Scripture - 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, January 26, 2014

The death penalty. A motion stating opposition to it was before the governing board of a church and they were locked into a fiery discussion. There were enthusiastic supporters of the motion, passionate opponents and about an equal number of people who could not land firmly in either camp. One vocal leader whose blood pressure was reaching hazardous levels slammed his fist on the table and shouted, "It just kills me to see such bickering! This is the kind of thing that can tear a church apart. We need to go back to the way it was in the early church where they just focused on saving souls, not arguing with each other."

Although his sentiments were heartfelt, a biblical scholar he was not. Many pine for an earlier, simpler age when the church was pure and peaceful, but Paul's letters slam the door on that fantasy. No more than 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul must zip off a letter to the congregation in Corinth because they are squaring off in opposing factions.

Word has reached Paul that the members are quarreling with one another and dividing into opposing camps. Some declare, "I belong to Paul," while others insist, "I belong to Apollos." Still others say, "I belong to Cephas," while others counter, "I belong to Christ."

Paul inserts himself into the melee with a lengthy letter he expects to be read to the entire gathered congregation. He writes, "I appeal to you, 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."

Same mind and same purpose? Really? Surely Paul is not that naïve. Does he expect everyone to think alike and to have an identical objective? Worse, is he insisting on a smothering conformity that stifles all differences?

Paul says members of the church "should be united in the same mind and the same purpose," but how we understand such unity makes a world of difference. There are dark and tragic eras in church history that were the result of those in authority interpreting these words to mean "Our decisions are final and dissent will not be tolerated." Paul's warning about divisions among the faithful became the threat to "Do things our way, or else!"

With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the 16th century became a horrifically bloody one. English Protestant, John Fox, wrote that the bitter fighting behind Roman Catholics and Protestants was more deadly than the fighting between Christians and Muslims. And followers of Jesus should never forget those dreadful periods in our past when people claiming to act in the name of our Savior persecuted and killed Jews, Muslims, witches and others deemed different.

When the Apostle Paul called on the congregants in Corinth to be united in Christ, surely he did not mean that they were to agree on every issue. Paul is not seeking to stamp out diversity of thought, but rather to head off divisiveness. Later in this same letter, Paul speaks of the members in terms of the variety of their gifts and how that variety is intended to enhance their community, not fracture it; to enrich their life together, not to send them running in opposite directions; to pull people together, not slice up the community into warring parties.

So, what was it that Paul believed was rupturing their unity? A postmodern analysis of the divisiveness in the Corinthian church might conclude that the issue was religious zeal. Perhaps people had become so passionate about their faction's interpretation of the faith that they were blinded to alternative approaches.

With today's live and let live philosophy, we Christians in North America can be so unenthusiastic about our faith that we shake our heads in disbelief at such religious fervor. For many of us, identifying ourselves as "Christian" is more about personal preference than commitment. A matter of taste rather than a call to obedience. A choice off the menu of options rather than a solemn vow. I'm afraid that too many equate passionate religious faith with narrow-mindedness and extremism. However, making a commitment to follow Jesus does not entail intolerance of other views, nor does it imply that we have everything figured out. Devotion to God and the way of Christ means that I give my allegiance to something greater than myself; that I reject the materialism of our culture; and I foil the various schemes that tempt me to become self-absorbed. It means I will strive to live by the command - not the suggestion - but the command of Jesus to love God with my heart, mind and soul, and to love my neighbor as myself. It is a demanding path, but much more fulfilling because it leads to greater joy and promises genuine hope.

While Paul was appalled that the members of the congregation in Corinth were fracturing into factions, he was not calling on them to turn down their spiritual intensity or to water down the gospel to the point that there was nothing over which to disagree. He was not insisting they ratchet down their commitment so as not to offend anyone. Instead, he was urging them to channel their energy away from their differences and toward what binds them together.

Paul chastised the Christians in Corinth because they were confused about their core commitment. They were claiming allegiance to differing viewpoints represented by these charismatic leaders and the result was quarreling factions that were shredding the fabric of their faith community. Paul implored them to overcome their differences by finding unity in Christ.

His advice is vital for every Christian congregation that seeks to be a faithful expression of the body of Christ. But note that he urges unity, not uniformity. Can you imagine how monotonous it would be if we all had the same opinions, enjoyed the same music, ate the same food, had the same thoughts? How lifeless and colorless our church family would be if we had no diversity of opinions, if we all saw the journey of faith precisely the same, if we never felt challenged by different ideas about God and if we never discerned God's Spirit calling us to plow new fields.

And not only is uniformity boring, it can be deadly. Uniform thinking can breed intolerance and arrogance. When everyone thinks alike, it can lead to condemnation of others and blindness to personal shortcomings.

We are very blessed that Westminster is a healthy and vibrant community of faith where we can worship, pray, learn and serve despite our differences. And surely part of our vibrancy is not despite our differences, but as a result of our different perspectives on our faith. Diversity in terms of contrast rather than opposition is enriching and energizing.

