- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005

The following are excerpts of a sermon given recently by the Rev. William C. Teng at Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alexandria.

Comedian Emo Philips used to tell this story:

“In conversation with a person I had recently met, I asked, ‘Are you Protestant or Catholic?’ My new friend answered, ‘Protestant.’ I said, ‘Me, too. What denomination?’ He answered, ‘Baptist.’ ‘Me, too,’ I said, ‘Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?’ ‘Northern Baptist,’ he replied. ‘Me, too,’ I shouted. And we continued to go back and forth and finally I asked, ‘Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern conservative fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?’ And he replied, ‘Council of 1912.’ I said, ‘Die, heretic.’”

The popular Presbyterian writer and pastor Frederick Buechner talks about denominations this way: “When Jesus took the bread and said, ‘This is my body which is broken for you,’ it is hard to believe that even in his wildest dreams he foresaw the tragic and ludicrous brokenness of the church as his body.”

This is how it works in all other areas of life, isn’t it? When we don’t have what we want, we change the channel, we buy a new toy, we may even get a new job. The bottom line is, we get what pleases us.

The apostle Paul, however, has a very different vision of the Christian community that somehow looks beyond the dominant personalities and what pleases us in particular. In fact, this way of seeing, which involves commitment to a church even when its leaders change, requires that we think of ourselves as serving Christ’s community, not of Christ’s community serving us.

Paul founded the church in Corinth on his second missionary journey, around A.D. 49/50. After spending two years there, he moved on. They wrote a letter to Paul asking him many questions. He is answering their questions. And it was after receiving this letter and news from “Chloe’s people” (1:1) that Paul sent what we have come to know as 1 Corinthians.

The first four chapters deal with problems of factionalism or division. Even though the church appears to be united on the outside, it’s inwardly divided. It seems some people were more impressed by the teachings of Apollos and Cephas (the Aramaic name for Peter) than they were with Paul’s. And so, what did they do? They aligned themselves with these two outstanding preachers of the day.

It’s obvious from the content in what Paul is trying to say here that the division in Corinth was not about doctrine, but more social in many aspects, because Paul never attacked or criticized the teachings of either Apollos or Peter. He was more concerned with the spirit of division itself.

Paul is not even concerned with diversity because he later expanded on this topic in Chapter 12 when he calls the church “the Body of Christ.” And that we, as different members of the Body of Christ, would have different parts to play in the functioning of the body.

Paul is a firm believer that people are different and have different gifts, and so he doesn’t plead for uniformity but for unity in diversity. To Paul, unity is not about uniformity. To Paul, diversity is not about division.

Notice what Paul is trying to ask here: “To whom do you belong?” Notice that some people are saying, “I belong to Paul.” Not “we” belong to Paul, but “I” belong to Paul — first person, singular. “I belong to Apollos” and “I belong to Cephas” and even “I belong to Christ.” Somebody may ask what is wrong about saying, “I belong to Christ.”

The problem here, obviously, is that they were saying that with a sense of pride, thinking that they were above everybody else — as if they had a more superior spirituality, a type of feeling that by saying, “I belong to Christ,” they’re better than all others.

Paul goes on to ask, “Has Christ been divided?” “Was Paul crucified for you?” “Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Obviously, the answer to these questions is no. What Paul is trying to help us see is that we have to be united together in order to fulfill the purpose of Christ’s work on earth.

Paul wants the Corinthians to see beyond himself and others to the God who sent Apollos and Peter and himself, and see the wisdom in everyone coming together, “united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10).

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