St Barnabas and St Michael’s, 19th January 2014
Reading – 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
How many people here like eating currants? Maybe on their own or in something like a currant bun? Currants, as I’m sure we all know, are a particular type of dried grape, slightly smaller than raisins or sultanas. What perhaps is slightly less well-known is how they got their name. The word “currant” comes from the name of the city of Corinth, the same city that features in our Bible reading today, and it’s a reminder that this city has for many thousands of years served as an important port. Not just grapes, but many valuable good and materials pass through Corinth each year, even up to the present day.
So why is Corinth just so important? To understand that question we need to look at a map of Greece. One thing you quickly notice is that it’s quite an odd-shaped country and a lot of the land is located on what is called the Peloponnese peninsula. There is only one narrow land bridge to the rest of the country. So to get to mainland Greece you either have to brave the open seas, or you have to cross the land-bridge. And it’s precisely at this narrow strip of land that you find the city of Corinth. It’s because Corinth has such a strategic location that -even though from time to time it has been destroyed by invading armies and by earthquakes – it keeps on getting rebuilt.
Imagine, then, a busy, thriving port city attracting many different people come to ply their trade and maybe seek their fortune. That’s what the city of Corinth was like at the time of Paul. There were of course the native Greeks with their own temples and gods. There were Roman soldiers and administrators, both those on active service, and those who had retired to the city because it was an imperial colony. There were Jews with their own synagogues, and no doubt many more nationalities besides.
And like any place where lots of people are coming and going all kinds of pleasures and attractions were on offer. High above the city stood a large rocky peak called the Acrocorinth and on top of that was a temple dedicated to Aphrodite the goddess of love. But you didn’t have to go all the way up there to indulge your desires. There were all kinds of temples and less sacred places offering many different ways to satisfy the desires of your flesh. Or if preferred something more healthy then you go along to the local Isthmian games which were a sort of competitor to the great Olympic games held in Athens. Some people see a reference to those games in 1 Cor 9:24-27 where Paul applies the imagery of athletics to the Christian life and urges his readers to: Run in such a way as to get the prize.
It was in such an environment that Paul planted a church. You can read later in Acts 18 how Paul crossed over to the peninsula from Athens and met in Corinth a Jewish couple called Priscilla and Aquila. Quite possibly Priscilla and Aquila were already Christians and there may well have been a small church there already. But it must nevertheless have been quite a challenge for Paul as he looked around at this bustling, prosperous city where most people seemed more concerned with having a good time than having any regard to the good of their soul. How could the good news of Jesus Christ gain a hearing? And how would it make any difference?
Well, for the two or so years Paul stayed in Corinth the gospel did gain hearing, and people did turn to the Lord. Even though the city seemed such hard and difficult ground for the good news, the Lord nonetheless worked in power and people were genuinely and thoroughly saved. So it’s not surprising that as Paul begins to write his letter there is a real note of gratitude and praise. Verses 4-6: I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. The church in Corinth was living proof that Paul’s message was more than words, or good ideas. It was the good news of the living God and when Paul thought about the people he had left behind there, he could see real, solid evidence that the grace of God had been at work. No wonder that his greetings were so warm.
So what was the church in Corinth like? Well, whenever we read about the church in the New Testament we need to understand there wasn’t a single building anywhere called a “church”. At this stage the word “church” very much described a group of people rather a building or an institution. So when the church in Corinth met, it gathered as a series of meetings in people’s homes, and quite probably they met together from time to time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in one big gathering. The worship itself was quite informal, and it seems that particularly at Corinth the work of the Holy Spirit was very much in evidence. We know this from chapter 14 where Paul talks about prophecy and speaking in tongues, and clearly the Lord was moving powerfully in all kinds of ways to bring people to faith.
It’s little wonder, then, that in today’s passage Paul writes in verse 7: Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. Whatever else was going on in the church in Corinth, here were a group of people who had put their faith in Jesus Christ, who were open to the work of the Holy Spirit, and who were actively looking forward to the Lord’s return.
And yet, and yet, Paul had to write to the church in Corinth because there were a number of serious problems. It seems that a group of people from Chloe’s household had come to him with some disturbing news of issues that were threatening the unity and the health of the church. What was going on? As we shall see in next week’s passage people – perhaps the different churches meeting in the different houses – were dividing into factions and claiming to follow different spiritual leaders. Worse than that, we read in chapter 4, some were dismissing Paul as weak and foolish and turning their backs on his teaching and example.
And results were disastrous. A bad case of sexual immorality was threatening the life of the church (chapter 5). Believers were taking each other to court (chapter 6:1-11). Men were playing away from home (chapter 6:12-20) and men and women were not upholding their marriage commitments to each other (chapter 7). Church life was becoming dysfunctional, and that could be seen in all the issues to do with eating and drinking. Some were happily eating meat that had been sacrificed to the idols in the pagan temples (chapter 8), without thinking of the effect they were having on other people’s faith. When the churches came together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, some were eating too much and getting drunk (chapters 11:17-34) while the poor had nothing. Despite all the great work the Lord was doing, there was a real lack of unity (chapter 12) and a real lack of love (chapter 13). In fact some people were even losing grasp of the gospel itself, and the fact Jesus really had risen from the dead (chapter 15).
So where had it all gone wrong? Very simply, the church in Corinth had misunderstood what the grace of God was really about. Yes, they knew that their salvation was the free, undeserved gift of Jesus Christ. There is no suggestion in this letter that anyone was trying to earn their way to heaven by doing works, or obeying the law. But they had made the mistake that so many Christians have made ever since, of thinking that because Jesus had set them free, they were free to do whatever they like. In fact, more than that, some of them celebrated their freedom by sleeping with whoever they liked and eating whatever they wanted. Because the Christian life really is about freedom, isn’t it!?
