Third Sunday after Epiphany

Most of us who have been around churches for any amount of time know that Christians can get on one another’s nerves.

January 27, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Most of us who have been around churches for any amount of time know that Christians can get on one another’s nerves.

At times such tension might seem harmless; but more often than not, tensions in a local church can be quite harmful, both to the people involved and to the gospel. I heard a story once about a church that had two different groups who each “owned” a locking (and locked) cabinet in the church basement with their own tableware and cutlery, which each group refused to share with the other.

The pastor who told me this story had served that church early in his ministry. When he visited that church decades later, he said, the cabinets were still locked, and the fractures within the community had yet to be healed. What is interesting to me about this story is how practical (i.e., non-theological) the divisions at that church were. The divisions were the result of personal antipathy, and showed themselves in the availability (or not) of plates, knives and forks at church functions.

This kind of “silly” division in a church is really not silly at all. Divisions like this make it difficult for the community actually to be a community. Worship, Christian formation, fellowship, works of kindness and mercy–all these and more are compromised, and even made impossible, by division.

The passage for today is about division at the church in Corinth. Paul begins the passage by urging unity in the church. Even in translation, 1 Corinthians 1:10 makes the point starkly: Paul appeals to them to be in agreement, for there not to be divisions, and for them to be knit together in the “same mind” and with the “same purpose.” The Greek text is even clearer, as the words translated be in agreement” in the NRSV might more literally be translated “say the same thing”–the Greek text has three “sames” in one verse.

Paul follows this injunction to unity by noting the source of his knowledge of divisions at Corinth: he had heard about the quarrels at Corinth from “Chloe’s people.” While we don’t know Chloe from anywhere else in Scripture, it appears that she was a woman of some status who was the head of a household. Some of the people in her household seem to have traveled to Ephesus, where Paul was when he wrote 1 Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:8), and given him the news of quarreling at Corinth.

In Paul’s telling, those quarrels seem to have been at least partially about allegiance to various people–Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ (1:12). It’s probably best not to imagine just four competing groups in Corinth. After all, 1 Corinthians shows that the church in Corinth could find all sorts of reasons to disagree with one another! The point to be made here is that Paul will have no part in dissension related to allegiance to human leaders–and especially to himself–in the church. “Has Christ been divided? Paul wasn’t crucified for you, was he? You were not baptized in the name of Paul, were you?”  Division in the church, then, isn’t merely a matter of people not getting along together. It presents a theological challenge, in that it divides Christ and threatens our ability to bear witness to the significance of Christ’s death on our behalf.

His claim to have baptized very few people in Corinth (1:14) poses a potential problem for Paul. At first it looks as if he’s saying he baptized only Crispus and Gaius (which is good, because there is little chance that people can claim to have been baptized in Paul’s name rather than in Jesus’ name). Then, it seems, he remembers having baptized more people–the household of Stephanus (which might have amounted to a large group of people), and perhaps others…but he doesn’t remember. While this failure of memory on Paul’s part can come across as funny, there is probably more going on here. By handling baptisms he has performed so lightly–he admits to having baptized some people, but truth to tell can’t really remember who and how many–Paul rhetorically enacts what he is trying to help the Corinthians to understand. The important things are the gospel of Jesus Christ and the cross (i.e., death) of Jesus Christ. Things like who baptized whom (1:14-16) are beside the point.

Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul returns to the problem of the presence of divisions in the church. For example, he laments that the Lord’s Supper, the meal that is supposed to emphasize the unity of the church, has been turned into a showcase for disunity, probably around socio-economic lines (11:17-22). When the church participates in the Eucharist, they eat from a single loaf of bread, a participation that signifies their unity (10:17). But their practice of the Eucharist manages to demonstrate their divisions instead. Still later in the letter, Paul paints his famous picture of the church as the body of Christ (12:12-31), which emphasizes that all the different parts of the church must work together and mutually honor each other if the body is to be healthy. Parts of the body work with each other for the good of the whole. Discord, or division, is not healthy for a body, and it’s not healthy for the church at Corinth, either (12:25).

Unity, of course, does not mean uniformity. But it does mean that the church ought not allow itself to be divided by things like human leaders (or, for that matter, flatware), but instead ought to keep the Gospel and the power of the cross of Christ firmly in view. It is to the power of the word of the cross that Paul turns in the next section of the epistle (1:18-25).

Earlier in my remarks, I noted how practical…and “non-theological”…divisions within churches often are. While I think Paul might agree about the word “practical,” I suspect he would have disagreed that any division in the church is “non-theological.” Something he does throughout 1 Corinthians is argue that the practical stuff of community life ought to be shaped by the Gospel of Christ, by Christ’s actions on our behalf. If we can learn from Paul how to frame the practicalities of our common life with the Gospel, we will have learned something very important.