May 30, 2010


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            In October of 1999, my wife, Trudy, and I took a group to Greece and Turkey to follow in the steps of the Apostle Paul.  I had wanted to make that trip ever since 1972 when my New Testament professor, Dr. Ralph Martin, showed us slides of a trip he took to Corinth and Ephesus.  In seminary class that day, watching the slides with Dr. Martin dressed in Bermuda shorts and accented with black knee-length socks and loafers, I vowed someday to take the same trip without the black knee-length socks and loafers.  And twenty-seven years later Trudy and I made it. 

            Most people who come back from Greece and Turkey rave about the ruins of Ephesus, and that’s understandable.  The ruins in Ephesus are spectacular.  The library.  The amphitheater.  Mary’s home.  The underground passage to the brothel.  These sites take your breath away, but I was most impressed with Corinth, maybe because the words of institution for communion are located in that book, and our little group took communion together in Corinth at the ruins.

            Now, First Church Corinth was Paul’s most successful church in terms of sheer numbers.  More people responded to Paul’s preaching in Corinth than any of his other churches.  First Church Philippi may have been Paul’s favorite church, but First Church Corinth was his biggest church.  It was also his most troublesome church, and after his customary introduction, Paul gets right to the point.  He writes,


            Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement with one another (the NIV reads “that you agree with one another) and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose (I Corinthians 10).


            Paul’s request here sounds serious.  He exudes a sense of urgency and import ... “Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters ...”   One definition of the word “appeal” is “an earnest request; a plea; a summons or challenge.”  In fact, one translation of the bible actually has Paul “pleading” rather than “appealing” to the Corinthians.  In other words, Paul sounds seriously concerned about something in First Church Corinth.  I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul’s words in The Message.   He writes, “I have a serious concern to bring up with you ... I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other.  You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common.” 

            So, what was causing Paul’s distress?  Well, consider what immediately follows our one another directive for today ...

            For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.  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” (I Corinthians 1:11-12).


            Let me elaborate a bit.  The “Paul party” probably consisted of charter members of the church.  They were most likely Gentile converts to Christ, and thus they emphasized freedom from Jewish customs.  They probably also took great pride in the fact that they were in the church from the beginning.  Maybe they even adopted a “we’ve always done it this way” attitude in the church.  Thankfully, we have no one like that here at Anderson Grove.

            The “Apollos party” probably consisted of church members who loved Apollos strong preaching.  Luke described Apollos in the Book of Acts as “an eloquent man, well versed in the scriptures” (Acts 18:24).  He hailed from Alexandria, which may give us a clue into his style of preaching.  Alexandrians interpreted the Scriptures allegorically, that is to say, they looked for deeper, hidden meanings in even the most straightforward verses of Scripture.  The Apostle Paul may have founded the church, but many in First Church Corinth found Apollos to be an impressive figure and wanted to lead the church in a different direction under Apollos’ name.

            The “Cephas party,” the Aramaic name for Peter, probably consisted of Jewish converts to Christ.  Though there is no record of Peter having visited Corinth, they knew him as the primary apostle, and as one of the leaders as the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem.  Appalled by Gentile converts who paid little attention to Jewish customs, they formed their own group of like-minded believers.  The “Cephas party” would celebrated Chanukah and Passover as well as Christmas and Easter.

            We can only guess how made up the “Christ party.”  Wouldn’t everyone want to be a part of that group?  Apparently not, since Paul disparages the group.  Given the context, it must have been a group that claimed Christ as their leader, but in an exclusive way, sort of like, “We are the ones who really belong to Christ, but we’re not too sure about you.”  In all likelihood, they came out of Greek mystery cults that stressed esoteric encounters with God.  Think of them as super-spiritual people who looked down their noses at others.

            Of course, one wishes this was merely a description of ancient church history.  One wishes this was a one-time, never-to-be-repeated scenario from the past.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Church divisions still plague the modern church.  All we need to do is substituted “I am pro-life” or “I am pro-choice” for “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos.”  Worship wars envelope many a congregation.  Heated battles break out over singing out of a hymnal or singing words projected on a screen.  People can be heard saying, “I am pro-screen” or “I am anti-screen.”  Denominations divide over the ordination of women or gays, and to tell you the truth, of all the “one another” passages in the New Testament, this one really baffles me.  For example, if I don’t see homosexuality as a sin and you do, am I to agree with you or are you to agree with me?  If I am an evolutionist and you are a creationist, who is to agree with whom?  If you like Mozart and I like Sandy Patti, am I to abandon my musical preference to keep the peace?  In other words, to what extent are we to agree with one another?  Surely, we are not to let go of well-thought-out and deeply held views.  The Apostle Paul, after all, did not let go of well-thought-out and deeply held views of his own.  He often debated points of theology and practice.  So, did Paul not practice what he preached?  What does Paul mean for us to do here?  I wish we could invite him to our church picnic in a few weeks and ask him to clarify what he means here over hot dogs and fried chicken.  Given the likelihood of that not happening, let me take a stab at what he might be saying.

