I was privileged to preach this sermon on January 22, 2017, at Waverly Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Our scripture comes from I Corinthians 1:9-18.
God is faithful; by whom you were called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
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.
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.”
Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
For Christ did not send me 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.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The word of the Lord.
“I want you all to be in agreement.” This scripture comes to us after a weekend that showed more painfully than many that our country, and even the church, could not be more visibly divided.
Franklin Graham, the son of famous evangelist Billy Graham, spent the last few days celebrating the inauguration of our new president.
Famous Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber marched in the women’s march in Denver, my wife Kristen marched in DC, and I marched in Pittsburgh.
So what does it mean for Paul to say he wants all the Corinthian Christians to be in agreement? Does he want Stepford Christians, who all smile politely and agree with each other on literally everything? Granted, that would be kinda nice, but the entire history of the church is opposite of that.
So is Paul being unrealistic here? Or is there something more going on? Maybe we can get a better sense of that by looking at the divisions in the Corinthian church.
Where do these divisions come from? “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” “I belong to Christ.”
What are they saying when they say “I belong to so-and-so?” What’s that about?
I’m Presbyterian. (This may come as a surprise to some of you.) My friend Joel is Methodist. We sit around my apartment and talk about his new Prius Prime, except last week when we looked at surveys of Protestant youths.
He told me that Methodist youths are more likely to believe in God than Presbyterian youths. So, naturally, I started digging around in the data looking for metrics that look better for Presbyterians. I sent a few messages like this:
Huh. More Presbyterian youth feel very or extremely close to God most of the time than UMC. How ’bout them frozen chosen.
Intriguing. Of all the groups they surveyed, 86% of Presbyterians (more than believe in God) expressed religious beliefs in school some or a lot. More than any other group.
Presbyterians are also highest in “church usually feels warm and welcoming.”
He completely ignored me.
What I was looking for in that data was a way to say, “Presbyterians are better than Methodists in some ways,” or, essentially, “My church is better than your church.” Joel and I are good friends so part of it was just good-hearted teasing, but under all that there’s still this sense of competitiveness.
It starts when we’re kids. “My dad could beat up your dad.”
So I think when the Corinthians say “I belong to Paul,” they’re not just making that simple statement that “I belong to Paul,” like I would say “I live on North Highland Avenue.”
They’re saying, “I belong to Paul,
and belonging to Paul is better than belonging to Apollos or Cephas.“
“I belong to Apollos,
and belonging to Apollos is better than belonging to Paul or Cephas.”
“I belong to Cephas,
and belonging to Cephas is better than belonging to Paul or Apollos, because Cephas was one of the twelve.”
Remnants of Luke 9 where the disciples are arguing about who is going to be the greatest.
Then if you really wanna go for superiority,
“Well I belong to Christ, and all your guys are the servants of who I belong to.”
I’m sure glad we don’t have those problems today.
On a totally unrelated topic, I’m registered as a Democrat and I voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m glad I’m not like those uninformed Republicans who voted for Donald Trump. I belong to the Democrats.
But if you read Paul here, it seems like he doesn’t even bother to address this issue about superiority. He scolds them and then he moves straight into talking about the message of the cross. If I preached that message, Beckie would be like, “It wasn’t a bad sermon, but you really need to work on your transitions.”
Listen to this transition: “(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel…” What? And then this next verse about “The message of the cross is foolishness?” Where are you going with this, Paul? What does the message of the cross have to do with “I was baptized by Paul, so I’m better than those who were baptized by Cephas or Apollos”?
What Paul has done is set up a contrast, between the messages of the Corinthian Christians about their superiority, and the message of the cross.
The message of the Cross is not “I’m better than you.”
The message of the Cross is, “I’m dead.”
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)
Nobody walks through the graveyards saying, “This dead person is better than that dead person.” Maybe this person was better, but their bones are all in the ground.
But the gospel that Paul is preaching is commonplace for many of us. Yes, yes, the death and resurrection of Jesus, saved by grace, blah blah blah.
