Date: January 26, 2020
Festival: 3rd Sunday after Epiphany
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Sermon Hymn: LSB #837 Lift High the Cross
Exegetical Statement: In this section of the epistle, Paul addresses his first main issue with the Christians in Corinth: the lack of unity and the formulation of division in their local church. Rather than division, as Christians, the Corinthians should be characterised by saying the same thing in their practices (doctrine is not addressed here). This state of the Corinthians was made clear to Paul through Chloe’s servants—that they are in a constant state of disarray, quarreling with one another.
Preferring one apostle/preacher over another, the Corinthians divided themselves into four factions: Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), and “Christ.” Using the Paul faction as an example and allowing the others to fill in the blanks, he shows the absurdity of their divisive behaviour. Paul was not crucified for them and neither were they baptised into the name of Paul, so how could they make so much of Paul, Apollos, or Cephas when they have been baptised into Christ? Even those who say they follow “Christ” do so with egotism.
Paul is thankful that he baptised none of them except for Crispus and Gaius so that none of them could actually say they were baptised into his name, even though he did baptise one family he momentarily forgot about (it appears Paul had a bad memory). Yet Christ did not task him with the priority of baptising, but to preach the Gospel not with eloquence and human wisdom, but with the cross of Christ and the message it brings and what it does to unregenerated human creatures.
The word of the cross is the only dividing line. It separates those who think it is folly/ridiculous/stupid (those who are perishing) from those who are being saved, to whom and in whom the power of God is at work in Christ through Baptism.
Focus Statement: God is working His power of salvation in you through the Word of the Cross, which is given to you in your Baptism.
Function Statement: That my hearers will not seek division in church practices, but rather seek unity according to the Word of the Cross.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Introduction: A Time of Division
It’s no secret today, in the year of our Lord 2020, that we are living in some divisive times. This is especially seen in bipartisan politics. “If you’re a Democrat, I as a Republican cannot be your friend.” Or, “If you’re a Republican, I as a Democrat cannot be your friend.” And while our church body rightfully defends the rights of the unborn, some of us do so at the expense of shunning our pro-choice neighbour rather than entering a dialogue with gentleness and kindness, teaching them what the Word says about life.
This attitude of division has infiltrated our congregations. I’m not talking about denominational division, which is not the kind of division Paul is describing in our text today. Rather, he is addressing division within the local congregation, specifically the Christians in the city of Corinth in Achaia, which today is known as Greece.
Dealing with the Text
Corinth was not too different from St. Louis, actually (I mean, aside from the skyscrapers). Like St. Louis, it was a cosmopolitan city; it was filled with lots of markets consisting of all kinds of people who traveled in and out of the city and others settled there. As such, the Corinthian congregation was a multicultural church—it was very ethnically diverse. It consisted of people who used to be Jews and people who used to be pagans. It’s no surprise, then, to find that there was a clash of cultures. They all came from different backgrounds with different cultural customs, norms, and mores. They were all trying to figure out how to live as Christians in the world, which was an entirely new thing for everyone involved. They didn’t have centuries of Christian examples like we do.
In this ethnic regard, the church in Corinth was far different than us here at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Union, Missouri. Most here have a German-Lutheran heritage or something close to that. I, on the other hand, do not have a single ounce of German in me and neither did I grow up Lutheran. And that’s okay; the culture here matches the city of Union.
Yet there is a way in which Corinth is not too different than us here: there were divisions in their church.
And how did Paul learn of these divisions? The text says he received a report from “Chloe’s people.” The Greek text says it quite differently, however. Paul says, “It was made clear to me by Chloe’s people.” Paul is not dealing with idle rumours here, which, as we know, are often harmful. Instead, Paul is dealing with facts.
Chloe was likely a businesswoman in Corinth who was either a member of the congregation or a friend of the congregation, and her servants were likely members or friends as well, or a mixture of both. Her servants had made it clear to Paul that there were divisions in the church at Corinth.
So, for the first part of the letter, Paul urges them toward a much-needed restoration to unity. He urges them, in verse 10, to “say the same thing.” The ESV renders it, “be of the same mind,” but it more closely means, “say the same thing.” Today, we would say, “Let’s be on the same page,” having the same agenda—the same way of approaching things. These divisions at Corinth were concerned with church practice, not doctrine.
