Have you ever experienced “cultural shock”? I have! I’ll never forget waking into an American supermarket for the very first time – humongous, and with so many options! The milk aisle, for instance — skim, 1%, 2%, 4%, half-and-half, whole, lactose free, calcium enriched, powder milk, soy milk, organic, chocolate flavored, vanilla flavored – you name it! To judge by the variety of fresh eggs on display, I then imagined American chickens as a super-natural wonder.
The aisle with cereals completely blew my mind – Multi Grain Cheerios, Golden Crispy, Bran Flakes, Honey Smacks, Raising Bran Crunch, Crackling Oat Bran, Kashi Go, Lucky Charms, Raisin Bran, Three Wishes, Kellogg’s Original, Honey Bunches Oats, Kellogg’s Low Fat, Fruity Pebbles, Fiber One, Shredded Wheat – you name it!
At the time I could not but wonder, “Is too much variety a good thing?” After some 46 years enjoying American supermarkets, I kind of agree with the French who said Vive la différence!, for what’s wrong with it?
Two weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday we talked about cultural shock and celebrated diversity — remember?
How so many people from different places and with different languages gathered in Jerusalem; how they were literally shaken and awaken and called and sent out by the Holy Spirit; how they welcomed the Risen Christ into their lives, and how they committed themselves to remain united in Christ at all costs despite their diversity.
Regrettably, after some time some of those emerging churches started to experience tension and conflict. For the most part, the reason was too much confessional pride and spiritual arrogance. Such was the case with the church in Corinth, which the apostle Paul had established with so much expectation.
Corinth was a very large and important city joining southern Greece with the rest of the country. With two major seaports, in those days anything that passed through the area, whether it came by land or sea, whether commercial trade or ideas, moved through Corinth. As a result, Corinth became a prosperous city and a sophisticated city, always exposed to all the latest ideas, trends, and fads, and very tolerant of diversity.
So, they had no problems when Paul, a hybrid Jewish-Roman stranger so anxious to tell them about an itinerant Jewish preacher crucified by the Romans somewhere in Palestine. They loved Paul and welcomed the gospel as preached by some of the greatest and most inspirational leaders of the time. The problem was very soon intellectual pride and arrogance entered the picture among those folks. And they began forming groups and cliques around their different spiritual leaders.
In one group were the proud followers of Paul. In another group, the adoring admirers of Apollos. And then there were some who gathered around Peter, also known as Cephas. We know quite a lot about Paul – he was the intellectual, he was brilliant, and he was courageous, but he was not as attractive physically as the others, and often he was very abstract.
Peter was bold and fiery – he had been week at first, but over time he became a rugged preacher of the Gospel.
As for Apollos, he was one of the greatest preachers of the apostolic church, so eloquent and mesmerizing, yet he was not an apostle. These three men had strong personalities and gifts, but they never meant to have the last word.
They all contended together for the faith – the same faith. They all insisted on the unity of the Spirit – the same Spirit. They all preached Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Yet that congregation was pulling and pushing in different directions. Plenty of intense name calling and quarreling that eventually exploded among the Corinthians. Everybody felt far superior to the others — what a crisis!
Despite being so open minded and tolerant, some folks got carried away by their own pride and arrogance instead of embracing their differences with a sense of humility and common purpose.
“We are Paul’s,” said some, “and therefore better than you. Anyone knows Paul as a superb theologian, besides his doctrine is impeccable.” “We are Apollos’s,” said others, “and anyone with any common sense will agree that our leader is the most eloquent preacher and can preach circles around Paul any day.” “We are Cephas’s,” said others, “and you can brag about doctrine and eloquence all you want to, but there’s just nobody as down-to-earth and practical as Peter.”
It is interesting – they had a four group, the so called “followers of Christ” — they wanted no business with Peter or Paul or Apollos. They looked down their long spiritual noses at the other three, piously saying, “We are of Christ, we need no human guru to lead us and feed us.”
As you can imagine, Paul, Peter and Apollos were heartbroken. They had worked in that place so hard and for such a long time and look at what they were harvesting now! A bunch of church members so full of themselves, they had lost any substance and flavor.
With much pain in his heart, Paul wondered, “Has Christ been divided? “Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Apollos or confirmed in Peter’s name? Come on, folks. Give me a break!” Paul’s urgent, dramatic appeal to our Corinthian ancestors resonates with us today, for unless we remain united in Christ, his “cross will be emptied of its power.”
Let me tell you about a mother and a baby camel who were chatting one day. The baby camel asked, “Mom, why have I got these huge three-toed feet?” The mother replied, “Well, son, when we trek across the desert your toes will help you stay on top of the soft sand.” “OK,” said the son.
A few minutes later the son asked, “Mom, why have I got these great long eyelashes?” “They are there to keep the sand out of your eyes on the trips through the desert.” “Thanks, Mom,” replied the little camel.
After a short while, the son asked again, “Mom, why have I got these great big humps on my back?” The mother replied, “There are there to help us store water for our long trek across the desert, so we can go without drinking for long periods.”
“That’s great, Mom, so we have huge feet to stop us sinking in the sand, and long eyelashes to keep the sand from our eyes, and these humps to store water as we traverse endless deserts, but then, what are we doing here in the San Diego Zoo?”
That’s precisely the kind of predicament the Corinthian church found itself in those days. They had caged themselves into very narrow spiritual and mental boxes. As a result, their most precious gifts and graces, as well as the whole purpose for their lives as Christian disciples, had lost all meaning and relevance. So sad! These “unsalted” Christians ended up making a mockery of the Risen Christ.
Vive la différence! Why not? Nothing is wrong with that; nothing is intrinsically wrong with expressing our faith and worshipping in different ways and even not always agreeing with one another.
As you know, God in her infinite mercy welcomes us all–liberals and evangelicals, mainstream and charismatics, orthodox and progressive, Protestants and Roman Catholics — for God is a “our” Father, also “our” Mother, and we all are God’s children, and siblings in Christ, as we just re-learned studying the Lord’s Prayer.
So, my friends, nothing is wrong with la différence in the Body of Christ — with being diverse and different — if we love one another and together bear fruits that will last.
Last year I was invited to be with you as an interim pastor for a couple of months. I’m still here – almost a year by the grace of God who gave you infinite patience! And whenever you ask me whether I would consider staying longer, I say “Yes, of course – why not?”
And today I’ll give you a good reason. How could I walk away from such a welcoming and caring extended family where I can feel and enjoy such sense of togetherness in Christ, such a sense of peace and good will among you every single hour? Such a unity in Christ has been a gift to me, so with the apostle’s words in my lips I say to you, “I always thank our God for you because of his grace given to you in Christ Jesus.
May the Holy Spirit of Pentecost who brought us all together keep us together and bless our common ministry.