Tuesday, January 17, 2017

1. Even Good Churches Have Bad Days

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 40:1-11, Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 15 2017

Corinth was a city located on a high plateau, a four-mile wide strip of land that joined the mainland of Greece to another big bulge of land that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea. In Paul's day, it controlled trade conducted both on the road that passed by it and from sea at two ports, one in the north, one in the south.

It was a thriving economic center inhabited by people from all over the Mediterranean world. Like port cities throughout history, it had a reputation for being a place where anything goes. “What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth.”

It seems an unlikely location for the Christian faith to take root. Yet a series of missionaries had traveled through and left an impression, including the apostle Paul. The first and second letters of Paul to Corinth were written as an answer to many questions they had about being a church and what was acceptable and what had to change.

Now if Paul's first letter to the Corinthians had only consisted of Chapter 1:1-9, our reading today, then we would be left thinking, “Wow! What a Church!” It would be the kind of church we'd be hesitant to join because we'd probably spoil it!

Paul speaks of them being sanctified by Christ and of their call to be holy. He praises them for being enriched in every way, having among themselves great speakers and those who were extremely knowledgeable. He describes them as being full of grace. In addition their church was a place where spiritual gifts were given free expression. Healing. Prophecy. Speaking in tongues.

In verse 9 he promises God will keep them faithful. “He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Blameless! Sounds like the perfect church. It's only when you get past verse 9 that the trouble starts.

I'm beginning today a series focusing on the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians that I've titled “The Conundrums of Corinth (And their legacy in the Church)” I'm calling this first message; “Even Good Churches Have Bad Days.”

What are some of the things we are going to be talking about?

Disunity. Because the church in Corinth and been founded by different evangelists with a variety of gifts and abilities, people had their favorites. Paul wasn't always one of them, despite the fact he was the person they contacted when they needed advice. As January 18th through the 25th is the “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ” it seemed like this would be a good topic to tackle. Though we claim to be all of one faith, the reality is we are a community divided by denominations and differences.

Pride. There were indeed some knowledgeable people in Corinth. The trouble was that it made them feel superior to everybody else. Paul takes them to task by talking about the “Foolishness” of the gospel message and encourages them to humbly seek for the mind of Christ.

Shallowness. While some professed to know it all others seemed extremely content knowing very little. It was as though they just wanted to get by with as little commitment as they could, but still experience all the blessings God had to offer. Paul encourages them to go deeper.

Immaturity Paul really longs to teach them about the meatier things of the gospel, but along with their shallowness there was also an element of childishness about them. Jesus had taught the disciples to be childlike... not childish... and the church in Corinth seemed to be getting the two confused. He complains they could only be given milk and would choke if he fed them meat!

Identity The Church in Corinth seemed to struggle to know who they were really meant to be and how that translated into how they lived. Paul speaks to them of being “Temples of the Holy Spirit” and how if they gave themselves to service of others then their identity wouldn't be such an issue for them.

As I've ministered in different churches, and shared thoughts with many colleagues who have the same task, it is interesting how these themes seem to show up with regularity in many congregations. They are certainly not conundrums unique to Corinth.

But as he begins his letter, flawed as they may be, Paul looks at the Corinthian Church through the eyes of grace and thanks God for them. He is thankful that they are even there! Establishing a Christian community at that time, in that place, was an awesome thing to have been accomplished. He is thankful for their potential. He is thankful, not only for what God had done in the past but what God was going to do in their future.

For sure there were things they needed to work at, and for sure there were things that needed to change. And for sure there would be some things he would not praise them for. But he knew that even good churches have bad days. Without exception.

Here at Mount Hebron there is so much I'm thankful for. I don't always get a chance to say that. I thank God for the opportunity of even being here. I thank God for each of you. I thank God for my morning commute. I thank God for the way you care about our buildings and grounds. I thank God for our worship services and the privilege of being able to preach and lead in worship. I thank God for our choir and our music.

I thank God for the families here. I love to see families together in church. What a blessing. I thank God for those who teach and prepare Sunday School and care for our little ones in the Nursery. I thank God for Judith and our office and the volunteers who help her out. I thank God for Evan and our youth program and that I got to spend at least a week with some of them at the Trinity Youth Conference. I thank God for Vacation Bible School. Always an amazing week.

I thank God for those of you who take care of the finances week by week, paying the bills, setting the budget. Not a task you always get thanks for when you tell us how it is. I thank God for Hebron House and Judy's passion to see it taken care of and utilized by our community. I thank God for our amazing Nursery School and the opportunity to sometimes share in their programming, for Amy and all the teachers and their commitment to creating an environment where learning is fun.

I thank God for our committees. For Session and Deacons and Personnel and Nurture and Worship and Mission and Membership. And all the rest. I thank God when I see people volunteering for ushering or fellowship or helping out in worship. I thank God when I see you reaching out to each other and expressing concern for each other. I thank God when we reach out into the community. I thank God for Operation Christmas Child reaching out to the world. I thank God for the Korean Church and the Quakers and all the other organizations that feel this a home base for them.

I thank God when I have the privilege of being made welcome in your homes or to offer a prayer in the hospital or to be close by when you suffer a bereavement. I thank God when I'm greeted with a smile by a child or a handshake from a saint. I even thank God when I'm called to task for something that hasn't gone well. There's always something new to learn. I make mistakes. I'm human.

Look, I could make this a very long sermon full of thanks. But you might not thank me for that. So I'll quit while I'm ahead.

There are times when disappointment comes my way. When a bible study is prepared and nobody shows. When folk feel that the ministry here can't meet their needs and they leave. When I see people not getting along or being uncaring. When I can't figure out how things are done a certain way or why they ever were done that way. Then I remember; even good churches have bad days.

And this is a good church. You should know that. You need to hear that! Of course we still manifest many of the conundrums of Corinth, but that is how it is. That's how it is in every church. At the end of the day what defines a church is not how perfect it is. A church isn't defined by how large or small it is. A church isn't defined by its strengths and weakness. A church is defined by grace.
  • A faithful church is one that is willing to become something more than it already is.
  • A faithful church is one that has an ability to go forward in faith.
  • A faithful church is one that recognizes it is on a journey, and that it hasn't arrived yet!
  • A faithful church is one that is both thankful for it's past and excited for it's future.
  • A faithful church is one that will acknowledge that it is far from perfect, but recognizes that God is at work in it's midst.
And all those things are a gift of grace. Paul thanks God for the Corinthians because God has given grace to them in Jesus Christ. At the end of his thanksgiving, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God, who is faithful, has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. In between, every verse of the thanksgiving Paul mentions Christ.

His letter is very much written to a community rather than any particular individual within the community. God knows that being a community can be incredibly hard work. Particularly when the only thing people may have in common with each other is a faith in Jesus Christ, and every single person is at a different stage of their discipleship journey with Jesus Christ.

If you are having a “Down on the church day” or feeling a little disconnected or that things are not going the way you had hoped, then remember... “Even Good Churches Have Bad Days.” and resolve not to leave it there, but take it to the Lord in prayer so that you become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

And for some closing words... I'll stay with the introductory verses of 1 Corinthians. We'll get to some of the problems soon enough.

Verse 3 “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And to God's name be all glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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