In her book Leaving Church, Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor recounts her time as a parish minister, serving Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church in rural Georgia. She writes,
In a big city they might have found homes in five markedly different parishes, but in a county with only one Episcopal church they learned to live together—the Yellow Dog Democrats, the National Rifle Association boosters, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the League of Women Voters. Once, when I asked a newcomer what had brought him to Grace-Calvary, he shook his head. ‘I know people who come to this church,’ he said, ‘and I finally had to come to see for myself how they got through a Sunday morning without assaulting each other.’
Perhaps as you did, I found myself taken aback by the newcomer’s response. That’s a fairly strong and negative image that this newcomer harbored about the idea of people who differ occupying the same pews. Just like the Corinthians, just about any congregation today has a variety of people under the same roof and with different convictions, perspectives, opinions, and biases. And, yes, there are many opportunities for diversity to become a stumbling block rather than the mark of good ecclesial identity.
The challenge for congregations, however, is not to figure out who is right or wrong. It is whether or not they begin from a place of common ground. Paul begins treading into difficult conversations with the Corinthians by reminding them of why they are together, called to be saints, the people of God, followers of Christ Jesus. When we remember our identity, we can begin talking about our differences.
It is frustrating when churches become mirrors of the same tensions and anxieties that drive our society to privilege or enable the partisan behavior out to capture votes. Indeed, when this happens, churches are mirrors all right: those carnival funhouse ones that distort the real image of who we are. We become less like the One who made us.
At such times, the problems that often get named immediately are a matter of opinion, bias and sometimes denial or anger. What I wonder is when a time of conflict arises, is it really for Christians a case of collective amnesia, as people forgot to seek that common ground first before wading into more troubled waters.
When Paul wrote a letter, he followed the custom of his day: a word of salutation as well as closing remarks, and he filled most of his epistles with responses to the situations occasioning his writing. Before the teaching, however, Paul offered a wonderful word that is indeed well named: he indulges in a bit of thanksgiving. In Paul’s day, letter writers would offer thanks for the recipients of the letter. In the midst of the praise, Paul put things into perspective:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind—just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you—so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:3-9)
I find this an uplifting word, even if we’re just eavesdropping a bit on the conversation between Paul and these early Christian believers. Paul reminds us that we have this great blessing found in each and every member of the fellowship. We gather together as believers from different walks of life, yet we are enriched and nurtured by the grace of God given to us in Christ Jesus. Paul offers a word that reminds us that our strength is grounded in God.
This is such a good word when oftentimes many congregations operate out of a sense of lack. We think about the pews being half-empty, when we have such good folks already in the pew gifted by God. We sometimes wish for more and worry about having not much, and we fall into the trap of thinking it all depends on a key figure or two, or a healthy cash flow, or the right “fill in the blank”.
Congregations thrive when they are able to move from a deep appreciation of the Spirit working in their midst, kindling diverse gifts, the ardent desire to follow Christ, and attentiveness to the signs—seen and unseen—of God’s measureless grace.
The Corinthian church needed to hear this word wounded and fractured by controversy. There are some who hold some strong views, and others who are left out of the fullness of the fellowship because of the controversies at hand. Yet here is Paul, addressing the factions from afar, offering a word of greeting: To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. Despite the anger, the conflict, the splintering happening to the Corinthian Christians, Paul claims at the end of the day, God is the one who brings us together. The lifeline that Paul throws the floundering Corinthian congregation is not “advice” but “good theology.” Remember your identity as believers in Christ and let the grace of God shape your fellowship and its inner life.