Division, Wisdom, Christ Crucified—A February Sermon

Paul wrote the letter we know as I Corinthians to deal with divisions in that community. There were many sources of division there. One was related to leadership. Some said they followed Paul. Some said they followed Peter. Some said they followed Apollos. And some tried to trump everyone else, by saying “I just follow Jesus.”

Paul responds to them all by saying something like: “Come on. Get it together. Was I crucified for you? Was Apollos? Where you baptized in my name? I’m glad I didn’t baptize any of you, so you can’t get confused about where your loyalties lie.”

Then Paul seems to think for a moment before continuing. “Well, okay, I did baptize Crispus and Gaius. But still, it’s Jesus who is your true leader.”

He pauses again. “Well, wait, I think I also baptized the household of Stephanas.”

He pauses yet again. “Actually, I have no idea who I baptized in Corinth. My job isn’t to keep track of baptisms is to share the story of Jesus.”

When biblical scholars teach this section of scripture they roll with laughter. This is the height—yes, this is the height—of exegetical humour. Scholars get creative imagining all kinds of scenarios that would have distracted the apostle from remembering who he had baptized. Later in the letter Paul writes about a stepmother and a stepson having a “relationship”—maybe that distracted him. He also writes about food—maybe he’s thinking about a nice steak (that’s distracting for some of us) or maybe sushi (that’s distracting too) or maybe fish and chips (it’s hard to know).

This wasn’t intended by Paul to be humorous. It is to exegetes just because it’s an obvious brain fart that’s ended up in the Bible. On the other hand, Paul’s sly comments about himself being crucified for the Corinthian community or Jesus being chopped up for different groups—those satirical lines were intended to make a wicked point. “You all can’t get along. Perfect! Let’s just chop up Jesus and give you each a little bit. That’ll fit how you’re interacting with each other.”

What we find, if we read the whole letter, is that Paul addresses each of the divisive issues in a similar way. He turns, time and again, to the core of the Jesus’ story to show the disagreement in a new light. Here in the first couple of chapters he wants the group to get another perspective on power and authority and unity. Remember they’ve divided themselves up by which famous leader they follow. There’s an interesting parallel here to our contemporary celebrity culture, which has been imported into the church.

In effect, the Corinthian’s were dividing themselves up into cool and uncool tables, or into the smart and the not-so-smart, or into the powerful and the week, or into liberal and conservative. And each group was struggling for influence over the other. They were trying to make the best arguments or claim the authority of the most celebrated leader. To put it more bluntly: they were hoarding power to protect their interests.

Paul wants his readers to understand that the very heart of the faith they profess is antithetical to that kind of religion. Everyone in the world might be hoarding power. The best thinking of the day might suggest this is how we should do things, but Paul says it is the antithesis of the core of the faith (the text for this sermon was from I Corinthians 2).

Hoarding power, celebrity culture, pushing others aside so we can get our way, holding others down so we can ‘succeed’—that might look like wisdom. That might be what’s praised in the editorials. But it runs counter to the core of the Jesus story. These two ways of being are so different that the faith of Jesus appears to be foolishness according to the run of the mill wisdom. It’ll get a laugh, but not a laughing with—a laughing at.

I want us to think a bit more about the devastating consequences of this power-hoarding religion. It can look fairly benign in the ancient church, like the one in Corinth. We might also miss the seriousness of it if we’re just thinking too-narrowly of our own situation. But the truth is, Christians have given full and terrible expression to this form of power-hoarding religion.

Maybe we can think of power hoarding religion as the shadow side of Christian faith. Just about every love, every value has a shadow side.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Frederick Douglass this month (here’s a good article on the man). I hope this is a name most of us can place, even here in Canada. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. He lived much of his early life in Maryland, before the US Civil War, when it was still legal to enslave human beings in that state. As a youngster Frederick Douglass learned to read even though it could have gotten him into terrible trouble.

Later in his life he described how, as a child, he could not see how God could be loving when some people were created to be enslaved. These two things did not compute. That is, they did not compute until he heard older folks talking about how it had happened that their ancestors had come to be enslaved. Upon hearing them, Douglass later wrote, “the whole mystery was solved at once.” He learned that this particular division of humanity wasn’t a feature of God’s design at all. It wasn’t inevitable. It was due to forcible kidnapping, human trafficking, and a deep desire by some people to hoard power.

