The comedian Emo Philips told a story a number of years ago:
I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.”It’s a great joke. I’m not sure how they rate such things, but a few years ago, it was named the greatest religious joke of all time. It’s great because it captures the sad truth of religious division. We have seen it and experienced it, and there is enough truth in the story to make it a great joke.
I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “I do, too. ... What religion are you?” He said, “I’m a Christian.” I said, “Me, too! ...Protestant; or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! ...What denomination?”
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879; or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?”
He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.” So I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.
In some ways, the Church seems hopelessly divided. There are Presbyterians and Roman Catholics and Methodists and Lutherans and Baptists and Pentecostals and Quakers. But not just that – there is a dizzying variety within many of those denominational families. American Baptist, Southern Baptist, National Baptist, General Baptist, Conservative Baptists, Primitive Baptists, on and on.
It all reminds me of another story. A man has been shipwrecked on a deserted island, and after many years, he was finally discovered and rescued. When they found him, they discovered three buildings on the island. So they asked, “What’s this building?” “That’s my house,” he said. “Oh, that's good,” they said, “and what's this second structure?”
“Well,” the man replied, “that's my church. That's where I go on Sunday mornings.”
“Excellent,” they said. “That’s wonderful. And what’s this third building on the island?” “Oh,” the man said, “that’s where I used to go to church.”
The divisions present in Christianity have got to be terribly confusing to people. If you had no background in the Christian faith at all and decided to just go to church some Sunday, how would you decide where to go, and what would all of these labels mean?
Because such labels can be off-putting, a lot of churches are dropping the denominational name as part of the name of the church. A lot of new churches sound more like subdivisions, with crest, ridge, creek, brook, or some such geographical feature in the church name, or they will chose a name like The Hill or The Grove (not to be confused with the chain of student apartments).
Others go for a one word designation with a cutting-edge feel, like Revolution Church, Catalyst Church, Thrive, Converge, Fusion Church. But removing a denominational label out of the title doesn’t change the fact that the congregation affiliates with a particular tribe. And it certainly doesn’t eliminate factionalism.
In rural South Carolina, you can drive by a church with the sign out front: Harmony Church. About 300 yards down the road, there is another church building. It’s road sign says, Greater Harmony Church. Sounds like a serious church fight to me.
And so people long for the way it used to be. They long for the days of the early church, when Christians came together to worship and there was deep fellowship and mutual caring and the church did not have all of the divisions of theology and ethnicity and economics and style that we have today.
The only problem is – it was never like that. An unknown second century scholar wrote an instructional work for Christians called the Didache. The Didache gives a glimpse of the teachings and practice of the early church, but then you also find lines like this: “We do not insist on fasting on Mondays and Thursdays like those other hypocrites - we fast on Tuesdays and Fridays.”
It’s absurd. Oh, there were obviously divisions. And then we have our scripture for this morning. In the first reading, we are again in the Book of Acts. The apostle Paul is now on the scene. He has had a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. Previously one who had persecuted the church, Paul has now become its leading evangelist and missionary. He has found a more receptive audience among Gentiles more so than Jews, and has focused much of his mission in Greece and what is today Turkey.
In today’s scripture from Acts, we read about Paul in Corinth. He works with Priscilla and Aquila, Greek-speaking Jews who have become believers, and his fellow workers Silas and Timothy, who arrive from Macedonia. Paul works for a year and a half, establishing the church in Corinth.
Now, Corinth is an important city and a very diverse place. It was a cosmopolitan kind of city. There was a thriving trade in bronze and pottery and earthenware. Folks from all over the Roman Empire could be found there, lots of sailors and travelers and traders, and they brought with them a variety of religious beliefs. Archaeologists have found temples to various Greek and Roman and Egyptian gods in Corinth as well as a temple for the cult of the emperor. Corinth was a place where you could find pretty much anything you wanted, and a lot of it wasn’t exactly good, wholesome family fare.
In our reading from Acts, we have the beginnings of the church in Corinth, some of the first converts, including Crispus and his family – he was a temple official – and Paul has this vision in which God tells him that he will not come to harm in this place and that he should be bold in speaking the word.
That is our reading from Acts; our second reading comes a bit later chronologically. Paul has by now left Corinth, and he writes a letter to the young church there. Paul is pleading with the members of the church for unity. He says, “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, brothers and sisters.”
Chloe was a member of the church – she was perhaps a businesswoman, and some of her sales agents on the road had visited with Paul, who was now in Ephesus, and told him what was happening in the church in Corinth. What he learned from Chloe’s people was that the church was divided.
