And the really interesting question for me is, was this Sosthenes that Paul calls a friend, a brother in the faith, and a co-worker with him, the same Sosthenes, ruler of the synagogue in Corinth when Paul lived there for a year and a half, building up the congregation, and the one who persecuted Paul and his Christian converts? From enemy of the Christian movement, to convert himself, that would be a dramatic turn around for Sosthenes! And it certainly would dovetail nicely with Paul’s message to the Corinthian church, that they are “a holy work in progress!” They are called to turn their lives around, change their old ways, and make a unity together, a fellowship, a gathering, based on their common faith. Because as disciples, followers of Christ, we live in a tension that is not quite yet resolved. That though we are “enriched in Christ, and are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” as Paul said, yet we are still “waiting for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Did Sosthenes receive that message? Did he come around? You be the judge! Scholars can’t agree. Or, at least, they can’t be sure if it’s two different Sosthenes, or one in the same.
The Sosthenes we know as the ruler of the Corinthian synagogue comes from Acts Ch.18, a character who is the spitting image of Paul, back when he was called Saul. Back before Jesus knocked him off his high horse, and called him to leave his life of persecuting the church at Tarsus and arresting its members, to take up a new life, be baptized and worship him, instead of trying to destroy the Body of Christ. Like Paul, Sosthenes was a leader in Judaism, only at Corinth. He too was persecuting the church, and arresting followers of The Way, as the early Christian movement was called. So it happened, when Paul was preaching and calling together a congregation in Sosthenes town, even recruiting in his synagogue, he arrested Paul and brought charges against him to the local magistrate, Gallio. But Gallio washed his hands of the mess, and let Paul go, and just as suddenly the crowd turned on Sosthenes, attacking him. And Gallio did nothing about it – an un-holy mess!
Paul had to be blinded before he saw the light, turned around, and followed Jesus. Perhaps this confrontational day in Corinth was Sosthenes’ moment of truth?!
It’s interesting that Sosthenes name comes from the word sozo, which means, “safe,” “rescued,” and is used principally of, God rescuing believers from the power of sin, and bringing them safely to God. We don’t know if this is the same Sosthenes, Sozo, Paul now calls a brother, a friend, and co-worker in the gospel, but if it were, what a holy rescue story it would be! He would be fulfilling the meaning of his name, “rescued.” It would be like a miracle rescue on a Grey’s Anatomy episode, like Christina saving Derrick after being gunned down. Like seeing your worst enemy show up in church, now a new person, worshiping with you, and singing God’s praises.
Is Paul working with that Sozo now? A co-worker in a turn-around mission! A former persecutor of the church, changed into a leading spokesperson?! Can our faithful mission and witness bear such fruit here?
For Paul, becoming a member of the Body of Christ, the church, is all about the “call.” He’s called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus. And it’s not that he doesn’t have fabulous qualifications to fall back on or brag about: (a) he’s highly educated, above most everyone in his tradition; (b) as an apostle, he’s endured suffering like few can claim, from shipwrecks, to beatings, sleeplessness to hunger, (c) and, as a Roman citizen, he’s entitled to all the benefits therein, which may have been why Gallio didn’t want to touch him. But that’s not what qualifies him to be an apostle. He is an apostle “by the will of God.” Instead of boasting in his self-made qualifications, which are considerable, he finds his self, his identity and integrity, all he is, in the grace of God. His life is under call, he’s been turned around, made holy in baptism, and called on a mission.
It’s the same call, he insists, that his Corinthian congregation enjoys too, who are called to be saints. They are made holy, “sanctified” in Christ Jesus. No matter what sins his congregation commits or how messy it gets, if Jesus the Christ makes you holy, you’re holy. In the Body of Christ that can’t be taken away. And, it is an un-holy mess in Corinth! Paul’s letter will detail one problem after another, more than any of his other churches: quarrelling, immorality, slander and suing each other. Not a pretty picture! Yet Paul insists, they are holy, in Christ Jesus. Holy, and at the same time, “they are a work in progress!” We can’t forget that tension: forgiven and sanctified, but still waiting for the full revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today we are the holy ones in Christ Jesus, the congregation of Unity Lutheran Church, Chicago. We are called to be saints, set apart from the world, while at the same time being sent into it. No matter the tension, no matter the problems we face, holy we are, in Christ Jesus. Today, we rejoice in the gift of new members, whom we are proud to welcome and call our sisters and brothers, co-workers in the faith. They are holy, and made so, “together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord JC,” Paul says, a reminder that we are part of a much bigger movement, an expansive Body of Christ. We are called like all the rest, and made holy, and belong to something much bigger than ourselves too, which helps to remind us that our problems are small, really, in the context of the big picture.
So today, we celebrate that “this is a shared ministry.” We are called to continually be reforming, turning around to follow Christ again in new ways, to answer the call of transformation as the Body of Christ. We are a holy work in progress. We have all the spiritual gifts necessary to be the church in this place, but we are still awaiting the full revealing of Christ Jesus. We are confident, but we’re also humble. We cannot act out of self-righteous rigidity, knowing that we are not yet a finished product. But we are always seeking anew how and where God is calling us. For by the call of God, we are ‘a holy work, in progress.’