230122 – It’s A Harmony Thing

Yr A ~ Epiphany 3 ~ 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Last week we began this sermon series looking at the first three chapters of Paul’s letter called 1 Corinthians. We did the introduction, and set the stage with a look at all the blessings that every church should be able to look at and name – and we talked at length about a concept called koinonia, which is translated as fellowship, but more deeply means sacred mutuality, interpersonal communion, and partnering together, working together, contributing to one another’s well-being, and supporting one another. And, sadly, we learned that this church in Corinth was falling well short of this core value. Today we get to see a couple of examples of that.

In the first example we might wonder if Paul’s standards are too high. He says, 1 Corinthians 1:10 Now I appeal to you, (kindred in)…Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

Forget about church, when was the last time you were in a room with more than 1 person and everyone in that room was in total agreement about everything, and thought the same way about everything, and agreed on the same way to do everything? Never. That’s an impossible standard – and it’s not what Paul meant. Every group, and every church, will have disagreements and divisions of some sort. The difference is about whether they’re about major or minor things, and also how stridently people stand on their differing viewpoints. Disagreeing about major things, and digging in their heels about it was the Corinthians’ problem. Different factions held fast to different teachers, and theologies, and social hierarchies.

Paul wanted them to be united in the same mind and the same purpose. To be united in mind doesn’t mean to be in lock-step agreement about every detail. It’s much more poetic than that. It means to be joined together, and more than that, to be knit together. I love that. That’s how the King James version reads – knit together. We are knit together in a common purpose. What’s our purpose? To be right? Nope. You know our purpose. To love God, to love people, and to love one another – love, love, love. We are knit together to love, love, love.

Ironically, many church quarrels emerge because different people, or different groups each want the same general thing, but they disagree on the ‘how’ to do it. Often that gets accompanied by a “but we’ve always done it that way!” The tighter we hold onto that, the more likely we are to quarrel.

Actually, Paul wasn’t even worried about those little kinds of quarrels. What he was concerned about was that the Corinthians were quarrelsome. That’s the fuller meaning of the Greek word here. In other words, they had an affection for dispute – they were spoiling for a fight. And when you’re talking about important and heartfelt things, like theology, if you’re spoiling for a fight you’re gonna find one!

They even fought about silly things like trying to attach status to who baptized you. Can you imagine? Minister A baptized you, but I was baptized by Minister B, therefore I’m better! That’s a quarrelsome person!

Paul’s response to such ridiculousness is hilarious. The Message bible renders this perfectly: 1 Corinthians 1:14-16

I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

It makes Paul so human – forgetting, adding in an aside, almost mumbling to himself but on paper. I’m not making light of baptism – it’s super important. Baptism was, and is, the Christian rite of initiation – it’s our formal entry into the community of faith – or better, into the body of Christ! But the whole point of it is to become part of a greater whole, not try to carve out a privileged hierarchy depending on who splashed the water.

The next verse is, for me, the most important of the pericope. 1 Corinthians 1:17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

There are three important things in that verse. Let’s do them in reverse. Paul is concerned that if they get this part wrong they could empty the cross of its power. That’s pretty heavy. What might do that? Baptizing and using ‘eloquent wisdom’? Obviously, it must mean more than that, because those are both good things. Perhaps he’s suggesting that if we only focus on certain things, like the particulars of baptism, or if we focus too admiringly at the lofty speech and devastatingly insightful interpretations of a preacher [grin], that it would detract from the straightforward power of the story or meaning of the cross itself.

But there’s one more phrase in this. Listen again:

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

What does it mean to proclaim the gospel? Should we get bullhorns and soapboxes and set ourselves up outside all the grocery stores? Is speaking, whether it’s eloquent or rough, the only way to proclaim the gospel? Of course not. We know this in our bones. We primarily proclaim the gospel through our actions, through our doing, through our love, love, loving.

In fact, the language of proclaiming here is a weak translation of the Greek words. In verse 17 the direct Greek translation would be: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to gospel.”

To gospel. That’s a verb! Gospel can also be a verb!!! Let’s conjugate the verb, gospel, in French! Je gospel. Tu gospel. Elle gospel. Nous gospelons. Vous gospellez. Or in English. I gospel. You gospel. We gospel. They gospel. Everybody gospel!!!

Gospelling is much more powerful than just proclaiming. Gospelling is your whole life. If you are a person of faith you are called to gospel constantly. Come to church on Sunday, in-person or online (or watch later in the week) – awesome. But that’s just an hour to recharge your batteries, and express love and worship in solidarity and mutuality. The other 167 hours in the week you’re called to be gospelling.

Sometimes your gospelling might take the form of words. Sometimes your gospelling might take the form of actions. Sometimes your gospelling might take the form of writing a cheque. Sometimes your gospelling might take the form of quietly standing with someone, or praying for them, or holding them gently in your thoughts. It’s all gospelling!

This past week, and the couple before it, have been pretty hard on this congregation. We have experienced more deaths and funerals in this short stretch than we sometimes have in a year. Perhaps that’s a sign that the congregation is ‘aging’. But I want to point out for us a much bigger and more important sign. What I’ve witnessed, and experienced over these last few weeks has been a whole lotta gospelling! Y’all have gospelled your socks off! Thank you.

Our last verse today, verse 18, gives us two more really important things to look at.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I think the ‘message about the cross’ is better understood as the ‘message OF the cross’. What’s that? That is a tricky quagmire that famously causes quarrels and divisiveness. But I don’t think is has to be. Not if we hold it lightly, and openly. The message of the cross is summed up in the theological term: cruciformity. It means to allow your life to be ‘formed’ by the cross. What does that mean? It’s quite simple really. It means the pattern that the cross represents, the rhythm of dying and rising – letting go of what was, in order to enter into, or be born anew into, the way of God’s love.

But then Paul takes it one step further. He says that dying and rising may sound like foolishness to some who are outside of faith and who just won’t ‘get it’, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. The tense is super-important. To us who are being saved. Are being. In the process of. As in it’s ongoing, continually happening, never completing. We let go of what was, in order to be born anew into the way of God’s love more, and more, and more deeply. Ever deeper. If everyone is in a constant state of becoming, then no one can claim to have already arrived – and the Corinthians’ foolishness is laid bare.

Paul’s letter is yearning to draw the Corinthians into an epiphany – an aha – that says, “Folks, friends, please, take a breath. Let’s look at the bigger picture. It’s a harmony thing. If we can agree that our purpose is to love, love, love. If we can agree that cruciformity, dying and rising, is the rhythm of faith, and not get tripped up on the details of it. And if we can agree that this transformational process is ongoing, and takes a lifetime of mutuality, care, support, and openness. If we can do those fundamental things, then we will be knit together in love. We will not quarrel. We will be united.”

It’s a harmony thing. Harmony comes when we agree on these core things. And when we do, we embody what church is supposed to be – a hothouse and a launch-pad for gospelling.

There’s an old saying, so old no one is sure who said it first. “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity (which really means, ‘love’).”