For almost one hundred years, the President of the United States has given an annual address to Congress called the State of the Union. In this speech the President reports on the health of the economy, national defense, urgent issues, and states the executive’s agenda for the coming year. It’s a bit like taking the pulse of the nation and prescribing the right diet and exercise for the coming year.
This January our sermons will be focused on “the state of our union.” From the outset I want to be clear that these sermons are not political in nature. I’m not going to set out what I think the nation’s agenda should be for 2022. Rather, one of the chief characteristics of the church is supposed to be its unity, and in a world where it is much easier to delineate what separates us than to describe what holds us together, I’m going to focus on the biblical prescription for those things that lead to unity.
Paul’s first letter to Corinth, what we know as First Corinthians, offers us that prescription, so over the coming five weeks, we’ll be digging into parts of that letter to see how they speak into our present circumstances. I wish we could cover the whole letter, but I suspect that would take upwards of a year. Still, I encourage you to read this letter in January. You’ll encounter so much beyond what the sermons have the capacity to cover, and the Holy Spirit will meet you in that reading, speaking to you in ways that are perhaps even more personal than I am able to cover.
Since we’re going to spend this month in 1 Corinthians, we should know a bit about Corinth itself. It was the capital of its province of Achaia. It was west of Athens, along a small land bridge where portaging boats across its six miles of land saved sailors needing to sail another 200 miles to get around the province of Achaia. Paul made his way to Corinth during his second missionary journey, that met success and trouble further north in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea, before he spent time in Athens. The Romans destroyed Corinth in 146 B.C. for rebellion, but Julius Caesar had the city rebuilt in 44 B.C. and populated it with freed persons who had served in the Roman military. Corinth became an important port city for the Roman Empire. Because of the busyness of its ports, people from all over the Greco-Roman world passed through Corinth, making it a cosmopolitan city.
Despite the diversity, ethnic divisions would have run deep. Romans were at the top. Next came the Greeks and then a little lower on the social ladder came others like the Jews. Now, of course we know that these categories are always messy. Paul, author of our letter, is a Jew but he’s also a Roman citizen. This visit and letter take place in the early 50s A.D., only two decades removed from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most would not have known who Jesus was or what a Christian was, since the term had only recently been coined in Antioch in Syria. And now Paul, having established a multiethnic church in the largest Roman colony in the empire, is dealing with the societal divisions that threaten the unity of the church from the get-go. Others in the city wouldn’t even know what a Christian was, let alone where they fell in the hierarchy, but it’s as though Paul has told them, “In our new fellowship, Romans, Greeks, and Jews are all equal.” In their world, this is a stunning pronouncement. Yet, within the opening words of this letter, Paul is putting forward this revolutionary idea.
For Christians, their primary identity is found in the death of Jesus on the cross and in claiming that identity in baptism. In their world, this change would not come naturally. In our world could you imagine the government deciding that, starting tomorrow, we all have to drive on the left side of the road? How many accidents would there be? How long would it take for us to adjust to this new reality? How many of us would grumble that it was easier when we drove on the right side? So, too, the radical message of equality in Jesus led to all sorts of collisions in the early church in Corinth. Just take a few minutes today and read Paul’s letter. You’ll see how many issues he had to deal with in this one church.
Paul tries to deal with these issues theologically. He doesn’t just say this is the way it’s supposed to be so you should just deal with it. No, he puts forward who God is and what God is doing in Jesus as the lens through which Christians see themselves, their world, and all things around them. It’s a lens that we’d greatly benefit from using in this day and age where what we believe about the world is shaped by ideologies that are fully divorced from theology. It’s something we’re all guilty of, so this is an urgent matter for all of us. Unmoored from God’s Word, we are tossed about by the storms of life, ramming into others along the way, stirring up anger and division among ourselves. Separated from what God says about us leaves the state of our union as Christians in really rough shape.
So, what does God say about us in these few verses today? I think it’s this: The fundamental truth about our identity is found only in Jesus and his actions on our behalf. He died for us. He rose for us. He calls us to a new way of life defined by the reality of the cross and resurrection. In our baptisms God calls us to this new way of life. Our baptismal identity consumes all other identities, all the other tribes that we might give our allegiance to. In our world those include our politics, race, gender, class, sexuality, the teams we root for (or root against), and much more. That doesn’t mean that these lesser tribes are without consequence or unworthy of our care. They are, but they have to be put into their proper place, under our chief identity as Christ’s own. As Paul will assert just a few chapters into this letter, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, at that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
After the usual greetings at the beginning of a letter, Paul gets right down to business. He writes, “I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10). You only write those things if the opposite is happening in the community. People are divided into rival groups. They are not of the same mind or purpose. Then, Paul gets into how the Corinthians appear to be dividing into camps along lines of who was baptized by who—as though the person baptizing them was more important than Jesus, the reason for the baptism. It’s tempting to read this as though there are rival famous preachers going through town and comparing stats on who baptized the most people, as though they had become Team Billy Graham, Team Pope Francis, or Team Beth Moore. But, Paul is after something a bit deeper here. His listing of names—Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (that is, Peter)—align with the socially accepted hierarchy of Romans, Greeks, and the Jews. Paul was a Roman citizen. Apollos was a Greek. Peter was a Jew. Team Rome. Team Greece. The Jewish Team. The Corinthian Christians are sliding back into their old understanding of the world—that Romans are best, then Greeks, then others—when, in fact, Jesus put that old way of thinking to death on the cross. Paul is saying this: It doesn’t matter who baptized you. Your social-ethnic identity does not matter in comparison to your identity in Christ. What does matter? Jesus—that he died for you and claimed you in the waters of baptism.
Presbyterian pastor and professor, Tom Long, describes this reality, “To be baptized is a sign that everything we are—work and play, personality and character, commitments and passions, family and ethnicity—is gathered up and given shape and definition by our identity as one of God’s own children.” Or, in the words of The Confession of 1967, “[Baptism] commits all Christians to die each day to sin and to live for righteousness” (9.51). Interestingly, Pew Research released a finding from its American Values Survey taken early last year. It reveals some of the deep divisions we know exist in our nation and community, but it also showed that participation in a church can have a moderating influence on these divisions since they have a common purpose that goes beyond the divisions and because they see individuals as humans, not caricatures. Church can be a place of healing division because it calls us to a sense of identity that exceeds all those other identities.
Why are we searching for answers about who we are apart from who God says we are already? Following God’s way leads us to life. Where does seeking answers elsewhere lead us to? Division. Anger. A fundamental misunderstanding of who we are. We get shaped by those we listen to, and while for us it may not be Paul, Apollos, or Peter, it is easy to fall in line with what others say about us who are not Christ.
The state of our union is strongest when our identity is found in who Christ says we are, so let’s put first things first and make sure we’re the kind of church that resembles the One who has claimed us in the waters of baptism and calls us once again to this Table, bringing all of our varied selves to this one Table where Jesus welcome us.