GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE
FROM GOD OUR FATHER
AND THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, AMEN.
Alan Paton told this true story about a South African judge in his book, Ah But Your Land is Beautiful:
A black pastor invited the judge, Ian Christiaan Oliver, to attend his church on Maundy Thursday. It was during the worst period of apartheid, and he knew that he was risking his career if he went. The judge meant to be a good man , so he accepted the invitation. He learned on his arrival that it was a service of footwashing and he was urged to participate. He was called forward to wash the feet of a woman named Martha Fortuin , who as it happened, had been a servant in the his own house for thirty years. Kneeling at her feet, he was struck by how weary they looked from so many years of serving him. Greatly moved, he held her feet with his gentle hands and kissed them. Martha fell to weeping as did many others in the room. The newspapers got word of it and Judge Oliver lost his political career.
Paton adds, “Perhaps he found his soul.” A man drew a diagram of the Christian Church in this way: He drew it as a circle with several radii converging on the center which he called “Christ.” On the different radii, he wrote the names of the different denominations of Christians. Underneath he wrote the words, “The nearer to the center, Christ, the nearer to each other.”
Christ is the center of our faith. Christ is the center of our Church. In Christ divisions between church bodies, races, backgrounds, educational levels, incomes, political affiliation, break down-or they should. In Christ there is no north or south, no east or west. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all one as we are one in the Lord-or should be.
St Paul ‘s first letter to the Corinthians is both descriptive and prescriptive. He explains what is happening in that church and to many others, even here, even now. What is going on in Corinth is simply that there are different factions, divisions, in the congregation. It is reported to Paul by Chloe’s people that people are quarreling. When Paul writes to the Corinthians he could be addressing to the letter to so many congregations which are squabbling. Perhaps it is as Lance Morrow has written that one of the root problems of our culture today is that we have politicized everything. Everything becomes political and therefore able to be manipulated. We have “spin-doctors” hired to shade truth for political advantage. We have an intellectual political correctness that stifles new ideas or independent thought. We have an institutional political correctness which above forbids anyone to “rock the boat.” What is true of the wider arena seems also to be true of the Church.
I was talking to a church staff member from another congregation recently and this person was telling me about her great disillusionment with her church. She said she had seen infighting and back-biting, over-concern with the financial bottom line rather than ministry, what she called “politics.” She had experienced such political maneuvers in the business world but couldn’t believe it would be so bad in the Christian Church. She wondered, aloud, about the commitment of those involved. Very gently, I tried to tell her that unfortunately the Church is made up of people with all their faults and shortcomings and we don’t check our sinful nature when we enter the church door.
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One of the freshest and most astute voices in the Lutheran Church is coming to Eugene this spring, Dr. James Nestingen from Luther Seminary. One of his mentors was Dr Warren Quanbeck , a theological giant of our church. Dr Nestingen often repeats a story that had been told him by Dr Quanbeck . It seems Quanbeck was on an airplane seated next to a woman who went on and on about all the hypocrites in the Christian Church and how awful it really was. Dr Quanbeck asked her if she ever went to church. She answered him, “No, I’ve never been in one.” He then answered her back, “Oh, it’s much worse than you can ever imagine.”
Sometimes I’m afraid if you asked the pastors and staff or congregational presidents and Council members of our congregations, you’d get the same answer. It is much worse than you can ever imagine. How about this conversation between a mother and her reluctant son:
He says to his mother, “Mom, I don’t want to go to church today.”
The mother says, “Oh, son I really think you should.”
“But Mom,” he says, “I don’t think anybody likes me there, and I don’t want to go. Give me three good reasons why I have to go to church.”
“Okay. First, I’m your mother, and I want you to, and you should be obedient to your mother. Second, Sunday is the Lord’s day and you know what Jesus said about giving unto the Lord what is the Lord’s. Third, you have to go to church because you’re the pastor!”
