Time to stop protesting?

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 New International Version (NIV)

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

*This is a joke and does not reflect reality in any way* I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a young man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!” “Why shouldn’t I?” he said. “Well, there’s so much to live for!” “Like what?” “Well… are you religious?” He said yes. I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?” “Christian.” “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?” “Protestant.” “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Mennonite?” “Mennonite” “Wow! Me too! Are you from the Conservative Mennonite Conference or Mennonite Church USA?” “Mennonite Church USA.” “Me too! Are you a part of a former Mennonite Conference Church or a General Conference Church?” “Mennonite Conference.” “Me too! Are you a part of Virginia Mennonite Conference or Central District Mennonite Conference?” He said, “Central District!” I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off. (I have much love for the Central District. I just needed a district with congregations nearby to use to make the joke work.)

            That is a terrible joke, but it illustrates the fractured nature of the church and how we sometimes see people who, though they might agree with us on a large number of things, disagree on a few interpretations of the scriptures and therefore we often write them off as a heretic.

            We have made it to the end of our sermon series on Mennonite Church USA’s Purposeful Plan. We have looked at Christian Formation, Christian Community, Holistic Christian Witness, Stewardship, Leadership Development, and Racial Reconciliation. And today, our seventh priority is on Church-to-church relations. From MCUSA’s website we read:

The unity of Christ’s church is hindered when any particular communion remains disengaged and isolated from others who belong to the same Body of Christ. In a world of global economic disparity and vast cultural differences, our unity in the church bears witness to an alternate reality where we feel each other’s pain and rejoice when others rejoice. As missional communities we will learn and grow through interaction with other Christian fellowships. We will cultivate a particularly close relationship with Mennonite Church Canada, since we share a common confession of faith, a common ministerial polity, and many joint ministry ventures. 

            Have you ever been asked “What church do you go to?” That is a simple enough question, isn’t it? I go to Staunton Mennonite Church or the 1st United Methodist or 2nd Presbyterian Church or any other number of possibilities. It is an easy question to answer, but I wonder why it is sometimes even asked. There seems to be more behind that question than just someone seeking to know where to find you on a Sunday morning. I think that often we ask the question “where do you go to church” so we can stereotype, pigeonhole, and judge. Oh, you go to that church. You must be one of those tree-hugging liberals, snake handling Pentecostals, or closed minded fundamentalists. That explains so much.

            I think that sometimes we Christians use our knowledge of where people go to church to make ourselves feel superior to other people because we are a part of the group that has it figured out. They are the ones that are missing the point. It is an “us vs. them” mentality and it would seem that some things never change because this was going on way back in the 1st century.

           In our scripture reading for today we find division in the church of Corinth. The letter to the Corinthians was probably written between 53-57 AD, making it one of the earliest written books of the New Testament. So Jesus had only been gone for about 20 years when this was written.

            One of the main purposes of this book/letter seems to be to address divisions in the church. After the opening salutation Paul launches into an appeal that there be no more fractions in the church. Chapter 2 seems to drift away from this subject, but Paul comes right back to it again in Chapter 3. And some have said that the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians are really about division in the church and Paul’s plea for them to come back together. We aren’t specifically told what the division is about, but what we can see is that Paul doesn’t like it.

            Paul writes, beginning in verse 1, “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly?”

            Infants are cute and cuddly. Their skin is so soft. Yeah, I don’t think Paul was using the metaphor of the church being infantile as a compliment. He is pointing out the immaturity of the church. He says that they aren’t even ready for solid food, just milk. Furthermore, he says that because there is jealousy and quarreling among the people that they are worldly and not filled with the Spirit.

            Paul then brings the issue to the front: some are claiming to follow Apollos and some are claiming to follow Paul. Some of the Christians in Corinth are Pauline Christians and some are Apollosite Christians (yes, I just made that up).

            Paul then gives one of my favorite lines in the Bible in verse 5, “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul?” It is strange, and that is why I love it! What is Apollos? What is this Paul that you speak of? Nothing! Nothing, without God, that is. Paul is saying It isn’t about me and it isn’t about Apollos. This is about Jesus!

            Paul planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made the plant grow.

            This wasn’t the first division in the church and it wasn’t the last, either. However, the church remained somewhat unified for the first 1,000 years or so. Then in 1054 we have what is often called “The Great Schism” where the church broke in two. At that point we have two churches, the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is headquartered in Constantinople, and the Roman Catholic Church, which, not surprisingly, is headquartered in Rome.

            The reason for this split is complicated, just like these things usually are. Some of the issues seem bigger than others, like where the headquarters of the church should be, what language should be spoken in the services, and whether they should use leavened or unleavened bread in their communion services. Like I said, these were huge concerns (tongue firmly planted in cheek). The schism became official when the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated the leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The leaders of the Eastern Orthodox Church, not to be outdone, then excommunicated the Roman Catholic leaders.

            What is Paul? What is Apollos?

            A few hundred years later we come to something called “The Protestant Reformation.” There was a guy named Martin Luther who really got the ball rolling when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517. The word “protestant” is a form of the word “protest.” Luther was protesting something that he saw in the church that he didn’t like. In these 95 Theses, Luther articulated the shortcomings of the church, particularly in the sales of indulgences, which were kind of like “get out of hell free” cards. Give a little money, your loved one doesn’t have to suffer any longer. What a selling point!

