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Faith by Example

Sermon - 3/11/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

We are engaged in a little mini-study during the 6 Sunday's of Lent, of passages from Paul's letters, chosen specifically for the Lenten season as a way of preparing for Holy Week.  The selection for this particular Sunday is from his first letter to the Corinthians.

A little background on that letter to help our understanding of the text, as always:

Corinth, as many people are probably aware, is in southern Greece, on the eastern side, near the Mediterranean.  Not to far from Athens.  Like Philippi, that I discussed last Sunday, Corinth was also a Roman colony.  That is, it was established by Rome as a provincial capital, and therefore governed by the laws of Rome rather than Greece.

And it was, if you will, the Las Vegas of the Roman world.  That is, Corinth had a certain 'reputation'.  It was where the college students went for Spring Break, to have a good time J.  It was the center of Mediterranean commerce, that meant a lot of sailors, even though it was a couple of miles inland.  But a lot of sailors, seafarers, brought a lot of color and life.  A lot of cultural variety.

And it was probably the most inter-religious city of the Roman world.  Archeologists have found something along the lines of two dozen temples.  Temples to Egyptian Gods, to Greek Gods, to the Roman Imperial Court, to Synagogues, even a temple to all the Gods of the universe -- just to make sure, you know, we've got all of our bases covered.

It was a pretty complex metropolitan city.  Paul established the church in Corinth around the year 50, but unlike the church in Philippi which he also established (with whom he have a very close, intimate relationship), his relationship with the church in Corinth was a rather testy one.  The letters that we have -- scholars think there were many letters, four, five, perhaps six, that are now condensed into the two letters that we have in the New Testament, and perhaps portions of those letters have been lost -- in any event, those letters give evidence to that difficult relationship that Paul had with the folk in Corinth.

And so right from the start in this letter, he begins by appealing for the unity of the church.  And he notes that they're divided between competing factions, that they each have their own patron that they're loyal to, rather than loyal to the whole.  And in the 14th chapter, he notes that the spiritual gifts, which should build up the church, have had the opposite effect in Corinth -- they are dividing the church.

And so it's not surprising that the great chapter of love, 1 Corinthians 13, which we thought was written for weddings, is actually written for this very conflicted church.  Paul appeals to love as perhaps the only thing that can save the church and hold it together.

One more note:  we know from various references that though there were Jews within the congregation in Corinth, the majority of the members were Gentiles.  That means that they were probably raised in different religious traditions.  Their families probably went to one of those other temples in Corinth.  And that's significant because Paul has a couple of premises that lie behind this text.

The first is unstated, but quite obvious, that the stories of the ancient Biblical people -- the Israelites -- are also the church's stories.  The stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Miriam, David, Bathsheba, and all the rest.  Those are part of our history too -- they aren't stories that just belong in the synagogue, they are stories that also belong in the church.  

Now, we take that for granted today, but it's not hard to imagine a different scenario in which the God of Judaism, Yahweh, would have been considered a different God than the God of Christ.  Indeed, we know of several movements within the church that held such views.  The recently published Gospel of Judas, if you've read about that, is one such example.  A Gnostic text from the 2nd century, when you read it it's not hard to see why it was found to be heretical, outside of the main orthodox of belief, because not only does the gospel portray Judas as the one disciple among the twelve who really "gets" it, and who is the hero of the story rather than the villain, but it teaches that the God of Jesus is a different God.  That Yahweh was created by this God, and that the God of Jesus was a 'higher' God, the God over all, and all other Gods are lesser Gods.

And then there is the works of Marcian, a very prominent, wealthy church leader, also in the 2nd century, very influential, who argued that all Jewish scriptures were inferior.  And therefore, he had his own texts, his own Bible so to speak, that only included the gospel of Luke (he didn't trust any of the others).  And some of the letters of Paul.  He said ''That's all the church needs".  We didn't need any of these other influences that he considered to be inferior.  

Well, fortunately, his argument did not carry the day.  And I think Paul is very clear on this point -- that those stories of the Hebrew people are also our stories.  They are important stories for us, that help us to understand the sacred and how God is present in our world.

And so secondly, that leads Paul to his second premise that is stated in this text that I'm going to share, that we can learn something from these ancient stories.  Even though times have changed, and circumstances are not the same, these stories have a lot to teach us today.

