Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fourth Sunday before Lent

1 Corinthians 2:1-16

One of the most difficult tasks in studying the New Testament is dating it.  We know broadly speaking when the events it describes took place, but precision eludes us.  One of the few precise dates, however, relates to the Church that St Paul wrote to in this morning’s second reading: the Church at Corinth. 

St Paul had come to Corinth to escape attempts on his life.  He, Silvanus, and Timothy, following what they believed to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, had travelled from Syria to Europe.  There they had preached the Gospel in a number of places, including Philippi and Thessalonica to which St Paul would subsequently write letters.  In both places, they encountered not only resistance, but even violent opposition.  This violence was focused primarily on the person of St Paul himself.  One of the interesting features of St Luke’s account of St Paul’s mission is how St Paul is the one that everyone seems to hate.  For example, St Paul was able to leave Timothy and Silvanus in Macedonia while he himself had to flee for his life first to Athens and then to Corinth. 

At Corinth, however, things took a turn for the better.  For the first time in Luke’s account of St Paul’s missionary journeys, St Paul is able to stay in one place.  We are told that he was in Corinth for about 18 months. 

This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t opposition:  just that it wasn’t as violent or intense as that he had encountered in Thessalonica or would encounter in Ephesus.  Such opposition as there was came to a head when one Gallio became the pro-Consul.  And this brings us back to dates.  We know that Gallio became the pro-Consul in AD 51. 

His appointment gave the Jews in Corinth an opportunity to attack St Paul.  They complained about St Paul formally to the pro-Consul.  Gallio, however, dismissed their complaint as having no basis in Roman Law.  Gallio seems to have thought it just an internal dispute amongst Jews concerning the intricacies of the Jewish religion.  This meant that the Church could continue largely unhindered.  It also meant that the Church could enjoy for the time being the same privileges as was granted under Roman Law to other Jewish groups.

Good news!  Well, yes and no.  Clearly the Church at Corinth grew and prospered.  As I have said previously, it seems to have been so successful that is attracted the stars of the first century Church.  St Paul describes the Church as lacking no spiritual gift, and he is clearly proud (if that’s the right word) of all he had been able to achieve in Corinth. 

The downside of this, however, seems to have been that success went to the Corinthians’ heads.  They were flattered by the attention they received from the celebrities of the early Church so much so that they divided into fan clubs based on the preacher they liked the most.  They were only too aware of their gifts and achievements. 

They were able to take this approach to the Christian life precisely because they didn’t have to face the sort of opposition that Churches such as Thessalonica had to face.  St Paul writes contrasting how he and his co-workers were treated compared to the Corinthians.  He doesn’t use these words exactly, but it is clear that he thought they had it easy.

From what St Paul writes, the picture we get of the Church at Corinth is of a Church that is growing numerically, that is successful and strong spiritually, and has no problems when it comes to money.  It is in every way the model of a Church that seems to be getting it right.  And this success was due in no small measure to St Paul’s extended ministry there.  Nowadays, a book would be written or a course devised to teach other churches how to emulate the Corinthians’ success.  St Paul had every right to be proud of what he had achieved. 

Except that is not how St Paul himself saw it.  St Paul is scathing in what he has to say about the Corinthians’ attitude and outlook.  Firstly, be couldn’t care less about their numerical success.  Numbers in and of themselves simply do not matter.  If they are wrong, it just means that more are wrong.  Secondly, he deplores the Corinthians sense of their own worth and achievement.  The Corinthians were outwardly successful and they knew it and were proud of it.  And this pride in their achievement lead them into many difficulties.  It was the root cause of their divisions and behind most of the problems they faced.  It lead them into immoral behavior and theological error. 

So in 1 Corinthians, St Paul is having to do two things.  He is having to tackle the specific problems in the Christian community at Corinth:  problems to do with division, sexual immorality, social involvement, spiritual gifts, and theological beliefs.  But he is also trying to tackle the underlying causes of these problems.  And this he believes is to do with a wrong view of the Christian faith. 

The Corinthians were into success and achievement.  St Paul believed the Gospel was about loss and failure.  He writes that when he was with the Corinthians he had determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  This was certainly not a formula for success.  St Paul himself tells us that the Jews thought such an idea impossible: a stumbling-block.  How could the Christ, the Messiah, suffer such an ignominious death?  By definition, the Messiah should be an all-conquering hero, not a humiliated, defeated victim.  And the Greeks just thought the idea stupid: foolishness.  Crucifixion was the ultimate scandal; a death that was too shameful to even speak of. 

Our Lord’s death was on the Cross, but all his life was modelled on it.  And it was what he demanded of his followers.  They were to take up their cross daily.  The life of a disciple was to be one of service and sacrifice.  Jesus’ last act before his betrayal and crucifixion was to wash his disciples’ feet.  An act, he said, that was to be an example to them of how they should live as his followers. 

This is an extremely difficult message.  More than ever, we live in a success based society.  We are judged by our attainments, by our exam passes, our degrees, our job status, the brands we can afford, where we live, how well we are doing in life.  This inevitably affects how we evaluate our success or failure as a Church. 

I regularly attend a meeting of representatives of a number of churches during which we share how things are going in our respective churches.  The stories tell of success: new buildings, increased attendance at services, sound finances.

In other words, the exact same criteria is being used to judge how the church is doing as would be used to judge the success or failure of a company.  It is not that there is anything wrong necessarily with all these things, it is just that I rather suspect that if things weren’t so good, we wouldn’t get to hear about them.  The pressure to tell a success story is simply too great.

When I first started preaching, I used to go to various Methodist churches in the area where I lived.  These were small numerically, elderly, and struggling to survive.  The good thing about this, however, is that I was never under any illusion about what ministry was about.  Yes, you do get your superstars, but most ministers will never be one.  Sadly, that can lead to a feeling of failure and defeat. 

I realize that there is also another danger here.  In rejecting the world’s standards for evaluating success, we can use the Gospel of Christ crucified to justify our lack of effectiveness.  St Paul certainly criticized the Corinthians for their arrogance and self-satisfaction.  He stressed that the Lord we serve was a failure by human standards.  But he also praised those churches that were successful by divine standards: that is these churches who preached Christ crucified and which lived sacrificial lives of service. 

In other words, what matters, as far as God is concerned, is not whether we are a success or failure by human standards, but whether we are faithful.  And being faithful is solely about whether we model ourselves on the one who was humiliated and crucified.  This is not easy and at times it can be painful, but it is what we are all called to as Christians.

May God grant that we may know only Christ and him crucified and seek to follow him daily in our lives.

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