So I started thinking, how I could make this make sense? How can I bring this up to date, reveal it for the foolishness that it is? Then it hit me.
Imagine Hillary Clinton didn’t just lose, but that President Trump stuck to his promise to lock her up. Now imagine instead of just being locked up, she was brutally executed. It’s far-fetched and ridiculous, but stay with me.
Now, imagine a few years after the execution, Clintonian missionaries come knocking on your door asking if you have a few moments to talk about their Lord and Savior Hillary Clinton! Foolishness!
But this is what we find in the words of scripture. Jesus is a loser, and not just a loser but a failure, and an executed loser.
And there the Corinthians are, arguing about which of them got baptized into this loser’s execution with the best baptism. It’s absurdity!
This baptism is an identity-taking thing. Nitpicking who’s better because of which door they came through or which doorman opened it for them doesn’t make any sense, Paul says. Galatians 3:28, “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I don’t get to be better than my fellow Christians who post fake news on Facebook.
I don’t get to act like I’m better than my fellow Christians who said Obama was going to pronounce himself dictator for life and declare martial law, which, God forgive me, I did while I was writing this sermon!
And what does that superiority get us, anyway? It doesn’t even change others; it just makes us feel better about ourselves.
When my friend Joel told me his Methodist statistics, I didn’t convert to Methodism. I just started hunting down Presbyterian statistics instead. It turns into a back and forth of “Oh yeah?” “Oh yeah!”
We don’t win people over by announcing that we’re better than they are. Look how it turned out for Hillary Clinton and her “Basket of Deplorables” comment. I went on Twitter and every third Trump supporter had stuck the world “Deplorable” in front of their first name! But let’s not pretend this is a one-sided problem; I’ve seen the word “libtard” floated around more times than I can count. I didn’t react by thinking, “Dang, conservatives are so much smarter than me,” I just assumed the people who wrote those comment were idiots.
And around and around it goes.
“For Christ did not send me 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.”
I’ve written what I thought was eloquent-sounding wisdom, only to find someone calling me an idiot. Conservative blogger Matt Walsh has done the same, and I could not believe how wrong he was.
“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Paul tells us this message is foolishness so we will get off our high horses. Even though he says it’s foolishness to those who are perishing, which might tempt the Corinthians to think more highly of themselves than of those who are perishing, make no mistake: It is foolishness.
The message of the cross, my friends, is foolishness because none of us gets to be superior.
We don’t sign our names under the name of a winner.
We sign our names under the name of an executed loser.
That is our primary identity.
Christ is not divided – not into Paul or Apollos or Cephas, not into Methodist and Presbyterian, not into Republican and Democrat and Libertarian and Green and Socialist.
Our baptism into Christ is an exclusive identity, an identity that subsumes and absorbs all others. Whatever other identities we may have, we are Christ’s first. We belong to God, first.
This is not to say that we should not support politicians we think will support out our values that we receive from Christ, or critique politicians who are exercising values that are anti-Christ – no! Nor is it to say that all politicians are morally equivalent.
It’s just to say that our sense of superiority isn’t helping.
What is helping is the message about the cross.
What is helping is the message I’m reading from the Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith, which begins,
In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.
We trust in Jesus Christ,
fully human, fully God.
Jesus proclaimed the reign of God:
preaching good news to the poor
and release to the captives,
teaching by word and deed
and blessing the children,
healing the sick
and binding up the brokenhearted,
eating with outcasts,
and calling all to repent and believe the gospel.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
God raised this Jesus from the dead,
vindicating his sinless life,
breaking the power of sin and evil,
delivering us from death to life eternal.
Thanks be to God.
So, I wrote that sermon just after the inauguration. I had been on Twitter before I wrote it, and after I finished, I found that somebody had disagreed with one of my tweets. I fired off a quick reply and thought, “That’ll show ‘em.”
And I think maybe it was the Holy Spirit who asked, not in an audible voice, but sort of a thought popping into my head: “Show ‘em what, exactly?”
“That… I’m… better… than… Darn.”
So it’s a work in progress.