Unity in the Cross
Unity in the Cross
There was once a man in San Francisco walking along the Golden Gate Bridge, and he saw a second man about to jump over the edge. He stopped him and said, "Surely it can't be that bad. You know God loves you." The man about to jump got a tear in his eye. He said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew or a Hindu?" The fellow said, "I'm a Christian."
"Me, too. Are you Protestant or Catholic?"
"I am, too. What franchise?"
"So am I. Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
"That's a miracle! I am, too. Are you Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
"Northern Conservative Baptist."
"Me, too. Are you Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?"
"I'm Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Karl Ripley."
"Me, too. Are you Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern region?"
"I'm Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes region."
"So am I. Are you Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes region council of 1897 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes region council of 1912?"
"I'm Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes region council of 1912."
And the guy said, "Die, heretic," and threw him over the bridge.
I know you're amazed I can remember all that. Me, too.
It doesn't take that much to make Christians fight with each other. I'm sure there are a lot of people in this room with the scars to prove it, and I suspect some of us have scarred other people. I am deeply grateful to the Lord Jesus Christ for the peace in this congregation. It is a wonder and a gift to me. If you're new to us, I can assure you there isn't stuff going on under the surface that you haven't seen. I am so thankful, because we're as prone to fighting with each other as anybody. But we need to be vigilant. We're constantly bringing new people into this congregation as others move away. And it isn't as easy as a handshake and a directory. We each come to this church with a particular set of convictions, and many of them are different. We all come with baggage that can do damage or get in the way. And, let's face it; we each come with some sinful inclinations that can really hurt other people and the church. So you and I are not entirely to be trusted if we should meet one another on a bridge.
We're going to study 1 Corinthians for the next few weeks. I think the Lord drew me to study this with you for two reasons. First, all summer we looked at the subject of wisdom from the book of Proverbs, and the first chapters of 1 Corinthians say a lot about wisdom from a New Testament perspective. So it seems like a natural transition to see what the New Testament is telling us about the wisdom of God particularly in the cross of Jesus.
Second, the Corinthians church was sliced and diced by divisions. This letter was written in roughly A.D. 50 to a very gifted church. But if you just read 1 Corinthians, the range of things they could fight about is truly breathtaking—especially among people who had, apparently, found Christ to save them. We need this book right now, not because we're splintering, but because we're capable of splintering and because good things are happening in terms of growth and worshiping with new folks. This book will help us connect with each other well.
Grace binds us together
It seems like every page of this book is addressing some kind of problem, but the way this book starts is startling because it's very positive in the first verses.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
Let's start with that. Grace is a binding for us as the people of God from different places, getting to know the body of Christ. Thank God for the grace that binds us together in Christ. Paul is thinking back to how he saw grace work when he went to Corinth. Corinth was a tough place. It was a wicked city. It was a cosmopolitan city. It was not friendly to the gospel. It wasn't very friendly to Paul.
He remembers how he came into this city frightened. He'd just been rejected by the philosophers in Athens not far away. He came here, and through the pressures of a government God moved a couple named Aquila and Priscilla to Corinth, a welcoming party for Paul. They even did the same job. He remembers that with fondness. He remembers how the Lord arranged for Timothy and Silas to come south to help. He remembers how Crispus, the head of the Jewish synagogue, and his entire household came to faith in the Lord. So many other Christians heard him, believed, and were baptized. This is all recorded in Acts 18. He remembers how when the work was at its most dangerous and difficult, the Lord appeared to him in a vision, a rare occurrence for Paul. And God said, "Do not be afraid. Keep on speaking. Do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you because I have many people in this city." So when Paul writes these words, "I always thank my God for you, because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus," he has particular evidences of God's grace in mind.
It took no less grace for us to be assembled here this morning. It didn't happen in the same way, but it took just as much grace. Each Christian here was drawn from all over the world and has a unique story of God's grace. Everyone here who knows Jesus has a different story than that of the person next to you, yet we all celebrate this grace that saved us. We are a company of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people.
Grace is getting what we don't deserve and could never earn, and grace is what builds and binds the church. Grace is the gravity that holds the church together. Verses 4-6 start enumerating some of the benefits that come to us as a result of God's grace, because they're not only true of the Corinthians; they're true for us.
