January 26, 2014: 1 Corinthians 1: 10-18

January 27, 2014

Year A, Epiphany 3                   
            Last Sunday, First Baptist Church of Hampton hosted a community service celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King.  While I loved the idea of such a service, I did not love the idea at 4pm on a Sunday. I’m an introvert and being in front of people exhausts me.  Even being around people tires me.  Because of that, one of my greatest joys is my Sunday afternoon nap.  When I do not get my Sunday afternoon nap, I get very irritable.  

            However, when I walked into their sanctuary and saw the huge choir made up of members of the community churches including members of our own church choir, I snapped out of my haze.  While the readings and the prayers were beautiful, it was the music I loved the most.  Seeing all those people together brought me such joy.  But nothing could compare with hearing that choir full of such diversity sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was powerful…stunning.  And it was not because it was perfectly harmonious (although it sounded very good), but because this group had come together to honor Martin Luther King, a man who worked relentlessly for unity and equality. 

            Last week I spoke a little about the multitude of denominations in our Christian faith.   There are so many now that we cannot even keep track.  In reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it would seem that this division was almost unavoidable.  Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians about 15 years after Jesus died.   The Christian faith, or as they called it at the time, “The Way” was new in Corinth, new in the world.  Christianity was not even established as a faith. It was more of an evolution of the Jewish faith; at least that is how people perceived it.  Yet it would seem, that as soon as this new faith was being discovered, it was being divided, parceled out between the various leaders of the faith.  Some people were saying, “I belong to Paul.” Other claimed belonging to Apollos, or Cephas (better known as Peter), or even Christ himself.

            That last association is particularly confusing.  What’s wrong with saying “I belong to Christ?”  That’s the truth.  That is why we call ourselves Christians, at least one of the reasons.  The problem was that while people were saying that they belonged to Christ, what they really meant was that he belonged to them.  Jesus was viewed as a possession to be won, a possession that some had more ready access to than others. 

            It’s true that Christ was broken on the cross.  We often use the phrase: “Christ broken for us.”  However, Christ was not broken on the cross so that we might divide him up and then haggle over him.  In fact, I believe that is one of the reasons why it is so important that he was resurrected in his earthly body.  If his body had been left in a tomb, one person or group would have claimed ownership.  Or worse yet, his bones would have actually been divided amongst different groups and we would still be arguing about it today.  Yet even without his actual body or bones, we still find ways to divide him.

            Paul found this sectarianism distressing; not because of the division itself, but because of the effect that division had on people and people’s perception of the cross.  He worried that the cross of Christ might be emptied of its power.   I have always found that phrase “emptied of its power” intriguing.    Another way to interpret that phrase would be to “make void” or “valueless.”   That essentially means that by associating with different leaders or different factions, we are somehow taking away from the sacrifice that Christ made for us.  While I can understand this theoretically, I am not sure what it means for us today, or even what it meant then for the Corinthians.  What is wrong with us all creating our own little nooks and crannies of the Christian faith, custom tailoring it to our needs and concerns?  Isn’t that better for everyone?
            We all reach God in different ways and it is therefore important that we have different ways to celebrate our faith, which means having different denominations.  Having different styles of worship is very healthy.  Diversity does not equate with division and unity doesn’t have to mean uniformity.  Paul was praying not for uniformity of worship and belief; he was praying for unity of faith.  Later in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul spoke of the variety and diversity of spiritual gifts.  Does that sound like someone who wanted uniformity? He used the analogy of the human body to describe the church.  The body is made up of many different parts.  A body with 20 ears but no legs, arms, mouth or eyes would be a pretty limited body.  It is the same with the church. 

            So how can we work toward unity while maintaining the diversity of the church?  The service last Sunday at First Baptist was a great example. We all went to our own services that morning and then came out for a 2nd to be with the whole community.  Today is another great example.  We typically have two different services, but occasionally, we all meet together.   I cannot tell you how many times I have asked someone the name of a person and they have said, “Well I don’t know her, she’s an eight o’clocker.”  We should come up with even more reasons to meet as the whole Church of St. John’s as well as the larger community of Hampton.  It is a little inconvenient.  But sometimes convenience is a sacrifice we have to make for community.

            In my many years of working with youth I had more than a couple moments when I lost my cool. On one such occasion, someone was complaining about having to get up early for something and I snapped, “Jesus died on a cross, I think waking up a little early is the least we can do.”  While that’s probably not the best use of the sacrifice of the Jesus, I think it is important to remember that sacrifice and the cross is at the heart of our faith, whether we like it or not.  Sacrifice is rarely easy or convenient.

            Some of you might know that the shape of this church is called “cruciform.” If you looked at it from above, it would look a bit like a cross.  One of the things I love about the cruciform church is that people are physically closer to one another and closer to the altar.  A lot of modern churches are built in a circular fashion for this very purpose.  They call it, “church in the round.”  This is the original church in the round.  I find it amazing that it is literally the shape of the cross that brings us closer to one another.  It is the cross that brings us together.  At the peace today, I am going to ask you to do something a little inconvenient and a little uncomfortable.  I want you to share the peace with someone you do not know.  This might mean you have to walk across the aisle, walks down a couple of rows.  Let this be the first step in many to knowing your community.  In moving across the church to greet one another, we will also be walking the cross together.