Today, we’re going to take a look at the very first part of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. This is a church that he planted on one of his missionary journeys throughout the ancient world, but other teachers came along after him preaching slightly different versions of the gospel – including at least one teacher who told the mostly-gentile congregation that they would have to be circumcised and follow the Jewish laws and food rules if they wanted to be real Christians.
The church he writes to is fractured into camps – some cling to the good news Paul gave them, that God loves and accepts them exactly as they are and calls them to share that good news with their neighbors. Others are splintering off to follow the teachings of this guy or that guy. Yet others are trying to go off on their own and do their own thing.
So the part of this letter we’re about to hear is literally the first thing Paul says after the standard greetings that were common for letters in this time. (Paul was a lot of things, but subtle was not among them.)
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.
What 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.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
This passage hits me in the gut every time I read it, because even though it was written almost two thousand years ago, it’s a pretty harsh indictment of the Church as a whole today.
Even if we were to just count the different types of churches (who each follow their own brand of Christianity that started with one or two particular teachers) here in the Licking Valley area – we would run out of fingers to count on pretty quickly.
When Paul wrote this, the unity of the Church was somewhat loose – communication was much slower and the centers of authority were still being built – but it was very much a reality. For the first thousand years of the Church, there were no Methodists or Presbyterians or Baptists. There was just The Church. There were plenty of people arguing over theology and power, but with a handful of exceptions, taking your friends to start over in a new church was not a thing people did.
But once the splitting started, it snowballed – and, well, here we are.
And we’ve now reached a point that no matter how geographically close two churches may be, their theology, their worship, and their beliefs about the world have evolved in such different directions that they’re now mutually exclusive – and they can’t even talk to each other.
For those of us who’ve studied all the nuance and history of those very different churches, this makes some degree of sense. But for those who are brand-new to Christianity, it’s stuff like this that makes us sound absolutely insane and more than a little petty.
And the folks outside of the church? They’re thinking: “if they’re that mean to each other, what must they think about me?”
This is why we need some skeptics among us. We need the people who don’t understand our acronyms and our shorthand. We need the people who ask questions about who we are and why we’re here and not down the road. We need the people who say “is that really what you believe?”
Because those are the people who snap the Church back to reality. They remind us what’s most important: sharing the good news that Jesus is Lord and God loves you and the Spirit is with you wherever you go.
Skeptics also remind us that our theology—what we believe about God—matters.
I didn’t spend four years of my life in seminary, studying and writing and memorizing, just to tell you to believe whatever you want and it will be fine.
Because every bit of theology has real-world, real-life consequences – for better or for worse.
For example: if a person believes, deep down, that it’s our choices and our own personal righteousness that keeps a person out of hell for eternity, then they will do whatever it takes to be seen as a perfect person. They might try to cover up their own faults or failings. They might distance themselves from anyone whom they consider un-righteous. They might constantly try to ‘fix’ everyone around them. In some terrifyingly common circumstances, they might even disown and throw out their own child for being ‘rebellious.’
Another example: let’s say you have a preacher who wholeheartedly believes that the Bible is the single most reliable source for information about how the world works: including information about history and science. This is how you get folks who really, truly don’t believe that dinosaurs existed (because they’re not in the Bible), or that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around us. This, in turn, might lead to a belief in some grand worldwide conspiracy to discredit “true Christianity,” which leaves folks distrustful of education and governments, and even more susceptible to other harmful conspiracy theories.
One last example: let’s say you have a group of people who believe that they and they alone are God’s favorites – that they and their descendants will be saved from God’s wrath in the last days, and everyone else will…not. It’s not anything they did that made them God’s favorites, but God chose them because God loves them the most and they just have to live with God’s decision. Those folks would be pretty unlikely to welcome outsiders or strangers. They’re not going to be very interested in sharing their good news, unless it’s to rub it in someone else’s face. Because they’re so entirely focused on what comes after death or apocalypse, they’re also not going to be very likely to care about what happens to someone in this life – and therefore, probably won’t engage in things like community service or caring for the folks outside of their own group.
Some pastors and churches are afraid of the doubters, the skeptics, and the people who ask too many questions. They’re afraid that if someone pokes the right joint or pulls the right string, the whole thing might come crashing down. It’s easier to plow ahead without pushback – but that’s not what unity means.
Unlike the folks who are content to believe whatever they’re told and dive in head-first, skeptics will first look from the roots of a tree—that original thought—all the way to its fruit—the ultimate consequences when that particular thought is lived out. They are the ones who look long and hard before they leap.
Jesus reminds us how important this is in his sermon on the plain in Luke, where he reminds his disciples:
“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.”
You will know good theology from bad theology not by how many nickels and noses you can count in a particular building on Sunday morning, but by the life and actions of the people who actually believe it.
Perhaps the unity of the church is less about the name on the building – Catholic, Presbyterian, Wesleyan – and more about the kind of fruit that congregation is growing.
Now, there’s a small caveat here: even though the Church is meant to be the body of Christ on earth, the Church is also made up of real, actual, flawed humans. Congregations and individuals will make mistakes. You will never find a perfect church, and even this church family has its quirks and flaws and weird habits.
But I hope that when we look at the big picture, when we see the whole of our theology and our life together, that even the most cynical of skeptics will find good fruit growing here: acceptance of difference, compassion for those who don’t have what they need, care for one another in troubled times, and joy for one another in the best moments.
And I also hope that the skeptics among us will continue to call out for growth and change – to show us our flaws and our biases, to advocate for healthy and whole bodies and minds, and to show us the Spirit who grants us courage and hope to keep going, to keep adapting, to keep cultivating love.
Blessed are the ones who ask hard questions, and blessed are those who keep searching for answers.
 Luke 5:43-44