The planners for this Festival gave it an interesting title: What is the tie that binds? I take that formulation very seriously. When I first read the title, I tried to figure out what it was about. Note that the formulators don’t say, “What are the ties that bind?” Presumably they are asking for one tie — singular, not plural. I like that. I take language seriously, so that’s what we are going to consider today — not the ties, but the tie.
There is an ambiguity in their question, whether intended or not, in the word “bind.” “Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love.” That means what unites, what holds people together. So the question is asking, “What is the one thing that fundamentally pulls the Christian community together?”
But there is another definition of bind. If you don’t keep the oil in your car up to snuff, after a while cylinders bind. They freeze; they become motionless, and you’re in trouble. I am going to take the question today in both senses. I will look at part of what the New Testament, or at least what part of the New Testament, has to say about the tie that binds or unites, as well as the tie that freezes.
The Prevalence of Disunity
The problem of divisiveness runs through many places in the New Testament, and in the early church (1 Clement in the Apostolic Fathers, for example, or the letters of Ignatius). I think of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philip-pians. Matthew’s Gospel is written because of a problem with the Jewish community that refused to accept Christian Jews as true members of Judaism. As you read the history of the later church in the early centuries, there were many problems. You can name many of them if you remember the confessions, e.g., Gnosticism, Donatism, the Quartodeciman controversy, questions of Christology, and the like. There never was a pristine early church. Even Acts, which presents the Jerusalem church as the central church of earliest Christianity, “continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship,” had fiscal problems with Ananias and Sapphira and with equal distribution of money to Greek-speaking widows, to say nothing of Simon Magus and the problem of Gentile missions.
Paul and Disunity at Corinth: Baptism as Problem and its Confession as Uniting
I’m going to start with Corinth, a severely divided church that manifested division in many different ways: Attachment to different mystagogoi (the term is not in the letter), the people who initiated them into Christianity, their baptizers, caused divisions in the community. “I belong to Paul, I belong to Cephas, I belong to Apollos” (1 Cor 1:12). That’s one cause of division that Paul discussed in chapters 1-4. Then the distinction between the pneumatikoi, the spiritually endowed people, and other Christians in the community led to a long series of difficulties: incest (1 Cor 5:1-8), sexual immorality (1 Cor 5:9-6:20 — along with lawsuits in the Roman courts), problems with the Lord’s Supper, based on a misinterpretation of the power in it, as giving the ones who imbibed more wine security and certainty (1 Cor 10). Rampant individualism. Liberty regarded as freedom to do whatever you damn well please. Freedom from the body, already resurrected, living the life of the resurrected. A veritable Pandora’s Box of problems throughout I Corinthians. It’s not surprising that Margaret Mitchell of the University of Chicago, in her masterful book on 1 Corinthians, says it is the question of unity that dominates that book from beginning to end.1
Against the Cult of Personality
1 Corinthians raises the question: What is the tie that can immobilize or freeze the church? There are false bases for unity. The Corinthian church shattered its unity when its members gathered around the people who had baptized them. It was so severe that Paul said, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, in order that none of you might say you were baptized into my name. Oh, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t know whether I baptized anybody else” (1 Cor 1:14-16). That’s only one household and two people, and Paul thanks God for that! Then comes this absolutely amazing statement, “For Christ did not send me out to baptize, but to proclaim good news, not in the wisdom of logos (rationality, or logical argument) that the cross of Christ not be nullified” (1 Cor 1:17). Any pastor who tells the church council in our time that she’s going to stop baptizing because she’s called to preach is going to be in trouble! But Paul says it, because baptism as understood in Corinth had become the tie that separated, not united. Even a sacrament can become the occasion for disunity! This is different from the book of Romans, of course and Galatians 3, where baptism into Christ creates a unity that transcends ethnicity, social status, and sexual difference: “neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, no longer man and woman.”
