- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2008

The following are excerpts of a sermon preached recently by the Rev. Lillie Mae Henley at Universalist National Memorial Church:

The apostle Paul first visited the city of Corinth in the year 50. He had been preaching and teaching the story of Jesus for about 14 years, most of that time in Palestine. But shortly before he came to Corinth, he established two other churches in Greece, one at Philippi and the other at Thessalonica, two significant Roman cities.

The Greek city Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 [B.C.], and Julius Caesar revived and repopulated Corinth around 44. He settled Roman freedmen and emigrants from other parts of the empire to relieve the strains of overpopulation in Rome. Corinth, between two major Mediterranean seas, developed rapidly. By the time Paul arrived, it was a thriving, wealthy, Roman colony.

Because of its location, it attracted people from all over the empire, and they brought with them their various religions. And while there were many religions in Corinth, scholars tell us, the city was not very “religious.” One scholar writes:

“Corinth’s reputation for wealth without culture and for the abuse of the poor by the wealthy was … well known … [A] second … century … [writer] call[ed] wealthy people’s behavior disgusting, coarse and objectionable … and detail[ed] the groveling of the abject, wretched poor for the smallest morsels of food. Understandably, the transitory nature of ancient commerce, with sailors relishing life in a city and then moving along, contributed to Corinth’s becoming known as “Sin City.” (J. Paul Sampley, “I Corinthians,” The New Interpreters Bible)

Corinth sounds like what most of us probably envision when we think of wealthy cities in ancient cultures. Corinth practiced patronage. Everyone had someone to whom they were indebted, from the lowest peasant all the way up the societal ladder to the wealthy and powerful. Scholars of the historical Jesus tell us that Jesus’ “problem” was that he refused to buy into the patronage system. Paul, just as Jesus did, preached against it.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians to encourage them to live out the love which called them to follow Jesus.

These new Christians gathered in the homes of those who were wealthy and who could provide, not only homes that were large enough to accommodate their meetings, but who also were wealthy enough to provide food for their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Paul talked about the way the wealthy treated their fellow Christians who were poor.

What were the problems? Well, there were divisions among them. Sounds like churches today, doesn’t it? And it reflects Elaine Pagels’ and Karen King’s premise in the book “The Gospel of Judas” — that there were probably as many Christian sects in that time as there are today.

Corinthians were known as a contentious, argumentative people, and these new Christians were no exception. Paul encouraged them to be united in mind and thought. He wrote that some said, “I follow Paul.” Others said, “I follow Apollos,” or “Cephas,” and others said, “I follow Christ.” Paul wrote, “Is Christ divided?”

In a more practical consideration, Paul knew that discord and division would weaken the church. He knew people need to be reminded of the goals of the organization. First, he tells them they are a holy people. He reminds them that those who follow Jesus’ teachings are set apart. He tells them that God calls them to a new wisdom.

What is this wisdom Paul writes about? There is the wisdom of the world, conventional wisdom, and there is God’s wisdom.

Conventional wisdom says rich people are better than poor people. That powerful people have more privilege than others. That educated people are more worthy than uneducated people. And in Corinth, conventional wisdom says rich people get to come to the party early and eat all the best food before the poor people arrive.

Paul’s wisdom, Jesus’ wisdom, God’s wisdom says that everyone is equal, and all believers are to love one another. When people of faith create a community of believers, there is no more rich or poor, there is no more status of power, there is no more privilege for a few, all are equal participants in God’s love, in God’s kingdom.

God’s wisdom is inclusive, and God’s wisdom makes conventional wisdom foolish. God’s wisdom leads us to love one another. This is a hard lesson to learn when we are steeped in the conventional wisdom of our culture, whether it is in the 1st century or the 21st century.

I want us to look at our second reading today, from Howard Thurman. Ebony magazine called him one of the 50 Most Influential Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and Life magazine named him one of the 12 best preachers in America. The genius of Rev. Thurman, for me, is in the way he made his sermons and his writing accessible. He wrote great theological and faith reflections in language that appealed to everyone.

Thurman has asked the question, “How does the individual know that his obedience is to God?” And he answers, ” … he finds the answers themselves in the life and teachings of Jesus.” And he goes on to say, that when his behavior is out of harmony with Jesus’ life and teachings, he quickly knows, because it seems out of step with the spirit of Jesus’ words.

Thurman describes how he gains this wisdom, this knowledge of how God wants us to be.

Slowly, His mind becomes my mind, and then the amazing discovery that the mind that is more and more in me is the mind that was more and more in Him. The mind that was in Him becomes more and more clearly to me to be the mind that is God.

We will know God’s wisdom through our conscious effort to listen for God’s wisdom. We will know God’s love and will love others the same when we choose to love as God loves. That is what Universalism is all about: Learning to love as God loves.

We do, though, have to make it a conscious decision, to choose to love this way. How are we alike and how are we different from those early Corinthian followers of Jesus?

Well, we are fortunate enough to have Jesus’ stories written down for us. They probably had some of Paul’s sermons and some of Jesus’ stories written down for them. But they did not have anything that compares to our easily accessible Bible.

Our culture may be different, our value of human life may be different and our worldview is surely different, but are we different in our need for love? Are we different in our need for compassion, for justice or peace?

Paul wrote to the Corinthians to encourage them to live out the love which called them to follow Jesus. Are we living out our love that calls us to follow Jesus?

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