[Scripture readings are found at the bottom of this post]
I think it was a few weeks ago Pastor Matt preached on I Corinthians chapter one where Paul talked about divisions in the church: Paul said, “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…”
In today’s reading from I Corinthians chapter three Paul again talks about divisions among believers. In fact you could say he is still talking about divisions among believers. In fact when you get right down to it you could say the entire book of I Corinthians – all 16 chapters – deals with divisions among believers.
So it’s clear that disputes in the church and differences between believers are not unique to the 21st century!
I’ve named our sermon for today “Division Times Two” because both our readings for today are about divisions. Paul is talking about divisions in the church, and Deuteronomy talks about the dividing line between life and death, and good and evil.
So division times two.
I’d like to start with Paul and then sort of back into Deuteronomy, because even though it’s sort of backwards time-wise, in today’s readings what Paul says kind of leads into what Deuteronomy says.
Paul is writing to a congregation that has become split over a number of issues. The first issue Paul addresses is people being divided over their loyalty to different preachers. Some say “I follow Paul”, others say “I follow Peter”, “I follow Apollos” and so forth. And Paul is basically saying these divisions are bogus, because God’s people are supposed to be following Christ and Christ is not divided.
I can remember back in the 1980s, my pastor back then used to say in his sermons, “don’t follow me, follow Jesus”. And that’s the idea Paul is getting at. I can remember being tremendously relieved when my pastor said that, because you may remember back in the ‘80s there were a number of scandals with famous preachers getting caught in compromising situations. And it left a lot of people disillusioned. A lot of people left the church back then, and some even lost their faith, because they had following the preachers more than they’d been following Jesus. And so when the preachers fell, their faith fell. And I’m not blaming the people for that entirely, because these preachers had encouraged this kind of following and competition. In many cases those ministries were already in spiritual danger long before the scandals hit.
So if we follow Jesus rather than following human teachers, we will avoid those false teachers who try to manipulate us. We will understand that Paul and Peter and Apollos and all of our preachers and teachers who are true to God, are just fellow servants of God. It’s Jesus we all follow.
Now where it comes to divisions in the church, there are two things I think it’s important to mention that Paul is not saying. The first is: when Paul says “I appeal to you … that there be no divisions among you…” Paul is not saying Christians need to agree on everything all the time. If we disagree about clothing fashions, for example… or have different tastes in food… or root for different sports teams, maybe?… it’s OK to not agree on everything. Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you have to love pierogis (although I do think it helps).
The second thing Paul is not saying is ‘peace at any price’ or unity at any price. Later on in I Corinthians Paul tells the Corinthian congregation not to associate with immoral people. And he says:
“not meaning the immoral of this world – the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But” (he says) “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one” he says. (I Corinthians 5:9-11)
So if someone is constantly bringing sinful behavior into the church, we are not supposed to just carry on business as usual and ignore it in order to keep the peace. A person who deliberately and willingly flaunts sin after having been saved by the death of Jesus on the cross, is dirtying the cross and doing harm to the church. And Paul says don’t even associate with someone like that.
Let me give just one example. Back in the 1990s there was an Episcopal bishop in New Jersey who published a list of things he didn’t believe in any more. He said he didn’t believe in the existence of a creator God, or that Jesus is the Son of God. He dismissed the idea of the crucifixion as barbaric, and he said that there is no such thing as resurrection. And being a bishop, his teaching started to spread through the church and it was a major factor in a split in the Episcopal church ten years later. But back in the 1990s, if the leadership of the Episcopal church had said, “hey Bishop, since you no longer believe in God, would you mind finding some way to make a living other than working in the church?” – things might have turned out differently. (They might not have, but they might have.)
Bottom line – letting rebellion against God go un-checked in the church is not a path to unity; in fact it’s just the opposite: it’s a path to division.
So what Paul is saying, is that among people of faith who want to live life God’s way, there should be a unity of purpose and of character and of calling that is evidence of being led by the Holy Spirit. While we may be different from each other, we are united. This kind of diversity in unity can be seen, for example, in sports teams, whose goal is to win a trophy… or among veterans who have fought together in the same war… or in hospitals, where teams of professionals work together to save lives. These are all cases of very different people coming together to accomplish one thing; any time people come together for the sake of a cause greater than themselves, we see a reflection of this kind of diversity in unity.
And then add to that the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to unite people and guide them – and what we have is Christian unity.
