During this season between Christmas and Lent, we’re reading passages from one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. We only hear passages, cut to size to accommodate our attention spans and our preferences for how long a proper worship service should be. If you haven’t already done so, I want to encourage you to read the whole letter at home. Not only will it give you great insight into the kind of challenges the first Christian congregations were facing, it will also show you that church life has been messy ever since it began.
“Grace to you and peace” is the greeting with which Paul opens each of his letters, and he also closes all of them with a word of grace. No matter how messy the situation, no matter how hard and heated the arguments between the first and last paragraphs, it’s grace that surrounds us, Paul reminds us and himself, and grace that claims and equips a people for God’s purposes in the world. This grace bears the name of Jesus Christ, in whose death and resurrection God has judged the world of sin and begun the new creation where righteousness is at home.
The church in Corinth was barely four or five years old, when Paul wrote them this letter. The number of church members was probably in the dozens, rather than hundreds, but the small size didn’t mean they couldn’t find ways to divide.
You know the joke of the man stranded on a deserted island for several years after a shipwreck? They finally find him and he’s so happy at the prospect of living among other humans again. But before they leave, he shows them how he has lived, what he has built. He points to a hut, “This is my house where I sleep.” He points to another hut, “This is my church where I worship.” His rescuers point to yet another hut, on the other side of his house. “What’s that?” they ask. “Oh, that’s where I used to go to church. Three years ago I got mad and left and started a new church.”
Division in a desert island church of one – it doesn’t get any more ridiculous than that, but where two or three are gathered in his name, chances are they won’t be together for long. We gather in the name of Jesus Christ, but other names pull us in different directions.
“It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you,” the apostle writes. I’d love to know how many heads turned when the letter was first read in Corinth and how many of the congregants mumbled under their breath, “Tattletales, you had to tell him, didn’t you?” Would they be able to hear what Paul had to say? Would they be able to hear his urgent appeal to all of them to be united in the same mind and the same purpose? Apparently they had divided themselves along lines of allegiance to the person who had first told them the good news of Jesus Christ. I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos. I belong to Cephas. You don’t have to listen particularly attentively to detect a lot of “I” in those statements. It sounds like it goes much deeper than, say, “Paul’s alright, but Apollos is just such a moving preacher,” or “Paul really speaks to me as somebody who didn’t grow up with the scriptures of Israel, but Cephas, think about it, Cephas was with the Lord from the earliest days in Galilee.” Folks in the church in Corinth weren’t looking around and appreciating the variety of Christian witness and teaching, they were drawing the first denominational lines; and it was getting to the point where their identity was shaped more deeply by their respective allegiance to the particular tradition of Apollos, Cephas, or Paul, than by their new life in Christ.
“Really?” Paul shouts across the sea from Ephesus. “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Other names get in the way of who we are in Christ, and who we are becoming as a people who are sanctified in Christ, called to be saints, set aside for God’s holy purpose in the world. There’s a lot of “I” in our divisions, but our hope for salvation is wrapped up in the grace with which Christ has made us his own. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians. No longer I, but Christ in me and all of us in Christ.
Julia Keith, Eva Evans, and Gary Halloway just returned from India where they were part of a global gathering of Christians from 29 countries and who knows how many language groups. The theme of their gathering was, God Breaks Down Walls to Build Bridges. The men, women, and children who gathered there embodied that theme in their coming together in the embrace of grace. They both witnessed and participated in the dismantling of walls and the building of bridges across continents and cultures, and other divisions far more difficult to overcome. Grace led the way and they followed.
I read a remarkable book this past week. Reading it was part of my trying to understand where we are and what is going on in this country. The book, Strangers in Their Own Land, was written by Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley. She went, you might say, from the bluest spot on the bluest coast to one of the reddest Tea Party spots on the electoral map of the United States, Lake Charles, Louisiana. She didn’t move there, but she traveled back and forth over the course of five years to meet people and visit and deepen relationships.
She came, she writes, “with an interest in walls. Not visible, physical walls such as those separating Catholics from Protestants in Belfast, Americans from Mexicans on the Texas border, or, once, residents of East and West Berlin. It was empathy walls that interested me.”
She describes an empathy wall as “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.”
And she continues, “In a period of political tumult, we grasp for quick certainties. We shoehorn new information into ways we already think. We settle for knowing our opposite numbers from the outside. But is it possible, without changing our beliefs, to know others from the inside, to see reality through their eyes, to understand the links between life, feeling, and politics; that is, to cross the empathy wall? I thought it was.”
Like many of us, she “was becoming becoming alarmed at the increasingly hostile split in our nation between two political camps. To many on the left, the Republican Party and Fox News seemed intent on dismantling much of the federal government, cutting help to the poor, and increasing the power and money of an already powerful and rich top 1 percent. To many on the right, that government itself was a power-amassing elite, creating bogus causes to increase its control and handing out easy money in return for loyal Democratic votes.”
She writes, “I had some understanding of the liberal left camp, I thought, but what was happening on the right?” But she didn’t come at the question from a political perspective, but with “a keen interest in how life feels to people on the right— that is, in the emotion that underlies politics. To understand their emotions, I had to imagine myself into their shoes.” And that is what she did. She sat at kitchen tables and went to campaign events; she walked through refineries and drove across old plantations; she went to church and to crawfish cookouts, and she did the work of imagining herself into the shoes of the people she met. She asked questions and listened, and whenever she ran into the empathy wall, and she did, again and again, she didn’t walk away, but asked more questions and listened even more carefully. She began to see the world through the eyes of the men and women who welcomed her interest and she came upon what she calls their “deep story,” a narrative not just of a world view, but of how the world is felt, integrating history, place, experience, and faith.
Reflecting on the whole process of discovery and transformation she initiated and shared with her readers, she writes,
The English language doesn’t give us many words to describe the feeling of reaching out to someone from another world, and of having that interest welcomed. Something of its own kind, mutual, is created. What a gift. Gratitude, awe, appreciation; for me, all those words apply and I don’t know which to use. But I think we need a special word, and should hold a place of honor for it, so as to restore what might be a missing key on the English-speaking world’s cultural piano. Our polarization, and the increasing reality that we simply don’t know each other, makes it too easy to settle for dislike and contempt.
Too easy to settle for dislike and contempt, that is where we are in this country, and not only here. There’s a lot of I, I, and I, and me first and us first, and not much of a we that prepares room for strangers whose deep stories may be utterly unfamiliar, yet just as human as our own.
We still read Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, because he addresses the deep challenges facing all of us who are called to live as God’s people in the world. We are baptized into Christ and in baptism our old ways of understanding ourselves and each other are soaked in God’s redeeming and liberating grace, but living into that new creation is a daily and life-long project. The name of the project, according to Paul: No longer I, but Christ in me and all of us in Christ.
 Galatians 2:20
 Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (The New Press, 2016). Kindle Edition. Location 170.
 Ibid. Location 70.
 Ibid. Location 117. Italics are mine.