"I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you." You have been enriched in every way, so be thankful because we don't deserve to be so rich. The gospel that they heard, says Paul, was proven true. What he preached came true. He preached the gospel and they became gospel people, and that's true for us, too.
There is no direction you can turn in your Christian life that has not been enriched by your relationship with Christ. Wherever you look, whatever you think about, Jesus has made you richer. Jesus said he came to preach good news to the poor. Well, that's us. We were paupers one and all. Proud, ungrateful people tend to fight. Humble, thankful people usually don't. So Paul is urging us to remember how rich Jesus has made us, and not only remember but give thanks. He thanks God; we ought to also.
Isn't it amazing how Christians can argue about the great acts of God's grace without being thankful? We have lots of folks here who are pretty knowledgeable about theology. We ought to be the most thankful, joyful people in the church, for we who have studied theology get to go deeply into the treasures of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But you know as well as I do how much infighting happens in that world. How crazy is that? We ought to be the most grateful people, and grateful people don't tend to quarrel.
Look across the page to 1 Corinthians 2:9. In my Bible it's on the next page. Paul's quoting the Old Testament. He says, "It is written: 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him'—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit." We're not in the dark about these things that God has poured out upon us. We are rich, and we ought to thank God because we don't deserve to be so rich.
We don't deserve God's gifts
First Corinthians 1:7 says, "Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." Let's put it this way: we don't deserve to be so gifted. Sometimes newer people who have heard our musicians and seen other people in our church say, "Man, you have a lot of talented people." I think that's true and it's a gift, but that's not what he's talking about here. If you think our talent is something, you ought to see our spiritual gifts, because every single person here has a supernatural spiritual gift given by the Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit at the will of God. It's astonishing. You have no idea how rich we are in gifted people. You can hardly imagine it, and neither can I.
Picture the kind of people we have become thanks to the grace of God. We were dead people, as far as God was concerned, dead in our trespasses and sins. We were the living dead with an eternity of dying ahead of us. Then God came through Jesus. When we put our faith in him we were regenerated, recreated. And in that miracle, the Holy Spirit of the almighty God came to actually live in the hearts of each of us who trusted Christ. The Holy Spirit God lives in each of us, and in all of us God is present, not hovering over us but working from within us. You and I are temples. But that's not all, because the Lord Jesus has equipped each Christian here with various spiritual gifts. These are like quiet super powers, abilities to do something we could not do before. They're spiritual talents, not musical or mathematical. I think of it this way: a spiritual gift is the ability to do something the way Jesus did it. Each of us has at least one. They're more evident in some; they're quieter in others. But there are no exceptions.
So here we are, a people who were once not a people, who were orphans, at best, and dead, at worst. The Spirit comes and resurrects us to live forever, and then gives us these gifts, brings us together in a church, and says This is the body of Jesus. We have an expression here that we love to use: We will paint with the colors God gives us. If you've been here more than about three weeks you've heard that expression.
It started when I was new here, and it seemed like we were lacking the things we needed to get the church rolling. It was as though God helped me picture an artist's palette. He said, I'm going to put a squirt of this color and a squirt of that and a little of this on your palette. And I thought, Lord, I could paint a better picture if I just had some red. But the Lord impressed on me, You can paint a masterpiece with the colors I give you. Blue and green and yellow will be fine for you. We don't have everything that other churches have, but we have the colors on our palette that God wants us to have. We have all the spiritual gifts, all the treasures of the gospel that we need to do something glorious for Christ. We don't deserve them. We didn't apply for them. We didn't have to wait in line for them. He just gives them to us. So we should be thankful, because we don't deserve to be so gifted.
And finally look at verses 7-9: "Therefore you don't lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." Paul is basically saying, Even though Jesus isn't here yet, it's like he's with you because of how he equipped you. "He will keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord."
These verses emphasize our spiritual security. Let's be thankful because we don't deserve to be so safe. Frankly, I feel like saying to the Lord, "Are you sure you want to put it that strongly? We're a pretty fickle crowd." But he says he will keep us safe, even if we're not always the kind of church we ought to be. The Corinthians certainly weren't. Why? Is it because we really are good people who always rise to the spiritual challenge? No, I wouldn't count on that one. God will keep us safe because he is faithful. When he calls us into fellowship with Christ, he will keep us there. We don't deserve to be so rich. We don't deserve to be so gifted. We don't deserve to be so safe.
