Sunday, May 26, 2013

One Big Mess??? Living with the Tension Of The Church As Grace Fiilled Spiritual Creation and Fault Filled Human Institution (1 Coritnhians 1:1-17) ... One: the road to Christian Unity in 1 Corinthinas (part 1)

We are starting a new series today looking at the book of 1 Corinthians, and I always find it hard to know how to start a new sermon series.  

1 Corinthians is known as a hot potato book it deals with some challenging issues that are just as hot for us today. Issues that cause division and derision amongst Christians: Sexual ethics, thought I throw that in first and catch your attention; how do we deal with different understanding of what is and isn’t right in the church… financial ethics, how can rich and poor get along in the kingdom of God, social ethics, just how do we interact with the secular society around us; do we simply conform to our culture or how are we to differentiate ourselves, what constitutes spiritual maturity? Is it about spiritual gifts and wisdom or how we treat each other and how we act?  Have we made it or are we just on the journey with a long way to go.

At its core for us in our multi-cultural pluralistic society is the question of how can a group of people gathered from across a diverse range of cultures, socio-economic groupings, theological understandings and backgrounds come together and be one body in Christ? How can we live together with different understandings of life and faith and different ethical standards, different styles and ways of doing things, different living standards and expectations? How can we do this without resorting to simply adhering to the lowest common denominator, or a strict enforced uniformity, a cookie cutter Christianity.  Because when we come to Christ we are called to be the new people of God, we are called to be an expression of God’s love and hope for all humanity by loving one another. We live in a city that is wrestling with some of these issues as well. WE are split between million dollar suburbs, and places where those who can't afford to live In Auckland struggle to keep going. We have white suburbs and brown suburbs and in the midst of that we need to be a Church where we can live together with justice and peace.

At its heart we as the church are a spiritual creation, a spiritual being, but we are also a human institution with all the faults and foibles. What makes the book of 1 Corinthians so useful to us today is that it is written to a church that is wrestling with those same kinds of issues.

I may have trouble starting sermon series, but the good thing is that Paul has no trouble in starting his letter to the church at Corinth. So as a way of introduction to this series we are going to look at Paul’s introduction to his letter. We had it read out to us this morning, and in doing that we will start to explore what was happening at the Church at Corinth and in Paul’s response to that what this book has to say to us.

Paul has no problem introducing his letter because he follows the basic formula of a letter in his culture and time. It starts with five basic conventions; you may recognise some of them because we still use them today.

Sender… who is the letter from

Recipient… who is the letter for


Thanksgiving… a kind word about the person you are writing to

The body of the letter… getting down to what you are writing about, what is the issue.


In the first four parts of this letter Paul focuses on the Church as a spiritual being.


Paul identifies himself as the sender, along with a member of the church in Corinth Sosthenes, and that he writing to the church in Corinth. But in both instances he crafts those identities in relationship to Christ.

The book of Acts tells us much of Paul's story. His conversion to being a follower of Christ, his call to take the gospel to the gentiles, which is amazing as before his conversion Paul in his own words is a Jew amongst the Jews a Pharisee among the Pharisees, but Christ changes all that. We read of his mission trips, where he established churches throughout Asia Minor and into Europe. In Acts 18 it tells us the story of Paul coming to the city of Corinth and starting the church there.  Paul will have to defend his apostleship to the church later in this letter, he is writing as one who is called to proclaim the gospel and establish communities of believers, a role that he has been called to by Christ. Apostle means ‘One who is sent’.

The recipient is the church in Corinth.

Corinth is a very interesting city, it sits on the isthmus in Greece. It was an important Greek city which had been destroyed and then rebuilt by the Romans and was important for trade as it was accessible by sea from both the east and the west. It was a cosmopolitan city, with people from all over the Roman Empire. As a trade centre it was a place where people came to make money, as a port city it had a reputation for promiscuity, which was exacerbated by the temple there dedicated to Aphrodite and the temple prostitution that went with it.  It was famous for its games which were second only to the Olympic Games in Athens, and for its entertainments. Craig Bloomberg says it was like the New York, Los Angeles and Los Vegas of the roman world all rolled into one. And as we look further into the book we will see all these thing contribute to the troubles that this church was having.


