Beyond Wood and Stone

Rev. Elisabeth's Cedar Park Blog site

Month: January 2011

Epiphany 3 (January 23): Is Christ divided?

With texts from Isaiah 9 and a great narrative in Matthew 5 this week,  I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Paul’s letter to Corinth will be left aside by most preachers, not least because he takes on the thorny issue of Church division. Which would you rather hear a sermon on? Jesus’ soul-stirring call to the disciples to become “fishers of people”, or  a sermon on the sort of church in-fighting that makes us all squirm?  I suppose it might depend on circumstances, right?  But I promised last week to take Paul on, so leaving Matthew’s fishing nets aside, here goes…..  Here’s a link to the passage:

The passion which infuses these verses of Paul’s letter is what immediately grabs my attention. “I appeal,… be of the same mind, the same words, the same focus, the same passion, the same purpose..” he says. Presumably because they’re not. Not at all of the same mind, the same anything.

I imagine the poor soul elected to read the letter aloud to the gathering (that’s how it would have been done). Imagine Chloe’s people on one side of the room, a gaggle clustered around Apollos on the other side, then Cephas’ group – all with their tell-tale beards and fish pins huddled together in the corner by the door.  Paul is not there, he’s in Ephesus, but his words are, and it’s almost as if he can see them, as if the skype camera is on them and they don’t know it.  But his “appeal” acts like a spotlight. They know they are a church divided. And apparently he knows they know. Barely has the warm fuzzy feeling of his opening greeting been captured in the room and he hits them with his long-sighted gaze.
“You, Corinth, the community I give thanks for because you have soooo much going for you, are more faction than fellowship.”  And boy, does it bother him. A lot.

We might think, yet again, that Paul protests too much, expects too much. After all, what can you expect in a city that’s as cosmopolitan as Corinth? Corinth was the Liverpool of this quadrant of the Roman empire; a sea port and transportation hub, gateway into Greece. People from all over the Mediterranean called Corinth home base; sailors, traders, manufacturers, factors, ex-soldiers, ex-slaves. A more diverse city would be hard to imagine. So, surely Paul’s appeal to be ‘the same’ is a little over-the-top idealistic, utopian?

So what’s he getting at?  The clue, I think is in v. 13, where he suddenly shifts his focus from the cliques and divisiveness of the people to a strange-sounding ‘theological’ question:  “Has Christ been divided?” What is that supposed to mean? And what does it have to do with the cliques of Corinth? It’s a bit later in this letter that Paul shows us what this means. He talks about the community of faith as being a body.  All parts belong, and work together; the eye showing the feet where to walk, the heart compelling the hands to acts of compassion, and so on.  It’s a metaphor we’re very familiar with in Cedar Park, thanks to Sharon’s preaching and teaching over the years. But a community of faith isn’t just ‘a body’, it’s ‘the body of Christ’.   When Paul sees Chloe ratting on Cephas, or Apollos sweet-talking folk to do things his way, it’s as if he is watching a body – Christ’s body – being ripped apart, right before his eyes.  “Has Christ been divided?”

This short little passage acts like a spotlight in the dark, casting light over small churches, and the global church too.  “I appeal to you… be of the same mind, soul, heart, body….. be Christ in your corner of the world, and in all the world. For Christ’s sake.”  Worth pondering, not just about the newborn church in Corinth, but for us, now. Cedar Parkers, Christians all; “Has Christ been divided?”   If we find ourselves, like those Corinthians, looking sheepishly at our feet, perhaps it would be a good idea if we came back to this text next week to see what Paul suggests we do about it.

Your comments are always welcome, either here, or over coffee at Church.

