1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-13, 17, 23
This is the message I preached on Sunday 22nd January 2017 at Lakes Entrance UCA. It was the first time I had celebrated communion as the president.
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a rally on the steps of state parliament. I’ve not been to one in person, but I’ve seen many a crowd on television shouting out to the people of government inside. Quite often, if they are Lefties, the chant will go up “The People, United, Will Never Be Defeated!” Oftentimes, in this situation, the people are defeated because parliament does what parliament wants to do, and the angry-shouty people go home unimpressed and disappointed.
Our reading this morning from Paul’s apostolic letter to the Christians of Corinth carries a similar message, if not a similar tone. The Church cannot stand unless it is one. No local congregation or arrangement of linked congregations will hold its own in the world if it is not holding together internally.
The Church at Corinth wasn’t really like the Uniting Church in Lakes Entrance. It was more like the whole Church in Lakes Entrance, but even that is only a loose fit. Paul was not writing to one large gathering but to several small house-church arrangements dotted across the city. The Christians met locally in the homes of benefactors, and even if the homes were large they were still not cavernous. A congregation may in fact have been one father with his wife and children and servants. It may have been a set of neighbours, two or perhaps three families with their servants. It may have been like a guild where a bunch of neighbouring tradesmen and their families and servants met in the shop of one man. So, Paul in writing to “the Church” is actually writing to a village dispersed across a city.
Therefore, we get Chloe’s people. It’s not that Chloe is a cult leader or that she’s got her own little cabal of whingers over in the corner of the basilica; more likely Chloe was simply the hostess of one of these house groups. Indeed, Chloe’s people seem like the heroes of this story, and Chloe a heroine, because it is they who have told Paul about the divisions breaking out between the houses of Corinth and they are upset by this.
This is also why we get some following Apollos and some following Cephas. Again, it’s not little cliques within the gathered congregation, but rather it is the preferred style or theology of the leader of the house. I know in churches I have been to in the past there have been cell group leaders who like Joyce Meyer or Brian Houston or Louis Giglio or Rick Warren. They all met together on Sunday as we do here, but on Wednesday night at cell they’d be studying their favourite theologian: with several groups going on at once the groups might be studying very different things. Well imagine that without the Sunday gathering, where “church” for you is only Wednesday night, then you have some idea of what normal life was like for the Christians of Corinth. Indeed, such a model is typical of every church we read of in the New Testament, even Jerusalem, even Rome. Galatia, for example, isn’t even a city, it’s region. Think of an epistle to the “Gippslanders” or the “Philip Islanders” as opposed to the “Melbournians”.
But this doesn’t let the Corinthians off the hook. Yes, they are meeting in small groups, but this is probably out of necessity since no one house was big enough to get all the Christians together at one time. That’s not the issue. The issue is that these various house groups are at enmity with each other, and they are at enmity over the truth.
When he wrote this letter, which scholars suggest might have actually been the second one he wrote to them, (the first one is lost in time), Paul says to the Corinthians that the true nature of the Christian message, the gospel itself, calls for people to be in agreement and with no divisions amongst them. He says as much in 1 Corinthians 1:10. In the same verse he says that the best reflection of the message of Jesus is found in the people who claim to be his truest disciples being in the same mind and with the same purpose as each other. Instead they are quarrelling according to 1 Corinthians 1:11 and forming cliques, each with its denominational hero according to 1 Corinthians 1:12. Everyone should be looking to Christ, as proclaimed by all the missionaries, says Paul. Don’t even follow Paul says Paul, follow Christ. You can almost hear him saying that Apollos and Cephas would agree with him. Follow the simple truth of the message that Christ died for all and for each, and don’t be distracted by theologies or philosophies that are at best personal preference, and at worst empty prattle or bubble and froth. The message of Christ crucified defies ordinary, colloquial wisdom, but it is the truth and it must not be altered to fit the wisdom of the academics or the preferences of the secularists.
You need the coffee and not just the froth, says Paul, the cake and not the coulis.
I have drawn two things out of this for you today, and oddly you’re getting the first one first. (I know, I’m just as surprised as you.)
In brief, they are:
- What the true message of Jesus is.
- Why the Church must be united if it’s going to proclaim that truth.