Paul called on the Corinthians to find unity in Christ, but it took him several chapters before he spelled out the unifying force that would bind them to Christ and to one another. In a passage you may recall from chapter 12, he compares the congregation to a human body saying some are hands, some are feet, some are eyes and so on. He talks about the diversity of gifts within the church and then in chapter 13, he lays out the critical component to bind a community of faith together. Remember chapter 13? "If I have faith mighty enough to move mountains, but do not have LOVE, I am nothing."

Paul expected the Corinthian Christians to express their love for Christ by loving each other. They were to possess a Christ-like love that would bind them together despite disagreements.

When I lead new member classes, I warn perspective members that if they are looking for a church where everyone understands the Christian faith in the same way, Westminster is not the place for them.

We have different theological, political and spiritual perspectives. We have conservatives, moderates and liberals. And while we may passionately present our personal perspective, we love each other and respect each other enough to not allow our differences to divide us.

The unity we enjoy in Christ, inspires us to work together to transform people's lives in God's name. And so together:

we serve hot meals to people who are hungry,
we shelter those who have no home,
we mentor at-risk children,
we drive men and women to doctor's appointments,
we visit and pray for fellow members who are critically ill,
we walk alongside friends who grieve a loss,
we help people of all ages deepen their spiritual lives,
we provide space in our building for people overcoming their addiction
we provide water filters for people in Guatemala,
we build churches in Africa,
we provide Christmas boxes for low-income families,
we give backpacks and school supplies to elementary children,
we donate essentials to food banks,
we work for peace by bringing Jewish and Palestinian youth together in the Holy Land,
and the list goes on.

A few years ago, a young boy from a small town in South Dakota wandered away from home. Once his parents discovered he was missing, they began a frantic search. After a couple of hours, they called the police who joined the hunt. Soon there were neighbors, Boy Scouts and other townspeople looking for the child. Through the afternoon and into the night hundreds of people combed the prairie hoping to find the boy before the harsh elements overcame him.

At sunrise the next morning, they resumed the search, but there was no sign of him. They felt as if he had just vanished. Then, one of the searchers said, "Let's get together in one long line. We will join hands and sweep up and down the prairie until we find him."

They formed a line a quarter of a mile long. It was an amazing sight to see this long line moving across the prairie holding hands. On the third sweep, they found the boy lying in a small ditch behind some brush. He was not moving. A paramedic jumped into action and found a pulse. The boy began to stir. He was dehydrated and disoriented, but he was alive.

They carried the boy back to his parents who could not believe their good fortune. The mother started hugging everyone and asked, "How did you find him?" And a man standing nearby said, "Honestly, we never would have found him in time, if we hadn't joined hands and walked together."1

That is our challenge as a church. Not to think alike or to express our faith in the same manner, but despite our differences, to join hands and move into the future together.


  1. Source unknown.

Prayers of the People ~ Rev. Dr. Randall T. Clayton

Gracious God, you claim us in baptism as your very own and draw us into a community of your people in which we might grow in faith and serve you in the world. We are young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, yet your loving arms embrace us all. Those of us who call you "our God" are of many ethnic backgrounds, many races, and from many cultures and yet in Christ Jesus, we are one regardless of our differences. We offer you thanks and praise for drawing us together in this place, for the ways our differences enrich us and help strengthen this congregation's ministry, for giving us a vision of peace here in Wilmington, in the Middle East, and in all places in between.

As we come together this day, we are aware of many places in our world in which divisions exist. We pray for your healing spirit to fill communities and homes, countries and continents where problems are solved by violence, where some people are treated as less than others, where neighbors are pitted against neighbor. Most especially this day we pray for the Syrian people, and for Syrian refugees who have fled their country. Bring peace, O God. We lift up to you people whose religious or cultural differences give rise to distrust, hurtful actions, even warfare. Bring peace, O God. We lift up to you those whose lives have been impacted by gun violence-here in Wilmington, in Maryland, and indeed throughout our land. Help us be instruments of peace in a world that turns to weapons to solve disputes.

Help us to value diversity and to find hope and joy in the differences among us. Help us to let our different opinions strengthen us, our varied hopes and dreams enliven us, and let the unique gifts that each of us bring to your service to enable us to be your faithful people in this world. And help us, O God, to lift the olive branch through the flood of starving people, where factions are at war and where people live in despair.

As we gather in a warm dry place this morning, we pray for those who have no home, for those who cannot afford to pay for heat, for those who are hungry. We pray for our friends, our family members, our neighbors, who are facing the end of their lives and for their caregivers. We pray for those this day who find themselves in places they did not choose, those who are in hospitals, nursing homes and other places of care. We lift up to you those who are battling addiction, serious mental illness, and those who are struggling with grief that seems too heavy to bear. Bring peace, O God. Bring hope and healing. And help us, to light your flame of care in this world around us.

Bound together in your love, each of us a gift in your creation, we remember the prayer which Jesus taught us saying...

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.