The weekdays at Mass we’re reading St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, a Christian community in the city of Corinth around the year 50, shortly after the time of Jesus. Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians are favorite sources for historians studying the early Christian church; they also help us reflect on our own church today.
During the easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles– St. Luke’s overview of the early Christian church as it spreads from Jerusalem to Rome after the resurrection of Jesus, mainly through the activity of Peter and Paul. Now, in ordinary time we look more closely at one of the churches Paul founded–the church at Corinth. What was it like?
Drawn from different peoples flocking to the great Mediterranean port, the Christian community at Corinth was diverse; it attracted a variety of preachers and teachers, causing some division, noticeably as they came together to “break bread.” There’s some sexual immorality in this church, close to the open sea. Some were wondering about the resurrection of Jesus.
Its members were not mostly Jewish Christians, though there are some who may have missed the stability found in a Jewish synagogue. There’s no bishop administering this church as yet. Paul’s ministry is to the world; there is no one person in charge here for him to work with.
It’s a church “in the works,” not complete, with glaring weaknesses, struggling to grow in faith, with plenty of loose ends, looking for answers. It’s a church experiencing great change. It’s a church suffering, not from outward persecution, but from turmoil within.
Maybe a church like ours?
Addressing the Corinthians, Paul sees first their suffering, which he describes as “Christ’s suffering”. He feels that mystery in himself, as he says in the opening chapters of the Second Letter to the Corinthians. He returns to that theme over and over.
Yes, problems must be faced, corrections made, restructuring to take place, but Paul keeps reminding the Corinthians they’re experiencing the sufferings of Christ–with Christ’s suffering comes his encouragement.
Paul knew both–the sufferings of Christ and his encouragement. “We were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired of life,” he writes from the province of Asia, but with suffering came an overflowing encouragement, which always accompanies the sufferings of Christ. “We do not trust in ourselves but in God who raises from the dead.” ( 2 Corinthians 1, 5-11)
Paul’s way is the right way, the first way to look at our experience. We’re tempted to judge, to analyze, to condemn, to throw up our hands and lose hope in the world around us. We need to remember the sufferings of Christ, a mystery affecting us all, and the “encouragement” that always accompanies this mystery.
Listen to Paul speaking to the struggling Corinthians:
“Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement,”
Good letter for us to read these days.