Written by Pastor Ed
Looking for a Perfect Church
July 27, 2014
I & II Corinthians
Have you ever noticed that when the church makes news, it usually isn’t the kind of story we’d prefer to see. Mennonites have made the news for smuggling drugs from Mexico, for child abuse in Manitoba, and for controversy and dissension within the church. Clergy misconduct is always good for a news story, especially if it involves children. And then there are the high profile preachers or churches that make the news, like the Street Church, or Westboro Baptist in the States that pickets funerals.
Let’s face it, the church is full of sinners, and sinners cause problems. You have perhaps heard the line about those who are looking for the perfect church. The caution is that if you find the perfect church, you shouldn’t join it, because then it will no longer be perfect!. That’s true for all of us.
But that’s not a new reality. Clearly that has always been the case with the church, right from the beginning. After all, the church is made up of humans, and as we heard last week from the book of Romans, we are all sinners. So when you read Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church, probably written in the mid-1st century from Ephesus, you begin to ask, “Why would anyone choose to join such a group?”
The Corinthian correspondence, and many scholars actually see remnants of three letters incorporated into the two we currently have, is probably the most practical of all Paul’s letters. In them, Paul deals with issues either raised by the church itself – Paul refers to a letter they had written asking about certain things – or to reports that Paul has gotten from people who knew the situation. Corinth was known as a tough town. To “live like a Corinthian” was either a boast or an insult, depending on your point of view.
So what were some of the issues the Corinthian church was dealing with? Well, first of all there were obvious factions in the church and quarrels about leadership. Some saw Apollos as primary, some Peter, and others were disciples of Paul. Then in II Corinthians we learn that there were some new leaders, seemingly traveling evangelist who were rather flashy and who were questioning Paul’s authority. Paul calls them pseudo-apostles, who were charging money for their work and suggesting that since Paul didn’t charge money, he must not be worth anything.
Paul takes them to task and points them to the only true foundation, namely Jesus Christ who should be the leader they all rally around. And he has harsh words for those who only seek to profit from their preaching and works hard to defend his own credentials.
Along with these different factions around leadership, there also seemed to be divisions along class and economic lines as well. When they gathered for their common meal and Lord’s Supper, some of them were arriving early and making a feast of it, leaving those who had to work and come later with nothing. It reminds me a bit of stories I have heard of churches in Florida where in the winter the snowbirds from up north come early and fill the pews, while the local folk who have to get the kids ready, etc. arrive to find no place to sit.
Paul reminds the Corinthians of the purpose of the Love Feast and the sense of community it is supposed to build. In doing so he gives us probably the earliest record of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in I Cor. 11, written before any of the Gospel accounts.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Corinth’s reputation, there were issues around sexuality in the church. Someone, at least, was involved in sexual immorality, and there were also questions around marriage and singleness. Given that Christ’s return was expected soon, was it alright to marry? What if one spouse became a believer and the other one didn’t? Should a person stay married to a non-believing spouse? Paul gives his answers on numerous of these issues, interestingly making clear these are his opinions since he doesn’t have a clear word from Jesus.
Evidently some members of the church were taking other members to civil court, and then there was the matter of eating meat that had been offered to idols. When pagan worshipers offered sacrifices, whatever was left over was sold in the marketplace. Was it alright to buy and eat such meat, since it would seem to imply consent to idol worship? Paul says it depends on your own conscience, and whether it will cause others to fall.
Just because you feel the freedom to do something doesn’t mean it’s alright to do it, Paul said. It seems some people had decided that Paul’s message of freedom meant they didn’t need to follow any rules. And so even worship was becoming a problem. With gifts of the Spirit in abundance, people were interrupting each other, arguing over who should get priority, and some even grumbling over the special offering that was being taken for the church in Jerusalem, which was experiencing rough times.
All in all, one gets a picture of a church in turmoil, with infighting, raucous worship, and more problems than any church consultant would want to take on. If someone were looking for a perfect church to join, this would hardly seem like one that would qualify. Or would it?
Along with all Paul’s answers to their questions and complaints, many of which are interesting and informative about the 1st century church and have given rise to much discussion and controversy since, Paul also says something about the nature of the church that goes beyond the specifics of time and place.
First of all he talks about the message we proclaim; not only proclaim but embody, namely the message of the cross. The gospel, Paul declares in I Cor. 2 is primarily a message of the cross, which most people see as a message of weakness and foolishness. But that message, Paul notes, is not proclaimed with lofty words of wisdom. It is not a well-reasoned argument or convincing logical proof, such as they might have gotten from their Greek philosophers. It is the story of Christ crucified.
And the church, from its beginning was not made up of nobility and philosophers, but people off the street. The church continues an Old Testament theme that the people of God weren’t chosen because they were a great and mighty nation – they were slaves! But they were chosen so that God’s work would be recognized through them.
Again and again Paul points out that it is in our weakness that we are made strong in Christ. In II Cor. 4 he uses the image of clay pots, easily broken, often flawed. And later he speaks rather tongue-in-cheek, boasting about his own weakness. For some reason, Paul says, God has chosen the foolish and the weak of the world to declare God’s love and to bring this foolish gospel to the world.
The second point that Paul makes about the church is that the only way we can make it work, besides focusing on Jesus, is to practice love. For all the many ways that I Corinthians 13, the love chapter, has been used, we need to remember that first and foremost, Paul wrote those words to a church, a congregation about how they ought to live together and build community. If you love each other, as Christ said we were supposed to do, then you will not be haughty, you will remember that none of us sees clearly, you will think the best of others, and so forth. It’s the only way such a group of people will ever get along.
The church of Paul’s day was certainly not perfect as we think of perfection. And we know, from another letter about fifty years later, written by Clement of Alexandria, that the divisions in the Corinthian church were still present. That’s the way the church was then and that’s the way the church tends to be now. We are imperfect. We still have factions and cliques. There are still arguments over leadership and sexuality. We still don’t love the way we ought to and we still come up with questions for which we have no clear word from the Lord.
But you know what? How else could we speak to the world around us? If we in the church decide that we have it all together, everything worked out and have all arrived at the right answers to every question. If we become totally unblemished with no faults among us; then we would be of no use to God or to the world around us. We might as well go off and become our own little isolated community, because that is what we would be, for clearly no one would ever want to join us! And we would only welcome others like us, which would mean we would soon die out. A book I have on quantum physics suggests that any living system needs an upheaval every so often or it will die out.
For all its warts and blemishes, the church is God’s perfect vehicle for spreading the message of the cross, what looks like foolishness and weakness. And as Paul declares in I Cor. 15, that which is now mortal, sinful and weak, will one day put on immortality. Just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we too shall be raised to newness of life. That is the hope that draws us forward.
So yes, we are flawed. If anyone wants to look, they can find many reasons to accuse the church of hypocrisy and sinfulness. There’s little use in denying it. It’s the way the church has always been. But if the church were not as it is, few would join and we would have little to say to the world around us. When we join we discover that all the people are just like us, sinners striving to but the way of Jesus into practice in our lives, both individually and together.
And we have been given the Spirit and the gifts of the spirit to empower us, to give us Christ’s wisdom and to lead us toward what shall be. There is a hymn that expresses well the contrast and paradox that Paul talks about in the Corinthian letters. It is found at number 539. Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free. When I am weak, then I am strong. This may be new, but I invite you to join me in singing.