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Reading Someone Else’s Mail

January 20, 2014

“Reading Someone Else’s Mail” Isaiah 49:1-7, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 © 1.19.14 Ordinary 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Today and for the next few weeks you and I will be reading someone else’s mail. The correspondence is between Paul and one particular congregation in the Greek city of Corinth. It was meant for them decades before anyone ever considered Paul’s thoughts worthy of the name “holy scripture,” to be read and reflected on by generations of Christians. But having said that, 1 Corinthians is also a letter to us and about us, for we’re also among those through the ages who have called on the name of the Lord. We’re connected, you and I, with those believers so long ago. We’re bound in covenant with them, for their Lord is also ours. Maybe we’ll find that if we’re like those people in our sins and mistakes, so also may we claim the promises and gifts of God which redeemed and sustained them.

Some of you walked through this territory back in the day in church school, and I have preached from 1 Corinthians off and on, as recently as last spring. But come to it again with me, and let’s review what we know or think we know about the city of Corinth and the church there. As for the town, it was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC in retaliation for its having joined in an attack on Sparta, a Roman ally. Then it was rebuilt 100 years later as a dumping ground for the dregs of Roman society. To Corinth were sent freed slaves, displaced peasants, anyone considered “surplus population.” But these people were “eagerly upwardly mobile,” as someone has said (J. Paul Sampley, “1 Corinthians,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. X: 775), so by Paul’s time another century later, the city had developed into a vibrant and important center of trade. It was right in the middle of a narrow isthmus between the Aegean and the Adriatic, and shippers found it easier to carry goods a couple of miles overland than to risk the storms of the Mediterranean.

Corinth, with 200,000 population, was also the capital of its province, called Achaia. So there was a significant Roman bureaucracy there. In addition, the town was known for big sports events called the “Isthmian Games,” which were second in popularity and fame only to the Olympics. Along with athletic competitions, there were also contests in public speaking, drama, and music.

Because it was a center of culture and trade, and so many different people passed through, a visitor would hear in Corinth all sorts of languages and encounter many ideas, religions, and customs. Roman and Greek gods and goddesses were worshipped in Corinth, but so were the deities of Egypt and other countries. There was even a temple designated for all the gods. The God of Israel was not left out. Jews like Paul’s colleagues Priscilla and Aquila had come to Corinth when Emperor Claudius banished them from Rome in 49 AD and also thirty years earlier, thanks to a decree by Emperor Tiberius ridding Rome of Jews. So there was at least one synagogue. Depending on your point of view, Corinth was either richly, refreshingly cosmopolitan or bewilderingly, frighteningly diverse.

Corinth had the reputation of being a place of wealth without culture, graciousness or charm. Everything about it was superficial. Beneath the surface, with its lovely temples and vibrant trade, the wealthy were coarse, uncaring, and abusive, and the poor desperate for the smallest morsel of food (Sampley: 775).

Perhaps Corinth was best known, though, as a party town. Or, to put it more plainly, it was infamous as a place of sexual debauchery. One poet even coined the word corinthianazein, “to corinthianize,” meaning “to live immorally.” There’s some question as to whether the reputation was deserved; it may have been made up or exaggerated by rival cities to give Corinth a bad name. But we do know it was a rough place to go. There was a common proverb: “Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth.” And, of course, “What happens in Corinth stays in Corinth.”

Now to the church. It was founded by Paul and several male and female co-workers during an 18-month stay in the city around 50-51 AD. As was his custom, the apostle began by preaching in the synagogue. He gained a hearing from a few of the Jews, including Crispus, the leader of the synagogue (Acts 18:8) and his household. But by and large his efforts met with little success. So he decided to concentrate on the Gentiles, non-Jews, including both converts to Judaism and outright pagans. The congregation at Corinth was thus a mix of those two sorts of Gentiles with a few Jews.

A perfect church it wasn’t. We find out in the very first chapter of the letter that the church was badly split. Some said they stood with Paul. Others favored the apostle Peter, whose followers had also visited the church. Still others liked the theology and style of a man named Apollos, who was a great orator. Then there was a group who supposedly stood aloof from all the infighting and said they were merely simple Christians, with no creed or loyalty but Christ. The situation went downhill from there. One writer sums up life in First Church, Corinth (the one in the Bible, not the one here in Mississippi), this way: “The members tolerated gross immorality…sued each other in the courts…patronized prostitutes…toyed with idolatry…got drunk at the Lord’s Supper…. Times of worship were times of confusion…. And some even denied the resurrection….”

As he writes, Paul knows all this. He’s been informed by a group of concerned members he calls “Chloe’s people.” No doubt those folks were well thought of by everyone else, since we all love a snitch, right? Anyway, given such bad behavior, we have to be surprised and even shocked to hear the apostle call the Corinthians “sanctified” and “holy.” Paul even gives thanks to God for these people, with their crooked, blackened halos. Is this just part of a strategy to throw them off guard, to sweet talk them so they will listen to him? How can people with so many problems, such a multitude of gross sins, so little to commend them, who are such poor exemplars of Christ, be called “saints”?

They can because right now Paul is using verbs in the indicative mood and the passive voice. Indicative: this is who you are, Christians in Corinth, 52 AD. This is who you are, Christians in Amory, MS, 2014 AD. Passive: this is not of your own doing, but the result of God’s action. You and I have been sanctified, called, declared holy in God’s sight, even if our lives are in a shambles, even if Satan himself would be shocked at our behavior. That’s our status before God. We are called his saints in baptism. “Sanctified in Christ” is our fundamental identity as Christians, grounded in what God has done in Christ, based on God’s gracious choice alone. Make no mistake: being declared holy doesn’t mean we may do as we please, whenever we please, treat people any old way, thumb our noses at God and his will and way. Our vocation, our calling, is to become in fact what by grace we are. We are saved by grace alone, but that grace never stands alone.

