24 January 2011

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany: "Unitas, Libertas, Caritas"

             If you hang around long enough in the church, you start to hear a lot of things more than once.  Some of us pastors call it the book of Hezekiah: the stuff that isn’t in the Bible, but sounds like it is.  “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints.”  “The gospel is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  “Those who sing pray twice.”  One that I heard quite often during seminary was this:  in necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.  “In necessities, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”  According to Wikipedia, it is often misattributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great early theologians of the church, but the earliest known use of the phrase was by a  Croatian archbishop in the 1600s, more than a thousand years after Augustine was dead and buried. 

Whatever the source may have been, the meaning is fairly clear when it comes to church doings.  In the things that really, truly matter, we should be of one mind.  In things that aren’t essential to the faith, we should be free to practice as best fits our context and beliefs.  Most importantly, and before even the essentials, some have argued, we must show one another charity and love, kindness and respect in our differences and in what makes us one.  Unfortunately, for the people of Corinth, for the people of the 17th century and for believers here in the 21st century, life together as a church is life together in a world far too complicated to be conquered by sayings, no matter how pithy and beautiful they might be.
            When Paul first came to Corinth, he came to a city with a wide spread of economic and social positions.  Corinth was a rich, rich city built on shipping fees and merchants, and that meant many religions, many cultures, and people on every rung of the economic ladder.  We’re not entirely certain how well the Corinthian church got along while Paul lived among them, but reading today’s text from 1st Corinthians we see that after he left, the church split into factions and started quarreling.  “I’m Paul’s man!”  “I belong to Peter!”  “I’m an Apollonian!”  “I’m a Lutheran!”  Oops.  Factionalism.  Division.  Splinter groups.  The church didn’t start splitting during the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.  The church didn’t start splitting during the time of the Great Schism between Orthodox and Roman Catholics in the 11th century.  The church has been splitting from the very beginning.  What Paul saw in Corinth is the same thing we see in our churches today: disagreement, dissension and, sometimes, dis-assembly.  Sometimes the factions can’t live together.  Sometimes the divisions grow too great.  As my Reformation history professor said in seminary, “In the church, where it’s always sinners tending the fire, someone is bound to get burned.” 
            When Paul started his letter to the Corinthians, he told them, “…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [1]  He’s right, of course.  A shortage of spiritual gifts was not the problem in Corinth.  This was not a church falling apart because of apathy and neglect – as we’ll see in later verses, the Corinthian church was an active church (in some ways too active).  These people were dedicated to the things they believed – it’s just that they had come to believe in some of the wrong things.  People identified with the person who had baptized them, or the person who had introduced them to the community, or their earliest catechist or instructor in the faith.  Paul’s response is simple and brutally to the point:  “Has Christ been divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”  Of course not!  But the absurdity of the question reveals the absurdity of the quarrels, and gives Paul an opening into which he will pour the undiluted good news of Jesus Christ, him and no other, until their minds and hearts can hear nothing but Christ and him crucified.  That’s the point, you see – Jesus.  Not Paul.  Not Peter.  Not Apollos.  Not Augustine.  Not Luther.  Not King.  Not Osteen.  Not Johnson.  Jesus.  Only Jesus.
            In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.  This is a lesson we will have to learn over and over again in our lives. Marco Antonio de Dominiis, the archbishop who history says first wrote these words, was an anti-papal reformer who left Venice ahead of the Inquisition, then came back to Rome later in his life.  One playwright cast him as a fat, disagreeable religious official who changed his beliefs whenever it seemed convenient.  Things haven’t changed much in all the years since those days.  As you can see, the Christians aren’t all worshiping together under one roof today.  We haven’t been for almost a thousand years, and even in the earliest years of the church, believers were first alienated and then driven away because we couldn’t always agree on enough to live together.  One of the reasons we developed the early creeds was a desire for consensus about what was and what wasn’t Christian belief.  Yet Paul made the same argument as Archbishop Dominii when he wrote his letter to the Corinthian church, and it’s an argument we can make for ourselves today as well:  unity, liberty and charity are all characteristics of an authentically Christian church. 
