15/22July 1 Corinthians 6-8
In this fourth sermon in our series on 1 Corinthians, we come to chapters 6,7 and 8. In these chapters, we find Paul referring to letters that he has been sent by members of the Corinthian church, and responding to the issues that they have raised. As he tackles their questions, Paul keeps the heart of his message the same as it has been, and will be throughout the letter: followers of Jesus must try to live in unity. The need for unity is more important than differences between believers. The need for unity is more important than being on the winning side in an argument. The need for unity is more important than whether you believe yourself to be the one who is technically in the right.
Paul, living in Ephesus at the time that he wrote his letter, may well have had opportunities to learn from the apostle John, both in Ephesus and in earlier years in Jerusalem. He may well have heard John’s stories of Jesus’ teaching, many of which would later be put together to form John’s gospel. Paul would have learned from John, and from his own listening to the holy spirit, that unless the followers of Jesus are as one, living in unity and love, then the world will not believe in their message. Jesus prayed (John 17.22) that coming generations of followers would be one, so that the world might believe. But why should the world believe a message of love delivered by a church which demonstrates a lack of love? Why should the world believe in a God of love when we are seen to argue amongst ourselves? When we are heard belittling each other? So often what we demonstrate is that we do not love each other – or at least we don’t act as if we do. When that is what people see, why should they believe in our God of love?
In Corinth, Paul had heard, two believers were at loggerheads with each other, and had taken their case to the public courts. See these Christians, how they sue one another! Paul was troubled that their disagreement was being dealt with so publicly and acrimoniously. They should, he felt, have found wise people within the Christian community to help mediate the problem and find a loving way to sort it out. By going to court, the church – and by association, Jesus himself – was brought into disrepute.
The church – and Jesus – was brought into disrepute too by the behaviour of some members of who told Paul ‘I have the right to do anything’. Paul taught that Jewish law no longer applied, but his teaching was being misused by some church members to justify and ‘anything goes’ attitude that included a horrifying strand of sexual immorality. Paul had to put their thinking straight. The law may no longer apply, but the way of love and unity with God is a way of holiness. As the body of Christ, we must strife to behave like Christ. Or, if you like, what Cranmer described as a ‘godly, righteous and sober life’. Using deliberate shock tactics, Paul returned to his image of the church as Jesus’ body, and that body as a vessel for God’s spirit. So if a church member uses a prostitute, or commits adultery, he was taking Jesus into that liaison with him. It’s a sobering thought. Our bodies should always honour God, and what we do with them matters. What we do with our bodies reflects on God. Sexual relations can be godly and beautiful. Sex is a gift from God. Sex is not shameful, nor is it unholy – so long as it only happens within marriage.
In chapter 7 Paul turned to their questions on marriage. Some of the members were anxious about what sort of relationships were acceptable. We still hear the same concerns from people joining the Christian community now. A young person engaged to a longtime girlfriend or boyfriend, finds faith in Jesus. But their partner is not persuaded. What do they do? Can a follower of Jesus commit to living with a non-believer? Paul responds that commitments already entered into should be honoured. Yes, marry him, he says. Though if you’re not engaged, don’t marry at all – single people can serve God ore effectively. Unless of course, temptation is so strong it will distract you from serving God. Then you must marry.
The important thing is to live out God’s love in a holy way, and to be properly loving and respectful in all of our relationships. This way, we reflect God’s love, and it will be seen and respected by others.
Chapter 8 is a section of the letter addressing questions raised by members about food sacrificed to idols. Members who were wealthy or well connected would regularly be invited to feasts in temples or private homes. Meat served at such feasts would have been dedicated to one of the gods. Leftover meat from temple feasts was sold in the market. So, as a rule, any meat available wold have been from a sacrifice of some sort. Some Christians, Paul included, had no problem with this. The gods weren’t real, Paul did not accept them or join with the worship of them. So when he ate meat he didn’t feel he was joining himself with a god, he was just enjoying his dinner. But not everyone saw it that way. For some people, eating this meat was offensive, or suggestive of double standards. And for some it carried strong memories of their days of joining in with the feasting and other indulgences at the temples, and was both a reminder of a sinful life and a temptation to return to it. Paul called upon Corinthian Christians who shared his ‘strong’ position to be more considerate to ‘weak’ ones who could not in conscience eat this meat. To force them to do so would be unloving. The ‘strong’ Christians who relied on their liberal understanding risked becoming ‘puffed up’, Paul warned. Remember, Paul included himself among this group, and perhaps was reminding himself as much as advising his fellow Christians, that an attitude based on what you ‘know’ to be right can lead to behaviour that is unloving towards others. Knowledge, Paul said, puffs you up, while love builds you up.
So we are not to approach any issue that we disagree on from the point of view of ‘I know best, I know the right answer’. Perhaps you do, but that doesn’t mean that the community is ready to act on what you believe. Instead, prioritise love. Prioritise a loving approach that builds up the people you disagree with and builds up the community as a whole.
Love that builds up undergirds unity. In this case, it meant that for a while at least some people would have to abstain from eating meat in order to support a loving and united community. So be it.
As we look at the issues that divide us today, when does knowledge puff us up, and risk exacerbating division instead of supporting unity? When do we put our desire to be in the right ahead of loving treatment of our fellow Christians? When do we allow division to be more important than unity, rightness to be more important than love?
Let’s examine ourselves carefully. What is our equivalent of meat sacrificed to idols, or of taking our fellow Christians to court? Is it the way we speak of each other in emails? Or on social media? Is it our fallings out over how best to care for our historic buildings? Or whether to pay parish share? In the wider Church of England at the moment we are publicly seen to argue over ordaining women, over inclusion of LGBT people, over how we deal with historic sex abuse cases, over how we invest our money. And the more we argue and rehearse our cases in the public domain, the more we seem to show people that there is no God. And we need to take care over this. I can assure you that the amount of argument reported in the press that apparently happened before and during General Synod very much exceeds what actually happened. If we air disagreements in public, even minor ones, they will be blown out of proportion. But what the world will read in the press will tell them that we are not a loving church. And if we are not loving, how can we persuade them that our God of love is real?
We proclaim that God is love.
We teach that we are the body of Christ.
And thus, as the body of Christ, we are as Christ, and we are love.
Or, as St John put it: ‘God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them’ (1 John 4.16).
Paul’s teaching is as vital now as it was when he first wrote it down. We must prioritise unity based on love, even when that means personal soul searching and stepping away from our own personal priorities, away from defending what we feel we are in the right about, in favour of a common loving way.
Because knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Cor 8.2).