Gratitude for God's grace binds us together as a church, even when we haven't met each other yet. Worshiping together, praying together, studying the Bible together, serving together, and eating meals together are crucial because our hearts, which already have so much in common through Christ, are twined together with our songs and our prayers and our service and our fellowship. When grateful Christians celebrate our spiritual riches together, use our spiritual gifts, orient to our spiritual hope of Christ's return and our eternal life, Christ binds us together in love.
Division and diversity
With this in mind, Paul switches the subject. He argues that there's no excuse for divisions among us. Verse 10 says: "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there may be no divisions among you but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought." Let's just look at the first words: "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The Lord Jesus Christ exhorts us to get along with each other. Imagine that you and I have had it with each other. I really tried to help you see how screwy your theological position is, but you won't listen to reason. Or maybe we disagree about what kind of songs we should sing or what the children's program should look like. It's not our first conversation like this. Tensions are high. I have long doubted your godliness and I'm starting to wonder about your common sense. Suddenly Jesus appears between us. He's robed in white so bright it hurts your eyes. His eyes flash like fire, and his voice sounds like Niagara Falls. He looks at me and says, "Do you love me?" And I stammer, "Yes, Lord, I do." And he looks at you. "And do you love me?" "Yeah." "Then I command you to work this out. I will give you the grace to be patient, grace to forgive, grace to recalibrate what really matters in this discussion. But if you love me, fix this relationship."
"I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another." It doesn't really seem very realistic, does it? "Be perfectly united in mind and thought." What are the chances of that? "Let there be no divisions among you." The Greek word for "divisions" is schisms. Doesn't that word sound like an ax being sharpened? Schisms. It means to be cut apart.
Paul describes how they were dividing: "My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you." Imagine sitting in church on the Sunday morning the Corinthian church received Paul's letter. "Ah, we have a letter from our brother Paul." You listen to the letter being read, and suddenly Paul says, "I hear you guys are all fighting." And one group says, "I follow Paul"; and a group in a different section says, "I follow Apollos"; and another group says, "We follow Peter." You don't sit together. And one group, holier than thou, says, "We follow Jesus."
Now the teachers that are mentioned—Paul, Peter, and Apollos—were all prominent in the early church. In just a couple of chapters, Paul will say that he planted the seed in Corinth, and Apollos, another great teacher, watered it. He says, "But God gave the increase." The problem wasn't with these guys. It's clear that all three of these men were very powerful personalities, and we tend to follow people like that. And it is likely that they each brought a different angle to the gospel, not contradictory. But every teacher does that. You like certain Bible teachers because they teach in a way that resonates with you. It's easier for you to understand. Or this part of the gospel or that has been more transformative for you than someone else. That's a good thing. The church is better for having a variety of voices and personalities expressing the truths of the gospel to us.
We're better for having both Rick Warren and John Piper. Some of you might think, I don't know who those guys are. But some of you do, and they don't have coffee together very often. We're better for having both Tim Keller and Beth Moore, who I suspect have not met. Max Lucado and Francis Chan. We're better off when you learn from other pastors besides me. We don't have to agree on every single point. That's not what Paul's saying. That's not possible. Paul and Peter had things they didn't agree on. Paul and Barnabas had disagreements. Among those saved by Christ, diversity's good but division's deadly.
Some of you are drifting off. It's time for a little congregational experiment. We're going to sing the last line of the doxology with the "amen." No parts, please. Everybody sing the melody in unison.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. That sounded great. Not many of you are tone deaf. Let's do it again, and on the "amen," sing parts. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. Which version was more beautiful? The second. That's what the church should be like. We don't all have to sing the same line, but Jesus expects us to harmonize.
Baptized in the name of Christ
In verses 13-17, Paul says, "Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?" Then he speaks about baptism. "I thank God I didn't baptize any of you except Crispus [the synagogue ruler] and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the house of Stephanas, and beyond that I don't remember if I baptized anyone else.)" That aside is so pastoral. When someone says to me, "You baptized me," I remember that great day. Or they might say, "Kids, we want you to meet Pastor Lee. He did our wedding." I love that part of ministry.
