Monday, August 6, 2012

Letter to a Corinthianized Church

About 2,000 years ago, Corinth was a financial, religious, and cultural mecca.
  • It was a major commercial hub located on a four-and-one-half mile wide isthmus of land. Sailors wanted to avoid the danger of sailing around Malea, so they would move their ship across the isthmus on a series of log rollers. If the ship was too large, the cargo was unloaded and loaded onto another ship on the other side of the isthmus.
  • “Corinthian brass” (a mixture of gold, sliver and copper) was widely renowned. 
  • Athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games - second only to the Olympian Games - were held at the temple of Poseidon in Corinth every two years. 
  • Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Serapis, and Asclepius, among others, had temples to their honor in Corinth. It was common to have feasts in those temples – they were very much a center of community.
  • Aphrodite had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes and priestesses) in her service. The present museum in Corinth boasts a large number of clay emblems offered to Aphrodite for healing of a particulular part of the body ravaged by sexually transmitted disease. 
  • The name “Corinthian" had become synonymous with sexual immorality and drunkenness. Aelian, a Greek writer, noted that Corinthians in Greek plays were always drunk.
     Gordon Fee summarized it well: "All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world: Intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”
     They had money, business, athletic prowess, temple worship involving sex and free food – it was just one big party in Corinth.
   The book of I Corinthians was written to a church living in a culture similar to ours. When the Apostle Paul wrote to them, their primary problem was not persecution. They were a church in lap of luxury, full of people who had been Corinthianized from birth, but who were now trying to begin a new life in Christ.
     Why am I not surprised that, only five years after he left, the Corinthians wrote Paul a letter asking for advice.
1 Corinthians records his response.

1 Corinthians 1:1-3 

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 


     Paul begins by reminding them that they have been sanctified (hagios – “called out”) and called to holiness (agios – once again “called out”). God had pulled them from darkness to light, from being like Corinth to being like Christ. They clearly weren't to leave the city or shun their neighbors, but they were different now in attitudes, priorities, passions, loves, hopes and dreams.
     It’s not easy to be the “called out” counter-cultural ones, so Paul reminds them that they are not alone: they are part of the ekklesia, the assembly, the church. They are not alone.
    Then Paul gives a blessing that we read numerous times in Scripture.
  • Grace (favor, joy, pleasure. The image of God “leaning in”).  God is for them.  God is not anxious to judge, or petty, or requiring them to self-destruct in order to worship like they had before. They did not need to merit this kind of favor.  Because He loved them, God was interested in and engaged with their lives. In the midst of a city where favor was earned and pleasure was fleeting, Paul says, "May God give you grace."
  • Peace (wholeness; unity; quiet and rest).  In the midst of where business, chaos, idol worship and temple revelry brought fragmented souls and shattered lives, Paul says, "May God give you peace."
     "Grace to you" was a standard Greek greeting; "Peace" was  the Jewish blessing of "Shalom." Though the church contained both groups, Paul didn't say, "Grace to you Gentiles, and peace to you Jews." The entire church community was to receive God’s grace and peace.
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1 Corinthians 1:4-6 
"I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus, For in Him you have been enriched in every way —with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge — God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 

     Apparently when God through His grace “leaned in,” He spoke a lot through His Word and His people. The knowledge they had gained in the five years since Paul had visited has  thoroughly confirmed what Paul said about Christ.
   
God had enriched their lives by filling them with the knowledge of Him. But knowledge was not the point:
     Because of God's grace, He has enriched them and confirmed Himself to them. For that reason, they did not lack any spiritual gift.
     That’s quite a statement. (We will see later in 1 Corinthians why Paul makes this point at the beginning. A lot of division had begun within the church as people followed one particular leader or wanted one particular gift).  Paul begins 1 Corinthians by saying, “How amazing is it that you, as a unified church, the ekklesia, have been so blessed by God (grace) that you are rich and lack nothing (peace)?”
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1 Corinthians 1: 8-9 
He will sustain you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

     While reading and re-reading this opening in preparation for a sermon, I couldn't get rid of the nagging thought that more was being communicated here than simply a reiteration of facts. After all, the church apparently heard plenty of speeches and had gained a lot of knowledge. They knew this. Why would Paul need to remind people:
  • that there will be a day when they are blameless? 
  • that God is faithful?
  • that they are called into fellowship with Jesus Christ?
  • that they are holy and sanctified?
  • that there are others like them?
  • that they are spiritually rich?
  • that they have spiritual gifts?
  • that Jesus is returning?
Because they are people. They are just like us. In spite of being given grace and peace, they didn’t always feel God “leaning in.” They didn't always feel whole, complete, and at peace.  We are not so different today, in the modern American Corinth full of business, money, luxury, ease, and 21st century gods of sex, pleasure, and indulgence.
  • We don’t live like we are “called out,” and we're not sure we want to ignore those alluring cultural sirens.  
  • We think money = wealth.
  • We think pleasure=happiness.
  • We think sex=love.
  • We know we are not blameless, and we wonder how we ever will be.
  • We don’t feel “in fellowship” with Jesus. God seems distant, or even absent. 
  • We wonder if God will give up on us, because so many people around us have rejected us. 
  • We feel like we are alone in the world. 
  • We wonder, in the midst of overwhelming despair, if God will ever make things right. 
     In his letter to the Corinthian/American church, Paul with a hopeful yet poignant reminder: “You truly do have fellowship with Christ. In spite of your weariness, He will sustain you;  others may forsake you, but He will “lean in” with gifts of grace and peace; your sins may seem insurmountable, but one day you will know what it is like to never be worthy of blame, and you will be truly free.”
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For those of us who are tired.

For those of us who struggle to be holy in the Corinth of our time, so easily distracted and engaged by the American gods of money, sex, and entertainment.

For those of us who are covered with shame and blame.

For those of us who feel alone and unwanted.

For those of us who feel like we have nothing to offer because God has given us nothing.

For those of us who don’t feel like God is near.

For those of us who lose sight of the hopefulness of Christ’s return, because so many things are broken that it’s hard to believe that one He will make all things new.

Grace and Peace. 
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Jason Gray, “Remind Me Who I Am”





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