There is a great story which you may have heard me or someone else tell before, but it just fits today’s text too well not to tell it again:
A man whose boat capsized in the ocean managed to survive until he washed ashore on a small, uninhabited island. He lived alone for 20 years on this island before a passing boat finally saw his rescue signal and stopped to pick him up.
The rescuers came ashore and found what looked like a small village with several buildings, but they only saw the one man. They asked him where everyone else was and he told them there was nobody else. Since they were amazed at all the buildings, he proudly took them on a tour. He started with his home, and showed them all the ways he had equipped it. The next building was the kitchen, the next for food storage and preservation, the next for exercising. Then they got to a building that was shaped differently and he told them this was his church and took them in to see the symbols he had incorporated to facilitate his worship. As they came out one of the rescuers said, “There is one other building over there that you haven’t told us about.” The man said, “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church.”
What makes that story so funny is not the absurdity of it as much as it is the plausibility of it. It rings so true of human nature with regard to religion that we wonder if such a thing might not indeed happen.
Last week I gave you an introduction to Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. He had spent a year and a half in Corinth, preaching the gospel and working to establish a Christian fellowship. Now, two or three years later, he has received a letter and a report about the Corinthian fellowship which is horrifying. It is dissolving into factions which follow different leaders, which claim superiority to each other, which hold drastically different positions on important subjects. In this letter he attempts to help them with sorting out the issues, but most importantly he attempts to help them maintain their unity as the body of Christ.
Before I begin talking about today’s text, I want to address the question of why it is that it is so hard for Christians to get along and to maintain their unity as the body of Christ. Why do I need to talk about this? Well, a statistic I found quoted more than once is that there are around 41,000 Christian denominations in the world. Dissatisfied Presbyterians added one more to that list last year. Then think about the number of churches that have splits each year, with a group leaving to start another church or join different churches. Then think about the number of individuals who get mad about something at their church and leave to go to another church or just quit going to church. It is easy to conclude that anger management and tolerance are enormous issues for Christians.
The tendency to get mad and split is crippling to Christianity and to its churches. It often does not faze church people, but for some it drives them away and for many outside the church it gives them certainty that they want no part of such an organization. Why do we have so much of it? Here are some reasons.
One is the cult of leadership, the first issue Paul is going to address. This can come either from having a control oriented leader or having followers who want to empower their leader to cult like status. The group looks more and more to the leader to tell them what to believe, what to think about different issues. This grows into differentiating our group from other groups by pointing out what is wrong with the other groups and trying to undermine them.
Another reason is that we assimilate much of the culture around us and bring that with us into our churches. That happens in many ways. We grow up with mindsets and prejudices and beliefs that our communities held and tend to just see those as givens in life. We listen to music and watch television and movies and hear the way people talk and act and we accept those as normal. We participate in the political process where people divide into parties and define themselves as opposite the people in the other party and people in your party are ostracized if they do not stick to the entire party line, and we bring that mode of being into church with us.
Thirdly, the Bible which is at the center of Christianity is a diverse book which is read in many ways by different Christians. Some want to take every verse absolutely literally. Some want to take just the verses they agree with literally. Some want to leave out the Old Testament altogether. Some want to leave Paul out altogether. Some want to find just those things that the four gospels agree on about Jesus and leave it at that.
So you end up with some churches that believe women should dress modestly all the time and not wear makeup and should be quiet at church, and others that think such requirements are ancient and no longer relevant. You have churches that believe no musical instruments should be played in church, and churches that resemble a concert hall with all the instruments. You have churches that believe reverence and dignity are the right atmosphere for worship and others that believe clapping and dancing and shouting are the right atmosphere for worship. You have churches that will not even conduct a marriage for a person who has been divorced, and you have churches which are willing to have divorced persons serve as elders and deacons and ministers. You have churches that believe homosexuality is the worst of all sins, and you have churches which believe that homosexuals are born that way and should be accepted and included in every way. There are a number of churches which will not accept the baptisms of other churches and will not allow other Christians to partake of the Lord’s Supper when they visit with them.
So you see the problem, I’m sure. Lots of reasons to reject each other and go our separate ways. In fact, there is only one reason not to do so, and it is what Paul teaches about in today’s passage. Jesus Christ is at the center for every one of us. We spin out in different directions and get distracted by different leaders, different issues, different causes, but there at the center is Jesus Christ always. The way to be united with such a diverse group of Christians is through submission to Jesus and thereby letting go of our need to be right about everything and to reject those who are wrong. Let Jesus do the sorting.
