I Corinthians 1:10-18
Third Sunday After Epiphany
Preacher: Isaiah Fish, Ministry Intern
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
These are tough words to hear on a day like today, after a year like this past year has been.
Spend a few minutes reading The New York Times and discover how divided our nation has seemingly become, or at least see how our true colors have finally come to light. Whether it be the Presidential election or our understandings of gender, you’ll discover that the United States suddenly isn’t as united as we may like to portray.
Take a glance at your cousin’s latest Facebook post, or sit at a table at your family reunion, and you’re surely going to find that even the blood that’s supposedly thicker than water isn’t quite thick enough to withstand a discussion about religion or race.
Read summaries from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church last summer and you’ll be guaranteed to stumble upon rumors about a potential split over the issue of sexuality in the denomination.
We even know that in this very sanctuary we may very well find people that are in all other spheres our enemies. We have people who voted for Trump and celebrated the Presidential Inauguration on Friday, and we have people who were out in the streets all day yesterday chanting and holding protest signs. We inhabit all sides of the political spectrum, and while that makes us a diverse community, it also provides challenges about our own life together.
Two thousand years later, it’s poignantly telling that Paul’s appeal is still as applicable now as it was to the church in Corinth.
I don’t think that we’re necessarily proud of these divisions. I really do think that we want to live and work in communities that are united and cohesive. We don’t look forward to conflict, nor do we really want to have ill-will towards others. So we put on the mask of unity and peace, a facade that covers up those deep disagreements. Yet at the very same time, we have to ask the cost of that faux unity and peace and who gets to define what those actually look like.
After all, not all unity is holy unity. Not all peace is holy peace.
Let us remember that the grand jury of Frederick County, Virginia in 1835 issued a decision against the Abolition Society of New York, arguing that the antislavery organization was an “evil of great magnitude,” accusing it of disturbing the peace and threatening lives, failing to consider that the “peace” of slavery was anything but.
Or perhaps we should remember the words of eight clergymen in Alabama, including a Methodist bishop, who wrote against the public instances of civil disobedience, citing that although there was room for a conversation on racial inequality in the courts, attempts of change outside of the court system instead caused “racial friction and unrest.” It was this public statement that prompted Martin Luther King, Jr. to write his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he argued that the greatest block to freedom for African Americans was not the Ku Klux Klan or other racist organizations but rather the one “who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
We can try to live in unity. But with whom and about what is that unity? We seek a community and country that is peaceful, but we fail to consider the costs at which that peace comes. Likewise, we pursue a united church by failing to consider what it really is that we are united with.
Not all peace is holy peace, and not all unity is holy unity.
In the past couple of weeks, we have heard quite a bit about baptism. Two weeks ago, Margaret spoke about Jesus’ baptism and called us to remember our baptism, that moment in which we are washed of sin and enter into the church, leaving an old life and entering into a new one. Last week, Pastor Cathy invited us to think about our baptism into this beloved community, encouraging us to live that life of ever expanding and the extreme way of love. In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul brings us to baptism yet again.
Corinth at this time was a city at the zenith of what is called the Pax Romana, which was a time of social order for the Roman Empire, of very few invasions, and of a system at which the individual provinces had some degree of autonomy to make their own laws, granted that they paid taxes and homage to Caesar. It was prosperous, and at least to those who fell in line with the Roman ethic, it was peaceful.
A friend of mine at Vanderbilt Divinity School offers an incredibly helpful framework through which we can understand the dynamics of this community a bit further: While initially a Greek city, it had been destroyed and reconstructed as a Roman colony. As Rome grew through conquering, it would make a deal with the slaves of those nations that they had overthrown. If the slave would pledge allegiance to the law and order of the Roman Empire, they could be granted citizenship while still being allowed some degree of self-rule. Because Greece bought and sold slaves from all around the Mediterranean, Corinth was perhaps one of the most diverse cities in the Empire, with a multitude of religions, cultures, legal structures, and political leaders. Above all, however, social status was most marked by the Roman traits of honor, wealth, production, and power, those ideals that maintained the peace.
The Corinthian church was surely just as diverse, and thus had some of those same previous divisions that arose in their community. Some have chosen to be aligned with Paul (who started the church), some aligned with Cephas (which is the Aramaic for Peter), some sided with Apollo (who had been the person nurturing the church), and a select few had perhaps heard Jesus himself speak and thus claimed some sort of spiritual superiority. And as they were dividing themselves into these factions, Paul asks them, “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” He’s subtly reckoning this division with idolatry, a carryover from their Roman customs. Furthermore, this idolatry of division is tearing apart the body of Christ. The only way to re-member this body is to remember their introduction into it in the first place, their baptisms. Paul is invoking the memory of dying to their old selves and being born into the Kingdom of God, a radically new reality. What unites the church of Corinth is their baptism, which is itself a reenactment of the death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection into new, abundant, and liberating life.