But for Paul the focus was the church of God in Corinth. The word for Church Paul uses here is ekklesia which has the meaning of being the body politic, a new people a new community. Paul’s addressing of the Church in Corinth points to the fact that it’s the church because of what Christ has done. We have been made right with God because of Jesus Christ, Jesus is calling us to be holy, which the NIV translates as saints, a people set aside for God. The church you and I as well as those believers in Corinth are a people set aside for the glory of God. There were problems in the church at Corinth, much of it stemming from a false sense of pride in who they were as a church, they thought they had made it, and Paul reminds them and us that we are who we are by the grace of God. He reminds them and us that also that we are one with all those in every place who call on the name of Jesus. There is no room for division and thinking ourselves better than any other grouping of Believers.


‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” incorporates the greeting from the two dominant cultures Paul is from the roman greeting of grace and the Hebrew one of Peace, but he does not stop there he shows us that for the new people of God, those two things grace, undeserved benevolence and peace, shalom, wholeness and right relationships come from God through the person of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us.


Paul then goes on to give thanks for the church at Corinth. It’s interesting as he is going to be dealing with some dire issues within the church which seem to stem from a spiritual pride and sense within the community that they have made it and are full of wisdom that Paul would thank God for those very things.  

But Paul gives thanks for the fact that all those things come from Christ. It is Christ who has called the church in the past. It is Christ who has given the church every spiritual gift to enable them to live and witness to him in the present and it is Christ who can be trusted to bring that work to completion in the future. They and we cannot take credit for any of that because it is Christ who has done it. It is Christ who is doing it in our midst and it is Christ who will finish the work he has started within us. The Corinthians thought they had made it but Paul points out no it’s Christ.


I shared on what this passage has to say for Christian leaders at the parish council on Wednesday.  I pointed out the key role that prayer has for Christian leaders, to pray for the Church. To give thanks for what God is doing in our midst. I also pointed out it is good to remember that when we come into conflict with people, and Paul is about to butt heads with the church at Corinth, that  the person or people we are in conflict with are loved by Christ and called by Christ to be his people with us, and that Christ is at work in them, and us, to bring us to maturity. Also that giving thanks for the positives we see is a good place to start as it focuses us on Christ’s work in those people. These apply to all Christian relationships not just leadership.


So now as Paul moves to the body of his letter, we see that he moves to deal with the brokenness and faults and foibles in the church. He had received a report from Chloe’s people about the squabbling in the church and about divisions that were based on the various Christian leaders. Paul, Apollo, who had come to Corinth after Paul and was known as a great orator, and Cephas or Peter, and while we have no record him visiting Corinth he has a lot of influence mainly amongst the more Jewish Christian circles., Corinth valued wisdom and as a trade centre would be a place where many people would come with new ideas and philosophies and share them in the market place, and people would become disciples of these various people and argue between themselves which one was best. Paul sees this happening in the Church… it’s almost like Christian Idol. 


There are those that don’t want to get involved in this and simply say I’m of Jesus, and while I would want to say Amen to that. There is a sense here that they are doing that not out of a humble admission of being one in Christ, but as an assertion of their spiritual pride. Paul’s answer is well is Christ divided is there a Christ faction within the body of Christ?


In our own time and place there are many things that cause division and derision in the body of Christ. We all have come to Christ through different me and God has used different people to bring his word to us. We come from different traditions, denominations. People often ask me well why the Presbyterian Church and my short answer is well it’s a matter of European history and geography.  Over the past few decades the church has been going through what has been called culture wars and worship styles and music has been a source of division and derision. Formal religion verses informal worship. How we interpret the scriptures is a huge one, a rift between liberal and conservative understandings. The influence of this leader and that movement, and I could go on.  Underlying that just maybe the same need for maturity that Corinth had, the same human tendency to have pride in the way we do things and how we’ve got there.


Paul then begins to teach the church at Corinth about unity in Christ, and we are going to look at that over the next few weeks. But at the end of our reading today Paul begins to focus us back on what is the centre of our faith, the core of our unity. The cross of Jesus Christ, Christ crucified. It is easy to get caught up in all these other things but at the heart of who we are and how we are called to live is Christ and the cross. It is God’s loving sacrifice and servant hood. It is grace and invitation. It is mercy and forgiveness.  

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