With great courage Frederick Douglass escaped. He journeyed north to Philadelphia, and eventually to New York. He married, lived as a free man and worked vigorously for the abolition of slavery. All the while, he put great effort into educating himself. It paid off: he became an excellent orator and writer.

On September 3 of 1848 he wrote an open letter to a man named Thomas Auld, Frederick Douglass wrote:

“You well know that I wear stripes on my back, inflicted by your direction; and that you, while we were brothers in the same church, caused this right hand, with which I am now penning this letter, to be closely tied to my left, and my person dragged . . . to be sold like a beast in the market, for the alleged crime of intending to escape from your possession. All this, and more, you remember, and know to be perfectly true, not only of yourself, but of nearly all of the slaveholders around you.”

Auld was the man who had held Douglass as a slave. So, Douglass asked Auld about his family members, that is, about Douglass’s sisters and his grandmother. He told Auld that he would write to them himself, but couldn’t because Auld prohibited enslaved people from learning to read or write. Douglass wrote,

“Your wickedness and cruelty committed in this respect on your fellow-creatures, are greater than all the stripes you have laid upon my back, or theirs. It is an outrage upon the soul—a war upon the immortal spirit, and one for which you must give account at the bar of our common Father and Creator.”

Here are some of the concluding lines from the letter:

“I will now bring this letter to a close, you shall hear from me again unless you let me hear from you. I intend to make use of you as a weapon with which to assail the system of slavery—as a means of concentrating public attention on the system, and deepening their horror of trafficking in the souls and bodies of men. I shall make use of you as a means of exposing the character of the American church and clergy—and as a means of bringing this guilty nation with yourself to repentance.”

This is hard stuff to hear, is it not? Not only is it hard to hear that one person would see fit to enslave another, but it is hard to hear that it would happen under the banner of the faith many of us hold dear. Indeed, Douglass pointed out that he and Auld were not only children of the same God, but they were members of the same church. Part of the problem, Douglass believed, was the character of the church and its leaders.

Again, it’s hard to hear, but there was—and I think still is—a sort of slaveholder Christianity. This is a way of talking about Jesus and talking about the Bible that turns them into weapons for protecting the privileged, for hoarding power, for keeping ‘others’ subject.

It’s in the face of this sort of Christianity, historical and current, that the Apostle Paul’s words are so important. Paul writes,

“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.”

Paul is saying that when he met the community of Corinth he refrained from using rhetorical manipulation. He refrained from arguing that the message of Jesus made sense within the cultural expectations of that time and place. He refused to let the message of Jesus be used by one group to claim superiority over another. What’s more, Paul says he came in “weakness and in fear and in much trembling.” Then, as now, weakness and fear were experiences to be avoided. What was valued was having enough power and stoicism to get others to do what you wished.

Yet Paul reminds the Corinthians that at the very heart of their faith is one who voluntarily gave up power for others. Instead of self-assertion, there is service. Instead of ruling with force, there is a resetting of everything with self-offering love.

Now, there is great risk in Paul’s proclamation. It is a risk that Christians time-and-again have failed to avoid. The risk is that we can take this proclamation of self-offering love and make it a prescription for someone else instead of ourselves. We can take this proclamation of self-offering love and use it as a way to insulate ourselves from sacrifice, to insulate ourselves from critique, to insulate ourselves from the call to share power. That use of Jesus’ life and ministry is the essence of Christianity’s slaveholder religion.

Frederick Douglas and many, many like him experienced the horrific consequences of that shadow side of the faith. So, in a way, did Thomas Auld. This a history we must not forget.

There is yet one more feature of Frederick Douglass’s letter we should notice. In one of the early paragraphs, Douglass referred to the God both he and Auld worshiped, saying “Thanks be to the Most High, who is ever the God of the oppressed.” Douglass names God in a way the Apostle Paul would recognize. It’s not a logical argument, as much as it is a reminder of where we can find the God of the scriptures. God is not with those who take for themselves, or with those who hoard power, or with those who divide and conquer. God is in Christ, the one who lifts others up, who offer himself—the one who always gives good gifts.

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