Sometimes, reading from letters in the New Testament is a little bit like listening to one side of a phone conversation: you get only half of the story, and you have to figure out the other side of the story. Our text for today, a small section of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, is one such case where we have to figure out the other side of the story.
And of course, whenever you’re listening in on someone else’s conversation like this, the really important question is, “Why does this matter to me?” So as we listen in on Paul’s side of his conversation with the Corinthian church, we aren’t only interested in piecing together the other side of the conversation, but, more importantly, we are trying to figure out why this matters to us. That is, we are trying listen to what Paul might be saying to us, here and now. And maybe if we listen carefully enough, through the words of Paul written to a church almost two thousand years ago, we will hear the voice of God speaking to us—this church—today.
So let us listen in. 1 Corinthians 3:1-9:
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (NRSV)
Obviously, this isn’t Paul’s friendliest letter. He sees that there is a problem with the Corinthian Christians. They are divided because they have divided loyalties. Some of them are loyal to Paul and Paul’s way of thinking, and others are loyal to Apollos and his way of thinking, and the two groups don’t want to associate with one another. And according to Paul, there is jealously and fighting among them. Perhaps those who knew Paul have forced themselves into power in the church, and are excluding anyone who came into the church through Apollos. We can’t know exactly what was happening, but it is clear that the church at Corinth was becoming a broken body.
What you will discover is that this theme—division and brokenness—is the significant theme in the letter. This is the problem, this is what Paul cannot stop thinking about. He isn’t worried about what kind of music the church uses for worship; he doesn’t care that the Corinthians can’t explain that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, one person “in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably,” as the church would learn to articulate four hundred years later. No, Paul is concerned with their unity, or, rather, their disunity.
It is only fair that we ask why this matters so much to Paul. After all, why should there only be one church in Corinth? Why shouldn’t those who are loyal to Apollos be able to have as much control as those who are loyal to Paul? And if they can’t agree with one another, why shouldn’t they have their own churches for the sake of peace? After all, having two churches can appeal to different kinds of people—it need not dissolve the church. In one sense, couldn’t two churches reach more people for the gospel than one church?
Paul answers this question emphatically: “No.” The church is one because the Lord is one.1 As it says in Ephesians, the church must make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3) because “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4:4-6). In the first chapter of the letter to Corinth, Paul confronts the church with the question: “Has Christ been divided?” (1:13).
What we cannot fail to understand is that the church is far more than a gathering of individuals who believe that God has saved them through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
What Paul understands is what the Corinthians do not adequately understand: if the salvation for which they hope is only their own salvation, in isolation from those around them—especially those with whom they disagree—then they have bought into a salvation other than the salvation offered by Jesus, and they have placed their faith in a god other than the God of Jesus. What Paul understands that the Corinthians do not adequately understand is that there is no reconciliation to God without reconciliation to other people; there is no union with God without unity with one another. He understands that spiritual maturity has little to do with theology, but has everything to do with the way that people treat one another.
In the grand story of salvation, the Fall of humanity not only meant separation from God, but in sin people became separated from one another. Whereas at creation God said that it was not good for the man to be alone and so created the family, now in sin humanity has been thrown into isolation, individualism, fear of one’s neighbor, and competition for survival. Where once humanity was one, in Adam all humanity has been scattered and has been at war against itself ever since. When in Christ God reconciled the world to himself, he also brought peace and reconciliation to humanity. As Augustine says:
“Adam is thus scattered throughout the globe. Set in one place, he fell and, as it were, broken small, he has filled the whole world. But the Divine Mercy gathered up the fragments from every side, forged them in the fire of love and welded into one what had been broken.”2
Indeed, for the apostle Paul salvation in Christ is nothing less than a recreated human race—a new humanity made in the image of Christ, from whom no one is excluded. As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). Indeed, it is only in this peace offered in Christ, where our differences are of no significance, that we are freed to truly be ourselves, in all our uniqueness, without fear of hatred or pressure to conform.
And when we understand that this is what salvation in Christ means, then we can understand why Paul was so upset about the division in the church at Corinth: when they say “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos” or, most arrogantly, “I am of Christ,” they are denying the very gospel, they are denying that God has actually accomplished salvation in Jesus. If the church can find no peace, if those who think like Paul can’t get along with those who think like Apollos, then certainly God has failed and Christ died in vain. As the great theologian Henri de Lubac said:
“..the schismatic or the provoker of dissension outrages what is dearest to Christ, for he [or she] commits a crime against that ‘spiritual body’ for which Christ sacrificed his carnal body.”3
And this is exactly why Paul says to the Corinthians that he cannot address them as “spiritual people,” but had to address them instead as “people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” In verse 4 of chapter 3, describing how they are acting, he asks them if, when they act this way, they are not “merely human.”
We have to realize that this is ironic, because Paul understands that incorporation into Christ is incorporation into the life of God. People become, as it says in the Second Letter of Peter, “participants of the divine nature” (1:4). Having been given a new birth in the Spirit, believers are also given a new nature—the divine nature. That is, in Christ women and men are anything but “people of the flesh,” anything but “merely human.” Rather, in Christ people are people of the Spirit and children of God.
