A United Front

January 19, 2014   Isaiah 49: 1-7   1 Corinthians 1: 1-9

Charissa C. Howe


It seems like everyone around me has been throwing around the word “call” lately. Nearly every other sentence I hear talks about “calling” and what I’m “called” to and answering a “call.” I have more mentors and pastors and advisors and professors than I can keep track of most days and every one of them is asking about my “sense of call.”

Three years ago when I first enrolled for classes at the seminary, this talk about being “called” was exhilarating. Now, as I face the last few months of seminary, it’s completely terrifying. How could I of all people be called to anything even remotely important? WHAT WAS GOD THINKING?!! I’d like to have everything laid out carefully and in a neat list and God is rather silent about what’s next. I would much prefer that God do this my way, thank you very much.

But in a small voice, and in the lectionary texts that God cleverly laid out for me this week, I am reminded that call is not about the agenda or the itinerary or what comes next. And a call isn’t some special magical thing that only certain people get. We’re all called to something. There are individual calls, like Paul’s call to be an Apostle. But there is also a corporate call that’s issued to the Church as a whole.

In a sermon entitled, “I See the Promised Land,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the Church to remain united and at the core, that is the strength of his teaching and it is the reason his words are so timeless. He spoke words that reach across generations and cultures and grab ahold of us. To this day, his powerful words shake us up because unity is something we are all called to and we all long for, but it can be so elusive at the same time.

 “. . . We’ve got to stay together.” Dr. King said, “We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves.” Just as Paul tells us in  1 Corinthians, Dr. King reminds us that division in the church can cripple the Christian life.

Not that the modern American church knows anything about division, right? Today more than ever, we are in a world that is polarized. Both outside and inside the Church (“big C Church” – meaning all churches), people divide into camps based on denomination, political views, economic status, theology, parenting style, food choices, worship styles, sports teams, and just about anything else we can think of to sort ourselves out into neat little categories. And of course. . . the best category is always the one you find yourself in, right?

Have you ever read the comments that are posted after online news articles? If you haven’t, I don’t recommend it. Trust me. You’re not missing anything edifying. There are few things that will cause division more than a hot news topic and the comments on those news items are generally appalling. Not because of their agreement or disagreement with the article, but rather the dehumanization of other people in the article and comments. People who disagree are seen as the evil “them” and are treated as less than human in many cases. Name-calling and mud slinging are completely normal modes of responding to articles online.

That’s an extreme case, but that happens in other situations too – this division and separation and dehumanizing of people in categories other than our own. Like MLK, Paul was writing to people who were divided. The church was not operating in unity. The church in Corinth was divided. They were arguing and forming cliques over every old thing: leadership, morality, worship, and beliefs about resurrection of the dead – just to name a few. The argued over how you had to look, think, act, and speak in order to be a “real” Christian.

The church in Corinth was so worried about getting every step of their walk just right – and about making sure everyone else was convinced that theirs was the “right” way that they lost sight of the most important thing: Jesus.

They had been called to be the Body of Christ and they were so busy trying to make every body part look like a specific body part that they just wound up spinning their tires and not getting much of anywhere.

I have to admit that I had a bit of inspiration from a previous job for that children’s sermon today. That wasn’t entirely my idea. I’ve done something similar before as part of an obstacle course at a youth event. That game involved a flight of stairs in the back of the church and a bicycle inner tube. It was not my idea and I actually thought it was a pretty ill thought out and potentially dangerous activity, but when I thought about what the Corinthian church was going through, it reminded me of that obstacle course. There are few things less united than 10 teenagers crammed into an inner tube together trying to do an obstacle course. . . until about halfway through the course when suddenly they realize that they’d get a lot further a lot faster if they’d just give in to the fact that they were tied together with a giant piece of rubber and work together. 

The apostle Paul can get wound up in his letters. There are some places in them that he’s not so delicate in what he has to say, but this introduction really shows his gentleness and his love for the congregation. He’s very fatherly when he says to them. . . “Guys. Isn’t this inner tube pretty cool? Embrace the inner tube! Work within the inner tube!” Or as in the case of the children’s sermon today. . . “Work within the rope of baptism that ties you all together!”

Unity isn’t just an abstract concept. It’s not just something that would look pretty if we managed it. It’s a calling! The church is called to be a united front! Last week, for The Baptism of our Lord, Cathy preached about sharing in the baptism of Christ. We are all baptized in Christ and this baptism joins us to Christ in his mission as well.

Paul needed the Corinthians to understand that he didn’t just want to scold them about going through the wrong motions. That would just be falling into the trap of moralistic finger pointing that they already had enough of. That’s why he’s so careful in this introduction to the letter about unity to establish that unity is at the very core of Christian calling and identity. Not just unity with those who think or look or act or sound like us. . . unity with “All those everywhere who call on Jesus.”

If unity is such a key component of our calling, why are we so surprised when someone like Martin Luther King Jr. or Dietrich Bonheoffer or the Apostle Paul have the guts to stand up and say so? Thank God for people who are willing to stand up and remind us of that core tenant of our Christianity!

Paul, the author of Corinthians was called. The founders of the church were called. As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, we acknowledge that he was called. But what about the rest of us? Paul is saying we ALL have a calling. We are all saints. The Greeks didn’t throw around words like “saint” or “sanctified” without meaning to add some serious OOMPH to what they were saying. Paul meant something really huge here!

          We have brothers and sisters in places we may not like or understand or even know about. But there is more beauty in that diversity than can ever be found in sorting ourselves out into neat little boxes.

This week is the week of prayer for Christian unity. Tomorrow we celebrate and commemorate the life of Dr. King. These are good things. But let’s not let them stay trapped in a day or a week this year. Wherever and whenever and whomever we are, we are called to be united. Don’t forget that we are bound not only to Christ, but also because of Christ, we are bound to one another.