It’s a sad fact that the Christian church is often divided.
In today’s Bible reading, we get into the first proper section of this letter of 1 Corinthians. I introduced the city of Corinth, its churches, and this letter last time. If you weren’t here, you can catch up on our website. I said that the relevance of this letter would just walk of the page. And as Paul starts by talking about divisions within the church in Corinth, we see that.
The division was over people’s loyalty to different leaders. Verse 12: “What I mean is this: one of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”
After Paul left Corinth, another Christian teacher called Apollos spent some time there. He was a great preacher by all accounts. Cephas is another name for Peter, and it may be that he came to Corinth after Apollos. The Christians looked back on these different great preachers, and divided up into parties according to which one they’d liked the most. And then there were the really spiritual ones, who just said: “I follow Christ”.
And so, today, Christians easily divide into different parties according to which leaders and speakers they like.
It can happen in a number of ways. I’m going to outline 3.
Firstly, there’s different leaders within a church. If a church has several different people who do the preaching, or a number of different home group leaders, it’s easy for people to latch onto one or the other. Some churches produce a programme card so that you can know what’s coming up in the next few months. We might start to do that here. But I know of churches who deliberately leave off the name of the person who will be preaching. You can guess why! There are people who will skip a week if a particular person is on. There are others who’ll only come when it’s a certain preacher. I’ve even seen someone walk out of a church when it dawned on them who was going to preach.
Second, there’s different leaders through the history of a church. This was what Corinth was experiencing. In this church, I’ve done 9 years. Before me was Nigel Ashworth. Then Colin Horn. Then Richard Bateman. Then Ken Daniels. For each of them, you’ll find people who look back and tell you that that was the heyday of this church. Not that this needs to cause divisions, factions, parties, but it can do. You easily get a group who don’t like the current vicar, and identify themselves by their loyalty to a particular figure in the past. When I finally move on, that same pressure will be there.
The third way it happens is between different churches in the same town. We’re a village, so this is less of a pressure, but 20 minutes’ drive will still get you to a lot of churches. In a town, you can walk to many churches, so you meet this more. In a big city like central London you’ve got hundreds of churches within just a few stops on the tube. Again, you get divisions of people identify with this church rather than that church because they find the leader, the ministry team, more impressive.
I don’t think these kinds of divisions are a big issue for our church. So partly we’re looking at this to immunize ourselves from these things in the future. But sadly, these kinds of division are never far away from being a live issue, so it’s important that we think this one through.
Before we look at why these divisions are so sad, one quick comment: This isn’t the only thing that 1 Corinthians has to say on divisions within the Christian church. There are times when some kind of division and separation is right and necessary, especially if the issue is that another Jesus is being preached. We’ll get to that.
But what is never good is divisions around personalities. That’s what was going on in Corinth. It goes on all over the world today. And it could easily happen here.
Paul urges, appeals, pleads with this church to deal with this before it becomes too severe. His appeal runs at least through the first 3 chapters of this letter.
For today, it’s all about where they focus. He’s got two things to say to them.
Focus on Jesus, not the preacher
Number 1: Focus on Jesus, not the preacher. Focus on Jesus, not the preacher.
Paul’s point in verses 13 to 18 is really very simple.
He asks 3 rhetorical questions in verse 13, all of which make us shout “no”.
“Is Christ divided?” Really and truly, the church belongs to Jesus. If they’re going to divide it up into branches, they’d have to chop Jesus up too.
“Was Paul crucified for you?” Of course not. The person who told you the good news of Jesus told you about a Jesus who loved you so much that he gave his own life for your sins. But it’s Jesus who’s wonderful, not the preacher.
“Were you baptised in the name of Paul?” Again, of course not. Paul told them about Jesus, and they signed up to become Jesus’ followers. So they got baptised into the name of Jesus. From this moment on, they live for Jesus. But it’s Jesus they signed up to follow. Not Paul.
Each time, the point is the same. The person who matters is Jesus. Paul was just the messenger.
Notice how Paul always uses himself as the example. The Corinthians were lining themselves up behind Paul, Apollos and Cephas. He could easily have used one of those visitors to Corinth for each of his 3 questions. But he doesn’t want to sound like he’s doing down Apollos or Cephas. Because that could sound like he’s asking the Corinthians to be less fixed on them, and more fixed on him. That’s the opposite effect he wants. He’ll gladly deflect away from himself, because it’s not about him. It’s about Jesus.
