David Walker - June 14th 2015
It can be all too easy for us to view being a Christian today as being difficult. We seem to be beset with problems – decreasing recognition of Christian values in society, falling church attendances, a lack of knowledge and understanding amongst younger people of things we took for granted when we were young, bible stories, metaphors and language. There’s active opposition and hostility to Christianity in New Atheism and the challenge of multiculturalism and multi faiths. And worse still, if we look outside this country Christians over the world are being persecuted and killed for their faith. And finally there’s the church itself being divided by arguments and controversy first over women priests, then women bishops and now over issues of human sexuality and particularly same sex relationships.
But these difficulties pale into insignificance when we think back two thousand years to what was happening in Corinth and the ancient world in general. I’m not saying that it’s always easy for us now, just that a bit of perspective is sometimes needed. And I think it can help us today as we feel ourselves under siege.
Alec may already have introduced you to the character of both Paul and Corinth at the start of our summer epistle-fest last week. Let me just re-iterate. Paul was a difficult man, unattractive, combative, driven to the point of obsession but also charismatics, a leader with a command of strategy and an instinct for taking the right decisions at key times, a survivor (for much longer than is feasible given what he did in such a hostile environment), but above all selfless, loving and faithful to his beliefs.
As for Corinth – imagine a multicultural melting pot at the crossroads of the known world where simultaneously you have the gold rush and the 2012 Olympics being held, think the bar scene in Star Wars or the restaurant at the End of the Universe, and you’re beginning to get close.
When Paul started his mission he knew that no matter where he went it was not going to be easy. He also knew that Corinth would be particularly difficult but that strategically it was such an important hub, a large and diverse resident population as well as visitors (to the Isthmian Games) and people travelling east-west and north-south right at the centre of the empire – and besides there was a demand for tent-makers and that was Paul’s trade.
Paul spent quite some time in Corinth. It’s generally accepted that he had three periods where he lived there.
After his first visit (in around AD 50) he left them and went to Ephesus (in what is now Turkey) and from there he wrote his first letter (there may have been a letter that has now been lost and which scholars refer to as ‘the previous letter’) but the key thing is that he felt the need to respond when he realised the church was becoming divided in his absence. And 1 Corinthians, as we know it, is a long and measured letter, full of passion but written with love and understanding. Paul then has a second visit – often referred to as ‘the painful visit’. Things are clearly still problematic. He writes to them again and this is the 2 Corinthians we have heard from today (although this itself may be more than one letter). He has one final visit in AD 56.
Lots of the original problems are still not resolved but you can probably understand why – given the nature of the society and given also that the Corinthian church did not have what we have. When we come here to worship we have a building to do it in and one which can hold us all together, we have liturgy so that we can say together words that we know and recognise, and in that we have a creed that we (that’s the church) have agreed on. Above all we have a body of scripture to guide us. Paul had no gospels and the only scripture which this new, universal and inclusive religion had were ancient texts from a small and exclusive middle eastern sect.
In our readings this morning we just get a snapshot of what Paul was trying to do and of what he was saying to his people in Corinth. Before looking at them one further thing to mention, which is not inconsiderable, and that is that Paul firmly believed that the kingdom was at hand, that life on this earth was indeed only a temporary thing and that the parousia, the second glorious coming of Jesus Christ would probably occur even in their own lifetimes. And that, of course, is one thing that Paul didn’t get right.
Our reading is in the form of two passages with a bit missed out in the middle. In the first part we have Paul continuing on from last week’s passage where he talked about the ultimate destination of us all as humans which is to be with God and the knowledge and confidence that we can have that we will reach that destination. What he is pointing out here, though, is that with this confidence and this hope also come some responsibilities. We can’t just forget about this life and absolve ourselves of any responsibility to live well. We haven’t been saved simply in order to live out a life of aimlessness and indifference. As he says, we must make it our goal to please the Lord. The way he expresses this to the Corinthians may sound quite stark to our ears – Paul is saying that we will all be judged by what we do and how we live whilst ‘in the body’, that is in our lives on earth.
