Identity Crisis – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 for Epiphany 3A

What does the cross mean to you? We wear beautiful crosses around our necks, and many churches hang a cross over the altar. These carefully crafted crosses might be works of art. But this isn’t the kind of cross Jesus was thinking about when he said, ‘take up your cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16:34).

We don’t like to think about the suffering and the pain that goes with obeying this command. We like to concentrate our attention on God’s grace, rather than on our depravity and sinfulness. The cross with which we identify is tidy and pretty, not rugged and blood-stained.

Different denominations hold different views, of course. The fact there are even such designations as Methodist or Calvinist or Lutheran points us to another problem we face as Christians. In today’s church, we have an identity crisis, and it is reaching catastrophic proportions. Even within a denomination, we have division over points of doctrine and practice. But this is nothing new.
The first century church at Corinth had the same problem.

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.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 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.”

Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)

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. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

“Be united in the same mind and purpose,” Paul writes, and I think it’s interesting that the very thing Paul encourages us to do is the same thing that divides us. Because, being united in the same mind and purpose sounds like we need to agree on everything, and when we don’t, something – or someone – has to give. Those who do agree with each other tend to band together and form a tightly guarded circle around themselves and their beliefs. If you agree, you can come inside the circle. But if you don’t, you’d better go form your own circle.

Being united sometimes looks like forcing others out who don’t agree with us, who aren’t like us. Being united taps into our deep need to belong.

We were made with a desire to belong. We were created for the purpose of belonging to something greater than ourselves. But to whom do we belong? “Remember who you are and whose you are” we hear, when we remember our baptisms. “You belong to God.”

So why do we argue over petty differences? Why do we take offense so easily?

During the season of Lent one year, a church I pastored read “Surprise the World” together with other churches in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church. Australian pastor Mike Frost wrote that book. A couple of years later, he published a blog post about cultural trends that are killing the church’s mission today. He pointed out that it’s easy to blame our culture for a decline in church attendance, but he also maintained that the things we usually blame are not the real problem. He listed five cultural trends that threaten our mission, and the first one he mentions is the death of civil discourse:

“We live in a time of extreme polarization, where it seems we can’t discuss anything – especially theology and politics – without it devolving into conflict and name-calling. Church people aren’t immune to this. It seems we too have lost the capacity for civil discourse. Sadly, this results in a rapid slide toward uniformity of thought. Because we can’t even imagine what creative, respectful disagreement looks like, we feel we must eject anyone who expresses a dissenting opinion lest they threaten the harmony of the church. … in a time of unparalleled polarization, we need the church to be an example to society of what it looks like to follow a process of confrontation, conversation, ethical and moral discernment, forgiveness and reconciliation. When done well it has the potential to enhance pastoral care, discipline, decision-making, and witness, and to serve as a model for society.
At the moment the church looks no different to congress, parliament, or the media, and people are rejecting it all.”

But the bigger problem is that we want to belong to ourselves, instead of to God. We want to be in control. The Greek word that begins all those “I belong to…” statements is EGO. Even when we are identifying what party we belong to, it’s all about the ego. It’s all about ME. What’s important to ME. What I like, what I want, what I believe.

In the church at Corinth, people had begun to label themselves according to what they liked about certain leaders in the church. They had become driven by their preferences, instead of by Christ’s mission to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them what Christ had taught.

When personal preferences begin to drive the church, whether those preferences are for a style of worship, or a particular doctrine, or even a leader’s personality, the mission of the church suffers. And the church dies, because a preference-driven church bases its ministry on principles of consumerism, not Christ-likeness.
And consumerism destroys.

Mike Frost says that this drive toward consumer Christianity comes from an over-dependence on expertise in all things.

… just as society has yielded to a reliance on experts, so has the church. Our parents don’t teach us to prepare meals, Google does. We turn to YouTube to teach us how to do basic home repairs. We call in experts at the drop of a hat.

The same thing happens in the church. Frost goes on to say,

When we combine this with the kind of screwy ecclesiology that expects the paid church staff to do pretty much everything, we end up with a situation where local ministers are required to be Bible teachers, accountants, strategists, visionaries, computer techs, counselors, public speakers, worship directors, prayer warriors, mentors, leadership trainers and fundraisers.
But more than that, we expect them to be exceptional at it. … Christians are turning into connoisseurs, demanding greater and greater excellence, and finding it elsewhere if their local church can’t supply it.”

We’ve become consuming Christians. And the problem with consumer Christianity is that, when we consume something, we destroy it.

But instead of consuming what we want, when we want, and the way we want it, Christ calls us to offer ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). A sacrifice is something you give up, not something you consume for your own pleasure.

Yes, a sacrifice indicates loss. But it’s the kind of loss that brings a greater gain. Christ calls us into a life like his, giving ourselves up for the sake of others, so they can know God in a deeply personal, life-changing way.

Our identity is not found in an ideology, or a particular doctrine, or a particular way of doing things. We can only find our true identity in Jesus Christ. If we go back to the beginning of this passage, Paul calls the church to unity “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s important.

J.R. Daniel Kirk writes:

The name of Jesus is not only the authority by which Paul calls [the Corinthian Christians] to account, it is the name that makes the Corinthians one. When Paul later asks, “Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1:13), the obvious answer is, “No, we were baptized into the name of Jesus.”

Thus, the very basis of his admonition, “the name of the Lord Jesus” carries with it the diagnosis of their problem and its solution. The problem is that they are claiming other peoples’ names as their identity markers. The solution is to be united in their common identity in Christ.

When Paul writes, “Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13), Kirk goes on to explain, “ It is important that we not allow ourselves to separate these two questions. The first speaks to the story of God’s action to save a people to himself; the second speaks to how we come to play a part in that drama.”

The question you and I must answer is this: are we willing to enter into this story and play the part we’ve been given? Are we willing to live in such a sacrificial way that others take notice? Are we willing to give up our own preferences for the sake of those who might not share those preferences, but who desperately need to know Jesus?

Are we willing to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, even if it means setting aside our interpretations of scripture and sin, and our judgments about who deserves grace and who doesn’t, long enough to love as Jesus loves and welcome as Christ welcomes?

Paul writes, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Are you ready to claim your identity as a follower – not of the ones who interpret the Bible the way you do, or the ones who preach your brand of conservative or liberal politics – but as a follower of the crucified and risen Christ, so you can experience the power of God? May it be so.

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