June 25, 2006
2 Corinthians 6, 1-13
Saint Paul had an enormous amount of trouble with the church at Corinth. We have two ‘Epistles to the Corinthians’ in the New Testament which actually contain parts of 4 different letters to Corinth, and it is thought there was at least one other letter which has been lost.
We know from Acts about Paul’s first visit to Corinth, which lasted 18 months – a relatively long time for him. The letters and Acts indicate that he went back at least twice more, to sort out problems that had arisen within the church community.
Corinth was a major commercial centre, and the hub of the communications network of its society – a bit like Watford. It had a large leisure and entertainments area, not all of it very respectable – a bit like Watford. It was part of a society that was changing rapidly, with people always ready for new experiences and new religious beliefs – a bit like ours. It was a society with major divisions of wealth and class and race, with different groups attempting to live and work alongside each other – a bit like ours.
Corinth was a place with a dreadful reputation for indecency and excess. The Greek language had a verb derived from the name of the city which meant to live a dissolute life, and the name Corinthian came into the English language to refer to the loose-living dandies of Regency times.
The church community in ancient Corinth was composed of people from lots of different backgrounds – as is ours; and contained both people who had long been members of the faith ( in their case, Judaism) and relative newcomers to belief – as does ours. Thus people came with different cultural and religious expectations, and this was a major cause of the problems which arose. The Jewish members of the community came from a background where every aspect of life was covered by religious rules, and ethical considerations mattered. The Greek and Roman converts came from a background where philosophy and rituals were the most important things about a religion, and what you did with your body was considered by some to be relatively unimportant.
We tend to think of Paul as someone who was legalistic, and taken up with rules and regulations. But Paul also had a mystical side. He had become a Christian believer after a visionary experience which changed his life, and he expected his converts to be completely changed too. He spoke about being not just a follower of Christ but of being in Christ, part of the glorified and ascended body of Christ still present on earth through the Church. This meant the Christian had a new relationship with God, sharing in Christ’s relationship with the Father, but also a new relationship with every other Christian who was also ‘in Christ’.
Paul was also an extremely emotional person. He was very protective of the churches he had founded, he cared deeply about the salvation of each and every member, and he went through agonies when his advice was ignored or he was criticised. Like an anxious parent he wrote letters, went to visit, nagged, threatened, cajoled, cried tears of frustration and was overjoyed when good relationships were restored.
Although the passage we heard this morning comes from the early chapters of 2 Corinthians, biblical scholars think it was actually part of the end of the correspondence. After many disputes and several letters, the Corinthian church had accepted Paul’s guidance again, so he is writing to express his joy, but also to reinforce his understanding of what it means to be part of a Christian community.
The Corinthian community had been divided about who they looked to for authority and guidance, since not all had been brought into the faith by Paul. Some looked to Peter, some to Appollos, some to Paul. Paul restates the truth that, whoever you look to as your ‘founding father’, the Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ.
The Corinthian community had been divided by wealth, with the richer members rushing to eat their own superior food at the communion meal and leaving the poorer members out. Paul reminded them that in sharing communion they were sharing in the body of Christ, in which all human distinctions, between rich and poor, between slave and free, between Jew and Greek were no longer relevant.
There were divisions in the Corinthian community over worship, who should be able to speak, whether some forms of worship were more acceptable to God than others. Paul talks about how to judge what sort of worship builds up the community and what sort causes divisions.
There were divisions in the Corinthian community over which spiritual gifts were superior to others, whether you were more important if you were a healer or teacher or could speak in tongues. Paul states firmly that no spiritual gift is superior to that of ‘caritas’ – loving kindness to others.
There were divisions in the Christian community over the resurrection, over the position and behaviour of women, over whom you could marry, over the marks of a true apostle – all things that continue to divide the Church today. Although Paul sets down ways for settling these disputes for the particular circumstances of the Corinthians, underlying his judgement is not law but grace – the gracious gift of salvation in Christ to which our actions ought to respond.
There were differences in the Corinthian community over what Christians should eat, especially over eating meat, which might have been offered in sacrifice to pagan idols before being sold in the market place. Paul gives his opinion that what we eat or don’t eat is not actually of any importance to God – what is important is the effect our eating habits have on the faith of others who are joined to us in the Body of Christ.
