Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one the most important documents written for the church, especially for the church as it has manifested itself in American culture. We are a culture that celebrates independence and individualism. In a most non-Lutheran way, we are a culture that says, “Rules are fine for most people, but I don’t have to play be the rules. I will make good decisions on my own.” Just to be clear, Lutheran theology acknowledges our fallen reality, assuming that, left to our own devices, we will make self-serving and selfish decisions without regard to our neighbor. It is only by the grace of God and the work of the Spirit that we can repent and change direction.
And this very much describes what seems to be happening in Corinth when Paul writes his letter. They are a congregation struggling with authority, unclear about who, if anyone, should be in charge. In worship, people are talking over one another. In the fellowship meal, some people are coming with baskets of food while others didn’t have much to eat and nobody thought it important to share. This was the original congregation of people saying, “Nobody tells me what to do.”
Part of this has to do with the city of Corinth itself. Not only did you have the early division between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, but Corinth was a major trade center, a meeting place of many different cultures, as well as some strong class divisions, daily laborers mixing with merchants mixing with businessowners. And while they may have had the story of Jesus in common, those differences didn’t seem to mesh very well in the life of the church. They have different attitudes about leadership, worship, fellowship and morality. Some think they are more important than others, central to the life of the church. “If it weren’t for me this church would be nothing and nowhere.”
So it is not surprising that much of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians revolves around the idea that is supposed to be at the heart of Christian community. Love each other. This is the letter from which we get the treatise on love that you hear at most every wedding. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not envious or boastful or rude.” It wasn’t intended for weddings. It was intended for a Christian community that couldn’t quite figure out the meaning of love. It seems like Paul started this church and left telling them to “Love each other.” But he realized after hearing from them that they didn’t agree on what the nature of love would be. Or maybe they knew what love meant as an idea but they certainly were having trouble putting it into practice. For the most part Paul keeps his cool, but there are some veiled insults in the text. He calls them babies not ready for solid food. I wanted to feed you with meat, but I have to give you milk, because you are babies. Grow up and love one another!
This call to love and the description of what love looks like permeates the letter. Today we heard what feels like a somewhat obscure discussion of food sacrificed to idols, whether to eat it or not. One of the ways ancient temples raised money, paid for their priests and buildings, was to sell some of the meat sacrificed to the god of the temple. There was often a small stand to the side of the temple. In ancient society, such meat was served as a way to honor one’s guests, a sense of holiness about the meal. So the church was arguing about this practice. On the one hand, as Paul points out, since idols are not real, the meat sacrificed to them would have no special significance. It’s just meat. So from this perspective you are free to consume it, because you know it isn’t magic meat.
On the other hand, some new Christians, and especially gentile Christians who may have grown up acknowledging a multitude of gods, might be confused, might be led to think of Christianity as just another option among many. So for their sake, Paul says, don’t eat it. Theologically, it would be fine to eat it (no idol, no harm, no foul), but an ethic of love involves curtailing that freedom for the sake of someone else. We are comfortable if love involves sharing food or helping somebody, but we are not so good if love involves restraining ourselves, denying ourselves something for the sake of somebody else.
Sometimes I wonder if love in the Christian community is an unreasonable expectation. In every congregation where I have served I have seen wonderful manifestations of love: people sharing, people visiting the sick, people helping each other. But in every one of those congregations I have also seen failures to love: backbiting and blaming, gossiping and grumbling. Because the church seeks to be tolerant and open, because we celebrate humility and kindness, we sometimes open ourselves to the behavior of bullies and let childish hubris go uncorrected. Is it reasonable to expect that this gathering, this mixture of age and ability, this assembly of visions and dreams, of folks who want the church to move forward, and folks who want the church to live in the past and folks who want the church to just be there when they need support, that this gathering should love one another?
Yet that is exactly what we are here to do. We are here to be a place where people can learn to love. We are here to be a place where the love of Christ is modeled and tested and refined. There was a book by the author Parker Palmer that came out a couple decades ago that referred to the modern church as “The Company of Strangers.” He noticed that there was a shift from congregations that were bound together by blood family relationships, even neighborhood, shared culture relationships, to congregations that were more regional and unrelated, strangers gathering together for worship and ministry. It was changing the ways the congregations functioned, but was also an opportunity for learning to love people who were not like you, didn’t agree with you, didn’t necessarily have the same history, values and expectations as you. This is much more like the situation that was happening in Corinth in the early church, a company of strangers learning to love.
After worship today we will have our annual meeting and this is not only an opportunity to look back and look ahead but it is also an opportunity to love. We have a lot to celebrate this year, and we can celebrate together in love. We will have some challenges in the coming year and we can face those together in love. We will have unexpected things happen. (let’s just say I know way more about septic systems this week than last) but we can bear those together in love. Love does not always mean we will agree. Love does not mean we shouldn’t engage in debate. Love means that as we debate and discuss, we respect that we are all looking for what is best for the community but coming at it from different angles. It means caring for the brother or sister in Christ who is right in front of you, recognizing that person as a precious child of God, even when you disagree. It means turning and returning to the love of Christ in our midst and finding union in that love. When love is the center of who we are and what we do, we are truly living in the kingdom of God.