Focus on Jesus, not the preacher.
There’s a story that occasionally gets told that I’m convinced is made up about a woman whose young love went off during the war. He wrote regular letters back, and she waited eagerly for each instalment. Finally the war ended and she got married – to the postman!
Now, as I say, I doubt that really happened, but you get the point.
The Corinthians were focused on the wrong thing. On the wrong person. The really amazing person is Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus Christ. He is the one they follow. He is the one they should love. Whether they heard about him from Peter, Paul or Apollos really is neither here nor there. As long as it was the real Jesus they encountered, he’s the one that matters. It certainly isn’t something to divide over.
Now, as I say, I don’t think these kinds of divisions are a big danger for us, at this moment in time. That said, we live in a consumerist world, so they’re never far away. And history would say that most churches go through things like this from time to time, so we need to let this passage immunise us. It’s too easy for us, too, to feel a stronger loyalty to the person who introduced us to Jesus than we feel to Jesus himself.
So take it to heart, store it up for a rainy day, whatever you personally need to do, but here is Paul’s first appeal Focus on Jesus, not the preacher.
Focus on the foolish, not the impressive
Paul has a second appeal, in verses 18 to 25: Focus on the foolish, not the impressive. Focus on the foolish, not the impressive.
How the cross looks depends on who you are.
Paul divides people up into two types of person: You’re either outside God’s kingdom, not a Christian, or you’re inside God’s kingdom, you’re a Christian.
Let’s look first at those outside, those who are not Christians.
The death of Jesus looks weak, and it looks foolish.
Paul explains that Jews and Gentiles have slightly different reasons to dismiss the death of Jesus.
To the Jews, the death of Jesus makes him look weak.
Remember the Jews were waiting for God to send the Messiah, another word for which is “Christ”. God promised that he’d send a king to this world to fix everything. All their hopes were pinned on this. Ever since the time of king David, things had gone badly for the Jews. They’d been under one foreign ruler after another. Their one chance was God’s Christ.
By the time of Jesus, the Jews were living under Roman occupation. So a big part of their hope for the Christ was that he would be their king instead of the Romans. So when Paul turned up in Corinth and began to preach in the synagogue that he’d found the Christ, they were all ears! But there was a big problem. His message was that the Christ had been crucified.
This is doubly bad. First of all, the promised king had been killed. What’s worse, the Romans had killed him. The Christ was the one who was supposed to kick the Romans out and make the Jews independent again. Instead, the Romans polished him off.
Like I say, the death of Jesus makes him look weak. No wonder Paul says that “Christ crucified” is a stumbling-block to Jews. That doesn’t quite do the problem justice. The two words “Christ” and “crucified” simply don’t belong together. Not for the Jew.
Gentiles, those who are not Jews, have a different problem. It looks foolish. Verse 23: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”.
The Greeks loved philosophy. Corinth was a hot seat for it. They loved trying to make sense of how the world worked, and they like ways of explaining things that were elegant, neat, that just worked. They also liked athletics, bronzed heroes who swoop in and save the day. The idea that God should save the world by dying on a cross was none of those things. It was a massive joke.
In 1857, a piece of graffiti was discovered in the plaster of a room they excavated in the old part of Rome. It probably dates to around 200 A.D. It depicts a human figure nailed to a cross, with a donkey’s head. There’s a Roman figure stood in front of it, with one hand raised in respect. The caption underneath is written in Greek. It reads: “Alexamenos worships his God”.
You have to remember that crucifixion was a despicable thing for the Romans. It was illegal to crucify a Roman citizen. It was really used as a deterrent for slaves and to control the empire. The ancient Roman lawyer Cicero said this: “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.”
So it’s pretty clear what the graffiti is doing. It’s roaring with laughter at the early Christians. They are absolute idiots. The God they worship was nailed to a cross.
“We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. Paul knows this. And yet he carried on preaching about Jesus, the one they crucified.
Because the perspective of those outside is only one way to look at the cross of Christ.
To the Christian, it looks very different. As he says in verse 18: “… but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
For us, the cross is God’s way to rescue us form sin and death. It’s absolutely wonderful!
