Sunday, January 26, 2014

Unity In Christ

1 Corinthians 1:9-17

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.


    Adam Rankin went to the General Assembly with a complaint.  Now for those of you who do not know, General Assembly is the national level of the Presbyterian Church.  This year the meeting will be held in Detroit and my wife and I are looking forward to going.  And every time there is a General Assembly, there will be some people who go just so they can make known to everyone else their complaint about what’s wrong with the church.
      Adam Rankin attended a General Assembly once upon a time, and his complaint was the contemporary music that was being played and sung in church.  He wanted only traditional music in the church.  The contemporary music that was being written was anti-tradition, anti-Bible and anti-Christ.  It was, he said, noise to the ears. 

            The General Assembly that Rankin went to was held in 1789. 

            The contemporary music that he complained about was that which had been written by Isaac Watts.  Most of the music of Isaac Watts had been controversial.  It split some churches in two.  It divided families.

            You may not know the name Isaac Watts, but you will recognize some of the more than 600 hymns he wrote.

            Joy to the World, the Lord has come.

            Oh God, Our Help In Ages Past.

            These hymns were considered radical at the time they were written 300 years ago.  People loved them and people hated them – and these songs divided the church.

            We look back, and think – how silly for the church to be divided over such things!

            Back in the 1980s, a little church in South Carolina, the Rocky River Presbyterian Church, split over the election of an elder.  Helen was the first woman to ever be elected to serve as an elder in that 150 year old congregation, and some people didn’t like it.  And it split the church.  The new church took the name New Rocky River Presbyterian Church and they proclaimed that they would never allow a woman to have a position of authority, because they believed that is what the Bible taught. 

            Now what makes that so interesting is that not long ago they called a new pastor.  You guessed it – they called a woman preacher!  Everyone in the church was thrilled.  What split a church 30 years ago is not even a cause for embarrassment.  It has been forgotten.

            The story is told of the Centerville Presbyterian Church in Centerville, Georgia.  Apparently they have the record for the number of times congregations can split. 

            Centerville is a small town of about 5,000 people. It all started with one original Presbyterian church in town had an internal conflict around 1911 over whether to take up the offering before or after the sermon. The new split became the “Centerville Reformed Presbyterian Church.” Just four years later another church split occurred over whether to have flowers in the sanctuary or not. The church that split off was renamed “Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church of Centerville.”  Seven more splits took place between 1915 and 1929. 

            At one time one of the congregations took on the name Holy Presbyterian Church, which led to the next group calling themselves the Holiest Presbyterian Church.

            You know how many Presbyterian Churches exist in Centerville, Georgia, today?


            Divisions do nothing but destroy the church.  They hurt the Kingdom of God.

When Saint Paul wrote the Corinthians, he was addressing a series of problems in the church.  The first of these problems was the division. 

People were aligning themselves with different groups.  Some said they belonged to Paul, other Cephas, or Peter.  Another group aligned themselves with Apollos.  A few said they were the true followers of Christ.

            Today we see a continuing effort to divide the church.

            No longer do we align ourselves with Paul or Peter or Apollos – today we say some of us are Baptist, others Episcopal, others Methodist and others Presbyterian.

            Today we talk in terms of how some of us like contemporary praise music and others like traditional hymns.

            Or it may be other things that divide us.  We may be conservative or liberal.  We may be a Republican Church or a Democrat Church.  We may be --- well, you get the idea.

            In the Presbyterian Church there are some congregations leaving the denomination.  We’ve seen this here in Orlando, but this is not the only place we have seen this.

            Divisions in the church. 

            Sometimes it hits very close to home – a discussion in a Sunday School class, or even in a family, can lead Christians to feel separated from one another.  “Oh, that person is one of ‘them,’ but I’m one of ‘these.’” 

            You know what is interesting about what Paul says about the divisions taking place in Corinth?  Nothing – he doesn’t say anything.  Well, nothing other than they exist and that they had labels.  He doesn’t say what one group believed or what the other group did.  He doesn’t seem to care what divides them.  He is more interested in what UNITES them.


            Nothing else is as important to Paul.

            Now, some of the things that divide us are important and are worth the time to discuss.  Should gays be ordained?  What is the best way to help to the homeless in our community?  How do we help those who are addicted to drugs and alcohol?  Yes – these are absolutely important.  But we can only come to the right decisions about these issues if we stay focused on Christ, and the mandate that he gave us to love God and to love each other.

            Today we ordain and install new officers for our church – some to serve as elders and others as deacons. 

            One of the ordination vows for both deacons and elders – and also for pastors – concerns the promotion of “peace, unity and purity” in the church.

            Saint Paul would have loved this particular ordination vow.  For him, few things were as important as the unity of the church. 

            In our New Testament lesson for today, he wrote that we should all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among us, but that we should be “united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

            Now that does not mean that everyone has to think the same way – having the same mind does not mean we all become Republican or that we all become Democrat.  It does not mean that we all become conservative or liberal.  It does not mean that we all have to agree on the biblical concept of marriage or whether or not to ordain gays.  It does not mean we have to agree on what color to paint the Sunday School classroom. 

Walter Lippmann made a statement once that I find insightful — “When all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

What being of one mind means is that we stay focused on the one thing that we have in common – Jesus Christ. 

Most of us focus on our differences – that’s the human thing to do.

Paul wants us to focus on what we have in common – Jesus Christ.

            In Rwanda, there are two important groups of people.  One is the Hutus.  The other is the Tutsis.  In 1994 violence erupted between the two groups.  In the span of only 100 days, almost one million people were killed. 

            What is the difference in these two groups?

            They have the same religion.

            They speak the same language.

            Their skin color is the same.

            Geneticists have difficulty seeing any differences.

            But the two groups focus on differences – whatever differences there may be, and the consequences were frightening.

Ernest was born in Rwanda.  He now lives here in America, but he recently said that when he was growing up, he did not know the difference between the Hutus and the Tutsis.  It wasn’t until he went to school that he learned that they were different.  During the first week of school, teachers asked the Hutus to go to one side of the room and the Tutsis to go to the other. In fact, Ernest was not alone.  Most children didn’t know what they were and had to ask their parents. And once their parents told them which group they were part of, that is when the troubles began for Ernest.

These people who shared so much in common, focused on their differences rather than their similarities, and as a consequence, more than a million of them died.  Instead of working together for their country, they almost destroyed their country.

            Whenever we lose our focus on the one thing we have in common - Jesus Christ, that is when our troubles begin.


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W. Maynard Pittendreigh