1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Us and Them: Agreeing and Disagreeing
I was visiting with a parishioner yesterday, and she was telling me how she mostly watches sport on TV because she doesn’t think there’s anything else on worth watching. She said, “I thought it would be better once the election is over, but…” and she let her sentence trail off. I’m sure we can easily fill in the rest for her. We thought tensions would ebb – but there is so much fear, so much anger, so much pain, so much hurt, so much division. I have strong political views, and I’m sure many of you do as well, but I’ve found myself wanting to disengage lately, even where I’m passionate about issues, because the level of meanness is exhausting. I’ve noticed that a handful of my friends have quit facebook altogether lately. Somehow we think that our words and actions online don’t count, and people seem free to be hurtful online in a way they remember not to in “real life.” I’m not giving up on facebook, but I will admit that I’ve used the “hide” feature more than once, allowing me to not see posts from people who have nothing nice to say. I’m weary. We talked last Sunday about our call to live out our baptismal vows, to seek justice and extend welcome in God’s name. But it is hard to act, to stay faithful and strong when it feels like everyone is getting clobbered out there in the world. I’m not naïve, and I don’t expect or even want us to all be of one mind and one voice. But I’m saddened and fearful when I see that disagreement turn into fights turn into wars.
And so today, we turn back to 1 Corinthians, the book we were looking at this fall when we talked about our theme “Church Can Happen Anywhere.” The Corinthians are the perfect community to think about when we need to look at conflict and God’s call to us in the midst of turmoil and division. Our passage for today comes from near the very beginning of 1 Corinthians. Paul doesn’t waste any time getting to the point of his letter to this new faith community. After nine verses of greeting and blessing, he jumps right in: “I appeal to you, in the name of Jesus: be in agreement with each other. Don’t have divisions among you. Be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” He goes on to describe that he’s heard reports from some of Chloe’s people. We don’t know anything much about Chloe – this is the only place her name is mentioned. But the verse suggests that she was a person of some significance or leadership in the church at Corinth. At any rate, Chloe’s people want Paul to know what’s been going on in Corinth.
In the early faith communities, one particular leader would be the founder – the first person who came to the place to share the message of Jesus and the good news about God’s grace. But that person would move on to other communities, and other teachers and preachers would eventually come and visit with the fledgling church. Apparently, at least three people have had an impact on the community at Corinth – Paul, Apollos, and Cephas – who we know better by his Hebrew name Simon Peter. All of them have been through Corinth and taught the people there about Jesus and how to be followers of Jesus. But something troubling has happened. People in Corinth have started identifying more with the messenger of the good news than with the message, and so instead of being followers of Jesus, people are claiming that they are followers of Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas. Each of these teachers would have had a unique way of sharing the message – just like no pastor you’ve had here is the same – but people are starting to divide and align themselves with whichever teacher they liked best.
Paul very quickly lets them know that this is not the way to go about things. “Has Christ been divided,” he asks, or “was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” The unspoken resounding answer to all of these questions is, of course, NO. Paul says he was sent to proclaim the good news, but that his preaching wasn’t full of eloquent wisdom. This is a good thing though, he concludes, because then people know that the power of the message he shares is from Jesus and the cross, not from Paul himself. The message of Jesus and the cross might seem like foolishness to those who haven’t received it, who don’t understand the strength of Jesus offering his life for us – but when we get it, when we believe and understand – the message of Jesus is the saving power of God. Grounded in the message of Jesus, Paul spends the whole rest of the letter urging the Corinthians to work for reconciliation, and healing of conflict and division.
Last week I shared with you John Wesley’s words from his sermon Catholic Spirit. He asked if we could be of one heart, even if we were not of one opinion. I want to tell you a bit more about the sermon those words come from. Wesley was preaching on a passage from 2 Kings. In the passage, we meet a man named Jehu who has been anointed by the prophet Elisha as the next king of Israel. Jehu is on a mission to stop the worship of the god Baal, and to destroy a temple to Baal, so that Israel will be faithful to God once again. On his way to confront the priests of Baal, he meets a man named Jehonadab on the road. Jehonadab is a Kenite, not an Israelite. He has some different ways of worshiping God, and he has a different lifestyle from Jehu and the Israelites. But he’s somewhat of a sage, a wise counselor among his people. Jehu sees him and says to him: “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” And Jehonadab answers, “It is.” And so Jehu says, “If it is, give me your hand.” Jehonadab does, and together, they go to return Israel to a faithful worship of God.
It is this exchange of words that Wesley uses as the centerpiece of his sermon. Wesley writes, "’If it be, give me thy hand.’ I do not mean, ‘Be of my opinion.’ You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, ‘I will be of your opinion.’ I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavor to come over to me, or bring me over to you … Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only ‘give me thine hand.’”
