When lecturing on Paul’s first letter to Corinthians, Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. – my colleague at Weston Jesuit School of Theology – tells our students that there are no problems in the Church today that did not exist in some form in the early church at Corinth. This insight can be consoling (e.g., at least we have company in our failures) or discouraging (e.g., will we ever get things right?). I thought of Dan’s words as I looked at the second reading for this Sunday (3rd Ordinary), taken from the opening chapter of First Corinthians. The first line of this reading is the verse widely regarded as the "thesis statement" of the entire letter. Paul urges the Corinthian Christians – whom he tellingly names "brothers and sisters" – to "agree" in what they say, to put an end to divisions among themselves, and to "be united in the same mind and in the same purpose." The Apostle thus makes abundantly clear that he wants the community to strive for unity. (The many causes of factionalism in Corinth sound all too familiar to us: divisions over leadership; competitiveness; spiritual elitism; socio-economic differences; contempt for others in the community – to name but some.) Paul’s exhortation to unity is all the more poignant, not to mention pertinent, given that we are coming to the conclusion of the Octave of Christian Unity (now more commonly known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity), Jan. 18-25. As has been well documented, the impetus towards ecumenism has waned in recent years. The reasons are undoubtedly complex. But one reason that unity is hard to work for and achieve across denominations and polities is that many if not most churches themselves are plagued with divisions and factions of various stripes and colors. It strikes me, perhaps over simplistically, that unity – like charity – must begin at home if it is to be authentic. That is, how can we strive to grow in union with others when our own house is not in order? One of the conspicuous features of First Corinthians is that Paul insists throughout the letter that the sine qua non of growing into our identity as the Body of Christ is to enact love for one another. While doctrinal formations are not unimportant, his focus throughout the letter is primarily on specific practices. Paul exhorts the Corinthians in simple but challenging terms: seek to build one another up in love (e.g., 8:1; 14:12); seek what is advantageous for others rather than one’s own advantage (11:33); become servants of one another (9:19). In fact, Paul holds himself up as one whose modus operandi is to serve others in love; in doing so, he claims to imitate Christ (11:1), whose love is marked by patience and kindness, not by insisting on his way (13:4-7). In effect, Paul asserts that self-giving love within the community is the greatest antidote to disunity and factionalism. Is this naïve? Perhaps. But it seems to be the same strategy set forth in the Holy Father’s general intention for the month of January: "That the Church may strengthen her commitment to full visible unity in order to manifest ever more clearly her nature as a community of love in which is reflected the communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." Thomas D. Stegman, S.J.
'Let There Be No Divisions Among You'