St. Philip Lutheran Church
12 February 2023 + Lectionary 6a (Epiphany 6)
Rev. Josh Evans
To what should be absolutely no one’s surprise, I wasn’t exactly one of the “popular” kids in high school.
I was quiet and shy. I didn’t play sports or do theatre. During my senior year, I got to be a teacher’s assistant during one of my free periods. Outside of the classroom, I became involved in such wildly popular groups as Chess Club, Mock Trial, and Yearbook Staff. Not to mention, of course, growing up as the closeted gay kid, who didn’t really even know what that meant yet, except that I didn’t fit in with most of the other boys my age.
High school cliques can be vicious, and the boundaries around each group can feel like fortified city walls. Crossing boundaries from one group to another is simply unheard of, as such over-the-top, but not entirely without a kernel of truth, movies like Mean Girls and High School Musical have portrayed them.
All these years later, it seems silly to look back on those high school years and their exclusive cliques, as increasingly meaningless as they are distant. But back then, however long ago “then” was for us, those divisions were real.
Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves though, those divisions didn’t exactly just fade away after graduation. They simply morphed and took on new forms in the ways we continue to divide ourselves:
From the boundaries between the neighborhoods and communities we live in, to the deepening political divisions between left and right, and even in the denominational and ethnic identities in our churches.
“One says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos.’”
Tale as old as time … or at least as old as Bible times.
On the one hand, it’s understandable: We are proud of our denominational identities and heritage. Lutherans privilege the writings of Martin Luther, and Methodists flock to the works of John Wesley. We sing German chorales, Swedish folk tunes, and American Baptist hymns.
Like the Corinthians, we remember with fondness our founding leaders. Of course we have an abiding connection to the pastor who first knocked on our door to invite us to their new church so many years ago. We remember their charismatic presence, their evocative preaching, and the meaningful prayer at the bedside of our departed loved one.
But what happens when we remember those leaders a little too fondly? That’s where Paul’s letter comes in.
Paul’s letters were never meant to be exhaustive encyclopedias of Christian doctrine or theology. Each letter was written to a specific community, at a specific point in time, to address a specific concern that came up.
At least from Paul’s perspective, the church community at Corinth was deeply divided. Some rallied around Apollos, others rallied around Paul, and we can probably safely assume that a smaller minority rallied around still other leaders entirely.
If I were Paul, I might’ve selfishly been inclined to side with the faction that liked me better.
But that’s not what Paul does.
Paul’s response to such divisiveness is a gentle – or maybe not-so-gentle – redirection, depending on your perspective within the Corinthian community:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe … I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
Two chapters earlier, Paul began by shifting the Corinthians’ focus from “signs” and “wisdom” to the message of the cross, to remind his audience of the center of their faith.
The cross, Paul reminds them, shows them where God is – in the foolish, despised, rejected things of this world.
And because God is in those places, this is surely a God who is with them and for them in the places of suffering, hardship, and even conflict.
It is to this God that Paul redirects their focus in the midst of their present conflict, divisiveness, and congregational cliques.
It’s easy to point the finger at popular megachurches when, intentionally or not, their leadership becomes the center of a cult of personality – and when disgruntled splinter groups inevitably break off to follow someone else and start their own church, eventually winding up no better off than the original church they left.
But there’s something Jesus once said about removing the log in our own eye first…
No matter the church, we’re all guilty of it at some point. In our present struggles and our hopeful dreams for the future of the church, we have this tendency to look backwards, to daydream about the way “things used to be.”
During one of my field education experiences in seminary, I served at a congregation that kept portraits of its past ministers on the wall of the church library. Many churches do the same. Inevitably, behind every pastoral portrait were stories and memories. Long-time members would fondly remember Pastor So-and-So or Pastor Such-and-Such and yearn to time-travel to their favorite chapter of their church’s history.
And I want to be clear: Those memories are good and valuable. The respected leaders of the past are, at least in part, why we are here today. Our church history is important, and we can draw strength and courage from the leaders on whose shoulders we now stand.
The danger is when we get stuck there.
The danger is when we divide ourselves around “Apollos” or “Paul” … or whomever else we might look up to … or look back on.
Leaders come and go. Ministries and programs start and end.
Paul plants, Apollos waters…
But God gives the growth.
God, our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, is eternal.
From our earliest days on the childhood playground, to the silly viciousness of high school cliques, to the more real and even sinister ways we divide and separate ourselves from one another today, the human inclination toward divisiveness is real.
The calling of the church, indeed our calling as disciples of Jesus and children of God, offers something radically different.
In their divisiveness, Paul invites the Corinthian community back to their center, back to their common purpose, back to their unity for the sake of the gospel.
Not that there isn’t a place for difference or debate, which itself can be and is often a good thing. Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, and perhaps even their responses to him, though lost to us, indicate a community “struggling together toward a better future.” (Laura S. Nasrallah, Fortress Commentary)
In our divisiveness, God calls us out of our jealousy and quarreling, and invites us to struggle together toward God’s better future.
And when we strive together for God’s better future, we discover a much more profound and lasting way of being the church:
A church that reaches out and reaches across divisions and barriers, and that seeks to collaborate behind a common purpose for the sake of the gospel.
A church that places the cross at its center, and proclaims Christ crucified, in solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed.
A church that recognizes, at the end of the day, it’s not all about us, or any one favorite leader or ministry program of blessed memory.
We plant, and we water – God’s servants, working together.
Not for our sake alone, but for the sake of God’s better future for all …
a future that strives for justice and peace in all the earth,
a future that promises a reconciling and everlasting love that bridges our divisiveness,
a future that proclaims belovedness and belonging.
We keep on planting, and we keep on watering … and surely, God will give the growth.