God's Open House

Sunday, January 26, 2020


In the last 12 years, Tennessee football has had 5 head coaches. Tennessee basketball has had four, and the women’s basketball has had three, after 38 years with Pat Summitt. And of course Tennessee is trying to recruit new athletes so that they can compete at the highest level. Given that lack of stability, you might expect Tennessee to have had a lot of bad recruiting years. But the truth is that UT has been pretty consistent in recruiting at all levels. And every coach there, and really any coach anywhere, will tell you the reason. When you recruit athletes, you recruit them to the program, and not the particular people.

I know sports isn’t the only metaphor people use, so let me tell you that we see this principle anywhere. People looking for a teaching job, I’m sure, have heard all sorts of promises from principals and administrators about what the place was going to be or build. But you can’t hang a 30-year career on an administrator who won’t be there 5 years. You take the job if you love the school.

In politics we’re told all these stories to make our politicians seem relatable. But good citizens don’t vote for the one who doesn’t put ketchup on a hot dog, they vote the one who will work for the common good.

The basic principle is that if your connection to an organization or institution is more dependent on loyalty to a person than loyalty to the organization’s goals, the commitment is thin indeed. You recruit to the program, not the person.

And this is exactly what the Corinthians were getting wrong. Paul had founded the church in Corinth, and then being the itinerant preacher that he was, Paul moved on to other places and was planting a church in Ephesus. And the Corinthians were on their own. Other apostles came to Corinth to preach, lead, and teach in the church at Corinth. Apollos, the great preacher mentioned in Acts. Cephas is Aramaic for Rock, in Greek that would be Peter, so we think this may be the disciple Peter. The have the benefit of these famous apostles Paul, Peter, and Apollos, but what happens is that they break into factions.

And Paul starts hearing about divisions within the church. He heard it from Chloe’s people, which tells us maybe that Paul is not exempt from this problem, and definitely that women were active leaders in Christian communities from their very beginnings. Paul hears that the Corinthians are dividing themselves up according to which apostle led them to Christ, and not Christ himself. There are divided up into followers of Apollos, followers of Peter, followers of Paul.

Today’s passage is Paul’s response to the situation. He has heard about the infighting, and he needs it to stop. Has Christ been divided, he asks? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? What Paul is saying is that the hope and purpose of all his work has not been to create loyalty to Paul, but to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ (and not well he adds, because people might get distracted by his eloquence and not hear the power of the gospel). Paul wants it to be clear for all the Corinthians, that it’s about the program, not the person.

Except in this case, the program is the person. Jesus Christ, who was crucified, died, and rose again. It runs counter to every other notion of how we can thrive in the world. The cross is the sign that God loves the broken, the forsaken, the unforgiven and unforgivable enough to suffer with us. And in perfectly loving our imperfect selves, Christ give us his holiness, and lifts us up to new life, to proclaim the good news of Christ’s salvation to everyone.

Paul wants it to be clear, that he does not want them to be his people, he wants them to be Christ’s people. And our hope today is the same. We want you to be Christ’s people.

The hope and aim of this church, and hopefully the hope and aim of every church, is not to for you to become a member. Or a donor. It is not to for to have a relationship with the church. It is not for you to have a relationship with the pastor of the church, or its members. It is for you to have a relationship with Christ.

            All of these things are important to the church, but they are not the end of the church, which is Jesus Christ. Your relationship with your pastor, with the church community, with the choir, with your Sunday School teachers, all of these things are intended to deepen your relationship with Jesus Christ.

This is not to say that connections with other members and leaders of the church are bad.  We depend on each other. We take care of each other. That’s part of the work of Christ is learning to see Christ in each other and be Christ for each other. You might get involved with the church because of a particularly important relationship – the pastor, your Presbyterian Women’s Group, the person who sits behind you in the pew. But ultimately these relationships should bring you into deeper relationship with Jesus.

We want you to be Christ’s people.

It doesn’t mean that we have to agree all the time on everything. Paul urges unity, not uniformity.[1] Paul isn’t asking for people to agree with him. In fact, he’s criticizing the people who have shown loyalty to him instead of Christ.

The church is dependent on differences of opinion, personality. culture, and perspective to illumine the whole light of the Gospel, and not just what’s easy for us to see. We don’t lose our identities – ethnic, racial, family, social, class, gender, etc, but those identities become subservient to our identity as Christ followers. And those identities can no longer serve to promote dominance over another. Nor does it mean that we are supposed to ignore important issues in the name of peace. That’s the negative peace we’ve talked about before, the absence of conflict, as opposed to the positive peace that is the presence of justice. Paul wants us, in all our difference and diversity, to be defined by our new identity given to us in baptism as Christ’s children.

Paul’s words are particularly crucial when we are tempted to divide up into sides within the church. Are we traditionalists or are we reformists? Do we like the new pastor or did we like the old pastor? Are we 11:00 service people or 9:30 service people? Everyone who has navigated a pastoral transition or a conflict within the church has had to deal with these issues, and its best to talk about them when we’re not in them, so that we’re ready for the inevitable. The breakdown into sides according to our vision isn’t inevitable or necessary. We can disagree, but in every disagreement we have to remember that we want to be Christ’s people more than anything else. I tell this to young couples getting married all the time. If you see disagreements in your marriage as conflicts between the two of you, you’re going to have a hell of a time. But if you can externalize, and recognize that the disagreement is your opponent, and not your partner, then you can work together to find the solution.

It is also particularly crucial when it comes to our Youth who will be heading out into new communities in the next few years. When you grow up in one church, your relationship with Christ is always mediated through that church. You know Christ in the people that you know at church, the culture the church promotes, the way the church worships. Going to a new church then, is really hard. Because all of the people are different. And the culture and worship style are different, even within churches that are very similar. And it can be easy to say I’m gonna wait until I find a church that feels like the one I grew up in. So it is crucial that we develop in our children a relationship with Christ that runs deeper than their relationship with First Presbyterian Church. Whether they have a relationship with the church or a relationship with Christ will determine how well they make the transition into a new worshipping community in their adult life.

We are not just working to build a community together. We are working to build a community of Christ followers. And the ultimate goal of this place isn’t perfect unity, growth in membership or giving, but the proclamation of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. We want you to be Christ’s people. So that you can go out from this place knowing that he walks with you.


[1] Skinner, Matthew. “1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the Word.” Connections, Year A Vol. 1, Advent through Epiphany. p. 202.