1 Corinthians 1:10-18New International Version (NIV)
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
I had the opportunity to attend Eastern Mennonite University’s School for Leadership Training this past week. This event always provides an opportunity to see some old friends, make a few new acquaintances, and learn something in the process. This year we had two keynote speakers, Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist who teaches at Duke Divinity School in the area of the church and racial reconciliation, and Drew Hart, a theologian who teaches at Messiah College and specializes in African American expressions of Christianity. So we heard a lot about church and racial relations throughout the week, and as you can probably imagine, these conversations can get pretty intense.
During one of the breaks, I found myself sitting next to Cheryl. Cheryl is an African-American, a grandmother, and a seminary student. She is also completely blind, walking with a collapsible cane, wearing sunglasses at all times. So I instantly had respect for this woman, because I know that reading theology books and studying Greek and Hebrew is tough enough when you can actually see. But here she was, a woman in her 60’s, who had just finished her Master’s in Counseling degree the year before, taking seminary classes because she wants to be able to do pastoral counseling, counseling from a Christian perspective.
So I’m sitting, talking with Cheryl and some others who are gathered around a large table, and I mention something about my privilege in society as a white man. Without missing a beat, Cheryl turns toward me, and in perfect Ebonics says, “What? You mean to tell me you ain’t a brotha?”
Sometimes it amazes me how well we are able to draw dividing lines between ourselves and others. I’m on this side, you are on the other. Race is just one obvious dividing line, perhaps because it is so obvious. If you see someone, you can tell—for the most part—if they look like you or not. Black, white, Asian. We also divide based on political affiliation, church or religious denominations, income level, education level, and social location. It is pretty easy to divide up into subgroups, and we do it very well.
When I was younger, I remember that it was kind of cool for hip people to say things like, “I don’t see color. I just see people.” Or maybe my favorite was when people would say that they are color blind. I probably have even said that at some point myself.
But today I am less convinced that being color blind, in a metaphorical or literal sense, is a good thing. We see color, and we often divide people up and differentiate even if we claim that we don’t. No one is blind to race, even my new friend Cheryl new that I was white. I think that rather than claiming to not see color, we would do better to appreciate the beauty of diversity in the world and in the people around us.
Here’s the important thing to remember: we can still be different and be in unity.
Our text for this morning is the Lectionary Epistle for the fourth Sunday of 2017, so don’t think that I went out and picked this one just because of the things that are happening around us. This text was assigned to today years ago. But it also fits our context very well. Funny how the Bible continues to speak to us today after a couple thousand years, isn’t it. In a time when our world seems more divided than ever, we yet again come to one of the many texts in the Bible that remind us to continue to work together in unity.
Paul writes this letter to the church in Corinth, which based upon these two existing letters, 1 and 2 Corinthians, really seems to be messed up. If you read these two letters you find that this church is dealing with issues like sexual immorality, social class division, gender roles, and idolatry, just to name a few. And in our text for this morning, we find that this small church is dividing over leadership. Some people claim to follow Paul, others claim to follow Apollos. Still others claim to follow Cephas, which would most likely be a reference to the Apostle Peter. One final group even has the audacity to say that they follow Christ. Now if you ask me, that last one sounds like a good option to me! But if I was in that situation and I claimed to follow one of the other leaders, only to have someone else say, “Well, I follow Christ,” I would probably qualify that person’s attitude as “Holier than thou.”
We don’t know just what area of their Christianity Paul is referring to here, but we know based on the book of Acts that Paul and Peter had some disagreements about things like eating with Gentiles. And that may be what he is referring to in our text, but we can’t say for sure. What is known is that these early Christians are dividing up, some claiming to follow the teaching of one man, others claiming to follow another.
It is a good thing we don’t do that today, right? We actually name our churches and denominations after the people we follow. Yes, we follow Christ, but we follow Christ as interpreted by Menno Simons. That’s why we are Menno-nites. At least the Methodists didn’t choose to name their denomination after their leader. But Methodists follow Christ as interpreted by John Wesley. Presbyterians follow Christ as interpreted by John Knox. You can take about any denomination and trace their roots back to a person or a group of persons who gave shape to a way of following Jesus.
Some say I follow Menno. Others claim to follow one of the Johns, Calvin, Wesley, or Knox.
And guess what? I think denominations are a necessary thing. Even more so, I think that they are a good thing. In and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with denominations. I’m glad that there are churches out there that focus on some aspects of the Gospel, and others focus on other areas. I’m glad some churches sing praise and worship music while others keep the old hymns alive.
Where I think we get into trouble is when we start to draw these dividing lines and then write off those who are on the other side. We sometimes call this “othering.” It is us versus them. And of course, we get it right. The other side, they are wrong. When we write people off as being “other,” we no longer need to engage them, their experiences, and their thought process.
I can only speak from my experience as a white man, and I will own up to my personal prejudices. I am not as guilty as some others, but I too fail. Sometimes we see a person of a different ethnicity do something, and we say, “That’s just the way ‘they’ are.” That’s just what African Americans do. That’s just what Latinos do. That’s just what Asians do.
And it isn’t just racial, it is denominational as well. Those Baptists, they just care about a person’s soul, and couldn’t care about the person who is hungry. Those Methodists…just care about the person who is hungry, and don’t care about a person’s soul. Those Mennonites won’t fight in a war, they hate America.
