United or Untied?

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

I think I was in second grade when I underwent an Indiana rite of passage, and I had to make the choice.  I apologize that I do not remember all of the details, because it was over thirty years ago,  so I do not properly remember the context but I remember that for some reason I had to declare where as a citizen of Indiana my allegiance was:  Was I a Purdue fan or an IU fan?  My brother chose the red and white of IU which naturally meant I had to choose the black and gold of Purdue.  Now honestly, as a second grader I was not really all that invested in college sports.  Honestly today, I am still not all that invested in college sports, but I made my choice.  Even though I do not really follow it closely, when push comes to shove and I am forced to pick a team, then Purdue is still my team of choice.

A lot of sports fans love the rivalry aspects of the competition.  Perhaps another way to say this is that most sports fans have a team they love to cheer on and a team they love to cheer against.  There are a lot of rivalries in sports.   Some of these are regional such as I.U. and Purdue.  Others have some long history such as the rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.  Some rivalries are light and fun while others carry more weight to them, but there seems to be something about human nature that leads us to wanting to pick a side.  Sports teams is perhaps the most harmless version of this, but unfortunately our human impulse to pick a side to support and a side to oppose seems to go far beyond the teams we cheer.  We seem to be naturally drawn to the idea that my team is better than your team.   Unfortunately, this kind of thinking can be found expressed in faith convictions.    It is disastrous when this same rivalry mentality gets applied to how one understands God.    It is exactly this kind of mentality that Paul was warning against in this morning’s scripture.

The letter of 1 Corinthians was written to the church of Corinth to address several issues that plagued that fellowship of believers.  This morning’s scripture comes right at the beginning of the letter, as Paul jumps in and addresses the first of many issues.    Some thought Paul was the best teacher of the gospel, others thought it was Apollos, and then others thought it was Cephas (or Peter).   Like the pundits on an ESPN talk show, backing their favorite team, I imagine the Corinthians bickering about why their chosen teacher is the best one to follow.    Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. He was successful at founding new churches, and he had a down to earth reputation of working alongside the people.   Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.  He is the one who Jesus himself had said his church would be built upon.   Clearly, Peter’s reputation was established and he was well known if the Corinthians had heard of him.    Finally, Apollos was the young gun.  The book of Acts describes Apollos by stating “He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures.  He had been instructed in the ways of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor.”   We get the idea that the Corinthian church was treating these three preachers like celebrities and they had picked their favorites, and because of that odd human nature quirk the Corinthians felt the need to belittle those who picked a different favorite.

Paul rightly appeals to the Corinthians to cut this out,   He points this out through the use of rhetorical questions in verse 13, “Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”   Dividing into factions though, was not limited to the Corinthian church.   To the churches of the regions of Galatia, Paul warned them to avoid this by listing dissensions and factions among a list of sinful behavior.   To the church of Ephesus, Paul encouraged them to remember that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”   Giving into this base urge to pick sides is a shockingly common problem in the early church.

As brothers and sisters in Christ, we are not supposed to devolve into factions or go after each other like sports team rivals.    In this morning’s scripture Paul offers up an alternative way of being.    Verses 10 and 11 state, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”   This sounds great and inspirational, but so consistently we seem as Christians seem to struggle with this.   This morning’s scripture points out this was a struggle at the beginning, Christian history with all of its divisions show that it has continued to be a problem, and unfortunately it never stopped being a problem.  In fact it feels like today it is a problem that is as big as ever.  In our ultra-politicized world with a strong us vs. them mentality it feels like division is rampant in the body of Christ.  It seems today instead of seeking common ground we would rather just disaffiliate with other followers of Jesus who do not fit a specific version of what a Christian might look like.  It feels like collectively we are less united and more untied.

Again division within the body of Christ is not a new problem.  This morning’s scripture shows it has been a struggle for us since the very beginning.  So perhaps we can find some hope in Christian history and what happened in the German village of Herrnhut.

Herrnhut was founded by a group of religious refugees.  During the Protestant Reformation, this group of refugees found themselves to be protestant believers in a Catholic area.  Forced to flee their homeland, and with little ancestral wealth to sustain them, these refugees were impoverished with few prospects, when a Christian landowner Count Zinzendorf allowed them to settle on a part of his estate.  These refugees founded the village of Herrnhut, and things were going well.  At least for a while.  Religious disagreements sprouted up and began ripping this community apart.  Count Zinzendorf stepped in and worked with the village to overcome these disagreements.  One of the things that Zinzendorf did was lead the people in Herrnhut to come to what was called a “brotherly agreement.”  This agreement was very much in line with this morning’s scripture.   This agreement stated: “Herrnhut, and its original old inhabitants must remain in a constant bond of love with all Children of God belonging to the different religious persuasions—they must judge none, enter into no disputes with any, nor behave themselves unseemly towards any, but rather seek to maintain among themselves the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity and grace.”

The brotherly agreement encouraged the people of Herrnhut to lift up love above different religious persuasions.  The brotherly agreement was not the only change that Zizendorf instituted.  For example, he also set up a prayer vigil so that someone in the town was always praying 24 hours a day, and this vigil lasted unbroken for over a century.  Seeking God in constant prayer provided a basis for the brotherly agreement to be lived out.  A spirt-led revival broke out, love for another defined the relationships of the people, and the community of Herrnhut flourished.

