Party spirit or unity?
(Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 1:10)
In the days of the Apostles, Corinth was a great metropolis, “a great cosmopolitan Greek city, the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. It was noted for its thriving commerce, proud culture, widespread immorality, and variety of religions.”1 (Like USA, that is!) Yet, even in this commercial center, in which a multi-cultural society enjoyed a life of pleasure and dissolution, God had His people. He sent there the Apostle Paul, who labored hard to establish a church and see it prosper.
It was not easy. Rejected by his fellow Jews, yet undaunted in his missionary zeal, he turned his fiery message to the Gentiles. Thereupon, the Acts record,
“Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you.” (Acts 18:8-10)
Yet, even in this “church of God,” even among “those sanctified in Christ Jesus”, to whom were given abundant blessings, so that they were “enriched in Him with all speech and with all knowledge”, the church which was the joy and pride of the Apostle to the Nations, even among such people, quarrels, divisions, even heresies and dangerous factions appeared. Saint Paul had to correct these problems quickly. He dispatches to them this, the first of two letters, and one of his weightiest.
Church disunity is dealt with first. Right after the salutation and a few verses of thanksgiving, he gets to his reason for writing to them. We heard in today’s reading his exhortation, his plea: παρακαλῶ, he writes. This does not mean “please.” It means, I beg of you, I appeal to you. Then he calls them brothers, and makes a solemn statement, invoking the holy name of the Lord:
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions [σχίσματα] among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” (1 Cor. 1:10)
He comes back to this subject again. He tells them that they are not yet spiritually mature, so he keeps his preaching to them simple:
“But I, brothers, have not addressed you as spiritual men, but as worldly men, as infants in Christ. I did not feed you with solid food, but with milk, because you were not ready for it. Even now you are not ready for it, for you still live like people of the world.” (1 Cor. 3:1-3a)
And what shows their spiritually immaturity? The party spirit they exhibit. He continues:
For while there is still jealousy (ζῆλος) and strife (ἔρις) and divisions (διχοστασίαι) among you, are you not of the world, and behaving like ordinary men? (1 Cor. 3:3b)
You see, some teamed with one apostle, some others with another, and still others with a different one, thus dividing the church into factions. Does it sound familiar? Saint Paul goes to great lengths to tell them that it doesn’t matter who does what, because everything done is God’s work, it is His doing, and we are but instruments in His hands. “Factionalism brings great harm to the Church.” 2 One who breaks its unity desecrates the Body of Christ! and “If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him.” (1 Cor. 3:17)
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, open your hearts to understand the irreparable damage done by the party spirit, factiousness, disunity. Disunity strikes at the heart of what we are. We cease to be what we are supposed to be, an ecclesia, a gathering of the people of God, offering a common sacrifice to God, partaking of the same Lord. We cannot establish another sacrifice outside the one and only sacrifice offered by all of us and in our name by the priest, who stands, in unity with his bishop, in the place of Christ.
We have an altar. What else do we need? A clean altar, on which we offer Christ. The sacrifice is offered every time we are gathered together. Don’t you see? We are together. We are not apart. Can the priest offer the sacrifice alone? No. Can the people offer the sacrifice by themselves? No. Only together with the priest. Only then. Then the sacrifice offered is pure, spotless, immaculate, perfect—with us, or without us—but it is better to be offered with us. Everything else, my friends, all the imperfections, the faults, the human frailty do not matter; they disappear. As long as we are together.
The whole work of salvation comes down to this unity. Christ, from all eternity wanted to present us in Him and through Him to His Father in the Holy Spirit. It’s all for naught when we set ourselves apart. I repeat: The damage is immense and irreparable. It is suicidal. I could say much to you about works that disrupt this precious unity, but I am ashamed. And I don’t want to embitter the pure and innocent souls that come here to seek reconciliation with God, to regain strength for the everyday battles, to find peace and rest. What is happening is no good for anyone.
I have cause to grieve, but I grieve only for my faults and shortcomings, which should have prevented me from standing before you today as a priest. I deserve everything said about me, and worse, because you don’t know my faults as well as I do, or, better yet, as my wife and children know them. But they have not abandoned me. Yes, I admit I am stern and austere. But perhaps your father was the same way. I ask you, what did you do with him? Did you sit in council with your siblings to judge him? Did you ask him to resign? Did you deny him? Did you trade him for another kinder, sweeter, daddy? We are a family. As for myself, I will not abandon the children over whom God, through our bishop, established me as your shepherd and spiritual father. As for you, if you don’t see it this way, then we have cause indeed to double grieve.
My brothers and sisters, I stand before you not as an innocent victim, but as the thief on the cross - I would like to think as the “good” thief. Like him, I will say with all sincerity, and meaning it all the way, “And we indeed [are punished and are suffering] justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” (Luke 23:41) But like that thief, I stand before you penitently, beseeching and imploring your forgiveness for having wronged you “voluntarily or involuntarily, in word or deed, in knowledge or ignorance.”
My brothers and sisters, I stand in your midst like Joseph among his brothers. “I am your brother, Joseph.” (Gen. 45:4) I have no enmity in my heart for anyone. It is my fervent prayer that like Joseph with his brothers we too may be reconciled with each other and be the family God wants us to be.
There is this beautiful service of forgiveness, which opens the great and holy Lenten period, in which everyone asks forgiveness of everyone else. We don’t have to wait for it to ask mutually forgiveness, I of you, and you of me. Let us today, as you come forth to receive the antidoron, receive instead my humble petition of your forgiveness. We don’t need meetings to resolve our differences. The business of the Church and of its members is to humbly radiate forgiveness and love. All we need is love for God, and love for each other, even as Christ loves us with all our faults, and gives perpetually His life for us, that we may live in Him.
Let us leave these doors today renewed, reconciled with God and with each other, refusing anything and anyone who does not carry this message of peace, tolerance, love and reconciliation. Let this, then, be my message and my promise: That we all, all together, as God’s family, try a lot harder to be what we say we are, and which we are indeed: brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot wait. While the wound is open, let us apply the soothing balm of kindness, tender-heartedness and compassion over it. “Behold, now is the acceptable time.” (2 Cor. 6:2)
I believe there is a reason for these things to happen. And the reason is that we may emerge out of this test strengthened, fortified, renewed. The only true and lasting solution to our problems can be found only here, in the house of the Lord, before His holy altar. Let us make this “altar call” today, and let us depart from here cleansed, renewed, with the praise of the Lord on our lips and in our hearts.
I am presently reading these words to you, but know that they were written from the bottom of my heart, by the side of the altar table, with many tears and sobs. Accept them, my brothers and sisters, and may the peace of God dwell in your hearts. Amen.
- Good News Bible. p. 1661.
- The Orthodox Study Bible, 2008 edition, p. 1552, note 1:13.