The more things change, the more they stay the same. Sound familiar?
In 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Paul addresses a problem that still exists today. That problem is the lack of unity in the Christian church. The Corinthian Christians were divided into factions based on who had baptized them instead of being united in the faith and the Gospel. They identified with different leaders because in that culture, a person’s name was more than a label. A person’s character and power were tied up in his name.
Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit. His letter reawakened and strengthened the Corinthians’ faith in Christ. Paul confronted the Corinthians in love as a Christian brother. He spoke in one letter to all the factions and they were able to listen to what he said. He followed the first step that Jesus laid out for resolving conflict in Matthew 18:15-20. Paul addressed the individual factions one on one as a group. If necessary, he would have had to follow the second step of involving two or three outsiders and (if necessary) the third step of dealing with the entire church in Corinth as a group.
Sometimes Christians are divided over issues that are small or insignificant. In order to maintain unity, we must not “sweat the small stuff”. For example, many of you can probably remember a time not so long ago when our local churches did not work together. It was also a time when some churchgoers did not want to associate with people who attended other churches. My father told me of one example a few years before he died. One day when we were living in Milton, he went into the local post office to pick up the mail. One lady came in and started talking to him. At one point she asked him which church he went to. When she found out that it was not one of the two churches in the community, she said, “Well! That’s what I was afraid of!” She turned around and walked right out of the post office!
The church in Corinth is a metaphor for many churches today. Many of them have the potential for division. This potential is real and needs to be dealt with. The desire for unity is not new. In John 17:11 and 22, Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers before his crucifixion. The lack of unity in any church can be traced to weak commitment to a doctrine or a commitment to disunity of doctrine. Unity needs to be based on loyalty to Christ instead of loyalty to a particular preacher or a particular doctrine. Loyalty to leaders leads to disputes. Pastors are called to preach the Gospel and bring people to unity in Christ, not to build a faction or a cult around themselves. That’s why Paul did not baptize many people. He was true to a purpose to preach the Gospel’s message-the freedom that faith in Christ offers. The light of God must be shared, not stored. The world is called to Christ and not to any of his servants.
The Christian church needs to be united in preaching the Good News-plain and simple. Its very message is the dynamic of God. For example, Billy Graham kept his sermons simple and to the point. He always pointed people to the cross as the way of salvation.
There are some signs that Christians are becoming united. They are able to agree on what is important and lay aside the non-negotiable parts of the faith. They are becoming united when it comes to issues such as salvation by faith alone and the deity of Christ. They have learned to love those who disagree with them. Love will overcome all divisions, especially when it is combined with prayer. Division makes the church’s mission harder to do.
One sign of our unity is baptism. Baptism is an outward sign of the inward acceptance of Christ. When we accept him, we desire to be like him. We renew our minds so that we can apply what we have learned so we can be more like him. In other words, we need to think alike. Rival groups must learn to come to an agreement. All of this can only happen when we truly submit to Christ. When we take our eyes off of Jesus, the Body of Christ is broken. We need to focus on the lost and the hurting. We must work together or die.
Speaking of working together, it is nice to see all of the local churches working together to bring people together. For example, there was the long-defunct Queens County Association of Churches, which started the local food bank. Even now, local churches come together to organize events such as the Privateer Days Church Service, the Seafest Church Service, the Good Friday Walk of the Cross and the annual Shepherd’s Walk. All of the churches work together in spite of the different denominations with their different interpretations of Christianity and their different rituals. God wants us to be united, including in our way of thinking. This was the challenge Paul issued to the church in Corinth as well.
It’s no coincidence that I’m delivering this homily at the end of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In his 2014 message about the Week of Prayer, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, remarked that “the peace and unity we share in Christ is God’s gift to us and to the world…. Paul’s rhetorical question (in 1 Corinthians 1:13) calls us to confess the scandal of disunity and it’s marring effect on the witness of the church…”
We have seen congregations deal with serious issues on which there were differing opinions and come through as stronger, more loving fellowship. We have also seen congregations where the fellowship has been torn apart over matters so insignificant that even years later members could not remember which side they were on in the argument. In the first case, the people were able to preserve a unity of spirit in the midst of their differences. This spirit is the spirit that Christ has given the church. In return, the church must take seriously any serious threat to its unity.
Unity is always held in the midst of diversity. It brings together many ideas, viewpoints and personalities around a common, unifying theme or concern such as relieving poverty. There is room for differences of opinion when we are seeking unity provided that the differences are given over to the achievement of the common goal.
Paul urged the Christians in Corinth to stop their petty feuding and embrace the unity in Christ that brought them together. They benefitted from different teachers and came from different backgrounds and generations and social classes. They had unique histories and lives, but they had one thing in common. They were led to the same place of the wood of the cross and the water of baptism.
We are like the Christians in Corinth. We benefit from different ministers. We come from different backgrounds, generations and social classes. We have different histories and lives, but we have one thing in common. We are also led to the same place of the wood of the cross and the water of baptism.
There are three ways in which we can express our unity:
1. Be in agreement about doctrine and proclaim the same Jesus Christ.
2. There can be no divisions among members.
3. Be united in mind, understanding, judgment, purpose and will.
In other words, we have to set aside our sinful nature if we want to be united in Christ. We have to go back to the beginning of our Christian mission and purpose before we can move forward. We have to be united in our hearts, kind to one another, gracious to one another and forgiving of one another. We have to work through conflicts and avoid slander and gossip. By being united in Christ, Christianity is much stronger. In the words of the song that was made famous by the group “Brotherhood of Man” in the 1970s:
For united we stand
Divided we fall
And if our backs should ever be against the wall
We’ll be together
Together you and I