading around in ‘I’m with Paul’ t-shirts!”

The Corinthian factions clearly gave Paul a headache. Which makes me wonder, what would Paul be thinking now? On a wider scale, what would he do with the seemingly infinite number of denominations of Christianity worldwide? Or how would he respond to all the different theologies, polities, worship styles, even within denominations?

And, on a smaller scale, there’s the average congregation with factions of its own over a multitude of local issues… I think Paul would have little patience for conflict over substantive issues, let alone those run-of-the-mill arguments. You know the ones: “I’m with the blue carpet people!” “I’m with the grey carpet people!”

Looking at the big picture, a certain amount of diversity is understandable. The Jesus story is an ancient story from world’s away that we’re all trying to live out in our local contexts as best we can. It’s filtered through our own histories and traditions, so it was bound to get complicated from the get-go. Take Corinth, for instance. Who wouldn’t want to claim allegiance to Paul? He founded the community in the first place! Or Cephas (another named for Peter, the Apostle) he walked and talked with Jesus, followed him around for three years, and even betrayed him and was forgiven. He probably has a reliable angle on the gospel! And Apollos was highly educated, you see. He spent time at Alexandria in Egypt with Philo’s people and was likely very eloquent.

But while there are substantial differences in doctrine and practice and everything in between, sometimes our divisions are downright silly.

Do you remember the television show, “Cheers”? It was a sitcom in the 80s and 90s that took place in a pub in Boston. One of my favorite characters on the show was Woody Boyd, portrayed by Woody Harrelson. Do you remember Woody? Well, there was this one episode that stands out in my mind. Woody ambles back into the bar, even though he is supposed to be on his honeymoon with his new wife, Kelly. The other patrons, astonished, ask him what happened to cause such a split. And he replies, “Kelly and I found out we are from different religions.”

Frasier is confused, so he remarks, “But Woody, I thought you were both Lutherans.”

And Woody says, “That’s what I thought, but it turns out she’s Lutheran Church in America and I’m Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. What if we had children? We’d have half-breeds!”

So Frasier, a psychiatrist, recommends couple’s counseling. Woody replies, “That’s nice, Dr. Frasier, I’ll ask Kelly… if she’s not too busy begging at airports or whatever it is those people do.”

I imagine our divisions look kind of petty to people inside and outside the church, “big C Church.”

Now, on the flip side, there are disadvantages to uniformity. Usually that entails the voice of a minority party being silenced by a majority. And something essential might be diluted if we all were the same. On our best days, we are all reflections of a mysterious, infinite God, and we are a more robust Church for our different traditions. Progressive churches have something to teach other churches about justice, how social transformation is a genuine expression of the gospel.

Those of us in the progressive, mainline camp can learn a thing or two from Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, for instance, about reverence. Evangelicals can teach us about loving Scripture and the personal, individual dimension of faith. Pentecostals have an interesting angle on prayer and vibrant worship.

But Biblically, it seems, the push is for unity, which goes deeper than uniformity. Paul asks the rhetorical question here in Corinthians: “Has Christ been divided?” Later he goes on to compare the church to the Body of Christ–which was a genius move–”one body, many parts… the hand cannot say to the foot, ‘I don’t need you.’” Maybe what has him so riled up isn’t the difference in opinion as much as it is the vilification of the rival factions? He appeals to the cross, after all, that paradoxical symbol of ultimate reconciliation.

Whether or not our divisions are legitimate and our differences genuine, which many of them are, on some level they compromise our witness and service. And maybe if our differences don’t do so, it’s the way that Christians of different stripes speak of and relate to one another. As people say, “you’re hardest on your family, those closest to you.”

But, as the refrain goes in our next hymn, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Unified congregations, congregations that can handle conflict in healthy ways have a role to play in this day and age. Christians who can work together, despite their difference, can be a peacemaking presence in a polarized society.

In an op-ed in the New York Times on April 9 entitled “Bipartisanship Isn’t for Wimps, After All,” Arthur Brooks points out how affiliation with political parties increasingly marks our identities and cultural stances. Bitterness is on the rise. Democrats and Republicans don’t just disagree with one another, but share open, unlimited contempt. Corporations make money off of this; Brooks calls is the “Polarization Industrial Complex.” He claims “Not surprisingly, polarization in the House and Senate is at its highest since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s.” We can’t get anything done in this country because contempt “leads to permanent enmity.”

Poverty, immigration, climate change, social security, education, all of those big issues require “two keys, one traditionally held by each side.” Stumped by how polarization obstructs collaboration, Brooks went to the Dalai Lama for help:

“The solution starts not with institutions, but with individuals. We look too much to political parties or Congress to make progress, but not nearly enough at our own behavior. You can’t single-handedly change the country, but you can change yourself. By declaring your independence from the bitterness washing over our nation, you can strike a small blow for greater national unity.

Second, each of us must aspire to what the Dalai Lama calls “warm heartedness” toward those with whom we disagree. This might sound squishy, but it is actually tough and practical advice. [The Dalai Lama said, ‘I defeat my enemies when I make them my friends.’] He is not advocating surrender to the views of those with whom we disagree. Liberals should be liberals and conservatives should be conservatives. But our duty is to be respectful, fair and friendly to all, even those with whom we have great differences.”

There will always be differences of opinion in the body of Christ and in the world at large. There will always be conflict within congregational life. As someone said in the early service, the only church without conflict is a church of one. The real battle is now we handle it.

As a pastor in this presbytery, I have been blessed to be a part of the Macedonian Ministries cohort, which is a group of pastors and other teaching elders. They were having their first retreat right after we arrived last year, and I was driving down to the retreat with Steve Melde, who is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian. I finally asked him, “Steve, am I walking into this room with a bull’s eye on my back?” Because, where I was coming from, a church this progressive would have caught a lot of heat. That’s what I expected. I walked into this experience with my guard up.

But over the last year that has not been the case at all! The camaraderie and supportiveness of this group is a miracle in the Presbyterian Church these days. It’s been difficult at times, but I cannot tell you the value this group has had for me and enhanced my ministry. It’s funny because these pastors on the spectrum of liberal to conservative, theologically, and I’ve found myself befriending some of the more conservative pastors because of what we have in common.

Jim Toole, who is the senior pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church up on the north side of town, pastor of a megachurch that is way more conservative than most St. Mark’s folks are, is one of those pastors. He was introducing me to a friend at one point and said, “You know, Bart didn’t fit into my categories when I first met him.”

And I said, “Jim, I bet you were surprised to learn that I actually love Jesus!”

And he replied, “Bart, I bet you were surprised to learn that I actually love people!”

Imagine what we could accomplish, together.

I belong to Christ. You belong to Christ. We all belong to Christ. Let’s start with that and see what happens.

May it be so…