2014 Lent 9

I Corinthians 3:16-23

Part of the human condition, I think, is a propensity for partisanship.  From the earliest age we learn fandom: my team; my colors; my mom and dad.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  A sense of ownership is essential to many things.  A student, for instance, might have a lot of trouble with grades until he acquires a sense of ownership regarding his studies, that this is his, what he needs to do in order to grow and develop as a person.  Along these lines are goals, which we all know are valuable to set and meet.

But the other side of the fandom coin, the ugly side, has been seen in events like team brawls and political disagreements; or in whole groups of people looking to personalities such as Jim Jones and David Koresh as savior–or, way worse, Adolph Hitler.

This ugly side is the first tangible source of division Paul addresses in his first letter to the Corinthian church.  Factions had built up, apparently, around persons.  Some followed Paul, they said, while others followed Apollos; and still others Cephas.  And this had created some internal problems.

Now I work on a staff of three clergy.  And while it is meant as a compliment, I’m sure, when people say, “I like your preaching so much more than the other priests’,” it strikes me as subtly divisive.  “Thank you,” I say and smile kindly.  But underneath I wish I hadn’t heard it.

It’s semantics to some extent.  For starters, if a person truly likes my preaching better, they may simply want to tell me this, to encourage me in my relatively new ministry; but a preferable compliment would be to tell me, “Thanks for your sermon today, Tim.  I found this part to be especially helpful: [fill in the blank].”  You don’t have to bring the other clergy into it, in other words.  But, as well, the clergy are a team–just as Paul and Apollos and Cephas were a team in Corinth–ministering toward the same end: Christ crucified.  There is no place, then, for any language that parishioners (or clergy) want to offer that is not team oriented.  It’s not one versus another; or one above and another below.

But this partisanship within a congregation is dangerous in another way, as seen in v. 19ff.  “God catches the wise in their craftiness” is a two-way street.  On the one hand, those who tout themselves as wise may very well possess an inaccurate assessment of themselves; and may therefore soon fall from their proud pedestal.  It doesn’t take long to think of an example or two from recent church history who fit this category.

On the other hand–and this is more subtle–people (the so-called crowd) can think someone to be so wise that something of a personality cult forms around this person.  Like a rockstar, a priest can find herself suddenly shot to a kind of celebrity status among the church.  But what happens when her celebrity status wanes?  Maybe she makes a mistake that becomes quickly highly publicized.  What then?  I’ll tell you: her celebrity status crumbles, she falls off the pedestal we’ve placed her on, and the crowd moves on to the next attractive personality-leader.

There is a certain fickleness to wisdom, or at least to wisdom perceived.  “So,” Paul admonishes, “let no one boast about human leaders” (v. 21).

We must keep our propensity for partisanship in check, especially in the church.


One Response to “2014 Lent 9”

  1. Jeff Ewer Says:

    Dear Tim,

    Have you tried using pastoral admonition to expose the root of divisiveness that underlies the poorly worded encouragement? From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. When you do, you get the chance to preach two sermons; one from the lectern with 1,235 words and one privately with ten.

    Thanks for your daily work.


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