Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | January 25, 2017

Political Division

th-2This is the text from my homily for the Third Sunday After Epiphany 2017, offered in the midst of the congregation of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Before proceeding, I recommend that you read 1 Corinthians 1:1-10, the appointed epistle for the day (Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary).

It has been said that “a coincidence is when God works a miracle and remains anonymous.” So perhaps in our epistle reading today from 1 Corinthians we have an interesting coincidence; or perhaps we have a minor miracle. However you prefer to think of it, here’s one thing of which I am quite certain: God has a message for us in this reading … a message that is both timely and urgent.

In the epistle for today we hear Paul admonishing the Christians of Corinth: there should be “no divisions among you.” Instead, “be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” The coincidence to which I am alluding is the fact that we happen to hear this message from St. Paul just two days after inaugurating a new president. In many ways the now former president and the newly-inaugurated president are very different people who have different agendas, different life experiences, differing approaches to the task of problem-solving, and different ideas about addressing the problems of the nation.

And because we human beings are complicated creatures who make sense of the world in different ways, we often have disagreements—profound and emotional disagreements—about politics and politicians. Our congregation is not immune to these differences. So what Christian wisdom can we draw from this ancient text?

If we could go back in time, Corinth would be an interesting place to visit. When Paul arrived there in the mid-first century, the city was only about 100 years old. You could think of it as “New Corinth.” The city we might call “Old Corinth” had been destroyed, completely eradicated by the Romans long before. But Julius Caesar had refounded the city about a century before Paul visited. There were already Christians in Corinth when Paul showed up, and it was an amazing, busy, and wealthy city. In terms of economic and political importance, it probably ranked among the top three or four cities in the entire Roman empire. Even the municipal government was modeled on that of Rome.

The city’s wealth and influence was derived from its physical location. The history buffs among us can explain that at the very southern end of Greece, sticking out into the Mediterranean, there is a peninsular known as the Peloponnesus. It looks like a piece of fruit hanging on a tree. It’s large and round, and it’s connected to the mainland by only a small strip, or stem, of land. At its smallest point this geographic connector is only four miles wide. Known as the Isthmus of Corinth, it marks the spot where the ancient city of Corinth was located.

To the north was Greece. To the south was the Peloponnesus. On the east side was the harbor for the Aegean Sea. To the west was the harbor for the Ionian and Adriatic Seas. In other words, the Corinthians controlled everything—and taxed everything—that went north or south, east or west. It wasn’t just a port city; it was a two-port city. There were sailors and other travelers constantly coming and going, bringing with them all the riches and moral challenges that you can imagine, along with every kind of religious and political opinion.

It is reported that with their wealth the Corinthians erected many temples to the gods and goddesses, both of Rome and Egypt. There were also monuments dedicated to worship of the emperor. There was also a thriving Jewish community, probably small, but no doubt of some prosperity.

By the way, interestingly enough, the wealthy citizens of Corinth were considered to be people of “new money.” In Paul’s day they were people who had made their riches in just the previous couple of generations, because the city itself was so young—at least by Roman standards. They considered themselves a cosmopolitan elite, they had access to the finest of goods from all four directions, and they enjoyed the visits of esteemed philosophers who made their appearance among them. They liked the glamour and glitter of Corinthian social life. If Vanity Fair and People magazines had existed back then, the editors would surely have visited Corinth on a regular basis!

Being a genuine “crossroads,” Corinth probably received Christian visitors early. When the gospel landed, the environment in which it was planted was the one I have just described. During his missionary journeys, Paul visited the city and may have written his letter to the Romans from Corinth. My guess is that when Paul left Corinth to resume his travels, he had no idea what a complete pain in the backside the Corinthian church would become for him. Perhaps they showed their best attributes while he was among them. But after he departed, their argumentative nature emerged—with all of its cosmopolitan diversity. Paul had to write several letters to them, parts of which are lost, one of which is called his “letter of tears.”

(By the way, 30 years after Paul’s death, the Corinthians were still at it. Leaders in the church in Rome had to send a warning letter to Corinth to tell them to cut it out!)

The words we heard today in the epistle were written by Paul from Ephesus after departing Corinth. He had heard the sad news of divisive quarreling among members of the Corinthian church. You’ll note that several names came up in the reading. It’s not a case that some people preferred certain preachers to others, or that they had favorites among their community leaders. That’s a normal situation. What we see in the reading probably refers to different interpretations of Christianity. In other words, this quarreling had the potential to tear the community apart.

Some preferred the Christianity preached by Paul. Others were gravitating to Apollos, a co-worker with Paul who may have mixed his teaching with Greek philosophical elements. This probably sat well with the intellectual snobs among the church. Some preferred the Christianity of Cephas—Peter—who was struggling with his Jewishness and may have been insisting that non-Jewish Christians follow Jewish customs.

Can you hear the exasperation of Paul as it emerges in his words? “Thank God I didn’t baptize many of you,” he exclaims, realizing that it would only have given more people a chance to misunderstand what he was doing!

Paul’s message, for all of its enthusiasm and its expression of disappointment, is a very simple one: NOTHING MATTERS MORE THAN CHRIST. Those who are baptized into Christ share a fellowship that transcends differences. The thing that mattered most to Paul was fellowship, spiritual communion in Christ.

To the Corinthians Paul said “you all belong to Christ,” not to me, or Apollos, or Cephas. If he were here today in the midst of our American political upheaval, he might say “you also belong to Christ,” not to Barack,Donald, or Hillary.  Perhaps he’d say that it’s important to prioritize so that we don’t lose that which is most important to that which is secondary in life. What we share in Christ comes before everything else, because everything else will pass away.

As the first-century church of Corinth shows us, we aren’t the first Christians to have strong, divergent opinions. It has always been this way. More important, I am convinced that, for Paul, there was no greater sin than division because it does tremendous damage to our fellowship. It splits the body of Christ.

So as we make our political decisions and as we evolve in our political commitments, we must remember that all politicians are humans and thus all of them are sinners. And so we pray for them whether we agree with them or not. Likewise, political institutions are imperfect. If we allow the imperfect to divide us, then Paul makes clear the ramifications: in such a case, “the cross of Christ” would be “emptied of its power.”

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