The other day I heard a story about a young pastor. In his new parish he sought to address what he thought was a serious problem in the congregation he was called to serve. During the service half the congregation stood for the prayers and half the congregation remained seated for the prayers, and each side insisted theirs was the true, original, tradition. Nothing the pastor said could resolve the impasse. Exasperated, he sought out the previous pastor’s advice, an old man, now in the nursing home. “So, tell me,” the young pastor asked, “was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?” “No,” answered the old pastor. “So then, it was the tradition to sit during the prayers!” No,” he responded. “Well,” said the young pastor, “what we have now is complete chaos- half the people stand to pray and half the people stay seated, and they love to argue about it.” “Yes,” said the wise old pastor, “that was the tradition.”
While this is a fictional account, the problems Paul addressed in Corinth were real, and they were threatening to divide believers, one from another.
We read again today from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians. In fact, we continue to read from it, all during this season of Epiphany. And, we continue to read from Corinthians, not only this year, but all three years of the Epiphany cycle. In other words, whenever we are in the season of Epiphany, we’re reading from either 1st or 2nd Corinthians. So, what is it in these letters that Paul wrote to the church he started in Corinth, that has to do with Epiphany? This is the question that has drawn me to take up this challenge: to preach from Corinthians all through this season, until the festival of Transfiguration, on March 6 this year. I can’t give you a definitive answer about what the connection is at this point, but I invite you to help me along the way, to discover what it is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, that fits with Epiphany, this season of revealing and light.
We know that Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi, or 3 wise men coming from the east, who bring gifts to Jesus the new-born king. As outsiders, and gentiles, they come to reveal the savior of the world. The first Sunday of Epiphany then, can be celebrated as the Baptism of Our Lord, where Jesus is revealed as the Son of God, the anointed and chosen one. All this revealing begins to shed light on the mission of Jesus in our world, and so we hear the gospel stories of Jesus’ calling his disciples.
So, one reason we read from Corinthians in this season, might be because Paul himself is one of those disciples. Jesus called him, not in person like with the 12, but in a vision, as early as 3 years after his death & resurrection. Paul then goes through a long period of formation, before he sets out to fulfill his primary call, his mission to the Gentiles. Paul was in Corinth for a year and a half, in the years 50 and 51, and Paul wrote this letter to his congregation there, a couple years later. This was all within about 20 years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. So this letter is one of the earliest New Testament books there is.
Corinth posed unique issues and challenges for Paul as a busy sea-port city in Greece. Its people had the reputation of “lacking charm and grace,” at least compared to Athens or Rome. Others knew it as “sin-city,” which sounds quite contemporary to our ears. The transitory population of merchants and sailors, compounded by the influx of transplants emigrating from various parts of the Roman empire to make their fortunes as newly freed citizens, fulfilled the ungracious, gritty, reputation! Syncretism proliferated in such diversity, from the polytheistic worship of Greek and Roman gods, to the Jewish temple, to this new Christian church which met in people’s homes. And Paul’s church reflected this diversity of Corinth, racially, economically, and spiritually, which in turn heightened the schisms, or divisions, Paul addressed in his letters to them.
Paul identifies one source of division as a “quarreling” over who church members belong to. Some say they belong to Paul, others to Apollos or Peter. Paul asks rhetorically, “Has Christ been divided? Was I crucified for you?” Obviously not, so “be united in the same mind and the same purpose, by our Lord Jesus Christ,” says Paul, for you belong to Christ.
For us, the matter of, who we belong to, is rarely recognized as having “holy” or theological implications. If we admit we belong to anyone besides our self, we would be admitting weakness. To belong to someone else seems like subservience, like giving up your freedom, it could call into question your self-esteem, and people might suggest that you seek counseling! If you want to fit in you’d say, “I am my own person.” That’s our American, post-modern, rallying cry!
Saying, “I belong to Christ,” threatens to cut us off from all the benefits of the world and our friends out there! And the challenge for us is to believe it, and live it out.
Division is therefore not new in the church, it just takes different forms, and manifests in different degrees of tension, both creative and destructive. Paul faced divisions in Corinth, in the quarreling that divided one from another and threatened to fracture the Body of Christ, to whom they belonged. But in Christ, they could learn to love. as Jesus taught them. In the famous words of chapter 13 of this letter, Paul says: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way;” and, “faith, hope and love abide, these 3; and the greatest of these is love.”
To love one another and have the same purpose requires a strong foundation. Paul rooted his appeal in the death and resurrection of Christ. [J. Paul Sample, NIB} ”And because each of us belongs to Christ, we are re-created to live in community. The individual is never simply and singly related to God. Caring for other believers, building them up, encouraging them, consoling and even warning them,” according to Paul, “are not options for believers; they are a requirement of faith. Believers must be ready to accommodate to the community,” to the Body of Christ, to which we belong; for in Christ, we are a unity.