1 Corinthians 1:10-17
1 Corinthians 3:1-23
Division. We have all felt it, we have all been hurt by it, and most of us don’t know what to do about it. As a pastor, as a shepherd, I think part of my job is to promote spiritual unity. But I don’t see a lot of that in our world. I see divided families, divided churches, a divided nation, and a divided world. Division persists and it leaves us with permanent scars. But Paul suggests to us today that it doesn’t have to be that way. In our passages Paul is talking to the divided Corinthian church. And he advises them, “I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no division among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement.” I don’t think the Apostle Paul would tell the Corinthian church to do something that wasn’t possible. Though our lives and our culture seemed to be defined by division Paul tells us that doesn’t have to be so. Today I want us to answer two questions.
- What causes division?
- How do we address division?
First, let us address why division happens. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians chapter 3, “But I , brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.” Paul’s answer for why there is division is very simple.
We are being a bunch of babies.
The thing about a baby is a baby doesn’t really understand what is going on. The world is new to it. It doesn’t contemplate things. It just reacts to them through base instincts. A baby truly is at the whims of its environment. And what I have noticed through my experience in ministry and through trainings in conflict management is that division is profoundly personal and it is never about what we say it is about. We may say it is about the music, or about ideology, or theology, or politics, or whatever, but usually there is a deeply personal story that drives our passions. And often we don’t even fully understand our own motivations. I have learned in the course of my ministry that often the worst conflicts are not about what people say they are about. These concrete things we say division is about tend to be symbolic markers, idols, support beams, that we hang our personal grievances on. That isn’t to say the issues are not real or shouldn’t be taken seriously. It is just to say that often our passion around a particular issue tend to be more about our own personal experience of hurt than the issue itself. Paul says we lack understanding of our own motivations because we are still spiritual infants, being fed only spiritual milk, and not solid food. This is not necessarily bad to be fed spiritual milk. No one thinks twice about a mother breast feeding her child. But when that child gets to be two or three years old then yeah that is sort of a problem.
But Paul tells us the types of behaviors that develop if we only drink spiritual milk and do not move onto solid food. Paul describes three behaviors here that are destructive to any organization.
- Taking Sides.
First, notice how Paul tells us he heard about the conflicts going on in the Corinthian church through, “Chloe’s people.” This seems to be a woman in the Corinthian community, someone who Paul knew personally, presumably someone Paul respected and trusted, who kicked the news of the conflict up the chain to Paul. This may be a necessary step, judging by the description of the conflict in the letter, but it is an escalation of the conflict. Getting Paul involved raises the stakes so to speak. And in my experience escalation happens because people don’t follow the counsel of Matthew 18.To quote Jesus, “ if your brother sins against you go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two others along with you , that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
I have found in my life and in my ministry that a lot of division festers because we simply refuse to talk to each other directly about our issues. Perhaps this is because we are angry or don’t like the person. Perhaps it is because we really don’t know how to talk about what angers us in any way that doesn’t lead to a shouting match. Instead, of telling so and so how we feel in a constructive way, we tell someone else to go talk to so and so. Instead, of meeting with the Pastor and telling him or her why we or hurt by what they said or did, we tell so and so, who tells the Pastor, “people are saying this about you Pastor.” We as adults play the children’s game of telephone. We spread the problem around to other people, who put their spin on it, till at the end of the line the story doesn’t look anything like what was initially going on. I have practiced conflict avoidance myself in my ministry. If I was angry or someone was angry with me I wouldn’t go talk to them I would talk to someone I was comfortable with about them. It made me feel better but it never made the situation any better. Hopefully, Chloe followed Jesus’ process, before bringing her concerns to Paul. But chances are the factions having conflict in the church have not followed this process. Instead, they are practicing what is known as triangulation. This tends to heighten the anger and anxiety of the entire system. Now Jesus is clear sometimes conflict cannot be resolved one on one. But he is also clear if you have not tried to resolve the conflict one on one kicking it up the chain is not honoring to God, to you, or to the other person. So before you get someone else involved, before you bring something to another church member or to the session, just talk to each other face to face. You owe each other that much. And it is a Biblical command.
