Monday, August 05, 2013

Learning from the Corinthians


A Sermon for Evensong

Some words from this evening’s second reading: “I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also”.

This seems a splendid opportunity to give a plug for something that will be coming in the autumn: a course of study called ‘How to read the Bible (without switching off your brain)’.  It is aimed at those within the church who would like to know more about the Bible, and also at those who are not in the church but are interested in what Christians believe.  I very much hope that those who come along will have a more rounded picture of the Bible by the end, and will learn something about what it says (and what it doesn’t), how the Bible was written, how Christians read the Bible and also how the Bible forms part of our prayer and worship.  A brain is required, but not a huge background knowledge of the Bible.

St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a good letter with which to trail a series of engaged study of the Bible.  So this evening, I want to introduce the whole letter to you.  I will then set the passage we have just read in its context.  I hope that you might be inspired to go home and read the whole letter (it will take you far less time than you think!).

Let us begin with an exercise of the imagination.  Picture a church torn apart by questions of sex and marriage.  A church where the secular law courts are being asked to judge between Christians.  A church where money and status are being used to determine the running of the church, where rich Christians lord it over their poorer brothers and sisters.  A church which is arguing about how Christians should worship God.  A church trying to be faithful to the Gospel in the midst of a hostile world more interested in power, wealth and self-indulgence.  What does that church look like?  I suspect that you may be picturing the contemporary Church of England.  However, it is a pretty good picture of the the first century church in Corinth, to whom St Paul wrote.

Corinth was a large city with two ports linking the Aegean and Ionian seas.  It had been captured by the Romans in 146BC and left virtually deserted until Julius Caesar re-founded it as a Roman colony in 44BC.  Many of the colonists were freedmen, former slaves, and Corinth was unusual in allowing them to hold office.  Old Corinth (prior to 146BC) had a reputation for sexual promiscuity, Aristophanes even coined the verb ‘korinthiazesthai’, meaning to engage in such practices.  But by the time of Paul’s letter Corinth was probably no different to anywhere else in the ancient world.  Corinth was famed for the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics, and the highest political office in Corinth was that of the Sponsor of the Games.  Paul alludes to this in 1 Cor. 9.24-27.  Like anywhere else in the Roman world, temples and idols abounded in Corinth.  Meat, for those who could afford it, mostly originated in those temples and the temples were also a popular place for eating out!

Into this context, Paul had come preaching the good news about Jesus.  He seems to have begun, as usual, in the Synagogue.  The leader of the Synagogue, Crispus (1.14), became a Christian.  By the time of Paul’s letter, the Christian community in Corinth had been in existence for about 5 years and there were now up to 200 Christians meeting together in homes.  Most of these were Gentiles (non-Jews), and they represented a spectrum of social and economic class.  Paul, now in Ephesus, has received a letter from the Corinthian church asking about a variety of issues (7.1).  He has also received reports from ‘Chloe’s people’ (1.11; 11.18) about divisions and other problems in the church.  His letter is concerned to answer their questions and to deal with the problems he has had reported to him.  Above all, however, he is concerned to form them into a community united in love and formed into a church following Jesus.  Thus in the midst of rebukes and censure, Paul is constantly reminding the Corinthians that they are part of the body of Christ, they must support one another and they must live and act in love for one another.

The passage that we have read this evening is comes at the end of a long sequence that stretches from the beginning of chapter 12 to the end of chapter 14.  The Corinthians fancy themselves as spiritual giants.  They have had an experience of worshipping God with spiritual gifts, especially the gift of speaking in tongues.  This has intrigued them, and they have asked Paul to tell them more.  It has also divided them, as people have begun to use spiritual experiences as an indication that God has made them more important than their neighbours.  In writing to them, therefore, Paul wants to give them more teaching on spiritual gifts, but he also wants to correct the way in which they approach the use of the gifts of the Spirit.

It is, therefore, no accident that chapter 12 is St Paul’s most developed use of the metaphor of the Body (or the Body of Christ) to describe the Church of God.  Paul emphasises the unity of the Body of Christ, in its diversity.  Here is the heart of his teaching:
“The body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body … If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? … As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour … If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12.14-26).

Paul then turns, in the most famous passage of the letter to ‘a still more excellent way’ (1 Cor. 12.31) – the way of love.  The great hymn to love, often read at weddings, is primarily about the way in which Christians are to behave towards one another in the exercise of their spiritual gifts.  That is why the passage begins ‘if I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal’ (1 Cor. 13.1).  Only after these two chapters does Paul begin to offer any practical advice to the Corinthian Church about how they might exercise their spiritual gifts.  He continues to rely upon the teaching he has given, that they belong together in the same body.  Church is not a competitive sport!  And they are first and foremost to love one another.  “Pursue love” begins our reading this evening.  Without it, whatever they do has lost the point.  On the basis of this teaching, you belong to one another and do everything in love, Paul asks them to use their minds.  It is tempting to paraphrase him as saying ‘use your common sense’.

The whole of Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Corinth is about how to be the church.  Some of it is very practical, some deeply theological, and often, as in the passage we have heard this evening, both mixed together.  It seems to me that his teaching that we belong together, we should do everything in love and that in the light of this we should use our minds and think about the effects of what we are doing, is not bad teaching for the church today.  Whether that be a local Christian community, the national church, the Anglican Communion or the greater Church of God, St Paul’s teaching that we belong to one another, that we should behave towards one another in love, and that we should use our intelligence is not bad advice.

The important thing to notice is that it is spiritual gifts that are causing the problems in Corinth.  These gifts are good things, they are not problematic in their nature.  Similarly, in the church today, whether here at Derby Cathedral (or, if I might be so bold, at St John’s ???), the Church of England more broadly or the Church of God throughout the world, it is all too often the gifts that God has given us that cause division.  Whether that be our musical ability, our intelligence, our appreciation of language, our sexuality, our ability to argue a case or whatever.  These are all gifts, they are all good things.  But if we do not use them to build up the whole body of the church, if we do not use them in love, if we do not think about how we are using them, then they will be divisive and destructive.  God has given us gifts fir us to use.  But he has given them to use for the sake of others, not just for our own benefit.

St Paul’s teaching for the church in Corinth has still a good deal to teach us as we struggle to be the church in the 21st Century. God has given us good gifts. But the gifts that God has given us are to be used for the good of one another, they are to be used with love for one another, and we are to think about how we use them.

Belong together, love one another, use your minds.  Reading 1 Corinthians is like opening someone else’s mail.  We have the chance to eavesdrop on someone else’s arguments.  And in doing this, we may also be able to hear the voice of the apostle and of the Lord speaking to us today.  Amen.

First given at Derby Cathedral 4.8.13.

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