Corinthians – Sermon for Trinity 2 Yr B
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.