We’re reading from the 1st Letter of Paul to the Corinthians for almost the next three weeks at weekday Mass. A long stretch for one of Paul’s letters in our lectionary. It indicates this letter’s importance. It’s important because it gives us a view of what an early 1st century Christian community was like better than any other book of the New Testament. Also, we can learn valuable ways to look at our churches and communities today.
The first thing you notice– this isn’t a perfect church. It has strengths and weaknesses, but its weaknesses seem more obvious than its strengths. That’s because Paul’s letter is written to correct abuses and answer questions that were troubling members of this church. What’s the first thing we might learn? Our churches will never be perfect.
But Paul does not begin the letter enumerating abuses, he speaks of the faithfulness of God, who is always at work purifying and strengthening his church.
Corinth was one of the great port cities of the Roman world, a melting pot for people and cultures of every kind. It had a reputation for moral depravity. Paul went there in the year 51, after visiting Athens where he tried with all his skill to bring the gospel to the Athenians. Evidently, his visit was disappointing. Moving on to Corinth, he went first to the Jews to announce the gospel, as he customarily did, but they turned him away. Then, gentile hearers mostly from the poorer elements of the city embraced the faith.
The situation caused Paul to reflect on what he has experienced. The church is a mystery of God. You can’t judge it by human wisdom or explain it in human terms. It’s God’s church, God’s community, and the Spirit of God is at work. It grows according to God’s plan, not human planning. His task, Paul realizes, is to discern what God wills as the work unfolds.
In Ist Corinthians we have Paul’s humble acknowledgment that, though he is founder of this church, he is a servant among many servants. Other teachers, Apollos and perhaps Peter, have labored in this church and factions have gathered around them. There’s a danger when human teachers take the place of God, Paul writes.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth.Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive wages in proportion to his labor. For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3, 6-9)
We’re God’s field, God’s building. What’s God planting? God building? Those are questions for us to ask.