Third Sunday after Epiphany

The church to which Paul writes more likely numbered in the dozens than in the hundreds.1

Calling Disciples
He Qi, Calling Disciples, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

January 22, 2017

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

The church to which Paul writes more likely numbered in the dozens than in the hundreds.1

But small as they may be, leadership styles are just one of the ways they have found to divide themselves: worship practices, sexual ethics, social and economic class, spiritual gifts, and education level (or “knowledge”) all appear in the letter as instances of division too.

On a first reading, Paul sounds like somebody’s babysitter here, trying to enforce a ceasefire among siblings. “Could you please just try to get along?” After the thanksgiving in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes of having received reports that the Corinthians have divided themselves up based on their favorite evangelist, with at least a few pointing out that of course one’s favorite evangelist is a secondary concern, and so they “belong to Christ” (verse 12).

When he urges “the same mind and the same purpose” (verse 10), Paul may sound like someone who is simply uncomfortable with conflict, but he has his sights on something greater than keeping the peace. The individual points of division in Corinth are merely a presenting symptom of an underlying problem: the Corinthians do not understand that the cross of Christ was God’s way of upending their ways of defining and valuing themselves and one another.

The cause for Paul’s concern is the Corinthians’ ongoing allegiance to a wisdom that Paul regards as overturned by God’s work in Christ. Paul will proclaim in v. 30 that God has made foolish the wisdom of the wise and has made the Crucified One “wisdom for us, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). On the way to that conclusion, Paul talks about baptism.

Paul speaks about baptism at only a few points in his letters, but when he does, the contrast between the old life/old age and the new always appears.

In Romans 6, baptism signals readers’ having been buried with Christ in baptism and raised up to live a new life in him.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul speaks of the Corinthians — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — having been baptized into one body and drinking one Spirit. Old forms of identity, old ways of understanding oneself and one’s neighbor: these are replaced by membership in one body of Christ and sharing in the one Spirit.

Galatians 3:27-29 includes a reference to baptism as the occasion for having put on Christ, in whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, and in whom there is not male and female, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Again, baptism is paired with the end to old structures of self-definition.

“Has Christ been divided?” Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 1:13, and then follows that question with two more. “Was Paul crucified for you?” and then “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Readers know that the answer to all three questions is no. Christ is in fact not divided, even if the Corinthians are acting as if he has been. Not Paul, but Christ was crucified for them. They were baptized not in the name of Paul, but in the name of Christ.

It is comical to watch Paul’s rhetoric get away from him: “Well, actually I don’t know who I baptized but never mind! I’m a preacher, not a baptist!” Paul’s memory lapse and correction give the apostle’s words a humanity they sometimes lack. Even so, his momentary stammering should not obscure the greater point.

Paul’s choice to talk about baptism at the start of a letter concerned principally with divisions in a church is not random. Paul mentions baptism not just because Christ is more important than Paul, or because Paul hardly baptized anyone in Corinth. Paul’s point is that the unity he seeks for the church comes from their shared connection, through baptism, to the one who was crucified and through him, to one another.

Unity of mind and purpose comes, not because a particular leader is able to create consensus, or because all possess knowledge (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1) or some other spiritual gift. Rather, the unity that Paul urges on the Corinthians is born from a baptism that connects all participants to Christ’s death and resurrection.

A friend tells the story of a meeting at his church. The group included six people talking about multicultural diversity in their congregation. The small congregation in Miami includes Haitians, African Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos. At the meeting, as the conversation went on, one of those present became more and more agitated. Finally, Beverly banged her hand on the table and explained why the discussion angered her. “We are not a social experiment!” she announced. “We are a church.” What mattered, she said, was that they were all God’s children.

The Corinthians do not know what Beverly knew. Often we don’t know it either. We know that baptism is a palpable sign of God’s forgiveness, an entrance rite into a congregation and into an apparent abstraction known as “the body of Christ,” and a sign of God’s eternal promise of a relationship with the one being baptized. But we often don’t think of baptism as actually changing anything about the way we identify with a group of people.

For identity markers, we still look to things like race, age, economic circumstances, education, and geographical region to create meaningful boundaries and to identify our tribes. If our congregations manage to build community — to have, in Paul’s words, “the same mind and purpose” — across the standard identity markers, they are “practicing diversity.” We think of them as a remarkable social experiment. Paul, however, would regard such a community, gathered by the Spirit in the name of Christ, to be simply a church.

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ signals the beginning of an age in which all the ways the Corinthians have divided themselves into groups just aren’t any longer interesting, important or defining. To be baptized is to be joined with all the other baptized to the risen life of Christ and to be, as Christ is, numbered among God’s children. In our baptism, we have all the identity and purpose we need.


1. Commentary first published on January 26, 2014.