Who Do You Love?
Over the past month, Pastor Matt and I have used what we thought to be well known phrases or quotes as part of our sermon illustrations.
On January 5, mine was the simple “What would Jesus do?”
That phrase, often abbreviated to WWJD, comes from a book written in 1896 by Charles Sheldon titled, “In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do.”
The phrase became a meme in the 1990s as a reminder to live as Jesus would have us live.
On January 12, I selected Lyndon Johnson’s speech announcing his decision to forgo the leadership of his party as an illustration of what John the Baptist might have feared, that Jesus might be renouncing his divinity, when Jesus asked to be baptized.
Rather than refusing his call to lead, Jesus was actually accepting it by demonstrating that as the incarnate God he was joining the human community he came to save.
Last week Matt chose Martin Luther King’s message that ‘Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,’ proclaiming Jesus’ lesson that the two greatest commandments are to love God and … well … everyone else, too, without exception.
This week we prepare for our “What does the Bible say about …” sermon series with a quote I have always thought insightful but also troubling and certainly challenging.
But first, our scripture.
1 Corinthians 1: 10-18
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What 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.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17For 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.
18 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.
I would guess with some level of confidence that many, if not all of us, look at the news each day and see a good deal of conflict in our country.
And while that would be a reasonable observation, there have been times when things were much worse.
The American Civil War.
It was during that terrible and bloody conflict that Abraham Lincoln was re-elected as President.
On March 4, 1865 Lincoln gave his second inaugural address.
Lincoln talked about the different views of the cause, intent, and hopes that each side believed in.
And then he said this:
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.
That was certainly true.
Both sides believed that the Bible supported what they fought for and so believed that God was on their side.
How could that possibly be?
The north and south agreed on practically nothing at all.
And both sides were killing each other over their disagreements while believing that God was on their side.
This was not the first time the Bible was a source of support for bloody conflicts.
People have been fighting, and even going to war with each other, over Biblical interpretation since the books of the Bible were canonized in 382 AD.
Even before the Bible existed, the meanings of the teachings of Jesus were hotly debated by different communities if Christians.
These arguments threatened the very existence of the budding church.
One of those churches at risk was the church in Corinth.
In today’s text, Paul is writing to the Corinthian church, a church that he planted.
Paul is responding to reports from Chloe’s people that there are conflicts and divisions in Corinth.
Over the course of the letter, Paul offers advice on how to resolve the conflicts.
How did these conflicts develop?
After Paul left Corinth, others came and taught people their vision of what it meant to follow Jesus.
Not surprisingly, there were a few variances.
The community was dividing into factions that supported what their favorite leader taught.
Or worse, the one who baptized them.
I like the way N. T. Wright describes the situation:
There was plenty of noise, … plenty of squeaking and whistling, and it all meant the same thing: this is my vision of what Christianity is, and you don’t belong here!
Paul’s response to this is clear.
If the community of disciples represents the body of Christ, Christ must not be divided.
There must be unity in the church.
The church must be unified on the one thing that is universal.
We are all saved by the power of God through Christ crucified.
That is the Gospel.
It is the Gospel that unites us as Christ’s body.
Citizens of the Kingdom of God.
The communion of saints.
No human belief can take the cross away from anyone else.
But does that also mean we must agree on everything?
Is there no room for diversity?
If you read 1 Corinthians in its entirety, you will see that Paul says we don’t need to agree on everything.
Paul accepts diversity.
He accepts that people approach what it means to follow Jesus from differing cultural, philosophical, economic and personal points of view.
If we don’t honor these variances, even when we disagree with them, we dishonor Jesus self-sacrificial act on the cross.
How do we honor these variances?
To answer that I offer another quote.
In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.
These words were written by Rupertus Meldenius as a plea to bring to an end the Thirty Years War, a religious war between Catholics and Protestants in Europe.
That war was one of the bloodiest in European history and was started over different interpretations of what the Bible said.
Meldenius hoped these words would allow the two different Christian dogmas to co-exist as different interpretations of what living the Jesus way looks like.
