Speaking the Same Thing! The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Cor 1:10-18; 2 Chronicles 30, Colossians 1

We are surrounded on all sides by a culture that values diversity, novelty, and variety.  Even the dog owners on my FB page talk about the importance of not “boring” your pup with the same food every day!  I remember when we first moved to Pittsburgh 18 years ago, being struck by a beer add with about 8 different beers in identical steins, so that you could see a spectrum of colors:  the caption read “Celebrate diversity.” This sentiment is everywhere from the marketplace to academia, where one of the criteria for getting a grant is the ability to prove the utter novelty of the project.

It is of course true, that our God must value variety.  Consider the sheer number of species, subspecies, and varieties of each kind of thing!  It is staggering.  And yet, there is a reason why we use the term “universe”—these things, despite the fall, and the possibility of death or accident, fit together into a unified system. Along with diversity goes the value of unity, which is less frequently applauded today.  The very labels “progressive” and “conservative” suggest that these two qualities are polar opposites, and unable to co-exist peaceably.  Rather, as Jaroslav Pelikan, of blessed memory, pointed out, even the progressive must understand his traditional context, or he or she will have no idea of where to “progress” without actually regressing, and repeating accidents.  As the evangelist Matthew put it, the wise householder knows how to take out of the storeroom those things that are old, and valuable, as well as those things that are new.

Our epistle reading for this eighth Sunday after Pentecost, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, is all about unity, about how things hold together. St. Paul has heard about division in the Corinthian church, a church planted in a booming city which, like our day, valued novelty and diversity.  In responding to them, he takes them back to the basics, back to the foundation of Christ and the cross:

Brethren, I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, in case anyone should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Some of our English translations don’t quite get the plain-talking flavor of the first verse of this passage, which enjoins the Corinthians, quite literally to “say the same thing.”  It isn’t just a matter having agreeable feelings towards each other—one version weakly paraphrases the words as “live in accord with each other.”  Of course, harmonious living is an important thing.  But St. Paul is being even more specific, telling them “speak the same thing,” as well as “be united in one mind and one judgment.”  In our mind’s eye, we can picture our reciting the creed together, a rally-cry in a confused and contradicting age.  As St. John Chrysostom put it, when commenting on this verse, “The quarreling at Corinth was not over trivial matters but over something fundamental. Even those who said they were of Christ were at fault, because they were implicitly denying this to others and making Christ the head of a faction rather than the head of the whole church. (Homily to the Corinthians 3, section 5).

As Christians we should understand better than even God’s ancient people, the Jews, about such radical unity.  After all, we have the Holy Spirit, who comes, as Jesus put it in his final address to the apostles, to make us one as He and the Father are one (with the Spirit). Moreover, we have our brief symbol of the faith, the Nicene Creed, to remind us of the basis of our unity in the Triune God, whereas the Hebrew people had to make sense of ten moral commandments, umpteen ritual commands, and a large body of prophetic material.  Yet, as St. John Chrysostom puts it, it is possible to recite the creed and still not really say the same thing from our hearts: “It is possible to agree on a form of words but still harbor dissent, which is why Paul speaks the way he does here. It is also possible to share the same opinion with someone but not the same feelings. For example, it is possible to be united in faith without being united in love. This is why Paul says that we must be united both in mind and in judgment” (Homily 3.2).  When God speaks, it is out of perfect love and truth; broken as we are, we can sometimes speak the truth (or a part of it) without the accompanying love, or vice versa.

In fact, there is a very helpful story in the Old Testament that helps to illustrate the kind of unity for which St. Paul was pleading.  We may go back to the time of the young but very faithful King Hezekiah, who came to the throne of Judah in his twenties, and who called his people (and even those in the north who now were sectarians, on their own) back to the LORD.  2 Chronicles 29 begins the story of his great reform, but it is chapter 30 that most clearly illustrates the togetherness to which God’s people are called.  King Hezekiah has encouraged the priests to recover and cleanse the temple precincts, and has reinstituted the worship of the true God.  In chapter 30 he calls for a gathering that the people, far and wide, might come together celebrate the Passover, for the first time in ages.  He even sends runners out to announce this among the northern tribes, some of whose members scorn the invitations, but others who “humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem” (verse 12).  As for the people of the south, we hear that “The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the leaders commanded by the word of the LORD” (verse 30).

