In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Last Sunday, we finished our Sunday reading of the epistle to the Romans. This morning we begin 1 Corinthians. Toward the end of the year 49, St. Paul began his mission at the city of Corinth, where he ministered for the next 18 months, some time until probably June of the year 51. The beginnings of the Corinthian church were not promising. It’s still a small church; when I was over there some years ago, it was. They fought over whether it was going to be named for Paul or Apollos or Cephas. The name of the parish church there now is St. John’s, which is… [Laughter] Must be a history behind that.
Anyway, the beginnings of that Corinthian church were not promising. There was active confrontation and animosity associated with that parish from the very beginning. It was founded in strife. Paul had started by teaching at the local synagogue each sabbath, sharing the Gospel not only with the Jews but also with the local Gentiles who had been attracted to many features of Judaism and who became hangers-on at the synagogue. These, by the way, were the first Gentiles to join the Christian Church: those who had associated themselves with Judaism.
When the Jews at the synagogue had opposed and cursed what Paul was saying, he finally broke off any further discussions with them. If you’re wondering where I’m getting all this, just go read the 18th chapter of the book of Acts; it’s all there. Paul left the synagogue in a huff, saying, “Your blood be on your own heads. I am clean. From now on, I will go to the Gentiles.” And he began to meet in the home of a local Jew, and Jews and Gentiles gathered together. There was a little bit of a problem, however, because the local home was right next door to the synagogue. [Laughter]
We may take this theme of strife as the first point in our reflections, because there is an atmosphere of conflict in everything we know about the origins of the Corinthian church. Most unpromising. No pastor could stay there beyond a couple of years. It’s like certain other parishes I could name in our Archdiocese: no pastor could stay there beyond a couple of years, they were such trouble-making parishes. Paul’s two letters to that congregation are full of references to discord and dissension. Our reading this morning was all about discord, dissension in the Corinthian church. The third bishop of Rome, St. Clement, wrote to the Corinthians at the end of the first century, saying, “You’ve had enough time now. Clean up your act.” I don’t know if they ever got it cleaned up, and I didn’t inquire whether there was still strife in the Corinthian church when I was over there at St. John’s a few years ago. I don’t know. I hope so. They’ve had plenty of time to clean it up. Fr. Hopko has a marvelous saying. He said, “There are very few problems at any parish which can’t be settled by a sufficient number of funerals.” [Laughter] I believe that is also true of dioceses and archdioceses and patriarchates.
Paul’s first 18 months at Corinth were very hard. He was the founding pastor, but during those 18 months he took no salary for his labors. He worked instead as a tent-maker to earn his living. He became so discouraged by the strife at Corinth that the Lord had to give him a special revelation to keep him going. St. Luke describes this for us in Acts 18:
Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision: Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent. For I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you, for I have many people in this city.
If the Apostle Paul needed reminding on this score, perhaps all Christians do. The founding of the Corinthian church stands in the Bible in testimony that the presence of conflict does not invalidate the experience and claims of the congregation. This account testifies that God does not abandon a Christian congregation just because there’s fighting and occasional locking of horns. Christ did not abandon the Church at Corinth. It’s still there after 2,000 years.
Now, there are those that believe that the experience of a Christian congregation must know nothing but light and peace. Indeed, we all know people who stay away from church because they believe that churches are inhabited by sinners. I have no idea where they came up with that notion, but we’d certainly dispel it if they showed up, wouldn’t we? [Laughter] I’ve always found that deeply silly. It’s something on the order of staying away from grocery stores in order not to associate with the hungry, or refusing to associate with hospitals for fear there might be sick people around. Refuge of sinners is what the Church is. If the Church of Jesus Christ is a refuge of sinners, if it is really true that he came to call sinners, not the righteous, then there’s no logic to expecting to find everything nice and upright in the Church—and we don’t.
Paul, at least, was spared the experience of blog sites and Facebook and other things that are the abomination of the earth. When I think of all the… Well, we won’t go into that. But the great operation of Satan—he’s described as “spirits in the high places”—I’m sure that refers to the internet.
Now, this consideration brings us to point two. In this morning’s reading what we found was the cult of personalities: the cult of personalities in the Church. This is a problem which is still with us. There are pastors who unite their parishes in a common loyalty to themselves. I would never want to succeed a pastor like that. It’s almost impossible. If a pastor unites his congregation by a common loyalty to himself, when he dies the whole congregation should be shot, the same way we do with police dogs when the policeman goes. It’s not a Christian congregation any more. Such a congregation should be closed down, locked up, salted over. There are dioceses where the whole diocese—or archdiocese—is united by a loyalty to one man. That is forbidden in holy Scripture.
