Monday, January 17, 2011

A House Divided

“Thank God Jared Lee Loughner was crazy.” I’m sure that thought, however politically incorrect, went through the minds of some of the members of our political parties. Because had he been a follower of the right or the left, it would have given the other side an endless supply of “ammunition.” As it was, both sides still thought it might be time to tone down the rhetoric. It’s one thing to put a gunsight over the district of a political opponent; it’s quite another to have someone actually use a gun to try to assassinate that person. Yes, I know a few on the fringe haven’t gotten the memo to stop blaming the other side. And one pundit really needs to study his history. When someone in an incoherent rant on You Tube says his favorite books are “The Communist Manifesto” and “Mein Kamph,” you can’t say he is a tool of one party. “The Communist Manifesto” is way left wing and “Mein Kamph” was fascist, which is an extreme right wing position. To say you embrace both puts you off the bird completely. That alone should tell you that the speaker is at the very least confused.

I’m not here to speak about which political party is right or wrong. That’s not my job. But I do think this is a perfect illustration of something that afflicts all groups when differing opinions become so rigid that no compromise is possible and each side demonizes the other. We’re starting into several week’s lectionary readings from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. That was a church that had a lot of sides and controversies. And Paul was be trying his darnedest to keep them from coming apart at the seams.

Corinth was situated on the narrow isthmus between southern and northern Greece and between 2 gulfs that served as a portage site for boat traffic between the western and eastern Mediterranean. It was a very wealthy city, a Roman colony and the capital for most of Greece. It was also corrupt. The town’s name was turned into a Greek word that meant “living a very debauched life.” On the acropolis above the city was a temple to Aphrodite, known to the Romans as Venus. A thousand temple prostitutes served there, coming down the mountain in procession to procure “worshipers” and lead them up to the temple. On the bottom of their sandals were embossed letters that left footprints which read “follow me.”

Except for Ephesus, Paul spent more time in Corinth than any other city. When he left after 18 months, he left a vibrant church that included Crispus, the ruler of the local synagogue. So when at Ephesus he got word that the Corinthian Christians were divided on a number of issues, he was distressed. He sent a letter telling them not to tolerate immorality in the church. A number of questions were raised which Paul handled in what is now called 1st Corinthians. The situation did not get better so apparently Paul paid them a visit. Things only got worse and so Paul wrote a very stern letter. The church finally straightened up and Paul wrote a conciliatory letter. Some scholars think that 2nd Corinthians, with its awkward shifts in tone, contains the 3 other letters.

The situation at Corinth has given us a peek at an important church in the 1st century. It is not always pretty. But we see a couple of principles for dealing with human divisiveness.

The first problem that Paul deals with is that the Corinthians Christians were divided along the lines of which spiritual leader they followed. They were saying “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” and “I belong to Christ.” Paul isn’t even complemented that he has a faction. He is outraged. “Was Paul crucified for you?” he asks.

Paul gets to the heart of the matter. The church wouldn’t exist without Jesus and his sacrifice. While it may be impossible for us not to prefer one particular person’s take on the gospel, it is the gospel itself, the good news about Jesus, that should be our focus, our common ground.

We see this in any group, whatever its mission. Despite overall agreement on the essentials, people gravitate to a certain emphasis or interpretation and suddenly you have blue dog Democrats, or social conservatives, or Tea Partiers, or progressives. These factions often have their biggest disagreements with those they are closest to in ideology. In the church alone there are 33,830 denominations. Some of the differences are minor, some are major. Still, the vast majority could join in affirming the Apostles Creed. Yet we let our non-essential differences divide us, despite the fact that Jesus‘ prayer on the night he was betrayed was for our unity.

Interestingly, after stressing the centrality of Jesus, Paul concludes by saying, “So let no one boast of human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world or life or death or the present or the future--all belong to you, and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.” They don’t belong to their teachers. Their teachers belong to them. They are part of the riches in Christ. In other words, all their perspectives are valuable; just don’t become captive to any one of them. They are yours. And don’t forget, you are Christ’s.

Paul deals with several issues in that church: sexual immorality, lawsuits, marriage, food offered to idols, the Eucharist, spiritual gifts, and more. I’m not going to deal with those today. But finally he gets to the other essential element of the church: love. We read 1st Corinthians 13 at weddings but in the original context Paul is talking about the church. He knows he can’t resolve every problem that can or will arise. But one thing that can keep the church from splitting is love.

