The Third Sunday After Epiphany January 25, 2009
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
359, 285, 477, 363
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
In the name of Jesus, who continually prays that we may be one, just as He and the Father are one, dear fellow Christians:
Today we are witnessing and participating in a miracle. Really! This congregation is a miracle of God. It is not because of the building. There is nothing extraordinary about it. There are many landmark structures in the area which are older, larger, or more impressive. It is not that we are organized as a group. There are civic clubs and political action groups which have a more detailed organization and flex greater muscle in our world.
But what truly is miraculous is our bond of unity. It is more than a superficial thing. Outwardly, in fact, we have many differences. We range in age from infants of only a few months to senior citizens who have been eyewitnesses of decades of history. We live in different neighborhoods spread over many square miles of territory. We come from different ethnic backgrounds and have different personalities and preferences. Yet we are united by a bond which brings us together more closely and permanently than anything else can. We are united by faith in Christ as our Savior from sin.
You probably did not think about that when you woke up this morning. We often take it for granted, but that can be a dangerous thing, as we learn from the example of the Corinthian congregation. If we neglect our unity and fail to appreciate its value, we could lose it. So we pray that the Spirit would open our ears to Paul’s plea, that we might cherish our unity as a priceless gift of God.
When you cherish something you guard it against anything that might harm it. If we cherish our health, we won’t start smoking. We’ll watch our stress level and try to avoid other risk factors. Likewise, we want to guard our Christian unity against anything that might weaken or destroy it.
We want to guard against false teaching. Paul writes, “I plead with you…that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” [v.10] He warns in Romans 16:17: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (NIV). In our congregation and church body we are very sensitive to that threat because we have seen how it can divide a synod, split a congregation, and even destroy the unity of a family.
But there is another danger which can be an even greater problem. If Satan cannot divide and destroy the unity of believers with false doctrine, he will try to do it through self-centered human pride. That was part of his approach to Eve in the Garden. He diverted her attention away from God and His will and convinced her that she should focus on herself and on what she could gain if she were to eat of the forbidden fruit.
The same thing was happening in the Corinthian congregation. A concerned family there contacted Paul telling how, instead of unity, there were factions in the church, each claiming to be superior to any other. Notice how often the word “I” crops up in our text. There was the “Paul” group which perhaps felt it was better because they followed Paul, the founder and first pastor of the congregation. Another group looked to Apollos, possibly because of his brilliant sermons. Then there was the “Peter” camp and even a group which said, “We are of Christ,” insinuating that the others were not of Christ or at least not to the same extent. We don’t know all the details, but the bottom line was that selfish pride was driving a wedge between congregation members and fracturing their unity. It wasn’t the first time. On several occasions during Jesus’ ministry, the unity of the disciples was disrupted when pride led them to wrangle over which of them was the most important and deserved the highest honor in Christ’s kingdom.
Could it happen to us? Yes, it could, because each of us has that potential within us. We all have an Old Adam which is concerned only with self. It wants nothing to do with God and doesn’t get along with others very well either. It zeroes in on self: “I’ve been hurt by a fellow believer, so I won’t have anything more to do with that person. I want things done my way in the church. I’m just not appreciated. I don’t need other believers anyway.” Do you see what happens then? That attitude divides rather than unites. It separates believers from one another and makes them easy targets for Satan’s attacks. He uses the “divide and conquer” approach exceptionally well!
When we are tempted by selfish pride, let’s remember that we have no reason for it. We have nothing to boast of in ourselves for we are all alike: unworthy sinners deserving of nothing but eternal condemnation and punishment. May we cherish our Christian unity by watching out for selfish pride within our hearts, pride which would shatter our unity and cut us off from one another and from the Lord.
It’s frightening to realize that we all have the natural inclination to quarrel and be divisive, rather than join together in harmony. It’s like having a ticking time bomb inside us. How can we defuse it and prevent it from blowing up in our faces? Again, we can learn from the Corinthians. St. Paul was an apostle, and so had the authority of Christ backing him up. He could have laid down the law and commanded the Corinthians to stop acting like spoiled brats and get along with each other. However, he chose a far more effective course of action. He appealed to the very essence of what had brought them together in the first place. “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [v.10]
He directed them to the Lord Jesus. He is the One who reconciles and unites. “Is Christ divided?” Paul asked. No, He came as the one and only Savior for the whole human race. He came to bring sinners and God back together by paying the penalty for all sin on the cross. “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NIV).
He united people with God by His cross, and has united all believers with one another in the Holy Christian Church. There is no room for pride in the Church. The fact that we are members is not due to anything in us, but entirely evidence of God’s grace. In the Church we all have equal standing before God. “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks; slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
We are united with the Lord and with one another by our shared faith. We cherish our unity by keeping Him as the focus. That means that Christian pastors and teachers are not out to make a name for themselves, or to impress the congregation with their own personal appearance or abilities. They direct all attention to Christ. Paul told the Corinthians: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified…What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe.” (1 Corinthians 2:2, 3:5 NIV).
We cherish our unity when we honor and respect pastors and teachers, not because of the person, not because it is “Pastor Paul” or “Pastor Apollos” or “Pastor Peter,” but because of the message from God which they proclaim. We cherish our unity when we appreciate our differences. It sounds contradictory, but it’s true. We are united by the deepest, strongest bond there is, but that doesn’t mean that we are all identical clones. Instead the Spirit has blessed us with a whole variety of individual gifts and talents. Paul says the Church is like the human body—made up of all kinds of parts. What good would it be if the whole body were an eye? Where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? (cf. 1 Corinthians 12). Each member of a Christian congregation is different and each one is vital to the well-being of the whole. Christian love recognizes that and appreciates each member’s importance. Love considers others better than self.
In the many areas of church life where there is no specific right or wrong way of doing things, love listens to the concerns and ideas of others. It takes the words and actions of others in the kindest possible way, instead of jumping to uncharitable conclusions. Think of what a difference that spirit makes in our congregational meetings. If every voter came to the meeting demanding that everything be done his way or else, what would happen? We would have several hours of arguing. Nothing would be accomplished, and our unity would be severely strained. When the focus is on Christ and His love, we can work together in harmony and be willing to give-and-take in matters which are not biblical doctrines.
We cherish our unity when we care enough about one another to offer admonition in a spirit of humility, realizing that all of us need that correction at one time or another (cf. Galatians 6:1). When we are hurt by another, we will be eager to forgive in response to the full and free forgiveness God has offered us in Christ. When we sin against another, we won’t want to rest until we have confessed our guilt, not only to the Lord, but to the brother or sister we have sinned against.
Then united in the Lord by His peace, love, and forgiveness, we will be ready to get to work with a single-minded purpose. For all our individual differences, we have the same mission in life: to shine out with the light of the Savior. In a world fragmented by nations at war, in a community where shootings and violence are a daily occurrence, in a society where the fabric of the family is ripping apart at the seams, we can announce peace—peace with God and with one another through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. May we show and cherish that peace by talking about it and living it among ourselves. May the unity we have in Christ be obvious for all to see.
It is a miracle that we are here. By nature we are stubborn, proud, and hard to get along with. Left to ourselves we go off on our own, caring nothing for God or for each other. But through Jesus’ life and death in our behalf, we are children of God, glad to be here with one another in the presence of the Lord.
Cherish that unity! Guard against even the hint of selfish pride which would destroy it. Focus on Christ and His cross to keep it strong. May we cherish our unity as our most valuable possession until we enjoy it fully in glory. Amen.
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.