Good News to Bad Christians

10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.

 –1 Corinthians 1:10-17

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

 –1 Corinthians 1:1-5

It seems that our country is divided over everything.  I mean, we can’t even have a little fun when IHOP changes its name to IHOb just to draw attention to itself.  We all want to claim the moral high ground based on the values that are important to us.  For some, obeying law and respecting authority is the highest value.  For others, justice and mercy are the highest values.  And then there are many others who find themselves on a spectrum between multiple other values that include the two I listed already.  We don’t think the same way.  But we must acknowledge that we are influenced by powerful values and the leaders who embody those values.

I find it fascinating how the Apostle Paul dealt with a church that struggled with many divisions.  The church in Corinth was his most diverse community and most divided church.  There were many social, political, and economic divisions within the church alone (Pauline scholar Douglas Campbell points to 15 divisions Paul addresses in his letters).  How did the people of Corinth deal with their problems?  They separated into “factions” based on partisan issues (partisan means strong supporter of a party, cause, or person).  Each of these factions claimed their own ‘leaders’ – they co-opted Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and even Jesus!  Christians were slandering and quarrelling.  Paul addressed this by sending good news to bad Christians in 1 Corinthians.  Paul starts his letter by writing, “let there be no divisions among you, but be united in the same mind and the same purpose…it has been reported there are quarrels among you…some say “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas” or “I belong to Christ””.

I love how Paul does this.  He starts with himself as the lowest “claimed faction” leader and moves up to Christ.  After all, if your are in a faction that claims Cephas (Peter) or Christ you have way more authority than Paul or Apollos!  But Paul calls this for what it is: if you think you have the moral high ground just because you claim Christ and turn him into a leader of your faction, you are sadly mistaken.  You think that makes you right?  Christ can not be divided.  Christ is “faction-less”.

If we want to follow Christ, we must follow Christ.  You can’t follow another faction leader or even their ideals.  You can’t divide Christ and claim him for your faction.  You can’t slander the leaders of other factions.  You can’t slander or quarrel with members of a different faction.  If you are followers of Christ, you must love one another in the midst of your differences and you must stop tearing each other down.  This is Paul’s central lesson in 1 Corinthians.  “You have divisions…okay; but what are those divisions rooted in?  Your faction’s belief system?  That is not what I taught you.”  Christ is not a faction and he is our primary leader.  Christ gets the highest allegiance over every other leader.  No one gets more loyalty than Christ…not Paul, not Apollos, not Cephas, and not any other earthly leader.  Only Christ…and we don’t get to divide Christ’s teachings into what we like and the what we don’t like.  We must follow his teachings and embody his actions.  We must remind ourselves of the greatest commandment he gave us and lay the rest down at his feet.

  • First reflection: How much of our quarrel, slander, emotional frustration, division, etc. is rooted in one of our factions?  Can we acknowledge that we are part of a faction that influences us more than Jesus’ teachings? (nationalism, political party, ideology, denominational, etc.). These are questions we can only answer for ourselves if we hope to be transformed by Christ.  It starts with me.

The second thought has to do with HOW we deal with our divisions.  Have you noticed how frustrating it becomes engaging in discussions trying to outdo one another with facts, resources, words, definitions, history, and laws?  You say something, I counter with another fact, you counter back, I counter back…it escalates and escalates and all we are left with is bitterness and frustration.  We try to out enlighten one another…as if some report or study or quote will convert the person we disagree with.  We post a new article from our favorite faction-news-outlet and…BOOM!  (Mic drop…walk off stage).  It doesn’t work that way.  Why?  Because as long as we have loyalty to a faction, whatever that faction is, we will remain loyal.  Our worldview will not be changed by any human argument against it as long as our allegiance is locked in.  Albert Einstein once wrote, “…a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”  His quote evolved into, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”  Use all the articles and news reports you want from your faction outlets.  Those who disagree with you will discount them before they even read them.  There will be no boom.  There will be no mic drop.  Just more frustration and anger.

