Saint Stephenís, Lewisham,
27th January 2002
Year A Week 3
The Church in the busy seaport of Corinth Ė the people to whom St Paul wrote the second readingĖ was his "Flagship" Church.
Corinth, being a seaport, was a place where people met. Men of every nation under the sun. Greeks, Romans, Africans, Middle Easteners, even people from as far away as India and China found their way to Corinth by sea or by land. And the Church in Corinth was made up of them..
Our Lord told Paul to stay in Corinth for eighteen months (instead of the normal few weeks that he spent in other places). So Paul knew that there was something special about the place. "Donít be afraid, Paul", said Jesus to him in a night-vision "Speak out, donít be silent: for I am with you and nobody is going to hurt you: for I have many people in this city" (Acts 18: 9Ė10).
What was special was the fact that people from completely different backgrounds, Jews, Gentiles, Romans, Greeks, rich and poor, high and low, came in large numbers to hear Paul proclaim the Gospel of salvation, and many were baptised and confirmed as a result. Not just respectable people, but pimps, prostitutes, drug-dealers and alcoholics renounced Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, and turned to Christ. "Such were some of you", he writes later on in the epistle, "but you have been washed, sanctified and put right with God in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God".
So Paul must have felt very proud of his "Flagship Church". But, unfortunately, it didnít last. Once Paul had left them to go on to his next port of call, serious problems hit those who had been called to be saints in Corinth.
For example, the Corinthian Christians started slipping back into the bad old ways which they had renounced so decisively at their baptism: Paul heard in a letter from someone called Chloe, one of the churchwardens probably, that sex outside marriage, drunkenness, drugs perhaps, even in one case incest, had come to be practised by the minority and tolerated by the rest.
But todayís reading is not about any of these faults. What heís writing about is something even more serious than these sins of the flesh: Chloe told Paul that the Church, in his absence, had split up into four or more rival groups: one said "I am of Paul", another "I am of Peter", a third called itself "the Apollos party", and some said "Weíre the real Christians in this place" implying that no-one else was.
Now the Church at Corinth certainly had reason to be grateful not only to Paul, but to Peter and Apollos as well. Probably both of these men visited the Corinthians between the time St Paul left them and when he wrote this letter.
These three Christian missionaries, Paul, Peter and Apollos, were so different from one other that the Corinthian Churchís loyalty was divided about them. That was the last thing that any of them intended to happen. But somehow it happened: each of them attracted a particular sort of person in the Corinthian Church which led them to think that they, and they alone, were the only real Christians in that place.
"Unhappy divisions" like that have troubled the Church in every age. Itís why we have a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity every year. Even mature and well-educated Christians talk and behave as if their faith is founded and grounded not on the Lord Jesus Christ (as it should be) but on something else. Maybe itís based on the person who helped to lead them to Christ; or on a particular building or type of service. But if that person dies, or they fall out with a new vicar because he does things rather differently, or they go and live somewhere else where the churchgoers arenít so immediately friendly as those at St Stephenís, their faith is likely to go for a Burton because it was founded, not on Christ, but on something else. Faith must be based on the Risen and Ascended Lord who never changes, not upon a priest, or a building or a liturgy which certainly will change.. Christ is the only sure foundation as Paul says a few verses later. To build on anyone or anything else is to have oneís spiritual foundations laid on a sandpit.
Letís make some enlightened guesses as to why people preferred Paul or Apollos or Peter.
We know that Paul was before all else a preacher who made people use their brains. Thatís not to say that his sermons could only be understood by those of high intelligence. He spoke at a very simple level as well. But those who didnít listen carefully to what Fr Paul was saying tended to lose the thread and miss the whole point. We also know that his sermons tended to be on the long side. One young man, called Eutychus even fell asleep during one of Paulís homilies and toppled backwards through an upper floor window down into the street.
Paul may also have given the impression that he was a cold, remote personality. He wasnít; but he believed in speaking his mind and got on the wrong side of some of them. Remember Barnabas and Mark at the start of his Second Missionary Journey. Their disagreement with Paul was so sharp that they split up with each other, Barnabas taking Mark and Paul choosing Silas as his travelling companion.
Those who found St Paul difficult to get on with found that St Peter was much more to their liking. Peter was a rough, impulsive Galilean fisherman, well aware of his own shortcomings and therefore able to make allowances for the shortcomings of others. He was also a very practical man whoíd spent his life mending nets and keeping ships seaworthy. So if the church door or roof needed mending, then Peter, not Paul, would be the man to go to. If youíd lapsed into sin (as many of the Corinthians had), it was to Father Peter that you instinctively went to confess it and receive Godís forgiveness. For Peter could remember only too well how heíd fallen asleep on Maundy Thursday in Gethsemane and later that night had three times disowned knowing Jesus at all. As Peter heard your confession he made you feel that he really understood your shame at having betrayed your baptismal promise by shoplifting, stealing your employers property or sleeping with the girl next door.
Then there was Apollos. We know that he was a very spiritual man. If you were a very spiritually-aware person, then although Paul and Peter were spiritual men too, you might feel that neither of them was quite on your spiritual wave-length. Their spirituality didnít seem to go quite deep enough for you. If you asked for help with your prayer-life, Paul might give you a whole lot of Bible passages to read, and Peter might tell you that his prayers consisted of no more than saying "God, be merciful to me, a sinner" over and over again. Helpful to some, no doubt, but you knew that there was a whole supernatural world of prayer to be explored through meditation and contemplation because youíd attended those wonderful prayer meetings which Father Apollos used to hold in the early morning before people set off to work.
And finally some Christians at Corinth simply wanted to know and love the Lord Jesus who had saved them from their sins and made them inheritors with him of his Kingdom. All they wanted was to come together on the Lordís Day, week by week, to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass and to know that they were part of his Body on Earth, the Church. Sermons, meditations, and learning how to repair a leaky roof were not what they were after.
People of different types and at different stages on their lifeís pilgrimage to the heavenly City have different needs, and it may well be that one fellow-Christian and not another is the right person for them to turn to. And yet, if you ask which of these four groups were the real Christians in Corinth, the answer of course has to be "all of them; but none of them exclusively". In an ideal world the Corinthians would have understood that each of those four "schools of discipleship", as we might call them, had something very special and unique to contribute to the other three. Showing Father Apollos and his followers how to mend a broken door or a leaky roof, or to balance the account books, is just as important in its way as teaching Father Paulís disciples about the spiritual life, or teaching St Peterís followers how to study the bible sensibly. As for those who have learnt to love the Lord Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, how can we say that the rest of us have nothing to learn from them?
So the Church of Corinth of nineteen hundred years ago can be seen as a parable for us in the Church in Lewisham today. In the next pew there may be someone who understands some aspect of the faith in a way that could fill in some of the gaps in your understanding and mine, and vice versa. As one famous writer once said "There are no ordinary people".
St Stephenís Lewisham is no different from the church in first-century Corinth. Like the human body to which St Paul compared it, itís made up of many different members. Every member of it has a vital part to play in the building up of the Body of Christ in this place.
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