Second Sunday of Epiphany (Jan 16th)

You can find all the readings for this week  at the following link: Vanderbilt Divinity Library. Rev. Ron will be preaching the Gospel text (John 1:29-42). For the next seven weeks, the other New Testament reading we will hear in Church will be from Paul’s first Letter to the Church in Corinth, so I have chosen to use the blog to explore this letter,for the following reasons:

  • Paul, “apostle of Jesus Christ” authored or inspired a large percentage of the New Testament, and has therefore influenced the development of Christian beliefs and practices; it’s worth taking a closer look.
  • Paul often gets a  bad press these days, for being opinionated, verbose, misogynistic and capricious.  This is our chance to see how true/fasle – and complicated – each of those allegations may be.
  • d) Paul’s letters to Corinth  reveal some of the real down-to-earth issues that faced a diverse (often divided) community struggling to make sense of Jesus in the midst of their culture and day to day lives. While the time and place is very different, we can connect with this letter when it deals with timeless issues, like loyalty, faith and doubt, relationships, and so on.

This week’s reading  (1 Corinthians 1: 1-9 may at first glance seem a bit pointless: why are we just reading the preamble to a letter, without actually getting to the substance of it? ( It’s a bit like only reading the logo, return address and salutation in a modern letter, though in Paul’s case his opening salutation lasts for 8 verses!)

There’s actually a lot going on in this opening. His original readers – and us – are left in absolutely NO doubt about:

  1. Who wrote the letter. 
  2. To whom the letter is addressed.
  3. What ( and who) connects the sender and recipients.

1. Paul, “Apostle of Christ Jesus” is the writer.  The use of “Apostle” is deliberate. It means Messenger of Christ, or “The one sent by Christ”.  So, already, even though we are reading a letter from Paul, it’s as if he’s signalling… “whatever I write here is really coming as a message from the one who sent me.”

2. The letter is addressed to the “Church of God that is in Corinth”  – not just to a gathering of humans, but a gathering of God  in a particular time and place….. lest the reader forget that “our” church is also “God’s” church.  It’s like a double identity: “You are Corinthians, but you are also God’s”   or, to us as modern-day readers, “You are Cedar Parkers, but you are also God’s”.  (I’ve posted a separate page about the historical background of the Church in Corinth; follow this link:  )

3. As for what connects the sender and the recipients, that is contained in verses 3-9. Paul launches into some particularly flowery language at this point, and we may well wonder, “Just who is he trying to please?”   This is almost a fan letter – he recollects a community he spent over a year with, and obviously relished many aspects of their life together – they were smart, they were good at talking about their faith, and they had “every spiritual gift” imaginable.  Elsewhere, these ‘spiritual gifts’ are named and include patience, kindness, wisdom, love, generosity,deep active prayer, justice-making ethics, faithfulness… quite the list. Those of us who know what comes next in the letter (wait for next week’s exciting instalment!!), tend to rush over this introduction and miss this clear statement of  joyful gratitude for the faith-in-action of the Corinthian church. He likes these people a lot. He is writing to people with whom he shares a passionate faith, people he loves. 

3.b. Now to the “who” in my third point:  note also the flambouyant sprinkling of “God language” in this fan mail. We find it odd… (the only time we hear Jesus and God mentioned that often in a few sentences is in the company of drunken hockey fans after the Habs lost in overtime,  and in that circumstance, it is most definitely not a prayer!)   The Corinthians are awesome people, because of God.  It is God who hs given them this wisdom, the eloquence, the wisdom, the love.  A God whom Paul also loves deeply, and upon whom Paul will repeatedly stake his reputation and his life.  God, to Paul is no abstracted deity, but an active, gift-giving,  life-sustaining agent of grace upon grace. God, whom Paul calls “faithful to the end,” is the ultimate connection between the From and the To in this letter.


I’m glad the lectionary stops there, even though I want to turn the page and see what comes next. It gives me ( and hopefully you) chance to ponder, through the events of the upcoming week, just how much, if I look,  God is life-giver, strength-bringer, life-sustainer, gift giver, in my own life.  When a student has an “aha!”moment this week, this reading will remind me, that my teaching, and that student’s moment of insight are both the fruits of God’s generous grace.  When I bite my tongue to stop an unkind or impatient word, then I shall know for sure that – yet again – God has given me a capacity for patience and generosity that doesn’t always come that naturally to me!!  Try it for yourself this week.  (And post a comment too, if you like!)

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