It was Alec Guinness, the British actor best known for his performances as Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars” and as Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai,” who was put to the test by a Trappist monk. “What do you think is the most difficult part of being a monk,” the guest-master asked Guinness during his extended stay at an abbey near Leicester, England. Most, of course, would list off any number of the vows taken: chastity, obedience, poverty. Not Guinness. “Other monks,” he replied quickly. He writes, “[The monk] gave me a long quizzical look… and said, with some solemnity, ‘Yes!’ I felt I had gone to the top of the class.”
A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18.
We know this, of course. Maybe not about monks so much as we know it about ourselves. One of the secrets we all hold from time to time is how difficult it can be to live as families. Oh, we have the perfect image we promote—the Christmas card photos taken from that great vacation spot when the kids were smiling and not getting on each other’s nerves—but anyone with even a smattering of honesty will tell you that family life can at times be difficult. Sometimes things simmer right under the surface, hidden to the casual observer and even our closest friends, but it doesn’t take much to set them off behind closed doors. There are disagreements about money, about how to handle the kids, about the house, about other details of life together. Sometimes there is just icy silence as we hide behind the walls we construct in our minds. At times we create divisions, look for allies, find ways to score points and supposedly “win,” yet what we end up with is pain, hurt, and disillusionment.
And it seems to happen in church communities, too. Paul tells us as much in our reading this morning from 1st Corinthians. “It’s being reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters,” Paul writes. The Christians in Corinth were drawing up sides. “I follow Apollos,” one declares. “Well, I follow Peter,” another retorts. “You’re both wrong,” says a third, “I follow Paul!” Turmoil ensues as everyone’s dander is up, and people stop talking with one another whenever they see each other at church or at the local market or getting breakfast at the 1st Century equivalent of Dunkin. All of this was causing a major disruption, so Paul, when he learns about it, addresses it pointedly. “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
I read an article once that included the line, “Whenever two or three are gathered together there is a difference of opinions.” It’s a clever take on the prayer of St. Chrysostom that can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, which ultimately comes from Jesus himself in Matthew 18: “Whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” One of the challenges of our 21st Century Western culture is that we think it is all about us. We want our own way and feel entitled about both expressing our opinions and reserving the right to get mad at anyone who disagrees. As one commentator put it, we place an “emphasis on individual freedom at the expense of the community.” The problem is, of course, that this sort of thing can get very ugly, very fast.
There’s no question that there are disagreements in the wider church today, and even in our own denomination. The difficulty isn’t in parsing out the differences, but rather in living into Paul’s directive to be united in the same mind and purpose. What is that mind and purpose?
The 2009 film “Invictus” focuses on the years immediately following the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and winning the Presidency in South Africa. Mandela recognizes that unity is hard to be found due to the immense struggle between the white Afrikaners who controlled the power for many years and the majority black South Africans who were forced to deal with the harsh realities of apartheid. Recognizing the need for common ground, Mandela looks toward the South African rugby team, the Springboks, and the World Cup competition coming to South Africa in 1995, even though rugby was closely identified with the apartheid movement. The film depicts the division early on: while watching the Springboks play white Afrikaners in the stands cheer for their national team while black South Africans cheer when the rival team enters the field.
Many of Mandela’s aides push back on his desire to support the national team. They demand a new name, new team colors, and a new mascot. Yet he recognizes that this team, this opportunity to compete in—and possibly win—the World Cup, is something that can ultimately unite his highly contentious nation. It’s a sports movie, so you can guess the ending even if you haven’t seen it. But unbelievably the film is based on a true story. Mandela and the captain of the Springboks both refused to bear grudges and found a way for the sport to unite them and their country across race, wealth and a host of other barriers. They gave their nation one mind and one purpose.
Which is exactly what Paul wants for the Corinthian Church, and I bet what he’d want for us too, both in our churches and in our families. Paul challenges his hearers to unite around the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. Paul implores the Corinthian Church and our own to spend less time bickering over details and more time expressing and experiencing Jesus’ sacrificial love.
You may be asking, what does that mean for us today. It’s all well and good to say that we should be brought together around Jesus’ sacrificial love, but what, when it comes down to it, what does that really mean?
First, it means quite clearly that life isn’t about us. Let me address this though. I don’t mean to say that you should allow people to walk all over you, that you should become so self-deprecating that your self-concept gets blown out of the water. I don’t mean that you should not take care of your own needs. You should. But at the same time, you should center your life on others. Imagine something that would bring delight to your family and do that. Spend an afternoon playing a game together; make time for a regular date with your spouse or partner, even if it’s just for a cup of coffee. Do some activity where your family does something sacrificial together—give your time at the food bank or make cookies together to bring to a neighbor who lives alone. And be sure to model sacrificial love to one another. When you blow it with your kids, apologize and ask for their forgiveness. Seek out reconciliation, even if you know you are right. Put the needs of others before your own.
As a church I think it means this: make time to participate together in activities that build up the body of Christ and share his message of hope and love. Take time at coffee hour to chat with the person who you know votes entirely differently from you. Or even better, take time to listen to that person, knowing you won’t change their mind at all. Take time in your daily life to see and hear the people who are hurting—I can almost guarantee that each day you’ll meet someone who is suffering in some way. Pray with them—or, if you can’t do that—tell them that you’ll pray specifically for them, and then do it. Invest in the lives of our children and youth. Many are struggling to find their way in this all too confusing world of ours and would like an adult to get to know them and to become interested in their lives. If you don’t believe me, think back to your own adolescence and remember the adult who either did this for you or perhaps the one you wished had done this.
Engage in the redeeming life of Jesus Christ in our world. That’s the thing that can bind us together. St. Mark’s is a diverse and loving community of Christians brought together by a singular faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. May we continue to deepen our connections with one another, allow any differences to subside and open ourselves up to the way of Jesus. We can change the world if we wholeheartedly seek to follow him.
 Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise. Quoted in Dakota by Kathleen Norris, 196.
 James W. Thompson. “1 Corinthians 1:10-28: Exegetical Persepctive.” In Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1, 281.