            First of all, he may be saying “agree to disagree in love.”  He may be saying “disagree without being disagreeable.”  Since Paul celebrates the diversity of the Body of Christ later in his letter to the Corinthians, his counsel to “agree with one another” could not mean uniformity of thought.  Paul accepted the fact that God gives people different gifts and passions, that God “wires” people differently.  Furthermore, Paul could be as argumentative as they come.  Invite Paul over for dinner and you could count on lively dinner conversation.  He did not mince words.  He did not pull punches.  He did not tiptoe around people for issues.  What he’s getting at here can probably be found in his “love” chapter in this letter.  In the thirteenth chapter he writes,


            Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (I Corinthians 13:4-7).


            Note what he says here.  Love rejoices in the truth, what is right, but not in disagreeable way.  Rather love disagrees kindly and patiently.  Betty Kimbral did that with me.  Betty Kimbral, a member of one of my churches, came into my office disappointed with a decision the Personnel Committee of the church had made.  He disagreed with our firing of one of our custodians.  The custodian had a learning disability, he had a big heart, but he required constant supervision, so we fired him.  She said, “I disagree with your rationale.  As a church we could have done more for him.  Surely, we could have found someone who could have given him the attention he required.”  Then she said, “I won’t take up any more of you time.  Thank you for allowing me to speak my mind.”  She shook my hand and walked out of the office.  She disagreed without being disagreeable, and she never brought up the incident again, and it never affected our relationship. 

            Second, when Paul says to agree with one another, I think he is appealing to us to prize church unity as much as church purity.

            Did you hear about the man who was shipwrecked and found himself washed up on an island?  He searched around and found he was the sole inhabitant of the island.  After thinking about the situation, he got busy and making a home for himself.

            One day, a number of years later, as he was scanning the horizon, he saw a big yacht.  Awhile later a dinghy carried two people to his island.  He was so excited to see people that he ran down to the shore and began greeting them before they even landed.  He asked them if they would like to see the accommodations he had made for himself.  “Sure,” they replied.  “Show us.”

            He led them into the interior of the island where he had built a cluster of buildings.  “That one,” he pointed out, “is my house.”

            “What’s that one,” they asked as they pointed to a large structure.

            “That’s my barn.  I’ve domesticated some of the island goats, and I keep some of the tools I have made there.”

            “What’s that building?” they asked, as they pointed to another building.

            “Oh, that’s my church.  I get spiritual sustenance when I go there to worship.”

            They pointed to another structure and asked, “What’s that other building?”

            “Oh,” he said, “that’s where I used to go to church!”

            Now, that guy valued spiritual purity!!!!   When he disagreed with himself, he changed churches!  But what about unity?  How would he fair in a theologically or culturally diverse congregation?  Would his desire for purity outweigh his desire for unity?

            A number of years ago I was in a national covenant group with church growth pastors from around the nation.  We met once a year for three days, usually the first week of May.  Joe Rightmyer was one of the guys in my group.  At the time, Joe was serving as President of Presbyterians for Renewal, a conservative branch of our denomination.  He travelled around the country addressing some of the hot topics facing our denomination, and he often found himself pitted against others who had a different view of the spiritual direction of our denomination.  In all the years I knew him, however, Joe never encouraged his conservative brethren to leave the denomination, even though he disagreed strongly with many of the stances taken by our General Assembly.  In other words, he encouraged his constituents to value unity as much a purity.  For, Joe, as was the case with the Apostle Paul, birds of different feathers can still flock together.

            So, if the Apostle Paul were to come to our church picnic on June 20th, that’s what I think he would say to us if we asked him to clarify what he meant by “agreeing with one another.”    I think he would say, work on  “disagreeing without being disagreeable,” and work on “valuing unity as much as purity.”  Of course, if you see him before then, ask him if he agrees with my take on his appeal.

            Next Sunday we turn our attention to “look out for one another.”  I hope to see you then.  Amen.