The story is told of a village where the synagogue was divided over the matter of prayer.
One group believed people should stand to pray, reaching up to the Lord with out-stretched hands. The other believed that people must kneel when they prayed, to show proper submission to the Lord. Neither side would budge an inch, and the argument grew worse each week.
Eventually they decided to seek out the oldest and wisest rabbi of the region, Rabbi Shlomo, to tell them which group was right. They reasoned that he would know the oldest traditions and could tell them which way they should pray.
“Rabbi Shlomo,” the delegation leader said after they had walked to his hut. “The synagogue is divided over the matter of prayer. Some of us believe we should stand to pray, while others insist we should kneel. Which is right? Which way is the tradition?”
Rabbi Shlomo stroked his beard and thought. He turned to one group. “You say that people must stand to pray?” he asked. “That is not the tradition.” The other group started to celebrate but the rabbi called for quiet. “You say that people must kneel to pray? That is not the tradition.” Everyone was stunned.
“But Rabbi,” the spokesman said. “We need an answer. This matter divides us and we argue about it all the time and we can’t get anything done.”
“Aha! That is the tradition,” the rabbi said.
No telling how old that story is, because judging by Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, churches divided themselves up pretty quickly, just like the synagogue in the story. Some kind of factionalism sprang up in Corinth, and the different groups identified themselves by their different teachers. One chose Apollos, another chose Cephas or Peter, another Paul, another Christ, and so on.
Their squabbling disgusts Paul so much he actually thanks God he’s not responsible for all that many of this bunch of bickering Christians. His answer to them is blunt – Christ died for them and they were baptized in Christ’s name. All of them. None of these other names they follow did that for them. Sure, those teachers brought them the gospel, but they brought the gospel of Christ, and that is the bedrock foundation of any teaching they have heard or repeated.
We don’t know anything about the doctrines that divided these people, beyond the fact that they seemed to claim their individual teachers had proclaimed them.
Paul’s answer gets at the root of the real issue for the Corinthians. For one, he doesn’t pretend these groups are all the same. They have real differences with one another. Today, we have differences among religions, between denominations, between churches in those denominations and even between people in the same church. Shocked, shocked we are to learn there is disagreement going on here.
Those differences are real. Someone who says all religions are the same hasn’t looked very closely at any of them. What I believe as an evangelical Christian differs from what a Buddhist believes, and neither of us is particularly well-described by those people who say we’re all the same.
But Paul reminds the Corinthians that Christ gave his life to save all of them. What unites them is greater by far than what divides them.
Go back to me and my hypothetical Buddhist friend. We believe very different things about the divine and how God is at work, but we both believe there’s something more to the world than what we can see and measure. In other words, when someone says to us, “Your religions are the same,” we would look at each other and say, “Well, I believe this and he believes that. But we both believe you’re nuts.”
Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that real division among them can only happen along the fault lines of the truth about Christ. They can honor their teachers and make their cases for this or that doctrine, but at the end of the day they are Christians and must remember that first. True followers of Christ are brothers and sisters in Christ, even if they happen to get along like real brothers and sisters do, which is sometimes not so well.
Today we might fuss over things like baptism, music in the church, who can take communion, which version of the Bible to read, whether women can be preachers and who knows what else. And we might even worship in different places because of that, but if we agree with Paul’s teaching here, we can’t reject those other people as “not Christian” just because of those things. The only thing that can make someone “not Christian” is that they’re, well, not Christians.
And the only thing that makes them – as well as us – Christians is Christ.
Thank God for that good news.