Short Sermon: Difference vs Division in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
This short sermon, with preparation included as per the assignment, was written for my Preaching course in Winter 2011.
For my text interrogation, I followed through the questions provided on the handout, writing down notes for every question before summarizing them into the key points that I chose to use for my sermon. The features which spoke to me the most came from Section A: the Literary Features.
First, I wanted to learn more about Apollos and the Corinthian church, having a fairly good sense of Paul already (although with lots more to learn, I’m sure). Both of these I learned about primarily through my New Bible Dictionary, but the other commentaries and study Bibles were also consulted. I learned that Apollos does appear elsewhere in the Bible. The primary interesting thing I learned about the Corinthian church is that there is no evidence that Corinth’s reputation as a particularly immoral city has any basis in fact despite being a claim I had heard many times before.
My biggest focus that I picked for my sermon, however, came from the conflict and the resolution to it. The conflict is clearly a major division between people claiming to follow Paul and people claiming to follow Apollos. The resolution comes in the form of a chastisement from Paul that they are missing the point and that it is God working through each of them.
The other aspect of the exegesis which I found guided my sermon in significant ways was the question of who I most identified with, because I tended to alternate. On the grand scheme of things I agreed with Paul, calling for an end to the division, which would become the focal point of my sermon. Yet I also really sympathized with the divided church, having been through a couple significant divisions of campus ministries within my past four years at Queen’s. Then I would remember how much damage was done by those divisions, and I thought about some of the pieces that have still not been picked up from them, and I return to Paul’s encouragement to grow up and get along.
Last term I went to a great guest lecture here on campus, put on through Geneva Fellowship, the campus Christian Reformed ministry. The topic was post-modernism and the church. It was a very deep philosophical lecture, so I’m sure that my Computer Scientist brain probably only grasped a little bit of it. The basic idea was this: modernism was a problem for the church because it was a framework which had only a single knowable truth with no room for variations. The Catholic Church claimed it had this truth, as did the Protestant Church, as did scientific rationalism, as did many, many others. As the world became more pluralistic, it added even more challenge because in the modernist mindset, one must be absolutely right and the others must be absolutely wrong. Post-modernism has often been spoken of as the death of the church because it is sometimes used to take away the concept of absolute truth, making everything purely relative, but by the end of this lecture I agreed with the speaker that the opposite was true. Post-modernism does not mean that there is no truth; it just means that we acknowledge that we all have different perspectives. It was a way of looking at post-modernism and our differences in a way I hadn’t heard before and it has since shaped how I look at dialogue with those I disagree with since.
I introduce with this because I think that as Christians in the post-modern world, we don’t really think very much about division in the church. There are a lot of denominations stemming from many divisions over the years, and even within those denominations we have no problems seeing a large range of difference. Some of us in this room have experienced divisions in our congregations or in para-church ministries.
In this text from 1 Corinthians we see a severe division. Paul has founded the church at Corinth, which we can read about briefly in Acts 18. Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew who is also introduced in the biblical texts in Acts 18, seems to have taken over a lot of leadership after Paul’s planting. Jumping forward to this text, the church of Corinth has divided into factions, some claiming to be followers of Paul, others of Apollos, and still others of Peter or simply of Christ, the latter two being also mentioned in Chapter 1. Paul doesn’t hold back any punches, and is quite insulting in his handling of these divisions: he calls the Corinthian church outright childish, spiritually unable to even eat more than milk.
Paul moves on to explain why it is so childish to divide in such a way. He downplays his own involvement, asking, “What then is Apollos? What then is Paul?” While he planted and Apollos watered, these efforts are insignificant compared to God who gives the growth. By dividing themselves into followers of Paul or Apollos, the Corinthian church is missing the big picture of God at work through each of them.
The major distinction that came to me from looking at this text is that of difference as opposed to division. The majority of the time I can look at the various denominations, and the wide range of opinions in the global church, and I see that as a beautiful thing. I even consider the different labels to be a positive thing, because I think that labels are a necessary part of being able to converse with each other. Difference is great, and we should be willing to name those differences in our discussions with each other without any fear.
As Paul puts it in this text, however, it is “merely human” to take the differences and to completely divide over them. We naturally want to hang out with the people who agree with us, so we divide along those lines of difference. Or sometimes we do the opposite, and are so intent on “unity” that we think we can only do that by neglecting our differences, creating a dishonest unity where we can only talk about the lowest common denominator and ignore the rest of who we are. Like it was for the Corinthians, it is easy for us to lose sight of the big picture of God’s work through all of us – whether Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical, Mainline, Anabaptist, or basically whatever other labels you’d like to apply. As Christians and as the leaders of the church, I think we are called to a vision of embracing our differences but not divisions. This is our challenge as we enter postmodernity.
Bruce, F. F. “Corinthians, Epistles to the.” In New Bible Dictionary, 224-228. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, USA., 1996.
Harrop, J. H. “Corinth.” In New Bible Dictionary, 223-224. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, USA, 1996.
Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.
Life Application Study Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2004.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Bible Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2005.
Michael, D., Carol A. Newsom, Pheme Perkins, and Marc Z. Brettler, . The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha: An Ecumenical Study Bible. 4th. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Wood, A. S. “Apollos.” In New Bible Dictionary, edited by Howard I Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer and D. J. Wiseman, 57. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, USA, 1996.