Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 22, 2017, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Sermon Theme: “God’s House Divided Cannot Stand”
(Sources: Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 27, Part 1, Jan. 22, 2017, Series A; Emphasis Online Commentaries; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Brokhoff, Series A, Lectionary Preaching Workbook; original ideas; “Donald Trump Versus Hilary,” National Review; Online Trump/Clinton Polls; “Lincoln’s House Divided Speech,” Wikipedia)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s rather ironic that two days after the Inauguration of our new U. S. President, the Lectionary for today includes Paul’s admonition about divisions in the church. Paul’s admonition for the Church reminds me of Abraham Lincoln’s famous “House Divided Speech,” when Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”
President Trump was elected after a very bitter election battle between two candidates who were both unpopular. There were many polls leading up to the election showing how divided our nation was. One poll showed that 56 percent of Americans did not think Donald Trump was qualified to be President, and another poll indicated that 56 percent did not believe Hilary Clinton would make a good President. Well, polls are polls.
Some movie stars and other celebrities said they would move to Canada if Trump were elected. Sixty-nine congressmen did not attend the Inauguration held Friday, though all former Presidents except the senior Bush, did attend, and he and Barbara didn’t because they were in the hospital. Bikers from all over the country showed up to “protect” Trump. Recognizing the division in our country, President Trump said in his inauguration speech, “When America is united, America will be unstoppable.”
God’s Word does not speak directly to a nation divided, but it does speak directly and explicitly to a church divided.
There are two stories told about very serious divisions in the church, both so extreme, it’s hard to believe the claims that the stories are true.
The first one is a story about a church down South where a disagreement in the congregation got out of hand. It escalated into a battle similar to the Hatfields and McCoys. Finally, when everyone realized that reaching an agreement was no longer possible, the voters’ assembly, at the recommendation of the Church Council, voted to saw the church in half, right down the middle of the steeple, right down the center aisle, right through the altar and the cross that hung in the chancel.
As the story goes, they renamed the churches. One half took the name “Left Half Community Church,” and the other side took the name “Right Half Community Church.” But everyone at Right Half always called the neighboring congregation “Wrong Half Community Church.”
The other story is told my Lewis Grizzard who recalled a dispute in a church in his hometown of Moreland, Georgia. A Church decided to install chimes that would play hymns over the loudspeaker for the townspeople to enjoy at suppertime. One of the members happened to be a turkey farmer, and he claimed the chimes bothered his turkeys during their evening meal, and they weren’t eating and getting fat so he could sell them at the market.
A very ugly situation ensued. The turkey farmer began shooting at the loudspeaker on the church steeple in an attempt to silence the chimes. Other members of the church, meanwhile, crept into the turkey pens at night, carrying hatchets, which spooked the birds, giving them yet another reason not to eat.
Only after the church steeple had been riddled with bullet holes and most of the turkey farmer’s flock had suffered complete nervous breakdowns was the matter settled.
A solution was reached. The church agreed to play the chimes at an hour that would not interfere with the turkey’s eating habits, and the turkey farmer called off his artillery.
In our sermon text, Paul knew there were dissentions in the ranks among his Christian brothers and sisters at Corinth, though the Corinthian situation had not reached the level of absurdity and violence it had reached in the two stories I just told.
There’s a tendency to see a Biblical situation in terms of our own experiences, and so Paul’s description of the problem in the Corinth congregation may be a little confusing to modern church goers.
We’re used to thinking of a church meeting in one building as one congregation, but the situation in first-century Christianity seems to have been much different. The Church in Corinth, for instance, didn’t meet in a building constructed for that purpose. It consisted of several house churches, groups of believers that met in a home. Likely, some of those homes were larger villas, including a number of people who may have actually lived in that home and worked together on the craft or product that supported the household.
In this letter we have evidence of at least as many as seven house churches, four of which are in conflict. Paul speaks of “Chloe’s people.” Chloe may have been like Lydia in Philippi, a rich woman whose household produced a product (in Lydia’s case expensive purple dye for dyeing the cloth they sold) and whose church met in her home. It is Chloe’s people who have reported the problem.
Four other house churches take their names from different individuals. The Paul church and the Apollos church are named after individuals who visited and served in Corinth. The Peter church is named after someone who probably never went to Corinth. Scripture is silent on the issue.
And then there is the Christ church, — as if one house church could corner the market on Jesus. Paul, the Circuit Counselor, expresses his alarm at this group by questioning whether Christ can be divided.
There is one humorous moment in this passage.
We tend to forget that Paul dictated his letters, and he expresses relief that he had not baptized more than two Christians: Crispus ( ), who was an official at the Corinthian synagogue (according to Acts 18:8), and Gaius ( ), who in Romans 1:23 is identified as the leader of a house church. Is this the sixth house church, or is this one of the four that are in conflict?
Having said this, Paul either remembers that he also baptized the household, or house church, of Stephanus (is this the seventh?) or perhaps someone who was standing nearby while Paul dictated the letter interrupted him in the process of dictation to correct him, and Paul passed along the correction. This sounds like a pretty big error. A household could include 100 or more!
Today, as the Christian church has grown to be a worldwide church, divisions are even more severe than in Paul’s day. Since Paul’s time, the Church has split into an incredibly large numbers of denominations, and, in spite of the ecumenical movement, new denominations are formed every year. This denominational disunity is caused by such issues as women pastors, liturgical reforms, gay marriage, and conservative versus liberal theology. This problem is so huge and so complex, I’m not going to attempt to resolve it in a sermon.
The problem at Corinth is not multi-denominational, though it could have led to that had Paul not intervened. It is a local problem which most churches face, and it is one Christ wants us to prevent, or to resolve if our congregation is guilty of it. The word of the cross is the solution to the problem, Paul says.
You know, when the cross is referred to as empty, most people think of a cross without the body of Christ on it. Paul says in verse 17 of our text that the cross must not be emptied of its power. So, to him, an empty cross is a cross that has been emptied of its power, and that happens when we have internal church divisions, when the word of the cross becomes less important than who baptized whom, and when we rely on our own human wisdom (in our translation, Paul calls it “eloquent wisdom,”), — the Greek makes it clear he is talking about “human” wisdom rather than “Godly” wisdom.
We are blessed at this point in our life as a church with a very low level of dissentions. The differences we have with one another are minor to those at Corinth. Around 1914, the divisions in our church were so great that we split into two churches, St. John’s being the other half. After that major division, we have had our ups and downs over the years, but God has helped us through them.
Our sermon text can help us now and in the years to come. What we learn from Paul’s letter is that the gospel of the cross is the unifying factor. The closer we come to Christ, the closer we are to each other. When we are in Christ, we share His peace and unity. It is before the cross of Jesus that we must take our stand; the ground is level before the cross. We are one, standing there before the cross, — one as sinners, one as the redeemed, and one as the family of God. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.