Paul responds to all of this in a number of ways, all of which flow from the central fact that unites the church — the confession Kyrios Iesous (1 Cor. 12:3, ironically a baptismal acclamation). “No one can say that Jesus is the Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” Or, as he puts it in chapter 1, the word about the cross. When those who have knowledge express their freedom given by eating a cultic meal in Greco-Roman temples, they cause problems for those who don’t have such advanced knowledge. And Paul frowns upon them by saying, “For the weak one is being destroyed by your knowledge — the very brother or sister on account of whom Christ died.” (1 Cor. 8:11) The value of the death of Christ is transferred to the individual Christian in baptism, and so to disregard the weaker Christian is to disregard Christ. Thus the death of Christ puts a high value on the weakest, most poorly dressed Christian that walks into your church. We do not create unity, according Paul; God gives it in baptism. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” as Ephesians 4:5 puts it in another, later baptismal acclamation. But unity can be destroyed by the gifts of God, even by baptism, if wrong inferences are drawn from it. True or false unity depend on the emphasis we give a creed or an otherwise good action in the church.
The Eucharist and Unity
Take the case of the kyriakon deipna in 1 Cor 11:17-34 (the phrase is in 1 Cor 11:20). I think all the translations mistranslate this phrase. Kyriakon does not mean “lord’s” as if it were a genitive noun expressing ownership; it is an adjective. It means that the supper should correlate with, not contradict its Lord. What does that mean? The lordly supper proclaims the Lord’s death until he returns (1 Cor 11:26). The body and blood in the dominical words are the body that died on the cross. But the community of believers in Corinth, says Paul, is also the body of Christ, since the Corinthians all eat from one loaf (1 Cor 10:17). The lordly meal does not create unity; it presupposes it. The Corinthians are one body, for all their individual differences. So Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 12; the good-looking parts of your body are not really very helpful; it’s the shameful parts that are the most necessary — the ones you cover up. (You can lose your hair, and it doesn’t really matter.) So you are first the body of Christ, and only after that an individual (1 Cor 12:27). Divisive eating and drinking at the lordly dinner, expressions of false individuality, bring condemnation, weakness, sickness, even death (1 Cor 11:30). There is power in the meal, and it can turn against you judgement. Just as falsely eating meat sacrificed to idols can destroy the co-religionist for whom Christ died (1 Cor 8:11), so any celebration of the Eucharist that is divisive of the body of Christ does not correlate with the body of Christ created by his death, and is ultimately heretical in its root sense; it creates division.
That’s mind-blowing! Unity is given, and that applies to the Lord’s Supper in I Corinthians 10 — the text that we usually don’t read about the Lord’s Supper. You remember that wonderful chapter. It starts out by dealing with the fact that there were Corinthians who thought that baptism and the Lord’s Supper made them secure. They took it so seriously that they said the more you could drink and eat at the supper, the more Spirit you got; they could experience it literally. More wine, more spirit; Dionysos was powerful. (Read the Bacchae of Euripides some time!) Like Israel of old they had the pneumatikon food and pneumatikon drink (1 Cor 10:3-4), and they interpreted the power of wine as the gift of the Spirit which guaranteed their spiritual character and gave both certainty and security.
Now what does Paul say? He reminds them that there were people who were in the cloud and went through the sea; they were baptized into Moses and had pneumatikon food and pneumatikon drink. It doesn’t mean spiritual. It means food and drink that offers and conveys the Spirit to you. That’s good! But they read it in such a way as to say, therefore if we have the Spirit, we’ve got it made — “and there fell in one day three and twenty thousand. Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, flee idolatry. I’m talking to you like sensible people. Judge what I’m saying yourselves. The cup of blessing, which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread, the loaf which we tear apart, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, the many, are one body, for we all share from one loaf.” Stop using wafers! I mean that literally! You have destroyed the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper if you use wafers. Besides which, they’re tasteless. You need real bread — I would use pita, which leaves no crumbs behind as you tear it apart, and you all eat from the one loaf, and therefore you are one body.