That’s right, it goes both ways. And it is really easy to write off another race or another denomination, lumping all the people together, without ever considering why they believe what they believe. But it doesn’t feel good when people do it to us, does it?
I think it was Jesus who gave us a rule about this, I believe he even called it the Golden Rule.
I don’t like it when people make assumptions about me based on my race, and I don’t like it when people make assumptions about me based on my religion. So why do I do it to other people?
Because it is easier.
I heard a number of stories last week at my seminar on race relations, and one that Dr. Cleveland shared really hit home for me. Perhaps you have noticed that we recently have experienced a change in leadership here in the United States, and about ½ the country isn’t happy about it. Christena said that she was talking to one of her co-workers at Duke, who teaches Ethics. Duke isn’t really a Liberal/Progressive or Conservative school, in my opinion. I’d say it is pretty much in the center. But she described this co-worker as a very progressive ethicist. Soon after the election, Dr. Cleveland was having a conversation with this ethicist and he said, “I just don’t know how anyone could vote for Donald Trump.”
Remember that Christena is a Social Scientist, which means that it is her job to research how people live and interact with one another. She replied, “Really? You don’t know how anyone could vote for Donald Trump? Let me ask you an important question: Do you know anyone who voted for Donald Trump?”
He couldn’t name one.
I think that this is becoming more and more of an issue today. In some ways, our world has shrunk considerably over the last few decades. We can connect with people around the country or even around the world in seconds. Last week I Facetimed with my brothers in Ohio, seeing their faces and the inside of their homes, right on my phone. I exchanged Facebook instant messages with a friend in Scotland, talking to him as fast as I could talk. I receive news on my mobile device from places I’d never heard of ten years ago, and now are a part of my life. Places like Aleppo and Mosul are closer to a reality to me because of our shrinking world.
But modern technology shrinks our worlds in negative ways as well. With all of the choices for news outlets today, we select the news programs that most closely reflect our political leanings and interests. Do you get your news from NPR, MSNBC, CNN, or Fox News? You have a choice, and we tend to listen to sources that enforce our current leanings, not ones that challenge us. You used to have three choices for your television news: Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings. And I don’t think that they really said anything all that different from one another. If you watched one over the other, it was probably because you liked their personality or their voice more than the others.
Years ago, our circles of friends tended to be people who lived close to us. Especially in our growing up years, many of us would name relatives as our best friends. Cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. And I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot different than some of my family members. But we spent time together, we talked with one another. These were our friends. This was our community.
But today, with our ability to connect with people around the world, we tend to connect with people just like us. This is totally normal, and I’m just as guilt of it as anyone else. We have shared experiences, shared likes, similar jobs and educations. It is easier today to surround yourself with people just like you. But that doesn’t make it right. We can do better.
I actually find some beauty in a somewhat strange practice here at Staunton Mennonite. There are a number of you who grew up in other denominations: Methodists, Episcopals, Nazarenes, Catholics, C&MA, etc. It is strange that you all found your way into a small Mennonite church in Staunton, VA. But it may be even more strange that some of you still self-identify by the denomination of your youth. You say things like, “I’m an Episcopal who worships in a Mennonite church.” “I’m a Methodist who worships in a Mennonite church.”
That’s strange because some people would say that by worshipping in a Mennonite church, you are by default a Mennonite.
But I think that there is something beautiful about it all. To self-identify as a Methodist in a Mennonite church means that there is something about that identity that you wish to claim for yourself. You aren’t willing to let that go because something from that experience has been life-giving and nourishing for you. Yet there is something that keeps bringing you back to Staunton Mennonite. There are some really good people here who genuinely seek to love God and love their neighbor. And while this is feeding you, you aren’t ready to get rid of everything else that has been nourishing you up to this point. And you shouldn’t have to give it up! I’m not going to ask you to recant your previous theological instruction to worship with us and I am glad for the diversity that those who come from other traditions bring to our fellowship.
And with those traditions come other ways of interpreting scripture. Every time I preach a message about nonviolence, I can count on one of you to say something or ask difficult questions. What about Hitler? What about if your family was being attacked? Should we stand by as Aleppo and Mosul are bombed?
I have some responses, but every time I’m asked those questions, I am forced to dig deeper. Every time I get asked what we should be doing in Aleppo and Mosul, I need to not only question my own understanding, but to consider the perspective of the other person. And no, that’s not easy, and it isn’t always fun. It would be so much easier to surround ourselves with likeminded individuals, but would that really be better?
When Paul calls for unity in the church in Corinth, he isn’t saying that everyone just needs to love one another and get along. He isn’t saying that they should simply overlook some ethical questions and love each other. No, read the rest of what Paul wrote, and that is clear. What Paul is saying here, and says elsewhere as well, is that we must continue to engage and interact with other people, no matter how difficult it is. If you don’t know someone who voted for Donald Trump, that’s a problem. If you don’t understand why African American men still feel oppressed, you should ask one.
We will naturally gather and group according to our similarities. That’s okay. But in Christ, there is no longer male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, Republican or Democrat. Yes, Paul knew that there were still men and women, Jews and Greeks. But that’s the foolishness of the cross. At the cross, we all come together in unity. And a symbol of death and humiliation is what keeps us together.