Wesley sees a lot of room for being in relationship with one another even where opinions are very different. This was an important topic for him to think about, because he was long-engaged in a struggle with his own church, the Church of England, about theology and worship practices, and engaged in a struggle with his own Methodist movement about whether or not the Americas should break away from England to be their own people and own faith movement. Still, Wesley didn’t believe that relationships could flourish without solid common ground. That’s the “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours” part. Here’s how Wesley interpreted these words. He asks: Is your heart right with God? Do you believe in God and God’s perfection? Do you believe in Jesus? Is Jesus revealed in your soul? Does he dwell in your heart? Is your faith filled with the energy of love? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind? Are you busy doing God’s will and work in the world? Do you serve God faithfully and reverently? Is your heart right toward you neighbor? Do you love all people without exception, even your enemies? Do you show your love with good works? In order to say that your hearts were true to each other, Wesley expected you to be able to answer yes to all these questions! That’s a lot of common ground. Interestingly, Wesley doesn’t say anything about specific theological tenets, even though he would argue fervently for his points of view, and he doesn’t say anything specific about worship practices, although he had strong feelings about them, and he doesn’t even claim any particular religious tradition as correct, even acknowledging in his sermon that everyone thinks they’re right about everything, but no one really can know that they’ve got all the answers. (1) If, Wesley says, your heart is true to mine as mine is to yours, then we might join hands and journey together. We do this, he says, not by coming to hold the same opinions and practices, but instead by loving one another, praying for one another, and encouraging each other to love and good works.
I find Wesley’s words to be powerful. He was an extremely opinionated person. He wrote about everything from politics to theology to nutrition to advice on how long people should sleep to writing a medical book with suggest treatments for a variety of illnesses. He considered himself kind of an expert in everything. I can only imagine that he was sometimes fairly difficult to be around. But even still, as right as he thought was about everything, he was more interested in finding some common ground for serving God than in making sure everyone else was just like him.
The apostle Paul was like him – another strongly opinionated person who didn’t hold back from sharing how he thought things should be done. Yet, again and again Paul writes that in Christ Jesus, we are made new creations, and some of the old dividing lines fade in light of our identity in Christ. No longer Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free – not because we’re all the same, and not because our diversity isn’t valuable, but because our common ground and common purpose is even more important. Paul Bellan-Boyer writes, “Clothing [ourselves with Christ does not erase our differences, but it does cover them, set them aside, put them in a new context … Paul does not ask that the Corinthians be identical – only that they cease to work at cross purposes, and instead work for cross purposes.” (2)
I think, then, that’s a question we need to ask: Do we have some common ground that is more important to us than being right? Do we have some common ground on which we can build up our relationships? Do we have a common purpose that drives us? For many years, I served on the Board of Directors of the General Board of Church and Society or GBCS. That’s our denominations public policy and advocacy agency, located in Washington, DC. The agency, among other things, represents our United Methodist beliefs right on Capitol Hill. I’ll talk a bit more about their work next week, but today, I want to share this: GBCS would partner with a variety of different faith groups in order to amplify our voice on the Hill. Sometimes, we’d partner with faith groups where we had a lot of disagreement on a variety of issues. For example, United Methodists and Southern Baptists have different beliefs about a lot of theological and social issues. But we’d still work together when we could find common ground in our Christian identity on issues that mattered to both of us, even knowing that we would never share the same perspective on other important matters.
“Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours? … If it is, give me your hand.” In the midst of disagreeing, passionately, about issues that are near and dear to us, I think we can find some common ground in simple things, ways we can agree to treat each other. We can speak to each other face to face when we’re disagreeing, speak to each other directly, rather than to others about each other. We can avoid making generalizations and stereotypes about groups of people. We can talk about what we believe and why we believe it using “I statements” – “I think this, I believe this” – owning our words. We can remember that our online words are still ours – who we are online is who we are – period. We can remember to be critical of ideas, but hesitant to be critical of people. We can listen – really listen – to people with whom we disagree. We can be kind and compassionate. Simple things. Basic things. But these basic things can give us common ground worth standing on with the rest of humankind!
And then, we can push ourselves to go deeper, friends. Remember the questions that Wesley asked: Is our heart right with God? Is Jesus revealed in our souls? Do we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind? Are we busy doing God’s will and work in the world? Do we love all people without exception, even our enemies? Do we show our love with good works? Friends – if together we can say yes to all of those questions, if we will, if we strive to be able to say “yes” with confidence to all of this – what differences could possibly hold us back from accomplishing God’s vision for the world? “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours? … If it is, give me your hand.” Amen.
(1) Wesley, John, Catholic Spirit, http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-39-Catholic-Spirit, and my own paraphrase of his words.
(2) Bellan-Boyer, Paul. http://citycalledheaven.blogspot.com/2011/01/no-divisions.html