Sunday, April 28, 2024

Sermon: "Crocheted in Christ", 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 (April 28, 2024)

As we all know, the apostle Paul was an exceptionally well-travelled man. He took his call to evangelize very seriously, which resulted in journeys to over fifty cities across three continents. And the message that he preached in each of these cities never strayed far from the famous one that he wrote early on to the church in Galatia: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But, well – humans gonna human, right? No matter how far he trekked, no matter how often he preached this message, Paul encountered the same problem again and again: people choosing to divide themselves into rival groups, gravitating towards conflict instead of unity. In spite of the young Church’s vulnerability in the shadow of the Roman Empire. In spite of Paul’s teachings. In spite of the gospel.

But perhaps nowhere did this break Paul’s heart more than in the Corinthian church. The book of Acts tells us that Paul stayed in Corinth for 1½ years – which is a long time for an itinerant preacher determined to spread the gospel “to the ends of the earth”. We know that Paul wrote to them at least four different times – the two letters that are biblical canon, plus two others that are referenced in scripture but lost to history. Clearly, he cares very deeply about the people of this community and wants to make sure that they’re faithfully living the gospel, but the information he received from Chloe’s people indicated that they’re struggling with the same issue as the Galatians had five years earlier. So, Paul sends them a letter containing a similar but even more detailed message, imploring the Corinthians to “agree with each other and [not] be divided into rival groups[, and] Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose.”

Now, I’m gonna stop us right there, because this is one of those rare examples of (in my opinion) a pretty serious linguistic blunder in the CEB. This translation makes it sound like Paul is telling the Corinthians that they should all be the same – always getting along and never disagreeing – and that’s NOT Paul’s M.O. at all. Remember, Paul was the one to almost single-handedly convince the Church not to require circumcision as a prerequisite of joining the Christian community, and in fact, later in this very same letter, he famously goes on to describe how the body of Christ is necessarily made up of a variety of diverse parts. Paul is no champion of homogeneity.

So let’s throw that translation out for a moment. If we turn to the Greek, we find that Paul is ACTUALLY saying something closer to, “I urge you to all *speak the same thing* [which is very different than “agree with each other”] and not let there be divisions among you so that, *having been knit together,* you may be in the same mind and in the same purpose.”

Knit together. Hm. Interesting. Those of you familiar with my personal hobbies and my penchant for sermon illustrations may be able to guess where I’m going next.

When you knit something, you use a series of stitches to create a row, and a series of rows to create a finished product. While it’s true that quite a few knitting projects can be finished using a single continuous strand of yarn, some of the most intricate and beautiful pieces require multiple skeins of yarn, a variety of colors, and occasionally even contrasting thicknesses or textures. It’s not like painting, which often relies on gradients and blending to achieve its goal. The nature of knitting is to take separate, often visibly different fibers and to connect them seamlessly into a single piece WITHOUT compromising each fiber’s integrity.

If you’re more of a crocheter or a quilter, you can apply the same principle to your preferred medium, and you’ll probably understand what I’m trying to get at. For those of you who don’t consider yourself crafty at ALL, I’ve brought a visual aid that might help. This is a blanket I’ve started to make from the various bits of yarn I have left over after a project. You probably can’t see the individual stitches and rows from where you are, but I’m sure you can see the different blocks of color. Each square was knit independently; in fact, I still have a pile of them at home waiting to be added. Each of these squares is lovely and complete on its own, and maintains its form, color, shape, and texture – its identity, if you will – no matter what. But none of them can do what a blanket does on their own. It’s only once they’re joined – not just next to one another, but actually KNIT TOGETHER – that they’re able to accomplish their larger, greater, truer purpose.

THIS is what Paul is trying to say. Each of the differences within the Corinthian church certainly exists; Paul isn’t trying to pretend that they don’t. They WERE all baptized – and possibly taught – by different people. They came to the community in different ways; they have different perspectives; they ARE distinct squares of knitting (or crocheting, or quilting) – and always will be. But these identity markers have no right to divide the community, because they aren’t the ones that matter. They aren’t the purpose of the community as a whole. Baptism isn’t an end in and of itself. It’s in service to their larger purpose of speaking the same message – the gospel. As Paul puts it, “Christ didn’t send me to baptize but to preach the good news.” Baptism is one of the squares, but the gospel is the whole blanket.

