division, baptism, unity — or, who we are

Let me begin this morning by reading again just a few words from 1 Corinthians chapter 1. For me these particular words are more than a little odd – they almost stick out like a sore thumb – and for that reason I want to start with them. Paul writes these words to the church in Corinth: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Aren’t these curious words? “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”

These words become astonishing when we realize that Paul is the one who founded the church in Corinth. These words come from the apostle who went to that city and who debated in its marketplace and synagogue, with the result that women and men came to faith and were baptized. These words come from the pen of someone who lived with the Corinthian church for 18 months – leading them and caring for them and teaching about their new life in Christ.

To this church, to this group of people with whom he has had such a significant and personal relationship, Paul writes: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.” Strong and strange words.

To get our heads around the strangeness of what Paul is saying here, let me try and describe some other scenarios for comparison. None of these other scenarios fits exactly with Paul’s words, but the comparisons get us thinking in the right direction.

Say you are a website designer – and over your career you developed a number of creative and trend-setting websites. How likely would it would it be that later in life you would say to yourself: “You know, I’m glad no one ever gave me credit for those web sites or acknowledged me for those ideas.”

Or say you are researcher who did important collaborative work with other researchers over many years – publishing numerous papers. Toward the end of your career, is it likely you would you say: “You know, I really wish my name was left off the list of authors on all those papers.”

Or a final example: Say you are a musical composer, and you composed a number of original, innovative pieces of music at the height of your career. How likely would you be, in later life, to say: “You know, I wish everyone would just forget that I composed those works.”

Now obviously these examples don’t match Paul’s situation perfectly. But they at least give a bit of a sense of what Paul is saying. He’s the one who founded the church in Corinth. He’s the one who brought many into this community of Jesus followers. Much of his life – his whole later in ministry – has focused on drawing women and men into Christian community and seeing them built up in their faith.

One of the great moments for him in ministry would certainly have been the moment when someone was baptized, sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus through word and water.

Yet with these words 1 Corinthians chapter 1, Paul distances himself from the baptisms he performed in Corinth. He’ll only acknowledge performing a few baptisms. In fact it’s almost funny the way Paul has to quickly correct his own words as he writes. He’s so quick to dissociate himself from the baptisms he’s performed, he has to backtrack a bit to set the record straight: “I thank God that I baptized none of you – well, except Crispus and Gaius – oh yea, and also the household of Stephanus – and maybe a few others besides them. You know, I can’t really remember. But the point is that I baptized only a few of you – and I’m glad it was only a few.”

What is going on here? Why is Paul trying to outrun his own history in Corinth? Why does Paul thank God he baptized so few of them. Wouldn’t the most obvious thing be fore him to celebrate the part he played in baptizing members of the church – no matter how few or how many it was?

We continue reading Paul’s words, and things only get more complicated. Here’s Paul’s whole thought: “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say you were baptized in my name.”…so that no one can say you were baptized in my name.” Another odd statement, really, because the truth is that nobody in that church would have been baptized into Paul’s name. Even the few who were baptized by Paul wouldn’t have been baptized in the name of Paul – they would have been baptized into the name of Christ.

So what’s going on about here? Why is Paul so glad he only baptized a few? And why is he concerned about people saying they were baptized in his name?

Well it turns out that Paul is responding to a very specific situation in the Corinthian church – specifically, a situation of conflict and division. There is fighting in the church of Corinth; there are factions in the church in Corinth. And this is no minor disagreement. In fact, the word Paul uses for quarreling is the word eris – and Eris is the name for a Greek goddess who fostered war and battle. There is quarrelling going on in the church, and it is no minor disagreement that has arisen.

But what does this conflict and quarrelling have to do with Paul, or with his relationship to the Corinthians? Well it seems that the various factions in the church have aligned themselves with different teachers. This became clear a few verse earlier, when Paul describes what he has heard about the situation. He writes: “Each of you says ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos,’ or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ’.”

It turns out that one of the factions in the church is likely saying: “We belong to Paul.” And it is likely that they are using their baptism by Paul as a kind of badge of honour. “I was baptized by Paul. I belong to Paul. I’m opposed to those who belong to Apollos. I’m opposed to those who belong to Cephas. I belong to Paul.”

In other words, Paul is saying to the church in Corinth – thank goodness I only baptized a few of you. Because if I had baptized more of you, then my name would be even more implicated in your quarrelling than.” They are using his name as a badge of honour or derision in their quarrelling – and Paul doesn’t like it.

Now we don’t know what exactly was the source of the divisions in the church of Corinth. No doubt there were certainly theological differences in that church. No doubt there were different ideas about what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

One suggestion is that perhaps the divisions were based on ethnic or cultural identity.

