3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
1 Corinthians 1:10-17 Sermon
January 22, 2005
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
428 "O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing"
385 "My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less"
537 "O Master Let Me Walk With Thee"
307 "Jesus Shall Reign Where E'er The Sun"
UNITY IN THE CHURCH
TEXT: (vs. 10) “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you, and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
According to what I’ve been told, this past week has been noted as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.” Now I have no idea who made this decision. I don’t think it was a declaration made by the government, nor do I think that any particular church body has made any sort of official declaration about it. It’s probably one of those things that sounded like a good idea, so someone suggested it, and it has now caught on with some churches.
Praying for Christian unity isn’t really a bad idea. It would be great if it could happen. But if history is to be our teacher, then we have to face the fact that true unity in the church hasn’t occurred. Even in Judaism, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were at odds with each other.
In our text for today, we find Paul writing to the church at Corinth. If we look at verse 10, this is where Paul sets the tone for his whole epistle. Paul exhorts them to agree with each other, to heal the divisions, and to be perfectly united in mind and thought.
The Corinthian church was a divided church. Chloe had reported to Paul exactly what had been happening. There were groups of people who rallied around different preachers, and looked down on others. There was the Paul group, the Apollos group, the Peter (or Cephas) group, and so forth. People in these groups were drawing lines and taking sides.
Among the Corinthian church, immorality was rampant. People were suing each other. Marriage and divorce were hot issues. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper was being abused. Their faith was fading. Heathen and pagan practices were beginning to creep in. In short, there were many things wrong with this church. They needed help.
I’m sure this upset Chloe very much. The church of Christ which had been established by Paul was being torn apart. Chloe’s desperate cry for help certainly got Paul’s undivided attention.
Corinth itself was an interesting place. The city of Corinth of today is nothing like it was back then. Corinth was a bustling urban area, and the center of trade for Greece. It was a port city, so there would have always been “sailors on shore leave” so to speak. So the people of Corinth weren’t necessarily what we might think of as likely church people. They were very much worldly type of people. If you compare Corinth with Athens, Athens was cultural center of Greece, while Corinth was more of a center for commerce.
Paul had arrived in Corinth in the autumn of A.D. 50 or 51. He had been in Athens, and his efforts were not as successful there as he would have hoped. A Jewish couple who lived in Corinth, Aquila and Priscilla, opened their home to him. They invited Paul to join them in their work as tentmakers; and since that was Paul’s trade, everything worked out nicely.
The people in Corinth received the Gospel of Christ eagerly; and during Paul’s year and a half stay there, he established what appears to be the largest of his mission congregations.
Be that as it may, Paul was now in Ephesus. The church at Corinth was a divided church, and Paul wanted those divisions healed. What kind of unity was Paul seeking?
The unity had to be a true unity, and not a superficial one. False teachings and unbiblical practices had to stop. There could be no compromises. They had to be perfectly united in mind and thought. There had to be unity in Christ and the Scriptures. Nothing could get swept under the rug and be simply ignored or forgotten.
Unfortunately people don’t learn lessons very well. True unity has been trivialized, and traded for unity simply for the sake of being together. This is nothing more than appealing to the lowest common denominator.
A good illustration of this happened in Lincoln this past week. The January 17th edition of the Lincoln Journal-Star reported about a unity service which was held at First Christian Church down by the Capitol building. The speaker was a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor Raymond Hain.
In his sermon, he said: “Today, however, the ecumenical movement has lost some of its fire because we couldn’t find the solutions that could bring it to a perfect conclusion….The key to Christian unity, is trusting in Christ and following his command to love one another.” I would imagine that the rest of his sermon contained nice, safe generic comments that wouldn’t offend anybody.
I wonder how the Monsignor would have been received if he had shared good Catholic doctrine? How about salvation by works, or purgatory, topped off by a nice prayer to Mary? How do you think that would have set with the non Roman Catholics in attendance? What would have happened if the good Monsignor had been honest and said what he really believed?
Personally speaking, I am a Lutheran. I’m a Lutheran by conviction, and not because someone stuck a denominational label on me when I was born. I make no apologies for who I am. I am not a Baptist, or a Roman Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or an Episcopalian, or Eastern Orthodox, or Reformed for very good reasons. I do not agree with their theology. I believe that there are teachings in those churches which are not consistent with sound Biblical doctrine. I cannot, in good conscience even pretend that I stand in unity with such groups when I don’t.
Before I was ordained, and again during my ordination service, I had to state my agreement with the Book of Concord of 1580, also known as the Lutheran Confessions. I stated that I agreed with them, because they accurately and faithfully reflect the teachings of Holy Scripture. The Lutheran Confessions state what we believe; and in numerous places also clearly state what we reject. How could I subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, and at the same time embrace some sort unity with Roman Catholicism, especially when the Lutheran Confessions clearly condemn many points of Roman Catholic doctrine? Wouldn’t that be hypocritical? To a greater or lesser degree, it’s much the same with other denominations as well.
