DMin Course - PW 813
NT Testament Exegesis & Sermon Design
Dr. John Alsup
Sermon - 1 Corinthians 1.10-18
As the pastors began to talk in their support group, their intense frustration rose to the surface. Out of the five who gathered regularly to pray for one another, two were in terribly conflicted churches. Two others had managed to survive parochial struggles, but at great cost. One was just beginning her ministry with high hopes that she might have a different - and better - experience.
After the session of prayer, one pastor began, "Would you believe what Tom Smith has done this week?" The others gravely shook their heads. It was hard for them to believe what Tom had already done, and harder still to think that he could make more trouble. "After our board meeting Tuesday night, he called the newspaper with a 'tip' that I embezzled church money. The editor called to warn me. It's not true at all - I don't even sign checks. Why would Tom do that?"
"At least he didn't stand up in worship to say that you were a liar and a fraud," said another. "That's what Betty said about me during testimony time this past Sunday because I couldn't meet with her until today about a problem she was having."
One veteran pastor said, "That reminds me of a time when a couple came to me seeking marriage counseling. When their problems weren't resolved to their satisfaction, they sued me."
The other veteran chimed in, "I had a volunteer in my office who rifled through my files while I was on vacation, and then copied some personal correspondence along with a letter from her saying that I acted uncaringly toward her and the church. She got a delegation together to see the bishop. He refused to intervene."
The new pastor said with great sadness, "Is this what lies ahead for me? Are all parishioners so difficult.?" (1)
I realize that the story I just read is not all that uncommon. Perhaps we've all been in ministry support groups that evolved into gripe sessions about our churches. These issues are nothing new to churches, nor to ministers. We've all "been there and done that" to some degree or another. The simple truth of the matter is that churches seem to always have folks who cause conflict and strife in some form or another. We would be naïve to think differently.
This might lead one to think that this text from 1 Corinthians is just another example that churches have been having problems for a very long time. However, if we take a closer look I think we'll find that there's much more at stake here than just Paul saying that churches will always have problems. We sometimes laugh about problems we've experienced along the way. We might even say things like, "Well, I'm glad I can laugh about it now, but it wasn't very funny then." Stories about conflict and antagonism make us laugh. Paul, on the other hand, may be telling us that this is not laughing matter.
I think Paul would want us to see that problems in the church are very serious, such to the extent that he would say that bickering and strife in the church can lead to a literal ripping or tearing of the church. The word he uses is not about factions or partisan allegiances going separate ways. The word he uses is like what happens when we rip a piece of fabric. It becomes raveled on the edges, it doesn't look the same, and in some ways, the damage is irreparable. So, I think Paul is trying to tell us through his letter to a troubled and divided church in Corinth that, this is nothing to laugh about. He begins the passage with an urgent plea. In a sense he's saying, "Please, don't be this way. Remember who you are. Remember that you became a part of this community through Christ. You were baptized in his name. You were claimed by Christ, not by me or anyone else. My being with you was not what it's all about. I was commissioned by God to preach the gospel to you. Quit ripping each other apart and be who you were called to be at your baptism - the church. Just be the church!"
Paul knew what was tearing them apart and it's the same thing that tears churches apart today. They were being torn apart because they were not being perfected in the mind of Christ. Perhaps they were still caught up in their lives before being claimed by Christ. Perhaps their cultural and ethical behavior was still contrary to the perspectives that they had received in their new lives in Christ. They were still being Corinthians.
If we're honest about our own contexts, we see that we're not far removed form them. Today in our churches - both on the local and denominational levels - we identify ourselves with a certain cause, issue, or person. As a result we put labels on each other. This creates a distance between "us" and "them." And like a deck of cards, we try deal from the bottom so we can always have Jesus on our side as a trump card. This way we can always win. But's it's not about winning, it's about being united in Christ. We shouldn't think that, "Well, we'll will always have people who cause trouble in our churches. We might as well get use to it." But it doesn't have to be this way.
The recent call for Christian unity is an example of making progress across denominational lines. It also serves as test as to just how this unity will be effected. It's easy to concentrate on all the ways we differ. Maybe we should remember the things we hold in common. And yet we get so caught up in the mode of baptism that we forget a deeper meaning - one baptism, one Lord. This call for Christian unity is a Pauline call to come together and remember who we are as the church universal.
So it's really not a laughing matter. When people are bickering in the church there is the risk of permanent damage to the church of Jesus Christ. The same thing that keeps us together is what brings us back together. Though we make a mess of things - a mess of our lives and of our churches - Christ us puts back together. Our fragmented lives somehow are woven into a tapestry. This image is what our world needs to see. This image is what the church of Jesus Christ should look like.
"Is this what lies ahead for me? Are all parishioners so difficult?" It's not really funny after all. In the end, it's foolishness. But we also know that God turns our foolishness into something powerful.
1 This was from an article entitled, "Don't 'Enable' Antagonists - Transform Them," by John R. Troop, taken from, The Christian Ministry - May-June 1996 Volumer 27:3, pp. 16-19. Though this is obviously about antagonists, there were several articles dealing with antagonism and conflict that had various stories experienced by ministers in their congregations.