Our life together in community has at its center the proclamation of “Christ crucified,” a challenging message from the very beginning. How can a person who freely allowed himself to be humiliated and killed be the one we follow as leader and Lord? How can something that seems so foolish be called powerful and wise? What does Jesus’ way of living and dying teach us about how to live? The apostle Paul grapples with these questions and with the divisions and quarreling of the 1st century Corinthian church in his first letter to that community. The first several chapters of I Corinthians and other texts that help us explore these central questions of our faith will be our guide as we explore the meaning and power of the cross—for our lives and our life together.
The Tie That Unbinds
Family reunions are a fascinating sociological exercise—and no doubt a lucrative one, for our therapists and counselors in the room. For those unfamiliar, they’re exactly what the sound like. A gathering of extended family for one or more days—often involving games, or long-winded monologues about yesteryears, and enough food of questionable caloric value to make even the most active human add at least two pant sizes.
The potential for political punditry or religious zealotry resulting in at least one acrimonious divide is high. Aunt Maudie will inevitably say something hateful about Cousin Clifford that devolves into re-hashing of old wounds only they remember. And it’s likely that one finds themselves torn between the opposing courts of great aunts and uncles who’ll set up shop on opposite ends of the same room and try to outdo one another in their storytelling and social commentary.
In a world where family can mean many things—those we’re related to by birth, those we relate to by choice, those who adopt us into their tribe by no choice of our own—these reunions take on all kinds of expression. And despite the potential for dissension, division, or dissonance anytime we gather with an extended group of those we call “ours,” something special happens when we get together with those we love. We’re reminded we aren't alone. We remember the power of what we share in common to help us rise above our difference and disagreement—even if it's only during dessert. And in a world which seeks to define us by our divisions, we exercise our capacity to remain bound together with others not by ideological purity or conformity, but by a beautiful and messy diversity which only love can build.
Over these next week’s we’ll study a community in ancient Corinth who struggled to understand the ties that unbound them from worldly practices of definition-by-difference and liberated them to live out God’s love with and for one another. Gathered before the cross and rooted in our shared commitment to Jesus Christ we will examine the ways that ties us to one another and to the Church universal in ways that liberate the world to live more fully into the kin-dom of God. And we will celebrate the life-changing power of God through Jesus Christ that makes that kind of life together possible. As we begin that work together today, let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, you have called to be those who proclaim your Gospel. Who together—united in the beautiful, messy realities of our diverse human experience—witness through our work and worship what is possible when we lay down our division for the sake of the kin-dom to which we’re called. So come now, and move ocne more among your people. May your Spirit breathe life into these words of Scripture that they may take root in our hearts. May your Love be shed upon every spirit here, that we may be ever more transformed into your image. Hide me now behind the cross of Christ, that it, and it's promise, power, and grace will be what is spoken of in these next moments. For it is through that cross you have called us, and by that cross you have set us free. Amen.
There was something wrong in Corinth. By the time Paul wrote the words we read today, the community was being torn apart by factions who insisted that they—and not whoever their “them” was—had cornered the marked on correct Christianity. The word commonly interpreted as “division” here is ‘schisma,’ or schism—literally a tear or rift—in their community. The growing factionalism that was beginnging to define their life together was ripping a hole in the fabric of their witness and preventing them from fully living into the work to which they’d been called.
Paul doesn’t mince words in his response. He calls the people to be united—that is rejoined or knit together—by remembering who it was that called them and to what they’d been called in first place. It’s important to note here that this isn’t about ending disagreement or avoiding conflict. Nor is it about insisting on doctrinal conformity or institutional authority. Paul doesn’t have any time for that. No, the words he uses, in their original form, remind the ancient reader that God knits us together in a common identity IN diversity from which we derive strength, hope, wisdom, and power—not so that we gain status or righteousness—but so that we can be who God calls us to be in the world for the sake OF the world and one another. Anything which detracts from that identity and work has no place in Christian community.
This begins, he concludes, with the radical re-orientation of the Corinthian mindset accomplished not through cults of personality or popular preachers or right liturgical observance, but through the simple and confounding message of the cross—the symbol of Roman oppression and state-sanctioned violence which through Christ’s death and resurrection became for the believer a symbol, in the words prophet-teacher James Cone “of God’s solidarity with the oppressed and power to bring hope out of despair, victory out of defeat, and life out of death.”