This is what Paul addresses to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use “words” to argue divisions or try to solve the problem.  Words won’t work.  Paul knows the same words that created the problems can’t solve the problems.  Paul wrote, “when I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom…I decided to know nothing but Christ and him crucified…my speech and proclamation were not in plausible words of wisdom but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God.”  Paul realized he had to shine a light on the demonstration of the Spirit, not words.  He reminds them that he didn’t proclaim Christ with words but with the power of God.  Corinthians were brilliant, cosmopolitan people…words alone would not convert them.  Paul did not depend upon the wisdom of the “rulers of the age” (whether philosophical or political), instead he pointed to the things taught to by the Spirit…spiritual things modeled in loving action…things embodied by the life and teachings of Christ, revealed by the power of God.

  • Second reflection:  In what ways do we depend on words, teachings, eloquent rebuttals, news stories, research data, etc. to try to convince other factions they are wrong?  Are we willing to admit that we look for information and listen to the voices of our own “factions”?  Can we see the fallacy of depending on the wisdom of the rulers of the world to try to change other peoples views?  How do Paul’s words challenge those of us struggling with divisions in our own country and our churches?  What would it look like to discuss our differences in a new ways that could reveal the power of God and build unity?

Let me close with some honest admission paraphrasing Paul.  Here is a trustworthy saying: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.  When I am a bad Christian, my struggle is being a part of the Christ faction.  I have to constantly test my loyalties to make sure I haven’t made Christ the co-opted, claimed leader of my own faction.  All Christians, good and bad, should wrestle with this.  Paul wrote these words to me…but I thought I’d share them with you:

“Do not deceive yourselves.  If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.  For the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God…so let no one boast of human leaders…all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”  

— 1 Corinthians 3:18-23

Are FaceBook Friends Really Friends?

“After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”

– Luke 10:1

Robin Dunbar was a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford University.  In 1990, he came up with what we know today as “Dunbar’s Number”.  His theory was that humans are only capable of managing a certain number of relationships well.  (He defines ‘well’ as staying in contact at least once per year and knowing how those friends are relating to one another.)  His magic number?  150.

There is interesting history to how he came to this number and you can find that story on wikipedia.  What I find fascinating is that Dunbar’s work was done before the arrival of social media, particularly FaceBook.

I hate to admit it, but I have 1,848 friends on FaceBook.  Granted that may seem like a lot to some people, but a lot of my friends have way more than I do!  I know every one of my friends.  I have a relationship with them now or I did in the past. It is pretty amazing that we can keep up with each other this way.  The problem is FaceBook doesn’t show me all the posts of all my friends.  They have some fancy algorithms that filter all the posts and it shows me what it thinks I want to see.  (Let’s not go there in this post.)image.png

Now, here is the rub.  Robin Dunbar revisted his theory in 2011 in light of social media.  You can find it written up online.  It was a massive study.  Of the 3,375 FaceBook users between 18-65 years in the U.K., he found they had an average of 150 friends of which 4.1 were dependable and 13.6 expressed sympathy during emotional crises.  Astonishingly, the numbers aligned with his previous finding from the early 1990s.  He did find that younger users and users who were “online savvy” actually had a greater number of “friends”, but the number of real “touches”, what he defines as “dependable friends”, and “crisis responses” still showed that the 150 number may be pretty accurate.  (There was also an amazing story of Tanja Hollander who decided to visit every one of her 626 FaceBook in their homes to answer the question, “Are You Really My Friend?”  Her TED talk is really awakening.)

All this leads me to the final thought in Dunbar’s study and the passage from Luke 10.  Dunbar does admit that social media connects us in ways that “help keep friendships from decaying over time” – which is a very good thing.  But he also stuck to his original findings and said, “face-to-face interactions are necessary to prevent real friendships from sliding into a category he defines as ‘acquaintances'” – people we know, but never touch.

When Jesus sent out his followers ahead of him, I love that he sent them out in pairs.  Groups of two people who could build personal connections with the people they would meet.  They didn’t send all seventy together, but split them into pairs.  When it is all said and done, discipleship is about relationships.  Love is about relationships.  Transforming lives and embodying grace is about touching lives around you in personal ways.