How wonderful that God gave them ONE heart to obey the call to worship.  And the worship was no light affair—the King included those from the North who came, the sojourners, or strangers in the land from north and south, and his own people, calling them all to repentance and prayer, and then to celebration.  The celebration of the Passover was preceded by the removal of any altars to idols that had sprung up in his father’s reign.  And King Hezekiah even made particular prayers for those who might have come to worship in a state of ritual uncleanness, so far as the Torah was concerned: “May the good LORD pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God, the LORD, the God of his fathers” (verses 18-19). They kept the festival for a week, and then gathered together, and AGREED with one mind (verse 20) that they should continue the celebration and worship for a second week.  The episode ends with this comment: “So there was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem. Then the priests and the Levites arose and blessed the people, and their voice was heard, and their prayer came to his holy habitation in heaven” (26-27).  Following the great celebration, the people remove all the idols that they can find in their nation, and the people return whole-heartedly to God.

Here was a time of unity in repentance, and a unity that embraced even those who had originally left Judah, as well as those who were not full members, the sojourners.  Here was a time when unified repentance led to joyful worship, and then to the action of removing all idolatry from the land.  King, leaders, and people of all walks of life joined together, both in lifting their hearts to God, and in including those in their midst.  The celebration focused upon God’s redemption of Israel in the Passover, a memory of God acting with a mighty hand in their midst.  And the ability to decide together was given to them by God himself, the author of all accord.  What they would have said, was “Why is this night different from any other night?” And the answer given all around would have been, “Because on this night God redeemed us from slavery!”  The focus and reason for their unity was God’s powerful and loving action among them.

St. Paul is calling the Corinthian Christians, and us to, to a similar unified declaration, stance, and life together.  Indeed, we should expect an even greater level of unity, since the Holy Spirit is among us, and since God has redeemed us once and for all, not with the blood of lambs, but with his very own Son.  When we speak, we have one name on our lips:  Jesus, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit.  And we speak the message of the cross, which makes peace among all, as Paul tells us in Colossians 1.  Such a name, such a story, such a word, will drive away any party-spirit, any petty divisions that might threaten to overtake us.  In the shadow of the cross, and by its light, no evil can stand.

How is it possible that the Corinthians were taking the name of the one who had baptized (some of) them, and making of that a kind of idol, a kind of hero, so that their unity was destroyed.  Paul even goes so far,  in reacting to their pettiness, as to say he was glad he hadn’t baptized many of them, because they might idolize him.

He was not, of course, disparaging baptism—but he was saying that it should not be used as a means of forgetting the reconciling power of the cross.

We humans can do some pretty silly things.  Today, we are allowing arguments about the taking of the holy mysteries to divide us. It may be that we disagree about precisely what we ought to do in these difficult times, with government interference, worry about infection, concern about those who don’t understand the significance of the Eucharist. Yes, we must work these things out, and pray that our leaders hear God’s word amidst the clamor. But the Chalice, like Baptism into Christ, remains a focus for our unity, and a healing balm.  It should never become the occasion of strife between brothers and sisters, people and priest, Church and bishop! Let us not, like the Corinthians, turn God’s medicine into a source of scandal.

The Corinthians, though they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, had much to learn.  Similarly, Paul tells us, we are in the process of “being saved” and have not yet arrived: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  May our unity, born out of the reconciling cross, and communicated to us by the one bread and the one cup, nurture this growth towards salvation and wholeness.  May our learning to “say one thing”—the name of Jesus, the confession of the Holy Trinity, the power of the cross—also bring in those who are in danger of perishing, so that they will see the power of God in what they thought was only foolishness.  Together, we will see that unity is in Him, and that when we speak together, a wonderful harmonious variety of voices, a symphony, emerges.  One is Holy, one is the Lord; and, because of what He has done, is doing, and will do for us, holy things are for the holy.

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