If you go to Beijing, you’ll find the body of Chairman Mao nicely entombed, and if you’re in Moscow, you’ll find Lenin’s body on display, although he’s not as popular as he once was. Back at home, there aren’t any Presidential corpses on display, but depending on your political affiliation, the names FDR and Ronald Reagan may stand out in your pantheon of Great American Heroes.
It would seem that many seemingly larger than life figures, both living and dead, get elevated to almost divine status. Today’s living pantheon includes sports heroes, politicians, super models, film stars, media celebrities, and even big time preachers! Although there are those who relish in tearing down society’s idols, often sharing the most intimate details of these “heroes’s” lives in the various tabloids, we seem to enjoy basking in the glow of knowing even just a little bit about these larger than life people. If we get the chance to meet them, we do so with a great deal of shyness. Our palms get sweaty, our voices stammer nervously. It’s almost as if they’ve reached divine status – at least in our minds.
Now, back in St. Paul’s day, the members of the Corinthian church knew all about this reality. You see, the Roman Emperors were experts at cultivating personality cults, and so to be a Christian often meant choosing sides. By declaring Jesus to be Lord, you were declaring that Caesar wasn’t lord. Paul might have told the Romans to obey the authorities, but he didn’t give the Roman church permission to worship the emperor. And in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul tells a badly divided church to not create personality cults and parties that celebrate their heroes. Instead, he tells them – be of one mind and purpose. But, what does this mean for us?
1. It’s not about Me
The reason why Paul takes up the issue of unity is that the Corinthian Church had gotten tangled up in factional fighting. It had gotten so bad that one group in the church – the people affiliated with Chloe – sent Paul a letter, telling him that factionalism was brewing. Apparently some in the church claimed Paul as their mentor, while others hailed the name of Apollos, and still others Cephas or Peter. And then there were the purists, who claimed only to follow Christ.
As I read this litany of names, my thoughts go in two directions. First, I’m reminded that this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Disciples have made unity a hallmark of our identity, and so this is something worth lifting up in prayer. But even as we pray that the church might experience unity, I’m equally aware of the religious partisanship that has always challenged this call to unity of mind and purpose. Instead of Paul and Apollos and Cephas, I hear a different pantheon: “I’m for Aquinas; I’m for Calvin; I’m for Luther; I’m for Aimee Semple McPherson: I’m for Campbell or I’m for Stone! Who is your hero?
Isn’t it interesting that Paul also adds in Christ -- just in case someone wants to take the “high road” and claim that they we’re not part of any party, we’re just followers of Christ. Yes, we’re the purists. We don’t just go back to Calvin or Aquinas; we’re going all the way back to Jesus! As Disciples, we need to hear this word from Paul, for we have a tendency to see ourselves standing above the fray, representing no particular party, and we hold it over our brothers and sisters who take their names from famous founders. Yes, we’re not Lutherans, Calvinists, or even Baptists. Instead, while “We’re not the only Christians, we’re Christians only.”
The truth is, personalities can mess things up and get in the way of unity. It doesn’t have to be a famous theologian or founder; it could just be a clique that emerges in a congregation that seeks power over the life of the congregation. Sometimes this factional fighting starts off rather benignly – different people have different opinions and interests. Things go awry when we decide that our way is the only way.
Whatever you want to say about the dysfunctional nature of the Corinthian church, its strength was its diversity. Corinth was a bit like LA or New York. It was the crossroads of the Roman Empire. Ships from the east stopped there to transfer their loads to ships heading west to Rome, and the same was true of ships going in the opposite direction. And yet, despite the differences, they were sisters and brothers in Christ, but as we all know, sometimes siblings can fight with the best of them! As Kathleen Norris puts it:
The Corinthians remind me of my niece and nephew in their younger days when they fought ferociously over things both large and small. One afternoon as they raged over the question of who would sit in the front seat as Mom drove them home on the daily commute, I asked, “Is there anything you two won’t fight about?” The shouting stopped as both children looked at me. Beaming, they happily declared, “No!” and resumed their squabbling. Of course they love each other, and always have. (Christian Century, January 15, 2008, p. 23).