Paul isn’t talking about mere sentimentality. He is talking about "agape," the Greek word for the kind of love God is. Human love is often impatient; divine love is not. Humans can be cruel to those they love; divine love is kind. Human love can be tinged with envy and arrogance. Humans in love can be boastful and rude. Not so divine love. Humans can be irritable, resentful, and insist on their own way. Not divine love. Human love does not prevent people from rejoicing in injustice, especially if it favors them. Divine love finds its joy when the truth wins out. Human love may fade or fail but divine love continues to bear up, to trust, to hope and to endure no matter what comes. It never quits.

No group will hold together if there is no love for each other and for their mission. Fear of a common enemy can bring people together for a while. Then the threat passes, like our alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, or the parties involved turn on each other, like the alliance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and it’s over. Love binds people into a team, a family. If the love is unselfish and unconditional, the group can survive and even thrive, whatever it faces.

So the two essential things needed for the church to survive and even grow is a commitment to Christ, over and above individual leaders and emphases, and Christ-like love. Without those two, all the gimmicks, programs, and marketing techniques in the world can’t save a church.

For one thing, love means being willing to make sacrifices for the good of the church. One of the problems facing Christians in the Roman empire was buying meat. Butcher shops were attached to pagan temples and would sell the excess meat offered to the idols. Some Christians became vegetarians rather than eat food offered to idols. Others, reasoning that there is only one God, felt that meat offered to idols was offered to nothing real. So they had no problem eating the meat. Paul obviously agrees with the latter position, seeing as he calls those who hold the former position “weaker brothers.” Nevertheless, he is concerned that their faith not be damaged by the example of those not bothered by the problem. So he suggests that those whose faith is stronger not show up those whose faith might stumble over the matter. Specifically, they should refrain from eating meat. That’s right. Instead of telling those whose faith was affected by this issue to grow up, he told the more mature Christians to make concessions on the matter. It goes against what most people would feel is just. But it was done out of love for those troubled by the issue and to preserve the unity of the church.

It reminds me of something that happened early in the history of this country. The Continental Congress was considering the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson. All of the previous problems with the text paled next to the paragraph criticizing the British crown for the slave trade. The southern colonies did not like it. They threatened to vote down the Declaration were the paragraph not removed. John Adams was vehemently for its inclusion. He wrote Ben Franklin that if slavery was allowed to remain in the U.S., a war would be fought over it in 100 years time. But finally Jefferson himself took out the paragraph, something he really resented. The Declaration of Independence eventually passed unanimously.

Who was right, Adams or Jefferson? Both. Adams’ prediction of the Civil War was only off by 15 years. It remains the war that cost more American lives than any other. But if Jefferson hadn’t removed the paragraph, there wouldn’t have been a Civil War because there wouldn’t have been a United States of America.

Imagine the political fallout of making such a decision today, when compromise on any position is considered unforgivable. And Paul’s weaker brother doctrine isn’t that popular in the church either. But Jesus never said that the world would know his disciples by how we agree on everything but by how we love each other. And as any couple knows, love means, in the real world, making compromises. The abolitionists, primarily Christians, did not give up on ridding the United States of slavery. And even after the Civil War it took another hundred years to get legislation passed that actually secured the civil rights of African Americans.

The church no longer fights over eating meat offered to idols. There have been many conflicts since. And oddly enough, outside of Paul’s letters there is little reference to the controversy. It seems Paul’s method worked, whereas the issues on which Christians could not reach a compromise on have left lasting scars on the church. And the world sees just another bunch of people arguing over non-essentials. Wouldn’t it be better if those Christians arguing over things not covered in the Apostle’s Creed could say to one another: “I totally disagree with you on this matter…but I love you anyway.”

There is no requirement that citizens of our country love one another but the Declaration of Independence ends by saying, “for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” Our constitution lists among its purposes is “to promote the general welfare.” So we are not to act as a random collection of individuals but as a nation with a common mission that is meant to help all. Our freedom of speech was secured by the Bill of Rights not so that we indulge ourselves in achieving new depths of invective but so that by bringing everyone’s perspective to the table we can craft the best solutions to the problems that threaten us.

Facing the might of the greatest empire of their time, Ben Franklin, one of the last to give up on reconciliation with Great Britain, pointed out that “we must hang together, gentlemen,…else we shall most assuredly hang separately.” More straightforwardly, Jesus said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Substitute “country” or “church” and the truth of that statement remains. And we must ask ourselves if we wish to take that as the final verdict on our ourselves or the words of Psalm 133: “Behold how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

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