Monday, January 27, 2014

The Forest for the Trees

Paul Valery defined politics as "the art of making possible that which is necessary." But I am inclined toward this definition: politics is the art of letting peripheral matters, rather than necessity, determine what is possible. Mankind has a definite tendency to lose its focus on what is essential and become fascinated, like magpies, with bright and shiny irrelevances. We see this in governmental politics all the time. Worthy laws are shot down because certain congressmen didn't get their earmarks; certain words were or were not used; certain parties would or would not get credit. Sometimes it just comes down to somebody not liking someone else.

And this holds true for voters, too. In 2008 an internet experiment used online matchmaking software to help folks see which candidate agreed with their personal political philosophies. You would record how much you agreed with actual quotes from the candidates but without knowing who said what. The name of the candidate with whom you most closely agreed would be revealed. A lot of people were shocked that it was not the person there were considering electing. But for decades, polls have been exposing the wide gap between how Americans feel on issues and whom they vote for. It seems that electing state and national leaders is as much a popularity contest as electing class president in high school. And often charisma triumphs over character and core issues.

In today's passage (1 Corinthians 1:10-17) Paul is dealing with a problem that is in danger of splitting that church. Personality cults are developing. Some people are identifying themselves as belonging to Paul or to Cephas or to Apollos or to Christ. They haven't yet broken away from the church but they are pulling it apart. The Greek word that Paul uses for divisions, schismata, literally refers to tears in a garment. The church at Corinth is starting to look like a shredded shirt.

Who were the leaders who were the foci of these divisions? One was Cephas. That's the Aramaic word for "Rock," the nickname Jesus gave Simon. He was the foremost of the original 12 apostles so it is natural that some Christians would feel that Peter had primacy. However Paul had founded the church in Corinth and so many felt loyal to him. Apollos, as we learn in Acts 18, was a gifted preacher with a vast knowledge of scripture. He had visited Corinth after Paul and because of his eloquence, some preferred him. And then there there was a group that claimed that they were the true followers of Christ. Why does Paul list them as schismatics? Perhaps, like so many who say they belong to Christ, they had undergone that subtle shift where they really thought that Christ belonged to them. In other words, instead of seeking to be on God's side, they were actually insisted that God was on their side. It's a common fallacy that we decide the issues and God signs on.

Through his entire missionary career, Paul preached unity. Usually, the problem was between those who came to Christ from Judaism and those who came from Gentile backgrounds. But here the situation is more complicated: people are not clinging to what they were before they became Christians; they were fighting about what form of Christianity is best.

Now how do we know that this was more than just a preferences for the preaching styles of certain leaders? For one thing, we have no evidence that Peter ever visited Corinth, nor, of course, Jesus. Those parties who said they belonged to Cephas or Christ had not experienced them in the flesh and so their allegiance, like the others, must be be to what they perceived was the take each person had on the gospel. We still see that today. What distinguishes the preachers people follow is not just their personal charisma but also what they tend to emphasize.

I don't watch much religious TV (the lady with the pink hair frankly scares me) but you only have to catch a few minutes while channel surfing to know that one preacher always seems to be talking about the end times; another concentrates on people's feelings; one pushes hot button issues on sexuality; another can't stop talking about creationism. Each one has a following as witnessed by the millions of dollars they raise to keep their shows on their air. All would say they believe the Bible and I bet each would be able to subscribe to that basic summary of biblical truths called the Apostles' Creed. But that core gets lost in all the trappings of their personal styles and all of the other issues they flog.

Paul gets right to the point. He doesn't criticize his rivals. He uses himself as the example. "Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?" Drop the word "Paul" and insert any Christian leader--John Haggee, Joel Osteen, Tim LaHaye, N.T. Wright, or even C.S. Lewis--and this sentence becomes a good way to see if we are usurping Christ and replacing him with one of his servants. No matter how holy they are, we must be careful lest we fall into idolatry. When we say "Jesus is Lord," it means nobody else can be. We must always be aware of and respect this vital distinction.

It is also an interesting exercise to to insert an issue in place of Paul's name and ask if we are enthroning it above our Lord. Were you baptized into the name of the Pro-Life movement or the Pro-Choice movement or Family Values or Gay Marriage or a particular stand on war? Of course not. It's not that these aren't important issues but they are not essential to being a Christian. Anyone who thinks differently is buying into the heresy C.S. Lewis named "Christianity and..." If your pet cause is as important as your loyalty to Christ, be careful that it doesn't eventually supplant your faith or that your faith doesn't become an extension of the cause. We should derive our ethics from following Jesus Christ, our incarnate, crucified and risen Lord. Our following Jesus should not be dependent on whether he endorses our causes.

The problem even occurs when the issues are matters of theology. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches split over the use of icons. Other divisions in church history have taken placeover whether baptism should be by immersion or pouring, whether the bread and wine physically become Jesus' body and blood or not, whether Jesus had 2 natures or one, whether we have free will or not, who could interpret the Bible and how how a church should be organized. All of these were important issues in their day. Some are still important issues. But we should not let them get between us and God nor between us and our fellow Christians.

When I was a home health nurse, I didn't bring up religion unless my patient did and I didn't argue religious issues with my patients. There was this one older woman I had been treating for years. We liked each other but she kept denouncing what she saw as the unbiblical hierarchy of my church. So one day I said, "My salvation doesn't depend on my church or anything other than what Jesus Christ did on the cross and how I respond." The issue never came up again.

I like to think that she knew here scripture well enough to recognize in what I said an echo of what Paul says here: that we should be wary of nullifying the power of the cross. On the cross Jesus demonstrated God's self-sacrificial love for us. On the cross Jesus took upon himself the full impact of the evil we have unleashed on the world by our sin, like our arrogant insistence that we are always right and to hell with anyone who doesn't agree with us. We see that sin in the fact that the religious leaders of Jesus' day had no right under Roman law to execute Jesus but they didn't let that stop them from finding a way to do it. Pilate could find no fault with Jesus but he was too much a politician to stand up to the crowd or even to his own emperor to spare an innocent man. The soldiers were, as ever, just following orders. The crowds were just venting at a man already condemned by the authorities and for whom they weren't willing to stick out their necks. Jesus was crucified because everyone thought that something else was more important than him. How often we recrucify him over our own fiercely held, terribly important agendas?

Jesus didn't say the world will know we are his disciples because we always agree with one another but rather by how we love one another. And we are to love each other as he loved us, with real self-sacrifice. What we do to the least of his siblings we do to Jesus. Should we snub each other, vilify each other, judge each other because we like this person or that, or hold this opinion or another? Because Christians like Nazarene James Dobson and born again Christian Jane Fonda and and Catholic John Boehner and fellow Catholic Michael Moore and Baptist Mitch O'Connell and evangelist Jim Bakker and emergent church leader Jay Bakker and Lutheran John Woo and Methodist Hilary Clinton and fellow Methodist George W. Bush and Episcopalian George H. W. Bush and United Church of Christ member Barack Obama and Anglican Bono disagree on a lot of issues. Do you think God is going to give us a pop quiz at the pearly gates? Do you think he will only admit those who are 100% in agreement with him on everything? If so, get out your handbasket; we're all in for a hot time.

By the way, are you surprised by some of the names on that list? I was. Offended? Tough. They are part of the family. You don't have to agree with them; you don't have to vote for or with them; but you do have to love them. And let us be more concerned with what Jesus is doing than what others are. A sure way is to stumble is to take your eyes off the leader's path. Peter forgot that once and asked Christ what would ultimately happen to John. To which Jesus replied, "What is that to you? You follow me."    

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