The church in Corinth was split with divisions over which leaders people claimed to follow. What were the underlying causes and how does the cross of Christ deeply challenge those issues?
Baptism – A naming ceremony?
In the last week, Lisa probably felt a bit harassed as I think at least two people from church checked with her that Alice didn’t have a middle name! Of course it is fine not to have a middle name – it’ll save Alice time filling out forms when she’s older!
But we needed to double check we had the right name, because baptism service is partly about giving someone their Christian names. After all we use their name during the actual baptism and it is important we get it right.
But actually, Alice’s name is not the most important name used in Baptism. Because when someone is baptised, we say,
“I baptise you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
It is God’s name that is important, because baptism is a symbol of becoming one of God’s followers and in particular of joining the family of the God of Jesus Christ. it is the name of the Christian God that really matters. It is the good news of Jesus Christ that has real power, as it says at the end of the reading.
Why is the Good News about Jesus so powerful?
So, what is the good news and what is its power? Well it is all about Jesus Christ. He performed amazing miracles and taught amazing truths. So much so that his followers began to realise that he was the one God had promised he would send to rescue his people.
Then he was arrested, condemned by the authorities for claiming to be a king and brutally nailed to a cross and left to die. Yet, God saw this death not as a tragedy, but a sacrifice. Jesus was taking the punishment for our sins on himself. He received what we deserved. Why did he have to die? Because he our sin our turning away from God is far more wicked than we realised and because he loved us more than we can imagine.
But that was not the end of the story. He died on the cross, was buried, but on the third day rose again. Cephas and Paul and hundreds of others all saw him alive afterwards. God had resurrected him and eventually took him to rule at his right hand. This proved his death was not a tragedy, but a sacrifice and that death is ultimately defeated.
So, the good news invites us to turn away from our sins and put our trust in Jesus, receive the forgiveness won for us on the cross and the gift of eternal life made possible by his resurrection.
If you’ve really understood that message and responded to it, then you’ve experienced the power of God and become part of God’s people the church! You’ve called on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as your saviour.
Be United in Christ
It also means that you have become part of God’s family on earth. The church. That can be wonderful in many ways, but because we often bring with us many of our old attitudes and ways of thinking into the church community, churches do not always behave or act as they should!
In fact a big section of the Bible is made up of letters written to churches, which are often written to try and correct ways in which the churches are failing. That is most true of the letter to the Corinthians. In our reading, Paul who is writing to the church in Corinth, is challenging them about a lack of unity in the church.
He has heard that they seem to be split into different groups, each group claiming to have some kind of allegiance or connection with one of the well-known preachers of the day. Some say, “I follow Paul”, others, “I follow Apollos” and others, “I follow Cephas.” The result is that there are quarrels and divisions which are tearing the church apart.
It doesn’t seem that the disunity was based on differences over Christian teaching. Elsewhere, both in this letter and elsewhere, Paul will challenge false teaching in the church. Disagreeing with someone in order to persuade them to follow Jesus more closely is not the kind of argument or disunity that is being condemned here. Rather it was the focus on personalities that was the problem.
But why was there this focus on personalities and how does Paul challenge their wrong attitudes that were leading to disunity in the church? I think there are two key reasons Paul is addressing, both to do with attitudes that are common amongst non-Christians, but should not be a part of the church.
Why the focus on personalities?
- Status Seeking – 1:13-16; cf. 3:1-4
The first issue was that this focus on personalities was really to do with status seeking. That is wanting to feel superior or more important than others. Probably the idea was that they thought that by aligning themselves with who they thought was the more important preacher, they could think of themselves as better than the rest.
Sadly, we see the same kind of attitudes among Christians today. When you take pride in the church you belong to as being better or superior in one way or another with other churches in a local area, you are aligning yourself with one group of Christians against another in order to feel superior or more correct. It is a subtle but destructive form of status seeking.
