“Christ or Mascot?”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
After all the introductory niceties, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gets right to the point: “11It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you,” he writes. “12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1Cor. 1:11-13)
I’m just riffing here, but maybe the Corinthians, as ancient Greeks, were so used to having a smorgasbord of gods to choose from, that every time things got difficult, they went looking for something more satisfying on the buffet. Paul was good, and some people stuck with him. But Apollos was smart and a great orator. And Cephas; that’s Peter’s Greek name. He was intense, and to the sophisticated folks of Corinth, he may have been something of novelty, relatable in a blue-collar, beer-drinking kind of way. Even Jesus seemed to be just another choice on the menu.
Lovingly distressed, Paul calls the Corinthians out for having grown so divided that they no longer experience, much less represent the body of Christ. Then again, the apostle does understand. “26Consider your own call,” he says. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” (1Cor. 1:26-28)
Paul challenges the Corinthians to understand that while the gospel may sound a bit ridiculous at first, it takes a deep, mature, and long-practiced spirituality of contemplation and service to embody it. And in the thirteenth chapter of this same letter, Paul writes one of his most insightful and memorable passages, the passage that ends with these words: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor. 13:13)
In our own day, Richard Rohr echoes that truth saying that we can never truly know God. We can only love God. And that’s all God asks.1 Paul urges the Corinthians to recognize that while they may be on the way to the beginnings of an inkling of that truth, they need to mature quite a bit further into agape love before it becomes their truth.
And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? 4For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?
5What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. 6I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. 9For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (NRSV)
You all are messed up, say Paul, because your sippy cups are empty and your diapers are full. The church is not about you, or me, or Apollos. We’re all servants, co-workers on God’s farm. I planted and Apollos watered because a crop needs people to do both of those things. But when seeds go into the earth, they’re dead. The new life they receive and the growth they experience is a miracle only God can do.
Jealousy and quarreling, says Paul, are signs of a community made up of individuals who live in constant fear that their familiar ways of thinking and being in the world will be questioned or contradicted. That fear launches a series of wrong turns. They turn away from love. They turn their energies of cooperation and trust into suspicion, judgment, and even aggression toward those who represent emerging viewpoints. And these reactions turn communities from havens of harmony into nurseries of resentment and conflict.
Let’s remember that Paul used to persecute Christians. He turned his Pharisaic fears into suspicion, judgment, and deadly aggression toward followers of Jesus. And now he nurtures and leads them as a Christian servant. Paul himself died, was buried, and given new life by God, in Christ. So, he has unique authority to say that when followers of Jesus look for hope and redemption in anything besides God’s Christ, they are seeking comfort in mascots.
Human cultures offer mascots by the thousands. Whether it’s a celebrity, a political affiliation, a theological absolute, a sport or team or athlete, a screened-in distraction, a substance to ingest or inject, or some means by which to impose our will on others, there is a pantheon of mascots and idols just waiting to be bought, sold, and coddled. We can claim to love them, but they cannot love us back. They can only seduce us. Love for a mascot is nothing more than addiction.
As immeasurably different as the first and twenty-first centuries are, much about human relationships remains the same. The Corinthians’ competing loyalties to Paul, Apollos, Peter, and God knows what else mirror the divisions we experience in our contemporary jealousies and quarrels. Human beings have always been driven by their obsessions with power and security. And through the eons human cultures have consistently relied on brutality and intimidation to achieve those ends. Since Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313CE, the Church has fully participated in devotion to worldly mascots. And since misappropriated love is just another name for fear, the history of the Church has always included not only division, but destruction of things God creates and loves. As members of that Church, we must be able to confess that we have participated in and benefited from the Church’s fear-driven jealousies, quarrels, and power-grabs.
“Power is of two kinds,” said Gandhi. “One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective than [power] derived from fear of punishment.”3
Gandhi wasn’t Christian, but there’s a mystic harmony between his words and 1Corinthians 13, Paul’s “love chapter.” I hear a similar harmony expressed today, again by Father Rohr when he speaks of the Universal Christ2, which is the embodied love of God in and for the world, a love that is not so small and petty a thing that it depends on our childish jealousies and quarrels to decide for whom and even through whom God can be at work.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to be boldly different from while remaining lovingly engaged in the world around us. We’re called to be servants who have a “common purpose” even when we get sideways on details. Our common purpose as laborers in “God’s field” and on “God’s building,” is to receive and share the eternal love of the one who created and redeems us. We’re called to be a community of yeast, a ferment in the world according to Jesus’ ways of mercy, justice, and peace. We experience unity not by having all the same opinions, but by holding the inevitable tensions of living in community with love, which is “patient [and] kind…[which] is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…[which] does not insist on its own way…[which] is not irritable or resentful…[which] bears…believes…hopes…and endures all things.” (1Cor. 13:4-7)
God, grant us the strength and the maturity of faith to live in love, to live humbly, honestly, and compassionately with one another, so that our life together witnesses to our shared conviction that we do, in all things and at all times, belong to and serve only you. Amen.
2Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Books, 2019.