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

I Believe in the Forgiveness of Sins

1 Timothy 1:12-17
12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

I remember in college a young girl who asked me, “Is it possible to forgive someone who is dead?” She asked it after our college youth ministry team was leading a lock in and several of us had shared about forgiveness. I had shared about my father walking out on my family when I was 14 years old and how my forgiveness of him was important to my spiritual growth. After the program, she felt she needed to forgive to be able to grow in her faith.  As we inquired about the question  she told us that her uncle had died a year ago.  When she was very young he had abused her in ways that were disturbing and atrocious. Now that he was dead, she wondered if forgiveness was possible and if her relationship with God was in danger.

My first reaction was connected to the kinds of examples we had shared in our time with the youth and how insignificant they were to the level of wrong done to this young girl.  Second, as I thought about it then and have thought about it since, I have asked this very human question. “Does that guy even deserve forgiveness?”

Paul, in this passage of scripture today, is also reflecting on some very personal things with his young protege, Timothy.  Paul says, “I am grateful to Christ who has strengthened me…even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence.”  Paul is sharing his own personal confessions with young Timothy. In a wonderful moment of gratitude, Paul sums up the central understanding of the Christian faith as it relates to forgiveness, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is true and worthy of full acceptence. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am foremost.”

Wow! Talk about authentic and self-revelatory (and I remember my preaching professors telling us to never use our personal lives as examples!) This is quite a confession, but the confession is not really the focus here. For Paul, the focus is the grace and mercy and forgiveness showered on us in Christ Jesus.

When we declare each week that we believe in the forgiveness of sins in the Apostle’s Creed, we are first and foremost giving thanks to God in Christ Jesus who forgives us.

Theologian Stephanie Mar Smith, refers back to Martin Luther (1483–1546) when reflecting on this passage because of his similar emphasis upon the mercy of God in the face of human sinfulness. In his early years, Luther was ridden with anxiety because he believed that he could not live up to God’s righteous standards. Then, as he studied the Scriptures, he realized that the righteousness of God was not a standard to which he must attain, but rather a gift from God: a mercy by which persons are made righteous through the righteousness of Christ.

The depth of sin was revealed, which Luther interpreted as the human arrogance that attempts to justify oneself before God (I am sure this doesn’t apply to anyone here – no arrogance and no one who attempts to justify their actions before God and others).  In addition to the revealing of our sin, God justifies us and declares us not guilty through the righteousness of Christ, who acts, loves, and believes on our behalf. This is important to grasp, because many of us don’t really think we are that bad.  We don’t believe we are really deserving of punishment – certainly not hell. But in order to understand how God’s grace works in forgiveness, we must first grasp the grace and mercy God has shown to us for our sins – which is what Paul reveals in this morning’s passage.

The first thing we have to do is get in touch with our sinfulness.  As Methodists, we don’t really preach those kinds of “hell, fire, and damnation messages.”  We prefer the “you are loved of God” messages.  This hasn’t helped our people understand the need for extravagant forgiveness and mercy.  While I am certainly not encouraging us to beat each other up, a healthy dose of our position before God would help us deal with our arrogance as it relates to sin.  How can you really be thankful for forgiveness if you don’t feel you need it?  Which leads to another problem as we begin to think about forgiving others…

If we truly believe God has forgiven us, then it is easier to forgive others as God forgives us. Jesus indicates in the gospels that if we do not forgive others, we in turn cannot receive forgiveness – not because God chooses not to forgive us, but rather because we choose to close off the channel of grace.

Simply put, I like to think of grace flowing through us like a drain.  If we identify our deep need for forgiveness and receive great mercy and grace, we are more motivated to forgive others.  If we really don’t feel we need that much forgiveness, we don’t have that much grace to share with others.  Also, if we refuse to forgive others, we do not allow the grace of God we have received to be shared with others which shuts down our ability to receive grace.  When the drain is clogged nothing comes out…and nothing more can go in.  Forgiveness is a spiritual act between you and God. We must forgive the other because if we don’t, our spirits become narrow, distorted and selfish. That in turn keeps us from receiving the grace of forgiveness from God. When you forgive another, it is something that takes place in the spirit – you are set free to be a channel of grace again.

Forgiveness is required and necessary.  I will never forget that brave young girl in that small church in South Georgia who desired to be a whole person and a vessel of grace. I don’t know where she is now or what she is doing, but I can tell you this. If my God is willing to forgive me…and if that girl was willing to forgive her uncle…than, by God’s help, I can forgive anyone who wrongs me. Lord, let your grace and mercy flow through me.