The context for the writing of this letter is that it was written to the church in Corinth in around the year 54AD while Paul was in Ephesus on his third missionary journey. Corinth was the capital of the Roman province of Achaea. You will remember that the letter was written to this church because Paul had received reports that the church in Corinth was suffering under factionalism and placing great emphasis on the gifts certain members had over others. Others claimed superior knowledge and wisdom. While others were living immoral lives while still claiming membership of the church.
You will remember that those first 9 verses which we read last week involved Paul setting out who the Corinthians were in the eyes of God, and emphasising that though their knowledge and gifts are wonderful things they are all from God. They enable us to see that we are called into a whole body of believers, that we are set apart – sanctified by God, that the spiritual gifts we have are from God, that our knowledge and abilities in the faith are from God. Those first 9 verses point us to the great truth that it is God at work in us that is what redeems us – that it is God’s grace – his unmerited, or unearned favour towards us that is what saves us. Above all it shows us that though we are fickle, that we often get caught in our own desires, or think we are the ones doing great things that it is in fact God and his faithfulness that enables us to do all things.
Now having set the scene for his letter to the Corinthian Church by letting them know that it is God who is at work in them, and their salvation, their knowledge and their gifts are all from God, that they are all one body – Paul moves into his first discussion of one of the issues that lead him to write his letter – factionalism and division.
For Paul this is a big deal – he has heard as we read in verses 11 and 12 that there is division and quarrelling among the people who claim to follow Jesus in Corinth. Some are claiming allegiance to Paul, others to Apollos, some to Cephas – while others simply claim Christ. Paul at the outset says this is not the way the church is supposed to operate - in verse 10 he says - I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Now what can Paul mean when he says that we as the church should all be of one mind? Is he saying that we should all give up our own ability to discern right from wrong and just blindly follow the leader? Should we all just say well Fr Knows best and stop asking questions? Well as tempting as it is for me to tell you that, because it would certainly make my life easier – that isn’t what Paul means.
What Paul is calling the Corinthian Church (and us) to is not some kind of blind conformity – rather he is saying that instead of bickering and fighting over the peripheral stuff – the Corinthians were getting caught up into factions over who evangelised them and brought them to know the Gospel!
Paul says this stuff is irrelevant – what we know is we agree on all of the core things – we know that we are saved by what Christ has done – it is the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ that saves us – and that is where we find our community – that is where we find our agreement and our unity.
Now I want to be clear here – Paul isn’t saying that people can do or believe anything they want. There are in fact issues around faith and issues around morals that are so significant that they demand the church to break fellowship with people who cross those lines. In fact later in this letter in chapter 5 Paul demands that the church break fellowship with those who claim they are believers while at the same time living sexually immoral lives – we are still meant to stand against immorality and wrong doing - So what are we to understand about what unity means from Paul?
Well we get an idea of what he is talking about when we look at verse 13 – he says: Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
That first question is the key one – has Christ been divided? You see what Paul is saying to the church at Corinth (and to us!) is that what we do as the church actually reflects on Christ. When we as members of the church are rude, people outside the church don’t think – oh that was a rude person, they instead think – pfft Christian, if that’s what following Jesus looks like I want nothing to do with it.
Likewise when the Church in Corinth was fighting amongst themselves, outsiders looking in would no doubt have been thinking – why would I want to be a part of that?
Paul is wanting us to understand that what we do and how we behave matters. Yes we are saved by the Grace of God – as was reinforced in the opening to the letter – it is God’s work that saves us. However that doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want. We as the church are the Body of Christ – that means that we are supposed to be his representatives on earth – the church is supposed to show people a foretaste of the kingdom of God – The church is supposed to be pointing to Jesus in all we do.
The key message here is that it is the Gospel – the Good News – of Jesus Christ that matters, and we as the Church – who have already received this message have an incredibly important role - we are now the ambassadors of Christ – that is what the word apostle means by the way – ambassador, or representative – so we are called to be modern apostles. Now of course we aren’t Apostles like Paul and the 12 – the term for them was both a position of authority given by Christ and the description of the role. For us though apostleship – or representing Christ is – or should be a part of our everyday lives.
That can be a confronting thing for us – how can we be representatives of Christ? We are just regular people, most of us aren’t called to baptise new believers, most of us don’t have the gift of the gab so that we can be great apologists and defenders of the faith. The truth is though all of us have the ability to be evangelists. Now I am not saying that everyone has the spiritual gift of evangelism and should immediately head out to the street corner with a soap box, or start knocking on doors.
However the truth is that each and every one of us who has accepted the free gift of forgiveness and salvation through Jesus has the ability to witness to the saving grace of God. We don’t have to be like Paul and travel the world sharing the good news with everyone we meet. It can be as simple as telling people that we go to church, maybe inviting them to come next week. When Paul says that he didn’t come to baptise the Corinthians but to spread the Gospel he is saying that it is through the Gospel message – through learning and accepting what Jesus has done that we are reconciled to God. It isn’t the rituals, it isn’t about belonging to the right group or faction – it is about accepting what God has already done for us – and that means we should be open to sharing it with people so that others can come to know the incredible grace we know.
Many of us feel inadequately prepared to share the Gospel with people, we shy away from it because we feel embarrassed, or we think we might not be saying it right or using the right words… However Paul says to us here in this letter that when he went and planted that church in Corinth, he didn’t preach with “eloquent wisdom” so that the Cross of Christ wouldn’t be emptied of its power – in other words he went and he sat down with people and he chatted with them just like we do. He didn’t try and use any fancy words, or try to make the Gospel fit into the world by changing it to suit what everyone else thinks is right.
The point I am trying to make – and which I think Paul is trying to convey here is that it is the cross that saves us. It is at the cross that the sins of the world have been paid for – Jesus has paid the price – he died for us on the cross, because sin has a consequence – and he rose again three days later setting us free from death. We don’t need fancy words or great wisdom – we just need to be willing to say it is it is.
Brothers and sisters, we are the body of Christ on earth – that means that we are called to live lives of love, of care and compassion. It means we are called to reject immorality and that we are called to share the great truth of God’s saving grace with those around us.
We are called to do these things, not because we are trying to save ourselves – but because as we keep learning – God has already done the work to save us. We don’t need to be wise or great speakers, we don’t need to try and be people who we are not, or turn into a homogenous body of blind followers. Paul tells us that Christ simply calls us to be people of genuine faith and humility, who are willing to work together in love and honesty, while also calling out immorality and wrongdoing when we see it. Finally, we like Paul, are called to share the Gospel, simply and honestly without embellishment and without compromise.
If we can simply be people of genuine love, compassion and honesty working together in unity of faith, putting aside the unimportant stuff and focussing on the Gospel - people will see what we have, and it will be our lives, our friendships and support for one another that become our greatest way of showing people what Jesus teaches and what he has done for us. If we can genuinely be the “body of Christ” – that foretaste of the Kingdom – then people will be asking us to have what we have…
and there is no better evangelism tool than that.
The Lord be with you.