Let’s Table Our Labels

This sermon was originally preached on October 10, 1992 at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.  It was World Communion Sunday.  A slightly different version of this same sermon was given again on January 3, 1993 at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.  The version posted below is a combination of the most salient features of the two original versions.  It has also been edited for clarity.

Psalms 133 (Revised Standard Version)

Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil upon the head,
running down upon the beard,
upon the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life for evermore.

1 Corinthians 1:10-17 (Revised Standard Version)

10 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chlo’e’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apol’los,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga’ius; 15 lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. 16(I did baptize also the household of Steph’anas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Several years ago there was a TV commercial for a certain brand of canned fruit that went like this: (singing)

When it says Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s
On the label, label, label
You will like it, like it, like it
On your table, table, table
When it says Libby’s, Libby’s, Libby’s
On the label, label, label

I don’t usually buy fruit cocktail, but if I did go to the grocery store tomorrow looking for some, I’d probably buy Libby’s, just because of that ad–not because the jingle was all that clever–in fact it was kind of corny–but because the tune was so catchy it made me remember the brand.  So the jingle did its job.  Not being a connoisseur of canned fruit, and not really even knowing what other brands are available, I’d probably buy Libby’s just because I was familiar with the name.

That commercial illustrates the role that labels and brand names play in our society.  The ad asks us to believe that simply because the name “Libby’s” appears on the label, the product associated with the brand name is high quality.

Generally speaking, labels can tell us a lot about the quality of items we want to buy.  For example, Campbell’s soup has been around a long time, and has come to be known as a quality brand of canned soup.  Likewise, the Levi Strauss Company is known for making durable jeans that are also comfortable and attractive.  Both of these names have come to be trusted as quality brands.

On the other hand, “Ronco” is not the first name that comes to mind when speaking of fine kitchen-ware, nor are we likely to pick up a bottle of “Mad Dog 20/20” if we want to buy a fine wine for a dinner party.  We trust labels to tell us a lot about products.

I think there’s a sense in which we sometimes apply labels to people, too, as a means of evaluating them.  A good example of this may be seen during an election year, like last year (1992) was.  Many people have proudly chosen either the label “Democrat” or “Republican” for themselves; and the evaluation as to which of these labels is good or bad depends on which label you choose for yourself.  For example, if you’re a Republican, then you see that as the good label, while “Democrat” is seen as the bad one.  The situation is just the opposite, of course, if you’re a Democrat.

Labeling can occur in the church as well, and in fact, that’s evidently what was happening in the church at Corinth in today’s New Testament reading.  Individuals in the church were aligning themselves with different prominent Christian leaders of their day, causing division in the church.  Some preferred Paul, while others aligned themselves with a man named Apollos, and still others with Cephas (which is another name for the Apostle Peter).

The implication is that these factions were competing against each other, with each group believing their particular hero was better or more spiritual than the rest.  The Corinthians were labeling themselves and each other, and these labels were becoming divisive.

Paul is dismayed by all this and writes the Corinthians in order to discourage this growing factionalism.  He reminds them they’re not to give their primary allegiance to anyone but Christ, who is Lord and the Head of the church.  Therefore, Paul urges the Corinthians to stop using any label other than the name of Christ.

Don’t you think the sort of division Paul was trying to discourage in the Corinthians still goes on in the church today?  For those first century Christians it took place at the congregational level.  Sometimes we see this happen in congregations today.  I trust this is not the case here at Trinity.  I sense this is a solid and unified body of believers who love and care for one another in many ways and who enjoy working together.  Hopefully labels are not a problem within your church family.

However, labeling can also go on between congregations, and between denominations.  In the Christian church today we may no  longer be saying “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Peter,” but aren’t modern-day Christians saying something else which is, in effect, very similar?  For aren’t today’s Christians saying instead, “I belong to the Presbyterians,” or “I belong to the Methodists,” or “I belong to the Baptists,” or “I belong to the Roman Catholics,” etc.?

Certainly denominational loyalty is a good and healthy thing to a certain extent.  But there’s a fine line between denominational loyalty and denominational arrogance.  When we begin to think our version of Christianity or our interpretation of the bible or our doctrine is the only really valid thing around; when we begin to think we have nothing to learn from Christians of other denominations, even those very different from our own; then we’ve crossed that line.  At that point denominational names become labels that divide God’s children from one another, rather than uniting us around the name of Christ.

One example of how this often happens ought to make the point clear.  If I may speak very candidly for a moment: Quite frankly, there’s an awful lot of “Baptist bashing” that goes on in non-Baptist circles here in the South.  When we do that, are we remembering that the folks we’re talking about are actually our brothers and sisters in Christ?  Even if some of the beliefs and practices of Christians in other denominations are very different from our own, they still serve the same Lord as we do; they’re also baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and their understanding of the Christian faith is based on the very same Bible from which we got our understanding of it.  Can we be so certain that our interpretation is correct and theirs is not?  My suspicion is that all denominations, including our own, have their good points and their bad points.  It seems to me that the smartest thing we can do is to stay on the lookout for the good things in other churches from which we can learn.

There’s another type of labeling that goes on in the body of Christ that’s based more on theological views than on denominational loyalties.  In this case, the labels used are words like “liberal”, “moderate”, “conservative”, or “fundamentalist.”  These labels can be just as divisive as denominational names, if not more so, because sometimes they cause divisions not only within denominations, but within congregations as well. When we become so entrenched in our own particular theological perspective that we begin to see those of another theological persuasion as our enemy, rather than as brothers and sisters from whom we can learn,we’ve missed the point.

(Added in 2018: This is not to say there aren’t some differences between theological liberals and theological conservatives that are extremely significant, and even worth separating over, but such considerations should never be taken lightly.  If separation becomes necessary, it should only occur after every attempt has been made to come to agreement on essential tenets.

In 2018 we might also add labels like “non-denominational,” “Reformed,” “Arminian,” “cessationist,” “charismatic,” or “Spirit-filled.”  These labels can be divisive as well.)

If you haven’t already figured it out, my sermon title today is a play on words based on two different meanings of the word “table.”  The first meaning has to do with how “table” is used as a verb in business meetings.  In such meetings, to “table” a piece of business is to postpone dealing with it until a later time; and tabling something “indefinitely” means you choose not to act on that particular item at all, ever.

The second meaning of the word “table” in my sermon title today is the more common usage of it as a noun referring to a piece of furniture off of which we usually eat.  Today during the sacrament of Holy Communion we will be coming to the Lord’s Table.  The communion table is a place where we can lay our burdens as well as our sins, and exchange them for God’s relief and forgiveness and peace.

Today is World Communion Sunday, a time when Christians all over the world, of many different denominations, all celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the same day.  Even so, today there is still much division in the body of Christ, and much of it is caused when we allow our prejudices against Christian brothers and sisters who are very different from us to separate us from them in spirit.

This morning as we celebrate the sacrament, let us examine our hearts, and ask ourselves, “Through my thoughts, words, and actions, have I promoted unity in Christ’s body; or have I, unwittingly or otherwise, contributed to the divisions which continue to separate Christian brothers and sisters all over the world, by allowing labels to govern my thoughts and actions?”

Friends, today let us choose to “table” the labels we sometimes place on ourselves and others–those labels which cause division–and let us table them indefinitely, by laying them on the Lord’s table, once and for all, in order that God’s Church around the world may experience the true meaning of “communion.”

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