And that’s the problem with the Lord’s Supper in Corinth, some get there early and get well fed and drunk, and others come late. Paul says what’s wrong with that is that you don’t discern the Lord’s body — and that doesn’t mean the Real Presence. It means they act as if the community is not a single body of Christ. And you will recall how drastic he makes this. If you read the material that comes following it, in verse 27ff, it’s a great deal of legal terminology. And he says what happens is, you will be judged, and he agrees that there’s power in the Eucharist, and that power will turn against you, which is why many are weak and sick and some have even died. Paul views the Lord’s Supper as a lethal meal if you do not discern the body. And I’ll repeat: in I Corinthians 11 it is not the Real Presence — which I’m in favor of, by the way — that concerns Paul, but the body that is the church.
You can understand why there’s such concern. Every good Jewish meal (this is what got Jesus in trouble, by the way) every Jewish meal began with a berakah — Baruch atah Adonai Elohenu, melech ha olam… — “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, because you caused the fruit to grow, because you made the vine to grow.” Which means that every meal was also a religious act. When Paul blasts Peter in Galatians 2:11ff. for not eating any longer with the Gentiles, when those from James came from Jerusalem, it’s not just that Peter is not being polite. He is breaking religious community. That’s what they accused Jesus of — he ate with the wrong kinds of people, the tax collectors and sinners, and so he was praying with the wrong kind. Jesus was quite inclusive. It’s no wonder that Paul says in 1 Cor 11:33, “when you come together to eat [the lordly meal], accept one another, wait for one another.”
Now, that’s all Paul has to say about the Lord’s Supper. No, not quite. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. It’s the word of the cross, again; the brother for whom Christ died is the one who is there at the Eucharist. To disregard somebody, to make the Eucharist a cause of division for the church, is exactly anti-Paul, not because the Eucharist creates unity but because it presupposes unity. That means that (I’m glad my parish does it) anyone who is baptized — not carrying my Lutheran brand name, but baptized — is welcome at the altar. That is Pauline theology. The tie that binds leads to a community that has unity in variety.
The Tie that Binds in Manifold Forms and Expressions
Some years ago at the Society for Biblical Literature there was a seminar on Pauline theology in which we read the letters one after the other, cumulatively, and tried to find what is the unitive Pauline theology. What we learned was, we couldn’t do it, because every letter Paul writes is ad hoc and he fits his message to the situation.
Let me give you an illustration. In 2 Corinthians Paul is in trouble again in Corinth because he doesn’t have letters of recommendation from Jerusalem, the early church Higgins Road. He never was with the historical Jesus, his opponents said. Now in 1 Corinthians he said that “the word about the cross is the wisdom of God and the power of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24). But when he gets to the last chapter of 2 Corinthians, listen to what he says. “For Christ was crucified out of weakness, but he lives out of the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4). His response in 2 Corinthians is to stress not the death of Jesus (as he did in his first letter), which he did not personally witness, but the resurrection of Jesus as God’s demonstration of power. That statement would have given aid and comfort to the opposition in the first letter, but responds well to the new opposition at Corinth. He fits his message to his audience.
Romans: Unity in Variety
That’s the case in Romans. There was no one, single Christian community in the church at Rome. In the prescript to Romans (1:1-7) Paul does not address “the church in Rome,” but the “to all those in Rome who are beloved of God, called saints.” Peter Lampe, a German scholar, has written a marvelous book about the early church in Rome. There were at least fourteen synagogues in the city of Rome when Paul writes; as you know, the Christian community in Rome was not a single community. Different groups of Christians probably were related to different synagogues. If you read Romans 16 carefully, you will probably be able to identify at least five house churches. And there was division among them. There were strong people and weak people. The strong people ate meat; the weak people were vegetarians.
