Together in Christ
A man tells of being on a bus tour in Rome which was led by a guide who spoke English. Their first stop was a church in a piazza which was surrounded by several lanes of relentless Roman traffic. After they were all safely dropped off, the group climbed the steps for a quick tour of the church. Then they spread out to cross to the other side of the street where the bus was parked. The frantic guide shouted for the group to stay together. He hollered out to them, "You cross one by one, they hit you one by one. But if you cross together, they think you will hurt the car!"
There is something to be said about unity, doing things together, working together, helping, sharing and caring together.
There is nothing worse than a congregation that is divided into factions and splinter groups. St Paul had to deal with such a congregation. The congregation at Corinth had come unstuck. There was a group that followed Paul. They were the first converts at Corinth; you might say they were the original members of the congregation. Another group, especially the Jewish members said that Apollos was the best pastor ever. Apollos was a good preacher and really knew his Old Testament.
There was another group which liked Peter, after all Peter was Jesus’ chief disciple. Others said, "We belong to Christ". Perhaps they claimed special visions and knowledge and so were a notch above those who followed human leaders. Whatever each of these opposing groups believed, Paul heard that the congregation had splintered and so, as the first point of business in his letter, he writes about his opposition to anything that threatens the unity of a congregation.
We all know that division among groups of people is nothing new. We see it in marriages, in clubs and organisations, between ethnic groups and between nations. Sadly, we also see it in the church. It happened in Paul’s time and it happens today. I’m sure some of you have questioned your own continuing membership in your own congregations because of what people have said, the decisions you disagreed with, the people who have got under your skin, the pastor/vicar/priest that you didn’t like because of what he did or failed to do, or because no one can ever match a pastor you liked in the past.
When visiting those who have dropped out of the congregation, I hear the reasons why he/she has separated from the church. I was hurt. I was insulted. I was ignored. I was offended.
Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation saying, "By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ I appeal to all of you, my friends, to agree in what you say, so that there will be no divisions among you. Be completely united, with only one thought and one purpose" (1 Cor 1:10). The word division is related to the word schism (Latin schismata) which means tearing apart, and in this context means disagreement and division that leads to the breakdown of relationships within the congregation or between individuals and the rest of the congregation or just between two Christians.
Paul isn’t saying that there is no room for different viewpoints and divergent ideas. Later in his letter, Paul argues that the church is made up of people of all different abilities and backgrounds as well as different ideas and views, but insists that in spite of all the diversity, there is unity. He refers to the body and the diversity of its parts, yet all these parts work together in the one body. But in the first chapter (1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17-18), Paul is emphasizing that when those different viewpoints and disagreements lead to disharmony and a relationship breakdown, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong.
A magazine told about superstar tenors Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti performing together in Los Angeles. A reporter tried to press the issue of competitiveness between the three men and the fact that their different personalities could lead to disharmony and unhappiness. Placido Domingo told the reporter, "You have to put all of your concentration into opening your heart to the music; you can’t be rivals when you’re together making music". (Leadership Vol 17 .No 2) That’s also true about unity in the church. When Christians exercise moral superiority and greater wisdom over their fellow members, Paul gives a prescription for healing - a way to restore unity and joy and peace.
In this prescription, Paul speaks over and over again about the cross and its power. He elevates the cross above all other things in his letter to the Corinthians. "The message about Christ's death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God's power" (1 Cor 1:18).
Simply put – Paul calls us to the cross. He reminds us that "God has brought us into union with Christ Jesus" (1 Cor 1:30a).
Jesus gave his life for each of us; he calls each of us his brother or sister; we have been united with him in his death and resurrection through baptism; he calls us to let go of our sinful life and let him guide our actions and words. Whenever we forget that this is our calling, whenever we seek to put ourselves first - to put our interest first and let our sinfulness break the relationship we have with our fellow Christians, we deny the cross and the forgiveness and peace that Christ has won for us.
To put it another way, if we are totally focussed on Christ and his cross, then we haven’t time to look sideways at what other people have done to upset us.
It takes a lot of forgiveness for a group of people to stay together. The German philosopher Schopenhauer compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, "The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness."
That is so pessimistic. There is a better way - to forgive each other for the pokes we receive and to restore the unity that we have because we are all connected together in Christ and his cross. That allows us to stay together and stay warm. As Paul says, "The body of Christ has many different parts, just as any other body does. Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God's Spirit baptised each of us and made us part of the body of Christ. Together you are the body of Christ. Each one of you is part of his body" (1 Cor 12:12, 13, 27).
A choir conductor once gave this advice to the group of singers she was leading. "If you can't hear the voices beside you - you're singing too loudly."
"If you can't hear the voices beside you - you're singing too loudly." Harmony requires that we be able to hear others, that we deliberately alter our behaviour and our attitudes so that we can hear our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In Corinth at the time of Paul, no one was listening. They were not listening because each person was fully convinced in his or her mind that he or she was correct - that they had the whole picture - the only right picture - the picture that others needed to have.
In fact, in Corinth almost everyone was shouting - almost everyone was putting their views, their understanding, their philosophy concerning what was right and good first - and ignoring, neglecting, or condemning anyone who differed from their point of view.
I follow Peter; he knew Jesus. I follow Apollos; he baptised me. I follow Paul; he talks the truth about God's grace. I am right, and you are wrong.
Notice the word "I". "I am right". "I know what is the truth". Immediately we start emphasizing the word "I", you can be sure that the harmony and unity are at stake. That doesn’t only apply to congregations; that also applies to families. In fact, everything that Paul says about the oneness and togetherness we share in Christ can be applied to family life as well. In the heat of the moment in a family shouting match and disagreement, the concept that "we" are part of a family disappears as members shout out what "I" think and what "I" want.
We have heard that even though the church is made up of individual people from different backgrounds and with differing views, all the parts having something to contribute to make the body function effectively. That’s really important. That’s something we have to work on all the time. The Bible says that we’re affected by what happens to each other, and we all have something to contribute to each other. Sometimes it takes a lot of humility to drop the word "I" and to start thinking in terms of "us" and "we". I may not necessarily agree with my fellow Christians on some points but how can we work together to advance the Kingdom of God and to be witnesses in our world.
This text from 1 Corinthians is a very challenging one when it comes to relationships between Christians. I want to close with this challenge. Think about what it means to be a Christian and then what it means to be a member of the church.Think about ways of developing a sense of belonging and how you can contribute to the life in the church. Think about ways you can think less of "I" and "my needs" more of "we" as you consider how we together can be the church in this community. Think of ways you can heal the rifts and strains between you and your brother or sister in Christ.
Gathering in the church on Sunday mornings as God's people, helps us all get focused in the one direction. As we focus on the God we believe in and the Saviour who died for us, as we receive forgiveness for all our selfishness and lack of humility, as we show each other that God is important to us just by our presence here, as we share the things that God is doing in our lives, then we get strength for the days in-between worship. We get a sense of being part of a big family which is important to us, on which we can count, to which we can give what we have to give and in which we can work together as God intends us to work together.
If we want to make a difference, if we want to be a light in the darkness, a healing presence in the midst of pain, let us move together focussed on Jesus our Saviour.
The Gospel according to Paul – John Macarthur
St Paul & his Epistles - Hubert Richards
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Leadership, Vol. 17, no. 2
Paul: A Biography – Tom Wright
Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity - James Tabor
Paul The Apostle: Missionary, Martyr, Theologian - Robert E. Picirilli
What St Paul really said - N.T. Wright