Whilst, indeed, that may sound a stark and hard message for today what he says in the second part of our reading balances that out, because here he spells out the nature of the promise that has been made to us and the guarantee that has been given to us through the sacrifice that Christ has made for us. And this is an action which is grounded in love. It is Christ’s love that compels us. It is Christ who died for all. It is Christ who died and was raised again. And it is in Christ that we invited to share, and through Christ we are invited to be part of this wonderful gift of grace. ‘So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’
For me the message of these passages is of the gifts we have been given by God: the gift of this life here on earth and the importance and need of living it to the full and living it well and in relationship with God; and then the promise of a new life, a new creation beyond this life with God; and the key to this, the entry point, is in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. If we are prepared to live in and through Jesus Christ, that is to live a Christian life here and now, we have a promise and hope of eternal life in a new creation. Above all else, we are being told here that this is available for everyone. Paul is addressing the Corinthians but he is clear when he says, ‘If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation.’ This is the new thing, the new religion for all that replaces the old religion for the chosen people.
And that’s the important point – inclusivity. Jesus Christ lived and die for us all, for everyone, no exceptions. We all have the possibility of new life and being in a new creation. This is a central element of our faith, a central element of what we believe. And when we have doubts, when we read that Christianity is dying, when we see others being persecuted for their faith we need to realise that there is something desperately important that unites us, something that we must never lose sight of. Paul’s mission was to extend the invitation to be one with Jesus Christ to everyone, to tell us all that we are chosen by God, that we are children of God. And it is on Paul’s success that the worldwide church is now based.
I have spent most of this week in a hotel in Lancaster participating in something called Shared Conversations. It may be that you have or have not heard of these. At this point in time I don’t want to say too much about them but just to give you an idea of what they are about and how it will affect us all in the coming years and months. And I will return to this in the future and write something for the parish magazine.
The role and participation of women in the life of the church is now pretty well accepted. There are still those for whom this causes problems and the church has made provisions for them. Most people have remained with the church. A few have left and that is a pity but people must go with their consciences, must have their personal integrity.
There is now potential for disagreement over how the church deals with homosexuality. First there is the question of same sex relationships. The law now says that people of the same sex may marry. Marriage, in law, now means something different to what it has done for most of our lives. No matter what we may feel about that we cannot change it. At the moment the church will not countenance same sex marriage, nor will it allow the blessing of any form of same sex relationships. The second question relates to gay clergy and what we must recognise and accept is that there are gay clergy, in fact quite a lot of gay clergy, some of whom are open about it and some who are not. There is a big question here over acceptance, over recognition and over whether and how we as a church allow people to be who they believe themselves to be. But just as present arrangements undoubtedly cause hurt so any change would cause hurt in those who see this as going against God’s will as revealed through scripture. The question is whether we can find a way that will accommodate all and avoid separating the body of Christ.
The Pilling report into Human Sexuality published in 2013 recommended that a way forward would be to hold a series of Shared Conversations aimed at finding out whether we could come to a ‘good disagreement’ , a way of disagreeing that did not compromise truth and integrity but allowed for graceful acceptance of difference. The first step in this has been to hold a series of cross-diocesan conversations and I was invited to be one of the ten people from this diocese to meet with people from Newcastle, Carlisle and Blackburn this week over a period of three days. There were people there from different backgrounds, clergy and lay, conservative evangelicals and gay clergy, meeting and talking together. And the aim is to get people throughout the church to talk to each other and work towards the stated aim of finding a way that ‘the deeply held differences about sexuality become less important than the desire to work together for the sake of witness’. There is still a long way to go but there are signs of hope.
What the church is trying to do is certain the spirit of Paul – we are trying to disagree gracefully. I don’t think as Christians we are contracted to everlasting agreement but it is the way we choose not to agree about things that should mark us out.
We should have a presumption of inclusivity, not looking for reasons for exclude people but to include them, finding ways to bring us all altogether in the body of Christ – Paul says elsewhere, in Galatians, that there is no longer Jew and Greek, slave or free, male or female, that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Can we, do we want to, find a way to add gay and straight to that and can we do that with an integrity that can be understood and shared in by the whole church?
Christians above all people should be able to get on with one another. It is meant to be mutual love that binds us together. Accepting what is important in our faith, what are effectively the red line issues and saying this is what binds us, this is what holds us together, this is what makes us Christians in this world – and we may disagree about other things, but we should be able to find a way around that, a way to live together without falling out. The Corinthians struggled with that, but perhaps they didn’t have all the advantages we had. They had Paul to help - but so do we, we have his word over the centuries. So in the weeks, and months, and years to come let’s concentrate on those words. The status quo is not an option for us, not because we have to move forward but simply because if we stand still we will actually be going backward. So please engage with this as you will and let us all pray that this issue can be resolved in love and understanding and in a way that preserves our unity in Christ.