And there was another problem. You may recall that in 49 AD, shades of Acts 18, the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from the city of Rome. Whether that was 100% I don’t know, but certainly the leadership left. We know that Prisca and Aquila were in Corinth because of that when Paul arrived there in Acts 18. When Claudius dies in the year 54 AD, his edict dies with him, which means, as Romans 16 makes clear, that Prisca and Aquila can and have returned to Rome with the other exiled Jewish Christians, such as Andronikos and the woman Junia, whom Paul describes as his kinsfolk, who were “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom 163-7). Such Jewish Christians discover to their surprise that the Christian communities in Rome had changed. In a sense, the Roman church in those five years was the first predominantly Gentile community; when the Jewish Christians came back they were shocked at what had happened. The gentile Christians didn’t observe the food laws any more. They didn’t eat kosher. And, just as bad, all that wonderful seafood that was prohibited by Jewish law. Pompeii had beautiful mosaics which picture such wonderful seafood. There’s a lot of shellfish that Jews can’t eat: oysters, clams, mussels, lobster, and the like.
Control via Ethnicity?
Those Jews coming back were shocked, so much so that they could only eat the vegetables at the meals. (I recognize that former Pythagoreans were also vegetarians.) The Gentile Christians, calling themselves strong, said these others were weak Christians; they don’t understand what Christian liberty is. It’s a surprise when you read Romans 3:21-31 to note the strange syntax; “being justified,” a participle, modifies “were sinning and falling short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23-24): But now apart from Torah, the saving activity of God (dikaiosyne theou), the righteousness of God, has been made clear, testified to, by the law and the prophets, but the righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ (I would translate it “through the fidelity that Jesus Christ manifested”) for all those who have faith; for there is no distinction, for all were sinning and falling short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift, etc.” When you parse the sentence, you notice that Paul’s main point becomes a subservient participle, when it ought to be a main verb with the adversative de. You know that in Chapter 4 he is going to testify to this by the case of Abraham.
When you read the English translation, they always pretty these things up. They turn the dependent participle into a main sentence, actually changing the syntactical structure of the Greek. (If you don’t believe me, sometime read the first chapter of Ephesians. It’s only two sentences; each sentence is about 15 verses long, but they get broken up into about four or five and the result is you don’t even catch what the main point is in Ephesians 1 — what the letter to the Ephesians is about.) In Romans 3:24-26 the main point is “being justified by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an hilasterion, a unique term, through faith in his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness through
the relaxing of the sins that have been committed earlier, in the forbearance of God, for the demonstration of his saving activity at the present moment, in order that he himself might be righteous and might make righteous the one out of faith in Christ Jesus.”
Contemporary scholarship, with which I agree, says what Paul does here is cite a Jewish Christian creedal summary, which the Jewish Christians returning to Jerusalem were using to try to regain control of the Christian communities. Paul cites it and glosses it. Jack Reumann years ago wrote a marvelous article on these two verses, in which he says that what they were saying, these Jewish Christians, is that for you to participate in the benefits of Christ, you have to be a part of the covenant people of God. Unity then is determined by the Sinaitic Covenant. If you don’t observe the Jewish laws, you don’t really participate in the blessings that come with the Jewish covenant sacrifice of Jesus’ death. Now, when Paul cites it this Jewish creedal statement, he inserts two things: the phrase “by grace” (which appear redundant after “as a gift,” but interprets the word) and the phrase “through faith” (which ruins the sacrificial statement about the blood). Note the way he goes on. Where then is bragging? Locked out. By what Torah? The one that has to do with works? No way! Then comes this wonderful phrase, “but through the Torah of faith.”
In Romans 1 Paul said that he was an apostle for the obedience of faith (Rom 1:5). Both phrases, “obedience of faith” and “law of faith,” bring words together that don’t belong together (oxymora). Faith is obedience to God for Paul. If there is any torah, it’s a torah that has to do with faith, not works. And so we draw the conclusion that a person is made righteous by faith, without deeds of the law. Then he draws the conclusion that relates to the division at Rome. Or is God only the God of Jews? No way! He’s also the God of Gentiles, isn’t he? Yes, also of Gentiles, since there is Heis Theos — one God. That is the Hellenistic Jewish summary of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one, and you shall write these words upon your doorposts, bind them on your foreheads.” We just had a case here in Chicago, where in an apartment they wanted to take down the Mezuzahs from the door because they were religious items. The court said they could have it.
