1 Corinthians 1-4
I have been deeply troubled for many months now over situations in American society and in The United Methodist Church – and I haven’t known what to say, how to address them. Our society is being pulled apart from one direction after another, all the time, and we are distracted from real dangers on the horizon.
Never, I do believe, have we ever seen so appalling a set of choices in a presidential election – and while the problems in our society are more than merely which of the two major candidates must inevitably win this fall, yet the race to the bottom we see in this cycle is emblematic, perhaps, of our larger situation. Not to get into politics, but on the merely personal level, I think both major candidates are utterly unfit for the office they seek. Hillary Clinton is probably the most corrupt individual ever to seek the presidency; meanwhile, Donald Trump is as preposterous a potential leader as the Great and Powerful Oz.
And if you thought you could take refuge from the impending awfulness of politics and society and retreat into the safe harbor of the church, well lemme tell ya, The UMC has entered into a vortex which bids fair to tear it apart. We have argued over sexuality for 40 years – that’s the presenting issue – but at the base, sexuality is only a proxy for larger issues of what we believe and where we get it from, and whether any of our leaders can be made accountable, regardless of what rules are written into the Book of Discipline. Right now, we are facing rebellions all over from progressive clergy and others who say they will not obey the Discipline – and our bishops either fear to corral them, or secretly cheer them on.
Now, ordinary church-going folk haven’t really become aware of this yet, I’m guessing, but we clergy, who deal with this professionally all the time, see lifetimes of work imperiled. To put it bluntly, The UMC has a very limited time in which to figure out how to proceed before it either implodes – or explodes.
So, in the realm of Church politics, we are dancing on the rim of a volcano, while in the realm of public politics, the larger society is dancing on the rim of a toilet. What do you say? How do you equip the saints to face the turbulent times we will face in the next few years? That’s the challenge I’ve been wrestling with. I don’t want to get people riled up, particularly if there’s nothing we can do about it – but I don’t want to give people a false sense of security, either, and say, Oh, everything’ll work out – it always does. Because sometimes, it doesn’t.
Finally, I decided that what I would do is to preach my way through Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians this fall. For the Church in Corinth is the textbook case of a church being pulled apart by forces from within and without, having to deal with different people from different cultures, trying to all be Christian together. And in this letter, Paul addresses, head-on, a whole range of powerful issues that we continue to wrestle with. Maybe that will give us some tools with which to face the future.
With that in mind, let me give you just a little background on the church in 1st Century Corinth. Paul arrived there from Athens on one of his missionary journeys, and he stayed for a year and a half. Corinth was in Greece, and everybody spoke Greek, but it was a Roman city, with Romans in charge of administration. There was also a synagogue of Jews there. In fact, situated as it was, on a major trans-shipment point – the Isthmus of Corinth - it was filled with every kind of people in the Roman Empire.
Well, Paul began, as he always did, by going to the local synagogue and preaching Jesus and the Resurrection to his fellow Jews, some of whom received the gospel (including the Ruler of the Synagogue, Crispus). But most did not, so Paul left them and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, and there the new church got its start. (This is all in Acts 18, by the way.) Titius Justus was what was called a “God-fearer,” a Roman who had abandoned paganism and believed in the God of the Jews, but who hadn’t converted to Judaism. There were a lot of them around in those days.
The thing I want you to notice is that the Corinthian church is made up of Jews of various sorts - Antiochene, Alexandrian, and Aramaic – each with a slightly different perspective on the gospel, as well as Gentiles of various sorts - Romans, Greeks, Phrygians, whatnot. And in addition to cultural and theological differences to sort out, there was the usual problem of combining the rich and the poor, not to mention slave-owners and slaves, within the same congregation. This is a church where everything is ripe for misunderstanding, and where at any time someone might easily take offense at what someone else thinks is only right and good.
As I say, Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, and then went to Ephesus, across the Aegean Sea. While he was there, he received a letter from the Corinthians, asking for guidance on certain theological and disciplinary questions, but he also got an earful from some visitors from Corinth, as well as probably other letters from people he trusted back there. Things were not going well in the Corinthian church, so Paul wrote this letter to them to start to sort things out.
The first issue he tackles is the issue of factions in the Church, which takes up a quarter of the letter – Chapters 1-4 (which is too much to read, which is why I’m just skipping through it this morning).
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. (1:10-11)Now, people are naturally quarrelsome, and especially so in a situation where so many differences in background and viewpoint have to be accommodated, as in the Corinthian church. People divide up into cliques or factions or interest groups even when there’s only a few of them, and lots of congregations are torn apart by feuds of one kind or another now and then; not to mention, larger groups vying for control of large institutions, at which point we begin to talk about parties, movements, or “wings” of the Church.