Unity for the sake of unity does not work very well. Back in the middle of the 19th Century, Kaiser Frederich Wilhelm forced the merger of Germany’s and Prussia’s Reformed and Lutheran churches in a type of “shotgun marriage.” The Kaiser was no theologian; he really had no idea as to what he was doing. He just saw it as an economic and a practical thing. However this didn’t set well with the Lutherans at all. Some Lutherans did in fact go along with it; but Lutherans by the droves left Germany and immigrated to the United States and Australia. They couldn’t, in good conscience go along with such a merger.
Even today in Germany, there are the combination Lutheran and Reformed churches. But there are groups which the Germans call “Old Lutherans” who gallantly refuse to compromise Scripture and join in such a union.
Dr. Luther himself provides us with a good example. A man by the name of Philip Melancthon, a one-time colleague of Luther’s, wrote the document in our Lutheran Confessions called the Augsburg Confession. This document is one that quite clearly sets forth what we believe, and what we reject. However, Melancthon was sympathetic to the Reformed, so he altered his Scriptural view of the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper to make it more palatable to the Reformed idea. Luther vehemently objected to this; and when Melancthon refused to return to the Biblical teaching, Luther broke fellowship with him. Based upon this, we can only imagine how Dr. Luther would have reacted to the Prussian Union, or how he would react to the superficial ecumenical unity so prevalent today.
I would imagine that by now the thought might be running through your mind, “Gee, this sounds rather arrogant and insolent. Are you saying that your church is the only correct church?”
In answer to that, I would definitely not go so far as to say that. Our church and the Lutheran church don’t have a corner on the market when it comes to Biblical doctrine. Everybody has the same access to Scripture that we do.
What we can say however is that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, and by God’s help, we teach according to it. It is our objective to be faithful to the Scriptures and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But we are also mindful of the words of Romans 16, 17-18: “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.”
The next question is, “why?” Why do we need to be careful about our teaching? Why all of this focus upon what divides Christians? Why can’t we compromise here and there, as long as we share the same Gospel message?
If we look back at the church in Corinth, we can see what happens. When sound doctrine is whittled away, and different teachings are tolerated or embraced, then the Gospel itself is placed in jeopardy. Embracing different teachings suddenly changes the very heart of the Gospel message.
As members of the human race, the Bible clearly tells us that we are sinful. It tells us that we have been separated from God by our sins. It tells us that our sins merit eternal death and condemnation. It tells us that we deserve God’s wrath.
But the Bible teaches that we get what we don’t deserve. We are recipients of God’s grace, and not his wrath. The Bible teaches us that when we come to God through Jesus our Saviour, we find rest for our souls, and not turmoil. The Bible teaches us that Jesus took our punishment upon himself, and carried all of our sins to the cross. The Bible teaches us that Jesus is more than just a good example for us to follow; Jesus is our Saviour, and through faith in him, we are God’s forgiven children, redeemed and restored.
We need to be assured that what God tells us is true and certain. We have to be able to depend on the objective truth of the Bible, and not some form of truth we invent ourselves. That precious gem of the Gospel is recorded for us in those pages. Through the words of Scripture, God the Holy Spirit is at work bringing us to faith and keeping us in the faith. If we fail to trust and follow Scripture, then the pure Gospel can also be questioned, and even lost. Jesus can then be made into something he isn’t.
The Monsignor said that the key to Christian unity, is trusting Christ and following his command to love one another. Where is the Gospel in that statement? How do we trust Christ—as our Saviour and Lord, or just another good example to follow? Are we somehow saved by loving and accepting other people?
People who are pushing for this ecumenical unity often mis-quote part of a sentence in Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, 21 when he says, “…that all of them may be one…” Certainly Jesus wants unity amongst believers, but it can’t be a thinly veiled unity which covers vast doctrinal divisions and false teachings.
Scripture clearly warns about false teachers, even calling them “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” We need to be aware of what is and isn’t false teaching, and keep away from those who teach contrary to the Bible.
Certainly this doesn’t wipe out various external things we can do with other church groups. For example, we can participate in community food banks, or in other areas of humanitarian aid, or in causes such as the "Right to Life" movement.
Before Christmas, a commercial was playing on T.V. which was for some cell phone company. The opening line went, “It makes no difference if you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew.” And it ended with the phrase, “Happy Christmakwanzukah to you.” That’s the way the world likes to see things—all religions jumbled together, one being as good as the other. That’s the way the Kaiser saw things at the time of the Prussian Union, which resulted in this "shotgun marriage" between the Lutherans and the Reformed.
Does Jesus want his church to be united? Of course he does; but not when the clear teachings of the Bible are compromised. We can’t pretend there is unity where none exists. One religion isn’t as good as another. Not all roads lead to the same God.
Consider Jesus’ warning to the churches who water down Biblical doctrine in Revelation 3, 15-16: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Our Old Testament Lesson for today from Amos 3 presents this question in verse 3: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?”
As we continue to work together as a congregation of confessional Lutheran Christians, let us always walk together in the truth of Scripture down the road of the Gospel. May we always faithfully preserve this doctrine in our midst, and show its light to the world.