If indeed God is one… You know, one of the things we Lutherans really have problems with is preaching God. We are so fixated on Jesus that we often don’t invite people to believe in God. Years ago, Nils Alstrup Dahl called God the neglected factor in New Testament theology. In the New Testament, in Paul, there are no doxologies to Jesus; there are only doxologies to God. There are no prayers that Paul addresses to Jesus, he prays to God. The only time we Lutherans tend to preach about God is on Trinity Sunday, and then we’re trying to deal with the fact that God has three personae, three persons. If indeed God is one, who will justify the circumcision out of his fidelity, an Old Testament motif, then God’s righteousness is demonstrated when God remains faithful to the covenant, even though Israel has broken it — shades of Jeremiah 31. God will justify the circumcision out of his fidelity and the uncircumcision through faith. Every time we see the word pistis in the New Testament, we tend to want to translate it “faith,” but it doesn’t always mean faith. Sometimes it means evidence; sometimes it means fidelity; sometimes it means proof.
Accept One Another
The Roman Christians were split between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. In the face of that Paul says “You’ve got it wrong: if there’s only one God (Rom 3:30-31), that ought to unite you. Then he takes Abraham as proof. Romans 4 is an absolutely marvelous chapter. Paul defines faith out of the Old Testament story of Abraham that we all know. Abraham believed upon the God who justifies the pagans, the asebeis. (Rom 4:5) It’s important to Paul to note that when God called Abraham, he was an idolater. He did not know the true God. So faith, in one sense, is putting oneself before God as the pagan, the idolater who needs what God does. But it gets even better. He points out that when God called Abraham (Genesis 12), he was not a Jew when he received the promise, since he wasn’t circumcised until Genesis 17. Circumcision turned him into a Jew. So Abraham is the father both of Gentiles and Jews (Rom 4:10-12). Now if you go to the great seven-volume set Legends of the Jews by the Jewish scholar Ginsberg, Abraham is treated in Volume One; Ginsberg summarizes the later Jewish tradition. According to that, Abraham already before he went to Haran, was bawling his father out for having idols in the house. He becomes a preacher of the truth. That’s not in the Bible!
And not only that, says Paul, Abraham received a promise of a child. He became the father of many nations (Rom 4:17) because “he believed in the God who makes the dead alive and who calls non-existent things into existence.” You cannot have a better definition than that. Faith is ultimately putting one’s self in front of God as a dead person whom the Creator God will make alive, as the non-existent person whom the creator God calls into being. You know what that really means? On Sunday morning at the holy hour, the congregation that gathers is the impii, the dead. Luther’s last words as he lay on his deathbed were “Wir sind Bettler; das ist wahr.” That’s good Pauline theology. We are beggars; that’s the truth.
It gets even better, when Paul gets into the later chapters. Krister Stendahl2 pointed out that Paul had two major problems in his own life. The first major problem was why he had to suffer so much, if he was God’s apostle to the Gentiles? Paul deals with that in 2 Corinthians. The other problem is the unbelief of most of the Jewish people, if Jesus really was the Messiah, the Promised One of the Old Testament. That’s the issue he takes up in Romans 9 to 11. You remember how he argues in Romans 11 — he turns directly to the Gentiles. “And you Gentiles, don’t brag over against the Jews. The tree into which you were grafted was the Jewish tree. So you can’t brag over against the Jews.” It’s another argument for unity in the Christian communities in Rome. And he ends up (shades of Romans 4:3), “God locked everybody up into disobedience in order that he might have mercy upon all.”
One of the aspects of this Christ is revealed in the thematic statement of Romans: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of God, for it is the power of God toward salvation to every one who believes.” Verse 18 then says, “For the wrath of God is being revealed….” The structure of verse 18 parallels that of verse 17. The gospel of God becomes the thing that reveals idolatry. So it’s not surprising that in Romans 2:16 Paul says “On that day God will judge all people according to my Gospel,” which means that the Gospel becomes the criterion for judgment, not the law. In Gal 2:14 Paul says Peter was not walking upright with respect to the truth of the gospel. Let me repeat. It is that one fact, said in different ways — the word of the Cross. Jesus is Lord. If you act to offend a weaker brother, you destroy the brother for whom Christ died (1 Cor 8:11; Rom 14:15). In both cases one can do wrong even when doing what is right! One’s co-religionist has the value of the crucified. The Gospel is the standard by which one determines evaluates actions.
