Anglican Church of Canada
Third Sunday after Epiphany January 21, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Last week we heard the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and the word he uses to speak of them: saints. We talked about what it means to be a saint, how it names a deep reality about who we are as a church: we are saints, not by our own doing, not by getting this holiness thing right, but because that is who God says we are – and so our life as Christians is a slow living into the holiness that is our secret selves.
But this week we move from that deep, hidden reality of who we are, to a reality that lies a lot closer to the surface. “It has been reported to me” Paul says, “that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” Imagine that, a church where there were quarrels! Well, of course it’s not surprising. The church in Corinth was simply one of the first of a long and venerable Christian institution of quarreling in church.
Indeed, it would be surprising if there weren’t quarrels and tensions in the church in Corinth. We have to remember what a remarkable new experiment Paul was attempting in building his churches. These churches included people from across all the many divisions that ran through ancient society: they included people from all nations, people of different religious backgrounds, Jews as well as Gentiles; women and men brought together on a basis of equality; people of different social and economic classes, from the wealthy to the working poor to the slaves who served the wealthy. This was precisely the vision behind the churches Paul built: that the Spirit of Christ was calling all different sorts of people into one family, tearing down the walls of division that ran through society. He was attempting something never before seen in ancient society – no wonder there were some tensions!
And then in Corinth! A seaport city, filled with people of every conceivable nation jostling together in its crowded slums; a city where some had made huge fortunes, while most struggled to get by; a city rife with crime, with prostitution, where shady deals were struck in backrooms. Actually a lot like our modern cities, in many respects. And here too, the Spirit of Jesus is at work, calling together a church of saints! So of course they quarreled!
We don’t know exactly what the quarrels were about, Paul doesn’t get into that. From the rest of the letter, we know that there were tensions between rich and poor; that the relationship to the pagan culture they came from and which still surrounded them caused hurt and strife; and presumably there was tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians about the relationship to the Jewish law. But Paul seems less interested in the details of the quarrels, as the fact that they have begun to divide into various factions around different leadership figures. It is the fact of these factions, this habit of dividing into groups and seeing the other as the enemy, that Paul sees as the real danger.
And that, of course, is still very much with us. This week is the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, where churches from all over the world join together in prayer to overcome the divisions that hinder our common witness to the world. But not in this town; here the week passes unnoticed, our divisions are unlamented, because we clergy can’t get together and treat each other as colleagues.
I took the opportunity this week to attend the only local gathering of clergy I am aware of, a continuing education and support group of evangelical clergy from up and down the Valley. The Well, they call it. This was my second time there, and both times I have been welcomed with warm and hospitality – and both times the program has been excellent. But I did get a bit of a reality check this time, in our small group discussion, where a couple of colleagues launched into a tirade about how the liberal churches had abandoned the faith and sold out to the world. I felt my buttons being pushed and my hackles rising, but I bit my tongue (for the time being). “It has been reported to me that there are factions among you, and quarrels.”
Of course we see these same quarrels within our own Anglican church. They were certainly very evident in and around General Synod last year. The issue of same-sex marriage once again brought our tensions to the boiling point, but I don’t think it’s really about that. If we didn’t have that, we would find something else to quarrel about. And again, the factionalism arises because we push each other’s buttons, and our hackles rise, and the urge becomes strong simply to write off the other side, to condemn them as a bunch of benighted, misguided bigots we want nothing to do with. But it is not that easy. Right or wrong, they are the saints, and are brothers and sisters called into the same body of Christ with us, right or wrong. When we see that the “bigots” we are tempted to write off include a large portion of the First Nations in the Anglican church – well, that should give us pause.
And there are quarrels in this community. Of course there are. We bump into each other, and we hurt each other. I think we do a pretty good job of remembering who we really are, and forgiving one another. But those of you who have been around for a few years will know that there was a time several years back when the tensions between the two churches in the parish came to a painful quarrel. Passions have subsided – but some of the old hurt is still there. I have heard from one or two – only a very few – All Saints people bitter accounts of what those awful Holy Trinity people did back then; and I have heard from one or two – only a very few – Holy Trinity people what those awful All Saints people did back then. Clearly some people are still hurting. And it is important to give voice to our hurt, to bring it out and not let it fester, so I’m glad these people speak to me about it, and not let it loose on each other. But I feel a bit like – well, it’s like your daughter living in Toronto calls you up to complain about your other daughter living in Calgary, and all the awful things she has done. And you want to say, yes, I love you, and I’m sorry you are feeling so hurt. And you want to say, I don’t think that quite everything was meant as an attack on you, I think you are sometimes seeing malicious motives where none was intended. And you want to say, yes, she may have behaved hurtfully, sometimes things push our buttons and we don’t handle it in the best way. Please forgive her. Please let it go. You will be happier. And it is tearing me apart to hear you two quarrel.
As I said last week, we are a work in progress, we saints of the Lord. I think the hurts we receive in church can be so deep, because we hold to such a high ideal of how to treat each other; and when someone doesn’t live up to it, we feel deeply betrayed. But we are a work in progress, all of us. Remember that your brother or sister has that yellow construction tape wrapped around them as a warning; remember that you do too. That tape is a reminder that sometimes we need our hard-hats when we come here; sometimes we will hear things that will make us have to swallow and count to ten. But we do that. Because we are brothers and sisters.
Paul says: “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” This language of having the same mind and all can be misleading and disturbing. Do we really have to think the same way about everything, is there no room for differing opinions in the church? That kind of makes us sound like the Moonies.
I am quite sure that is not what Paul meant. The very basis of his vision of the church is one of diverse people called together by the Spirit, people with different backgrounds, different tastes, different gifts. The Spirit does not call us into a uniform sameness, where we all start thinking exactly the same. If we were all identical, then it would be real easy to love one another – except then it wouldn’t really be love, would it? Real love, Christian love, is not love for ourselves and everyone who is just like us – that’s just, well, narcissism. Real love is for someone who is different and sometimes strange and complicated. It’s what keeps our marriages real, and alive – that the other person forces us to come out of ourselves. It’s what makes love such hard work, in marriage and in the church. It’s also what makes love, in marriage and in the church, so fascinating and enriching and life-giving.
The one mind that Paul speaks about does not mean we have to have the same opinion on everything. Our ideas and perspectives can be as wide as the human race. Paul is not talking about our every thought. He is talking about that one thing that brings us together in all our diversity. He is talking about Jesus, and the self-giving love that Jesus showed us in his life, and in his death. Paul’s shorthand for this is “the Word of the cross” – a phrase we will try to unpack next week. For today, his point is this: in all your differences and factions and quarrels, keep this one thing in mind: the love of Christ for you and your brothers and sisters. Jesus gave himself for us, for every one of us. And every one of us is here because we have been touched by that love. That is the one thing that matters. That should put all of our quarrels and divisions into a perspective where they don’t really matter that much, where we can get beyond them. Keep you eye on the one on the cross – he will heal all our divisions, and reconcile all our hurts.