If you attend a church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary, chances are you heard these words read aloud last Sunday:
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, 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 the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (NRSV)
It’s hard to hear those words at this particular moment in our nation’s history without hearing echoes behind them of people shouting, “I’m a Democrat” or “I’m a Republican,” “I’m for gun rights” or “I’m for gun control,” “I’m pro-choice” or “I’m pro-life,” etc. As the 45th president of the United States begins his term in office, many have remarked that our nation has seldom been more divided than it is now. As we live our days in this context, how do we hear these words about unity from Paul? What can they mean to us?
Of course, Paul wasn’t speaking to 21st century American society, or even first century Greco-Roman society in general. He was speaking to a particular group of Christians within the city of Corinth. Corinth in the first century was a diverse place, with Greek, Roman, and Jewish residents, and people of various economic levels. The diversity of the city was found within the Christian community as well, and it is often not easy for people who are different to get along. The Corinthian Christians struggled to live out their unity in Christ because of the many things that made them different from one another and also the many things they did not agree about.
So if these words were not written for 21st century American society, perhaps they cannot speak to us in this cultural moment. After all, Paul is urging the Corinthians to embrace the unity that comes from having their identity in Christ, and this is an identity that is not shared by American society at large. On the other hand, I believe we need the wisdom of all our various traditions to see us though this time of division in America, so perhaps Christianity has a distinctive witness to offer alongside the wisdom of other traditions. Perhaps these words of Paul from 2,000 years ago have something to say to American society after all. While not all Americans are Christians, we all need wisdom in these times, and Paul goes on to say some very interesting things about wisdom later in the same chapter. For Paul, true wisdom looks very different from what the world thinks of as wise, because true wisdom is the wisdom of Christ crucified. To follow the crucified one is to know that God turns the wisdom of the world upside down.
25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Here is a witness that Christians can share with society at large: true wisdom is not always found in marbled halls, or behind a microphone, or in book-lined rooms. Often, wisdom is found in the streets.
The wisdom of the world is prudent and puts its own interests first. True wisdom is found among those who serve others.
The wisdom of the world values strength, but true wisdom is found among the weak and even among those who are despised.
The wisdom of the world creates protective structures to guard its own people, protective structures that neglect, exploit, and even attack others. True wisdom, on the other hand, seeks the good of all.
Americans will never stop disagreeing with each other. I’m sure the Corinthians did not stop disagreeing with each other either. But even in the midst of their disagreements Paul urged them to consider their unity in Christ and the implications that had for how they treated each other and how they lived in the world. If we in American society can recognize that unity can be found in the idea that true wisdom seeks the good of all, not the good of the self or the good of only a powerful few, then perhaps there is hope for us also to experience unity, even in the midst of continuing disagreement.