I remember that when, I was a student, someone asked Richard Caemmerer, our homiletics teacher, “Is the Sermon on the Mount law or gospel?” and he said, “Yes.” And he was right! The worst thing you can do to anybody is preach the Gospel and have him or her say “No.” According to Paul, that condemns them. It’s not surprising, therefore, that when Paul says in Romans 10, “If you believe that Jesus is Lord, and say in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Have you ever noticed that in Paul’s certainly authentic letters, salvation is always presented as lying in the future? “We were buried with Christ by baptism into death, but like as he was raised from the dead, we” were raised from the dead? No. We “shall walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). We shall be saved in the future (Rom 5:9-10). We tend to use the word “Savior” for Jesus often, Paul only uses it once, in Phil 3:20, where he speaks of the eschatological coming of Jesus as Soter at the end. “Our commonwealth is in the heavens from which we expect a Savior.” The only time Luke uses it is in the Christmas story (Luke 2:11). The term is too much tied to Roman ruler cult for Christians to use it often.
The surprising thing is that after all of this, when Paul gets around to the end of his letter, he says (Romans 15:5ff): “Now the God of endurance and exhortation, may he give you to think the same things with one another, according to Christ Jesus, in order that with one accord, with one mouth, you might glorify the God
and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:5-6). That’s unity. He goes on, “Therefore accept each other, just as Christ accepted you for the glory of God.” Accept one another. He does not say to the Jewish Christians in Rome, “You’ve got to be Gentiles.” He does not say to the Gentile Christians in Rome, “You’ve got to observe the Torah.” No, though they are divided between strong and weak, he says they ought to be serving one another, welcoming one another, just as accepted them for the glory of God. There is no push in Paul for uniformity. Each letter urges unity, but not unity by agreement in everything. Thus there is no single creedal summary that Paul urges on every Christian community. So also Irenaeus of Lyons rejected the attempt by Tatian to harmonize the four Gospels into a single account without any contradictions. There is no push for uniformity in the earliest church.
If you really looked at the Easter stories, you would agree with Martin Luther’s sermon in which he said they Easter accounts were completely confused (omnia inmixta). There had to have been at least eight women who went back and forth to the tomb a number of times. When you read the John 20 on Easter day this year, recall that when Luther read that story, where John says that Peter went into the tomb, saw the grave cloths and believed (John 20:8), Luther said it was impossible. If he had not heard the Gospel, how could he believe? But then he went on to say that the significant thing about Easter is what it really means; don’t get all hot and bothered about these details. Luther was much less afraid of such frank acknowledgement of problems in a biblical text in his preaching than most of us are!
Galatians and Forced Unity
Consider how Paul respond in Galatians, when there is another attempt to create a false unity. There, ethnicity becomes central — Jewish ethnicity that implicates particular rituals. The Torah, with the concomitant demand for circumcision, Paul says, is another gospel, which is no gospel at all. What unified the people in Galatia is the liberty of the sons, the children of God, created by the Spirit given in baptism (Gal 5:1). That’s the liberty that frees one to carry the burdens of other people. Bear one another’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). The Spirit becomes both power and producer of fruits. The Spirit is not separated from the Good News. The truth is made clear in baptism. That’s interesting, isn’t it? In I Corinthians he said, “I’m glad I didn’t baptize any of you.” Now he says in Galatians 3 that it is baptism that makes all the Galatians, not just the Jewish Christian Galatians, children of God. They all put on Christ. They all together become the seed of Abraham in Christ (note that it is singular) because they are taken into that one person who had been — remember seed is singular earlier, it must be Christ (Gal 3:16) — but now you put on Christ if you are incorporated into Christ, then you become also seed of Abraham.