And by the way – this isn’t optional for us. Let’s listen to my translation again: “I urge you to all speak the same thing and not let there be divisions among you so that, HAVING BEEN KNIT TOGETHER, you may be in the same mind and purpose.” The single word in Greek that means “having been knit together” is a part of speech called a participle, and it conveys two important ideas that almost every English translation glosses over completely. First, notice that it’s in the passive voice. We are not knitting ourselves together; someone else is doing the knitting. And second, this phrase is in the perfect tense, meaning that it has ALREADY HAPPENED. It’s done, and we had nothing to do with it.

In case you missed the implication, Paul is telling the Corinthians that through his death and resurrection, Christ has ALREADY bound us to one another through our salvation, creating the blanket and giving us our shared purpose. Our individual squares are already knitted, quilted, crocheted together in Christ. And it’s this preexisting condition, combined with our choice to speak the same message and our resistance to division, that will ultimately allow us to successfully unite in mind and purpose.

The Church should never ground its ultimate identity in the things that make us different. We can study them, we can embrace them, we can even celebrate them – but we can’t use them to sever the sacred connection that Jesus has woven between all of his followers. When our differences become divisions, all we have is a pile of 2”x2” squares. When they take a back seat to our shared purpose…well, THEN we start to get somewhere.

Now, as I said before – humans gonna human. Time and time again, the Church has tried to rip itself apart, each square attempting to exist as a blanket of the gospel on its own, through schisms, competition, bitter fights, social stigma, politicization, and so on. You can imagine how well THAT works. In more recent years, the pendulum has swung hard in the other direction, and some parts of the Church have started trying to unravel the blanket and start over from scratch, reknitting it with a more uniform appearance: over the past twenty years or so, non-denominational churches have been on the rise, attempting a sort of ecclesial “do-over” without all the baggage of the historical denominations. But as good as their intentions may be, their effort to reknit the blanket has wound up excluding many people, and has, in many ways, turned into its own division within the Church.

The Ecumenical Movement, on the other hand, is an effort of the Church Universal to recognize the ways its members can be different while still focusing on the places where Christ has knit us together, on the gospel that we share. It can be a struggle at times, especially when cultures and traditions are in direct conflict, but we keep going. We keep working at it, imperfect as the process is. Without ignoring or abandoning what makes us different, Ecumenism is an example of Christians working together to share the gospel not as opponents or as clones, but as kindred – to be that blanket knit together by Christ.

Paul reminds us (along with the Corinthians) that our differences are only bad if we allow them to divide the gospel’s message. It's okay to see the ways that you’re different from others in the larger Church. Maybe you’re a proud, cradle Presbyterian and have no desire to take part in an ecclesial hierarchy. Maybe you don’t like infant baptism, believing that a person should understand what’s going on before taking part in the sacrament. Maybe you think it’s important to use feminine pronouns and metaphors for God, or maybe you think that’s heresy. These differences are real. They matter. They’re worth discussing. BUT THEY’RE NOT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING. The most important thing is being able to find where the gospel connects us in spite of our differences and figure out how to cooperate in proclaiming the Good News. After all, we’re already knitted together. We might as well figure out how to make it work.

The last thing Paul says in this passage is that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but it’s the power of God for those of us who are being saved. It may seem foolish to try and accomplish anything with Christians who are different from us. It may seem impossible for us to be connected to one another in any meaningful way. But for those of us who have experienced the warmth of an afghan crocheted with 100 granny-squares, those who can see the story being told in a quilt made from small, irregular scraps of cloth, those who understand the beauty of a blanket knitted with dozens of colors…we understand that this isn’t foolish at all. It’s a POWER that no granny square, quilt block, or row of knitting could ever hope to accomplish on its own.

The hard part is done – we’ve already been knitted in the Nazarene, quilted in the King, crocheted in Christ. So, let’s lift up the gospel message and celebrate the artistry of the one who chooses to create community out of differences. Let’s gratefully live our lives knitted to one another as small but important squares in the only blanket able to cover the whole world in love. Amen.

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