Sermon for Williamstown
22nd of January, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Corinth was, according to Homer, a city known for its riches – ‘wealthy Corinth’. Geographically it was in a fabulous position to take advantage of trade routes on both land and sea and it took that advantage, taxing those who passed through it. Like all rich cities, Corinth revered wealth and the wealthy, which makes it a somewhat unlikely place in which Paul could preach Jesus. I wonder whether Paul took the gospel to Corinth on the basis that if he could make it there, he could make it anywhere.
Whatever the reason, Paul spent eighteen months in Corinth creating house churches with Timothy and Silvanus, Prisca and Aquila, and Phoebe. After the church had been established, Paul moved on to Ephesus. Not surprisingly, in Paul’s absence things started to go wrong.
In last week’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Paul started his epistle on the 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’. (1 Corinthians 1: 4-7) It’s a lovely opening, and so I was able to preach an encouraging sermon based on it. But in today’s reading, a mere ten verses into the letter, Paul is not so happy. After today the lectionary gives us another five weeks of readings from this letter to Corinth, and for these six weeks we, and the Corinthians, are scolded by the Apostle.
The problem is 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 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. 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)
Every so often I have a week in which one or more of the lectionary readings decide to hit me over the head, and I end up preaching primarily to myself. This week was one of those weeks. Do you know of the British comedian and commentator Sandi Toksvig? (She appears frequently on QI and has now replaced Stephen Fry as its host, so if you are as addicted to that as I am you’ll feel you know her well.) In a column that she wrote for the UK Sunday Telegraph way back in 2008, when the Church of England was arguing about women bishops Toksvig wrote: ‘Soon we may have two kinds of Anglican churches – the liberal ones, where love is welcome wherever it is fortunate enough to be found, and the conservative ones, which have a rather stricter door policy. To the outsider the difference may be tricky to spot, so I’ve had an idea. Why not put signs outside the liberal establishments that read “No Smiting”? We could have red circles with a line over, say, a woman with her mouth open being hit by a thunderbolt.’ (‘With all the grace of a Papal Bull’, in The Chain of Curiosity, London: Sphere, 2009, p. 268.)
I loved Toksvig’s suggestion when I read it. I love the idea of this church being a non-smiting church. I do not like churches that threaten people with God’s wrath. And the church that I have probably liked least over the past decade is Catch the Fire Ministries, led by Pastor Danny Nalliah.
Catch the Fire first came to my attention after the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, when Pastor Nalliah declared that the bushfires were the result of Victoria’s decriminalisation of abortion in 2008. At the time I was working in areas affected by the bushfires and I was deeply, deeply appalled by his statement. It was one of the few times that I agreed with Peter Costello, who said that Pastor Nalliah’s statement was ‘beyond the bounds of decency’. I observed with a mixture of amusement and horror Pastor Nalliah establishing his own political party, the Rise Up Australia Party, to protect Australia’s ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’. I do not think that he and I have the same understanding of what our Judeo-Christian heritage is. In Toksvig’s terms, I think he and I are pro- and anti-smiting.
So I experienced a wave of schadenfreude, that wonderful German concept of deriving pleasure from another person’s misfortune, when it was reported this week that Catch the Fire ministries had lost its status as a charity and might face a large tax bill because of its too-close relationship with the Rise Up Australia political party. Churches can discuss political issues, of course, but we cannot support particular political parties or ask congregation members to vote a particular way. The platform of Rise Up Australia includes opposing multiculturalism, arguing that climate change is made up, sending all asylum seekers back to where they came from, and refusing any encouragement of vaccination on the basis that ‘the biggest risk from children not being immunised is to the pharmaceutical industries profits and certain political party’s sponsorship’. You can probably understand, given all this, why the headline ‘Pastor Danny Nalliah’s church faces tax bill after charity status revoked’ caught my eye, and why reading the article made me smile. I felt smug.
Sadly, I was not left long in my smugness and schadenfreude. I read the Bible readings given for today, realised that we were heading into weeks of Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthians for their divisions, and felt immediately chastised. Whatever Pastor Nalliah and I disagree on, and the number is legion, we agree that Jesus Christ is our Lord. He and I have both been baptised into the one body of the Church in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This means that I cannot take pleasure when something goes wrong for him.
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.’ There are some things about which I will never be in agreement with Catch the Fire Ministries. Working out how to disagree with them and yet love them as my siblings in Christ is a work in progress. But it’s work that I must continue to do. I don’t know whether any of you have similar temptations to smugness and superiority, or whether today I’m preaching only to myself. If you are tempted like I am, then Paul offers us this wisdom: ‘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’. When unity and love seem impossible, remember the power of God, for whom nothing is impossible. Not even agreement between me and Pastor Nalliah. Amen.