And what does that mean? It means that all the divisive things of society at that time are no longer relevant. There is no longer an ethnic distinction. There is no longer Jew or Greek. There is no longer social distinction; there is no longer slave or free. And there is no longer gender distinction; there is no longer man and woman. But you are all one in Christ. Baptism incorporated you into what Christ has done, removes all the distinctions that we tend to make — social, political, ethnic, sexual. Unity is not made, but given in
1 Peter and a Sense of Identity
Now that brings us to talk about one other important way of creating unity. 1 Peter (I’m leaving Paul for a moment) describes his readers or hearers as foreigners, paroikoi, and resident aliens, parepidemoi — people who live alongside the citizen population. The Christians to whom Peter writes were really having problems. They were formerly Gentiles, with all that implies about their former religious beliefs and activities, and now had become Christians. They discovered in the process that the society around them was now putting pressure on them to come back, to conform. What does 1 Peter do? He creates for these people a new past. Remember how 1 Peter starts out? It is one if the three letters of the New Testament that begins with a berachah (the others are 2 Corinthians and Ephesians]: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ….” And he points out in Chapter 1 how God had in mind from before history to call these people his own.
in Chapter 2 he appropriates for them the history of Israel. “You are a chosen generation.” (that’s Israel), “A priesthood that is royal” (that’s Israel), A holy people, a nation for a special possession, that you should show forth the virtues, aretas, of the One who called you. Then he plays off the prophet Hosea. Once you were lo ammi, “not my people, but now you are my people. Once you were lo ruhama, not receiving mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:9-10). He omits the name of Hosea and Gomer’s third child, she’ar yashuv, “a remnant that shall return.” That third name was too much tied to Israel (recall Rom 11:5). The writer is creating a past, a history for these people to give them status, at least in their own eyes.
I make a modern application. One of the tasks of ministry is creating an identity for the people in a parish. And that becomes even more important when you have a parish no longer made up of a single ethnicity or a single social class. Look at the roster of names in your parish. How do you create a single identity, a past in a parish that is shared by people of such variety? I think that is part of the pastor’s task, the way the author of 1 Peter took it up. So what are the ties that freeze people that prevent a common identity? Well, one is ethnicity. That’s easy to see. It’s like trying to tie the early church to its Jewish matrix. Or “I belong to Paul. I belong to Cephas. I belong to Apollos.” I am in favor of pastors having good personalities and being friendly and welcoming, but there’s a danger in that, if unity is determined by clerical allegiance. And then the pastor leaves, and it falls apart.
Unity via Structure?
There is also a false unity that can be created around structure. Two quotations:
“There was at first in the Christian church no uniform constitution, no agreed canon, no one formula of confession.”3 Paul never tries to get everybody to formulate the central fact about Christ with the same words. He even allows for variety even in confession to the one Christ. And the second citation:
The church does not originate through order, nor live by right order, but solely in the Spirit of Christ. If, however, it lives spiritually, then it is in order and attains to order, then, through the Spirit of peace, it also sets right order in its midst, without becoming a slave to this order.4
There is no prescribed church structure for Christ-trusting communities in the New Testament. Note what Jesus says in Matt 23:8-10. There is only one who is your teacher, one who is your father, one who is your leader; you are not; you are all brothers and sisters. Matthew’s church is egalitarian, without set-apart
leaders. Matthew warns against false prophets in Matt 7:15-23. You recognize them by their fruits. “Not everybody who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven. Many will say on that day, ‘Lord, Lord (the very early Christian baptismal creed, 1 Cor 12:3), didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we exorcise demons? Didn’t we do miracles? (the pyrotechnical deeds of faith)’ Then I will make this
confession against them. I never recognized you, you people who do that which is contrary to the Torah.”
