Reflections on 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

If we’re going to get it together we need a vision of togetherness – where we started last week. But we also need to know how things go wrong in human communities and fall apart. In other words we need to ask why we divide. And this passage, written about twenty years or so after Jesus lived, died and was raised, describes the church community in Corinth falling apart. How did Jesus’ vision of unity hit the buffers so quickly as they fractured into factions? As I’ve thought about how our behaviour varies so much from Jesus’ message,  I’ve come to understand that just as the disciples struggled to grasp the significance of Jesus, so do we. We’re poor Christians! And Christ’s revelation dawns slowly. So it’s important to reflect on why we divide.

1) Easy path to division
Division rarely happens without long-term damage. So why do we let it happen? We don’t! It sneaks up on us from behind and mugs us! Or we inherit it and we slide into it ever so easily! As we sit here this morning, whether we know it or not, we’re children of the massive upheaval in 16th century European society we call the Reformation when the Church splintered. We accept those divisions because that’s just how it is. But in this we lose touch with part of our story, our shared wisdom and truth and impoverish ourselves. And thinking locally, if you’ve been involved in a church that divides, you know just how painful and destructive it is. So I repeat, why do we let it happen? The way we ask the question in this way, shows just how much we haven’t understood what’s going on. ‘Letting it happen’ assumes we still have the ability to control things. But the reality is, like some tsunami engulfing land, disunity rushes in destroying all before it. Unless we read the signs and work out the way of escape beforehand, we are carried away by its terrifying force.  I think it was like this at Corinth. They were people like us: well-meaning and true believers in Jesus, many of them good, very good no doubt, but they didn’t recognise what was engulfing them: ‘I’m of Paul…Apollos…Peter… Jesus.’ All of them had made Christ into a party leader, the guardian of their group and outlook before they realised what was happening. But Jesus is not like a Clegg, Cameron, Milliband or Farage! You can’t bag Jesus Christ for yourself and your own group. If what I’ve said about the slow dawning of Jesus’ revelation is correct, we can’t be sure we’ve understood him fully. When I was 17 I truly believed, but I didn’t fully believe. There was so much more for me to unpack, to grasp and integrate into my life. I believe in Christ now in a different way from then! Again I truly believe now, but I hope a little more fully. And there’s still much more for me to grasp further along my own journey. In the light of this can we do anything to guard ourselves against division? We must cultivate humility. Humility grows from being less certain we’ve understood. This is the mistake of all fundamentalists of whatever religion – they’re too certain they’re right! Why are they like this? Probably because they’re afraid. And this takes us into the inner dynamics of division – fear and anxiety and what it does to us and our relationships.

2) Roots of division
When we looked at the vision of unity we saw how Jesus linked unity with where get our sense of worth and significance from – he called this ‘glory.’ He taught us to receive our glory from the Father – see John 17: 22. But then we noted that Jesus also said on an earlier occasion while talking to the Jewish leaders: ‘How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?’ John 5:44. When we have an insecure sense of self – of our worth, significance, identity – this inner insecurity drives us to look for the approval of others.  Now if you add fear or anxiety into a group of people who have forgotten to get their glory from the Father and are looking for it from others, we cling to others. Why? Because they reassure us we’re OK, that we’re right, and what’s more, we belong! At that moment a clique, a faction is formed. As I’ve pastored churches over the years, I’ve come to recognise how anxiety and fear are so, so dangerous within any group. You can never trust a decision or judgement that’s been formed in an anxious community.  Unless this roots of fear is dealt with, people behave out of character – they hurt and get hurt. Time and again in the Bible and in Jesus’ ministry we hear the words, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The more I know myself, and the more I observe Christian communities and human societies, the more I see how much fear drives me, us – all of us. And it is deep down in our fears that division is formed. I’ve been reading The Sleepwalkers: how Europe went to war in 1914. Towards the end of his gripping analysis, Christopher Clark writes a sentence of great insight: ‘All the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections and interests masquerading as maxims.’ It describes an important dimension of what led to the massive loss of life and an event that shaped the world profoundly to this day. Living in an anxious community where fear starts to take a grip, means we become pawns of forces that push us here, plonk us there and tear us apart from others. People who don’t share our group’s opinion, my particular interpretation or understanding, become ‘them’, and from this flow suspicion, a lack of transparency, miscommunication, words clash, opinions harden… and ‘the rest is history’ as the saying goes. We become locked into our world with its tight stories of how we are hurt, how we are victims of the ones who are responsible for all our problems: ‘Them! Over there.’ And who are ‘them’? They can be any group we pick on. It isn’t rational and it’s certainly distorted – it can be the Jews, the gays, the Muslims, the immigrants, the asylum seekers, theological liberals, the fundamentalists, the Catholics, the Protestants, the traditionalists, the charismatics etc. etc.

3) Beyond division
No wonder Paul is urgent and dives into division as the front-page, headline issue, and appeals that they be ‘united in the same mind and the same purpose’1:10. But this raises the question, if we have to avoid and guard our souls and communities from anxiety and fear, what is the mind we should positively cultivate? As Paul says a little later,  ‘but we have the mind of Christ.’ (2:16) And what is this mind of Christ? Paul makes it clear between chapter 1 and the quote in 2:16 that it’s the mind of someone willing to go to the cross. Paul clearly understands that the cross has a power that judges and undercuts the divisive and destructive behaviour of the Corinthians. Why does the cross do this? Why has it got this power? The power of the cross lies in the fact that Jesus went into the most inglorious place imaginable, into the place of being despised and rejected by people. And it’s not only that he went willingly, but the spirit in which he went into that place that is the victory and power of the cross. Normally in our world it is tit for tat. You hurt me and I hurt you. But with Jesus it was his beautiful, pure spirit that spoke mercy and forgiveness as he hung on the cross. This is a spiritual power that is beyond imagination. And it is that spirit that triumphed, and God was in Christ at that moment reconciling the world to himself. It makes all our little differences, hurts and being offended, breaking into this group or that, putting down this one because they’re seen as ‘them’ – all this seems so petty and makes no sense – it is nonsense!  So you can perhaps start to see why it is of such importance to regularly meditate as we receive Christ’s gifts of his body and blood, of bread and wine. And Jesus says to each one of us: ‘Feed on me…Drink of me.’ Amen, Lord.

For reflection
1.    Share experiences of what it is like to be part of a community – church or otherwise – where there’s conflict or division.
2.    Within a few decades of Jesus’ life, ministry, death & resurrection, the Corinthians were split into factions. Why were they so blind to the clash between their behaviour and what Jesus stood for?
3.    Is division ever justified? When? See Galatians 2:11-14. Is opposing someone in this way divisive or healing?
4.    How should Christians disagree? Can you disagree without causing factions?
5.    What role does fear and anxiety play in tearing a community apart?
6.    When fear & anxiety are present in what ways do we seek security? How do  John 17:22 & John 5:44 throw light on this?
7.    Why is the cross powerful to overcome human divisions?
8.    What role does sharing communion have in guarding against or overcoming divisions? See 1 Corinthians 11:17-34