            I believe that the Protestant Reformation brought about some much needed correction to the predominant theology of the day. Not only did Luther begin a new movement, but the existing church also went through a pretty thorough reform as well. However, I want to make sure that you all know that Luther never intended to start his own denomination. He was excommunicated, but because he had such a strong following, others came with him, including members of the royal family of Germany. So he wasn’t about to be killed for being a heretic. And thus we have the birth of modern-day denominationalism.

            After Luther, other groups would begin to break off from the mother churches and begin their own churches, which grew into denominations. Most of the leaders didn’t intend to start a new denomination, but it often happened. People come along, suggest something different, some people don’t want to change, and some do. And often we refer to these different groups of Christians by the name of the original reformers. We have Wesleyans, Calvinists, Lutherans, and Mennonites.

            What is Paul?  What is Apollos?

            I find strength in diversity. I believe it is helpful to be around people who think differently than I do. For one, it sharpens my theology. When you are around people just like you, you can assume that they believe what you believe for the same reason, even if you can’t put it into words. But when I spend time with someone who does not share my convictions I can’t make any of those assumptions. If I want to have a serious conversation with that person, I need to know why I believe what I believe. I need to memorize Bible passages and I need to know the counter arguments. I have found that being around people of different denominational backgrounds has strengthened my convictions on some subject matters.

            I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am taking a class at UVa in their Department of Religious Studies. The class is called Love and Justice in Christian Ethics. It has been challenging, and not just because of the amount of reading I am expected to complete each week. It has been challenging because not everyone thinks just like me and not everyone comes from the same background as I do.

            I thoroughly enjoyed my time in seminary at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. I learned so much and I appreciated the community that I was immersed in for three years. But by far, most of the students were Mennonites with a few students from the Church of the Brethren and the United Methodist Church as well. These churches are very similar theologically, by the way. And my professors, you guessed it, Mennonites. You have heard the phrase “preaching to the choir” before, right? So I learned from people who already shared my same core convictions as well as most of the particular nuances of my faith. That is a good thing! Studying with Mennonites at a Mennonite university strengthened my Mennonite convictions. I have no complaints about that whatsoever. But that was like drinking milk and at some point we need to move on to solid food.

          One of my professors taught frequently about the shortcomings of a former Union Theological Seminary professor in the mid-20th century by the name of Reinhold Niebuhr. So naturally, everyone that took his classes began to think less of Niebuhr as well. So I start this class at UVa, and guess which one of the major theologians of the 20th century we are reading. If you guessed Reinhold Niebuhr, you guessed correctly. Not only that, my professor seems to be a bit of a Niebuhr scholar.

            So here I am, having been taught that I need to be a more than a little skeptical of anything Niebuhr, sitting in this class, reading Niebuhr, and it turns out that Niebuhr is not the devil. Yes, there are things that I would disagree with Niebuhr on, but there is a lot that he says that I would agree with. Actually, I would say that I agree with most of what he has to say. But on this one issue, we disagree.

            Some people don’t share my enthusiasm for these ecumenical conversations and I do understand that. Sometimes they can be heated and ugly and a good reminder of why we do have denominations. But if these conversations are done well, everyone can gain. If you are so sure about what you believe in, then why worry about having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you? Furthermore, if they were able to convince me that my perspective is wrong, I would want to know that. I would rather go through the embarrassment of being wrong for a moment than to unknowingly go on being wrong for the rest of my life.

            I am proposing, in accordance with this priority from MCUSA, to work toward closer and to participate in ongoing relationships with other churches and other denominations. I do not think that we will ever be united as one church once again, but that shouldn’t keep us from working together with people of differing theological backgrounds for the kingdom of God. We don’t have to always agree on everything to do good things.

            You don’t have to share my particular view on the atonement to work together to feed the hungry. You don’t have to share my view on nonviolence to work together to take care of widows and orphans. You don’t have to share my view on Open Theology to work together to share the Good News. Yes I think I am right, and you probably think you are right. But what really matters is that Jesus is Lord. Everything else we can spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out.

            What is Paul? What is Apollos? What is Menno? What is Wesley or Luther or Calvin? They are nothing but men. This isn’t about them and it isn’t about us. This thing that we are doing, this whole church, kingdom of God thing that we have been called to, it is about Jesus. And that is one reason why I love Staunton Mennonite Church. We have people from Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, Episcopalian and surely other backgrounds here today, worshipping together. We don’t always agree on everything, and to be honest, I appreciate those that disagree with me the most. You have found something here at this church that keeps you coming back and it isn’t because I say the things you already believe!

           This is why I am calling us all to come together and invite people from other churches to participate in a Communion service on November 6th. I’ll say more about this next week, but I am proposing that we come together to remember that the things that unite us are bigger than the things that divide us. If we can’t come together to remember our Lord, then we have forgotten our calling as disciples of Jesus. Because Jesus gathered together a group of people made up of vastly different individuals and he gave them the bread and he gave them the cup and he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Maybe it is time that the Protestant Churches stopped protesting and start remembering.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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