The lists in I Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4 list first apostles and prophets, then shepherds and teachers. Yet when Paul urges the Corinthians to accept the leadership of Stephanus, he gives him no title at all
(1 Cor 16:15-16). Apostles and prophets did not survive long. In fact, prophets became a major problem in the church. The Didache recognizes the prophets (see Didache 13:1-7), says that prophets should be allowed to pray as they please at the Eucharist, but then gives rules for identifying a false apostle or prophet in Didache 13. “If he stays three days, he is a false prophet. When an apostle leaves he should take nothing except bread until he arrives at his night’s lodgings. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.”5 The Pastoral Epistles give the criteria for bishops and deacons, but the terms are not borrowed from religious officials (no priests or hierophants), but from the secular political or military life of the city (just as is the term ekklesia) or from philosophy. Paul describes Euodia and Syntyche (“good traveler” and “lucky,” slave names) as coworkers (Phil 4:2-4), Phoebe as a servant (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrea and his own benefactors, Andronikos and Junia, as outstanding among the apostles. In short, the New Testament knows no consistent pattern of church organization or
structure — and unity does not depend on it or grow from it.
Unity via Worship and Liturgy
In the New Testament, worship is necessary, but uniformity of worship is not. In fact, one of the striking things is that the early Christian church appropriated none of the technical language of worship used in its world. The only religious term that survives is prayer. Christians were regarded as atheoi. atheists,
understandably so from the point of view of the people around them. They had no temples, no altars, made no sacrifices, had no processions. They called themselves by a political name, ecclesia, an assembly. Not a theasos. It’s not surprising that to the world around them they looked strange. Whenever the language of worship appears, it is used of what is not cult. “I beseech you therefore by the mercies of God that you present your bodies a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1). That oxymoron is nonsense. A sacrifice is by definition when you destroy. But Paul says that the Romans’ bodies become a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is that leitourgia, that service (that’s also, by the way, a political term in its origin), a leitourgia that corresponds with the basic confession. When Paul calls this service logiken, the term doesn’t mean “spiritual,” as so many modern translations have it. What does it mean? That it correlates with the gospel, the basic logos, of the Christian message. Because of that logos one approves what is good and acceptable and perfect? Or Paul calls the gentiles he converts his sacrifice to God (Rom 15:16).
Even the passages that talk about hymnody surprise “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with psalms and hymns and inspired songs” (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:18-20). What’s the function of hymnody? To teach and admonish! I wonder how much that played into the selection of the hymns for the new hymnal. Do they admonish and teach “…as you sing and make melody in your hearts to the Lord”?
I think I’m going to summarize with only two points.
The New Testament says a lot less than the later church does, but it is very clear on a couple of significant aspects of the tie that binds. The tie is the action of God in Christ that happened primarily at the cross and resurrection, actualized in baptism, lived out in everyday life’s activities, resulting in a community in which people engage in mutual service; that’s the tie. It is both theological and Christological.
It is equally clear that there is no demand for uniformity in the church. When Romans 16:17 says tells the Romans to “note and avoid those that cause divisions contrary to the teaching you have learned,” that means that the people who cause divisions in the community are wrong. To use Romans 16:17 to
justify separation from those with divergent views or practices is a misappropriation of the passage, provided the message of the gospel as the power of God that moves to salvation is there. You must read Romans 16:17 in the light of Romans 15:5-9 — and if you do, you will be delighted if in your parish there are black faces and brown faces and yellow faces and young faces and old faces, and some people who come in off the street and kind of smell. In Paul’s view you will accept them for the glory of God (shades of James 2:1-7).
Margaret M. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). She stresses henotes (oneness) and homonoia, unity of thought, as the virtues Paul strives to inculcate.
Krister Stendahl, Final Account: Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995: 1-7.
Hans Freiherr von Campenhausen, “The Problem of Order in Early Christianity and the Ancient Church,” pp. 123-40 in Tradition and Life in the Church: Essays and Lectures on Church History
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968): 125.
Von Campenhausen, 124.
Didache 11:5-6, cited from The Apostolic Fathers, edited and translated by Bart D. Ehrman (Loeb
Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) 1.435.