1 Corinthians 1:4-18
Today’s sermon text is taken from the second section of today’s Epistle lesson, and from several verses that follow this section, beyond what we read a few minutes ago. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter one, verses 4 through 18, St, Paul writes:
“I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will also confirm you to the end, that you may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
So far our text.
One of the more common grounds for divorce is “irreconcilable differences.” Of course, other terms that could be used to describe that kind of marital problem might be “uncompromising stubbornness” or “inconsiderate selfishness.”
But even so, we can understand the concept of “irreconcilable differences.” All too often in this sinful world, people who have some kind of relationship with each other – in a family, in a circle of friends, or in a business – reach a point in their relationship where they have come to feel that they have “irreconcilable differences,” so that their relationship must come to an end.
And, sadly, this happens all-too-frequently also in Christian congregations and in Christian church bodies. Religious institutions are not immune from the possibility of splits and divisions that arise from the belief that there are “irreconcilable differences” among the members.
Can such disunity and divisiveness be prevented? When we look at the history of the church as a whole, and at the history of specific church bodies and congregations; and also, when we consider the fact that everyone in the church on earth is infected with a sinful nature, we might be skeptical that such problems can ever be avoided.
But St. Paul is not so pessimistic. In spite of the temptations to divisiveness and factionalism that are always there, Paul lays out for us the key to overcoming these temptations, and to preserving the unity of the church – both in regard to matters of faith and conviction, and in regard to personal relationships among Christians that can and should continue to be characterized by mutual love, mutual respect, and mutual patience.
Paul writes: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
We see that Paul does recognize the possibility of unity and peace among the members of the church, in spite of the personal sinfulness of all those members. We don’t have to be dominated and controlled by the selfish and proud inclinations of our sinful nature, or by the divisiveness that sin always tends to foment.
Those destructive and divisive impulses can be resisted. The unity and peace of the church, which may often seem to be very elusive, can be maintained, and – when necessary – regained and restored.
And Paul is not talking simply about an external, superficial unity – characterized perhaps by mutual indifference to the deeper questions of Christian faith and life, or by an attitude of “agreeing to disagree” about what should be believed and done. As the apostle appeals to us to agree with each other, and not to be divided, he calls on us instead to be “united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Other English translations of this passage word it in these ways: “perfectly united in mind and thought”; “united with the same understanding and the same conviction”; “united in thought and purpose”; “having the same kind of thinking and the same purpose.”
You get the general idea. The unity of the church is preserved when Christians embrace and confess the same objective truths, and when they share a mutual commitment to the same mission and purpose.
Splits and divisions can be avoided if the members of the church adhere to the same standards of faith and practice, and if they agree to follow those standards when resolving any problems that may arise. It’s that simple. And, it’s that hard!
The next question that naturally arises, of course, is, how the church is to determine what its standards of faith and practice are supposed to be. St. Paul does not leave us guessing on that point, either. He says:
“God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
There’s something supernatural and even miraculous in the creation and growth of the Christian church. Ultimately, you didn’t establish your fellowship with Christ and his church by the powers of your own will and choosing.
If you are a member of Christ’s body by faith, it’s because God called you to this faith, and because his Spirit birthed that faith within you, and thereby made you to be a part of this living, spiritual temple.
And the preservation of the unity of the church is likewise, at the deepest level, a work of our faithful God, and not a human achievement. That’s why Paul appeals to us “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” that we all agree, and that there be no divisions among us.
As we all know from our catechism, in Biblical usage the Lord’s “name” is more than a particular term that is used to invoke him, or to distinguish him from other beings. Rather, the Lord’s “name” is everything by which he makes himself known to us, and by which he establishes and maintains his presence among us.
When Jesus says in Matthew 18 that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them, he is referring to a gathering around his Word, by which he reveals himself and his will to his church.
And so, when St. Paul implores us to remain united, and to avoid divisions, “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he is not only testifying to the authority by which he gives us this directive, but he is also showing us the way in which this directive can be fulfilled.
When he reminds us of the one baptism instituted by Christ, by which we were all incorporated into the Lord’s church; and when he reminds us of the preaching of the cross, by which we are all forgiven and justified, he is holding up for us the only foundation on which the church, and the unity of the church, are built.
There’s a big difference between this divine plan for Christian unity, and the common human assumption that the members of a church – or of any other organization – establish their own defining principles, and determine their own mission, through a process of negotiation and compromise.
The Democratic and Republican party platforms are hammered out behind closed doors every four years. In those meetings, representatives of the various special interest groups and caucuses within each party, vie against each other in their struggle to have the dominating influence in what policies make it into those platforms.
Like the making of hot dogs, the writing of a political party platform is something that the rank-and-file members of each party probably don’t want to see.
