Sunday 30 November 2014, Parish Eucharist, 11.00 am
The death of Jesus took place in a fairly unimportant part of the Roman Empire. He was just another trouble-maker, a criminal, to be got out of the way by the usual expedient of death. Out of sight and out of the public mind. Whatever Jesus said and did, which might have caused a stir at the time, would disappear in the slipstream of history, forgotten as new generations came to birth. We may ourselves have found how easy it is to forget even our own recent history. When we were looking back for what we knew or remembered about the First World War, much had been forgotten, or gone unrecorded, lost as the generations moved on. Was that a photo of grandfather, or was it his brother? There’s no name on the back.
So it is wonderful that we can come upon the letters of St Paul, written to remind the early Christian groups in Corinth and Rome and dotted about Asia Minor, of who Jesus was, and what he meant, you know, the chap from Nazareth, I think it was, who was executed and came back from the dead. Said he was the Son of God.
St Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian writings we have. The letter to the Corinthians was written around 52 AD, long before the first Gospel was written by St Mark. How could the Church of Christ come into being, let alone grow if its members met and talked about it all without the help of the Bible? “Who was Jesus?” people would no doubt ask, “Who is he?” “If he said ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, what did he mean? Who is my neighbour? What does it mean to love him or her?”
We have the benefit, or perhaps the weight upon us, of the accumulated teaching and writings, wisdom and example, of saints and sages, theologians and scholars, of the last 2,000 years. More importantly, we have the Bible, the Old Testament and the New, the living, dynamic word of God which has the mysterious power to speak to every age and to all people. If St Paul picked up a Bible now, he would probably be amazed to find there the letters he wrote to deal with very specific issues for the early Christian churches – yet these words reach across the centuries now to us.
The first letter to the Corinthians begins “From Paul, the Apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s call” (1Cor.1:1). The spread of the knowledge of Jesus and the increase in the number of his followers began with the sending out the Apostles (literally ‘those sent out’) and their commission from Jesus “To go to all nations and make them my disciples,” as St Matthew tells us (Matt. 28:19). Paul too felt called by God to go on his long and strenuous missionary journeys. He founded the church in Corinth – a challenging undertaking. Corinth was a flourishing cosmopolitan city on the junction between northern and southern Greece and the trade routes east and west. If you have visited Corinth you will have seen the size of the forum and the public buildings and the extent of the city itself, together with its enormous main drain. The members of the newly founded church reflected the population: rich and poor, high and low in social status, educated and not educated, men and women. The church was founded in 50 or 51 AD and Paul spent 18 months in Corinth nurturing and teaching the new church. It was almost inevitable that when he left, doubts, difficulties and disputes should arise. Different opinions about crucial matters of belief, clash of personalities and all the rest of it.
So Paul, who was in Ephesus in Turkey at the time, wrote a letter to his beloved church in Corinth. Perhaps in much the same way as Bishop Stephen has written to all the churches in the diocese for which he is responsible. I am not suggesting that there is warfare among the churches in the diocese, or heresy lurking ready to lure the faithful away. But the issues and pressures facing the growing Church of St Paul’s day are in some ways quite similar to those of our present time. Bishop Stephen has written to help and direct us, his people, to guide the churches in building the Christian life and bringing it to all people, not just for the present, but for the millennia to come.
So what is a church and what is the Christian life? I may be able to answer both questions with one word – albeit a Greek word. The Greek word is “koinonia”, v. 7, ch.1 of 1Corinthians. This is translated in various different ways. “It is God himself who has called you to share in the life of (koinonia) his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” or “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
By “fellowship” “koinonia” of his Son Jesus Christ St Paul is reminding us that we share in the status of God’s Son. We are God’s children, the adopted brothers and sisters of his Son. It follows from that that we are together all involved in the work of salvation which Jesus began with his death and resurrection. We are, as it were, one family, sharing with Jesus in his qualities and his personality, and his purpose of salvation. As a member of the fellowship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we share a common life which also involves reaching out to others to share it with us.
So at the beginning of St Paul’s letter to his people in Corinth he sets out a view of the whole world from the Christian perspective – what it might, one day, look like. He says it will be God’s world and Jesus Christ his Son will be its true King. We will be partners with Jesus and with one another in bringing it about. Not only will we live by the Gospel, but we will share it with all God’s world. And we can be sure that whatever difficulties lie ahead, God will be faithful to us, as he has been since the beginning of time. He will sustain us in the work he has given us to do in bringing in his kingdom, and he will see it through to completion. As Paul says, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son , Jesus Christ our Lord”. (1 Cor. 1:9).
So on this Advent Sunday, the first Sunday of the Church’s year, let us go on together as we are called to do, courageously, in faith, and hope, and love, and in the name of our Lord and brother, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.