Year A; Epiphany 6; 2.16.2020
I Corinthians 3:1-9
One of the sites I’ll be visiting during my sabbatical this summer is the ancient city of Corinth. Christians know Corinth as one of the communities the Apostle Paul founded. Even those not familiar with Christianity might have heard about the Corinthians at a wedding when First Corinthians 13 is read. This is the passage on love…“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or selfish or rude.”
My travel book describes the day I’ll spend in ancient Corinth this way,
“Corinth is a treat for the New Testament scholar. You will enjoy prayers in the midst of the ruins of the church of Corinth and see the pillars, steps, and public worship place where Paul preached. Your love of his first and second letters to the Corinthians will be renewed. The ruins of this important cultural center are fascinating as you walk along the stone path that the Apostle Paul walked. The engineering skill and intellect of these people are evident in the water systems that still flow from ancient to modern-day.”
One might think that the people of this Christian community were perfect. You might think that “those Corinthians” were the ones who invented the Love Scripture passage. “Love is patient. Love is kind…” But scratch the surface just a bit and we will see that Paul wrote the “Love passage”, not because the Corinthians were emblems of loving behavior. No. He wrote it to them because they had become an arrogant, divided community that had started to distort the Christian faith. They desperately needed specific instruction on love.
The Corinthians were a difficult people to convert. They were intelligent, educated and engineered important water systems. They were also wealthy and image-conscious. They were eloquent and were trained in the art of debate. I remember that my New Testament professor, John Koenig who was a scholar in Paul’s letters, described someone like “Apollos” as probably image-conscious like a game-show host.
Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians to counter their divisions and the distorting of Paul’s teachings of Jesus. In the very first chapter of his first letter, he addresses their divisions by invoking Jesus Christ as the authority,
“By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, I appeal to all of you, my brothers [and sisters], to agree in what you say, so that there will be no divisions among you. Be completely united, with only one thought and one purpose. For some people from Chloe’s family have told me quite plainly…that there are quarrels among you. Let me put it this way: each one of you says something different. One says, ‘I follow Paul;’ another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another ‘I follow Peter’; and another ‘I follow Christ.’ Christ has been divided into groups! Was it Paul who died on the cross for you?”
I don’t know if Chloe’s people stayed or left. I don’t know if Apollos broke away and started his own denomination “game show”. We do know that Paul kept going forth, called by Christ’s Spirit, preaching, teaching, founding and building up the Body of Christ. He was a builder-up of Christian communities and he shepherded, guided, cajoled and coached them into the church of Christ, a “mystic sweet communion” on earth with Christ at the head. And we are here today following our patron in his teachings.
Yet, more and more today we are challenged by divisions in this country. I was surprised over Christmas break to have had a quickly descending quarrel with a perfect stranger while I was visiting my sister in Atlanta. It was out of the blue.
My sister took me to work one day in Midtown Atlanta where she is a nurse in a high rise orthopedic practice. She told me about a huge Whole Foods down the street that had a wonderful Southern food breakfast bar and a large seating area with tables. I took my journal with me and some letters I hoped to write and planned to spend my morning there. I ate a wonderful Southern breakfast of biscuits, gravy, sausage, and grits. After breakfast, I spread out my notebook and note cards over the table to do my writing.
There were only three people sitting in that vast area. Soon, though, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a man came and sat at the table behind mine. My back was to him, but I felt his presence. He leaned over a bit and looked at what I was doing.
He asked, “Are you a marketing person or something?” I looked up and saw that he was about my age and was wearing a yellow hard hat, reflecting vest and jeans. There was a huge amount of construction going on in the area, so I assumed he was maybe a foreman or engineer on one of the sites.
I said, “I’m sort of like a marketer. I like to get the word out. But I’m really a pastor.” He said, “Oh what church?” I said, “The Episcopal Church. I am the pastor of a wonderful church in Maine.” He said, “Well, my family is from a long line of Episcopalians from Philly and all the churches are dying.”
Um, I sort of got defensive and said, “Well mine isn’t. It’s growing.” He said, “The Episcopal Church in Atlanta is nothing like a church.” I said pride fully not bothering to ask him what he meant, “Well, the one in Maine is a church that follows Christ. I like to think my work is to build up the faith community.”
Then he asked, “Do you know how to build a building because all the churches are run-down.” I said again, not really listening to his question, “Well, my church is not run down. I don’t know how to build a building. But I know how to build a community.”
Then, he stood up, looked down at me and said, “You’re stupid.” I had been smiling really believing that my smile would at least move the conversation forward. Instead, he said, “You’re stupid.” I said, “No I’m not.” He said it again, “You’re stupid.” And I said again, “No I’m not.” He had to think a moment. Then he said, “Well, then you are ignorant because you don’t know how to build a building.” “OK,” I said, “You can call me ignorant. But I’m sure you are ignorant in other things.”
In fury, he threw his hands up and stomped away.
I was so angry and defensive and prideful that I believe now I missed an opportunity. I was trying to impress him with my effective work in Maine as an Episcopal priest. But I didn’t have a good question for him. I didn’t ask him the very thing that might have disarmed him and let the conversation turn from a quarrel to civility. “What does building mean to you? What is important to you about your work? Tell me why it’s important that I have knowledge of building.”
I might have invoked better listening – as if this had been an opportunity for “Living Local: joining God in the neighborhood.” The way of deep listening to a neighbor.
But our culture does not encourage this kind of interaction. We come into a conversation with an agenda. Then we go to our respective corners and begin to form our defense before we even really know there is another human being with human longings and needs standing before us.
Reading Paul’s letter to the Corinthians introduces us to the fact that even early on in the founding of Paul’s Christian communities, Paul had to contend with factions and divisions. We know this because he writes from our reading this morning, “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” And he concludes with the very thing we are called to these thousands of years later, “For we are God’s servants, working together…” We are God’s servants working together…
What if in these very difficult times of conflict and division we practice being God’s servants and join God in listening to the deep needs of each other and of our troubled world?