Later in the letter Paul challenges other kinds of status seeking. For example, He condemns the wealthy that treat the poor as second class at their church gatherings and he challenges those who try to use their spiritual gifts as a reason to see themselves as more important than others.
Such a status seeking attitude naturally leads to jealousy and division in groups. In fact if you find yourself feeling jealous of others good looks, position, popularity, talents or whatever, then you are probably worrying too much about status!
I think it is Paul’s concern to challenge status seeking, that explains his rather rambling comments in verses 14-16. Why does he waffle for a couple of verses about who he has baptised? He even comes across as rather forgetful and befuddled!
I think that is deliberate. Probably some people were trying to claim that they had a higher status in the church, because they were baptised by one of the great preachers: Paul or Apollos of Cephas. By suggesting that he is not that sure about who he has baptised, Paul is showing that it is unimportant who he baptised. In fact, the person taking the baptism is the most unimportant person involved!
Today when Alice was baptised, it didn’t really matter if it was me baptising Alice or Claire or some other minister whose been trained to do so. The two most important people that mattered in the baptism are Jesus and God. They are the ones who are named!! Alice gains no special status because she was baptised by me. She would have gained no special status if she was baptised by the Archbishop of Canterbury! And if you are worried about that kind of status, then you are missing the point. Baptism is about becoming Christ’s, not about who does it!!
And that is the point. As Christians, our human status should not worry us, rather we should be delighting in our new status won for us by Jesus.
- Skill Glorifying – 1:17
The second issue that was causing this focus on personalities, was an emphasis on the skills of the people involved. Corinth was used to having different philosophical speakers coming along and talking about all kinds of different ideas. People loved to come and listen and enjoy quality speaking skills, a bit like people love to go and hear stand-up comedians today!
Now, in our entertainment culture, where we naturally switch between TV channels or YouTube videos, or Tik Tok shorts or podcasts to find the most talented speakers, musicians or entertainers, it is easy to have an attitude that focuses on the skill of the artists and not worry about the message being given.
That can also be true for Christians, perhaps valuing preachers or vicars because we enjoy their style of preaching as compared with others. Such attitudes sadly often divide churches over issues of style and not substance, over the ability and styles of the church leaders and musicians, rather than uniting around the great truths of the good news about Jesus.
In fact these things can sometimes get in the way of the good news that matters. They can empty the message of the cross of Jesus of its power.
It’s a bit like buying a really good book, because you like its cover, but never bothering to read the book, because you just keep gazing on the wonderful cover, you miss out on the great contents.
Paul says he came to Corinth, not with great preaching skills, because he didn’t want to empty the cross of its power. He didn’t want to wow people with his preaching ability, or persuade them with his force of personality or speaking skills. He wanted their hearts to be transformed by the power of the good news itself.
Sadly, when people give up on church because they do not like a new vicar or don’t manage to settle in a church when they move to a new area it is often because they’re faith is rooted in the style of the church they attend rather than the power of the good news about Jesus. They’ve only really stared at the cover, they’ve never grasped the contents – it’s a tragic loss.
The Good News and Unity
In fact the reason Paul brings us back to the power of the cross, is because it deeply challenges these wrong attitudes that are the cause of the disunity in the church.
On the cross Jesus did not seek status in human terms, quite the opposite, crucifixion was designed to be not just cruel but utterly humiliating and dehumanising. It took away all dignity, by displaying you naked and in pain before crowds of onlookers. On the cross, Jesus was stripped of all human status. Yet, he did so for us. How then can we continue with status seeking.
Also, the cross is not attractive in human terms, it is deeply horrific and ugly. Romans would not even speak about crucifixion as too horrific a topic to contemplate. Yet, it was by the cross that Jesus won our salvation. How then can we allow a focus on what is attractive, entertaining and impressive to detract us from this truth that really matters?
When we grasp the good news of the cross, we find something amazing and transforming. Let’s allow it to transform our attitudes as well, so that we may find true unity in the church.