Paul says to the Corinthians this morning: “Now I say this that each of you says: I am of Paul. I am of Apollos. I am of Cephas.” Here he lists the first three pastors of the Corinthian congregation. He was the first, and he could only take it 18 months. Then along came Apollos and then Cephas, and by the time he’s writing this epistle, six years later—six-and-a-half years later—the place is on the verge of collapse. Each of these three pastors had brought into the Church a certain number of converts, and each of these groups developed a personal loyalty to the pastor who had converted them. These groups were very different among themselves.
We know that Paul deliberately preached to the dregs of society, people without education and secular advantage. We see that in the first and sixth chapters of 1 Corinthians. These people were added to the original core of the parish, the religious Gentiles and the few Jews who worshiped together in the synagogue. You already had disparate social, economic groups within the congregation even in Paul’s time. There was already the possibility of conflict.
Then along comes Apollos. What shall we say of Apollos? except that Luke describes him as highly intellectual and educated, as he says, “boiling in the Spirit.” Different sort of person from Paul, and he brought in different sorts of people, people who did not meld well with the members of the parish who were already there. Some of the older members of the Corinthian church wanted nothing to do with Apollos and the newcomers. I’m sure it had already started. People were already saying, “Yeah, but he doesn’t measure up to Paul.” After all, he was just converted. That’s in there, too; it was in the book of Acts. He was just converted. His knowledge of the faith is completely book-knowledge. You have to be around a while before you really understand Orthodoxy. You have to live with it for several years. He’s only been pastor here for—right after his baptism. In fact, in the book of Acts it’s the same page. What can he possibly know about the Christian faith?
It would take this newcomer and his converts many years before they would assimilate what the old-timers called “our Corinthian ethos.” We don’t know how long Apollos stayed there, but he’s gone when 1 Corinthians is written, and so is Cephas, the third pastor; he’s gone, too. We’re not sure what poor soul was pastoring it by that time. Thus, within five years or so of its founding, the Christian Church was already torn by strife, conflicts based solely on misguided personal loyalties, uncritical adherence to individuals.
Now this is the source of what we should call the schismatic spirit. Schism is different from heresy. Heresy means “false doctrine.” Schismatic is an adjective derived from the Greek word schizō, meaning “to tear.” Somebody with a schizophrenic mind, for example, [is] somebody whose mind is torn and ruptured. These improper personal loyalties were dividing the Church. Let me tell you, my brothers and sisters, the judgment of God lies over the heads of Christian leaders, especially pastors and bishops, who make personal loyalty to themselves the source of unity in the Church. It’s quite clear in the New Testament that Paul did not do that, Apollos did not do that, Cephas did not do that—and still it happened. Still it happened.
The schismatic spirit is a spirit of the flesh. It has to do with something that’s normal and good—personal loyalties—but personal loyalties cannot be the source of unity in the Church. Most often they get in the way of the unity of the Church, because they deflect attention from the one Source of unity in the Church, and this brings us to our third point of reflection, and that is the remedy that Paul proposes for dealing with this problem of the schismatic spirit, and that is an intentional concentration on the common bond of Christian unity, that is, the lordship of Jesus Christ.
That is why a reference to Christ is found in all ten of the first ten verses of 1 Corinthians. In answer to those who claim loyalty to Paul or Apollos or Cephas, the Apostle answers, “I belong to Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Christians, that is to say, find their proper and equal level in Christ. And what is that level? It’s the water level of the baptismal font. All believers are immersed to pretty much the same water level, a depth that symbolizes the common element that unites them, and this is where real Christians find their shared identity: the participation in the same sacrament by which they join themselves to Christ. The source of their life is likewise the source of their unity. They are all baptized into one body, and it is the body of Christ.
This principle, my beloved, puts personal loyalties and individual preferences into their correct perspective. My prayer to each one of you, my pleading to each one of you, is you will never subject my successor to that kind of scrutiny; that you will never defile my memory by demonstrating toward me a loyalty that supersedes that of the Church. The Church was here before I got here, was here before Bishop Mark got here; it was here before Metropolitan Philip got here. It’s been around a long time. Don’t dishonor the memory of any of us by acting the way the Corinthians did. I say that because I’ve seen this happen. I’m watching it happen right now throughout the Archdiocese; I’m watching it happen. Let this parish never go that step.
When our Lord in this morning’s gospel multiplied those desert loaves that symbolized the holy Eucharist, he made everybody sit down on the same level. St. Matthew said this morning, “He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass.” This act of sitting down, which places all Christians at the same height, corresponds to their immersion in the same water level. This act of descent removes the distraction of individual ascendencies. It places Christ as the center and the unifying principle of the Church, and to him be glory and honor forever and ever. Amen.