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Corinth was a tough nut to crack

June 16, 2015

2 Corinthians 8: 1-9                                                 Tuesday 16th June 2015

Today’s second reading is St Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians. (Actually, it’s his third letter to them, but the real second one was lost in history.)

So today I want to say something about the early Christian church in Corinth.

Saint Paul arrived in the ancient city of Corinth for the firsdt time in about 52AD – less than 20 years after the Resurrection. Corinth was the regional capital for the Roman province of Achaia – which was basically what today we would recognise as Greece.

Although an ancient settlement, the City had been destroyed after the Battle of Corinth in 146BC, when it was severely punished by the Romans for having being at the forefront of Greek resistance to Roman rule. All the men in the city were executed and the women and children enslaved. Events like that leave a tremendous psychological scar on communities. A complete generation of men slaughtered and those left alive being enslaved. This sort of history, as we know from the effects of the First and Second World Wars in our own country, has long-lasting effect, enduring psychological damage. It’s the sort of thing that leads to the breakdown of the basic structure in human society – the family.

And so it was that less that 100 years before Paul had arrived, Corinth was an abandoned city, with just a few squatters living amongst the ruins. Then Julius Caesar came and built a new city at Corinth. As a result, the Corinthians Paul would have encountered were not themselves Greek….. there were a lot of retired Roman soldiers, a lot of other people drawn from all over the known world by the prospect of making money; and also a lot of Jews. Again, parallels with many of our own cities: cosmopolitan, pagan, worshipping money….

So it was that at the time of Saint Paul, Corinth was a modern, pagan city, a crossroads of land and sea trade, with a notorious reputation for being a very immoral city, riddled with corruption. So do not be thinking that it was easy for Saint Paul to simply turn up and found a successful new church. The reality was nothing of the sort.

Now it helps to understand that Paul’s arrival in Corinth happened after the Council of Jerusalem, when the fledgling Church led by St Peter had decided that it was perfectly in order for non-Jews to be evangelised and to become Christians, and that these non-Jewish converts needed observe the strict rules of Judaism before they became Christians.

When he first arrived in Corinth Paul tried preaching in the synagogues – after all, the Jews are the Chosen People, and the news he was bringing them was the fulfilment of all the Jewish Prophets. He had some successes, but Paul’s radical new teaching provoked a very negative reaction from the traditional Jews: they unsuccessfully tried to take him to court for inciting people to worship in a new way. The Roman judge was having none of it, and dismissed the case – the judge just thought this was a squabble between rival factions in the synagogue (which it was really, because at this time Christianity was still, by and large, embedded in the synagogues). But the experience let Paul to turn his attention away from the synagogues and towards the gentiles– the non-Jews – in Corinth. He based himself next door to the synagogue in the home of a gentile named Titius Justus. Paul was successful and recruited quite a few non-Jewish believers in accordance with the new policy adopted at the Council of Jerusalem. In fact, Paul was so successful that he stayed in Corinth much longer that he usually did when founding a new church: he stayed 18 months.

Paul then continued with his journey of evangelisation, and about three years later, when he was in Ephesus, Paul heard bad news about what was happening to the church he had founded in Corinth. It was a litany of disasters: despite the Corinthian Christians receiving many spiritual gifts and blessings, it seems that the Corinthian Christians were dividing up into arguing cliques; people were not celebrating the Eucharist correctly; there was false teaching taking place; there was even a report of a case of sexual abuse not being dealt with properly – where church elders seemed to think that tolerating such outrageous behaviour amongst the Christian community was a sign of how tolerant they were! And they Christians were taking out cases against each other in the Roman courts. Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth is his response to these scandals.

We might sometimes think that it was easier getting converts to Christianity in the first century. No it wasn’t. We might be tempted to think that the first Christians were very holy. Well some of them certainly were not! Strangely, The Church has always been a magnet for sinners. It’s impossible for a truly evangelizing Church to be isolated from the fallen people that live around it. As you may have heard, there is renewed interest in this idea found in the debates encouraged by Pope Francis. One side of the argument amongst present-day Christians about possible changes is to suggest that The Eucharist is NOT a reward for good behaviour, but is essential medicine to help sinners recover. What we have to guard against as Christians – something faced by our forefathers in the Church in Corinth – is the danger of getting infected, if you like, by the contagion of bad habits and immoral behaviour which is found in our own cultures, in our own communities, surrounding our place of worship.

That is why we are here today – to receive spiritual strength that will encourage us in our daily struggle to bring Christ to the people of this world. We have reading like that today from St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians to encourage us and teach us on the best ways of standing up to the problems and overcoming them. We are here, as sinners in the Church, to receive the sacramental medicine of Holy Communion. Thank God for that.

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