“Us and Them and Truth in Christ”
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Since I've come to Wisconsin and been converted as a Packers fan, I've enjoyed watching them play. (Sadly the Packers' season ended one game too soon, but there's always next year, right?)
I've also enjoyed the friendly rivalry with Bears fans, and exchanged good-natured teasing with many of them. It's part of what makes sports fan-dom fun, I suppose, to cheer for “us” and root against “them”.
But our text from 1 Corinthians today seems to leave no room for “us” and “them”, at least when it comes to the church. Paul sharply criticizes the Corinthian church for the divisions among them – not Packers vs. Bears, but followers of Apollos vs. Cephas vs. Paul vs. Christ. Factions and rivalries are not good for the church, says Paul, for Christ himself is not divided.
But this is a problem for us, isn't it? The world of Christianity today is a world of Christians divided. You have the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. The Presbyterians and Episcopalians and Methodists. There's Congregational and Non-Denominational and Bible-Churches and Nazarenes. And within these groupings, many sub-groupings and so forth.
We belong to one of many denominations of Christian. We “follow Luther”. We even call ourselves “Lutherans”. And even more than that, we're members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, not just any-old-Lutherans. Does this mean we have a problem, or that Paul would have one with us?
Now I suspect that so far I've got two kinds of hearers out there.
Some of you are saying, “You're right Pastor, I am an LCMS Lutheran and proud of it!” And if this is you, listen carefully to what Paul says about divisions in the church. Do we wear our synodical membership like a Packer's jersey? Do we become puffed up because of the purity of our doctine or the excellence of our schools or the richness of our heritage? How do we speak and act and think about our church, our church body, our fellowship of faith? I suspect that for many of us, sinful pride is a problem. We need to heed Paul's words carefully. We need to repent of sinful pride when it comes to our church affiliation – and truly follow Christ (not Luther, or the snazzy LCMS logo).
But maybe you are the other kind of hearer. Maybe your affiliation with this synod or with Lutheranism isn't really such a big deal for you. Maybe you could easily imagine yourself in some other church of some other confession and teaching. Maybe you are one who thinks the differences don't matter, and that what Paul is saying here is that “all that matters is Jesus”. Keep the main thing the main thing, right? Don't get bogged down in the details.
Thanks, pastor, for sticking it to those prideful LCMS people this morning. They really needed to hear that.
But are you hearing Paul correctly?
If you are this kind of hearer, then please hear a little more. Do not read this text in a vacuum. Consider the entirety of what God's word has to say on the matter. Hear this:
1 John 4:1 “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
or Acts 17:11 “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
or Paul's very strong words from Galatians 1:9 “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
Yes, God wants us united. Yes, he wants our sad divisions to cease. But he would not have us do it at the cost of his word, or by sacrificing its truth.
It is a sad fact in a sinful world that some, even some Christians, teach falsely. In fact most of the reason we have so many divisions today is because of false teaching. And these false teachings matter. They matter to your pastors, and they mattered to St. Paul, and they matter to the Lord God. Because the truth of his word matters, and is no small thing.
Too often we Christians buy into the great lie of our culture (of which there are many variations). But it usually goes something like, “it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as...” “As long as you really believe” or “As long as you have the basics down” (whatever those are) or “As long you try to live a good life” or even, “As long as you are a Christian”.
Faith in Christ alone is what saves, and so in a sense it's true that nothing else matters. But the Bible –God's Word, the whole counsel of God - is a precious treasure for our benefit. And when we misuse it by teaching or believing falsely, we sin against him and do ourselves no favors either.
False teaching, and false believing, are tools of the devil to obscure the true Gospel. For he wants you to believe anything and everything that is not truth. He wants you to be a prisoner of sin, shackled in lies, bound in his kingdom. But the truth of Jesus sets us free.
And here is the blessed truth. You are, we all are sinners, and deserve death. But God is good, and in his grace sent his Son, Jesus, who died for you. His blood covers your sins. He offers you forgiveness, life and salvation. He offers it in his word, in Holy Baptism, and in his Supper.
You can't earn God's favor with good works. You can't pray hard enough or decide firmly enough to be saved. You can't even be saved through having all the right theology. But faith in Christ, and his promises, and that faith itself a gift from him, is what does save you.
And know the blessed assurance that in Christ, your debt is paid. Hear the good news that in Jesus Christ, the kingdom of heaven has arrived. And trust in his promise to come again, raise the dead, and bring his people home forever to the Father's house.
The word of the cross truly is the power of God. It is this word, this truth, that we believe, teach and confess.
And we do so boldly, though humbly. We say what God says, because he said it. And we are careful to listen and read and understand just what he says. And we believe that this Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod teaches the truth of God – or else would be bound to leave it.
Indeed, Paul's words today urge us to avoid a party spirit. But they should not be an excuse for “anything goes”. Finding the proper balance can be done, resting on God's word, taking seriously his word of Law, and clinging for life to his Gospel promises. There is no other way.
And when we fall, when we go off track, on one side or the other, he is there to call us to repent and to offer us forgiveness. By his Spirit, he opens the ears of our hearts yet again, to hear him speaking to us. Hear him today, forgiven sinners! Hear him for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.