Later on, in the letter, Paul addresses these church practices, which were matters of sexual immorality [5; 6:9-20], lawsuits against one another [6:1-8], principles for marriage [7:1-16, 25-40], and certain matters of Christian freedom such as what food you can eat . For now, however, the matter at hand is: in whom is their source of identity and how does that shape the way you live?
Paul speaks on this matter quite sarcastically. He mocks them, saying [read sarcastically], “Well, I follow Paul, I follow Apollos, I follow Cephas! Ha! I’ll do you one even better! I follow Christ!” So, there are four factions seeking authority and glory over one another.
The Paul faction likely preferred Paul because he founded the Corinthian church on his second missionary journey and he laboured among them for a year and a half [Acts 18:11]. Paul’s preaching was very direct yet unpretentious, much like his letters, so they preferred his style of preaching.
Yet others preferred Apollos likely because he was known as having better skills in rhetoric than Paul [Acts 18:24-28]. (And maybe he had longer sermons.) To these, then, he seemed to be a better orator—or public speaker—than Paul.
The preference for Cephas, also known as Peter, is more uncertain. Peter made frequent personal visits to Corinth with his wife [9:5], so it’s possible that this is why some members had a personal attachment to him. It’s also possible that the Christians who were formerly Jews and baptised by Peter were loyal to him, since Peter’s ministry largely focused on converting Jews. (And maybe his sermons were shorter.)
The “Christ” faction would appear to be the right faction to side with. After all, the heart of the Lutheran Reformation was “Christ Alone.” Yet there are some historical and contextual circumstances we need to consider. Contextually, rather than advocating for particular church practices, they may have been the party declaring their weariness over these divisions and saying, “All of you are wrong! I follow Christ! So there!” Thus, like the other factions, they proclaimed this name with egotism rather than the Gospel.
There are also two other possibilities when considering the historical circumstances. First, these people could’ve bene Judaizers who knew Jesus or His brother James personally and infiltrated the church, requiring that they keep the Law for salvation since Jesus of Nazareth kept the Law Himself. Paul had to address such a problem with the Galatians concerning circumcision.
The second possibility is that these were heretics who refused to acknowledge any apostolic authority and claimed direct communication with Christ through the Holy Spirit. So, they could’ve viewed themselves as having more authority than the apostles because of this absurd claim. Luther called these kinds of people “enthusiasts” because they looked within themselves and trusted in their emotions rather than the external Word of God and what He says. However, as we know, Jesus reserved the Gospel message through the Spirit for the apostles He chose, so we know it is impossible for one to belong to Christ if they reject apostolic authority, which Christ instituted Himself.
So, that’s all the factions, and it’s kind of funny: This letter was written 1,965 years ago, and we’re not any different than these Christian ancestors of ours. Can you remember a voters’ meeting or some other situation where you or someone else has said, “Well, our last pastor did it this way, so we must do it that way!” Or, “Well, I read this in a book or article by this guy, so we need to to it this way!”
We do the same thing with our Lutheran title. “I’m an orthodox Lutheran! Everybody else are heretics!” Don’t get me wrong; Lutheranism is great! To borrow the term from Rev. Harrison, president of our synod, I am joyfully Lutheran. I love our theology; I believe, teach, and confess that Lutheranism best shows us who Christ is and how to be a follower of Christ—to be fishers of men, or disciples. Yet for all my admiration of him, I do not follow Luther; I follow Christ (and I say that without egotism).
Interestingly enough, Luther himself hated the term “Lutheran.” In 1522, Luther wrote this, “I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one. St. Paul, in 1 Cor. 3:4-5, would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christians. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name?” [Luther’s Admonition Against Insurrection]. Luther had the same mind as Paul. Rather, they both had the mind of Christ.
Continuing in his sarcasm, Paul says, “Was I crucified for you? Were you baptised into my name?” Using the Paul faction as an example and allowing the others to fill in the blanks, Paul shows the absurdity of their divisive behaviour. And there is humour here. Paul thanks God that he didn’t baptise any of them! He says essentially, “Thank goodness I didn’t baptise any of you! Because if I did, then you could actually say you were baptised in my name, though is still would not be true. Well, I did baptise Crispus and Gaius because they were fresh, new converts. Oh yeah, I forgot about the household of Stephanas. I baptised them too. Sorry, I have a bad memory.” Paul, like me, was bad with names.
