First Corinthians is hands down my favorite Epistle.
Paul is trying to help the Church in Corinth
work though their human frailty
to become the Body of Christ and carry out his Kingdom Mission.
Paul is teaching the Corinthians how to be the kind of community
that attracts people to Jesus by showing them
who Jesus’ followers become.
Paul wants people to see Christians and say two things:
“I want to be with them” and “I want to be like them.”
Jesus said, “This is how people will know you are my disciples.
By your love for one another.”
St. John said, “Dear friends, let us love one another for love
comes from God. . . .
If we love one another, God lives in us
and his love is perfected in us. . . .
God is love and those who abide in love, abide in God. . .
Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters
For those who do not love their brothers or sisters
whom they have seen
cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
200 years later, the Father of Western theology, Tertullian,
summed up the basic strategy of how to show pagans
the beauty of the Christian way. He wrote:
“’See how these Christians love one another,’ the pagans say,
for they themselves hate one another,
‘and how they are ready to die for teach other,’
for the pagans are ready to kill each other.’”
But to turn to another kind of Scripture,
in the words of Diana Ross, “Love don’t come easy.”
It didn’t come easy to the saints in Corinth.
The first thing we hear about is the faction
over some folks being fans of one apostle
while others were followers of another.
Paul urges them to put aside those divisions. He says,
“As long as there is jealously and quarrelling among you
are you not of the flesh
and behaving according to human inclinations?”
So stop dividing up according to which apostle you like best.
Then he turns to lawsuits between church members
and says it is better to be defrauded than to sue a brother.
Then there was the biggest fight of all.
It was about eating food that came from pagan sacrifices.
1st Century Christians were as worked up over what they ate
as 21st Century Christians are worked up over sex.
Paul says that the ones who eat the meat are right theologically
but he tells them to abstain anyway
out of love for those who are offended by it.
And so the letter to the Corinthians proceeds
petty issue by petty issue, church fight by church fight,
until he breaks into a spiritual aria to explain his point.
That’s the famous 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians,
the hymn to love we always read at marriages,
but it isn’t about marriage.
It’s about being a congregation.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but have not love, I am a nosy gong . . . .
Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful
or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
It is not irritable or resentful.
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things,
endures all things.”
That’s what love means.
God is love. Those who abide in love,
those who follow the discipline of love
– and it is a discipline because Diana Ross is right – love don’t come easy –
those who follow the discipline of love, abide in love,
God lives in them and they live in God.
And when we abide in love
the 87% of Nevadans with no faith of any kind
will say, “I want to be with them and I want to be like them.”
Paul never again wrote anything so beautiful as 1st Corinthians.
But I’m sorry to say they didn’t get it.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending
When we get to 2nd Corinthians, things have just gotten worse.
40 years later, decades after Paul was dead and gone,
the Corinthians were still fighting.
By then, Clement, the bishop of Rome, had taken over Paul’s job
and was still pleading with them to just get along
and treat each other in Jesus’ way, not the world’s way.
Corinthians is pretty straight forward,
but the Epistle to the Romans gets misunderstood
and misused most of the time.
Actually, it isn’t the theological treatise people think it is.
It’s just like Corinthians, an effort to smooth out a church fight.
In Rome the Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians
were going at it.
It got so bad the Emperor Claudius threw the whole lot
of them out of town kit and caboodle.
Paul wrote Romans to try to show them that it is better to be kind
than to be right.
The Romans may not have gotten it right away.
But I think the point eventually sank in.
Here’s why I think they got it.
Between 165 and 180, a plague swept through
the urban centers of the Empire,
killing one-third to one-half of city populations.
The city of Rome was particularly hard hit.
It’s named Galen’s plague after Galen,
the Emperor’s personal physician.
Galen is famous because he figured out
that people were catching the plague
from contact with each other.
It was the first discovery of contagion in the Ancient World.
So Galen told everyone who had the wealth and ability
to get out of town.
Well, that was fine for the people who could do it.
But it left the sick and the dying to their own devices.
It wasn’t pretty, a city of the sick, the dying, and the dead.
And everyone ran away – except the Christians.
The Christians had an odd notion that the love of God,
that is God’s love living in their own hearts, would protect them.
And if it didn’t, then they’d just die in God’s service and go to heaven.
So the Christians stayed and nursed the sick, prayed with the dying,
and buried the dead.
The pagans looked on in wonder.
They said, “See how these Christians love one another.
See how they even love us.”
Christianity remained illegal in the Empire for another century.
But by the end of that century, one third of the Empire
had converted to Christianity
largely because of the love
Christians displayed during Galen’s plague.
For us human beings, love don’t come easy.
But you know what G. K. Chesterton said,
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting.
It has been found difficult and not tried.”
Nothing good comes easy.
What is best may be hardest of all.
But the reward is to live in God
and have God live in us.
The hardest thing is the thing most worth doing.