So, listen how this plays out when Paul writes to this church in Corinth, and he takes the story of the Exodus, when the ancient Hebrew people were led by Moses from Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land.  And he applies it to the church in Corinth nearly 1,800 years later.  

Reading then from the 10th chapter of 1 Corinthians, first of all the first four verses:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3and all ate the same spiritual food, 4and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.

That's an interesting interpretation, to put Christ in that story 1,800 years before the birth of Jesus.  I guess when you're an apostle, you can do that, create your own interpretation.  Paul, in retelling the story, calls to mind four particular aspects of that Exodus event:  the crossing of the Red Sea, the pillar of cloud that led them by the day (remember, also a pillar of fire that led them by night that Paul does not mention here), the manna in the wilderness that he calls the 'spiritual food', and the water that came out of the rock when Moses struck the rock, that provided them a source of drink in the desert of the Sinai, that Paul then refers to as spiritual drink.

Now, to call this rock "Christ" is a very bold, somewhat surprising claim.  An imaginative way of reading Christ into that story.  Why does Paul do that?  I think he wants the folk in Corinth to identify with this story.  It's a way of saying to them:  just as you were baptized into Christ, so too they were baptized into Moses when they passed through the Red Sea.  Just as you are fed at the table of the Lord, so too were they fed in the wilderness with the same spiritual food and spiritual drink.  Just as you have Christ, so too did they. 

In other words, you're no different, they're no different.  We're no better, no worse, than they.  We are all people of faith, nurtured by the same Lord.  So, are you with me Corinthians, I mean Christians, that you get the point there?

And once Paul has us, you know, we're identifying with the story, OK, we can see, we're like them, comes the shocker -- he says: 

5Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 

And so, since Paul gave us four positive examples of the ways in which we are united with them spiritually, he now gives us four negative examples of how these good people of faith messed up.

Example #1, in verse 7:

7Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.’ 

Now what the heck is wrong with that?  It sounds good to me, you know, I want to rise up, eat, drink, play, have a good time.  Did you happen to catch the basketball game yesterday?  See my tie here, worn in honor of the Oregon Ducks, who rose up to play in the Staples Center and won the Pac-10 tournament championship!  That's a good thing that we want to celebrate, right?

So what the heck is Paul talking about here?  Well, the reference is to the story when Moses goes up on Mt. Sinai and he's there conversing with God, and it takes a little bit too long.  And the people down there at the base of the mountain, they got antsy.  They've got to have a God too.  One they could see, worship.  So what do they do?  They create the golden calf.  And in the telling of that story it says they ate, and they drank, and they rose up to revel.  A little different sense than 'play', somehow in the variations in translations it came out differently here.  But that's the reference.  So that's example #1. 

Example #2, in verse 8:

We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 

Now, I know you all remember these stories and all the details, right?  I didn't think so -- I had to look this one up too.  What the heck is he talking about?  It's in the 25th chapter of Numbers, when it says that the Hebrew men had sexual relations with Moabite women -- foreigners.  That's a big taboo.  As a result, there's a plague, etc.  The interesting aside, in that story in the 25th chapter of Numbers, it's 24,000 that died of the plague, not 23,000.  I don't know what those that believe in Biblical inerrancy do with something like this where there is just a plain factual disagreement -- Paul says 23,000, Numbers says 24,000.  What I take away from that is that Paul is not traveling with the Torah.  The Torah is a big scroll, they didn't have little miniature traveling versions.  He's just retelling these stories from memory he grew up with in the synagogue.  Maybe in his synagogue they had a version that said 23,000.  Maybe he just remembered it wrong.  But that's not the point, the number is really insignificant.  The point is simply the immorality of their actions and the consequences that they suffer as a result.

Example #3 in verse 9:

We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 

Once again, Christ is read into the story.  And that is a reference to chapter 21 in Numbers, when the people complain about the diet in the wilderness. They're getting sick and tired of this manna -- we want some meat!  Or whatever the case.  They take their complaints to Moses and then all of a sudden these poisonous snakes appear.  Many are bitten by those snakes, Moses creates the bronze serpent that he puts up on a pole that everyone looks to, and that saves them.  Also referred to in the gospel of John.

Another interesting story, I don't know what to make of it, I just note that they were there in the plains of the Sinai, so we can refer to this as 'snakes on a plain' J.  If you've seen the movie, you can conjure up those images and then you can associate all kinds of awful things with it.

