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06.27.21 One Thing Unites 1 Cor. 1.10-17 Sermon Summary

by on June 29, 2021

There is paradox in the nature of God’s grace. On one hand, it is a gift unconditionally offered and freely received. However, once received, it claims our allegiance. 

Last week we looked at how the paradox of grace applies to holiness. “Sanctification,” as the theologians call it, is God’s gift to us. But it is also our response to God. Holiness a foundation of the church. This week we consider another foundation and another paradox of grace: Unity.

The churches in Corinth were a gifted group. They were a diverse church and had exalted expectations. This made them a challenging church to lead. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to guide the challenging church, and we are looking to Paul to teach us how to face our own challenges as the church today.

Paul continues laying the foundations of his letter with these words. “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.”

My congregation is similar to the church in Corinth. As in Corinth, my congregation has an abundance of strong leadership. Corinth had Paul, Apollos, and Peter (Paul calls him Cephas). We have such leaders as I’ve outlined in earlier sermons (here and here).

As in Corinth, part of the leadership in my congregation consists of outspoken women. In Corinth, for example, Chloe may have been a house sponsor, that is, a pastor. 

As in Corinth, my congregation has talented worship leaders exercising a variety of spiritual gifts. And we both share a robust celebration of the sacraments. 

And as in Corinth, in my congregation all this abundance has led to a steady stream of visitors. 

In writing to Corinth, Paul offers thanks but also a warning: Abundance easily distracts. We can become beholden to our abundance, become proud. And so abundance also easily divides as we think to ourselves, “Our way is better than others.” And this has the potential to create “cliques” within a church, according to biblical scholar Preben Vang.

Many churches go through difficulties caused by cliquish behavior. Whether these are caused by forceful personalities, political conviction, musical tastes, preference for certain church programs, theological catchphrases, or something else, they will eventually undermine the power of the gospel. If Christ, who came to break down the wall that separates (Eph. 2:14), cannot even remove cliques in his own body, the cross has lost its power (1 Cor. 1:17) and the church is left without a testimony. (Vang, Preben. 1 Corinthians p. 26. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Distraction and division can be avoided, however, and the cross can again be powerful. The church can maintain a testimony if we remember our unity in Christ.

Some in my congregation say, “But we don’t have unity. There are too many differences: Political. Theological. Practical. We don’t have unity.”

But we do. The Confession of Belhar was written in 1986 in South Africa during Apartheid, the white minority rule over the black and colored majorities. In 2016 my denomination included Belhar in its Book of Confessions, our primary traditional guidance in interpreting the Bible. The confession’s themes are unity, reconciliation, and justice. About unity, it states:

“We believe that unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain.”

Some things to note: Unity is a “gift.” It is already given. It is achieved by Christ. It is sustained by the Spirit. Yet it is also an “obligation.” The church is to pursue and seek it. We have to be trained how to do this.

This theology finds expression my denomination’s polity through the Book of Order, Foundations 1.0302: “Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one.” This is a paradox of grace. Like holiness last week, unity is a gift we strive to make real. 

How do we do this? Belhar goes on to enumerate a number of ways. It begins with love for one another. It includes actively pursuing community with one another. We are to give of ourselves to the benefit of each other. We should share experiences and burdens with one another. 

The Corinthians were facing challenges. They were distracted and divided, taking power from the Cross and losing their testimony. This is real today. Just ask the “nones,” those surveyed who check “none of the above” with regards to their religious affiliation. Their numbers are growing every year.

When we in the church say, “We don’t have unity,” then cite all the examples and argue that our way is better than others, it’s easy for people to dismiss the church. Instead of lamenting diversity, Belhar says we need to celebrate it.

“We believe that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God.”

From this perspective, “variety” creates opportunities for service and enrichment. It does so because of our unity in Christ, already secured. 

Does the church face challenges? According to Paul, it needs to focus on the mind of Christ and his purpose. Jesus never forgot the lost sheep. They were continuously in his mind. Instead he always went looking for them. He still does. To face our challenges we need to remember our unity, celebrate our diversity, and follow our Lord: Make the lost a priority.

“The Church seeks to include all people and is never content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for itself alone.” (Book of Order, Foundations 1.0302) If we don’t “seek to include all people,” if we are “content to enjoy the benefits of Christian community for ourselves alone,” we will be distracted and divided, the cross will lose its power, and we will lose our testimony.

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Let us be united in the mind and purpose of Christ. Amen.

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