June 29 Lesson: A Call to Unity

6/23/2014

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Sunday school lesson for the week of June 29, 2014
By Beth Barnwell

Lesson Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:10-17

Key Verse: Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Purpose: To focus our loyalty on Christ and not on rival leaders or factions in the church.

We’ve all seen the license plates that depict “a house divided.” Usually these license plates are accurately “divided” into halves with one side touting one specific college and the other half another. Here in Atlanta, the colors are usually yellow and black (GA Tech)/red and black (Go Bulldogs!) or red and black/blue and orange (War Eagle!). Thankfully, my house is clearly defined by the Georgia Southern Eagles! No division there.

These license plates, though true, are not really serious. The individual houses are not actually divided, but rather there is a friendly (hopefully!) rivalry between two factions that live under the same roof. When Paul arrived in Corinth in about A.D. 50, this was not the case. The Christian community that formed during this second tour was done so in a time of religious and economic turmoil. The population of Corinth was either wealthy or not. There was no middle ground. This alone was enough to introduce tension into even the best community, Christian or not. Because Corinth was a pass-through for many traders and sailors, several different religious beliefs were prevalent with everyone shouting for their particular beliefs to be heard, accepted, and followed. The fact that there was a bit of discordance is not surprising, but the fact that a Christian community could develop at all is noteworthy. Merging different styles with different ideas of how things should be done is never an easy task. An unhealthy rivalry will often enter the playing field, which is interesting because synonyms for the word “merge” are “unite” and “become one.” What often occurs is the complete opposite.

Rival groups tend to do just that. They rival for attention. They rival for leadership. They rival for first place. When Paul arrived, obviously, he first approached the Jewish synagogue. As his teachings progressed, dissension among the Jews arose. Paul aptly decided to take his teachings elsewhere – to the Gentiles, who were primarily pagans or of a nonreligious sect. The very history of the church confirms a history of opposition. The original Christians were Jews converted to Christianity. When dissention arose, the audience changed and the Gentiles were converted, and so on and so on and so on. Top names in the long list of evolution are Martin Luther, John Calvin, King Henry VIII, John Wesley. Each man branched out and developed a different religion or denomination because he was unhappy with the status quo. This started a chain of events that ultimately led to a new denomination – The United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church is actually a blend of two denominations merging together: the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren.

Whenever a merger takes place, whether in a church or in a business, the result is always change and, very often, fallout. People often become dissatisfied and leave and unity dissolves. Change is never easy, but it is necessary. This month during Annual Conference, new clergy appointments were announced. As is always the case, some people are happy with the change and some are not. Regardless of the outcome, members of The United Methodist Church must remain united and steadfast. The author of this quarter’s lessons, Lori Broschat, commented that when writing the word “united,” she often erroneously writes “untied.”

How have you witnessed your church or community becoming untied? What steps could be taken to stop the unraveling and encourage unity?

Unity vs. Uniformity

In verses 10-12, the congregation in Corinth was split into “rival groups.” There were evidently three different groups each following different leaders: Paul, Apollos or Cephas. Though each group professed to “follow Christ,” Paul wasn’t convinced. Rather, he heard them say in a very self-centered manner, that “we belong to Christ.” In other words, each group was saying “Christ loves us more.” You can imagine how disheartened Paul felt. There was no uniformity between the groups, but at least on the surface, there was a unity on the common ground of following Jesus. His words, “be restored with the same mind and same purpose” was in an attempt to unite the feuding groups.

A very good friend of mine was recently involved in a corporate structure change. This caused much angst and confusion among several of the staff members. During a team building exercise, the group was divided into two different personality types. When asked to characterize the opinion of each toward the other, negative connotations were expressed and harsh words were spoken. The week-long events designed to bring people together ended with hurt feelings and a loss of momentum. Though everyone was committed to a unity of purpose (the future of the company), there was a lack of uniformity in how to work together to reach that goal. There was a lack of understanding in how to serve one another.

When it comes to how we are together in the church, what is the difference between unity and uniformity? Has this same thing happened in your church? How was it resolved?

In the student handbook section, “It Is All About Jesus,” the following words are written: “In the church, the types of leaders who serve their people best are those who put Christ first, keeping him prominent in the church and in their leadership. This kind of humble servant leadership is contagious, making others want to live that kind of life as well.” As Christians, we are all followers of Christ. But, we can also be leaders for Christ. If we are intentional about keeping Him first in all that we do, people will begin to notice and we’ll begin to hear them say – “I want to be like that.”

In closing, I want to take you back to the beginning of this lesson. In the student handbook, the lesson opens with a story about two brothers who harbored a misunderstanding for many years. Along comes a handyman seeking work. One brother asks him to build an eight foot fence so he does not have to see his brother. The carpenter agrees and sets to work. The completed project is quite different than the original plan, however. Rather than building a fence to keep the brother out, he built a bridge to unite the two brothers. It was a very humble servant who brought a sense of unity back to that house. It was no longer a “house divided.”

My family is comprised of Presbyterians, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, and, of course, United Methodists. Our uniformity in serving may vary, but we are all solidly united in purpose. As for our houses – we will serve the Lord. Amen and Amen.

Beth Barnwell is a staff member of the North Georgia Conference, serving as administrative assistant to the director of Congregational Development. She is a long-time Sunday school teacher. Contact Beth at bbarnwell@ngumc.org.