Finally, there were differences in the Corinthian community about giving money – not just to support the Church in Corinth, but also to the collection Paul was organising to support the church in Jerusalem, which was poverty-stricken.
Paul talks about the various ways in which people give – as a duty, to give themselves a warm glow of self-satisfaction, to gain prestige among others, or simply out of love of God and humanity.. For Paul, the last way is the best way, and summed up by his statement that God loves the happy or cheerful giver.
For Paul, generous giving is the only true response to a generous God, who pours out material and spiritual gifts on us. It has benefits for those to whom we give, meeting their needs, restoring their faith in humanity and turning their hearts to God. It also has benefits for those who give, demonstrating their true faith, and linking them by prayer and sharing to others. And it does something for God, prompting people to praise the divine inspiration behind human generosity. This is what Christian Stewardship is really all about.
Some people in the Corinthian community and in our own church communities make being a Christian into something very complicated and difficult. Paul does not minimise the difficulties that may come to us as a consequence of faith in Christ – indeed he often rehearses them, as he does in the epistle we heard read today.
But, for him, being a Christian was very straightforward. It was simply opening your heart to the grace of God, and allowing yourself to become that new creation in Christ which he spoke about in the passage read last week. If you do that, you will know yourself to be intimately linked with every other Christian who is part of that new creation – and to every other human being, who has the potential to become part of it too. And you will be filled with the Spirit of the Father and the Son, with its gifts of ministry and of character – among which the greatest one is love.
So, “all you need is love” ( to quote a song from my youth!) a love which opens your heart wide to God and to all humanity.
June 18, 2006
I have preached several versions of The Frog Sermon over the years. It was a version of this sermon which got me a place in the finals of The Times ‘Preacher of the Year’ Award in 1996. This version was preached at a church in the Diocese of Oxford.
2 Cor. 5, 6-10 & 14-17; Mark 4, 26 – 34
I don’t know how you feel about frogs!
I have a collection of small plaster frogs at home, in various poses, which are rather sweet. I think they are based on the Frog Chorus from the Paul McCartney film about Rupert Bear. And I also have a model of Kermit, the frog presenter of The Muppet Show, of whom I am rather fond.
But what about the real thing? We don’t have a pond in our garden, but nevertheless we still seem to get lots of frogs. They live around the compost heaps in winter, and shelter under the shrubs in the summer. They have a great fondness for the greenhouse where we usually grow tomatoes, and the end of the year, when we move the pots or growbags out, someone has to catch the resident frogs, carry them to safety outside and defend them from our two cats.
It’s usually me who gets that job. I know frogs aren’t actually slimy, as many people imagine, but they are cold and clammy and their limbs feel awkward against your hands; they jump into unexpected places and are too silly to stay still when the cats are around. But there is an extraordinary thing about frogs – if they are caught by a cat, or when they are in danger, they emit a scream which is exactly like the screaming of a human child.
Now that should not really come as a surprise to someone who was brought up ( as I was) on old fashioned fairy tales. Because fairy tales tell us that, with frogs, what you see is not always what you get. There are several tales which involve frogs which talk – and in return for helping out a beautiful princess with some problem, they demand that the princess rewards them with a kiss. And when the princess reluctantly does kiss the frog, it is immediately transformed into a handsome prince, who marries the princess and the two of them live happily every after.
Now some of you may be wondering why I am beginning this address by talking about frogs and fairy tales.
It is because our readings today, from Mark’s Gospel and from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians are both warning us not to judge by outward appearance, and to remember that in faith, as in fairy tales, things are not always as they seem.
The passage from Mark contains two of Jesus’ parables of growth, in which he uses images from agriculture to speak of the coming of the Kingdom of God. The second one, the parable of the mustard seed, warns us not to judge by earthly standards – just as the smallest of seeds can grow into an enormous bush, capable of sheltering whole flocks of birds, so a seemingly small effort to spread the Word of God can bring enormous results.
