Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
I know not everyone is a football fan, but a lot of people are. Tonight, all of the Steeler fans in Indiana are going to be rooting them on in the AFC championship match, and there are a lot of Steeler fans in Indiana. At least tonight there are. I think most football loving Hoosiers have the same two favorite teams. The Colts, of course, is the number one favorite team, and their second favorite team is whoever is playing the New England Patriots. Tonight, that is the Steelers so all of the colts fans are going to be rooting that Ben Roethlinsberger can lead his team to get the win tonight. It is nearly universal that all Colts fans despise the Patriots, and it is one of the most well-known rivalries in sports. This kind of disliking one side out of some sort of misguided principle is not just limited to sports. I have experienced it too. One of the very well-known things about me is I like Star Wars. So for the longest time, I just assumed that meant that I could not like Star Trek. Even though my exposure to that franchise was limited, I would argue that Star Wars was absolutely better. However, in 2009 Star Trek was rebooted with a new movie. To make a long story short, I really liked that movie andover the course of the next three years consumed everything Star Trek and became a full on Star Trek fan. I learned it was possible to be both. A couple of years ago when I went to the Artcraft movie theater in Franklin to see a screening of the original Star Trek 2: Wrath of Kahn. I sat in front of someone who ranted about how the new Star Trek movies, the ones that made me a Star Trek fan, were not real Star Trek and any true fan would obviously denounce them as terrible. Yep, we are really good at dividing ourselves into factions over the most arbitrary of things. Unfortunately, it goes further than picking a side to be our favorite. It is as if we compelled to not let people enjoy things. If someone is a fan of something that we feel is competition to what we enjoy, then there is this odd drive to actively dismiss and belittle that competition. It seems to be a quirk in what makes us human. We are naturally drawn to the idea that my team is better than your team or my favorite thing is better than your favorite thing. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking can be found expressed in faith convictions. It is disastrous when this same rivalry mentality gets applied to how one understands God. It is exactly this kind of mentality that Paul was warning against in this morning’s scripture.
The letter of 1 Corinthians was written to the church of Corinth to address several issues that plagued that fellowship of believers. This morning’s scripture comes right at the beginning of the letter, as Paul jumps in and addresses the first of many issues. It seems that the believers of the Corinthian church were as bad as fanboys and fangirls arguing if Star Wars or Star Trek is better. Some thought Paul was the best teacher of the gospel, others thought it was Apollos, and then others thought it was Cephas (or Peter). Like the pundits on an ESPN talk show, I imagine the Corinthians bickering about why their chosen teacher is the best one to follow. Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He was successful at founding new churches, and he had a down to earth reputation of working alongside the people. Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. He is the one who Jesus himself had said his church would be built upon. Clearly, Peter’s reputation was established and he was well known if the Corinthians had heard of him. Finally, Apollos was the young gun. The book of Acts describes Apollos by stating “He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the ways of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor.” We get the idea that the Corinthian church was treating these three preachers like celebrities and they had picked their favorites, and because of that odd human nature quirk the Corinthians felt the need to belittle those who picked a different favorite.
Paul rightly appeals to the Corinthians to cut this out, He points this out through the use of rhetorical questions in verse 13, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Dividing into factions though, was not limited to the Corinthian church. To the churches of the regions of Galatia, Paul warned them to avoid this by listing dissensions and factions among a list of sinful behavior. To the church of Ephesus, Paul encouraged them to remember that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Giving into this base urge to pick sides is a shockingly common problem in the early church. Unfortunately, it never stopped being a problem. Today there are 217 Christian denominations active in the United States, and that does not count the non-denominational churches, were are really just a denomination of one. Even if we dismiss the current denominational state of the church universal, local churches also have this problem. Good example of this is Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Resources, did an online poll to determine what words people affiliate with Baptist (the denomination that Lifeway is affiliated with). It was a free association thing, so people put the word that in their mind most correlated with the idea of Baptist. This was done through twitter so of the thousands of responses, most of the people were church people. The 16th most popular response was “fighting”. I do not think this was in reference to a fighting Baptists sports team.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are not supposed to devolve into factions or go after each other like sports team rivals. In this morning’s scripture Paul offers up an alternative way of being. Verses 10 and 11 state, “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.” This sounds great and inspirational, but when we begin to break it down it can be a bit troubling. What exactly does it mean to be perfectly united in mind and thought?
