I Corinthians 1.10-18
Melanie was one of the prettiest girls at school, and one of the most popular. Hal was just as good looking and just as popular, so it was no surprise when he asked her to go to Homecoming. They made their plans and preparations and both were excited. Until two days before the dance, when Hal texted Melanie that he was not going to the dance with her, but instead with Steph. Apparently he had caught word that it was Steph and not Melanie who was leading the votes for Homecoming Queen, and Hal wanted the Queen on his arm. So, that night, he got what he wanted, as both of them were crowned King and Queen. And Melanie cried herself to sleep at home.
His friends shrugged their shoulders at the heartless act. “That’s just Hal.” And, unfortunately, they were right. Hal was always in pursuit of a better reputation. He didn’t mind talking down to anyone that he considered below his social standing. And that was just about everyone else in the school. He had nicknames for everyone, mercilessly debasing and embarrassing them whenever he could. Anything to make himself look better.
It started when he was young. His first day of middle school, he sat alone at lunch, and it was a terribly embarrassing moment for him. He vowed never to do it again. He figured out who were the popular kids and what it would take to get in good with them. Regardless of what he had to say or do, he bought into the cult of reputation all the way.
After high school, things weren’t that different. In college, he had to be in the right fraternity, and date the right girl. Even though he couldn’t stand either.
After college, he went back for the extra degree, because he thought that he letters after his name would give him what he really wanted out of life.
In his first job after college, he climbed the ladder to higher and higher ranks. But it meant nights and weekends at the office, until he burned himself out on the job and the career.
Throughout his life, again and again Hal was always carefully grooming his image. He yearned for prestige. For reputation. For the “right” people to see him in the “right” light.
But deep down, he did what he did because he didn’t think he was worthwhile without that prestige. It wasn’t until his third wife left him that he actually looked at himself honestly for the first time, and he didn’t like what he saw. But by that time, he didn’t know any different way. And so, he went to his Tinder profile and made a few tweaks, and he was back in the game.
It is fascinating how often the Hal’s of this world keep reappearing, generation after generation. How many people belong to the cult of reputation. They need to be fawned over, have their ego stroked, and told how great they are. We can see it in the celebrities and politicians of our day.
And we can see it in the pages of Scripture. The ancient city of Corinth was a town filled with Hal’s. The culture was built on prestige and on ego. Your job was to improve your social standing. Your day was filled intentionally boasting on the street corners, dropping names and resume stats. Your worth was based on how people saw you. And it spilled over into the church, as well. The Apostle Paul had founded a strong and healthy church, and had shepherded it for 18 months – longer than he stayed in his other churches. But now, from Ephesus, he has heard that his church has begun to worship at the cult of reputation. It seemed that various members had taken to the Corinthian practice of boasting and aligning themselves with the “right people” in order to build their reputations. Some aligned with Paul. Some aligned with Paul’s colleague who stayed behind after Paul left – Apollos. Some aligned with Peter, or Cephas, the broader leader of the Church as a whole. And some have this “better than thou” attitude that says, “I don’t know about you, but I follow Jesus.” Each faction thought that they were right, and felt like they had the better reputation. And listening to this report of a splintering congregation just makes the old Apostle’s heart break. This isn’t what he taught them. This isn’t what Jesus taught. He didn’t teach the importance of reputation, but of the cross. Of service, and sacrifice, and love.
And for Paul to see his cult of reputation tearing his beloved church apart, it broke his heart. Again, this is a story as old as the church and as new as our own world. Division and schism has been with us from the beginning, and every step of the way. In the Two Way conversation this week, we agreed that Paul’s world was not that different than our world today. How often do we hear of ideological and theological differences tearing apart congregations? The list of schisms in our lifetime is long – worship style wars, budget priorities, disagreements over how to build or use a building, political issues like abortion or gay marriage, personality or priority conflicts between church leaders. How often are these schisms caused by the need for reputation? We compare ourselves to the church up the street and think that we need their worship style. We compare ourselves to the megachurch and their political stance and think that we need to be like them. We compare ourselves to others and let reputation be our guide, and pride become our motivating factor!