The church is not like this, though. Or at least it’s not supposed to be like this.
The faith and practice of the church is handed down by the Lord of the church: enshrined in Scripture, and witnessed to in the church’s creeds and confessions. Therefore, in avoiding division, and in preserving unity, we shouldn’t listen to each other, as much as we should listen together to Christ.
Certainly we should always be sensitive to each other’s fears and concerns, and in love should bear with each other’s personal weaknesses. And if there are misunderstandings or misperceptions about one thing or another, those misunderstandings and misperceptions should be gently corrected and patiently clarified.
But in principle, the closer we all get to Christ – in believing his Word, and in following his ways – the closer we get to each other.
If it becomes evident that there are real differences in faith among the members of a church, the response should not be to initiate a process of negotiation and compromise, in order to figure out the “least common denominator” beliefs that can keep everyone together anyway.
Rather, all should examine and re-examine their own thoughts in the light of the Holy Scriptures, and be willing to accept the Lord’s correction and guidance from the Holy Scriptures.
As St. Paul says in Second Corinthians, in the struggle between God’s revealed truth and the deceptions of the devil, “We destroy arguments, and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
But Christ, through his Word, does not just educate our minds, and give shape to our thoughts. He also saves and heals our souls, by the redemption that he accomplished in the shedding of his blood for the sins of the world.
St. Paul says further on in today’s text from First Corinthians, that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Christ’s name, as it is placed upon us in the preaching of the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments, forgives our sins, and reconciles us to God. In faith we receive this forgiveness, and rest in it.
Christ’s name, as it is placed within us, gives us a new heart that is willing and able to forgive those who have hurt and offended us; and that is willing and able to show respect and compassion to those with whom we have had a dispute or a disagreement. And in these ways, by the inner working of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s name reconciles us to each other.
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
That’s a clear word from God, which is directed squarely at the conscience of each of us. How seriously have we taken this divine mandate?
Have we always spoken and acted to preserve the unity of God’s church, in God’s way? Or have we been divisive, and caused divisions, through deeds and words that are not in harmony with God’s Word?
The devil wants to tear us apart, and to tear us away from each other. And more significantly, he wants to tear us away from Christ.
The devil wants to pollute and corrupt our Christian ethics with alternatives that flow from the false morality of the world. The devil wants to obscure the plain teaching of Scripture regarding the way of salvation that God provides through his Son, and regarding the sacred means by which God most certainly delivers his grace and life to the church, with alternatives that flow from the false ideologies of the world.
The devil wants us to ignore what St. Paul tells us today. And in times of testing, when arguments ensue, and when relationships become strained, he wants us to conclude – as quickly as possible – that we have “irreconcilable differences” with each other.
He knows that when we become alienated from each other, and from Christ, he can then step in and reclaim us for himself.
But Jesus is not going to let that happen. He will continue to bring to us his name: his revelation of his divine person, his revelation of his redeeming work on the cross, and his revelation of the saving grace that he extends to us – in our weakness and need – in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Jesus continues to place his name and Word upon us, in his absolution, and in his declaration of full forgiveness for all our failures. He continues to place his name and Word within us, as he teaches us his unalterable saving truth, builds up our Christian character, and conforms us to his image.
By the operation of God’s Spirit, we put on the mind of Christ, and are filled with the love of Christ. We become easier to get along with, and more patient with the faults of others.
By the operation of God’s Spirit, we are drawn every day, in repentance and faith, to the one cross of Christ, which is our only hope. We care ever more deeply about the importance of continually hearing the voice of Christ in biblical preaching and teaching, and of frequently receiving the body and blood of Christ in his true Holy Supper.
As we are drawn together to the cross, to the means of grace, and to Christ as in the cross and in the means of grace, we are drawn also to each other. That’s how the unity of Christ’s church is preserved. That’s how Christ protects his people from the divisiveness that would destroy them.
Among Christians who devoutly listen together to the Scriptures and to the unfolding of Scripture in faithful preaching, and who kneel together at the same altar and partake of the same sacramental mystery, there need never be any “irreconcilable differences.”
The forgiveness that we receive from God, and that then bleeds over into our feelings about each other, has the supernatural power to bring reconciliation to every division, and peace to every conflict.
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ, with everything that this name means and stands for, has the power to bring clarity of thought to every confused mind.
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ, with everything that this name means and stands for, has the power to bring a renewal of conviction, and a refocusing of Christian commitment and devotion, to every misguided heart and will.
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ, with everything that this name means and stands for, has the power to sooth all bitterness, to suppress all carnal strife, and to bring reconciliation and a restored harmony to all godly relationships.
“Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” Amen.