In the very earliest days of Christianity things never seem to have been easy for the church in Corinth. If they weren’t arguing about which faction in the church was the best, they were quarreling about Paul’s authority as a teacher. If they weren’t quarreling about how to treat former pagans among them, they were engaging in personal practices that Paul saw fit to call immoral.
We have not one, but two letters from Paul addressing their problems. We also have a First Century letter from a fellow named Clement. Clement is a known, historically verifiable leader of the Christian Church in Rome. His letter is a addressed to a congregation in conflict, urging them to stop fighting and treat their leaders and each other with mutual respect and Christlike kindness. That congregation is – you can easily guess – the church in Corinth. No, things seem not to have gone smoothly for the Church in Corinth.
It is good to remember that things have never been only smooth sailing for the communities that came together to recognize Jesus as their Lord.
Things were never always peaceful and settled in ancient times, and they are not today; so what Paul has to say to the church way back then is very likely to be useful to churches today, especially as churches today face the challenges our times have to offer.
The particular problem in Corinth we hear about today is that the community there was divided. Some were loyal to a leader of the community named Apollos. No doubt he had brought many of them into the church, had baptized many of them and had been with them as teacher and pastor, and they were partial to him. Others were more devoted to Paul, claiming some kind of superiority for themselves as his followers because Paul was such a powerful and famous figure throughout this newly forming Jesus movement.
Paul says that those things don’t matter. In fact he says in no uncertain terms that their thinking that those things are important is immature. He says that focusing on the things that are secondary and letting them get in the way of what God has in store for them is childish.
This is, at least in part, what Paul means by that phrase “the flesh,” that tendency of ours to miss the point or settle for less than we are offered by god. It was easy for the Corinthians to be distracted by unimportant things. In their day it seems to have been factional loyalty. In our own day, what kind of things do you think get in the way of focusing first on God, focusing first on loving our neighbors as ourselves, focusing first on letting there be nothing but kindness and respect between us? I bet you have your list. I know I have mine. I would go so far as to say that every thing that leads to hard feelings or estrangement, to muttering and complaining rather than dealing openly and lovingly with each other are the kinds of things Paul is talking about when he reminds the Corinthians that they are to be about Godly things, not all the distractions we might use to divert us from the obligation to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and all our mind, and our neighbors as ourselves.
It is as if Paul has said to the Church in Corinth that “the main thing is the keep the main thing the main thing.” And that main thing is Jesus Christ and nothing else. No custom, no program, no activity, no tradition should take the place of Jesus’s own person and our relationship with him and with each other as his followers. Nothing should come between us that isn’t love.
I remember hearing of a Sunday School teacher – long, long ago and far away – who was overheard to say to a room full of children, “Sit down and shut up so I can tell you about the love of God.” Now it was no doubt important for the children to hear about the love of God, but how much more important it was that they should have experienced that love. And I think about the little girl’s bedtime prayer, “Dear God, please make the bad people good and the good people nice.” May we never get so good that we forget to be nice – that is to be kind and loving and respectful of all other persons, especially the ones who surround each of us here today.
In deflecting attention away from himself Paul says another important thing. He uses the image of a garden. He says that he had one role in the building up of the church in Corinth and Apollos had another. He, Paul, planted the church and moved on. It was Apollos who stayed around to strengthen and encourage – what Paul calls watering, like watering the plants in a garden.
From that we learn that there are different roles in the life of a healthy community. Sometimes some plant and sometimes others water.
What is the role of each of us? What needs to be planted, what do you need to plant so that you can be the person God calls you to be? What do we need to cultivate so that we can grow into the image and likeness of Christ? And equally important, what do we need to water? What part of our life needs you to pay attention to it, strengthen and support it?
My focus and passion is teaching. What is yours? And what kind of support can you give to the needs and passions of others among us?
And can we do it with maturity – loving God above all things and also and equally importantly loving each other? Really loving each other. Each and every one of us here?
Sometimes that sounds like a tall order. Human relationships are complicated and we are so easily lured into the smallness of vision that Paul calls “the flesh.”
But notice what else Paul says, that it will be God who gives the growth. Ours is to be faithful – truly to love God and one another – and the rest is safely, lovingly in the hands of God.