Sermon: Pointing Fingers

01.22.2017     Preaching Text: “Now I appeal to you…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 the same purpose.” (1 Corinthians 1:10)

One of the unfortunate facts of life is that divisions in the church happen. Why? Well for one thing, the church is made up of a variety of personalities who bring into the mix varying backgrounds, experiences, and ideas.

Beyond that, we live in a contentious society where divisions are rampant. Just take the recent election for example. Personally I’m not sure the election caused these divisions though I’m equally certain it didn’t help. My view is that they’ve existed for quite some time.

I once read a book that sought to identify the different stages societies go through. The first stage, akin to the post-WWII era in America, is one of unanimity and consensus. Here most people agree on the goals of society. Their differences focus mostly on the means to achieve these goals.

At a certain point, however, societies tend to fray around the edges. The center, in essence, cannot hold. The result is that the members of the formerly unified society no longer agree on its goals, much less the means to achieve them. Eventually that society will reconfigure in a new way, somehow, for good or ill.

Whether this analysis is correct or not, we do appear to be living at a time when diverse opinion and the lack of unity seems rampant. That this lack of unity could never migrate into the church is pretty much impossible. Each of us, after all, lives within the larger society. Thus it’s hardly surprising that we bring at least some of its attitudes and methods into our church life.

Then again, divisions within the church are hardly new. Exhibit A is Paul’s two letters to the fractious church in Corinth. In our epistle reading this morning Paul exhorts the warring parties to seek agreement, to be “united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

To modern ears this may sound less than desirable. We celebrate diversity, after all. Conformity is hardly the catchword of our age.

But don’t be misled. Paul is not talking about lock-step thinking. Elsewhere he compares the church to a human body with various parts that function differently. None is to be neglected, diminished, or ignored. The unifying force, however, is the head. And that head is Jesus Christ.

The head directs all aspects of the body, each of its parts, in a holistic, unified way. When the various parts of the body begin to deviate from the head’s directives, disease is the natural result. Take cancer, for instance.

So what’s going on in Corinth could be described as a kind of cancer, with each part of the body acting as if it’s the head. Chaos is the inevitable result. The body becomes unhealthy, which ultimately harms every single member of the body, including those leading the charge.

Paul, like a doctor, diagnoses the malady. The various parts of the body have turned against each other under the flag of certain identifiable leaders. “I belong to Paul,” say some, while others pledge allegiance to Apollos, or Cephas, or even Christ himself, as if it’s possible, as Paul reminds them, for Christ to be divided.

It’s like saying, “I belong to Lynn” or “I belong to Glenn” or “I belong to Kay” or “I belong to Phyllis.” When put it in these terms it sounds utterly absurd. And it is. For we know that our purpose as the church is to belong to Christ, who, as I say, is the only proper head of the church.

Oh, and that goes for the pastor, too.

Years ago in my first church, while I was serving as associate, the senior pastor announced he was leaving to take a call in Florida. The news was not welcomed within the church as he was highly respected and well-liked.

On the first Sunday after his resignation letter went out, I was left with the unenviable task of preaching. I used as my inspiration the example of John the Baptist.

I referenced the famous Isenheim Altarpiece completed by German painter Matthias Grünewald in 1516. This extraordinary work, also known as the Grünewald Triptych, brings to life the various stages of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Among these famous images is a panel that depicts John the Baptist pointing to Jesus on the Cross. Yet there is something especially odd about the depiction. His index finger, you see, is absolutely enormous, much larger than the rest of his fingers.

One immediately gets the allusion. John famously redirected people away from himself and toward Jesus. His role, in short, was merely to point to Jesus, not to assume any outsized role for himself.

The problem in human organizations is that we sometimes forget to follow John’s example. The pastor’s calling, for example, is to point people to Jesus, not to create a coterie of followers for him or herself.

Too often we human beings focus on personalities. Worse still, we judge people not by their fruits, per se, but by our friendships or allegiances. This is precisely what the warring parties in Corinth have done, dividing into camps along the lines of personalities and partisan loyalties. What has gotten lost is the big picture, the very reason they exist as a church.

If you are ill, you go to the doctor. Your interest is not so much the doctor’s personality but whether he or she assists you to regain your health. It certainly is a plus if you like the person, but the main reason you go to the doctor is to obtain proper care.

In the same vein, I may like a particular accountant’s personally, but the main reason I go to him or her is to insure that the numbers come out right.

Similarly, in the church, the main attribute of leadership is not personality-based (though it’s certainly a plus that we like one another), but whether such leadership actively and faithfully seeks to do God’s will as revealed in Jesus Christ, who, again, is the only proper head of the church.

All church leadership, then, and perhaps especially the pastor, must be based not on a personality cult, or friendship, or partisan loyalties but on whether that particular leader points us to God.

In Matthew’s account this morning, Jesus, as he begins his earthly ministry, says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But the Greek word translated as “repent” is metanoia. Metanoia actually means transformation, but not just any kind of transformation. We’re familiar with the word metamorphosis, which refers to outward transformation. Metanoia, in contradistinction, refers to inner transformation.

Without this our work in the church is futile. It is the inner transformation of our souls that defines our work as the church. It is, thus, the degree to which we manifest that inner transformation and model it for others that defines how worthy our efforts are.

Thus, to repeat, all leadership within the church must be defined by the extent to which our lives adhere to God’s Word, Jesus Christ, and how effectively our actions and behaviors point to Christ’s Lordship. Amen.