Sermon: What a good thing for us that the church at Corinth was so imperfect

Sermon for Williamstown

26th of January, 2014


1 Corinthians 1:10-18

In last week’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul started his epistle on an extremely positive note: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind … so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1: 4-7)

Paul was able to give thanks for the Corinthians because of God’s faithfulness to them; because he was seeing them in the light of their relationship with the God who had called them into community. It was a delightful way for Paul to begin a letter that now, in today’s reading, becomes somewhat less pleasant. We owe the very existence of this letter to the Corinthians to their many problems; according to Paul, the church at Corinth was in serious disarray. Even the most famous passage in this letter, the description of love as patient; kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude (1 Corinthians 13:4-6) was written because that was not the sort of love the Corinthians were demonstrating.

Over the course of the next few weeks, as the lectionary makes its way through this letter, we’ll discover some of the Corinthians’ problems. In today’s passage it’s division; Paul is appealing to the Corinthians not to be divided. They’ve been called by God into community, but they’re a community in conflict.

Part of the problem appears to be that the Corinthians are idolising certain leaders. They’re saying of themselves: “‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’” We don’t know exactly what that meant; what each of those different factions represented. It could be that those who described themselves as belonging to Cephas, Peter, wanted the early church to hold more strongly to its Jewish roots. Apollos came from Alexandria; it might be that those who claimed to belong to him wanted Christianity to become more like a school of Greek philosophy. We don’t know. We do know, however, that according to Paul this claiming to belong to a different evangelist or teacher was divisive.

Paul was extremely sarcastic about it: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Paul’s so opposed to such division that he claims not to remember how many people he himself baptised when he was in Corinth. Was it just Crispus and Gaius? No, there was also the household of Stephanas. Did he baptise any others? Paul’s not quite sure: “beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else”. So, no one can claim to have been baptised in his name, Paul writes.

If Paul was disappointed in the disunity among the Corinthians, imagine how he would feel about the subsequent history of Christianity. The church in the Northern Hemisphere has recently celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (we celebrate it later in the year because no one in the Southern Hemisphere wants to do anything extra in January) with the theme ‘Is Christ Divided?’ Sadly the answer, looking at the Church today, must be ‘yes’.

For centuries Christians actually killed each other over theological differences. We may have got over that, but division continues. The differences between Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal Christianity are obvious; and within Protestant and Pentecostal Christianity are thousands of separate denominations. There are also the divisions within denominations that are like differences within a family, and so perhaps hurt more than any other.

Paul reminds us that there is simply no room for division in the church. There’s room for difference, of course; the church is the body of Christ and later Paul will talk about the difference between the eye and the ear, the hand, the head and the feet. (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) But eye, ear, hand, foot and head are still united; they can’t live without each other: “If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body,” Paul points out. There is diversity in the church, one body with its many members, but there’s also unity, because it’s in one Spirit that we’re all baptised into that single body. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

The one body is the body of Christ, and it’s Christ to whom we belong. Not to Paul, not to Apollos, not to Cephas. Why, then, does Paul criticise those who claim “I belong to Christ”? Surely we should all be saying that. I can only imagine that it’s because those Corinthians who were proclaiming proudly, “I belong to Christ” were arguing, implicitly or explicitly, that others didn’t. “I belong to Christ – and you don’t.” It’s bad enough to say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or maybe “I belong to the Uniting Church” or “I belong to the Anglican Church”. But it’s worse to say “I belong to Christ” in a way that suggests that other people only think that they’re Christians.

It’s easy to argue that other people don’t really belong to Christ, if we imagine that our version of Christ is the only possible one. If people don’t belong to the Christ we follow, then they don’t belong to Christ at all. But there are many Christs. Christians throughout history have seen in Jesus a revolutionary; a wisdom teacher; a social justice activist; an atoning sacrifice; the Suffering Servant; an observant Jew; a radical iconoclast – and have been able to do so because it’s impossible to summarise and pin down exactly who Jesus was. The universal church lays out some parameters, but the Apostles’ Creed jumps from Jesus being “born of the Virgin Mary,” to him “suffer[ing] under Pontius Pilate”. It says nothing about his ministry. There’s a lot of leeway for different understandings left in that gap. The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union reminds us that: “When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses” (Basis of Union, 5); but the four gospels give us versions of Jesus that are different enough that we can talk about ‘Luke’s Jesus’, and ‘John’s Jesus’; and Paul’s letters give us another. There are many possible, plausible, Biblically-based Christs to whom Christians may claim we belong.

Of course we should claim, proudly, that we belong to Christ. That’s one of the things that the sign of the cross placed on us at our baptism symbolises. But we shouldn’t do it as a way of creating factions among Christians. If the Christ to whom others claim they belong differs from the Christ we follow, we can listen and learn, recognising that Christ is bigger than all the boxes into which we try to put him.

There are so many things that divide the church, divisions of race and gender and class and nationality and language and sexuality and income, divisions that the waters of baptism seek to wash away. It’s dreadful that our very commitment to Christ can create yet more divisions.

Paul writes to the Corinthians: “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.” It was a brave, even foolish, appeal then; and the idea that all Christians can be united in the same mind and the same purpose remains unlikely now. But we believe that with God nothing is impossible, not even unity among Christians. Amen.


This image has nothing to do with the sermon, but is related to the gospel reading for the day. It is ‘The Calling of Peter and Andrew” by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11.

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