Texts: 1 Cor 1.10-18 & Matt 4.12-23. Epiphany 3.
Arguments, factions and fighting. Sadly, these have been features of the life of the church, even from the earliest days. In this morning’s reading from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear Paul addressing such arguments, factions and fighting head on.
He certainly wastes no time getting to the point. His entire letter contains some of the most beautiful, poetic Scripture ever written, especially his famous hymn to Love in chapter 13. But most of this beauty is a response to the reality on the ground…the reality that the Christians in Corinth were at each other’s throats.
What is it that drives such factionalism? What is about a people who know that they have seen a great light, and who have heard Jesus’ call of ‘Follow me’, who nevertheless feel the need to argue with each other, so passionately, about matters of faith?
It was certainly the case for the early church. The first great debate centred around circumcision, and whether or not non-Jewish Christians should be subject to the same rules as Jewish ones. Intriguingly, St Paul and St Peter found themselves on opposite sides of that debate, until Peter received his famous dream.
Other debates throughout the centuries have centred on the correct ways to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or on the correct time of life to administer baptism, or the correct way to govern the church. More recently, the church has been grappling with correct approaches to the question of marriage and same-sex relationships. In the Roman church, the question of the correctness of a celibate priesthood has once more raised its head.
The key word in all these debates, past and present, is the word ‘correct’. Human beings seem to have an inbuilt desire to be told what to believe, or how to behave. We want to know where the dividing line is, between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. It is inherent in us.
Much of this is rooted in our childhood. As St Paul ruminates in the letter to the Corinthians, ‘when I was a child, I behaved like a child, I thought like a child’. One of the characteristics of childhood is that we have not yet learned right from wrong. We need to be taught the difference between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ behaviour. And so we adopt a mind-set which is dependent on external authority – we become dependent on others to tell us how to behave; on our parents, or our church, or our Government, or our teachers.
But the world into which we are born is so confusing. Just when we think we’ve got a handle on what kind of behaviour or attitudes are ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, the world will throw us an example of exactly the opposite view. So, for example, we are taught that ‘stealing is wrong’…but it’s ok for a starving man to steal an apple, or for an international company to steal the resources of a poor country. For, certainly, no-one does anything to stop them.
Or we are taught that coveting is wrong…but its ok for us to desire all the wonderful clothes, gadgets, kitchen cabinets and cars which are paraded before us on the television.
Or we are taught that murder is wrong…but its ok for airplanes and drones to drop bombs from the sky, regardless of collateral damage to innocent women and children.
You see, all morality is contextual. It’s easy to create a moral rule in one’s own context. But whether that rule turns out to be universal depends entirely on the context of everyone else. Help me! What am I supposed to do?
Confronted with this hard reality of life, many religious people turn to the Bible in the hope that it can provide some certainty…some direct-from-God instructions about what is correct and incorrect. But, sadly, we find that the Bible itself is full of contradictory positions on a whole range of moral topics. The 10 Commandments condemn murder, theft and covetousness, but this does not seem to have been a problem for Joshua as he led the people of Israel on a murderous rampage through the land of Canaan, stealing the very land from under the feet of the Canaanites.
The 10 commandments teach that adultery is wrong, but when King David effectively murders a man so that he can possess his gorgeous wife, he receives little more than a divine slap on the wrist.
And so, the child within us, who longs for simple rules and guidance, feels itself confused and at sea. We reach out for religious leaders who sound authoritative. We hold onto those leaders who can quote reams of Scripture to support their own hypothesis about what is ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. We end up following those leaders, like children after the pied piper, because they seem to know the way - often because we ourselves have not bothered to read the Bible for ourselves.
Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Pope, the Prophet Mohammed, John Wesley, Joseph Smith of the Mormons, George Fox of the Quakers, Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s witnesses, Billy Graham, or any number of world-wide evangelists and teachers who claim that they have received a unique insight from God. They know what is correct or incorrect. And so we will follow them. Like children. Even though they lead us into direct opposition with brothers and sisters from other parts of the church. Exactly as St Paul found was happening with the followers of Apollos, Cephas and himself.
Into this confusion, Jesus speaks to the child inside of all of us and says ‘Follow me’.
To follow Jesus means to follow his Way. It means living as he lived, and taking our cues about what is correct or incorrect behaviour from him. Here is the leader who would not condemn the woman caught in adultery, the one who promised paradise to a thief on a cross. Here is the leader who welcomed the stranger, and ate with the outcasts. Here is the leader who offered healing and forgiveness to all. Here is the leader who steadfastly refused to argue the finer points of theology, but who instead spoke in ambiguous parable. Here is a leader who poured himself out for the benefit of others, living simply with only the basics of life.
St Paul said that when he became a man, he put away childish things. For him, that included the assumption that he could be an arbiter of correctness, with the right of stoning to death all those who opposed him. Instead, he became an evangelist of grace, truly grasping that rules, rights and wrongs were childish and contentious matters. All that mattered for him, as a grown up follower of Christ, was God’s grace – which was sufficient for him. As he said in this morning’s reading, he stopped using eloquent wisdom, and spoke only of the Cross, the ultimate symbol of God’s grace.
Here, then, is our example. Here is our path to take. In this week of prayer for Christian Unity, we who follow Jesus are not invited to proclaim and pronounce on rights and wrongs. We are simply called to proclaim the good news of a graceful God…who loves us, and saves us, even when we are in the wrong.