Really the strongest proof of the truth of Christianity is that the Christian Church has been able to survive and even thrive these past two thousand years. Our congregations are not much different from the Church in Corinth , riddled with factions, beset by difference and given to quarreling. This is the reality in so many places. We are human beings, fallen creatures, by nature sinful and unclean.
But we are also people of God. Along with Paul’s description comes his prescription. We must never be satisfied with things as they are, but must work and pray for things as they should be. Paul is clear about that. He is beseeching the Corinthians-and us-to set aside the differences and be united in the same mind and same purpose. The words used in the Greek are very strong. Paul is appealing by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to these believers. The word even means “to beg.” St. Paul is begging people to set aside their grudges and grievances and live out their faith in unity.
We are called to be one with Christ and with each other. To be closer to the Lord means that we will draw nearer to each other; to draw closer to our fellow believers means that we have come nearer to the Lord.
Scholars have looked closely at the divisions in Corinth . Some of the Corinthians seemed to have followed Paul closely. Others, who appeal to Apollos may have been more intellectual, more concerned with philosophy and rhetoric. Paul seems to suggest that he did not have such a refined Greek education. Still others of the party of Cephas , may have been of Jewish background and looked to Peter and James as advocates of keeping the Jewish law as well as having Christian faith. Finally there are those who would appeal directly to Christ. They many not have been as innocent as they would appear, but likely were enthusiasts, spiritualists, proto- gnostics who believed they could discard the Scriptures, deny all laws and live according to their own insights. If one wanted, one could go through two thousand years of Christian history and find similar groups and viewpoints throughout. Even today there are different church bodies and congregations which emphasize one or another of these positions.
Paul is not saying that any one group is entirely wrong, but they should come to agreement in the faith. As they find themselves closer to each other, they come nearer to Christ. As they look to Christ and not their own opinions, they will come closer to each other. Likeness of mind will produce a common purpose which is to witness to the world of the love and power of Christ. The unity of the Church is not only God-pleasing in itself-remember how Jesus prayed in John’s Gospel that his followers would be one with each other just as he and the Father were one-but Christian unity is for the sake of the world. The unity of the Church results in mission to a world longing for truth, forgiveness, meaning, salvation . All the energy spent in quarrels could go to reaching out to others with the Gospel. All the time spent in conflict could be better spent in helping people in need.
We need Paul’s admonition. Certainly Christian unity should not preclude Christian truth. We do not gloss over differences which are very important. I do not agree with everything taught by the Presbyterians or Methodists or Roman Catholics or Baptists. I am uncomfortable with double predestination or sinless perfectionism or papal claims. I disagree with those who would make of baptism and the Lord’s Supper a human work rather than God’s work. But the question does come about essentials. One of the marks of a cult or sect is that they major in minors, overemphasize something that is not very important. When we work with other Christians we must ask ourselves, “Do they have the Bible and preach it? Do they add to God’s Word human ideas or let the Scriptures speak clearly and plainly? Do they practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Do they divide the Body of Christ by downgrading other Christians? Is salvation clearly taught as given through the death and resurrection of Christ alone? Do they make it clear that we are saved by grace?”
Not every Lutheran worships the same way or even thinks the same way. Not everyone in this congregation does either, by no means! When Paul talks about having one mind, he is speaking of unity not uniformity. It is enriching this diversity-a real rainbow of peoples, ideas, cultures, goals. Our unity is not in our wisdom, our behavior, our background, but in Christ Jesus. Our unity is in Jesus Christ. It is God’s power in the cross of Jesus Christ that has formed us into a community, that sustains us on our life’s journey, that makes such disparate and unlikely folks brothers and sisters of one another in the Lord. We are one in Christ through faith; we are one with each other since we have One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. If we come together in one mind and one purpose, then we live out what we already are, Christ’s Church, and then we become truly the people God wants us to be. As we accept each other, speak well of each other, interpret the actions of each other in the kindest way, love each other, we come closer to Christ. As we learn and study and pray, we come closer to the cross of Christ and to each other. Amen.
—Copyright 2005, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.