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What does it mean to be Christian? What does it mean to be a new Christian? What happens to Christianity in the hands of new converts? These questions seem implicit in Paul's corrective words to the converts of Corinth. It seems to suggest that when the preacher is away the members appear. First off, let me admit that Christians do have differences at times. Christians do split churches over a plethora of differences, all the while knowing, or at least having heard, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.
Paul would later declare in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 that our gifts, though varied, are empowered by the same Spirit, the same Lord and the same God--not someone's name. Let us not forget that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday was the most segregated and divided hour in America.
Even last summer, in our country a major controversy arose concerning the building of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero. And because of President Obama's position on this issue, some called his Christianity into question. In fact, some believed that he was a Muslim, some believed a Christian, and then there were some who weren't certain. This controversy reached viral dimensions as divided and fiery tongues weighed in on that matter. Can we too ask Paul's question, "Is Christ divided?" What are we doing here and how that is in sync with what it means to be followers of Jesus Christ? Who has it right? What would Jesus do? More importantly, what would Jesus want us to do?
Paul, in this first letter to the newly converted in Corinth, is not faced with which faith tradition builds near Ground Zero, but which baptism is near the ground rule and being into Christian faith--Jesus Christ! The fact that baptism has happened in other names other than Jesus in Corinth is problematic for our hearing even now. Did not John the Baptist also insert a disclaimer that one would come after him who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire? Nevertheless, Paul, not intimidated by controversy, sends a follow-up letter to the newly confused baptized of Corinth. He is not afraid to ask, "What are we doing here?" Is Christ divided? Or does baptism divide us?
The Corinthian converts have created ripples in the pool of baptism by name-dropping--everybody's name but Jesus it seems. How did that happen? How could that happen? Although the text is not clear, we know that it did happen; and this news comes from the lips of Chloe's people. Yet, we hear not necessarily anger but concern in Paul's question. It is a teachable-moment question, "Is Christ divided?"
A pastor colleague shared with me that during a church board meeting a board member shouted, "I don't care what Jesus said, this is what our bylaws say!" Is this also a modern day twist on an ancient problem--YES! But, is Christ divided--NO! I believe that when a name or thing takes precedence over Jesus Christ, we have not a church, but a personality-driven club or a cult of celebrity in the making. What are we doing here? When we argue over names, ministry is neglected. When we parse over personalities, we lose perspective over why we are here and what we are here for--to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!
Corinth was not known for its morality, but for its ethical challenges and aggravations of the apostle Paul. Let us not forget that as a colony of Rome, Corinth often did as the Romans did--name-dropping! Paul had preached and planted churches there, but it seems they required constant monitoring. Always it seemed that Paul revisited ground rules with the Christian converts. Perhaps it is why we also must preach Sunday after Sunday to ward off the tendency of human drift from the holy. Paul seems to concur in verse 17 when he says that he was called to proclaim, not to baptize.
Faith does indeed come by hearing and hearing by the word of God through proclamation. Hearing, then, precedes baptism. Did not the Ethiopian eunuch ask to be baptized after hearing Philip's explanation of the book of Isaiah? Have we too not also drifted into the pools of personality-driven ministries as opposed to Christ-centered churches? Have some of our baptisms merely gotten us wet rather than whetting our appetites for real change and ministry? While we argue over names, souls are starved of the life-giving power of the gospel. While we politicize the baptismal pool, we pollute the possibility of unfettered ministry.
A comedian on a cable station spoke of being confronted by two Christian fundamentalists after his show. These Christians said to him, "We're Christians and we don't like what you said!" The comedian responded, "Oh! Well, forgive me!" If you are Christians, forgive me! Don't threaten me; forgive me! Don't corner me in the name of your particular brand that you brandished, forgive me! If I stand accused, hear my cry and pray for me--tell me to sin no more. What a thought from a comedian! Yet, some expressions that crusade under the banner of Christianity are at worst divisive. This happens, I believe, when we seek again to nail-down Jesus to our anthropomorphisms.
Yet, in Christ there is no division; there is a new mind. In Christ there is deliverance. In Christ there is no wrangling over the law, but love of the Lord. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all testify that Jesus was clear, not divided, on his person or his purpose. They all confess to us that Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem. Jesus knew from whence he came and where he was headed. His purpose was to show every name a more excellent way. His purpose would cause every knee to bow and every tongue to confess--his name, not name-droppings, pardon the pun. Christ was not divided, but devoted to bringing good news to the poor, sight to the blind, and healing to the sick. While Pilate and Herod were divided, Jesus was deliberate in maintaining who and whose he was. He never allowed where he was to change who he was--not even on Calvary's cross! If Christ is listed among other names in our faith roster, what does this say about our Christianity? If Christ is divided, then why do we bother to call ourselves Christian? What are we doing here?
Paul asks the critical question: "Is Christ divided?" Could it be that following Christ might be easier than following current divisions of Christianity? What would happen if we could all be on one accord rather than divided according to the faith of the month? Have Christians gotten in the way of Christ? What a thought! What are we doing here? Paul remembers out loud to them and to us that he was not called to baptize, but to proclaim Christ, not with wisdom, but with undivided witness!
At the 2010 Hampton Ministers Conference, the Reverend Jerry Carter asked, "Why do we preach?" That question continues to give me pause. It is true that we do have a variety of gifts doing service in the name of one Lord, but not in a variety of name-droppings. Dr. Carter noted that in John 1:35, John the Baptist, while standing with two of his own disciples, saw Jesus coming by and proclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" John the Baptist's pointing to Christ caused his own disciples to leave him and follow Christ. John simply proclaimed with an undivided attention and intention as to who Jesus was! John's undivided attention and intention about Jesus caused his own disciples to leave him and follow Jesus! John did not get Jesus twisted into his own ambitions of needing to be known. Why, John would later lose his own head over Jesus!
Personality-driven ministries are limited to the life of the person, but Christ-centered communities thrive, cast vision, and are long-lasting organisms of hope. Where Christ is preached, the people will come and they will grow! Where names are dropped, people will come and go. Forty-two years later we are yet experiencing the words and life of a Christ-centered person, rather than a person considering Christ--Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words yet instruct us. What an undivided witness. Let us also do as Paul reminds: Proclaim Christ, not ourselves.
Let us pray. Eternal God who changes not, whose compassions fail not, we thank you for the message and power of the gospel that became flesh and dwelt among us! May we always remain steadfast, immovable, and undivided in your word! Amen!
Holy Bible, NRSV
DVD, 96th Annual Hampton Ministers Conference 2010; Ministry and Integrity, Dr. Jerry Carter June 10, 2010
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