Friday, 26 June 2015

Christianity, disagreements and the real world

Sorry for the wait in posting this up.  It's been a pretty busy week since I preached this last Sunday.  

3rd Sunday after Trinity

2 Corinthians 6:1-13
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,
‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.

This New Testament reading is all about conflict and the reality and messiness of living life as a Christian. But first we need to understand what is behind this second letter that Paul has written to the Corinthians in order to get a feel for why he was writing what he did.

Paul himself founded the church in Corinth somewhere around the year 49AD, and we can read about it in Acts chapter 18. It seems that once he founded the church he remained with them for about eighteen months, preaching, teaching and simply being there alongside them as one of the apostles. His letters to them were probably written between 52 and 56AD and are therefore some of the earliest written parts of the New Testament.  They give us a snapshot of one of the first churches, and a reminder that church life has never been simple and without disagreement, so for anyone who yearns for a simpler time when the church really lived out its life as it was called to, that time never existed. There have always been disagreements. Our love and behaviour as Christians should be marked by how we deal with those disagreements, not by their absence.  (That also includes the messiness of recognising when some relationships break down irreparably, such as Paul's relationship with his co-worker Barnabas.)

The Corinthian church, in total, probably numbered about fifty or so people. Not so large really by our standards. In the Church of England if your congregation only numbered fifty, then you would only get half the time of a vicar, if you're lucky. The Corinthians had an apostle all to themselves for eighteen months plus visits and time from other prominent leaders. How times have changed!

We also need to abandon any ideas of them having a building in which they met as that also wouldn't have happened. At this point in the church's history it had no political legitimacy and, in the Greek culture of the time, they would not have jointly owned a property where they could all meet. So instead they would have met in each other's houses and probably only rarely would all of them have been together.

Paul wrote a number of letters to them, not just two, and whilst the first letter probably really is just a single letter, the second letter is more likely to be a gathered collection of several letters, and scholars think there were probably other letters in addition to these which didn't survive.  When we take them all together what we find is Paul trying to deal with a number of issues in his beloved church, and conflict is a large part of that. 

In this section of the second letter Paul is almost sounding rather defensive.  So what had been happening? What had gone wrong? Well it seems that essentially the church in Corinth had rejected Paul as their leader. No one is completely sure what happened but it seems apparent from elsewhere in the collection of letters that a group of troublemakers had arrived on the scene and stirred up key members of the church against Paul, making them doubt the validity of his apostleship.  No scholars seem to be able to make a clear case as to what exactly these troublemakers were saying or who they were; Paul simply doesn't give us enough information in what he writes. But it seems likely that, for Greek cultural reasons, the church in Corinth was drawn to more overtly and outwardly spiritual expressions of faith than was healthy for them.  You might recall in 1 Corinthians there is a section that runs through chapters 12 to 14 about spiritual expression, with the gift of tongues being especially favoured by them, leading to Paul reminding them that all of the spiritual gifts will come to an end, but there is something greater, saying to them, 'I will show you a more excellent way' before giving them a powerful lesson in love in 1 Corinthians 13.

So it seems likely that the external opponents of Paul who arrived in Corinth capitalised on their tendency towards spiritual pride and boasting, exploiting their weakness by preaching a softer Gospel which was one of freedom from suffering and of receiving ever greater spiritual experiences. These would have seemed very tempting to the Corinthians.  Think about it for a moment. If you regard yourselves as culturally better than much of the rest of the world, how much of a step would it be to listen to voices that affirm this? Think of that L'Oreal advert that continually pushes the message, 'Because you're worth it' and imagine how enticing a message that would be.  The Corinthian church were probably, therefore, struggling with the temptation to listen to a soft Gospel that told them that, as Christians, they were above suffering and should instead be attaining ever higher spiritual abilities.  (Actually, if I'm honest, I've come across churches that still believe this.)  In order to seal their authority and take over the church, all that remained, then, was for these new preachers to affirm that Paul was wrong and that the Corinthians should doubt he was even a proper apostle. That's why, scattered throughout these letters, we find occasions where Paul clearly describes himself as an apostle, and in this section we have a pretty good apologetic from him for these claims as he is brutally honest with them by reminding them what it has cost him.

In this section Paul refers to himself and his co-workers as undergoing hardships, of having been beaten, put in prison, or worrying themselves through sleepless nights, of going hungry, of learning to be pure, of developing the fruit of the Spirit, of the battle to be righteous, of being held in ill repute by some and as impostors by others, and so on.  Life has been difficult for him because of his beliefs, of that there can be no mistake, and yet he has stuck the course and therefore feels justified in using his persistence as evidence of his calling as an apostle of Jesus. And even this description of his suffering should come as a wake up call to the church in Corinth. They are being distracted by preachers telling them that life should be very spiritual and that they should be delivered from suffering.  The reality of life as a Christian is very different from this. We need only to look at our founder and his crucifixion to see that. We need not look much further than the 12 disciples, only one of whom lived into old age, to be further reminded.

In all of this, though, what we need to admire in Paul is his persistence. He has established a church. He's got to know them and worked alongside them for 18 months. They've been friends on a deep level; trust me you cannot minister to a church without them becoming friends. And then when some new teachers come along and steer them on to a different path, they turn on him.  So out of his love for them he sticks with them, saying sometimes harsh things to them, and gradually working to bring them back on track, back to the true Gospel of Christ and away from an easy self-centred one.

What, then, does all of this teach us, twenty centuries later? I think it's all about a heady dose of reality. Spirituality and spiritual experiences are a part of being a Christian, but only a part. We also have to live in the real world where people disagree about the right way to do things. That's life, as much for Christians as for the rest of the world. That's the messy reality.  What should mark us out as different is love and persistence in how we are when things go awry. There were occasions when Paul lost battles and had to walk away from churches, but he tried very hard to make things right first.
Given the grief that the Corinthian church had given him, any one of us could understand how he felt, and we would have excused him for throwing his hands in the air and saying, 'To hell with the lot of you, I'm going back to Ephesus!'  But he didn't. He carried on trying and committed time to them, despite their behaviour. He persisted out of love despite their insults.

May we also learn to persist in those difficult situations that we all face, both in church, home, work and social lives, and may we remember that we do so because God continues to persist with us, despite the barriers we, too, throw up.  The Gospel message is about how we live in this life, not just about our destination when we leave this mortal coil. May we never forget that.