It’s wise. Who else could have conceived of a plan like this. God is perfectly just. He cannot turn a blind eye to evil. So by rights, he must punish us for every single sin we commit, and certainly in my case that’s a lot of sin, and a lot of punishment. But God is also perfectly loving and mercy. He longs not to punish me, but to welcome me and to bless me. How can he be true to himself? How can he be both just and merciful?
The answer is a plan that nobody else could have dreamt up. God the Son would become a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. As the only perfect man ever to live, he would have no sin of his own for which he must be punished. And yet he would gladly and willingly submit himself to die, punished for the sins of each and every person who would cling to him. Which means God can forgive you and me, and he can also be perfectly just, not turning a blind eye to anything.
What a plan! What a wise God to plan a way to save his people in this way.
But it’s not only wise. It’s also immensely powerful. It makes it possible for mere human beings like us to know God.
“… but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
When the Wright brothers were developing their first aeroplane, they were up against a massive load of scepticism. On 10th February 1906, the New York Herald wrote this: “The Wrights have flown or they have not flown. They possess a machine or they do not possess one. They are in fact either fliers or liars. It is difficult to fly. It is easy to say, ‘We have flown.’”
Most people put this down to their secrecy, not wanting the news to break until the patents were secure. Their authorised biographer, a man called Fred Kelly tells a different story. What actually happened was that journalists were so sceptical that they didn’t bother to turn up to demonstrations, and gave up the first time anything didn’t work. Everyone was so convinced that this couldn’t possibly work that not one journalist wrote it up.
But how wrong they were. In the course of time, their extraordinary achievement could be seen by everybody.
“The death of Jesus? To save people? That couldn’t possibly work.” So they cry. But in the fulness of time, everyone will see what God has achieved.
We need to understand the timescale too.
There are two kinds of people in the present here. In verse 18, those who are not Christians are called “those who are perishing”. Christians are called “those who are being saved”.
There is a day in the future called the day of judgement. It’s the day when Jesus will return to this earth. On that day, there are two destinies for those two kinds of people. The clue is in the name. Those who are perishing now will perish then. Those who are being saved now will be saved then, once and for all.
And that’s the day when what looks impressive will reverse.
So here’s what happens. Today, the unbelieving world tries to make sense of the world we live in. It looks at the death of Jesus, and decides that it looks foolish, laughable, pointless, a waste of a young life. And so the unbelieving world dismisses the death of Jesus. That’s its wisdom, its way of seeing things.
But then the day comes when Jesus returns. And everything changes. Verse 20: “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
Suddenly, the death of Jesus will make sense to everybody. It will look like the most amazing thing – it’s what God did to rescue his people for all eternity. What will look foolish on that day will be the people who thought they were so clever to laugh off the cross of Christ. Suddenly, they won’t be laughing. They’ll be aware that in fact they’re the biggest idiots on the planet.
To come back to today, we mustn’t want a Christianity that makes sense, that looks impressive. We mustn’t want a Christianity that bamboozles you with how clever it is, how powerful it is. We must be content with a Christianity that large numbers of people will dismiss as weak and foolish. And we can be content with that in the knowledge that one day all will be clear.
So it is that we celebrate the death of our founder, the one we worship.
Paul says: Focus on the foolish, not the impressive.
The Corinthians were not getting this right. They were focussing on the different leaders they like. They were saying things like, “We like Peter: He’s really impressive”
The trouble is, if we start assessing Christian leaders like that, we’ll end up being unimpressed by God’s plan to save the world. We’ll end up being among those who are perishing because we see the cross as weak and foolish. We might even end up perishing ourselves on the last day.
Dividing around different leaders we like is not only to miss the point. It’s highly dangerous. Yes, we might miss Jesus because we’re looking at the preacher. That was verses 10-17. But it’s much more serious than that. The danger is that we miss the crucified Jesus because we’re looking for something that seems strong, clever and impressive on the surface. There is the danger that we miss the wonderful thing God’s done to save us.
What God has done in Jesus is amazing – he died to rescue us, from hell, for heaven, for all eternity.
Don’t take your eyes off that by focussing on which local church leaders, past or present, you like. Jesus Christ crucified is too amazing to miss in that way. Focus on him. Come to him. Delight in him.