The church in Corinth had splintered. When we read through Paul’s letter, it is clear that there are all kinds of problems, but here in this passage, right at the beginning of the letter, Paul addresses the divisions that had arisen as members lined up behind various leaders and personalities. Some were saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or even “I belong to Christ.”
Paul and Apollos and Cephas (who was Peter) make some sense. Different people in the church had different favorite leaders – maybe the person who had baptized them. “I belong to Christ” doesn’t quite sound the same. Maybe they heard others say that they were in Paul’s party, or Apollos’ group, and they said, “Well, I belong to Christ,” with more than a hint of superiority.
Paul says, look, you were all baptized into Christ. You weren’t baptized in the name of Paul. In fact, Paul says he was glad he had not baptized many of them – he had only baptized Crispus and Gaius. And then he says, “Oh yeah, I also baptized Stephanus’ household, but I don’t think there was anybody else.” His point was that he did not want people attaching themselves to him – he wanted to point people to Christ. And then for the same reason he says, “I’m glad I am not a flowery or eloquent speaker – that makes it clear that what you have responded to is the power of the cross. And for Paul “the cross” is shorthand for the power of the message about Jesus – his life and death and resurrection.
It is not that Cephas or Apollos or Paul himself were wrong. Their teaching was good, but people were to follow not the teacher but the one to whom they pointed – which was Christ.
Paul in a way anticipates a question that arose in the church a few centuries later. In a time of great persecution, there were pastors and bishops who renounced their faith. The question for the church was whether the baptisms of those who had renounced the faith were valid. If you were baptized by a priest who later renounced Christianity, did that baptism count? The Church wisely decided that what nattered in baptism was God’s action and presence, not the goodness or morality or even faith of the one who did the baptism. It was about Christ. Here, Paul says, “You were not baptized in my name but in Jesus’ name.”
Paul’s argument is that despite our differences – despite that laundry list of things that might separate people in society – in the church we are to be united “in the same mind and the same purpose.”
That sounds hard. “The same mind and the same purpose”? We are all very different. In fact, our church has kind of prided itself on freedom of thought and belief – we don’t all have to be in the same cookie-cutter mold. So what does it mean to have “the same mind and purpose”?
Sometimes we can confuse unity with uniformity. When we continue reading this book of 1 Corinthians, it is clear that the “same mind and purpose” doesn’t mean we are all just alike. Paul takes about varieties of gifts and varieties of service and how our different gifts come together to form the Body of Christ. By having the same mind and purpose, we are to unite around the earliest confession of faith that believers made at their baptism, which Paul saw as the basis for our oneness. And that confession was simply, “Jesus is Lord.”
Our purpose is to follow Jesus. To make Jesus Lord. Now, in a culture where you were required to say “Caesar is Lord,” proclaiming Jesus as Lord was a countercultural and sometimes dangerous act, but it was simple, and there is a lot of room for diversity among those who could claim Jesus as Lord.
It is interesting that often, the divisions and factions within the church are not so much between different denominations, but within a particular fellowship. We join together with other congregations in Good Neighbor and Ames Ecumenical Housing and AMOS, among other things. We get along well with the Catholics and the Presbyterians and the Lutherans. We have services together with the Disciples and the UCC. We can feel a commonality and kinship with Christians who may come from different traditions than us.
Sometimes, it can actually be more difficult when it comes to other Baptists. And divisions are hardest, of course, when they are closest to us. Divisions hurt the most within families. Conflict in the church hurts the most in individual congregations, in places like the church in Corinth. Congregations have split over the kind of music they sing or the questions of whether women can be pastors or even over the color of the carpet.
The divisions and factions we see in the church are in many ways a reflection of the divisions we see in society. In an election year, many of these divisions are on full display. Not just differences in politics; differences in race and ethnicity and sexuality and economic status and education and so much more.
We would hope that in the church, we would be better than that. We would be above that. But we don’t leave the rest of our lives behind when we come to church. We are all different, and we see things differently. It’s just the way things are. The bigger question is, will our differences serve to separate us? Or as Paul puts it, “Has Christ been divided?”
Paul’s concern is not simply in keeping the peace – it is more along the lines of keeping the faith, of truly being the Body of Christ.
A small group of people were talking about multicultural diversity in their congregation. This small congregation in Miami included Haitians, African Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos. At the meeting, as the conversation went on, one of those present became more and more agitated. Finally, Beverly banged her hand on the table and explained why the discussion angered her. “We are not a social experiment!” she announced. “We are a church.” What mattered, she said, was that they were all God’s children.
I think that is what Paul is saying. We belong to Christ, and we follow Christ’s way of the cross – which may look like foolishness to the world, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. Amen.