Sunday, January 23, 2011

Long Division (First Corinthians 1:10-18)

Many pastors have given thanks for the Corinthian church. Had the Corinthians -- and all their face-palm-inducing faults -- not existed, we would have to preach about the troubles in our own churches and refer to them directly, which has a tendency to make people mad. Because of the Corinthians, though, we can single out the issue at hand and point our accusatory fingers at them instead of our own people, who are often sitting between us and the exit.

Paul really doesn't waste any time addressing the problems the Corinthians have raised, probably in a letter to him which we don't have. He greets them, offers thanks for their testimony and witness, and then begins the performance review. The first issue is division among the people -- specifically, a kind of division that has no upside to it at all. Some kinds of division, of course, are necessary. Right teaching must be discerned from false teaching. The church should be on the side of caring and compassion instead of selfishness and greed, and so it will bring division among people who care more about themselves and their own possessions than they do others' needs.

But the division Paul addresses is needless and destructive. Apparently the church at Corinth has split itself up almost like fan clubs. The Corinthians were lining up behind Paul or Apollos or Cephas (Peter) the same way a Twilight fan might claim to be a part of Team Edward or Team Jacob.

We don't know for sure, but it looks like being baptized by one or the other of these leaders was at the core of their "fandom." They wore the name of their baptizer like status symbols. This disgusts Paul so much that he actually thanks God he didn't baptize very many of them -- and in doing so he reveals something important, if the Corinthians want to look. Notice that he doesn't actually remember who he baptized. The one thing that's such a big deal for all these squabbling people slips his mind.

It slips his mind, of course, because as important as baptizing people was, it's not why he went to Corinth in the first place. Christ sent him to proclaim the gospel, he says in verse 17. He didn't start out with a goal of winning people over, or scoring a certain number of converts or some other strategic goal. He went to preach the message of the cross, period. The rest would depend on the Holy Spirit and the people involved.

Paul didn't want the credit for the baptisms he'd done, maybe partly because he'd rather not be embarrassed by the way some of those people were now acting. But probably also because he knew that he deserved no credit for that work. If you'd pressed him, he might not even have wanted credit for proclaiming the gospel, since he was only doing what Christ called him to do and Christ was the one who had saved him and opened him to that very same gospel message anyway. He would take no credit because he had earned none.

We all probably agree on the wisdom of that stance. But it can be a tough thing to remember sometimes. Someone might help teach the church's children, and someone else might help lead mission teams, and they do these things and others because of their own natural gifts and abilities. Shouldn't they get credit and thanks?

Of course they should, but if it's not offered? So what. Nor would that be the reason that they should do those things. Speaking as a pastor, I can tell you I'll take a worship leader whose skills are little bit less but who's there to serve his or her Lord over someone who's more gifted but who insists on getting first billing in the credits.

A lot of people, from Harry Truman to John Wooden to Ronald Reagan, have been cited as saying "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit," or something similar. As Christians, of course, we do care who gets the credit. For us, it is all about who gets the credit, and until the person most deserving of the credit is properly acknowledged, we've failed in our responsibilities. We've shortchanged the message. In fact, chances are good we've not acknowledged the deserving party anywhere near enough, no matter what task or deed or job you're talking about, and things ought to come to a stop until we do so.

To God be the glory, great things He hath done.

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