A House Divided, A Body United

A Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Text: I Corinthians 3:1-9*

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who unites us through his Crucifixion into one Body. Amen.

“A House Divided.”

It’s the source of turmoil, of angst, of in-fighting, and sometimes of hurtful words you wish you could take back.

You know what I’m talking about.

You’ve seen the license plates: “A House Divided” between the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. Or USC. Or Clemson, or Auburn, or ‘Bama. Come the end of August, ‘tis the season to stoke those bitter rivalries and taunt your loved ones one the wrong side of the stadium.

But of course, football isn’t the only source of division in the South. We also fiercely represent our denominations and even our parishes. Even and especially as attendance declines across the board, losing a good Methodist to those Presbyterians down the street can still cause some awkward family dinners. (Those of us not born into the Lutheran tradition have likely felt this tension.)

And then there are the deeper rips in the fabric of our society, the ones we think we’re too polite to discuss, and by ignoring them, let them fester and spread: the divisions between city and rural, those who live in town or out in the country, between white collar and blue, between Republican and Democrat, and perhaps most noticeably – but least-acknowledged – between black, white, and Hispanic. Our house is so deeply divided that at times it feels like it’s about to collapse in on itself again. It doesn’t take but five minutes on Facebook scrolling past vitriolic articles and meme after hurtful meme to feel as though your aunt, your grandfather, the person in the pew next to you hates you, sees you as a threat.

How can this divided house stand?

Two thousand years and an ocean removed though we may be from ancient Corinth, we know what they were going through when Saint Paul wrote that congregation the series of letters we’ve been reading through this past month. They also lived in a house divided, and numerous disagreements threatened to tear the Church apart.

A port city, Corinth was deeply split between clashing classes and cultures as the rich and powerful ruled over the poor and as diverse people from across the Mediterranean world tried to live together. Layered on top of this already-divided metropolis, the local church added its own conflicts as Jewish and Gentile Christians brought competing backgrounds and traditions to the Faith, viewing their kindred as a direct threat to the Body of Christ. Different factions argued about how to live into the freedom offered in the Gospel and how the Mosaic Law applied. Could Christians eat meat sacrificed to idols? How should Christians properly conduct themselves in worship? Even divisions between rich and poor crept in as those who provided the food of the Eucharist would get drunk off the Blood of Christ while leaving only crumbs and dregs for their impoverished sisters and brothers.

Writing to his parishioners as a parent to his children, Paul urges the Corinthians to not let their house remain divided, with some saying they belong to Apollos, others to Peter, and still others claiming to belong to Paul, but rather to remember that no matter who their pastor is or who baptized them, they are all united to Christ Jesus. Who is Apollos, and who am I, that you would follow me? Paul asks them. Instead, follow Christ – for you were not baptized into Apollos or Peter or Paul but into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul’s entire response to the Corinthian church is rooted in this appeal to unity. When he cautions them against communing without discerning the Body, lest they eat to their own condemnation, that is not a theological excuse to dismiss those they disagree with – the way some modern Christians interpret it. No, the Eucharist is the source of unity rather than division, and woe to those who let it divide this holy household.

Even chapter thirteen, that famous passage on love which was undoubtedly posted on so many church Facebook pages for Valentine’s Day this week, is not about romantic expressions. No, for Paul it is a reminder that all we do for the Church is out of our unity through Christ’s perfect love for us and the command that we ought to love God, one another, and even our enemies.

But then, just as now, preaching unity in Christ went against the cultural current. Rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, eating together? Worshiping together? It was as unusual then as it is now. It makes no sense. Unity in the Christian faith is not a source of earthly might, something to boast about in the halls of power or among the philosophers. The only thing more foolishly laughable would be to proclaim that a crucified criminal is Lord.

And that’s precisely Paul’s point. As he reminded the Corinthians in our text two weeks ago, he came preaching only Jesus Christ – and him crucified, which is foolishness to the Greeks and scandalous to the Jews. To those Greeks and Romans outside the Church, a crucified lord was a lord subject to the bloody whims of Caesar’s errand-boys, a weak fool who was unable to save even his own life. We must remember that despite two millennia of artistic sanitization, crucifixion was such a horrible death that it was reserved for non-citizens, for the impoverished and violent rebels. It was, at its core, a public display of Rome’s violent authority over conquered people. To the Jews, crucifixion was a brutal reminder of Roman oppression but it was also a divine curse for those who failed to uphold God’s Law, as Paul later writes in Galatians with a reference to Deuteronomy. Crucifixion was not a noble death but rather the wretched punishment for one despised by all.

What hope is there for this house divided, worshiping a crucified criminal, a symbol of foolishness and weakness in the eyes of the world?

Only this: God’s foolishness is wiser than any sage, and God’s weakness is stronger than any human king, stronger even then Death itself. If we put our trust in ourselves, in our wisdom, in our own strength, then we will remain divided from each other, and we will perish.

Christ was crucified, died, and was buried. If he is not risen, all hope is lost and we are still in our sin, destined for eternal death, for permanent division from God and from one another. But Christ is risen! The tomb is empty! Our Lord, foolish and weak in the sight of the powerful, rejected by the leaders of this age, conquered the grave! In the glory of the risen Christ, we are free from sin and death! In Christ, we are free to set aside the divisive angst and turmoil, to forgive all those hurtful words, and to do the hard work of repentance and reconciliation.

Make no mistake: it is not as easy as a half-felt apology. It takes sincerity and a sacrificial love. Mending broken relationships and divided houses is only possible if we let the Triune God change our sinful behavior toward family, neighbor, and enemy. But Christ has given us all we need to accomplish this sanctifying work.

If we put our trust in the one who has conquered the grave, if we depend upon the grace given to us in Christ Jesus, if we join with him and unite ourselves to his most precious death through these sacred waters, dying daily to sin that we may rise with Christ, if we consume his Body that we might be consumed into his Body, then we will be united through him with the Father, with our neighbor, with one another, and even in the fullness of time, with our enemies. All division will cease to be as God’s wisdom and strength win the day. Amen.

*This homily takes up this liturgical year’s read through I Corinthians, with reference to the texts for the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays after Epiphany.

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