In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The story’s told of the young minister who was inducted to a Highland parish, and was soon told by his Session Clerk that he’d better go and visit old Mrs McWhuchle at the Big Hoose. So off he went, and he visited her faithfully, although after a while he couldn’t honestly have said he enjoyed the visits very much. After some months, the Session Clerk asked him how he was getting on with old Mrs McWhuchle. ‘Oh, she’s quite polite’, said the minister, ‘but… well, she’s always telling me about what a saint old Mr McSporran, the previous minister was, and how I can’t match up to him’. ‘Och, don’t worry son’, said the Session Clerk, ‘She said that to Mr McSporran as weel’.
The personalities of leaders have always loomed large in the Church. St Paul deals with it the passage we heard today from First Corinthians. Like all of Paul’s letters, his letters to the Christians of the Greek port city of Corinth are not abstract theological tomes. They are real letters, written in response to real problems.
So Paul writes to the Corinthians,
…some people from Chloe’s family have told me quite plainly, my friends, that there are quarrels among you.
‘Chloe’s family’ was probably not really her actual family, but rather what we might call the ‘Church family’ which met in Chloe’s house. They’ve written to Paul because they are worried about division in the Church of Corinth, and we get to read Paul’s reply to them.
Paul sees that factions have appeared in the Christian community of Corinth which threaten the unity of the Church. They have given themselves labels, naming themselves after senior figures within the Church. So some say, ‘I follow Paul’, and other say, ‘I follow Apollos’, and another group says, ‘I follow Peter’ and another ‘I follow Christ’.
It’s a phenomenon which is always seems to have turned up in the history of the Church. ‘I follow Francis’, said the Franciscans, centuries later; ‘I follow Luther’, said the Lutherans; ‘I follow Calvin’, said the Calvinists. And: ‘I preferred Mr McSporran’, said Mrs McWhuchle at the Big Hoose! Just a few short years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, it happened in Corinth, and Paul has to appeal to the Corinthian Church: ‘Be completely united, with only one thought and one purpose’.
Paul can see the dangers of this factionalism- even when one faction calls itself after him! ‘I follow Paul’, said that particular group. They were proud to follow Paul, who had been the one who had established the Church in their city. And so they tried to be faithful to his memory, and to keep the traditions he had handed on.
But another group claimed: ‘I belong to Apollos’. Apollos, the Acts of the Apostles tells us, was ‘an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures’. Paul had started the Church in Corinth, but when he left to go and plant more churches elsewhere, he left Apollos in charge to nurture what he had planted. But now Apollos has his fan club. They’re people who realise that you can’t sit still all the time, who want to develop things. Paul says this of himself and Apollos in chapter 3 of this letter:
After all, who is Apollos? And who is Paul? We are simply God’s servants, by whom you were led to believe. Each one of us does the work which the Lord gave him to do: I planted the seed, Apollos watered the plant, but it was God who made the plant grow. The one who plants and the one who waters really do not matter. It is God who matters, because he makes the plant grow. There is no difference between the one who plants and the one who waters; God will reward each one according to the work each has done. For we are partners working together for God, and you are God’s field. You are also God’s building. Using the gift that God gave me, I did the work of an expert builder and laid the foundation, and someone else is building on it.
Paul has done his bit- now it’s put to Apollos to develop what he started. What wisdom there is in Paul’s words- the true humility of someone who knows he is the servant of a higher power, without whom neither his nor anyone else’s labours will bear fruit. Paul and Apollos are both important in God’s plan, for each has their particular gifts and tasks, and each are essential.
There’s also another party at Corinth that says, ‘I follow Peter’. It’s a great thing to say you belong to Peter, for Peter was the chief apostle, the one nominated by Jesus to be the rock on which he would build his Church. So I can imagine the Petrine party saying, ‘We look to Peter, because he is the chief apostle. Our faith is the one, true, apostolic faith’. And ever since, there have always been Christians who have argued that their interpretation of things is correct because it is based on apostolic tradition. They will argue against those who try to reinterpret the faith, calling them ‘modernisers’ who give in to easily to the spirit of the age. It’s more faithful, they claim to a stand firm on the rock of tradition.
We need solid rocks in our storm-tossed age. There are those who say that there are no fixed points any more, that everything you think you know about God and the world, or about what is right and wrong- all of it is relative, we make it up as we go. In this post-modern age, when we carried about on the currents of lots of different philosophies and lifestyles and belief systems, many people are looking for a rock, solid ground, somewhere where they are not going to be swept off their feet. For some, the traditions of certain Churches, or a particular interpretation of the Bible, seem to provide that solid ground.