For you old school Paul Harvey fans, here is the rest of the story.  The community at Herrnhut became known as the Moravians, and the Moravians became one of the first protestant groups to actively send out missionaries.   They wanted to get away from the faction driven divides that were found throughout Christianity and promote an understanding of following Jesus was more based in loving God and loving one another.  One of these missionary groups formed a small community in London on Aldersgate Street.  On May 24th of 1787 a troubled Anglican clergyman reluctantly attended a meeting of this community on Aldersgate Street.  It was at this meeting that this clergyman, John Wesley, felt his heart strangely warmed as he truly experienced and received God’s grace in his life for the first time.   John Wesley along with his brother Charles and others would bring some of the ideal of the Moravian church into a revival of England that spread to the Americas and eventually became the United Methodist Church.

As a United Methodist Church part of our spiritual heritage are the people of Herrnhut who committed to love over picking a side in religious disputes.  John Wesley actually went to visit Zizendorf and Herrnhut.  Wesley learned a lot from that trip.  One of the things that he brought back was a saying which had become a slogan to sum up the brotherly agreement.  So while this saying originates with the Moravian church it has long been influential in Wesleyan traditions as well.   The saying states, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things love.”   The concept is that the beliefs most vital to the Christian faith is where we must agree with one another, have no division and be perfectly united in mind and thought.   In everything that is not an essential core belief of Christianity, then as believers we are free to form our own opinions.   Now our faith should absolutely inform all of our opinions and beliefs, but it is very possible for two Christians to rely on their biblical understanding and faith experience to come to different conclusions on non-essentials.   That is fine because we are called to unity not uniformity.   Finally, no matter what love is what covers all.   This means it does not matter how much we disagree with someone, we love them anyway.   We recognize that they are a precious creation of God that has sacred worth, and we value them for that.

This naturally leads to the question what is essential and what is non-essential.  Fortunately, church tradition defines this for us with the creeds, which are essentially statements of essential belief.   The most well-known creed is what is traditionally called the Apostle’s Creed  it states:   I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin  Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy, universal church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  Amen.

Those are the essentials.  God the Father, Jesus the son-who was, and is, and is to come, and the Holy Spirit.   Notice there was nothing essential about the hot button issues of the day that cause divisions in the body of Christ.   When we are of one mind about these essentials and we consider that statement of faith to be the cornerstone of all that we believe, then unity as described in this scripture becomes possible.   What unites us is the power of the cross of Christ, and that gospel should have more power in our lives than every other message there is.  What unites is far more important and far more powerful than anything that could divide us.

By its very nature church is awkward and messy.   Church is a bunch of imperfect people trying to live in perfect and loving community with one another.  When we get it right though, then it is a thing of beauty.   We get it right when among the essentials there is no division among us.   We get it right when we are perfectly united in mind and thought in our belief that Jesus is a great savior.   When we do this, then the non-essentials, the cultural and political things that so quickly divide us do not matter as much because we realize the God that unites us is bigger than that which divides us.   One day when we all get to heaven, we are going to find ourselves worshipping the Lamb of God side by side with souls we never would have agreed with on earth, because God’s grace and mercy is that big.  May we seek unity instead of uniformity.   As the people of God may we glorify God by being perfectly united in mind and thought by how we love one another.



One Comment

  1. Tanny Dawson Snyder

    Hello Pastor!
    David and Lynette Altman are my dear cousins and sent me this message to read. I am in the process of a Doctoral of Ministry program and a leader in the Monticello Christian Church. ( so you have a reference!)
    Our church has struggles so much in the past few years over taking sides and all the things you mentioned in your sermon. Great message, by the way!
    We recently had a member leave, stomping out actually, because she could not envision being led by someone who ” thought being gay was ok and not a sin.”
    Personally, I was not sad to see this person leave, but sad that this sort of strict ” dogma” has reached into our church and is in the throws of deciding who is, or isn’t Christian…and what rules and behaviors constitute a Christian . (As far as I am aware, we gave up the 662 rules when Christ came….but, who am I? )
    Anyway….it’s crazy.
    I am about as far “left” as one could get and live in White county. Lol. ( survive)
    I keep my head down, but am not fearful at this stage in my life to state my beliefs.
    I may call you at some point if you would endulge me, as the research I am pursuing is on conflict in leadership ( in the church.)
    We have some of that too….
    And, I wanted to relay that Lynette and David have talked so brilliantly about you, I was thankful when she sent me this sermon! You are indeed great preacher and I pray for you going through your piece of muck and mire within the Church as well. I generally follow several denominations and know this current patch of ” fun” discussions are not at all fun, though worthwhile they may be.
    Dissention is not a bad thing, disagreements are not unusual, as you aptly stated, but hurting each other over it has to end, lest we end up with microcosm churches all over the land…which may be the result, I don’t know. We started with House churches, maybe…..???
    Thanks for meandering with me as I type outloud, I really appreciate a great sermon, and especially one that denotes LOVE one another. Jesus thought it was important, I think we should too.

    My prayers and service to Him,
    Tanny Dawson Snyder
    Cousin to Altmans, on my dad’s side. 🙂
    Peace be with you!!!

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