During the summer I’ll be preaching on Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians. There are two letters in the New Testament, First Corinthians and Second Corinthians (not “Two,” as some presidential candidates have named it). Scholars believe that they were written by Paul in the early 50’s, and they are written to a church in the Greek peninsula that is a lot like Oakhurst: multicultural, with different belief systems, changing worldviews, fundamental struggles over who should be in charge. I have preached on each of these letters by themselves in the past, and they are worthy of a series on their own. For this summer, I have picked five passages from each one of them.
Corinth was weird in that it was a port city but wasn’t located on a body of water. It was on a small isthmus four miles wide, and shippers would often come to the east side of the island and bring their cargo by land to the west side of the island, rather than risking sailing across the bay at the south of the isthmus. Corinth became the central city for that transportation. According to Acts 18, Paul visited Corinth with Silas and Timothy on his missionary trip to Greece and Macedonia, and of course he got arrested there. He stayed in Corinth 18 months, and he met a couple, Priscilla and Aquila, there.
Paul obviously loved this Corinthian church, but it also vexed him a lot. It is believed that he wrote many letters to the church at Corinth, and some scholars believe that Second Corinthians is actually parts of several letters. Whatever the truth of that, the church at Corinth consisted primarily of two different cultures (Jew and Gentile) seeking to live and worship together as “new” people in Jesus Christ. There were many clashes over different cultural values and over which, if any, were still appropriate for life in Christ. Different people with different values and different ways of looking at the world and one another – does this begin to sound familiar?
In my early adult years, I considered Paul to be an old fogey because he seemed so culturally bound on women, on slaves, on sex, and on other issues. My time as pastor at Oakhurst has given me a new appreciation of Paul’s dilemma. He was working on trying to weave different cultures into one new people, trying to balance old values with new values, trying to bring Gentiles into the Jewish-Christian fold without denying the Jewish life and keeping some Gentile life also. In other words, he was seeking to build life in a multicultural church. I have known some of those same struggles, both in our life together and in discovering my own captivity to some of those same issues. So, Paul looks a little better now – not all the way back, but coming back!
This summer we’ll be looking at these issues through the eyes of Paul and the eyes of the church at Corinth and through our own eyes. When Paul was writing these letters, the idea was that the new congregations like Corinth were still rooted in Judaism but were shifting to allow Gentiles into the Jewish/Christian communities. In only a couple of generations, this had changed, and the “new” congregations had become almost totally Gentile in both numbers and in orientation. It is testimony to the difficulty of maintaining multicultural congregations, especially in the American context, where “race” is such an important part of our individual and communal identities. Yet we must always remember that the church began as a multicultural phenomenon, as we experienced a few weeks ago on Pentecost Sunday. And herein lies both the opportunity and the struggles of the church at Corinth, of Oakhurst Church, and of all churches: God likes diversity, but we aren’t so sure about it! Here we go!