Listen again to the first outrageous, pie in the sky bye and bye sentence Paul writes in today’s passage. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Paul urges these folks who seem to be at each other’s throats, or maybe turning their backs on each other, to be in agreement with each other and have no divisions. He calls them all brothers and sisters – they are family – and he speaks by the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
He lets on that he knows this is not the current state of affairs, because Chloe’s people have told him about the quarrels taking place. That some are claiming to belong to Apollos, some to Peter, some to Paul, some to Christ, forming factions following what they perceive to be different leaders with different messages.
Paul asks them some rhetorical questions to show how ludicrous this is. Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? He then goes into an interesting statement regarding how he is glad he did not baptize many in Corinth so people were not able to say they were baptized in his name. Maybe they were grouping up by who had baptized them.
He concludes by saying that Christ did not send him 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. Paul’s preaching tended to focus on the cross, and next week we will look very intently at that emphasis. While others wanted to win hearts with eloquent words, Paul wanted to tell the simple truth of Christ crucified, God’s power in weakness. When others wanted to devolve into debates about morality or steps towards ultimate enlightenment, Paul wanted to shine the light on the amazing grace of God which received even such a sinner as him and put him on the right road. I was the worst of sinners. I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind but now I see. Struck blind on the road to Damascus, utterly helpless, Paul encountered the bright light of the world who alone can redeem us. Only when we have seen the harsh truth about ourselves and accepted the forgiveness of God through Jesus Christ can we accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We Christians are frequently guilty of the sin of hubris, pride, thinking we are better than other people because we are here, that we are buddy buddy with God and the things we believe and want are the things God believes and wants. But the church is not a museum of saints, it is a hospital for sinners. It is not heaven, it is a field hospital to keep us all patched up enough to keep moving on the journey toward heaven. The only way we make it there is through the gift of God’s grace extended through his Son Jesus Christ. A lot of artwork of John the Baptist portrays him pointing away from himself. He is pointing to Jesus, the only leader who matters, and in weeks to come we will continue looking at what kind of leader Jesus is and what it means to follow.
I want to close by telling you about a song and what it means to me. I’m not sure how relevant it is, but I haven’t been able to stop listening to it this week as I’ve thought about the sermon. The song is entitled “Graceland,” and is written by Paul Simon. Paul Simon is Jewish, and I don’t claim he meant for his song to say what I am going to tell you it says to me. He has said it is his favorite song of the many he has written.
Graceland, of course, is the Elvis Pressley museum/home, and the song begins with a pilgrimage there. “The Mississippi delta is shining like a National guitar. I am following the river down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War. I’m going to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, I’m going to Graceland. Poor boys and pilgrims with families, we’re all going to Graceland.” On the way to Graceland to remember the legacy and the tragedy of Elvis, driving through lands fought over in the Civil War, our national tragedy.
He continues, “My traveling companion is nine years old, he’s the child of my first marriage. But I’ve a reason to believe we both will be received in Graceland.” He goes on to tell of the ending of that marriage, and that his wife told him “losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’re blown apart, everybody feels the wind blow. I’m going to Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, I’m going to Graceland.”
Now he says, “My traveling companions are ghosts and empty sockets.” His marriage is dead. Along the road he imagines the ghosts and skeletons of dead civil war soldiers. At his destination even Elvis is still dead, despite all the rumors to the contrary. He is surrounded by ruin, by the death of all things. “But I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”
For me this all echoes the state of the other Paul I have been talking about, as he learned that grace is what it’s all about. Listen to how it ends: “There’s a girl in New York City, she calls herself the human trampoline. And sometimes when I’m falling, flying, or tumbling in turmoil I say oh, so this is what she means. She means we’re bouncing into Graceland. I’m going to Graceland (no reference to Memphis this time). For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland. And I may be advised to defend every love, every ending, or maybe there’s no obligations now. Maybe I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland.”
That’s just a magnificent image for me. Going on a pilgrimage, surrounded by memories of a national civil war and a marital civil war, to a place that might offer perspective and renewal. But what happens out of that time of disorientation is a time of falling, flying, tumbling in turmoil, and bouncing into this place that so far exceeds the place you intended to go that you can’t believe it, the land of pure grace.
For reasons I cannot explain there’s some part of me wants to see Graceland. Maybe I’ve a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland. That is a refreshing, humble, hopeful attitude which contrasts well with all those who are certain they are already in and can identify all those who are going to be out.
“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.” In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey Central Presbyterian Church
January 26, 2014 Anderson, SC