Gathered in the shadow of the cross, on which Jesus’ model of self-sacrificial love hangs, there is no time for social climbing or political posturing. There’s no room for those who would prefer to procure power at all costs or insist upon the absolute authority of their interpretation or perspective. There’s no sense in protecting or perfecting institutional hierarchies. Because if our model for life together is the cross, if that’s the tie that binds us together in community, then it insists upon the urgency of a life lived—and even lost—for the sake of those God calls us to serve.
But doesn’t it feel good to draw a line in the sand? For all the eloquent words preachers and teachers and modern-day gurus can offer about unity in diversity and recognizing our common humanity, there’s something so natural to the human heart to withdraw into community with those of like mind and affect, and position ourselves—define ourselves even—by the the ways that others are different from us. Democrats and republicans and libertarians and socialists. Methodists and baptists and presbyterians and non-denominationalists. Reconciling Congregations and Wesley Covenant Associations and UM Forward-ers and goodness only knows what comes next. We’re a people who love circling the wagons and making sure folks know we aren’t them, whoever our them might be.
Now, I’m not sure that Paul would find any fault in gathering like-minded folk together. I’m not even convinced he’d condemn the multiplicity of denominations, sects, political affiliations, or theological ideologies so common in the world today. But I am convinced—especially for those who call themselves Christian—that he would most certainly challenge any sectarian inclination among us that distracts us from the common identity we share in Jesus Christ and the common work of liberation, justice, mercy, and love which to which Christ calls us.
Christianity is not, after all, a competitive sport. Our work is not to win out in the theological or political free-for-alls in which we currently find ourselves. Our mission is not to convert those on the other side of whichever aisle we find ourselves to our perspective on things. Our call is not to build up institutions to protect our particular identity or ideology.
Instead, our work is to heal the sick, feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, and proclaim the freedom offered to us through God’s love. Our mission is to live a life so transformed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ that it invites the whole world to come and see what God’s love holds for them. Our call is to be faithful in living in right relationship with God and with one another, trusting that despite our differences when we are faithful to that call God will be faithful to bringing to fruition in us God’s purpose and plan.
This is why the unity Paul’s talking about, and the common foundation of the cross he emphasizes, is so important. When we fall into the false security of segregating ourselves along political, theological, or ideological lines we dilute the power of that work and risk reducing our witness to a moment in history rather than a movement which is building up the Kin-dom of God. When we limit our ‘them-s’ “those peoples” to the narrow categories we create for them we denying the power of God to transform and change even the most hardened of hearts—and assume it’s their hearts, and not our own, which are hardened in the first place. When we limit our own identity to a particular tribe, or define ourselves solely in opposition to another, we limit the ways that God may be calling us to grow and work in the world.
The power of the cross is precisely in the fact it does not do these things. Rather than pointing to a God who exacts vengeance, we receive the love of a God who desires reconciliation with the world. Rather than pointing to a God who draws lines between the righteous and unrighteousness, we hear Jesus say to one crucified next to him, today you will be with me in paradise. Rather than pointing to a god who’s kingdom is built upon the doctrine of might makes right, we see a God who’s kin-dom rests upon life lived for the sake of others and love shared so freely that anyone who desires to do so can find their place in it.
The cross stands—as one hymnist writes—“o’r the wrecks of time” as a testament to what we can accomplish when we reject the idea that we must be defined by our differences and reclaim the power that comes when we speak with one heart and mind. The cross offers life which denominational squabbling and doctrinal division and all the raging of those who would pit us against one another cannot kill. The cross which offers the gift of love freely to all who would receive it, erasing the need for “them” and “us” and establishing a way of life in which unity is found in the richness of our diversity, not in absolutism or conformity.
So who is your “them”? Those people over there who do those things you’re too good to do? The ones you’re too smart for. Too progressive for. Too conservative for.
Who are they? Do you know their names? Their stories? Their fears and doubts? Their joys and hopes? Or have they just become objects in your mind around which you build a sense of self? How much energy do you expend keeping them at arms length? How much energy might you have—to live with greater joy, to love more abundantly, to laugh with greater abandon—if you didn’t? What might we be able to do if instead of limiting ourselves to us and them we spoke with one voice on behalf of those the world gives no voice at all?
The gift of Christ’s love—given freely on the cross—is that it liberates us from a world of them-s and those people so that the whole world might be free. It is the tie that binds our hearts to one another and liberates us—unbinds us—to fully live as those who need no them’s or those people at all. As we lean into whatever comes next for us—as a nation, as a denomination, as a congregation, as the human family—I pray that we might find that freedom. And that, through it, we might be together a church and world united not by ideological purity or conformity, but in the beauty and wonder of our diversity.