Saturday, January 21, 2017

We Are United in Christ

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 This congregation is 90 years old.  During those years we have been served by 15 different pastors plus a number of vacancy pastors.  Some of these pastors were older men—some younger.  Some of these men were fiery, “pound the pulpit” kinds of preachers—others more soft-spoken. 
Each pastor was different from the man who came before him—different than the man who came after him.  For long-time members, the differences between all the pastors you have known are vivid.
            And yet as different as these pastors were—one from another--what unites all them was a shared faith—a shared pastoral practice when it comes to administering the sacraments—and a shared commitment to provide spiritual care for the folks here. 
For 90 years the people of God at Trinity Lutheran Church in San Angelo, Texas have been able to come to church on Sunday morning and be confident that you will hear the Word of God faithfully preached and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.  This is a profound blessing from God! 
            But what we see today in God’s Word is that this is a blessing that can be undermined when individual preferences and personalities become more important than the shared faith and practice that binds us together as a congregation.  Paul writes:
I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
Paul began this letter to the Corinthians by reminding them of their identity—that by virtue of Christ’s saving work—they were now children of the heavenly Father—members of the same family—brothers and sisters in Christ. 
And when he begins to address the troubles in their congregation, he continues in the same way:  I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ...
That appeal rings out across the centuries to us sitting here today since we share in that same apostolic faith that was believed and practiced in Corinth.  And so the admonition of Paul is spoken to us too—that there be no divisions among us—for divisiveness undermines the identity that God bestows upon us.
When we were baptized, we were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No matter what name we bear on earth—all of us bear the name of Christ as his people—we have the same spiritual family name.  When there are divisions in the Christian congregation-- it is a denial of our identity as Christ’s people. 
On the other hand, when we are united in the same mind and the same judgment—that unity is a powerful affirmation of the truth of our identity:  that we are the heavenly Father’s children and that Jesus is our brother.
It’s the living out of this baptismal identity that is always the challenge—but we must never become reconciled to anything or anyone that undermines and destroys our identity and identity.  That’s what was happening in Corinth as they let their own personal preferences.  Paul writes:
It has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
            Like our own congregation here in San Angelo, Corinth had been served by a number of pastors and teachers.  And like our congregation’s pastors, Paul and Apollos and Cephas and the others, taught and practiced the same Christian faith. 
They were very different men to be sure --with different gifts and abilities and personalities—but they were perfectly united in the Christian faith that they taught and practiced as pastors.
 But their common faith and common witness was being undermined by a “cult of personality” that the Corinthians had allowed to grow up in their midst.  The Corinthians were identifying themselves with a particular pastor --and allowing their personal preferences to divide them from one another.
Now, there is nothing wrong with personal preferences—we all have them—and it is natural to identify more strongly with one person more than another.  This happens even with our pastors.  We prefer this guy’s style- or we identify with another guy because he’s in the same place in life as we are- or we prefer another man’s personality. 
And there is no problem with that UNTIL those personal preferences take precedence over the truth of God’s Word that unites us together.  Then those preferences begin to undermine who we are and what we are called to be about as a congregation.
Such was the bitterness and quarreling in the Corinthian congregation that it had gotten outside the walls of the church into the greater Christian community. 
All of us need this reminder that when there is division and quarreling in a church—it is not just that church that is wounded—but the mission of Christ is undermined.  We need this timely reminder that what UNITES us in this congregation is infinitely greater than what DIVIDES us.  Paul writes:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
            Any time we are tempted to let personality or preference, divide us as Christians we need to remember these words.  In the strongest terms Paul points out the sinfulness of divisiveness in the Christian congregation.
  By virtue of our baptism into Christ, each of us are members of his body.  Is it possible that Christ is divided?  Of course not! 
Is Paul or Cephas or Apollos or some individual pastor whom we prefer to another greater than our Savior who shed his life’s blood for us?  Blasphemous! 
Does one pastor’s baptism make us more of a Christian than the Holy Trinity who adopted us in Holy Baptism?  It’s outrageous to even suggest such a thing! 
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism—one God and Father of us all and that God-given unity in the congregation must not be torn asunder by some individual preference on our part.
So strongly does Paul make this point that he goes on to say that he is glad that he only baptized a few folks there in Corinth so that he has as little part in this divisiveness as possible. 
Now this is an incredible thing for a pastor to say!  The greatest blessing for a pastor is to baptize—to see someone go from being an enemy of God to a child of God—to bestow the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation upon someone in the waters of Holy Baptism-- is a profound joy!   
But such was Paul’s opposition to their divisiveness that he is glad that he only baptized a few so that his name is not drawn into it.  He says:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
            The power of the cross unites.  The cross united God and man by the atoning sacrifice that was offered there.  The cross united Jew and Gentile into one family of faith.  The cross of Christ is the power that restores life for us as it was in the beginning.
To preach the Good News of the cross:  Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the sins of the world-- was the great mission that Jesus had called Paul to undertake.
Other men would follow him who would baptize and commune and absolve and do the “day-to-day” work of a pastor in a congregation and together they would work to see that the apostolic message of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself went out into the world.
Nothing could be allowed to rob this message of its saving power—not fine-sounding philosophical arguments that left people unsure of what was being preached—not personality differences between pastors--and certainly not divided congregations that were a denial of the very thing that they were proclaiming.  
Over the last several years that I have served Trinity, we have been blessed by God with the spiritual gift of unity.  With very few exceptions, personal preferences and individual personalities have never threatened to undermine our unity. 
I am profoundly grateful to the saints in this place for your spiritual maturity and respect for the pastoral office no matter who the incumbent of that office is.

But today’s lesson applies to us too if for no other reason than as a timely reminder that congregational unity is a blessing to be sought and carefully nurtured because the consequences of division cuts to the heart of the Christian faith and undermines the saving mission of Christ in this world.  God grant that there be no divisions among us!  Amen.

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