1 Cor. 1: 10-18
Preached in the Center Moreland Charge, January 23, 2011
“It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you. . . “
Paul has stayed in touch with his congregation in Corinth, and is seeking to assist them in their continued life together.
Corinth is a town on one of the main trading roads of the Roman Empire, and there were probably many people who were worshipping with that congregation who weren’t born there, and didn’t come to Christ through the actions of the believers in that town. It would be like any church in a crossroads city, where a lot of trade and a lot of traffic come through. I heard a preacher once describe Corinth as a city a lot like San Francisco—many cultures, many beliefs, many practices, all living cheek by jowl on a small plot of land. And what is true of the city as a whole would certainly be true of the Christians who gathered there.
It might have been true that all of these people who are named, these evangelists, for lack of a better term; Apollos, Cephas, even Paul for a couple of them, had visited Corinth. Paul mentions, however, some who had claimed their faith by Christ alone, and so I’m inclined to believe that these people of Cephas, these people of Apollos, developed their beliefs and understandings apart from the town of Corinth. And when they meet in Corinth, there are disruptions and disagreements about how to practice the faith.
A mild illustration of this would be if we were to go visit a Presbyterian church, and while a lot of the organization of worship would be similar enough to our own not to be troubling, when you got to the Lord’s Prayer, there would be some uncertainty when you would say “trespasses”, as you were taught, and hear everyone else around you say “sins”.
Imagine that on a greater scale, and perhaps you might have a sense of the underlying tension in the Corinthian church.
Many of us here have come from other places, and at the same time, many of us have been here our whole lives. I can’t say that there has been a constant influx of different cultures or Christian practices on the magnitude of a city like San Francisco or Philadelphia, or even at the level of Wilkes Barre.
But Paul’s lesson here is that the differences are not important-how we understand salvation, whether it be how we were taught by the founder of our practice, John Wesley, or as taught by Martin Luther, or John Calvin, or St. Augustine, or whether we arrive at some sort of idiosyncratic understanding of our own by an unaided and unguided reading of Scripture, Paul’s lesson for us is to say that our differences not be divisions, and that our personal understandings not be understood as the singular and sole correct views.
This is a United Methodist church, and our doctrines are based on the teachings of the 18th century English priest John Wesley. The most important and distinctive part of these teachings is that we are in the grip of grace from the moment of our first breath, that there is a grace that accompanies us and gently impels us toward God. Wesley writes about it a lot in his sermons, but here is one line that is useful for our purpose here: “It is God that of his Good pleasure worketh in you both to will and to do.”
If we were to update that language from the 18th century, King-James-soaked language, it means this-it is wholly by God’s pleasure that he leads us both to act and to think. This would seem to be fine and clear for those that have found Christ and have been led to a decision for faith in Christ. But Wesley is clear in this additional point-God works his will in us long before we have even figured out who God is, and he is pulling us slowly towards Godself, the way that even a slow moving river can push a canoe.
Some would call the moment of decision that we declare our faith in Christ as the moment of our salvation. Wesley, and the doctrine of our practice, however, allows for there to be either one large dramatic decision, like Paul getting knocked off his horse and being rebuked by Jesus himself, or room for many small decisions, like a child attending summer camp and Sunday school, and being taught all along the way.
I came to the Christian faith in my early twenties in a moral crisis, realizing that I could not refrain from hurting people based solely on my own strength. On the spectrum of conversion stories, it was relatively sudden and dramatic. But If I were to say that that was the only way that someone could be saved, I would have completely discounted the faith journey of many people, including Donna, the woman I married, who was raised from infancy in the church, and came to know Christ through long acquaintance and friendship. She couldn’t ever tell a satisfying, dramatic story of her salvation. Was she any less of a Christian by not having had the dramatic coming to Christ story of salvation? Those of you who remember her, her compassion and her willingness to serve, would of course say no.
Her journey to faith was very different from my own, but it was no less valid for its difference. Our son’s story of Grace drawing him toward a relationship with Christ began a long time ago, and will have its own trajectory, and it will be equally as valid as either Donna’s or mine.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that they were to be united in the same mind and the same purpose. Let me suggest that that purpose is not to convert souls as if we have some McDonalds sign out front counting billions and billions served. Rather, let me suggest that we are to take Jesus’ own model in sharing the love of God-we are to say to the world, through our actions and our speech, “come and see”. We are to show God’s love, and invite those whom we meet into God’s presence in a gentle fashion, sometimes even amongst us here, and hopefully allow them to take away something that increases their faith, awakens their awareness. We are not to “score a point” with the souls of others, we are simply called to offer Christ to the world, and support each others’ journey toward a closer walk with God.
We are called always into a closer walk with God. How we got here, how we get there, is a story to be told that may be of value, but one soul’s story is never to be used as how all souls should walk.