My point is that none of us is self-created, self-sustained, subject to no one but ourselves. “It is [God] that made us, and not we ourselves,” said the psalmist. Contrast that attitude to the all-too common one noticed years ago by the famed psychologist Eric Erickson: “We have made ourselves our own favored children.” The ideal is to be self-fulfilled, self-assertive, to listen to no voice but your own, to give loyalty to no cause beyond your own agenda.

In their mostly depressing 2011 book That Used To Be Us, the political and historical writers Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum take their generation to task for such behavior. Friedman and Mandelbaum, like some of us, are baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. “We have to admit,” they lament, “that the conduct of our own generation…has been more than a little selfish, pampered, and at times, reckless and irresponsible.” They continue their verbal assault: “Unscathed by great disruptions, unburdened by the necessity of great sacrifice, unpressured by the daily effort of confronting a huge global predator—and, in addition, hurried and besotted by new technologies and electronic markets that have encouraged short-term thinking—the baby boom generation has in too many cases displayed too little fiscal prudence, too much political partisanship, and too short a sense of history to engage in the collective nation-building at home that America badly needs today” (278).

What is the result if we claim to be called by and accountable to no one other than ourselves? Friedman and Mandelbaum blame the financial crisis of 2008 on such a viewpoint. We could also note the kind of overindulgence and greed reflected in the salaries of executives that are 350 times greater than those of the common worker. Or what about killing a man for texting the babysitter during previews, then claiming self-defense because there was some popcorn thrown and words exchanged?

On a more personal level, professor and pastor Will Willimon, a prominent figure on the theological scene since at least the 1990s, has some ideas. He writes: “It’s hard to hear the voice of another, whispering over our lives…when we are so busy speaking to ourselves…. Despair, depression, is the result of self-derived vocation. Self-initiated call is no match for the vicissitudes of life.” Ever wonder why it’s so hard sometimes just to get through a day? It may have something to do with who or what is at the center of your life and mine. If our lives orbit ourselves, like a planet around a sun, the planet will slowly die, because the sun may be nothing but a cold dwarf or even a black hole, sucking the life out of all around it, letting not even light escape. But what if on the other hand, our life-giving star is Jesus, the Light of the World which nothing can overcome or put out? Then we may know that whatever comes, we belong to God, and we will have life and warmth. We will know that the most important Someone in the universe regards us as precious, claims us and therefore protects and cares for us. Our worth as human beings is grounded in God’s action, not how much or how little money we have, not who our friends are, not what people think of us. So I invite you to hear this word: “Remember, you belong to God.” Depending on the state of your heart this morning, that may be supreme comfort or annoying challenge.

It’s to those of you who long for comfort, strength, and hope this morning that I want to speak as I close. Some days you feel very small or insignificant, disrespected, put upon, used. You’re ready to give up, to give in, to believe that your efforts don’t matter. Your dreams long ago were put on hold when you did a hard reality check. Like the servant of Second Isaiah, you could easily complain that nothing you do bears any fruit. You feel you spend your strength in vain. Your faith is dismissed by the culture as simplistic; your childlike confidence in God evidence of foolhardiness and an insufficient grasp on the way things are. Some of the Corinthians also felt that way. Small. Nothing. Poor. Broken. They were looked down on by self-proclaimed spiritual giants who paraded their gifts and accomplishments as the standard for all the church. No one else was good or good enough.

But I invite you to hear the good news from the apostle this morning. Paul assured his readers that they had been enriched in every way. They had all been given the grace of God, and with it, resources for the living of life and the proclamation of the gospel. I encourage you out there, feeling small, feeling helpless, feeling that there is no good deed that goes unpunished, I encourage you to take heart that you are significant, you matter, this church is significant, this church matters, because you are willing to be caught up in the grand purpose of God and seek to fulfill your calling with whatever gifts you possess. You are important to and beloved by the only One whose opinion matters in the final scheme of things. Never, ever forget: you belong to God. You belong to God.

United Methodist pastor Vicki Flippin has some beautiful observations on what that means for our daily lives: “[B]aptism is the church declaring what has always been true —- that each of us belongs to God and only to God….

“That claim of God becomes more and more important as we wander through the maze of life, with so many individuals and institutions trying to declare ownership over us. Our baptism can remind us that no one determines our worth in this world or in the next other than God.

“To the prisoner, it means you do not belong to the bars and chains around you. You belong to God.

“To the addicted, it means you do not belong to that thing which you crave. You belong to God.

“To the dying, it means you do not belong to this body or to that cancer. You belong to God.

“To the patriot, it means, you do not belong to this nation. You belong to God.

“To the debtor, it means you do not belong to any bank or credit card company. You belong to God.

“To the empty and overworked, it means you do not belong to your company. You belong to God.

“To the depressed, it means you do not belong to this sadness. You belong to God.

“To the abused, it means you do not belong to the person or the memories that hurt you. You belong to God.

“And even though it might feel like, look like, smell like, hurt like you belong to all these other things, as sure as water is wet and God is good, I heard a voice out of the heavens say it: ‘You belong to God’” (see note).

Note: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-vicki-flippin/you-belong-to-god_b_4560633.html

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