The next time you are “stalking” on FaceBook to see what your “friends” are doing, why don’t you send them a message and let them know you are thinking about them.  Say a prayer for them and let them know they matter to you.  That is the only way they truly remain our “friends
“.

Willing to Pay the Price?

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.  Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.  So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.
– 1 Corinthians 9:24–27

There is an old Hasidic, rabbinical parable about a prince who dreams of his kingdom being a place where people live in perfect community.  He dreams of a place where all the people of the kingdom give, love, serve, and mentor one another.  As he shared the vision with those in the kingdom, they all agreed with great excitement! To seal the covenant of the new community, the prince called for a great ceremonial bowl to be placed in the center of the town and for each person to bring their finest vintage bottle of wine. They would seal their covenant by all pouring their best wine in the ceremonial bowl together, and then they would all drink from the gifts they shared.  One of the elders went home and looked at the vintage wine and decided to empty into a decanter and fill the bottle with water.  As the elder poured the wine into the great ceremonial bowl, he prepared to drink with all of the others.  The cups were handed out, they were all filled from the great bowl and they all drank together…but to their utter surprise it wasn’t wine at all but water. Everyone did the same thing as the elder.  No one was willing to pay the price for true community.

Paul says we are to run the race of faith in such a way as to win it.  Verse 24 holds a lot of irony.  For many of us today, the aim is not victory but simply the way we run the race.  We live in a culture where participation is all that matters.  Paul indicates there must be passionate effort and dedication to achieve victory.  We are to run the race of faith with great self-control and purpose.  We train our bodies and minds.  We never run aimlessly.  Paul continues by saying we should “punish my body and enslave it”.  The earliest Christians spent a lot of time thinking about the passions that had power of all of us.  They believed those passions must be overcome through dedicated lives and regular prayer.  Are Christians today willing to commit the effort it takes to devote everything in life for the sake of the Gospel?  I would have to be the first to admit I’m not always ready to give that much.  I need to commit myself to something more.  I also need help in my training and as I run the race.  If I am going to bring my best wine to the ceremonial bowl, I am going to need some help along the way.

One of the things we have dedicated ourselves to at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas is a renewed commitment to discipleship.  We have done well in our history with clear and appropriate discipleship pathways for children and youth.  We haven’t done so well with adults.  How do we recommit ourselves to our basic call?  How can we help adults grow as followers of Jesus?

Ascending Leaders has helped us frame some priorities in this renewed focus.

Get People Moving – We must have a clear mission and a clear pathway for how we make disciples. Followers of Christ must be in movement (even when we stop to pray and rest, we are active in faith).  The verbs are clear in Paul’s letters.  We are to “press” on.  How we create movement in the life of a disciple is key.

Make Scripture the Heart of Everything – We focus on God’s Word, but do we make engagement with the Bible easy and meaningful?  What about for people at different stages of their faith journey?  How do we take what we preach and teach on Sundays and extend it into the other 6 days of the week?

Everyone Owns the Vision – I love the question Ascending Leaders asks: Do we see ourselves as more than people who GO to church and begin to believe we ARE the church?  How do we build this culture change in the church? Our mission of making followers of Christ is to enable followers to make more followers.

Minister to the Local Community – I truly believe that a local church has to see their community as their mission field.  Our whole world is our mission field, but we must start locally.  If a local church is not working to improve the lives of those we serve by tackling real, local issues and concerns, then it won’t really matter if we go away.  I want the church I serve to make a difference in the neighborhoods we live in.

Christ Centered Leadership – As Evagrius Ponticus said, “Love is the way of the Christian life; humility is the way we achieve it.”  In John 13, Jesus washed his disciples feet and said, “I have set an example for you…love one another as I have loved you.”  Followers of Christ model the same surrender to power Christ did.

We are making a renewed commitment to discipleship at Chapelwood.  I think Christians everywhere should do the same.  If there ever was a time we needed effective followers of Christ influencing the world, it is now!