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I would like to thank the Rev. Dr. Daniel Olson for sharing the sermon that he preached on January 14, 2014 to the Iroquois Circuit Winkle at St. John Lutheran Church in Buckley, IL. Much of that sermon is reproduced here with slight revisions to allow for preaching in a different place by someone other than the original author.
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About once a month, I get together with the other pastors of the Iroquois Circuit. This is a good thing. We have the opportunity to study the Bible together as well as other topics. We learn from one anotherís experiences. We also develop bonds of friendship with one another.
One of the great blessings of pastorsí conferences is the blessing of being a hearer. I experience the tremendous blessing of sitting in the pew and hearing the proclamation of the Gospel from the mouth of another pastor.
St. John Buckley was the host of our last get together, and I had the pleasure of hearing a sermon from their pastor, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Olson. Pastor Olson gave us permission to use his sermon and I asked Pastor Olson to e-mail the manuscript to me. Since Pastor Olsonís sermon was based on the reading from the Epistle that we just heard, I thought I would share his sermon with you today. In fact, it wouldnít surprise me if other congregations in the Iroquois circuit arenít hearing this sermon today.
Pastor Olson began his sermon with the story that you have probably heard about a mother who was trying to get her boy to go to church:
A mother was having trouble getting her son out of bed one Sunday morning. She told him, ďItís time to go to church!Ē Her son said, ďI donít want to go to church. Everyone there is mean and I donít think anyone there likes me. Give me three good reasons why I should go to church.Ē His mother said, ďNumber one, Iím your mother and I said so and youíre supposed to be obedient to your parents. Number two, itís the Lordís Day and youíre supposed to go to church. Number three, youíre the pastor. You have to go.Ē
Pastor Olson then went on to share an experience that he had as a vicar at his first pastorsí conference. The pastors were discussing a conflict at one of the congregations. He remembered this so vividly because conflict in a congregation of the LCMS was so rare at that time. He struggled with the concept that there were members in a church who were more interested in getting their own way rather than searching out Christís way and following it. It was all very confusing to him as a vicar.
Fast forward now some twenty years later to our present time. I can tell you that there is no longer a sense of shock when conflict arises in congregations. In fact, pastors today talk about it as being routine. We speak only in terms of what level of conflict exists in a church. Pastors have grown weary of hearing one account after another about conflict in churches. When I go to pastorsí conferences today, the book displays are filled with such titles as Clergy Killers, Pastor Abusers, and Peacemakers. There are business type organizations today that charge churches good amounts of money, money which churches often seem willing to pay, to come in and supposedly tell congregations how to deal with conflict.
Is Christ divided? Thatís the question that the Apostle Paul asks in our text. Is Christ divided? Can we divide Jesus up into pieces? The idea is obviously ludicrous, and thatís Paulís intent. Itís quite obvious that Christ is not divided and cannot be divided. The next question then that follows is ďCan Christís Church be divided?Ē Paul is making it very clear that Christ is not divided and therefore those who confess to be a part of His church ought not be divided either.
Well, why is Paul saying all of this? Well, we see that conflict in the church, sadly, is not something new. Paul was addressing a church that was surrounded by darkness. Corinthian society was known for its immorality. In fact, to call someone a Corinthian was to accuse them of being sexually lewd. It would be on the level of using some of the very vulgar terms that are used in our society to describe a woman who is sexually promiscuous that I cannot even repeat here. Prostitution was rampant in the city, and the local religions of the city made wide use of temple prostitutes. The temple of Aphrodite alone employed one thousand temple prostitutes. Homosexuality was embraced and the city was filled with all kinds of idols. The only thing that was condemned was faithful Christianity. The fact is that Corinthian society in the first century wasnít a whole lot different than the society that the church faces in America today.
This was a tough place to plant a church, but the Apostle Paul did. Now, you would think that the church in Corinth would really be focused on the task before her. Imagine the work that congregation had! It was a small congregation in a massive city that was filled with people who did not have the hope of Jesus Christ. The city was filled with people who did not know Jesus Christ as their savior and were on the road to hell. The city was filled with people who needed the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life that only Jesus could give them. It was an overwhelming task that was before the congregation in Corinth.
Now, you would think that this congregation would really be concerned about the task before her and be trying to bring the light of Jesus Christ into a world filled with so much darkness. But they werenít. What were they doing? They were fighting among themselves.
What were they fighting over? Well, we see that the Corinthian church had divided into factions. What were these factions over? Well, one group was saying, ďI follow Pastor Apollos!Ē Others were saying, ďI follow Pastor Cephas!Ē Still others were saying, ďI follow Pastor Paul!Ē And then there was the group that was saying that they werenít following any pastor at all. They were claiming that they followed Christ. What they meant by that is that they didnít need any pastor at all because they were following Jesus directly and claiming some direct spiritual line to Jesus.
