1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3 and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers. 4 Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks. ~Acts 18:1-4
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[d] 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. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.[e] 12 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.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God[f] that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 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. 18 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. ~ 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Today, like last week, our two passages work together. The reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us about the very beginnings of the church in Corinth: how Paul went there, met up with the missionary couple Priscilla and Aquila. It tells how they all supported themselves making tents while they went about the work of preaching the gospel and planting this new church. Also like last week’s passages, Paul begins his work by appealing to those who already know something about God: faithful Jews who come together in the local synagogue. It’s an optimistic little passage, giving us the feeling that these three hard-workers are bound to do something good, light the divine spark, and make something happen here.
Then, the passage from 1 Corinthians gives us a view of life in the Corinthian church some time later, maybe as long as five or six years down the road.
There are some problems. Actually, there are a lot of problems, a lot more than Paul reveals in this little section. The church is mired in conflict. If you read the entire first letter Paul writes to this church he helped to found (and we are going to read passages from it for the next three Sundays after today), you will find that the people are at odds over:
~ sexual immorality (a relationship between a man and his mother-in-law: chapter 5);
~ whether or not it is ok to eat meat that was used in sacrifices to pagan idols (chapter 8);
~ the problem of class divisions as they are played out at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11);
~ who exactly are the most “gifted” Christians; what gifts are the most important for sharing with God’s people? (chapters 12-14);
~ and what the people believe about resurrection (chapter 15).
These are not insignificant issues. They go to the very core of the identity of the faith community. But Paul chooses to start at the very beginning (a very good place to start): he begins with the sacrament that is our entry to life in the church. He begins with baptism.
To understand Paul’s concerns, it helps to understand that the church was still very young at this point. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are still only about 20 or 25 years in the past, so the church hasn’t yet adopted a single standard as to how to prepared for baptism. Two or three hundred years later, the process of being baptized would include a time of study and preparation—several months, perhaps. There would be intensive instruction about Jesus and the gospels, special prayers, even exorcisms being performed upon the candidates.
But none of that has happened yet. When the church is just starting out, it’s not unusual for a missionary to give a sermon, and then baptize anyone who comes forward afterward—we would call that an altar call.
So, now, there is some misunderstanding. And it has Paul pretty upset. Apparently, people are breaking down into factions based on who actually baptized them and brought them into the church. Paul writes,
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.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? ~ 1 Corinthians 1:11-13
It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on here. Is it because Apollos is a particularly compelling preacher? (Might be. Paul throws in some words later admitting that he isn’t themost scintillating orator.) Is it that Cephas (i.e., Peter) is a favorite because he actually knew Jesus personally? (Might be. Or, it could be that this is just another guy with the same name.) Is it that Paul founded the church, so his baptism seems better? (Might be. Even today, being a “founding member” of something has a kind of cachet.)
We don’t know how this happened. All we know is that people are speaking of “the baptism of” each of these leaders, and they are claiming that one is superior to the others. People are breaking down into competing groups, instead of being unified as one.
And if you think about it…this is a phenomenon we see around us all the time. J. K. Rowling brilliantly invented the houses of Gryffindor, Hufflepuf, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin for the Harry Potter books, and you can go online and figure out which house you are in. It’s that time of year when we cease to be just friends, and become fans of the Yankees or the Braves or the Cubs or the Phillies, and adjust our conversations with one another accordingly. And of course, there are fans of, in alphabetical order, Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, Sanders, and Trump, and they can and do have many interesting and sometimes pretty crazy interactions with one another.
This is a phenomenon we see all around us. The question is, how do we get past it?
Usually, we try to step back and see the big picture.
In the world of Harry Potter, that happens at the end of the story, when, in the battle of Hogwarts, the values of good and evil are played out and people have to take their stands with one or the other.
For baseball—love of the game has from time to time brought rivals together—and the midseason all-star game doesn’t hurt.
For the presidential election, in years past, that has often happened some time after the election, when people unified around a president whom they don’t wish ill, and whom, despite their misgivings, they hope might do some good. After a tough election, people unified around President Bush after the attacks of 9/11, though that unity was short-lived. With each passing election, this seems harder and harder.
As for baptism? After throwing up his hands and going back and forth as to whether he himself has actually baptized any of these folks, Paul finally says,
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. 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. ~ 1 Corinthians 1:17-18
We are united in our baptism, not because of the gifts or skills or pedigree of the one who baptizes us. We are united in our baptism because of Jesus Christ, the one in whose name we are all baptized. We are united in our baptism because baptism takes us, once again, to the foot of the cross.
The cross is never an easy sell. We’re uncomfortable with it. The Corinthians were uncomfortable with it. I mentioned this last week. I said, “Jesus was a nobody from a one-horse town who, not only did not overthrow the Roman occupiers… he was killed by them, in the most humiliating form of capital punishment” in existence.
This week, I heard someone else say this much better:
To anybody in the ancient world it would be repugnant to think about. The power of God? Being conveyed through the crucifixion of a man? I’m sorry. No, the person who’s crucified loses. They're the weakling. They’re the ones who come out on the short end. And to say that, no, that is actually the means of God’s power encountering people, the power of divine love being communicated to people, that’s the unsettling idea that takes you back to what’s absolutely central.[i]
The big picture, what is central, is the love of God. The big picture, what is central, is Jesus’ living out of this love, and dying out of it too. What is central, the big picture, is that God seeks to bring us together, and not to divide us.
I can imagine Paul’s pain. It is a punch to the gut to hold these things side by side: factions within the church, side by side with the overwhelming love of Christ, crucified, whose only goal is to love us and to reconcile us with one another and with God. This is Paul’s big picture, and it’s ours, too. This is what has him anguishing over the church at Corinth.
And this is a big picture that is all too visible to those outside the church as well. If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone use the visible infighting of Christians as a reason to dismiss Christianity altogether… well, my goodness. That would be a lot of dollars. More to the point, that’s a lot of people who look at Christianity, and know what our message is, and wonder whether we really mean it.
But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know already.
In his mission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, Paul has been preaching Christ crucified and risen. Paul has been preaching God seeking to reconcile us to one another and to God’s own self with a display of love and power that is almost unimaginable. Baptism is the sign God puts on us, the sign of all that love and all that power. In baptism, God invites us to be a part of Christ’s ministry of love, reconciliation, and justice.
Our faith asks us to hold these things together: the big picture of Christ’s actions on our behalf, with how we behave. The big picture of God’s goals, held alongside our individual goals. The big picture of God’s love, and of how well we love one another.
For us, the message of the cross is the very power of God… the power given to us for love, for justice, for reconciliation, and for peace. This is our big picture. This is our lodestar and our guide. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Craig Koester, Working Preacher “I Love to Tell the Story” Podcast #224, “Church at Corinth.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=746.