Friday, January 21, 2011

Membership without message is misleading

Some thoughts from my upcoming sermon, based on Sunday's Epistle. Parish home groups have been studying I Corinthians.

It is uncomfortable the hear St. Paul say, "I thank God that I baptized none of you... For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel." He leaves himself open to the empty but effective argument that he "changed what Jesus said." After all, Jesus left his followers with instructions to "Go into all the world, baptizing... and teaching..." Paul seems to separate the baptizing and the teaching in today's Epistle.

But Paul isn't attacking baptism itself. He's after the goofy way that the Corinthians have reduced it to a mere sign of membership status, and done so in ways that mislead others. Instead of membership in Christ, which is baptism's true meaning, the Corinthians have made it a ritual of membership in cliques.

Paul points out that the Corinthians are valuing their baptisms based on the popularity of competing baptizers, including Paul himself. When Paul acknowledges reports from a faction within the congregation, "Chloe's people," he is admitting that there is a "Paul clique" in Corinth. The church is quarreling, each clique proclaiming "My baptizer is better than yours!"

Paul shows the absurdity of this by asking if any of the baptizers, including Paul himself, belong in place of Christ. "Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"

Then he goes back to the message that gives baptism and every other aspect of the church meaning: "the message about the cross."

Christ's offering is unique, and anything else by which the Corinthians attempt to define themselves will be misleading.

The Corinthians try to form entourages around celebrity missionaries, but none of the missionaries can do what Christ did.

The Corinthians try to argue about the best strategies for living among pagans, yet none of their approaches have the purity or the saving power of Christ's offering.

The Corinthians try to segregate by social class, but this only shows that they've locked Christ out of their gatherings.

The Corinthians try to rank themselves by "spiritual gifts," but this only draws attention to big egos rather than to Christ, who gave all members gifts so they could work together as his body on earth.

Paul's emphasis on meaning is not set against the sacramental means of church unity. Rather, he's frustrated that the Corinthians enter sacramental worship "in an unworthy manner," dishonoring Christ as they exalt individuals and cliques. He tells the Corinthians to examine themselves before receiving Holy Communion, which he defines as "a proclamation of the Lord's death until he comes." His teaching is not just words and ideas; it honors the outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace of "the message about the cross."

Paul's teaching is as urgent today as it was in first century Corinth. The State Church of England is considering baptismal rites that emphasize membership in a vague "spirituality" rather than new life in Christ. The Episcopal Church has stumbled into an unwritten dogma of "baptismal covenant," by which people do not need or receive spiritual change, but are simply entitled to certain perks for becoming club members.

Finite things - institutional survival and status, favored cliques and egos - displace the divine Christ who humbled himself so that people could find "new and unending life in him." May we rediscover the meaning of membership in the church, and no longer mislead one another toward lesser things.

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