And sometimes, there are important issues at stake, but all too often, it really comes down to, I want my way. Or, I don't like So-and-so. And even when truly important issues are at stake, this kind of attitude colors those issues and makes everything personal, adding to the hurt. Still, you can fight about anything. As Henry Kissinger once said of academic politics, they are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. And the more picayune the issue, the more you have to dress them up in high-sounding issues.
In the Corinthians’ case, they are arguing over which Christian leader offers the best way of following Christ.
What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas" [the Aramaic version of "Peter"], or "I belong to Christ." (1:12)In addition to appropriating these leaders – who all agree among themselves, and haven’t done anything to encourage this kind of partisanship by the way – they are arguing over the wisdom of this leader’s kind of Christianity vs. that leader’s kind of Christianity, which Paul confronts by saying,
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1:20)Their pretensions to wisdom are just a smokescreen for their own vanity. They have nothing to do with the way the kingdom of heaven works.
Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom [says Paul], although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. (2:6)And you can’t know this wisdom the way you’re going, for
The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (2:14)And then Paul goes on to talk about how God used Paul and Apollos and other leaders to work together to help bring the Corinthians to faith in Christ and build them up in love and service. In other words, if you were as spiritual as you think you are, you’d all be working together, instead of choosing up sides and showing off how noble and wise you are. And then he warns them about this tendency to quarrel. He says – and this is really important –
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are. (3:16-17)Some people wrongly interpret “temple” here to mean our physical body. But Paul here is referring to the “temple” of the Church, which he laid out like a master builder and which others are now working on while he’s away. You – plural – you all there together – are the temple of God, and whoever destroys this temple will be destroyed by God, for you will pull down on your own heads the only thing that brings you the gospel.
[So,] let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's. (3:18-23)And then, as an aside, he talks about the role of Christian leaders – especially those we today call the clergy. This is matter very near and dear to my heart. He says,
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (4:1)It is unutterably precious to me that I have been called by God and entrusted by the Church with the teaching of the faith, with the celebration of the sacraments, with the care of souls. I am not worthy of so great an honor, nor am I strong enough or wise enough to do it on my own.
I am a steward of the mysteries of God. My teaching is not my own, I have received it from others, and hope to pass it on, as pure and powerful as it was given to me. There is nothing holy or magical about my hands that they should be authorized to baptize or offer the body and blood of Christ – and it’s important that whenever I do that, I do it the right way, trying to make others see Christ at the altar, not me. For that matter, I have done nothing to earn the love and trust of those who come to me for guidance unto Christ; nor have I earned a place at the head of the family when we hallow a wedding or lay a loved one to rest, but that place is reserved for me, to act as Christ toward those in need of Christ.
It is all a sacred trust. And as Paul says,
Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. (4:2)The clergy are set apart, as a special group within the church, in order that they might hold each other accountable: so that the story they pass on doesn’t get garbled; so that the sacraments are fittingly celebrated; so that God’s people are bound together and lifted up to Christ, not divided up and made into little marching societies, tearing at each other for power.
We do not offer the world’s wisdom – nor our own wisdom, which comes to the same thing. All that is just talk. Our desire is that people shall find God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, for as Paul says,
. . . the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. (4:20)Why does our church struggle so much? Not only our little congregation, but the whole UMC? Why is the power of God so little in evidence among us? Is it not because we have sacrificed the power of love -- and holiness -- for the catchy, the trendy, the socially up-to-date? Talk. All talk. And no power. As someone once said to me when we were discussing the Church, “the marquee is all lit up, but there ain’t no show inside.”
In vain do people talk of unity, as if unity were an end in itself – as if you could reconcile faithfulness and unfaithfulness, by attending one more pep rally. We divide ourselves up into little factions with godly-sounding names and then think we can paper it all over with meaningless talk of unity, without addressing the real issues before us.
And who is to say what are the real issues? What issues are worth striving for? That’s easy. Where you find the power of God, you will find the wisdom of God. If there is no outpouring of love, of repentance, of sacrifice, of holiness, of willing to be less in order that Christ shall be made more, then you do not build up, but rather tear down.
Years ago, I was part of a contentious board meeting of our Walk to Emmaus community. Walk to Emmaus is an ecumenical movement, but the standards are set by the Upper Room, which is a United Methodist agency. And you know how we love rules. Some of those from more easy-going churches were complaining about the pickiness of all the rules we were required to operate under. Their churches didn’t require all this guff, they said, so why should they have to operate by United Methodist rules in order to join in this ministry? To which a friend of mine who attended a charismatic church responded, “I don’t understand all these rules either. But I believe God blesses obedience.” And nobody could add anything to that.
God blesses obedience. He blesses humility. He blesses love, and love does not insist on its own way, as Paul says later in this letter. And God will bless us if we will give over our pride in our own wisdom and be foolish enough to do it his way.