One of the things that I have always appreciated about the United Methodist church is that we are a big tent church. This means that as an overall body of believers, we do not endorse one political persuasion over the other. It means that in any given United Methodist church you will find people sitting in the same pew who voted for different political candidates and who hold wildly different opinions and how the world should work. I think it is truly beautiful that people who might find themselves attending opposite political rallies can kneel in front of the same cross, and experience the same means of grace. I love that when we celebrate communion and say that Christ invites to the table all who love him, we mean it. However, in our ultra-politicized world with a strong us vs. them mentality it is becoming harder to maintain that big tent. From both the right and the left religious conviction is being politicized and increasingly churches and individual believers are being pressured to pick a political side as a faith decision. Given this, how can we be perfectly united in mind and thought as a body of Christ when people within the body of radically different thoughts on the issues of the day?
Perhaps the better question is to ask, what are we supposed to be perfectly united about? Perhaps, it is not on the hot button issues of the day. The bible has a strong message of unity among believers, but unity is not uniformity. There is a statement that comes out of the Moravian tradition. This is a lesser known protestant denomination that had a profound impact on John Wesley. As such this Moravian wisdom has found its way into the Methodist church and you may have encountered it before. The saying states, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.” The concept is that the beliefs most vital to the Christian faith is where we must agree with one another, have no division and be perfectly united in mind and thought. In everything that is not an essential core belief of Christianity, then as believers we are free to form our own opinions. Now our faith should absolutely inform all of our opinions and beliefs, but it is very possible for two Christians to rely on their biblical understanding and faith experience to come to different conclusions on non-essentials. That is fine because we are called to unity not uniformity. Finally, no matter what love is what covers all. This means it does not matter how much we disagree with someone, we love them anyway. We recognize that they are a precious creation of God that has sacred worth, and we value them for that.
This naturally leads to the question what is essential and what is non-essential. Fortunately, church tradition defines this for us with the creeds, which are essentially statements of essential belief. The most well-known creed is what is traditionally called the Apostle’s Creedit states: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the VirginMary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.
Those are the essentials. God the Father, Jesus the son-who was, and is, and is to come, and the Holy Spirit. Notice there was nothing in there about healthcare, about immigration, about job creation or any of the other hot button issues that prove so divisive. When we are of one mind about these essentials and we consider that statement of faith to be the cornerstone of all that we believe, then unity as described in this scripture becomes possible. What unites us is the power of the cross of Christ, and that gospel should have more power in our lives than every other message there is. Often the reason why there is conflict in the body of Christ, the reason why there division is because we forget this.
I know a lot of you probably do not follow the Marvel Super hero movies like I do, but last year one of the movies that came out was Captain America: Civil War. I will not spoil the whole movie, but the main villain’s goal was to destroy the Avengers. In previous movies villains had failed to do this, but in one scene the villain explains his plan: “ I knew I couldn't kill them. More powerful men than me have tried. But if I could get them to kill each other. . .” While Captain America and Iron Man stop short of killing each other they do fight each other a lot, and Baron Zero succeeded. In the end it is the heroes who do more damage to one another than their enemies could ever hope to do. Unfortunately, Christians are the same way. We can be our own worst enemy, and this happens when we elevate something that divides us over something that unites us.
By its very nature church is awkward and messy. Church is a bunch of imperfect and kind of selfish people trying to live in perfect and loving community with one another. This process is messy, and there is no way around it. When we get it right though, then it is a thing of beauty. We get it right when among the essentials there is no division among us. We get it right when we are perfectly united in mind and thought in our belief that Jesus is a great savior. When we do this, then the non-essentials, the cultural and political things that so quickly divide us do not matter as much because we realize the God that unites us is bigger than that which divides us. One day when we all get to heaven, we are going to find ourselves worshipping the Lamb of God side by side with souls we never would have agreed with on earth, because God’s grace and mercy is that big. May we find joy in that. May we seek unity instead of uniformity. As the people of God may we glorify God by being perfectly united in mind and thought by how we love one another.