The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
Text: I Corinthians 3:1-9
Fr. Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
12 February 2023
Last summer, I had the privilege of attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. A gathering of representatives from all across the United States as well as from abroad, General Convention meets every three years and is the main legislative body of the Episcopal Church. A couple of interesting facts that I learned while I was there – General Convention is the oldest bicameral legislature in the world, going back to our first convention in 1785, and it is also the largest legislative body in the world. There were around 1,200 bishops, deputies, and alternates from 107 dioceses. It was exciting to be there.
Yet, at the same time, the convention made me aware of the many challenges and problems facing our beloved church, from rapidly declining numbers to issues of social justice. And it was painful to see the divisions in our church. In the discussions and debates over the various resolutions, the differences in theology and politics became very clear. This should be no surprise. For an organization of 1.8 million members, there is bound to be a broad spectrum of views and opinions. What impressed me, however, about General Conventions are two things. First, in spite of our differences, we could have open and frank discussions. At a time in our polarized society when civil discourse and dialogue are far too rare, it was refreshing to see democracy in action on the convention floor. Second, and more importantly, in spite of our differences, all 1,200 of us prayed and worshiped together. This is the beauty of our Anglican tradition. Whatever may divide us, we come together in prayer and worship.
Divisions in Christianity are, of course, nothing new. In fact, they go all the way back to our beginnings. In today’s Epistle, we read of the problem of division in the early church. The Corinthian church is embroiled in factionalism, divided between a group loyal to Paul and another group loyal to Apollos. Paul had founded the Corinthian church, but Apollos had subsequently become more popular than Paul with some members.
Paul points out to the Corinthians how silly they are in creating such personality cults – “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos.” The fact is, they belong to neither. They belong to Jesus Christ. Paul and Apollos are only servants through whom they have come to believe in the Lord; Paul and Apollos should not be the object of their loyalty and devotion.
Divisions were a major problem in the early church. From theological debates over issues such as the circumcision of Gentile converts to socioeconomic tensions between the rich and poor, the New Testament is full of examples of dissension in the early Christian communities. Hence, because of these divisions, we likewise find many calls for unity. In Ephesians, for instance, we have this beautiful appeal: “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3). The passage offers an antidote to the division and bickering: unity of the Spirit through humility, gentleness, patience, love, peace.
Part of my training for the priesthood was what’s called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), in which I interned as a hospital chaplain in the St. Luke’s Health System. One of the lessons that I was taught in the program was to adopt an attitude of humility toward the people from other faith traditions, such as Muslims and Buddhists. This is a much-needed corrective to the past, in which we Western Christians have assumed an air of pride and superiority to non-Christian religions.
But the irony now is that while most of us have been educated to be conscientious about having an attitude of humility toward people of other faiths so as not to offend, we don’t always do the same to fellow Christians. And for most Episcopalians, that means those Christians of a more conservative bent, in particular Evangelicals or Roman Catholics. They are Christians no less than we are. And yet because of differences in theology and politics, we find it difficult to adopt an attitude of humility. We find it easier to dismiss or ignore them. It’s sad that we seem to have the most bitter fights with those closest to us. Think of all the controversies and schisms that have rocked our own denomination in recent years over such issues as gender and sexuality. And I confess my complicity in the internal feuding within our Christian faith. How many times have I been dismissive of Christians who do not share my theology or my politics? Do I even bother to listen? How many times have I failed to be humble, open-minded, and respectful toward my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ in other branches of our faith?
In Deacon Lynda’s sermon last week, she made the wonderful point that the metaphors of salt and light that Jesus uses in his parables are not aspirational. We are not called to become salt or light to the world. We are already salt. We are already light. And, today, taking my cue from Deacon Lynda, I would like to say that we Christians are already united, we are already one. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Whether we are Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, Evangelical or Pentecostal, conservative or liberal, we are all Christians first and foremost. Yes, that includes Low Church Episcopalians.
When we were baptized, we were reborn into a new family, joining the community of all the faithful, here and throughout the world. As the Apostle Paul states later in Corinthians, we are joined together as members of the Body of Christ: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we are all made to drink one Spirt” (I Corinthians 12:12-13). Through baptism, through the Spirit, we have already been joined as one body. We are all members of the body of Christ. Our goal is to embrace this fundamental unity of all believers.
We are sisters and brothers united in Christ. And as with any siblings, we will have our differences. But whatever may divide us, we are united in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” All our differences in theology and politics pale in comparison with what unites us. As we sang in the opening hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord.” May God grant us the grace to live together in unity with mutual respect, humility, and love. For only then can we fully live into our identity as the Body of Christ.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!