You would've thought it was the best of times. You know, those early days of the Church when everything was just getting started. They had some number of the Apostles still around, the Apostle Paul, especially. Jesus had only been crucified 30 years before. People in churches were still alive from that time. Jerusalem had not yet fallen to the Romans. So there must've been an excitement, right? There must've been a passion and an enthusiasm and a sense of unity because everything was just so recent. Everyone just had to be on the same page and contending for the same truth. I mean, how could it have been any other way? How could it have been anything other than the best of times?
We think that because we imagine it to be so. But we are abruptly awoken by verse 10 of chapter 1 of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, "I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you." Divisions? That can't be right, can it? We read further, "It has been reported that there is quarreling among you." Divisions, quarreling? In the churches founded by St. Paul? In the churches that arose just decades after Jesus? There's quarreling? There is.
Even in the days of what some refer to as Biblical Christianity, people didn't always get along or agree or play nice. Paul even had to write them from another city to admonish them. Remember when you were younger and your overwhelmed babysitter would call up your mom and dad and put them on the phone to tell you to behave or you'd in real trouble when they got home? That's how bad it is in Corinth. Paul has to admonish them from afar.
See, unity is expected among us Christians. We fight a common enemy in Satan, the world and the flesh. We have a common Savior in Jesus Christ and we agree that His death alone is the only way of being saved. In the Lutheran Church, we subscribe to the confessions, which bind us together in one understanding of the scriptures. We've always known about the importance of contending for the truth together.
Why is it then, that we so often become disunified and descend into quarreling and divisions? Paul gives us some hints today. He basically says that we want to turn our preachers into celebrities. In the early Church, there were those who liked Apollos and Cephas and then Christ. And it does seem strange that Jesus is only a part of a list? And so maybe the clarity in those days was not what we imagine it to be.
In a lot of ways, the early church was like Facebook. People say and quote all kinds of opinions and experts. There's not a lot of consensus, just a lot of chatter and a lot of fascination over different personalities. Well, they had that in the early church. This was before the days when everyone had a copy of God's Word. In fact, no one had a copy of God's Word except for the church that received it. You went to church to hear God's Word and to learn from it. There was no recharging your spiritual batteries as people talk about the church today. It was about learning the basics. And people took to hearing the basics from whichever personality excited them the most. It was how they did things in Greece, so it was how people came to do things in the church since many of the people Paul wrote to were Greeks.
But Paul reminds us not to confuse rhetoric with preaching. See, preaching is about content. It's about substance, but rhetoric is about style and crowds and most importantly, results. Did you wow them? Did you get big numbers? Did your ministry become more popular? Did you have the right person bringing the message?
Some years ago, Martin Luther talked about the difference between rhetoric and proclamation. And he turned the concept of results on its head to distinguish between these two. He said, "The question is why God bids Moses preach although He himself says: Pharaoh will not listen to you. Is it not foolish for someone to say to another: Friend, preach to Pharaoh, but be advised that he will not listen to you; for I intend to harden him? But the answer is: We are bidden to preach, but we are not bidden to justify people and make them pious. Only the Word of God is entrusted to Moses, not the responsibility of making Pharaoh soft or hard by preaching."
In other words, sometimes, preaching doesn't lead to the results that we desire. The point is that it's not our responsibility to increase the numbers. It's God's. It's the Holy Spirit. Rhetoric is about focusing on results and style. But preaching is about focusing just on what Christ has said and what He has done. The results of preaching are in God's hands.
What kind of preaching do you look for in the house of God? Do you focus on what is said or do you focus on what is felt or experienced? Do you focus on the preaching or do you have a desire to be moved by rhetoric?
Rhetoric may lead to unity, but it's not the kind of unity God intends. It's unity around a personality or a style or an experience. But God desires us to be unified around the person and work of Jesus Christ and the doctrine of His Apostles. It's not the personality of the speaker that can save us, but only the content of what He preaches.
Paul says that Christ sent him to preach the Gospel "not with words of eloquent wisdom less the cross of Christ be emptied of its power." See, the Gospel has the power of God all by itself. It doesn't need our help to make it work. It doesn't need to be improved upon to make it effective. In fact, as we heard in Luther's words about Pharaoh, sometimes, the preaching of God's Word produces no results at all.
Trusting in rhetoric is having faith in ourselves rather than having faith in the person and work of Christ. It is a glorification of human nature rather than a glorification of God. This is always the temptation for us just like it was the temptation for those in Corinth. And this is why the church can sometimes be a place of division and quarreling—because there is disagreement over preaching and rhetoric.
Paul leaves the Corinthians with the understanding today that preaching the cross is folly to some, but the power of God for salvation to others. Not everyone who hears believes. It's not that there's anything wrong with the message or that it needs to be embellished or dressed up. Paul is saying that it's the words that matter. It's the content that matters because the content doesn't point us to the talents of the messenger. The content points us to Christ's work on your behalf. It points you to Jesus, who bled and died for your sins that you might be saved from death, hell and torment. It points you to a righteousness that you can't attain for yourself no matter how good you are, but instead it is given to you as a free gift.
It is the Holy Spirit that gives growth to the seed when it is planted in the heart. Now we can reject the Spirit and His Work. We can refuse the gift of salvation because our human nature tells us it should have nicer packaging. But it's not the packing of the gift that matters. It's the contents.
Oh if only those early days in the early church were like we imagined them to be. Sometimes they were, just like they occasionally are in our time. But unity among Christians shouldn't be based upon what people feel, but on what they believe and what they confess. And even still, there may be quarreling and there may be divisions over other things, but at least the sinful people of God will have the saving grace proclaimed in His word. At least they will know of the Son of God who died for sins. At least they will have the truths that can and do deliver them unto eternal life. They will have the content of what provides the church with true unity because it provides the church with the preaching of the true Savior. The best of times for the church are yet to come because they are assured in the promises of Christ, who died, rose and ascended and will return again. We look to that day of His return, when they who believe in Him will live together in unity for all eternity. In His Name. Amen.
Pastor Chris Bramich