And I think this is exactly what Paul is saying in today’s text.
What does Paul say is essential?
The belief that the power of the cross has saved us and given us life.
What about all that other stuff we all argue about?
If you read the entire letter, you could conclude that other than the Gospel, all our differing interpretations are non-essentials.
We can disagree.
We can argue.
But we cannot say:
This is the only true vision of what Christianity is, and because you don’t agree, you are not part of the body of Christ!
And here is why we should be very careful on such things.
Later on in in this letter, Paul says this:
1 Corinthians 13
13If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
What Paul is saying is that as human beings we don’t really know what we think we know.
All of our theories and theologies and philosophies are incomplete and not completely informed.
Only when we are in the presence of God will we understand God completely.
So, the best we can do until then is to have faith, hope and love, and the most important is to love.
Love is what unites us.
Love like Jesus’ love for us demonstrated on the cross that saved the world.
Love we give to those who disagree with us on how we live the Jesus way.
But this is really hard.
Most of what we believe is part of who we are.
We truly believe we are right, which means everyone else is wrong.
And we really, really want to be right.
When someone disagrees with us, we take it as a personal attack by someone who is wrong.
Our initial response is to fight or flee.
But Paul says there is a better way.
A middle ground.
A more humble ground.
Recognize that we see in the mirror dimly.
That we really don’t fully know or understand.
Then do the best we can to understand what God calls us to do in scripture.
This is how we do it in the PCUSA.
I, personally, believe it to be a beautiful system.
We in the Presbyterian Church follow a doctrine called the priesthood of all believers.
That means we are all capable of reading the Bible and interpreting what it means.
But if there are 1.3 million Presbyterians, there might be 1.3 million different interpretations of a particular passage.
All of them cannot be right.
And it is more likely that all are wrong.
So how do we decide what that passage is telling us?
We gather together in councils.
We pray and invite God to inspire us.
We pray again.
Then we VOTE!
That’s right – vote!
The majority interpretation is then considered the correct interpretation for the denomination – for now.
Because here is the thing.
We are never sure we are right.
Remember what Paul said?
We know only in part.
So, we often revisit the matter we just voted on.
And we pray, argue and vote again.
And again and again and again, until we see no reason to continue.
That is what we did with the issue of the ordination of women in the church.
For 25 General Assemblies, the Presbyterian Church said ‘no’ to women ministers and had plenty of Biblical support for it.
But think about that.
We kept on voting on it for 25 more years.
Then on the 26th vote, women were suddenly ordainable.
What about all that scriptural support for prohibition?
Maybe God inspired us to understand it was a non-essential.
Were we right?
Well this church has been blessed by at least 2 women who were certainly called by God to be pastors.
These women are certainly evidence that our 1956 vote was the right thing to do.
We might not be absolutely sure until we see God face to face, but we glorify God in the continued effort to get it right.
This process is one way we seek to remain unified.
That is why it is our polity.
As I said, I think it is a beautiful thing.
Two years ago, I was invited to South East Asia to teach a group of pastors about Presbyterian polity.
I took them through the history of the reformation and the development of our system of church government.
We talked about the priesthood of all believers and how we can properly and respectfully interpret scripture.
I described the PCUSA GA system to them and then had a mock GA.
I told them that the question presented to them was this:
What does the Bible say about baptism of human clones?
I then divided the group up into thirds.
One group was assigned the answer “no”.
Another the answer “yes”.
The third the answer “we don’t know”.
I then gave them an hour to find scriptural support for their answer (with the uncommitted free to go either way).
Then we had an hour for argument.
Then we prayed.
Then we voted.
We decided that clones could be baptized.
Good news for Baba Phet.
After we were done, I had them all share the peace of Christ.
In sharing Christ’s peace, we all affirmed that even in our disagreements, we were still united as part of the body of Christ.
As we embark on our journey to discuss what the Bible says about salvation, guns, military service and homosexuality, let us have open minds, and even if we still disagree, we can still share Christ’s peace and remember that we all stand in the shadow of the power of the cross.