I am of Paul

Sermon for Sunday, January 22, 2023 || Epiphany 3A || 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

This sermon is about the danger of fundamentalism, but it’s going to take me a few minutes to get there. I need to start like this: something’s going on in the Church in Corinth. We don’t know exactly what because we only have Paul’s side of the story. But we know that within a few years of its founding, fractures have appeared between the church’s members. Later in the letter, Paul references a few issues that divide the people: issues around what to eat, issues around who is most important in the church, and issues around which spiritual gifts are the best. Paul addresses all of these before culminating in his great poem about love – you know, “Love is patient, love is kind,” etc. 

But here at the beginning of the letter, Paul talks about another type of division that goes beyond the ideological. Paul has heard that the members of the Church in Corinth are assigning themselves to camps based on certain individuals. There’s Paul. There’s Apollos, who was another church planter in Paul’s orbit. There’s Cephas – that’s Simon Peter. And there’s Christ.

Okay, I’m going to get in the weeds here for a minute. Fair warning. I promise it’s important.

Notice how Paul brings this all up in his letter. He writes, ‘“Each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”’ I belong to is how our English version translates this. Another translation says, “I follow Paul, I follow Apollos.” The thing is, neither the word “belong” nor the word “follow” appears in the original language. I don’t usually say this, but in this case, the King James Version is closest to the original Greek. The King James says, “Every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.”

I am of Paul. This goes beyond mere following, beyond belonging to a particular group that espouses a particular ideology. Saying “I am of Paul” reassigns the most fundamental aspect of identity. I’ve preached many times over the years about Jesus’ “I am” statements. These are certain sayings of Jesus in which he borrows a verbal construct from God’s conversation with Moses at the burning bush. God names God’s person as “I Am”; that is, the most fundamental and most universal of identities. “I Am” is a complete sentence. Subject. Verb. It speaks to the concept of existence itself. Jesus borrows this name in his own “I am” statements, saying, “I am the bread of life,” and “I am the light of the world,” among several others.

Paul uses this same verbal construct here in our passage today. (Although, let me say, I don’t actually think he was drawing a conscious parallel to the burning bush story. More than likely, his Greek usage is probably the simplest way to form his argument.) Whatever the case, those words are there. “I am.” I am of Paul. This is now my fundamental identity, and you cannot shake me loose from it. I. Am. This.

Once I begin identifying with someone or something in this way, my whole world begins revolving around it. I curate my news and media to reflect and reinforce my chosen identity. I form new connections that echo back to me my chosen identity. And I dissolve relationships that challenge my chosen identity. The upshot of all of this is that I lose the ability to make meaning of the world in any other way than by mirroring the someone or something I now identify with.

This is called fundamentalism. And I’m using this term more broadly than its usual context with the word Christian before it. A fundamentalist nature can occur across any facet of identity, not just a religious one. Adherents of conspiracy theories like QAnon are fundamentalists. Diehard followers of popular demagogues are fundamentalists. Even a certain toxic subset of Star Wars fans are fundamentalists.

There’s a fun movie from about twenty years ago called Fever Pitch. In it, Jimmy Fallon plays a guy whose whole life revolves around the Boston Red Sox. The entire conflict of the movie happens because he meets Drew Barrymore, and now he has to choose whether or not she fits into his life as a Red Sox fan. That’s the whole movie. Jimmy Fallon’s character is a Red Sox fundamentalist.

Now, I love the Red Sox. They’ve been my team since I was a little kid. My dad took me to games in the early 90s when they were not a good baseball team and Fenway was half-empty all the time. And I do mean half-empty. It sure wasn’t half full. I was ecstatic when they won the World Series in 2004. But when they don’t win, eh…It’s okay. Heck, I even like Derek Jeter. So, I am not a Red Sox fundamentalist.

And I try not to be a fundamentalist of any kind because fundamentalism robs us of one of the most vital of things God has blessed this creation with. Fundamentalism robs us of the opportunity to encounter new and diverse understandings of the world. And more than that, fundamentalism actively attacks diversity in all its incarnations because anything outside the fundamentalist viewpoint is repellent to it.

So, how do we as followers of Jesus, keep ourselves from diving into fundamentalism of any kind? This is a bit tricky, because don’t we want to be able to say, “I am of Christ?” Don’t we want that to be our fundamental identity? I think we do. But perhaps a better word to use is “foundational.” We want our identity in Christ to be our foundational identity; that is, the foundation upon which all other facets of our identities spring. See how that’s different? The fundamentalist has only one piece of their identity. But when we live our lives with Christ as our foundation, we participate in God blessing us through each and every other piece of our identities.

Following Jesus’ Way of Love makes me a more loving father, a more welcoming Christian, a more longsuffering Red Sox fan. (Longsuffering – it is one of the fruits of the Spirit.) This week, I invite you to pray with God about all the different facets of your identity. How does being grounded as a follower of Jesus bless all the various pieces of you that make you who you are? And how does being a follower of Jesus open you up to new encounters that have the potential to add to your identity? Pray with these questions, and remember that God, who is the Great I AM, is the foundation of our being. Upon this foundation, we partner with Christ to build the many-faceted people we are always in the process of becoming, so that we can be God’s hands and heart in this world.

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