Yet, for Paul, it is always a fool’s game. “I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and same purpose.” It was the message that Paul had tried to get across while he was in Corinth, and now he desperately wanted them to hear:
“You are enough. I know you don’t think you are enough, and your culture tells you that you are not. But the message of the cross will always seem weak and unpopular and unprestigious to the world. But to us who are being saved it is the power of God. It is the power of God to know that the Creator of the universe came to dwell with us – with you. The Creator of the universe died for you. The Creator of the Universe triumphed over death for you. And that is all you need to be enough. You are worthy because God sees you as worthy. You have a purpose.
And for Paul, it was not just an individual message, but a communal one. “Y’all are enough. Y’all have a purpose.” I think that Paul had a special purpose in mind for Corinth. Corinth was a diverse port city, with a lot of ideas and perspectives and differences between its inhabitants. And the church was the same – rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, women and men taking positions of leadership. I think that Paul saw Corinth as a potential model church. If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere. It is with the Corinthians that for one of the first times he uses the metaphor of the body. We are all different – different roles and purposes and gifts – but we all come together as the unified body of Christ to act as one.
Even here, Paul is not disparaging their differences – the differences and diversity is what makes them great! He talks about Apollos…elsewhere, he explains that he and Apollos have very different takes on the faith; he disagrees with Apollos ideologically. But here and elsewhere, he supports Apollos…calls him a co-laborer. The difference is not the problem for Paul – it is the schism. The tearing apart of the church because of the differences between them. This Greek word, schismata is onomatopoeia – a word that sounds like what it means. It connotes the tearing of paper or even of flesh in a way that cannot be brought back together. This schism is tearing apart the body – Paul’s metaphorical body of Christ – and that is what breaks his heart. It is not difference that hurts him – it is schism in the face of that difference.
So, he pours his heart into this letter to them, begging them to see themselves as the body – as unity in diversity. As a place where all can come and feel welcome, not just the rich or the high reputation. He begs them to be a welcome mat for everyone! That is their purpose.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, I have good news. God had great things in store for the Corinthians, and God has great things in store for us. First, individually, you need to know that you have a purpose. God has made you and gifted you to be a part of the body of Christ. I loved the skit this morning by the Evangelism team, because they nailed this idea perfectly. How many of us get anxious about showing that hospitality because we think we aren’t the right one to do it? Someone else is more interesting. Someone else is more outgoing. Someone else has more in common. Someone else is worthwhile and I am not. But they reminded us a Gospel truth – you are enough. You have been given what God saw fit to give you. And all of us have someone who needs to hear that, to know that, to receive what you have to give. You are enough, and you have a gift to share with others.
Meanwhile, not only do you have a purpose, but y’all have a purpose. You know, this is a pretty special place, whether you know it or not. I know we don’t always feel like it. We aren’t the fanciest or the biggest or the most prestigious or the richest church around. But when you come to First Baptist, we are glad that you’re here. And we always have been. A hundred and sixty years ago, we started out as a church that was a welcome mat to the prairie, a stopping-off place for pioneers headed west. And over the years, we have continued to be that welcome mat. For college students on their way to adulthood, putting together what their faith looks like after they leave home. For seminary students on their way to a life of ministry, working to figure out their calling and heart for ministry. Especially for women in ministry, sure that God has called them, even if not everyone agrees that God does that. That is a big part of our purpose. When you show up here, we are glad that you did.
And that makes a difference. When a church knows who it is and what it stands for, that makes all the difference. And we know ourselves. We know that we have a God-ordained purpose. And so we don’t have to chase the prestige that others might. We don’t have to be the biggest or the richest or the fanciest. We can sit alone at the lunchroom table and be absolutely fine with that! Because we know who we are and are okay with it. We know we are a quirky church in a quirky town that tries to live out this quirky faith that is considered foolish by those who don’t get it. And I am pretty proud of that. I am proud of us. Of you. Of y’all.
So, if you hear anything this morning, hear this: you are enough. You are worthy. You are who God made you to be.