And then finally there is the fourth example in verse 10:

And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 

Complaints and grumbling of the people is one of the frequent accusations leveled against the Hebrew people during their time of testing in the wilderness.  

So Paul gives us those four negative examples and then goes on to provide his conclusion from them:

11These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

 

Now you may note that there are a few details that Paul left out in his retelling of the Exodus story.  Minor details like Moses meeting God on Mt. Sinai, the 10 Commandments, the promised land, those little 'insignificant' details.  It's not that they're insignificant, of course, but that they are not relevant to the point Paul is making.

Which is simply that the church in Corinth, and by extension we might say the church everywhere, that we have everything.  The same things that they had, we have also.  All of the things needed to be favored by God:  baptism, the bread and cup of the table, even Christ.  And it was not enough for those folk in Corinth.

In other words, you cannot claim to be a Christian on Sunday if you don't live like a Christian Monday through Saturday.  Whereas we like to focus on the positive and only lift up good examples for our role models of faith, because of the situation in Corinth, Paul holds up the bad examples.  Which may or may not be analogous to what was happening in Corinth at that moment, it was simply a way of saying 'There are consequences for our bad choices'.  What you do does matter.

Last Sunday I told the example of Le Chambon, a village in southern France that decided--as a community--to harbor Jews and to provide them safe passage out of the country during that time when it was occupied by the Nazis.  What is shocking about the story of Le Chambon is not that 1 community decided to do something good in the face of evil, but that so few others followed their positive example.

We think we're different.  We couldn't have that kind of evil here in our country.

Outside of the Hult Center, on 6th St., there's a memorial.  Brand new, if you have not yet been to see it, I strongly encourage you to take the time to go see it.  It is a memorial to the Japanese American citizens of our community who were rounded up during World War II and were sent to internment camps.  Now, our country has apologized, has admitted we were wrong, it was a shameful thing to do, has even paid reparations to the survivors.  

And I'm not suggesting that those Japanese-American internment camps were the same thing as the concentration camps in Germany and Poland.  But if you read any of the stories of those Japanese-Americans, what the endured, it was not a pleasant time in their lives.

So here's my question.  Given that in 1942 nobody knew about Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau, we didn't know what was going on there.  We didn't why the Jews were being rounded up and sent to a distant place.  So was the rounding up of Jews in Europe really all that different from the rounding-up of Japanese-Americans here in the United States?

Why was there no Le Chambon in Oregon?  No Andre Tochme, the pastor of Le Chambon in Eugene?

That memorial, there outside of the Hult Center, is a reminder to us of how we failed our fellow citizens in their time of need.  And why we must therefore never forget their painful story, because it's not just the story of Japanese-Americans in this country, it is our story too.  Just as Paul said to those Corinthians, the story of the ancient Israelites is our story, too.

Let us learn from their example.  Now there are of course many such stories that we could name as negative examples of what happens when good people make bad choices.  From the drunk-driver who kills an innocent person to the Godly government that destroys a nation based on a false pretext.  

The point is, if we do not learn from our past mistakes, if we act as if how we treat one another doesn't matter, faith in Christ alone will not save us.  How we live in this world does matter.

Putting our trust in the self-giving way of Christ, which teaches us how to live in this world -- the way of Christ -- will save us.

Paul tells us that the stories of scripture are there to teach us that way and then gives us this bit of good news:  whatever trial, whatever temptation, whatever difficulty we may face, you can know two things:

First of all, that you are not alone.  Paul puts it this way:  "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone".  I think Paul's overstating it a bit, but we get the point -- no matter how difficult life may be, there are others who have been there, who know what it is like, who've gone through it, and therefore so we can we.

And secondly, God always provides us a way out.  Our own Exodus, so to speak, that we can endure whatever trials we face.  Yeah, the way of Christ, the way of servant-hood, the way of the cross, sometimes is difficult.  Sometimes it is exceedingly difficult.  Just as the way of ancient Israel through the wilderness was exceedingly difficult.

But you know what?  They made it.  They learned a lot of hard lessons along the way, but in the end they made it to the promised land.  And as Martin Luther King often pointed out to us, all those struggles for freedom and justice, all the hardships endured by the righteous, all the pain suffered in the sacrifice for others, all of it is worth it when you make it to that mountain-top.  And you can see the promised land, even if you do not make it there yourself.  Then you know that your life has not been lived in vain.

What we do to help others on that journey, how we live in this world as followers of Christ, makes all the difference.

 


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