Epiphany 2 – To be Corinithian

Second Sunday of Epiphany

15 January 2017

1 Cor 1: 1- 9, John 1: 29-42

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

As those of you who know me know I like nothing better than messing about in boats. I love all types of boat and I am happiest when my feet are not on dry land. In fact once when I drove back to Kent from Essex I came through London just so I could have a ride on the Woolwich ferry. It only took about 10 minutes across the Thames but it was worth it.

Last year, to increase my time afloat and to get my dinghy sailing qualifications, I joined the Tonbridge Town Sailing Club. It is a lovely, friendly, club and I am looking forward to getting back out onto Haysden water in a few months time.

But, in London and in many other places around the country and around the world there is a slightly different type of sailing club which share a name. Any guesses what that name may be? The clue is in this morning’s first reading?

The Corinthian. Yes, there are loads of sailing or yacht clubs named after Corinth, the same town in Greece that Paul wrote to.

Why are they called that? Corinthian has a number of different meanings which may throw some light on why this may be:

  1. Of or relating to ancient Corinth or its people or culture. Fair enough.
  2. Architecture Of or relating to the Corinthian order. Corinthian columns, for example.
  3. Given to licentious and profligate luxury. A luxury-loving person; a bon vivant. This is getting more interesting.

So, part of the dictionary definition of Corinthian actually includes being licentious and luxury loving. I should probably just emphasis that Tonbridge Town Sailing Club is not Corinthian in any way.

Why did Corinth have such a reputation? It seems that Classical Corinth housed a temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and that temple employed 1000 temple prostitutes. Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out what worshippping at the temple of Aphrodite might involve. Now that temple didn’t actually exist at the same time as Paul was writing, because Classical Corinth had been destroyed and later rebuilt by the Romans, but it is clear that it’s existence set the tone for the place. The inhabitants of this town lived by a very different set of morals then would have been acceptable across the Mediterranean in Judea.

It is understood that Paul created the church in Corinth during his missionary travels and that it may have only been in existence for three years at the time of this letter. It may be hard for us to imagine what that was like, worshipping in this church which has roots over 1000 years old and many of us coming from families which may have been culturally Christian for even longer.

But all churches have to start somewhere and when the church started in Corinth the first converts were more likely to have been worshippers of the Roman or Greek gods then they were to have been Jewish converts. They therefore brought a very different set of cultural baggage with them than, say, the first Jews to become followers of Jesus. And it was not only cultural baggage – of course they were still living in and surrounded by what we might now call a pagan culture.

Having founded the church in this somewhat Hedonistic environment Paul continued his journeys and went to Ephesus in Turkey. However, whilst he was there it seems that word reached him that all was not well in the young church in Corinth. These issues included:

  • As you might expect from my introduction, Sexual immorality
  • Divisions in the church about who to follow, creating factions and disputes,
  • members of the church suing each other in court
  • the rich lording it over the poor at the communion table
  • how to behave within marriage,
  • eating in pagan temples

And many others.

Reading through the whole letter to the Corinthians it becomes painfully clear that although these people had become Christians and were meeting together as a Church, that they had not stopped being culturally Corinthian – lovers of luxury and licentiousness. Of course they were still baby Christians, only a few years into their new faith, but it is clear that without guidance from an apostle about the distinctively Christian way to behave that this church would probably soon fracture and dissolve back into the society from which it had been created.

When I was studying for ordination we had to write quite a bit about the concept of post-modernism and, in particular, we were encouraged the read a book called The Liquid Church by Pete Ward. The idea was to convince us that in a post-modern age, which contains little in the way of absolute values, that the church itself should become less solid, and more liquid so as to move with the times and not put off people used to fluidity and averse to values.

I have to say that I was having none of it and I said that if we have a liquid church in a liquid society then it will soon be invisible and indistinguishable – what a liquid society actually needs is a lifeboat, or perhaps an ark, to cling onto when all else becomes meaningless. I still passed.

And I think that is what is going on in St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians – this new church was still living by the values of their pagan society and Paul was giving them some distinctively Christian guidelines to hang onto in order to create a different sort of community within Corinth.

Now this raises a very obvious thought and a challenge to us and it would be remiss of me not to mention it.

To what extent are we, individually and collectively, distinctly Christian as opposed to being distinctly British, or English or Kentish? Do we simply bring the values of our surrounding society into this place and think we are thereby being followers of Christ? Although our society is historically Christian in its values it is also increasingly non-Christian in the sense of being of many faiths, of no faith and perhaps of idol worship in many forms. To what extent do we reflect that or to what extent are we sufficiently different to be known as followers of Jesus? I wonder what Paul’s letter to Hadlow might say?

Now that is a subject worthy of many sermons in its own right but I am not going to pursue that this morning, because that is it not where St Paul gets to in todays reading.

And this is really the point. Although Paul was writing to the Corinthians in order to tell them off, to bring them back into the fold and to put them on the right lines to Christian living he does not start his letter by larruping straight into them. “Oi, I told you lot how to behave and you have messed right up!”

Paul actually starts by reminding the Corinthians not of their shortcomings and their mistakes but of the fact that they were called to be the church not by Paul, or any of the other leaders, but by God himself:

“God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”

So Paul is seeking to lift the eyes of this congregation above their squabbles, their immoralities and their mistakes, and to fix their gaze upon the ultimate cause of their fellowship. And that too is an important word, fellowship. We so often treat our faith as a personal journey, indeed we are encouraged to do so by the world around us, but we are reminded that this is both an individual and a collective call – to be a Christian is to be in a personal relationship with God through Jesus, but it is also to be in a relationship with one another through the church.

But the call from God is not just into fellowship, it is a call also to be his saints, his holy people, his sanctified people. I spoke to a young man recently who was here praying and he said that he was not very religious – I said that it was much better to be holy than to be religious.

Before Paul confronts the church of Corinth with their many shortcomings he is doing something incredibly important. He is reminding them that despite everything that has happened, and a lot has happened believe me, they are still the ones whom God has called together into fellowship with him through Jesus and into collective and individual sainthood through lives transformed and changed in his image.

None of us here are perfect and I am sure that we still have a long road of discipleship ahead of us, indeed it does not end on this side of the resurrection. But, for today, just remember this: God has called you to be here, God has called you into fellowship with these other imperfect followers, God calls you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ through the grace of the Holy Spirit and God calls all of us forward to holiness, to completeness, to being the disciples and the church he has truly called and made us to be. If we keep our eyes fixed on our call and the one who calls us then everything else should fall into place.