First Corinthians is hands down my favorite Epistle.
Paul is trying to help the Church in Corinth
work though their divisions
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 pagans to see Christians and say two things:
I want to be with them, and I want to be like them.
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. . .
But turning to another kind of Scripture,
in the immortal words of Diana Ross,
Love don’t come easy.
It didn’t come easy to the saints in Corinth.
The first thing we hear in today’s lesson
is about the faction fight
over some folks being fans of one apostle
while others were fans of another.
It seems people have always had different taste in clergy.
Paul urges them to forget 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 clergy person
you like best.
Next 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 – the food fight.
It was about eating food that came from pagan sacrifices.
1st Century Christians were as worked up over food
as 21st Century Christians are worked up over sex.[i]
Paul says that the ones who eat sacrificed 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 weddings,
and it can apply to marriage
but it’s actually about being a congregation.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but have not love, I am a noisy 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 follow the discipline of love
– and it is a discipline, not a feeling you fall into
– it’s a way of life, a heart commitment
that don’t come easy –
those who follow the discipline of love, abide in love.
John says God lives in them and they live in God.
1st Corinthians is brilliant, beautiful, Paul’s magnum opus.
But I’m sorry to say they didn’t get it.
Our 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,
was pleading with them to just get along
and treat each other in Jesus’ way, not the world’s way.
1st Corinthians is pretty straight forward,
but the Epistle to the Romans gets misunderstood
and misused most of the time.
It isn’t the theological treatise people think it is.
Just like Corinthians,
it’s 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 show them that
it is better to be kind than to be right.
The Romans may not have gotten it right away.
But the point eventually sank in.
Here’s how we know.
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.
The disease is 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 each other.
He connected plague with contagion.
So Galen told everyone, who had the wealth and ability,
to get out of town.
Well, that was fine for the people who had country estates.
But it left the poor, the sick and the dying
to their own devices.
It wasn’t pretty.
Rome was a city of the sick, the dying,
and the dead lying in the streets.
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.
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.
They have come to love to even love us.
Christianity remained illegal for another century.
But, in spite of being illegal,
by the end of that century,
fully one third of the Empire
had converted to Christianity.
It wasn’t because of our aggressive marketing campaign.
It was largely because of the love
Christians displayed during Galen’s plague.
Tertullian, the Father of Western theology,
came of age during Galen’s plague.
He watched it play out
and he watched the Pagan response.
Tertullian summed up the basic strategy
– actually it was the only strategy –
of evangelism in the Early Church. He wrote:
See how these Christians love one another,’
the pagans say,
for (the pagans) themselves hate one another,
‘and how (Christians) are ready to die for each other,’
for the pagans are ready to kill each other.’
Have you watched the news recently?
Have you been on social media?
Have you driven in traffic?
This increasingly secular world has some increasingly serious heartburn.
We could follow their way and fit right in.
Or we could model them Jesus’ way for them
and see what they think.
That second option wouldn’t be easy.
For us human beings, love don’t come easy.
As 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 living in us.
That might be worth it.
[i] A speculative sociological digression. As our culture has loosened up about sex in recent decades, we have become increasingly focused on food. We have more food allergies. Factions argue over whether grain is good or evil. Same with meat. Hypothesis: Life has a strand of anxiety running through it. Food and sex are associated with the survival of the species. At some times in history, we attach our anxiety to sex. At other times, we focus our anxiety on food. But it always has to go somewhere.