The Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 22, 2023

First Corinthians Speaks To Us Today

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
January 22, 2023

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There is a meme out on the internet that really grabbed my attention the other day. It was a picture of a painting of the Apostle Paul writing at a desk. His head is resting on one hand while the other holds a quill pen. The words say “Greetings to the church in America. Grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ. What the heck is wrong with you people. Stop it just stop it.”

We find ourselves in a time of great division in the world and in our country on a number of fronts. Whether it is political, religious or racial the divides that we see are as bad as I think they have ever been. Following the daily news can get down right depressing to be honest. I’m especially conscious of this as the House and Senate get back into session. But I am also aware of divides in the religious world. The death of the former Pope Benedict and the inner conflict in the Roman Catholic world over the theological difference between Benedict and Francis have once again been back in the news. The fracturing of the Methodist church over the same LGBT issues that has fractured the Anglican Communion while not front page news for some of you does deeply effect some people who I know. The Church of England has offered a blessing for same gender couples but will not authorize actual marriages. The Archbishop of Canterbury and several leading bishops they said he will not perform any of the blessings for fear of causing offense. Needless to say there is an element in England that is furious, well everybody is furious to be honest. Those opposed say even the blessing is too much and the LGBT side says it makes them second class citizens.  The Diocese of Texas has welcomed back the remaining Episcopal parishes in the Fort Worth area that were left after a large number of churches in that diocese left upset over female clergy (yes that is still and issue) and LGBT matters. Those returning parishes will be at our council for the first time the end of next month.

Now I said divisions were as bad as I have ever seen, yet when we look at church history we do see that there are many examples, some from the very beginnings of Christianity, then in the Council of Nicea, the split of east and west in 1000, the reformation you get the picture. Division has long been a problem because I believe to some extent it is human nature. So what are we to do? Well we do have some guidance.

Fortunately, we have the blessing of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We will be reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth every Sunday from now until Lent begins in February. I want to spend some time this morning setting up the next several sermons where I will use Paul’s letters. So, what is so important about this book? After spending an entire semester studying this letter I believe it is the most relevant book in the bible for today’s world for in many respects we are Corinth. Let me tell you why I am confident making that statement.

Gordon Fee called Corinth, New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas all rolled into one. Corinth was a key port city during the time of the Greeks that was destroyed by Rome and then re-established with Roman freedmen around 34BC. Corinth was a combination of sacred and profane. There were 26 temples and religious sites to a variety of gods from all over the world, but Corinth was also a town renowned for sexual sin. To behave like a Corinthian meant to be of low moral standards. This was a commercial crossroads for both sailors and merchants. You can imagine how that went.

The church and the city were made up mostly of Greeks and Romans and we can see that from the names Paul uses in not only today’s passage but the rest of the letter. There were very few Jews in this early church. Paul first visited the city in 51-52. First Corinthians is dated about three years later.

There were not only divisions and factions, but challenges to Paul’s authority to lead the church in Corinth. The letter may be a combination of several responses to letters written not only by Chloe, but by Stephanas (who was mentioned today) Fortunatus and Achaicus. We do not know exactly what Chloe’s people were complaining about, but we can guess given the areas Paul addresses.

In addition to the challenges to his authority he had to convince them to change some of their theology. We forget that in the early church many of the doctrines, teachings and principles we take for granted were still very early in the formation stage.  Many would not surface for centuries. The early church was not some blessed unified group of followers, but people trying to work out what following Jesus meant. The term Christian was not even common yet and the fish, the sign of Jonah not the cross was the symbol. The sign of the cross was not important until the time of Constantine. Remember in Paul’s world it was a sign of terror and brutal repression.

Now in this letter Paul focuses not on what divides although in several cases he needs to address several important issues, not of doctrine, but of behavior. Ultimately these issues focus on how the various factions are treating each other. Paul is calling them back to following the teachings of Jesus which I think is a pretty good idea for all of us.

I could spend a great deal of time on the divisions in Corinth and what they are. However rather than focus on division, I suggest we focus on what Paul speaks of in his opening. “Now I appeal to all of you to be in agreement without divisions among you, united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” What is the point or points where we can be united? For that I would like to go back and focus on what is the core of our call as Christians and for that I want to turn to the words of Jesus. When asked what is the greatest commandment he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and the second is like unto it. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these hang all the law and the prophets.”

The clearest expression of how this work on a practical basis is found in our baptismal covenant. In particular they are found in the promises that we make every time we reaffirm the promises. When we read those promises a couple weeks ago I found myself wanting to spend some time on them for we often do these on autopilot, not really listening to what we are promising.

However, before we get to the promises we say the Apostle’s Creed. In that creed we say we believe in the catholic church or in the Creed we say the one holy catholic church. This should be a point of unity. In speaking about this Richard Rohr wrote:

The word catholic comes from the Greek kata (meaning “through” or “throughout”) and holos (meaning “whole”). This word was originally used by Ignatius of Antioch as early as the year 100 to precisely include all Christians, and it is a shame that it later was used to create boundaries rather than to be inclusive.[1]

One church and it is certainly clear that we cannot even get to one church within a single denomination let alone having all Christians consider ourselves members of one faith. It is human nature to fall into tribalism and that was going on in Corinth and it is certainly going on in today’s world.

Then we have the 5 promises and I want to focus briefly on just the last 3. Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? This gets back the great commandment that I just quoted a few moments ago. We have good news to share in that Jesus came for our salvation now in this life and in the next. We promise to show that love of neighbor in our words and our deeds.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? For me these two are at the heart of the issue. Justice, peace among people and respecting the dignity of all people whether they be a president or the homeless man I passed on the street the other day in downtown Norfolk. If there is a place where we can begin and should be able to agree it is respecting each person for the child of God that all people are. Acknowledging that everyone and everything is loved by God and we are called to love them as we love ourselves even when they make us crazy.

You can laugh but that is the heart of the issue. Loving the lovable, our friends is not hard. Loving someone who causes you pain is another matter. Jesus did not like what the Pharisees did, but he did love them as children of God. This is not a case of love the sinner hate the sin. Contrary to popular belief that is not found in the bible. Love the person, love the world enough to stand up for what is right that is the essence. This means loving the person enough to acknowledge that while we may disagree with them, that does not make the other a bad person.

The retired bishop of Atlanta said to the clergy at a retreat several years, “We need to disagree while walking towards each other.” The people in Corinth were disagreeing and walking away from each other. Today, too many people in our country and our church are disagreeing and walking away from each other. We need to disagree and walk towards each other to rebuild the bonds that unite us. In following the commands of Christ, we must be in agreement without division, in the same mind and in the same purpose, following Jesus, living those baptismal promises in order to bring healing to our broken world. On that let us be united.