Never forget that Christ alone binds us together. Without Christ we're nothing. At the very end of this book, Paul writes—this is stern stuff—"If anyone does not love the Lord let that person be cursed" (1 Cor. 16:22). Then he says, "Come, Lord." So the Bible isn't saying we should join anybody who says they're people of faith. We should seek those who love the Lord.
Paul says, "Is Christ divided?" We all have thought about the pain a child experiences when forced to choose between parents. That's the only analogy I could think of for what he's saying here. When you fight with each other, think about what you're doing to Jesus, because he isn't going to be parceled out. Think what it does to Christ when factions try to claim his favor over each other. Paul says, "Was Paul crucified for you?" Of course not. Each of us meets Jesus at the cross. Not at Paul's cross or Peter's cross or anyone else's, at the cross of Jesus. That's the only place we can go. It's astonishing that the cross can unite such a disparate group as us, isn't it? We've all been to the foot of the cross. So when we divide from one another, we deny the word of the cross of Jesus.
Then he says, "Were you baptized in the name of Paul?" You might get the sense from this that Paul didn't think baptism was important. Of course that's not true. This just wasn't his principle focus of ministry. Remember he says, "I planted. Apollos watered." Paul staunchly believed in the necessity of Christians being baptized. If you are a Christian and you haven't been baptized, it's time. Talk to me. Let's make that happen. His point is this—baptism, regardless of who baptized us, is important because it binds us to Christ. Baptism is a public loyalty oath to Jesus. It makes no difference whatsoever who put you in the water. Does it have to be your pastor? Not particularly. The point is we were baptized into the name of Jesus Christ, and that's who we belong to. So let's not take sides over our spiritual leaders, because we're all loyal to Jesus alone.
Christian unity takes work, and it takes grace from God. Recently I experienced Christian differences handled in a Christ-like way two times. Two different brothers have come to me with concerns and talked to me privately about our differences. Both issues were important. I'm not sure if we agreed with each other at the end, but both of these brothers were so kind, so careful, so gentle. One said more than once, "I don't want anything to come between us." Our church is stronger for having those brothers among us.
Finally, Paul says, "Lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." When we walk away from the cross to form our groups, even over theological differences, we have emptied the cross of its power. The power of the cross saves us and draws us to Jesus. So if we walk away from that, the cross is being sapped of its extraordinary ability. We're responsible if we let that happen. Salvation only comes because Jesus died for us. All that enriches us and exalts us and unifies us only comes through the cross of Christ.
November 16, 1997 was a pretty momentous Sunday for me and Susan. That week I sent a letter to the congregation in Pennsylvania announcing my resignation to come to this church. And the reverberations were pretty significant. I'd been there fourteen years. As we gathered for church that morning, some people couldn't imagine how church could still be their church if I wasn't there. And I didn't know how to address that. So I preached from Philippians. I said, "God is the one who's been working in you, not me. Did you think it was me when your heart was stirred, when the Word resonated and echoed in your soul? Did you think it was me who knew just when to give a wise word or a gentle touch? Did you think it was me who moved you forward in Christ? Did you think it was me?" And right then from near the back a little girl, who figured it was time somebody stopped all this, shouted, "No!" She was right. It isn't any of our pastors or teachers who do these things. It is the Lord Jesus Christ, and we will be a church worthy of his name if we remember that.
Before the benediction, let's do something. I don't remember if I've ever done this in my life. Some of you come from churches where this is the custom every Sunday. We're going to pass the peace. I say to you, "May the peace of Christ be with you." And you answer, "And also with you." I would like you to pass the peace to one another before I close. Greet each other.
That's wonderful. Who else can do that but the people of God? Would you stand for God's blessing now?
What a great morning this has been. Remember to love one another, and do what is pleasing to him. Be strengthened by grace and worship in reverence and awe to God of peace. And grace be with you all, and may the Great Shepherd of the sheep equip you with all things for doing his will, and grace be with you all. And grace be with you all.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.