In fact, Paul says, baptism was not his highest priority! This is on the verge of being blasphemous for us Lutherans! “What?! How can baptism not be your highest priority?! Everything flows to and from Baptism! Our sermons always encourage us to remember our Baptism (including this one)! Not to mention Jesus’ Great Commission to the apostles to baptise people of all nations and teaching them what He commanded them! How can this not be your highest priority, Paul?”
Now, Paul is not minimising the vitality of Baptism. After all, he himself exhorts all Christians to find their comfort, identity, and security in Baptism, such as in the great Romans 6 passage. This is exactly why we moved our baptismal font from the right to the centre of our sanctuary, because Baptism is the source of your identity.
Paul was specifically tasked with “the priestly service of the Gospel of God” to the Gentiles [Romans 15:15-16]. Though he did baptise some people throughout his ministries because they were brand new converts and therefore necessary, the primary task Christ assigned him was preaching the Gospel.
So, Paul hastens to clarify that all preaching comes not through eloquence and human wisdom—though they can be helpful—but solely through the cross of Christ. While Apollos may have been a better speaker and orator than Paul, the point of preaching is not the eloquence, helpful anecdotes, and what-not, but the Word of the Cross. In other words, Paul is saying, “I don’t care who your favourite pastor or preacher is! All that matters is the Word of the Cross! And this is what should unite you! Wherever the Word of the Cross is, there is Christ!” The Word of the Cross is the dividing line, and it is the only dividing line.
In our Lutheran theology, the Word of the Cross is synonymous to the Theology of the Cross. Luther defined the theology of the cross in his Heidelberg Disputation in 1518. The purpose of the theology/word of the cross is “to recognise God in His glory and majesty,” which is found in nothing other than “the humility and shame of the cross… God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”
Who is God? Look. At. Jesus. This Word of the Cross is the dividing line. And what does the Word of the Cross say?
Every time you see the cross, you should hear its Law/Gospel words: “You are a sinner. You are so sinful, evil, and unrighteous that it required the blood of God the Son in the form of Jesus Christ to be shed in order to save you from your just condemnation. This is to your own shame. Yet Christ willingly shamed Himself both in human form and by being lifted up on the cross to suffer and die for you, and then to rise from the dead for you. His death and life He now gives to you in faith and in your Baptism, wherein you die to your sins and now live to Christ forever.”
That is the dividing line of the Word of the Cross: Christ and Him crucified for you. On one side are those who are perishing. These are the people who hear this Word of the Cross—the message of the Gospel—and consider it folly. It is ridiculous to them; it is stupid, and if you believe it, you must be stupid too.
But on the other side of the dividing line of the cross are those who are being saved through the power of the Word of the Cross. This is the side every single one of you are on.
God said His Word does what He sends it out to do [Isaiah 55:11]. The fancy word for this is that His Word is efficacious—God’s Word produces its desired effect; and God’s desired effect is that He saves you from damnation. He accomplished this in the Word of the Cross: that God the Son became the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ and was crucified and is risen for you. This has been given to you in the Word itself and in the waters of Baptism with the power of God’s Word of the Cross therein and has brought you into His kingdom.
So, Paul asks you the same question he asked the Corinthians: Who was crucified for you? In whom were you baptised? Was Paul? Was Luther? Was your pastor? Whomever baptised you, you were not baptised into his name; you were baptised into the name of Christ. You were baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is a fine line between those who are perishing and those who are being saved. You have been placed on the side of salvation. Life everlasting is yours.
Because of this, you have been called to live differently than the rest of the world that is perishing. The world lives in factionalised societies and bipartisan politics. In Baptism, you have been divided from such divisive living and are called to live according to the Word of the Cross in the Body of Christ, the Church. This sanctified living is not content with division in the Body of Christ. Rather, the Word of the Cross guides the way you live in harmony with one another through the grace and mercy Christ has given you in His death and resurrection.
You used to be on the divided side of peril, but now Christ has brought you over to the side of the Word of the Cross, which is working the power of God’s salvation in you. Now that Christ has reconciled you to God the Father, He now calls you and I to reconcile with one another wherever divisions may lie, as we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” because of the same forgiveness of sins Christ has freely given to you and me.
May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the power of the Word of the Cross of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.
©Photo from Renata Sedmakova