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
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
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.
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
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
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
6 Now these things
occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they
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 #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
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
So Paul gives us those
four negative examples and then goes on to provide his conclusion from
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.
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
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
Why was there no Le
Chambon in Oregon? No Andre Tochme, the pastor of Le Chambon in
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
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.