Acts 18:1-4 | 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
I’m fairly sure that at no point in his later life, is Stan likely to get to get into an argument, and boast, as support for his position, that he was baptised by the Rev. Chris Goringe. If he ever does, I suspect he will get blank looks at best, and probably people gently edging away from him.
It’s just not an issue for us. Not a way of marking ourselves that even begins to make sense in our modern age. We wouldn’t even consider making an issue of who baptised us – indeed, I suspect most of us don’t even know.
We might identify ourselves, I suppose, with a denomination – I’ve certainly heard more than once the phrase “I’ll live and die a Presbyterian” (although I have to admit, I don’t really know what that means), and of course people will still identify as Catholic or Protestant – but it’s certainly not a label, a marker, that defines us; and for the most part, not one that shapes our position on matters of debate – at any rate, so much less than it once did.
For the ancient world, however, religious markers were central to identity – and a common way to define those markers was by the rabbi, the teacher, the guru, that you had come to follow. So as disputes and disagreements as to how best to follow the faith of Jesus Christ arose in Corinth (a cosmopolitan centre of the region), groups aligned themselves around a few big names: Paul, Apollos, Peter.
These were the groups; and who you were and which side you were on was marked by which group you aligned with.
We don’t use religious markers so much today, but we dp have, of course, plenty of other markers that we use to define ourselves. No longer “I follow Paul” or “I follow Cephas”, but you don’t have to spend long living in the Northern Suburbs to realise that the marker you bear by virtue of the school you attended is a powerful, significant, influential one.
And of course, when I say “living in the Northern Suburbs” I’ve just named another powerful marker that we look to when working out who someone is; where we live: the beaches, the northern suburbs, the west (not to be confused, of course, with the inner west), the shire – by the time we know someone’s address, we have – or at least think we have – a handle, a marker, a peg for them.
I recall that when I first visited Australia, as a backpacker in the late 1980’s, someone explained to me that this effect depended upon the city you were in – in Adelaide, they told me, what mattered was what Church you attended; in Melbourne, it was who you were related to; in Canberra the degree you had, and in Sydney, how much money you made.
And, of course, enfolding all of that is that marker we hold as Australian; with, of course, a sub-text that refines that status – recent arrival, or second or third generation (and if so, where from?)? first peoples? first fleet?
While the particulars are very different between ancient Corinth and modern Sydney, the desire, the instinct, to find your group, your tribe, and align with them, has never changed.
We all, still, want to know which gang is our gang.
Paul’s appeal to the Church in Corinth, echoing Jesus’ appeal to his friends in the garden of gethsemane in the hours before his death, is perhaps the most counter-cultural demand of the gospel. Be one. Be united. Be at peace with one another.
It’s the attitude modelled by Paul in his first visit to Corinth, as recorded in our reading from Acts: he stayed with a Jewish family, exiles from Rome by fleeing persecution by Claudius, but he worked, day by day and week by week to try to convince both Jew and Gentile (for Paul, the greatest divide of all) to join the way, the people of Jesus Christ.
But of course, Paul was just imitating the one who he sought to follow – for it was a striking characteristic of Jesus’ life that he paid little regard to religious, cultural, gender or ethnic barriers: dining with Jews and Gentiles, men and women, radical Pharisees and Roman collaborators.
Calling them, all the time, out of the boxes that we put ourselves and one another in; out of the labels and markers that divide ‘us’ from ‘them’; out of those divisions and into something new, something that he named as the Kingdom of God.
“In Christ,” Paul would write, “there is no male nor female, jew nor gentile, slave nor free”
All Paul’s time, all his energy, was dedicated to this goal, this mission; calling people out of the destructive, arbitrary divisiveness and competition that so commonly characterises human endeavour, and into a community of faith centred on the power of the cross and united into a common purpose: “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
No wonder he was so rapidly and deeply disappointed by these very human divisions and distinctions, parties and labels, springing up within the Church.
In the letter to the Corinthian Church Paul will go on to discuss and diagnose some of the debates that threaten to tear the early Church apart: but throughout the letter he offers only one remedy, one cure for the disease of division. “I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”. A message that is at the same time foolishness and the power to save.
I find it oddly reassuring that right from the beginning, the gospel was identified as foolishness by some – perhaps most – of those who heard it.
Because it’s not hard to see that “foolish” is a pretty common adjective applied to the Christian faith in the modern day – in fact, foolish is probably rather more generous than many of the epithets levelled at believers.
So it’s good to know that Paul, too, found his preaching of the gospel, his declaration of the good news of God in Jesus Christ, was greeted by many as foolish.
But before we find ourselves too reassured; before we congratulate ourselves too much with a little pat on the back for every time someone criticises us for our beliefs; let’s remember, just because you’re being criticised doesn’t mean you’re right. Sometimes, when people tell us that what we say about our faith is foolish, they’re right.
The foolishness of the cross, that Paul speaks of, is not just any old foolishness.
It is the foolishness of the cross – the foolishness that took Jesus to the cross. The foolishness that said “I will continue to walk this path, the way of God’s unconditional, reconciling love, even though it threatens the authority of those who hold power, even if it makes me a troublemaker, even if it labels me as a criminal. I will place love, justice, peace above the things the world holds dear.”
The message of the cross is the foolishness that says that love – giving, sacrificial love – can defeat the powers of the world, the might of the empire, the self serving selfishness of the powerful, the simple neglectful evil of ignorance. It is the foolishness that says that enmity can be overcome, enemies reconciled, wrongdoers restored and victims healed, that ‘us’ and ‘them’ can become ‘we’.
This is the power of God for our salvation: the foolishness that says that an executed Messiah can bring us peace with one another, with creation, and even with God.
This, to us who have chosen to join the revolution of belief, is the power of God.