1 Corinthians 1:10-18
4th Sunday after Trinity
09.7.17 St Barbara’s
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today is the 4th in our series on Paul. We started with an overview of his extraordinary life and travels – he covered over 10,000 miles on foot. We then looked at his letter to the churches of Galatia, addressing a very specific issue of whether you had to become a Jew to be a Christian, with the response that we are brought into relationship with God by his love and grace alone, not by what we do. Then last week, we looked at Paul’s letter to Philemon, a very short letter to an individual asking him to have mercy on a slave, Onesimus. Today, we look at Paul’s second longest letter, that explores lots of different issues, his letter to the church in Corinth.
Remember, Paul started his missionary journeys by going to Cyprus and Turkey. On his second major journey , he went to Turkey again, and then on into Greece. He stayed in Corinth for18 months, establishing a church in that city. On his third major journey, Paul stopped off in Ephesus for two and half years, and while there he wrote to the church in Corinth. And a few months later he was to follow up his letter with a visit.
Corinth was a hugely important city in the ancient world. It was the capital city of the whole of Greece, and was also its commercial and economic centre. Built on a narrow strip of land that joined northern and southern Greece, all trade and travel passed through it. Much of trade going from Asia to Rome passed through as well, people dragging their boats the short distance across the isthmus to avoid the treacherous waters around the southern tip of Greece. As with many ports across the centuries, it was a melting pot of different cultures, a place where ideas travelled fast, and a place known for lax morals and sexual immorality. Combine the financial driveness of a place like New York, with the moral laxity of Las Vegas or Bangkok, and the “anything goes” spirit of Los Angeles, and you begin to get a taste of life in Corinth.
Paul is writing to the church in Corinth because he has become aware of some serious issues that have arisen, that need addressing. Some messengers from Chloe’s household have shared with him what is going on, and he is concerned. So he writes this letter, and sends Timothy with it, to back up what he writes.
The first major issue that has arisen in the church in Corinth is that of divisions, people falling out with each other, opposing each other, within the church. This is manifested in a number of different ways. As we heard in our reading, some in the church have taken party lines – “I support Paul”; “I support Peter”; “I support Apollos” (another Christian teacher). They were reflecting the culture of their city, where secular philosophers would quite frequently build up a crowd of supporters to back them and discredit others. Paul tells them this is ridiculous – how can the one body of Christ be divided in such a way? Moreover, it is a nonsense – Paul, Apollos, Peter, they are just servants of God. It is God who should be the focus of their attention. He writes: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (3:6).
Another cause of division was that some people in the church were claiming to be spiritually superior to others. It was particularly the problem with those who had gifts in speaking or who were recognised for their wisdom. They were prone to look down on those with less public gifts, such as serving and giving. Again, the church was reflecting the culture of the day, where an education in rhetoric (the art of persuasive speech) and philosophy (the pursuit of wisdom) was seen as the ultimate education. Paul says there is no cause for any such superiority. We are all one body. All have been given gifts that should be equally valued. If we all had the same gift it would be a disaster. Who would clean the church, who would care for the sick, who would do the administrative work of the church, if we were all preachers. All of us have gifts, for the building up of God’s people.
And a third cause of division was that between rich and poor, a division that was particularly apparent when the church gathered for worship and the breaking of bread and wine. Communion in the early church was part of a meal. But whilst the rich brought copious amounts of fine food and drink to eat, the poorer members of the church may come with nothing at all, and just had to sit and watch their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ gorge themselves. It was hardly a reverent or fitting setting in which to worship Christ or meditate on his sacrifice on the cross. Paul told them to get it sorted out – to eat beforehand if necessary. In other words, put the needs of others first. Don’t do things that will make it harder for others to worship.
That principle – looking out for the needs of others, ensuring that others were encouraged in faith, not knocked down – is a key principle that Paul applies to another problem that has arisen in the church: should Christians eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Corinth was a city packed full of temples. The numerous trade guilds of the city would frequently hold banquets in dining rooms attached to the Temples. The meat would have been offered up first to the god in whose name the temple was dedicated – Zeus or Aphrodite or Athena, for example – and then brought in to the feast. For some Christians this was not a problem. They knew these gods did not exist – that only the God of their Lord Jesus Christ existed – and therefore it did not matter. They could eat without it undermining their faith.
However for other Christians, it was a big deal. In eating the meat they felt that they were in some way acknowledging and worshipping these other gods, gods who indeed they may have worshipped before they became Christians.
Paul’s response is simple. Yes, Christians were free to eat the meat – it would not hurt their souls. But if in doing so they were undermining the faith of others – maybe those Christians who felt that in doing so the faith was being compromised; or those who were not yet Christians but were left confused by these Christians seemingly worshipping other gods as well as Christ – then they should not do it. Supporting and loving others was far more important than one’s own personal preferences. Paul sums it up: “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble.. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many so that they may be saved.” (10:31-33)
The desire to express total freedom, to live out the gospel message that we are saved not by our moral actions but by faith and therefore we are free to do whatever we like, was expressed in another area of life too: people’s approach to sexual morality. Paul writes to say that he has heard that one member of the church is actually boasting about the fact that he is sleeping with his own step-mother; and that other Christians are still happily going up to the Temple of Artemis to sleep with prostitutes there (something that was so much a part of the culture that that one temple alone employed over a thousand prostitutes).
Paul responds by writing that integrity, faithfulness, in sexual relationships matter.s Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, Christ dwells within us, so how can we possibly abuse our bodies, and the bodies of others, in such a way? Not only that, but unfaithfulness causes huge pain and suffering, pain and suffering that Christ bore for us on the cross. Once again, Paul takes an ethical or moral question and encourages the church to look at it through the lens of Christ.
Throughout his letter Paul keeps returning to two key principles: will this action glorify God? will what I say or do nurture or harm the faith of others? Or in one word, it is the principle of love.
Paul has so much more to say in this letter – about orderly worship, about not taking one’s fellow Christian to court, about the glorious truth of the resurrection (it is from this letter that Handel quotes those wonderful words in the Messiah: “we shall be raised incorruptible… where O death is your victory, where O death is you sting”) – so do use the daily readings this week to explore more.
But I will finish with the most famous words from this letter, words that apply not just to weddings where they are so frequently heard, but to every relationship and to every moral and life decision we face: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
May we in our families, our work, our community, our church, in the way we relate to one another, put those words at the very heart of our lives.