Norris thinks that Paul was hoping that this could be true of the Corinthians – that they would ultimately find unity in their common heritage of faith, in spite of their differences. Because ultimately, it’s not about me, but you O Lord.
2. Unity in Our Diversity
One way to achieve unity in the church is to make sure everyone thinks alike, talks alike, and looks alike. And you know what? It works! Not long ago church growth experts told us that birds of a feather flock together, and so the quickest way to build a church is to find your niche. And so we developed churches and worship services for the young and the old, for the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor, black churches, Hispanic churches, Korean churches, and of course white churches. They called it the homogeneous principle, but the problem is that ultimately this principle undermines the message of the gospel by keeping the people of God separate from each other. It may alleviate a lot of “problems,” but the question is: Is this what God really wants for the church? Does God want uniformity or does God want us to find unity within our diversity? In other words can the organ crowd live together with the guitar crowd? Just to give an example! I hope so, because we’ve already begun heading down that road.
But stylistic differences are one thing – what about ethnic and cultural differences? Last Sunday we hosted the Martin Luther King Service, which is sponsored by the Michigan Disciples Black Minister’s Caucus. We got asked to host this event, because the sponsors wanted to bridge the gap that separates our churches. It was a wonderful event, but it’s one thing to gather for a special event. It’s a very different thing to become a truly multi-ethnic congregation.
We often talk about becoming more diverse, but moving from talk to reality is, as they say, a long and winding road. The first step in taking this road is to recognize that being multi-ethnic involves more than adding a few people of color to a congregation. No, from what I’ve read a multi-ethnic congregation is one that has more than 20% of its membership that is different from the majority culture. And second, getting to that point is not easy.
You see there are cultural, social, political, and theological differences that have to be negotiated. Too often when we think about becoming more diverse, we just assume that the people who come to us will simply assimilate themselves without making any real changes in the way we live together as God’s people. But that’s not the way it happens. The good news is that we may have already begun to take some of the steps necessary to get to that point. For instance, there are the little things we’ve done to broaden the worship style to include both traditional and non-traditional forms. We’ve launched an alternative worship service that is planned and led by young adults, but which is not simply a “young adult” service. We’re reaching out and building partnerships with predominantly African-American congregations and we’ve joined in the work of rebirthing Detroit through our involvement with Motown Mission. We’ve become more involved with congregations outside the denomination and we’ve taken an increasingly larger role within the local interfaith movement. These are first steps that God is blessing.
3. Rooted in the Cross
The way forward will require us to embrace the unity that only the Spirit of God can bring to us. When we hear that voice within us saying: Why should I accommodate myself to the needs of the other? When we find ourselves saying: If they want to come here, then they need to learn to assimilate and be like me, then we need to hear the call to embrace the cross of Christ. And we do this because how we respond to this calling will affect the way the gospel is heard in our community.
The way relate to each other influences the way the message of Jesus gets heard. And that message is simply this: “Change your hearts and minds! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Mt. 4:17).
And to give us a sense of urgency, I think it’s important that we hear what the pollsters are telling us. Even though most church people are happy with the way things are, the general public doesn’t hold the church in high regard. This is especially true among the young. Even though religious people are, by and large, more generous than non-religious people, and while they’re more likely to volunteer than non-religious people, religious folk are also perceived as being more intolerant of others. In fact, it appears that the more you go to the church, the more intolerant you tend to be. We say we seek to be an accepting or welcoming congregation, but what does that mean? And how do we change this perception that the world has of the church?
The key, according to Paul, is found in the cross. You see the cross is scandalous, because it’s a sign of humiliation and weakness. To die on a cross is to experience complete powerlessness, and Paul suggests that if we’re going to experience unity in the midst of our diversity, then we must be willing to let go of that drive to gain power over others. To be of one mind and purpose, as Paul suggests, requires that we take a position of humility that is exemplified by Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s not that there is no place for leadership, but it is a question of how we wield that leadership. Do we use power to benefit ourselves or to benefit others? This is the question that Paul poses to us as we pause to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 23, 2011