Second, Paul says when we are spiritual infants, when we are living in the flesh, we put too much stock in worldly wisdom, what he calls wise words. To quote Paul, “ For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel, not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross be emptied of its power.” In Chapter two of 1 Corinthians Paul contrasts the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God. What’s the difference? In worldly wisdom you make the assumption that you know things. With Godly wisdom you make the assumption that God knows things and you don’t.
Strangely in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about a spiritual gift called a word of wisdom. But there he flips the order of the words from the previous passage I just quoted. In effect he says he does not preach with wise words but God gives words of wisdom. The Greek words for wise and Word are the same Paul just switches the order. I am not a Greek scholar, so I can’t be sure if there is a significance, but my spiritual sense is Paul is saying when our wisdom comes first we only speak with human words. But when God’s Word comes first we speak with God’s wisdom. And frankly, the more I study God’s Word the more new things the Holy Spirit reveals to me. It isn’t that I don’t believe in the Truth of God’s Word. It is that the full meaning of the Bible is still being revealed to me in new ways. I can’t understand the scriptures without the Holy Spirit. I can’t apply it without the Holy Spirit. I have heard wisdom defined as the art of applying knowledge to a particular circumstance. For example, it is generally wise to obey the speed limit. But when are you being chased by a hungry T Rex, as in the movie Jurassic Park, obeying the speed limit does not seem so wise in that circumstance. We need that with the Bible too. We need God’s wisdom not the world’s wisdom to apply the teachings of the Bible to the situations we find ourselves in.
God’s wisdom is counterintuitive to our wisdom in many cases. There is common senses and then there is God’s sense. Paul’s example is what he calls the foolishness of the cross. Jews demanded miracles and Greeks demanded fancy philosophical arguments, but Paul proclaimed Christ crucified. To have a crucified Lord made no sense. Crucifixion was one of the most inhumane, terrifying, and shameful forms of execution ever invented. You can be crucified or you can be Lord but you can’t be both, all of Paul’s readers knew that, it was just common sense. But because people assumed they knew how God worked they missed out on the power of the cross. Often, division is caused when we go into a situation believing we know what is going on. We go to the person who sinned against us making accusations only to find out in reality we were the one that sinned against them we just couldn’t see it because of our own pride. Worldly wisdom is assuming that we know what is going on. God’s wisdom is assuming God knows what is going on and we don’t. Assumptions drive miscommunication. Assumptions drive conflict.
Finally, as the conflict escalates it leads to us taking sides. Maybe the folks we side with are not even that bad of people. Apollos was a Jewish Christian who was very bold to teach the Gospel he just needed to be corrected on a few things (Acts 18). Cephas is another name for Peter, one of Jesus’ closets disciples. He was one of the founders of the Church. But he struggled for much of his life with how to include non-Jewish folks into the church. It is not wrong that the Corinthians admired these men. It is wrong that cults of personalities formed around these people. If we talk about how much we like our pastor instead of what our pastor is teaching us about Jesus, then we have missed the mark. It isn’t that we never have to choose a side. But the side we choose should be to do what is right not based on because we like or dislike someone.
Paul says Triangulation, Assumptions, and taking sides, produces “jealousy and strife”. The word for strife here is where we get our word for irritation. The word brings to mind a rash that you just have to itch. And instead of getting rid of the rash, the itching only spreads the rash till it consumes your whole body. That’s a good metaphor for how division works in our lives. We just think that if I can win this argument that will put an end to the division but it just leads to another argument, and another argument, and eventually our relationships are consumed. The word for jealous is actually where we get our modern word zealous which means to be very eager or all in for something. Strangely, the same word can be translated as either jealous or zealous in the scriptures depending upon the context. So when is one jealous, which is bad, and zealous, which is good? Paul tells us in Romans 10:2, where he comments on his own people, the Jewish people. Hey says, “ For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge.” The difference between being zealous and being jealous is knowledge. I mean I can sincerely believe that if I am bored on a Friday night I can eat a full Little Caesars hot and ready deep dish pizza and that will somehow make me feel better. And I can be zealous for eating that pizza. But I guarantee you that there is a rate of diminishing returns the more pizza you eat. And when you have eaten the whole thing you are in fact far less happy than you were before, take my word for it. Now we are not talking about people like me who lack common sense, instead we are talking about people who lack the knowledge of God, the wisdom of God, as Paul would put it.
And Paul should know. He was a devout Jew, a persecutor of the church, he went around arresting Christians. He held people’s cloaks as Stephen, the first Marty of the church was stoned to death. Paul was absolutely sincere in his belief that the followers of Jesus, the Way, were a threat to His faith, he was just sincerely wrong. Jesus had to appear to Paul on the road to Damascus to show Him that that he was sincere but sincerely wrong and the experience changed His life. It is a humbling experience to have deeply held, sincere beliefs, and then to be proven dead wrong. And if we have never been proven dead wrong in our lives perhaps we have to ask ourselves if we are sheltering ourselves? Perhaps we have to ask ourselves if we are hanging around people and listening to talking heads who only tell us what we want to hear? For when we are proven dead wrong about something it has a way of humbling us. It has a way of teaching us about the wisdom of God.
First, we asked why division happens. Paul tells us it happens because we are spiritual babies. Second, we must ask how do we address division? Paul tells us as well. We must mature from only drinking spiritual milk to eating solid food. But what in the world does that mean? What is spiritual milk and what is solid food? Luckily, the writer of Hebrews in chapters five and six gives us a sense of what Paul means. He as well talks about moving on from spiritual milk to solid food. He defines spiritual milk as elementary doctrine such as repentance, salvation by faith and not by works, baptism, the laying on of hands and prayer, the resurrection from the dead, and eternal judgment. Spiritual milk, the writer of Hebrews tells us is the basics of what we believe as Christian, what we confess in our creeds and liturgy. What then is solid food? To quote Hebrews, “ solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment, trained by constant practice to distinguish good and evil.”
Solid Christian food is discernment. The word discernment means to sift through things as one might sift through the dirt in a river in the old west during the gold rush looking for gold. In discernment we are looking for spiritual gold. We are looking to sift the wheat from the chaff. Because the Truth is while the Bible does teach us eternal Truths we live in a broken and sinful world and often evil motivations tend to be mixed up with the good ones, most of us are not monsters, and even monsters have a story about how they got there. We took a bite out of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. And while we have some basics ideas of justice and fairness I think all the pain, and war, and conflict throughout human history shows we are pretty bad at applying that knowledge of good and evil because we are not in fact God. The Holy Spirit helps us discern between good and evil. And he does so best when we have a foundation in Christ, as Paul would say. When we have the mind of Christ, the character of Christ, we can better discern God’s Will. But if we are not forming the character of Christ within ourselves, if we are ignorant of our own issues, there isn’t a great chance we are going to hear from God correctly in prayer or interpret His Word correctly. I think the scriptures tell us three essential character traits of Christ that can teach us about discernment.
- Christ asked questions
- Christ loved his enemies.
- Christ spoke the Truth in love.
First, Christ asked questions. One of my favorite stories is that of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar and he hears that Jesus is coming. So he runs to Jesus despite resistance from the crowd and from Jesus’ own disciples. And when Bartimaeus finally gets to him Jesus asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?” Coming from the mouth of Jesus that is a really absurd question. First, because He is Jesus, he could often discern people’s thoughts and intentions without them saying a word. And even if Jesus wasn’t God he is not a blind man. It is very obvious to anyone who can see what Bartimaeus wants, he is blind, he wants to see, I don’t have to be an MD to figure that out. And yet Jesus doesn’t assume, even though he can because He is God. Instead, he asks Bartimeaus a question. Often, when trying to resolve conflict we want to find the solution. But often when people demand answers from God in the scriptures he doesn’t give them answers. Instead, he provides His people with questions so that they may live into the answers. So perhaps if we want Christ to work in the midst of our division and conflict we need to learn how to ask good questions. Even if we are an expert in a field, even if the Holy Spirit has given us insight into a situation, even if we are certain we are in the right, asking people sincere questions about how they feel is usually the first step to solving a conflict.
Second, Christ loved his enemies. In the parable of the Good Samaritan he taught us the one who is the neighbor to the man laying bleeding and beaten by the side of the road is the one who showed him mercy and we are to go and do likewise. And the one who showed the dying man mercy just happened to be a man from a hated group of people the Samaritan. Loving our enemies means that we learn what it is like to walk in their shoes. When we try to do this, what generally happens, is those who have not seen the wisdom of God, will see us as traitors because we have tried to find the gold mixed in with the bad. We have tried to show empathy and that isn’t popular when we show empathy for the other. What we want to do with people who anger us, offend us, terrify us, is separate and protect ourselves from them. And empathy does not mean a lack of healthy boundaries. Sometimes we lack the spiritual maturity to show empathy while maintaining our boundaries and thus we should separate ourselves. Jesus touched the broken while maintaining his boundaries. He hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors but no one ever accused him of being a prostitute or tax collector. Ultimately, the scriptures tell us that Jesus was crucified, not because he was a real threat to Rome, but because his own people saw Him as a traitor, and it was their anger over him being a traitor that Pilate sought to satisfy by crucifying Jesus. Loving your enemies, treating the lowly and unlovable with compassion, will cause some to see you as a traitor. And it will cause division in itself. But this division is more the Lord purging evil from your midst. And when it is done you will find that your own spirit and your own community is stronger than it was before.
Finally, Jesus spoke the truth in love. When I look at Jesus I see a man who loves people and convicts them of their sin at the same time. He spoke to the crowd about to stone the woman caught in adultery saying to them him who have no sin, cast the first stone. And they all went away the oldest first, because they knew themselves the best, and then the youngest. He did not condemn the woman but he told her to go and sin no more. Depending on our disposition we like one side of this story and not the other. We condemn those who throw stones but we let ourselves off the hook when we continue to sin. Our we point out the sin in others and deny that the way we do so is not bringing life but throwing stones. Frankly, I don’t know how to do both. I am a Truth oriented person. I care deeply about right and wrong. But frankly when I try to correct people on difficult subjects through teaching the scripture they tend to reject me and do what they want to do anyway. And to be honest I have done the same, even with mentors in my life, who have given me Godly counsel. I usually think, “only God can judge me,” when in fact I don’t really care what God thinks because if I did care I would accept Godly counsel because that is what scripture tells us to do. And to be honest when I think “only God can judge me” I am doing something that I know deep inside breaks the heart of Christ. Even though I am a teacher I have not always had a teachable Spirit, I have been more stubborn at times. However, I have one mentor who I call when I know I need to hear the Truth and I know I need to be loved.. He will be very direct with me. So direct that it is sometimes rude and I am taken aback. What I want to say is who are you to say that to me? But for some reason I tend to accept what he says more than anyone else who speaks into my life. I think it is because I know he loves me without condition and I know he has spent a lifetime training himself to speak the Truth, to discern between good and evil, and I know at this point in my life that is a wisdom you can’t buy. In Galatians 6 Paul tells us that if one of our brothers is caught in sin we should restore them with a spirit of gentleness. Yelling at each other isn’t the answer. Neither is silence. Restoring each other in a spirit of gentleness is the answer. Rarely have I met someone who speaks the truth with a gentle spirit. I can say easy things with a gentle spirit and hard things with a hard spirit but I need grace to say hard things with a gentle spirit. And yet this mentor is able to say hard things to me with a gentle Spirit. Sometimes I hesitate to call him because I know what I am in for. But I always feel stronger in my faith after I do. And Paul tells us that this is the key to ending division in our midst. To quote Paul, “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”. Lord helps us speak the truth in love. Make us hungry, make us hungry, make us hungry, for solid food.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.