I discovered a wonderful example of this Christian unity this past week. Last Monday we had a short prayer vigil for refugees at the Carnegie church. And while I was getting ready for that vigil, I googled a number of different church denomination websites to see what they had to say about the refugee crisis. While different denominations emphasized different concerns – like safety and security, or addressing homelessness in general, or eliminating the causes of war – ALL the churches agreed on one thing: that we as Christians are called by God to minister to the homeless and to welcome the stranger. This included Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed and Pentecostal churches. When was the last time you saw ALL these churches agree on anything?! It gives me hope…
In Psalm 133 King David says:
“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down… the beard of Aaron… it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.” (Psalm 133:1-3 edited)
Where God’s people live together in unity, God ordains the blessing of life.
Which brings us to our reading from Deuteronomy. God says in this passage, “See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” And God says “choose life.” And then God explains what it means to choose life.
First, God says, “If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today… walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…”
Now for us as Christians, on the other side of the Cross, we do not depend on the Law of Moses for our salvation. We depend on Jesus. But Jesus also said, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” So as Christians, the Old Testament law is not our savior but it is our teacher: it teaches us what pleases God, and how God designed life on earth to work. So we can still use the Ten Commandments (for example) as guidelines for moral behavior.
Second, God says “if you love the Lord your God… the Lord your God will bless you…” It can be tough to love someone we can’t see, someone who is so much greater than we are. I think that’s part of why Jesus came to earth, so that we could more easily relate to God.
What these verses actually speak to though is the attitude of the heart. Do our hearts lean towards God, like flowers toward sunlight? Or do our hearts pull back in fear and distrust? Deuteronomy says, “If your heart turns away and you do not hear…and you are led astray to bow down to other gods, I declare to you today that you shall perish…”
This is not God being angry or vindictive. God is simply explaining how things work. If you put gas in your car, it will run properly. If you put sugar in your gas tank it will not. It’s not closed-minded to say so.
Same thing here. If you love God and turn your heart toward God, God will bless and give life. If you don’t, the blessing won’t come. That’s the nature of reality.
Because if we turn away from God we always end up turning to something else. And the something else we turn to is what the Bible calls an idol, a false god. When people start chasing after idols we lose control of our lives, we get trapped.
Idols might be addictions like drugs or drinking or gambling. Idols could be relationships (50 Shades of Grey part two? ugh…) Idols can even be good things like food or education or athletics or even going to church. If we put anything in the place of God – if we love anything more than we love God – we lose God’s blessing.
Having said all this, I should also mention one mistake I hear people make, based on scripture passages like this. I’ve heard people say that if you’re suffering, or sick, or injured, or poor, or in trouble in any way, it’s because you’ve turned your back on God and lost God’s blessing. Not so. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. But for the people of God, whatever happens in life, we go through it with God, and God will redeem our suffering. In Joel 2:25 God says, “I will restore to you the years the locust has eaten” – which is God’s promise to bring good out of even the bad things that happen in life.
So if we obey God, and love God, and turn our hearts toward God, we will be in unity with each other. And unity is one of the blessings God gives to those who love God. It is a part of the victory of life over death, of prosperity over adversity.
So unity is one of the blessings that comes from the victory of life and prosperity over death and adversity. And when I think about this, I become concerned about the depth of the divisions in our country right now. Both in public discourse and in personal relationships, as best as I can tell, at the root of most of the divisions are hearts that love something more than they love God. It may be a political party that people love more than God, or a political platform. It may be a cause, or it may be a person who’s in the public eye. It may be liberalism, it may be conservativism. It may be the country itself. It may even a religious leader. All these things are good things – gifts given to us by God – but if we love any of them more than we love God, we lose God’s blessing. And if the divisions continue and grow, Deuteronomy says prosperity and life are at stake. And these words in Deuteronomy were written not just for Christians: they was written thousands of years ago for Middle Eastern and Semitic peoples even before the founding of Islam. So these words apply to all of us whose faith has roots in the Old Testament.
God says, “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying God, and holding fast to God; for that means life to you and length of days…”.
Whatever’s out there in the world that concerns us, or troubles us, or divides us, if anything captures our hearts, or inspires our fear, or draws us away from God: bring that thing to God in prayer. Leave it at the foot of the cross for God to take care of. And then hold on to God, in love and in trust, without fear. Because God has for us life, prosperity, and blessing, so long as we hold onto God. AMEN.
Scripture Readings for the Day:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
1 Corinthians 3:1-9 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4 For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9 For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 2/12/17