Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

According to St. Luke in the Book of Acts, the halcyon days of the early church were few in number. We read that shortly after Jesus’ ascended into heaven and the holy spirit descended upon the disciples in Jerusalem, that the church enjoyed the good will of all the people, and that  day by the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  But the honeymoon for the church didn’t last long. Soon, where ever the disciples went, trouble was sure to follow.  And no apostle experienced this more than St. Paul.

On his second missionary journey in 50 AD to what his now modern Greece, Paul together with Silas, travelled along the coast of the Aegean Sea from Philippi, to Thessalonica, to Berea, to Athens and finally Corinth. They taught in the cities and were initially warmly welcomed, but eventually the leaders of the synagogues drove them out from one city to the next.  The Christian movement had been established only 20 years earlier, but there was growing opposition among both Gentiles and Jews who didn’t want to see the new faith take root.  Even within the Christian movement itself there were daily challenges of theology and liturgical practice, as well as racism and economic disparity.  This is what Paul encountered.

Over the next 5 Wednesdays, we will meditate upon those challenges facing the church in Corinth for they are just as common in our world today, and how Paul sought to find unity among diversity and complexity. Today, we begin his concern for divisions in the Body of Christ.

In 146 BC, the ancient Greek city of Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans, and subsequently rebuilt a century later by Julius Caesar. The Temple of Apollo, which is found on the bulletin cover, was one of the few buildings that the Romans left intact.  The new city was an expansive, cosmopolitan development which had grown rich and prosperous through trading. The city was built on an isthmus, a narrow strip of land which separated the Ionian Sea and the Aegean Sea. It had two harbors, one to the east and one to the west and made huge profits by taxing cargoes that were transported overland between the two ports to avoid the dangerous waters around the Peloponnese Islands on the southern coast in the Mediterranean.  The city attracted migrants and entrepreneurs alike from across the empire believing that like Frank Sinatra’s fabled New York, “If you could make it there, you could make it anywhere.” It was a traditional, conservative urban society, but open to new ideas that could change the world, including Christianity.

For a year and a half, from 51 -52 AD, Paul made his home in Corinth with Aquila and his wife Priscilla who had fled from Rome when the emperor, Claudius, expelled all the Jews from the city in 49AD.  They like Paul were tentmakers who made leather articles from ‘cilicium’, a felted goat-hair cloth originating from Cilicia, the area around Tarsus, Paul’s home region.  Paul worked in the market place making and repairing awnings and shelters to protect people from the hot Mediterranean sun.  In the market, he also talked to the passing crowds about Jesus, eventually established a faithful following in the synagogue.

Eventually, the Jewish leaders including Sostenes, banned Paul from the teaching in their synagogue. He was invited then by a prominent Gentile believer Titius Justus to gather the infant church in his home.  Still, Paul was resented by the synagogue council, and he was hauled before Gallio, the Roman proconsul of Achaia southern Greece who was the elder brother of the influential Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca, the tutor of Nero. Gallio refused to judge Paul, a Roman citizen, on a matter that concerned Jewish law.  In the end, Paul, Aquilla and Priscilla sailed across the Aegean Sea to take up a new residence in Ephesus.

While Paul was ministering in Ephesus, he heard word from Chloe’s people that there were divisions erupting among the members of Corinthian church many whom he still knew personally. He was disheartened at the news and was prepared to send his young disciple Timothy to them, but the church in Corinth sent their own delegation to Paul instead. The challenges they spoke of were great and needed his pastoral care and correction.  As the one who had called this church of Christ into being, Paul could not stand aside as they struggled to discern the will of God. Their former, diverse religious ways, social norms, and inherited relationships within the community, all led them to different perspectives on what God desired.

St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians unfolds with a broad and generous word of thanksgiving and wonder for the church in Corinth.  For Paul, every Christian community was a miracle even those with whom he disagreed, not because they were perfect in faith and practice, but because they existed at all.  How different our own critique of God’s faithful people would be, if we began with an acknowledgement of the miracle of faith within them. Paul understood that well.  As a Jew, he was a part of an oppressed, despised minority in the Gentile Roman world who were often criticized for being different; he was a day laborer, in a culture that prided itself on wisdom and academics. He was a foreigner in a society that prided itself on connections, so he was grateful for the men and women who bonded together in a church to become something new. The church itself was a gift of God. That is a powerful testimony to the church-even today.

You and I are all a part of something that is intimate, close and personal, but also something that is wide and great.  And every Christian church is intended to be an incarnation of the ideal preached by Jesus. Paul would emphasize and underscore that over and over again, and that every congregation is the Body of Christ. This quality is shared by all churches and its members, and in turn, each church must hold onto that which is believed and practiced in common with others if the unity of Jesus’ body is to be real.  So why are you making divisions and quarrels among the faithful where they should not exist in the body of Christ?  This is Paul’s question to the church in Corinth and to us.

Of course, divisions are a daily part of life in society. It is no different now than it was 2000 years. But Paul does not believe that these divisions should be accepted in the life of the church. You and I are called to be a part of something unique- the living Body of Christ. It cannot be divided, and if you and I accept the worldly standards of division in any sphere of Christian life, it is disastrous, and then we truly have something to confess this Ash Wednesday.  For Paul, life in the Church and life in society, were two options for humanity. A choice had to be made, and the church in Corinth had not yet made it.  Do conflicted congregations still exist?   Everywhere. Do divisions still occur in church? Shamefully, and regretfully yes.  Well intentioned Christians still tear the Body of Christ apart. St. Paul expected more from the church in Corinth, and Jesus expects more from the church today?

My friends, as you look at the Lenten season unfolding before you and the need for change in your spiritual life, ask the simple question: What divisions have you allowed to become a part of the Body of Christ, and what choice are you going to make to end it? Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen..