I’ve been hanging around 1 Corinthians a bit lately. The Corinthian correspondence is a tremendous resource for the church in my part of the world. Divisions? We got some of that. People rallying to some teachers over against others? We got that. People venerating folks who have “arrived” according to the standards of our society? We got that. Separating ourselves from folks who are on the lower rungs of the social pecking order? Alas, we got that as well.
Now the question that I hope haunts us as we reflect on all this: why does Paul keep turning to the cross in 1 Corinthians to address parallel realities in the first century? How does “the word of the cross” give him leverage to address the same types of issues that characterize our own contexts (sometimes on a much larger scale)?
Image: Unity by Monica Stewart
In 1 Corinthians 1 the issue is division.
Paul here brings out the “word of the cross” as what is preached–and what should unite the Corinthian factions. Because there is one message, there should also be only one group of people proclaiming Christ together. No one should identify based on a teacher. To self-identify based on a teacher is to wrongly tell the story of the gospel itself.
“Each one says ‘I am of Paul,’ ‘I am of Apollos,’… Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”
The story that we tell is the story of Christ crucified, and to tell our particular story as the story of a great teacher is to get that story wrong.
The story that we tell is the story of Christ crucified. Entry into this story is through baptism that unites us to the crucified Christ. We are not baptized into the name of our great teachers, into the name of our particular theological traditions.
The only way to get our story straight is to continually tell our story as the story of Christ crucified, not as the story of our particular branch’s history or theology. While there is wisdom in learning our traditions, while there is wisdom in learning the history of the church, and while we will all identify more closely with some branches of the church than others, I see in these words of Paul a call for a holy circumvention of our histories.
To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is to have our identities cast, first and foremost, by the affinity we all have with one another as those who have been baptized into Christ. This requires an active work of reconfiguration of our identities: I am not first Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist or liberal or conservative or evangelical or fundamentalist or progressive or big tent or small ghetto.
The saving story is not the story of my branch of the church, the saving story is the story of the crucified messiah. My salvation is not the story of being scripted into the post-conservative evangelical world of post-modern American Christianity. It is being cast into the Christian drama by being united to the crucified Christ through baptism, Spirit, and faith.
In case you didn’t notice, this is really, really hard.
As someone whose theology is moving from right to left over the past 15 years, I struggle to look to the more conservative expressions of Christianity and embrace those movements as brothers and sisters. I don’t want to be identified with them. And yet, that is part of my “in Christ” family.
The cross should be putting us all together–because it is our story.
We often make the mistake of thinking that we need to get our story straight, and then we need to learn how to apply that story in various ways. But what I learn from 1 Corinthians is that the way we live out our communal Christian identity is, itself, a reading of the story that is to some degree faithful, and probably to some degree faithless to our story.
In the sermonette I linked here last week, I talked about one thing I believe God is doing in the world. It went something like this: in the era of Christendom, we had the luxury to assume Christianity and therefore draw people to ourselves by showing that we are more right, that we have better theology.
In the post-Christendom world, our bluff is called. There is no persuasiveness in the claim to have a better theology if that better theology is not making us better, more loving and unified people. In fact, if we are not loving, if we are not coming together in greater unity, we are not getting our story straight at all.
What? Was Al Mohler crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Tony Jones?…