There may have been a Roman faction that identified itself with Paul – who was a Roman citizen and whose name is Roman.

 And a Greek faction that identified itself with Apollos – who was of a Greek heritage and whose name is Greek.

And a Jewish faction that identified itself with Cephas (or Peter) – who was a Hebrew and whose name is Aramic, in the same family as Hebrew.

It’s interesting that there is a faction that seems to claim “I am of Christ.” In other words, we have the true faith in Christ – and you, dear friends, obviously aren’t faithful to him or his way. There is no doubt a superiority and a condescension in those who say to the other church members in Corinth – you can have Apollos and Paul and Cephas. WE belong to Christ.

Whatever the exact reasons for the conflict, it has gotten serious. There is quarrelling. There are factions. There is division and disagreement. And Paul’s name has been dragged into it. “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say you were baptized in my name – so my name doesn’t get dragged even further into your conflict.”

It would be easy at this point, of course, to sit back and take pot shots at the church for its history of division and disagreement. We could lay out a long list of church splits that have happened within the Presbyterian Church – or the Church of Scotland. We could talk about the division between the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church. We could talk about the division between the Western tradition of Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity. We could also talk about our experiences in individual congregations where division and dissension became all too real for us.

And of course we could also point out that division and conflict is a human reality as much as it is a religious phenomenon. Creating categories of “us and them” is a basic feature of human thinking and reality – at some level, in fact, this is necessary to the human. In a way you can’t have a sense of self or be a self without having a sense of who it is you belong to – of the community you are a part of. And yet we also know that “us and them” translates so easily and quickly into negative stereotypes and prejudices and conflict and even violence.

We create “us and them” between the able-bodied and those with some physical disability.

We create “us and them” between those who we think of as normal and those with mental health challenges.

We create “us and them” between those of different cultural or religious traditions.

We create “us and them” between the comfortably middle class and those may work pay cheque to pay cheque.

Today’s cultured despisers of religion (to borrow a phrase from an 18th century theologian) are convinced, of course, that religions are the greatest source of division and conflict in human life and history. We don’t need to disagree that there is division and conflict within the Christian tradition to insist that this is a feature of human identity and not particular or essential to Christian faith. To the extent that the church is a human community (which it is, of course) it will at times give way to the division and hostility that so often characterizes human community.

But perhaps rather than focus on the “who?” and the “why?” of human and religious conflict, we should focus on the question of what will draw women and men together in unity and compassion and service. That’s the hard question for those who do not belong to a particular religious tradition – they must conceive of some non-arbitrary way of discerning and insisting on human unity. And it’s also the hard question for the church – which must be faithful to its faith in Christ as it responds to the challenges of life in community.

In fact, in our passage from last week Paul touched briefly on this question of unity when he talked about the Lord’s Supper – he said to the Corinthian church: “You are defined by this table – and when you gather around this table you are one people – if you are divided and living in hostility, then your living in opposition to this table. You cannot both gather around this table and at the same time live in hostility and conflict with others who gather in the name of Christ.”

In our passage for today, here is Paul’s initial response to their division and quarrelling and factions: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

As Richard Hays, New Testament scholar and now Dean of the Duke Divinity School writes: “”Note well that Paul does not appeal to the Corinthians to stop bickering in the name of expedience or humanitarian tolerance.” Paul doesn’t say, you know we’ll really be more effective as a community if we just get along together. And he doesn’t offer abstracted moral principles – you know the right thing is to be kind and get along. As Hays continues: “Instead, Paul points to Jesus Christ as the one ground of unity.”

Paul points to two realities of Christian faith and identity to encourage unity – he points to the death of Jesus for his people, and to their baptism into the name of Christ – he points them to these two realities to ground their unity and remind them of their unity. At some level their unity isn’t something they have to create. Rather, on account of our faith in Christ – on account of his death and resurrection for us – on account of our baptism into him – we are one people. Our very lives and being have been changed in him.

So don’t drag Apollos into this – you don’t have your identity in Apollos.

Don’t drag Paul into this – you don’t have your identity in Paul.

Don’t let your petty allegiances divide the body.

Don’t let your personal preoccupations sever friendships in Christ.

Remember Christ died for you. Remember you have been baptized into him. You are all one in him.

Which brings us finally to Paul’s opening appeal to his sisters and brothers – those whom me loves – those whom he greets in the name of Christ – some of whom he baptized. At the opening of our passage, Paul says to his friends: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” We are one in Christ – let us live the truth of our oneness.

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