What these Corinthians failed to see is that by proclaiming their freedom in this way they were actually behaving worse than their pagan neighbours and friends. They thought they were living lives that spoke of God’s grace. In reality they were simply copying the ways of the world around them, and adopting many of the same attitude and vices. Now I wish I could say this was just a problem peculiar to ancient Corinth, but sadly I know this kind of attitude still persists today. I think there are few things that break God’s heart more than Christians who see no need to keep His commands, and never see a link between a personal faith and loving obedience.
So how does Paul respond to this threat to the church in Corinth? There’s an important clue in our opening couple of verses:
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours.
Unfortunately we face a major problem when we try and make sense of what Paul is saying. We don’t generally use the word “holy” in our everyday conversation and as for a word like sanctification, well, that sounds a very long, difficult word that’s just too hard to understand. Which is shame, really, because if we can understand what holiness and sanctification is all about we won’t merely discover how Paul dealt with the Corinthian church – we will also discover how his words are very much God’s words to us today.
So how to get our heads round holiness and sanctification? Perhaps a visual aid will help. Here on the Communion table is a candlestick. Originally it was just a lump of metal waiting to be turned into something useful. But someone somewhere decided to turn it into something beautiful and they specifically set apart this lump of metal to become an item of church furnishing. From this point on the candlestick was dedicated to the glory and worship of God.
Of course it is perfectly possible for this candlestick to be misused. At one extreme, someone who’s been reading too much Agatha Christie could use it to bash someone over the head and commit murder most foul. Perhaps more realistically, someone could simply take it home and use it to light up a romantic dinner. Of course the candlestick is still functioning as a normal candlestick – but it isn’t serving the purpose for which it was created.
Now I want to put it to you that in some ways we are rather like this candlestick. God saw in us something beautiful even while we were lost and dead in our sins. He sent His Son Jesus to die in our place for us so that we could be dedicated to the glory and worship of God. But unlike this candlestick we have a choice how we respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. God has called us to show in very simple and practical ways the difference Jesus has made in our lives. To use the language of Paul, He has called us to be holy, that is set apart to do God’s will day by day, hour by hour.
But God has also given us the freedom to decide whether in fact we live up to that calling. The church candlestick at the romantic dinner is doing a perfectly good job. It’s just not doing what it’s supposed to do. And we too can easily end up getting distracted doing things that seem all well and fine but which are not actually what God wills for us. The danger, then, is we forget the very reason why we were saved. Like the church in Corinth we claim our freedom but fail to realise we end up tangled and enslaved in all sorts of things that are not good and proper.
So how do we make sure we live up to our calling to be God’s holy people? Well, the first thing to realise is that amazingly when we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ God already sees us as spotless and perfect. All our guilt, our shame, all our sin is dealt with completely by Jesus’ death for us on the cross. And although we may believe God sees us simply as weak, helpless sinners who can do no good, the reality is, we have through Jesus been clothed with His holiness and His goodness. That is the wonder and mystery of the gospel, and if we could only really take it to heart I would believe it would revolutionise our understanding of who we are in Christ. As John writes in our gospel reading: From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. And there is no greater blessing than realising that despite who we are God has accepted us in His mercy and His love. If that’s not an incentive to holy living, then I don’t know what is.
Of course this does not mean that once we believe in Jesus Christ we become any better than anybody else. In fact the opposite may well be the case. We may become more aware than ever of those shortcomings and those failures and we may wonder how we can ever become Christlike, let alone more holy. Certainly I know that’s true of my own experience. And if that’s the case for you, if you find that actually living out the Christian faith is a struggle and a constant spiritual battle, then this is where it is important to understand just what this word “sanctification” is all about.
Because sanctification is actually a way of describing what the Holy Spirit does in us, to make us more like Jesus. You see, God doesn’t just rescue us by the cross of Christ and then leave us to work out on our own how on earth we can best serve Him day by day. He gives us the Holy Spirit to change us from the inside, and provides us with the strength and the wisdom to make the right choices and right decisions.
Now the real tragedy with the church in Corinth was that they knew all about the work of the Holy Spirit. They saw the Holy Spirit move in power almost every time they came together for worship, and they knew all about spiritual gifts. But what they failed to see was the real reason why God had blessed with the Holy Spirit. Despite what even many Christians believe today, the measure of the Spirit’s work is not in the first instance how many spectacular gifts and ministries are in evidence. No, the true measure of the Spirit’s work is in how hearts are being changed, so men and women glorify Christ through their marriages, through their work, through their behaviour towards their family, their friends, their neighbours. That’s the urgent message Paul wanted to communicate to the church in Corinth. And I believe it’s an urgent message we need to listen to today. We’ve written off ideas of holiness and sanctification as remote, abstract ideas that bear no relation to the reality of everyday life. It’s no surprise, then, that in this country the church often seems so weak and fails to show there is a different way of living, according to the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
So as we go through the letter to 1 Corinthians I want you to grasp how important it is to heed Paul’s message: to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ – their Lord and ours. This is God’s word to us today, as evangelicals who stand on the authority of Scripture and the cross of Christ. May He all give us listening ears.
Because, the truth is, the situation we face is actually not that dissimilar from the one Paul faced in Corinth. We too are surrounded by people who are more interested in having a good time than having regard to the good of their souls. We too may well be wondering how we can make a difference with the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us to remember who we are in Christ, to pursue holiness, to seek sanctification. For when this is our goal, then we trust God that lives will be changed, for His good and His glory, to the praise of His name.