And Paul tells the Corinthians to live by faith in what is hidden, not by relying on the impressions their physical senses bring them. The believers may appear to be living in this world – but their real home is with God; and although their outward appearance may be the same, inside, through the power of the Spirit, there is a new creation. The Christian must always discern that new creation, and treat those they meet as the new creation they have become through their incorporation in the Body of Christ.
I want to suggest to you that you see the fairy stories about frog princes as parable too, and the message I want you to take from these particular stories is that it is the ministry of everyone here who wants the kingdom to grow like the mustard seed to kiss frogs.
Most of us human beings feel ‘frog-like’ for at least some of the time – ugly, cold, lifeless, drooping, all by ourselves in the middle of the pond. We feel froggy when we want to be bright and sparkling, but come over as dull; when we want to share, but end up feeling selfish; when we want to be thankful, but feel only anger and resentment; when we want to be honestly ourselves, but end up wearing a mask; when we want to be somebody, but feel a nobody; when we want to make friends, but get no response to our advances.
And, every day of our lives, most of us come across other ‘frogs’ They are slow, shy, withdrawn; or jumpy and negative; or loud, boastful and puffed-up. They are hard to love, and if we judged solely by their outward appearance, we would feel justified in ignoring them.
But our readings tell us we must not judge by first impressions. We must look behind the frog-like outward appearance, and remember that there is a new creation inside. And our job, as Christ’s disciples is to approach them gently and quietly, get really close and make contact at the deepest level – to kiss them and in so doing to demonstrate the love and concern that will break the spell of whichever wicked witch has given them this froglike exterior, and so reveal the prince or princess of heaven within.
Jesus spent his whole ministry kissing frogs, you know. There was the loud-mouthed, boastful frog called Simon Peter, who collapsed like a punctured balloon when danger threatened; but who was turned into a prince of the Church by the forgiving kiss of the resurrected Christ. There was a female frog called Mary, who was shunned because she was flashy and emotional – possessed by seven devils some said – till Jesus accepted her love, kissed her and turned her into Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles.
One of the greatest frog-princes of the New Testament was St. Paul, who wrote the passage we read from the letter to the Corinthians. He was an angry, self-righteous, positively poisonous frog, wreaking havoc among the new Christian community with his venom – until Jesus met him on the Damascus Road, kissed him, and turned him into a prince among evangelists, who never stopped telling people how Christ’s kiss could “transfigure these wretched (frog) bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body”.
There were Jewish frogs and Gentile frogs, people turned into frogs by sickness, by anger, by their sense of sin. Jesus kissed them all, and transformed them into a new creation, sons and daughters of God, princes and princesses of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Most of Jesus’ contemporaries failed to understand that ministry is all about frog kissing – and some present day religious leaders are the same. They thought the religious life was about keeping their distance from those who appeared on the outside to be bad, unlovely evil, failures, in case they were contaminated. (perhaps they believed a spiritual version of that old superstition that you catch warts from touching frogs!) They condemned Jesus for getting close to frog-sinners, even when they saw for themselves the magical transformation effected by his kiss. And they failed to see, that, as they fell deeper and deeper under the spells of self-righteousness, hypocrisy and judgementalism, they were getting further and further from being the ministers of God they thought they were – in fact they were turning into frogs, in desperate need of being kissed themselves.
At some time during the coming week, most of us will come across a frog in need of kissing – in the classroom, at home, at work, down the shops. Will we have the faith to look past the first impressions, and see within God’s new creation? Will we have the strength and courage to approach them in Christ’s name, and give them that loving kiss that will transform them. ( And if we do, will we have the faith to keep on kissing, even when it doesn’t seem to break the spell – for unlike the fairy story,nowadays the change doesn’t always seem to come with the first kiss.)
And maybe even in the coming week, some of us will turn back into frogs – it does happen! Will we let ourselves be open to Christ’s transforming kiss again, whoever offers it?
Remember the message of our readings, that things are not as they seem. Remember that within all of us there is anew creation, waiting to be released. Remember the parable of the mustard seed that tells us that something small – as small and simple as a kiss – can be the start of something great and glorious.
You can see that the world is full of frogs; our faith tells us that inside each and every one of them is a prince or princess, a son or daughter of the High King of heaven, just waiting to be released.
So the command of our God is “Go out there and kiss a few!”
In the name of Christ.