            First, unity.  “…[let] there be no divisions among you…be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”  Paul is clear that unity is of the utmost importance for the Corinthians, but not on any one arbitrary thing, and certainly not on the basis of any human teacher or apostle.  “Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”  What’s the expected answer here?  [Christ]  Of course it’s the Christ, the anointed one, and the unity Paul expects from the church is based on Christ alone.  Christ was crucified, Christ and no other.  Baptism is a baptism into Christ and no other.  It is Christ Jesus and his cross alone that makes us one; this was the truth in Paul’s day, it was the truth in the days of Reformation, and it is still true today.  We are one in the cross of Jesus Christ – in that cross alone is our unity.
            Also, diversity.  “I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius…I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.”  It appears that one issue over which the Corinthians have been quarrelling is which apostle or teacher has done the baptizing.  Paul makes it clear that the hands doing the baptizing simply do not matter; it is the name in which one is baptized that matters.  And, just in case you thought it was a big deal to be baptized by Paul, here’s a bit of a letdown for you:  he can’t remember who he’s baptized, anyway!  The power for baptism isn’t found the robes, or the candles, or the pastor – these things are incidental to the main thing, which is plain old water joined to God’s word, poured out over the head of the baptized.  Mind you, the age of the baptized doesn’t matter, either – infant, young child, grown-up, senior citizen, what is wanted is baptism in the name of Jesus, wherever and however it can be done.  The promise is God’s promise – the washing is God’s washing – the claiming is God’s claiming – we in the church are following our Lord’s command when the opportunity presents itself. 
            Finally, charity.  “…there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.”  There are few things more hurtful and soul-destroying than a church quarreling with itself.  Here’s a story I read this week:
“Christianity had turned so deadly in the sixteenth century that the English Protestant John Foxe (1516–1587) compiled a history of Protestant martyrs called Acts and Monuments, popularly known as Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Published in 1563, the book was hugely successful, and went through four editions in Foxe's lifetime. He himself fled England to Frankfurt and Basel when the Catholic Mary came to power in 1554. By the time he was an old man Foxe had experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly of the first fifty years of the Protestant Reformation. In a sermon delivered outside Saint Paul's Cathedral, London, on Good Friday, 1570, Foxe lamented the chronic bloodshed:
But here (alack) cometh another mischief, as great, or greater than the other [ie, the Turkish invasion of Hungary and Austria]. For the Turk with his sword is not so cruel, but the bishop of Rome on the other side is more fierce and bitter against us; stirring up his bishops to burn us, his confederates to conspire our destruction, setting kings against their subjects, and subjects disloyally to rebel against their princes, and all for thy name. Such dissension and hostility Satan hath sent among us, that Turks be not more enemies to Christians, than Christians to Christians, papists to protestants; yea, protestants with protestants do not agree, but fall out for trifles.[2]
When it comes to the walk of faith, we are called to charity with each other.  This doesn’t mean we must agree on all things, nor does it mean we’ll always be able to live as one group of believers.  Paul himself quarreled with his fellow evangelists, changed traveling partners, challenged the original disciples on matters of faith and life, and most likely alienated many fellow believers with his hard insistence on what he thought it meant to follow Christ alone.  We can’t go back and undo the quarrels of the past.  We can’t heal the wounds of Corinth, Galatia, Rome and Constantinople.  We can’t go back and unwrite the blistering words of Luther, Erasmus, Calvin, Knox and all the other reformers and counter-reformers.  Individually, we can’t even bridge the gap in our own time with our brothers and sisters in other churches here in Ames.  What we can do is this:  we can recognize the unity we share in Christ Jesus, who has died for the sins of the world and risen again to give life to the world.  We can allow ourselves and others around us to express that gift of Jesus in different ways, freely and without reservation.  And when we disagree with particular expressions of faith, when we come to an impasse we cannot cross by ourselves, can we not do our best to love across the divide, to let go without anger and acrimony, to pray with and for our brothers and sisters in other families of faith.  We can, and we may.  This is the freedom given to us in Jesus: to live without fear in the world God has created, to proclaim the good news of Jesus with power and compassion, and to serve where we are able in that strong name, even if the ones we serve cannot make the same claim.  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  May it ever be so, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

[1] 1st Corinthians 1.7
[2] Clendenin, Daniel. Journey With Jesus


  1. You referred pastors quoting the (fictional)book of Hezekiah. I thought that you might like to know that a lot of these quotes have been put together in a book - appropriately called 'Hezekiah' - which is available from Amazon. It is formatted to look like a study Bible.
    You can read a couple of independant reviews online if you go searching.
    Ian Kammann

  2. Ian,
    Thanks for commenting. I don't usually publish comments from people promoting their products, but since I did find the book where you linked it, and it appears to be on the up and up, I let it go this time. Best of luck to you with your book.