19 January 2021
If you hear only one side of a telephone conversation you can't get the whole story. Paul's letter to the church at Corinth is rather like that. We only hear one half and in some parts of the letter we don't even know if the same conversation is continuing or if the topic has changed. Today we hear Paul's response to a report from Chloe’s people and we can hear the faint voice of the Corinthian Christians, but we don't really understand what's gone on before and neither might Paul have known. In one sense it doesn't matter, because Paul is not one for raking over old arguments, Paul gets in there and reminds them why they are there in the first place.
Imagine phoning up and hearing this message on an answering machine: "Hello. We're in the middle of a family fight right now. Leave your name and number at the beep and whoever wins will call you right back."
If there had been telephones in the first century, we might have got that message from 1st Church, Corinth.
Paul's first letter to that congregation tells us that those Christians were in a fight about who to follow. People in the Corinthian church were staking their claims not first with Christ but with individual leaders. Some were proud of belonging to Apollos, some to Cephas, some to Paul.
Some preferred a learned, philosophical approach. Others were drawn to the message of the new freedom Christ had brought them. Others were passionate about whether Jews could become good Christians, and, if so, how?
They've forgotten Jesus' saying—‘love one another as I have loved you’—. They were like political parties, each with its own slogan., “I belong to Paul,” “I belong to Apollos,” “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.
Which meant that all the people who did not want to take a side were looked at suspiciously. With the passage of time and with the application of ♠ fear and propaganda, these others became the representatives all that is wrong with the world. They became the enemy.
In the news the other day there was a sad item from Ireland in the New Zealand Herald.
A bronze statue of William Massey, New Zealand's second-longest serving Prime Minister and leader of the country during World War I, stands outside the council building in the County Londonderry town of Limavady.
The council is wanting to promote a neutral workplace by removing all religious or royal imagery from public display. Among items caught up by the proposal are a royal wedding commemorative coffee mug, gifts to the town from British and Welsh regiments, and the statue of Massey. The other day Massey's statue looked down on an angry confrontation between the loyalists and Sinn Fein supporters .
Massey was born in Limavady in 1856 and emigrated to New Zealand in 1870 - but not before becoming a member of the Protestant-aligned Orange Order. Massey returned to Limavady twice while Prime Minister, in 1914 and 1921. But because one of the councilors looked on the internet and found he had been a member of the Orange order his statue was deemed to be inflammatory. Northern Ireland's Equality Commission has been brought in to help mediate and a council sub-committee is considering the issue.
If these people knew their history they would also know that Massey worked through most of the war years with (Sir Joseph) Ward, who was a devout Catholic. And if anything he would have modeled the unity the people of his old home town are supposedly seeking by having the streets ethnically cleansed of statues.
Dr Micheal Bassett our own historian said that any move to remove Massey's statue because of his Orange Order links would be over the top as he was not an extremist. "You'd have thought a little town in [Northern] Ireland would be rather proud that one of their people went off to New Zealand and became Prime Minister ... if multicultural politics involves destroying the history of a place, well then it has no future."
Back in Corinth 2000 years ago Paul will have none of it. He is not taking sides, he is horrified to find people have taken him as a personality to be followed, and as the quarrels seem to be based on who baptized whom he is profoundly glad that he didn't do much baptizing. Paul gets in there and reminds them why they are there in the first place.
He asks them tenderly to listen and remember they are adelphi - brethren, family in Christ, they have Christ's name.
Why are they tearing themselves apart, schisma is the Greek word, these schisms happening? [Paul only seems to have had Chloe's report of people taking different sides to go from].
Then Paul uses a word to describe the divisions in these verses that is unique to him -- eris (strife; and note that Eris is also the name of the Greek goddess of discord). ‘What has all this strife, this quarrelling to do with the message of the cross?’ he says, making it clear there's a choice which involves which God when you start quarreling about who is first. You haven't got the focus on the one God when you are talking about which faction you belong to. Remember who you serve, get in and row together not row together.
The people of Limavardy will never gain peace by taking down a statue. They will only live in peace when they respect each other and come together in a common purpose to flourish together and that requires not legislation but heart change - and that's in a secular situation.
Paul urges the Corinthians to be united, to be "of the same mind". This is not call to think the same, it is important to be able to express different views to really work creatively, but to remember they serve the same God who does not have divided purposes for each group.
The verb Paul uses in v. 10, katartizo, translated as "you be united," is a much richer word than that. William Long points out that it is used in medical terms to express setting of a bone that has been broken; it has a political significance (Herodotus) meaning the elimination of civil discord; it is used by Mark (1:19) to describe the disciples sitting in a boat mending their nets. Thus, the meaning of katartizo is much fuller than simply "being united." It expresses the idea here that things be set in order, that the "bones" of the Body of Christ be gently restored or carefully mended, that the nets be ready for the work. This is Paul's concern with the congregation.
Paul says to the church and his voice still comes to us today with the message that "I didn't come with sweet words, or great power there's nothing of me in what I brought you but I came with the message of the cross, which is sheer foolishness to those who lust for power".
If the God of Jesus were a God who pandered to political success or popular opinion, then Christ would have marched into Jerusalem with an army of Zealots and taken power by force, and stunned everyone with his marvellous words, and built an empire on the labour of the poor and ritually unclean. If God were really like that that, then Christ would have taken the way the world takes.
But it didn’t happen that way. If we are his disciples, then that is not the way we take either. We are invited to follow Christ along the other way. The costly way that respects our neighbour. The way which accepts God's love, and lets God work in us. Free to see others.
Christ calls us as he called the fishermen to follow him on that way. There is no greater seducer than the God who was in Christ. There is no greater wielder of power.
But unlike a dictator, or terrorist the power of God is laid down on the cross to be beside us in vulnerability and love. We must decide what to do with this vulnerable God.
May God grant us courage to choose the way of Jesus. For that, and that only, will make the difference — for ourselves, for our church, for our world.
O, Parent God,. Help us to embrace your love and to invite others to do the same. And then use our unity to heal the rifts in this broken world. We bring before you the people most closely affected by the deaths of young people in the stabbings that have happened in our neighbourhood in the last two days. We pray for the purpetrators and the families of the victims and those arrested for the killings. Let us be willing to be your agents in making a difference in your world. Amen.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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