“A Family of Fools”
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
10 Now 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. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 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 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
When I was in college I remember participating in a workshop that made quite an impression. As part of an activity we were all given a piece of paper we folded into quarters and in each quadrant we were supposed to write down a “social identifier” - a word describing our race, gender, age - you get it. So folks wrote things like: female, white, Jewish, young adult. Something like that. So, you might, in your mind, think (right now!) about some words you would have written down - words describing who you understand yourself to be.
The next step in the workshop was to tear off the corner with the word that was least defining to you. So, without having to think too much, maybe you tear off the one related to your age. Maybe the word related to your job or education.
Then, with only three words left, we were instructed to again tear off the word least defining out of those three. For most of us, making that decision was a little harder than the first.
Left with only two words - you can probably guess what were told to do next… We had to choose. Just one word to define ourselves. Tear that paper in half and you’re left with one word. Then, to close the activity, we stood in a circle, holding our words at our chests and looking around the room to see what one word our peers had chosen to define themselves.
The workshop leader said something like, “Look around - when your colleague wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror, this word is what they see looking back at them.”
They were all different: Female. Immigrant. Asian.
The diversity in this group had always been apparent, but this exercise took us to the next level because it helped us understand how each of us saw ourselves. It helped us put a finger on why it was that tensions sometimes surfaced among us. And, it gave us a new level of understanding and empathy.
If Paul had done this exercise with members of the church in Corinth I think they would have had a similar experience. It was a wildly diverse community, a cosmopolitan metropolis filled with people from every walk of life. If they’d all sat down to write out their social identifiers, no two persons pieces of paper would have looked the same. Wealthy, poor, Greek, Jew, slave, free, male, female, the Corinthian church was rich in diversity.
Only, unlike my college workshop, Paul would have had a motive in mind as he had them tear away sections of their papers. His hope in this exercise would have been that when they got to that last step and were all standing in a circle looking at each others final remaining word that they would all be the same and that that one word would be: Christian.
Paul was one of the very first to embrace the radical idea of diversity within a particular religion. In his time, faith was a part of you in the same way your ethnicity and family ties were a part of you. It was just something you were born into. Religion and ethnicity were inseparable the same way blood ties with family are non-negotiable. So this whole idea of people with different ethnicities and different family ties coming together and choosing to be a part of the same religion community was unheard of. But of course, this wasn’t really Paul’s idea - it was Jesus’.
We see it today in the gospel reading we heard, how James and John were there with their father Zebedee. We can assume pretty safely that because they were family, James, John, and Zebedee shared many things in common. They would have been of the same ethnicity. The same social class - fisherman - we see in the passage how Zebedee is already passing the family trade along to them. They would have also shared the same faith. That is, until James and John heard the call of Jesus and without a moment of hesitation, it seems, they dropped their nets to embrace the life of a disciple.
The growth of the church in Corinth was beautiful because it was a true reflection of the wideness of God’s love - God loves all. God welcomes all. God includes all - no matter where you come from or what color your skin is. No matter how much money or education or pedigree you have. Any and all could be a part of this family of faith.
But of course, amidst this beautiful diversity, they ran into some glitches. And it’s those glitches Paul is dealing with today in his letter to the beautifully diverse church in first century Corinth.
A body divided destroys itself. And Paul fears that’s what happening in Corinth. Their diversity is turning against them and they’re beginning to form lunchroom cliques that pain Paul to his very core. Of all the lines to divide themselves along they haven’t chosen race or economic status but who baptized them as their identifier. They’re standing in that circle holding up cards that say “Paul” and “Cephas” and “Apollos” instead of “Jesus”. It would be like if Jesus walked in the room and a bunch of Christians were holding up cards that said, “Presbyterian” and “Methodist” and “Lutheran.” I imagine Jesus would take one look at us, shake his head, and say, “That’s not what I meant.”
Paul makes an attempt to clarify when he says to them, “I don’t even remember who of you I baptized.” Because it’s not important. They have lost sight of that instinct James and John and Peter and Andrew followed when they left every piece of their identities behind to turn and follow Jesus. That’s what Paul wants for the Corinthians as well. But they are struggling.
I think we know their struggle because we experience in our own ways. We may not divide ourselves along the lines of who baptized us, but we do divide ourselves - along denominational lines. Along lines such as “conservative” and “liberal”. Along lines such as “Republican” and “Democrat.” We divide ourselves with our worship preferences, praise band or pipe organ. We have divided, our very own Presbyterian denomination, years ago based on issues like women’s ordination and most recently on same-sex marriage.
But notice how over and over again in his words to the Corinthians, Paul keeps addressing them as “my brothers and sisters”. He’s using family language to remind them of something: that this church they are all now baptized members of? It is their family. And you can fight with your family. You can disagree with your family. But a the end of the day, they’re still your family.
“Brothers and sisters” he writes. “Brothers and sisters.”
I used to babysit for two girls and when they would really start to get at it with each other the father would yell, “Sisters!” as though in the midst of their worst moments was when they needed to be reminded most of their bond to each other.
Maybe there’s something in that for us. That when we feel most distant and divided and different from one another is when we need to be reminded that we are each other’s family, and Christ is the head of the household.
In some Christian traditions, that familial language is common. “Brother So-and-So” members of the same church might call each other. We do it in our own way when we baptize, especially with infants and children, reminding the rest of the children that this child is their new sibling, their brother or sister in Christ. That this is their church family, who is now kin to them in a way that is based in our common faith in Jesus. It is Jesus that is the source of our unity. Nothing else.
That was all Paul ever wanted for the Corinthians. Unity. Not uniformity - BIG difference. He didn’t want them to change the way they looked, he wasn’t worried about what they ate or even the nitty gritty details of how or when they worshipped. In fact, he, more than any other Christian leader in his day, was all in favor of diversity and difference. He saw the beauty in God’s children of all races, ethnicities, genders, and experiences coming together as one body.
But at the end of the day, when they circled up, the whole family together, and they had to choose which word was going to be on that card they held up. He wanted it to be “Christian”. Jesus had to be the foundation - the common denominator - or the whole thing would fall apart.
Last Sunday our session elders spent the afternoon together, getting to know each other better and reflecting on the year ahead of us. During one of our small group discussions my group noted that one of the reasons they believe we have had such strong leadership over the years is because if you look around the room at one of these session meetings you’ll see a very diverse group of people. We have a wide range of ages, some working/some retired, some longtime members of this church/some newer, some with children in the congregation/some whose children were raised here years ago, different professional backgrounds and areas of expertise.
One of the things I love most about our session is that so many people have been leaders at other churches. So, occasionally, when an idea gets thrown out that is new to First Pres Auburn, inevitably someone will pipe up and say, “Oh that’s how we used to do it at my old church.” and it sets the rest of us at ease, knowing we’re not in uncharted waters here.
But the true strength in this group lies in its unity, which is a reflection of the unity I know we’re always striving for in this congregation (however imperfectly that striving may be.) This church is a family. We don’t look the same. We don’t vote the same. We don’t come from the same places and we don’t all have the same ideas. There is not uniformity in this church and thanks be to God for that. Because that would be a pretty boring family.
Others outside this family might think us strange, or even foolish for some of the ways we go about practicing our faith. But that has often been the case for Christians. But family sticks together, because we know that our unity - in Christ - being able to hold up that last card and look around the room to see that everyone’s word is the same, and that word is “Christian”. That is everything. That is what holds this whole thing together. May we remember that every time we leave this place to go into a world ready to place so many other labels on us. May our unity in Christ be what holds us together when our differences threaten to divide.