Indeed, this cross is foolishness to those on the outside. It completely contradicts the paradigm of the Pax Romana. Power is found not in military strength and subjugation but in freedom and submission. It is not the wealthiest that are blessed but it is rather the poor. The cross reveals a Kingdom that comes not within the framework of the violent peace of the Roman Empire but rather a peace that reverses all understandings of power and privilege. Yet by holding onto these divisions that are so reminiscent of Rome, the Corinthians have yet to fully live into their baptism and thus have not been resurrected into the new reality into which Christ has called them.
But Paul calls this community back to this radical alternative. Yes, they were Roman citizens with various cultural backgrounds, but before any of that, they were members of the Kingdom of God. Their ethic was not to be the same ethics of Rome, but they were instead to be united as a community marked by a radical ethic of hospitality and of love as manifested so beautifully in the foolishness of the cross and resurrection.
Compare this, if you will, to our Gospel lesson today. Right before our selection, Jesus is found in the wilderness, and we read of those three temptations. Notably, the last temptation is where the devil takes Jesus up to that very high mountain over which they could see all of the kingdoms of the world and all of the splendor that was in them. And the devil turns to Jesus and says, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
For Matthew to write this was truly a subversive act. The lands that Jesus would have seen were all a part of the Roman Empire at this point in history, also in the midst of this Paax Romana. But Matthew sees this prosperous time and names it as being of the devil, for it is these lands with which the devil tempts Jesus.
Yet Jesus does not acquiesce; he does not give in. Instead, he finds himself in a small, backwater town of Capernaum, a town not of economic success and imperial might but of struggles and marginalization. Jesus does not choose the splendor or light of the Roman Empire, but he instead chooses what is truly its antithesis: the land of darkness and the shadow of death. And in that land, Matthew writes, the true light has dawned, as Jesus proclaims the advent of a different peace and a different kingdom from what was the prevailing norm.
As Jesus is preaching this message, we encounter a peculiar situation with the fishermen. Though not rich by any standard, these four men likely had enough to support themselves and their family. This was, after all, their family work. They were fishermen, their fathers were fishermen, their fathers’ fathers were likely fishermen as well. This was the world they knew, and it was what was expected of them. It’s a strange encounter, but it also makes me wonder what exactly it was that Jesus was saying. What was it about such a proclamation that was so compelling? It would take a lot for me to drop everything and follow a stranger around, and even then it would take weeks of deliberation and weighing my options. But these men encounter this strange proclamation, and the text tells us that they immediately drop their nets and their former lives and follow Jesus as he continued to teach about this new kingdom and heal the people.
We desire unity, but what is it that we are going to unite under? We have options, of course. We can rest with the peace of our own empire, which finds a peace in the subjugation of others, if only we are able to fall in line behind our leaders, both Republican and Democrat. We can remain trustful of political and economic systems that are simply business as usual, relying on an ethic of competition and the pursuit of power, wealth, and security.
But to do so would be idolatry.
Rather, we find that we are united not on the basis of our economic status, our national origin, or our politics but rather by our baptisms. We find that we are united by nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the love of God manifest in our midst. And this baptism binds us together somehow into that same mind and the same purpose.
It’s a purpose that is undergirded by the notion that all are created in the image of God, without exception.
It’s a hope that seeks that day when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
It’s a mind that all can be saved from perishing and brought into everlasting life.
It’s solidarity with the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the hungry and thirsty.
It’s unity with God’s self, who goes with us even to the depths of hell.
It’s towards that peace in which the merciful receive mercy in return, where the pure in heart indeed see God, and in which it is the peacemakers that are called the children of God.
It’s a mind that is guarded by the peace of God that transcends all understanding.
It’s a purpose that is in line with Mary’s song in Advent, when she proclaims:
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
It’s a unity with Christ’s words in Luke 4, a unity with those in chains, for they shall be released, with the blind who shall see, and with the oppressed who shall go free.
It’s a hope that allows us, like the fishermen, to forego our allegiances and to drop everything we have and all that we know to follow Jesus.
We find ourselves in a divided world, with factions pulling for our admiration, our money, our time, and our devotion. But if we indeed wish to stand as a united community, we cannot, as Jurgen Moltmann notes on the quote on our bulletin, put up with reality as it is. We cannot put up with the ethics of this world as they are. We cannot be consumed with the peace of our empire or the factions of our partisan politics. But we rather must stand united under an ethic that comes not from those politicians or the powers, nor even from our own understandings, but from an ethic of love that finds its home in the very God amongst us.
May we stand together, united most deeply by nothing less than this holy love.
 I Corinthians 1:10