That Paul would tell the church that they are “people of the flesh,” and that they are “merely human” clarifies the severity of the situation. The division of the church in Corinth is the crisis of the gospel in that community.
But is it so different today? Are we not always tempted to associate ourselves with some charismatic leader, some messiah figure with whom we are more interested than in the Christ this man or woman preaches? Do we not divide ourselves around them, and struggle for dominance in their names? Do we not say, “I am of Luther,” or “I am of Calvin,” “I am conservative” or “I am liberal”?
Today, far more than two thousand years ago, the one church has splintered into thousands of strands, and reconciliation seems impossible. Today, just like thousand years ago, it seems that almost every individual church community struggles against division, whether over leadership or music or theology. And today, certainly no less than two thousand years ago, our division is a crisis of the gospel.
Just as Paul understood that the division in the church at Corinth was a rejection of God’s loving salvation, we too must recognize our own division as a rejection of the truth of the gospel and the peace of Christ. While many of us will occupy ourselves trying to prove that what we believe is what the Bible teaches, that our ideas are “correct,” it remains that we have no legitimate reason to say that the gospel is true if we are divided.
In our society, where truth claims are becoming more and more suspect, and the idea that we have any way of knowing truth is questionable, that there even is such a thing as “the truth” is questionable, the only way that we may make any claim about the truthfulness of the gospel is for us to enact it. Our attempts prove our beliefs by proving that scripture is always historically factual, or by looking for scientific evidence or producing philosophical arguments—these attempts will all fail, as they should. If we are to have an effective witness in our world, there is only one way: we must demonstrate the truthfulness of the gospel with the life of our communities. In our war-torn world, the announcement that God has reconciled us to himself and to one another is only true if it is a reality in our lives. As David Hart says:
“Christianity has from its beginning portrayed itself as a gospel of peace, a way of reconciliation…and a new model of human community, offering the ‘peace which passes understanding’ to a world enmeshed in sin and violence. The earliest confession of Christian faith…meant nothing less radical than…Christ’s peace, having suffered upon the cross the decisive rejection of the powers of this world, [Christ was] raised up by God as the true form of human existence…. It is only as the offer of this peace within time, as a real and available practice, that the Christian evangel…has any meaning at all; only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the church is the confession of the church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord.”4
Yet here we are. We confess that Jesus is Lord, and we remain divided. And when we are confronted by this, we resort saying it is impossible. We can’t all get along. Christians can never be united. We run and we hide like Adam and Eve after they sinned, because they were naked. We run and we hide, and when God asks where we are we say, “We hid because we are merely human.” And God says to us, “Who told you that you were ‘merely human’? And who told you that being human was ‘mere’?”5
In our world and church today, it is all too tempting to look at ourselves and one another as “merely human,” as little more than well-evolved animals, because so often that is just how we act—like we are “merely humans,” in a competition for survival. We so easily forget that God has freely given us his Spirit, that we are participants in the divine nature, that we are anything but “merely human.”
Paul reminds the church at Corinth that they are “God’s field, God’s building.” Later in the letter he uses his most famous metaphor for the church, the Body of Christ. He reminds them that they themselves are Christ’s body, and are members of one another. He reminds them that the cup of blessing that they bless is a sharing in the blood of Christ, that the bread they break is a sharing in the body of Christ, and that “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:16-17).
Though the Corinthians were divided, Paul reminded them that their unity was not established by their own efforts, but has always been and will always be a gracious gift of God. Just as they received the Spirit by grace, so also would they maintain unity by grace.
Paul reminds the church at Corinth that they need not become a broken body, because Christ’s body was already broken so that they wouldn’t have to. Paul reminds them that Christ suffered violence so that they would wage peace, not war. Paul reminds them that Christ was hated so that they could love and be loved, that God’s mercy is greater than their judgment, that God’s grace is greater than their impatience, that God’s love cannot be conquered.
The Corinthians are not excused from their responsibility to unity. Rather, because of God’s gift of the Spirit, because of God’s reconciling love, the church is enabled to work toward unity, because they are not “merely human.”
Similarly, we today can take comfort in knowing that though the task is great, the Lord is greater. Though we build walls to separate ourselves from one another, those walls are broken down in the broken body of Jesus, and the bonds of peace in the Spirit are strong. Though we are divided by political party or race or nationality or ethic or family groups, the waters of baptism are thicker than blood.
We are charged with the truthfulness of the gospel. In our churches and our world, where it is all too easy to resort to being “merely human,” we are called to be people of the Spirit. Of this Spirit we have been born; we are God’s children, and in the church we are growing into people of the kingdom.
As we confess that Jesus is Lord, let us recognize the presence of God’s Spirit among us, and let us live and love in that Spirit, who empowers us to be participants in the divine nature, who sends us into our world to be truly human. Amen.
- Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1936, 2005), 11ff.
- On Psalm 195, n. 15. Quoted in Henri de Lubac, Catholicism: Christ and the Common Destiny of Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 376.
- Lubac, 78.
- David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 1.
- Conor Cunningham, Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2010), 23: “…who told you that you were merely material, or, more importantly, that matter was mere?”
A graduate of La Sierra University, Matthew Burdette, MDiv, preached this sermon on February 12, 2011, at the CrossWalk Church.
Image: Creature I, by John M. McDowell, PhD.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2951