Sermon / January 22, 2017 / Julie Hoplamazian / 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 /
There are times when the words of Scripture are so strikingly relevant that you can’t believe they were written 2,000 years ago in a completely different context and moment in history.
“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.”
This weekend’s inauguration and subsequent protest marches was the culmination of the last 18 months of the most divisive presidential campaign in recent history. People of good will all across the country are divided. And our country is so divided right now, it seems unlikely, and maybe impossible, for us to “be in agreement and for there to be no divisions among us.”
But let’s take a look at Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and hear more of what he is saying.
“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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.””
It’s a human impulse as old as time to identify which camp you’re part of. Which tribe. Which political party. Which self-help guru. Which religious leader. We are creatures of community; we are designed that way. From the very beginning of creation, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” The story of the creation of humanity is a story about our innate need to have companionship with one another. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, this was satisfied largely by tribal membership in one of the 12 tribes of Israel. Yet, as the actual tribes began to disperse, the tribal mentality remained. Family lineage, citizenship, and other markers of self-identification remained. And still, today, it is natural for us to want to figure out where we belong. In line at the airport just this past week, I found myself looking not at the faces, but at the passports, of the people around me to see where we all belonged.
But you can’t have a conversation about this human impulse – the tendency to figure out where we all fall in the pecking order – without also talking about power. In my international travels over the past few months, I’ve had some thought-provoking conversations with European citizens about traveling and the power of my American passport. In Paul’s time, the issue of belonging to the camp of different religious leaders was not only about conversion but about which of those leaders had more followers and more influence in the burgeoning Christian community. In American political life, we can’t talk about our political affiliations without also talking about the power and influence we hope those affiliations will yield.
Paul’s letter continues: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? …For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.”
The gospel that Paul is preaching is a gospel of unity around the most foolish message one could choose to follow. In Jesus on the cross, we have the power of God. Think about that for a moment. The entirety of Jesus’ action – the heart of the message – is that the crucified one is and was God. The gospel that we proclaim is that we find no greater power than the power of a God who came to earth in the most humble of circumstances, preached publicly for three short years, and pissed off so many earthly authorities that he was conspired against, arrested, tried and convicted as a criminal, and executed. By every earthly measure, the short ministry career of Jesus the Christ was an utter failure. Then, and now, it is complete foolishness to follow a crucified God over powerful earthly leaders.
When I moved to NYC 10 years ago, it was hard to make friends. Not because I’m not utterly charming and completely lovable in every way. I moved to a city at the start of my ministry career during the George W Bush administration, when the political power of the mobilized evangelical Christian base was at its peak – when issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights were being extremely politicized within a passionate, vocal, and powerful sect of Christianity. And when I went anywhere social, where I was meeting new people, one of the first questions I’d always get asked was, “What do you do?” Let’s just say that the answer of, “I’m a minister,” didn’t make me very popular. One of the more extreme and comical reactions I got was from a woman who was standing next to me in a bar as I ordered a martini, whose eyes widened so much I thought they were going to fall out of their sockets, she grabbed her coat, buttoned it up, blurted out, “What are you doing here?” and moved away from me as quickly as possible.
The Christian faith has been used to both support and oppose various political ideologies and earthly powers for centuries. In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, we would do well to reflect on the ways in which Christianity as the religion of dominant empire has done both great good and great damage. The Christian influence over the governing powers of our land a decade ago made many populations vulnerable, and thus my presence as a minister in many social situations unwelcome. The assumption then was that as a Christian, there were specific political ideologies I must have espoused. A specific set of values, under the guise of Christianity, was being used as the basis for the laws of our land, many of which were oppressive toward women, LGBTQ+ folks, and people of color. The Cross certainly seemed to carry a lot of power, and it wasn’t being wielded justly.
In our earthly mindset, power, strength, and success are often measured by political or public influence. The more copies of your book you sell, the more successful you are. The more you can influence your congressional representatives, the more power you have. The more your business shares increase, the stronger your company is. Influence in the economic, political, and entertainment spheres are synonymous with success and power.
And yet, we have the words of Paul. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
The message of the cross is not one of earthly influence, of ascension to golden towers or gilded thrones or best-seller lists or oval offices. It is the message of sacrificial love, of seeing a world of sin and saying, “I will die for this so that others may live.” Christianity doesn’t seek to be the basis for earthly power; it seeks to transform us as citizens of the kingdom of God.
The message of the cross is the power of the One who made his home in the land of Zebulun and Naphthali, land God had promised God’s people that had been conquered by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Ptolemytes, and Romans. These two tribes had been repeatedly victimized, suffered from foreign occupation. And Jesus, in God’s subversive power, makes his home there and calls his disciples from that place.
The message of the cross is the power of Jesus to call us, not from on high but from among us, to be disciples of a kingdom – not a geographic kingdom, but a place where God’s royal activity is unleashed in our midst. 2000 years ago, Jesus called a rag-tag team of people to drop everything and follow him. The power of the cross is the power of a God to see worth in everyday fishermen with dirty jobs and to invite them to be his disciples. It is the power to tell all of us, today, that no matter who we are or where we come from, we are worthy, and have something to contribute to the community that Jesus is gathering.
The message of the cross is the power of God who calls us even now, in a world of sin, to the kind of sacrificial love that has transformed our hearts and remains foolish enough to believe it can transform the world, saying “Come, follow me.” Amen.