But why had these factions developed? Well, you see the members of the church in Corinth had gone pastor shopping. Each group had its agenda on what they wanted to do and how they believed the church should be run. Each group had its ideas on what they wanted to believe and what they wanted to be able to do. What happened if one pastor told them something they didnít want to hear? They went around until they found a pastor that they thought was telling them what they wanted to hearÖat least wasnít telling them what they didnít want to hear. You see what they were doing was attaching themselves to different personalities. What they werenít doing was focusing on Christ. Rather than asking what Godís Word taught and if what they were being told was in line with Christís Word, they were simply focusing on getting someone to tell them what was in line with what they wanted to hear. They were not following Christ. This was causing divisions in the church.
We still see it today, donít we? What causes divisions in churches today? It happens when people do not follow Christ. It happens when people become focused on getting their way and decide that they only want to hear what is in line with what they want to believe and do.
Pastor Olson told us about the church he attended during high school. It had two pastors. The policy for weddings, funerals, baptisms, and anything else was that you got the pastor who was next in the rotation. Both pastors were very clear that people were to be focused on Christ and nothing else. If you requested one pastor for a wedding and he was not up in the rotation it didnít happen. These two pastors wanted to make it very clear that you were to focus on Christ, and not on who was your favorite pastor.
Is Christ divided? No! Therefore, Christís church is not to be divided either. If Christís Church is divided, it is because people in the church are not focused on Christ. How do we stay focused on Christ? It is by being firmly grounded in His Word. What does it say if the church has no knowledge of Christís Word and no interest in learning what Christís Word says? What does it say if a member of a congregation scolds the pastor and says, (and this has actually happened), ďWell pastor, your problem is that you just want everything to go back to a verse in the Bible.Ē?
Now let me take a break from Pastor Olsonís sermon to tell you that this has happened to me as well. At my ordination and installation, I made a promise to God and to this congregation that I would conduct my ministry here according to Godís Word. The constitution of this congregation requires us to do everything according to Godís Word. Never the less, I too have been scolded for following through on my ordination vows and the constitution of this congregation by basing my ministry on Godís Word.
Pastor Olson went on to preach that the harm from Christís church being divided is very real. Remember, we talked about how the church in Corinth was failing to bring the light of Christ into a world filled with darkness. We are living in a world filled with darkness. Divisions prevent the church from bringing the light of Christ to a world filled with darkness.
Have you ever watched a three-legged race? Thatís where two people each place a leg in a sack and then try to run a race. What happens if the two people are pulling in opposite directions? Theyíre not going anywhere.
What is it that brings unity in a church? It is Christ! Pastor Olson remembered a man many years ago who said that the problem with his congregation was that you had a bunch of people with no unifying goal. Thatís sad because that says that the members of that congregation had taken their eyes off of Christ. They had failed to see what it was that was to unify their church. Do you know what it is that unifies us as a congregation? What is it that holds us together as a church? If you canít immediately answer that question, then the church has real problems. Itís not our building. Itís not our history. Itís not the fact that we have a lot of friends here. Itís not the Pastor. What holds us together is Christ.
Paul answers that question at the very beginning of his letter to the Corinthians. He refers to them as those who have been sanctified by Christ. You have been sanctified by Christ! He has suffered and died for your sins on the cross and overcome death for you through His resurrection. He has given you life and salvation. In the waters of Baptism, He joined you together with those around you who have been entered into Christ.
Is Christ divided? No! How does His church remain united? It is by being focused on Christ. The word that Paul uses for agreement here means to speak the same thing. What is it that is to unite? It is by being firmly grounded in Christís Word and saying the same thing. Paul also tells us how divisions in the church are healed. It is through repentance and forgiveness. We speak the same thing. When we sin, we confess our sins and speak words of forgiveness to those around us.
A pastor was talking to a woman in a congregation one time about a division that had taken place in the church. The pastor was concerned about whether or not the woman would offer forgiveness to another member of the congregation that had said some things about her. He was afraid that the church would be divided because of it. The woman said to the pastor, ďHow could I not forgive? I couldnít call myself a Christian if I didnít.Ē She understood that Christ is not divided and therefore those who are a part of His church cannot be divided eitherÖif they wish to be a part of His body.
Pastor Olson then ended the sermon with Paulís question: Is Christ divided?
I have a historical note to add to Pastor Olsonís sermon. The early Lutherans had divisions. They came together and discussed their differences in light of the Word of God. They very carefully labored on one controversy at a time. Each party stated its position in the controversy. Then they all gathered together and studied what the Bible said. Finally, they wrote down what the Bible said was true and condemned what the Bible said was false. When they were finished with one controversy, they moved on to the next one and did the same thing. We still have the work they did. Itís called the Formula of Concord.
The Formula of Concord not only speaks to controversies that continually plague the church, but it also provides a framework for dealing with other controversies as they arise. As long as people insist on having their own way, there will be divisions. Unity will only come as the Holy Spirit leads people to repent of their way and submit to Christís way as revealed in the Bible. Amen!!!
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