But think again about the metaphors Paul used to describe his relationship to Apollos. We need a solid foundation, a bedrock on which to build. But there is no point in laying a good foundation if you don’t build on it. It’s important to remember that there was a seed once planted- but we must water and tend the seed.
There was yet another faction in Corinth, and perhaps they were the most dangerous of the lot. They were the ones who tried to overcome all the factions by saying. ‘I follow Christ!’ Of course, everyone in the Church says they belong to Christ- the Catholics, the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the dour Psalm singers and the happy-clappies. And maybe they do all belong. But in Corinth, the people saying ‘I follow Christ!’ were doing so in a way that implied that anyone else didn’t really follow Christ.
And that is something are still prone to do. We cry, ‘I follow Christ!’ in way which implies that other Christians don’t really follow Christ. And so we judge other Christians (something which Christ specifically commanded us not to do), because they are not the same kind of Christians as we are.
All these divisions at Corinth brought out Paul’s sarcasm:
Christ has been divided into groups! Was it Paul who died on the cross for you? Were you baptized as Paul’s disciples? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius. No one can say, then, that you were baptized as my disciples. (Oh yes, I also baptized Stephanas and his family; but I can’t remember whether I baptized anyone else.)’.
What a sad thing for Paul to say- ‘thank God I never baptized many of you lot!’ But he means that who did the baptising doesn’t matter a whit. It is into whom you were baptised that’s important. When Paul of Apollos or Peter or anyone else baptised you, they baptised you into Jesus Christ. Baptism means that we are united with Jesus Christ. ‘Christ did not send me to baptize’ says Paul: ‘He sent me to tell the Good News’- that is, the message about Jesus Christ.
How often do we in the Church put to the forefront, not the Good News about Jesus Christ, but charismatic leaders and heroes of the faith, or fine buildings, or hallowed theological traditions, or carefully constructed theological systems, or favourite forms of worship, or what we think are burning issues- and they draw our eyes away from Jesus Christ!
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth, writing just after the First World War, imagined the rather moribund Church of his day being like a shell-crater in no-man’s land. It is the remains of what was once a great explosion of power, something which shattered the earth, and changed the landscape. We are drawn to the shell-hole, which now, however, is empty. The power which created the shell-hole was in the past, and how it has dissipated. How often are we intent on preserving the shell-holes, instead of seeking the power which first created them?
The power was a person with a message about the necessity of turning our lives around because God’s Kingdom is near. He called some fishermen one day, and called them not to be Pauline or Petrine or Apolline, or Presbyterian or Episcopalians or Catholics or liberals or evangelicals- or Old Highers or St Stephenians! He simply said, ‘Come with me’, and they went, not knowing where, such was the power of this man.
They went with him as he preached the kingdom and cured the sick and taught them how to fish for people. They went him until he was arrested, and although they mostly abandoned him when he was put to a shameful death on a cross, they afterwards rediscovered his power, and they learned how they could still go with him, still plant for him and water for him, and lay foundations for him and build on those foundations for him. They and their successors discovered many ways to respond to his call when he says, ‘Come with me’.
Listen again to Paul’s appeal to the Church at Corinth 2,000 years ago, and hear him as he speaks directly from Scripture to us today:
By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ I appeal to all of you, my friends, to agree in what you say, so that there will be no divisions among you. Be completely united, with only one thought and one purpose.
Those words are still God’s Word to the Church today: to the Church across the world, divided into denominations; to our own denomination, the Church of Scotland, as it wrestles with how best to apply the Gospel in today’s Scotland; to our own congregation, to this diverse group of people, who have become part of the Church in so many different ways, each with our own stories, our varied experiences of life, our different ideals and values which are important to us, where we struggle to agree about how we go forward from here.
And especially we should hear those words as, today, we gather around the Table, where not me, not the Church, but Christ himself is the host. For we were all baptised into Jesus Christ. He calls us, again and again: ‘Come with me’. And it is when we go with him, and not off on our own, not following lesser leaders, that we find our unity as a Church, as a congregation.
May God bless us all as we follow where he leads.
Ascription of Praise
To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.
1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2020 Peter W Nimmo
After sermon: offering
 Acts 18.24, NRSV
 1 Corinthians 3.5-10a
 1 Cor. 1.13-16