Looking at our gospel passage this morning we read Jesus saying “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near,” to the people of Galilee. That’s in Matthew 4:17 and it echoes the message proclaimed by John the Baptiser in Judea recorded in Matthew 3:2. This is Jesus’ key message, and the one thing he will proclaim for the rest of his life on earth. Where we might have heard from Joyce Meyer, Brian Houston, Louis Giglio, and Rick Warren to “keep the main thing the main thing” we immediately want to ask them what “the main thing” actually is. Well for Jesus it was this. The “main thing” for Jesus is the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew puts it, the Reign of God as it is spoken of by the other gospels. That John the Baptiser had been proclaiming the same message in his forerunning, prophetic role before the messiah came, suggests to me that the rolling out of the Reign of God might just be the main thing for God the Father and the absolute heart of the gospel itself. The creator is coming near as king: the one who made the earth in eons past is today sending forth authority and heralds of that message prior to the king’s own arrival and the establishment of kingly rule and reign in the whole creation. So, repent. Don’t just stop being naughty in the ways we think of as sin, but begin to do the things the king commands as king and sovereign. And what does the sovereign lord require of us, apart from that we stop being naughty and “repent”? The king requires of us that we be reconciled to each other and to all of creation. The king requires of us that we look only to Christ as our head and that we begin to follow him and walk toward him from wherever we are right now.
So, there’s your first point and the introduction to the second one. If you’re taking notes take this note. If you’re not taking notes write this down anyway. The true message of Jesus is “repent because the Reign of God is here”, and the necessity for the church to be united is that we can’t proclaim a sovereign Kingdom of Heaven if we heralds of that kingdom are not in harmony with each other. Do we trust a government when its own MPs are bickering and forming factions? Were we impressed by the Canberra-antics that disposed of Prime Ministers Rudd, Gillard, and Abbot? So why should the world trust the governance of God and the reign of King Jesus when we Christians are sniping and stabbing at each other in public?
Unity in the Church means everyone walking toward Jesus. But, since we each walk toward Jesus from the location where we first heard him call we might be walking in opposite directions. Think about it. If God calls you from the over here, to the centre, then your journey will be in this direction; but if God calls you from over there then your journey will be in this direction, which is opposite to the first one. So, which is the correct direction? Can we say that to be a Christian means that you must always and only travel in a westerly direction? For us that might seem obvious, but it makes no sense at all for a person who is starting from the West.
Think of it like this. Imagine you have a friend in Horsham and you ask her to meet you in Melbourne. You instruct her to follow your own plan and travel west for four hours along the highway. When you arrive in Melbourne your friend, who obediently heeded your instruction to travel west, is in Adelaide. And let’s be honest, if you wanted to be in Melbourne but you found yourself in Adelaide your desolation would be indescribable.
This is what it means for the Church to be united. Not that everyone is walking the same path, but that everyone is walking the true path that leads them to Jesus. Since this means that we will all meet in the centre, which is both him and the place where he is, it might only be then that our journeys will make sense to each other. “Now I understand,” you might say, “you were walking eastward while I was walking westward, but you weren’t actually walking toward what I had left behind. You were walking toward Jesus, and in fact you were walking toward me.” We might add at that point, if we are brave enough, “I’m sorry I doubted you, I’m sorry I mocked you, I’m sorry I didn’t try to understand you.”
I said earlier that unity means that we are all walking toward Jesus, and now we understand that that path is unique to each of us. In application, this means that we are each obeying Jesus’ command to us as our king and saviour, and that we are each actively working to see the reign of God advance in whatever way God has personally asked us to contribute. For some of us that means being a preacher and speaking out in public a well-researched exegetical hermeneutic. For others, it means making sure there is a venue for the preaching by making sure that this house or the one at Lake Tyers Beach or Johnsonville is tidy and comfortable for whoever shows up. For others, it means being in the community beyond our doors, telling people about Jesus and inviting them to church. For still others it means being here as “church “so that when the evangelists bring their friends along to hear the preaching, and to sit on the comfy chairs, and drink the freshly-brewed cups of cino, that they are not doing so in isolation. All those jobs are important, none of them is unnecessary, and none of them take precedence. As your preacher, I might be thought of as your leader, but if no one comes to hear me preach what’s the point? Your elders might be thought of as your leaders, but if no one sought their counsel or care then what would be the point? Each of us serves Christ as Christ has instructed us, none better, none lesser; and we serve Christ where we are and on the road which we travel, some from the east and some from the west.
So, as we move into a time of communion, which is to say the reminder of our belonging in community to which we each bring our unique individuality, let us remember to look only to Christ for headship and to look always to each other for fellowship for his glory.
God’s people, united, will never be defeated.