For the next two weeks 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 of information for historians studying the early Christian church. They also offer us a way to reflect on our own church today.
In the easter season we read from the Acts of the Apostles– St. Luke’s overview of the early Christian church. Beginning with the gospel preached in Jerusalem and ending with its reception in Rome, Luke describes its growth after the resurrection of Jesus mainly through the activity of Peter and Paul.
Now, we turn in our lectionary to the church at Corinth, a early church founded by Paul. What was it like?
Drawn from the different peoples flocking to the great Mediterranean port, the community at Corinth was diverse, and a variety of preachers and teachers attracted its members, 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.
This is a church no longer mostly Jewish, though some may have missed the stability a Jewish synagogue brought, despite disagreements over Jesus. As yet there was no bishop administering this church for Paul to contact and work with. He was an apostle, a preacher to the world, speaking as a disciple of Jesus.
Clearly, this is 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.
Is this a church like our own?
As he speaks to the Corinthians, Paul sees their sufferings first, which he describes as “Christ’s sufferings”. He’s experiencing that mystery himself, and in the opening chapters of the Second Letter to the Corinthians (which unfortunately are not well represented in our lectionary) Paul begins with that mystery and returns to it over and over.
Yes, there are problems to be faced, corrections must be made, restructuring must take place, but Paul keeps reminding them they are experiencing the sufferings of Christ. With Christ’s suffering, Paul writes, comes his encouragement.
The sufferings of Christ and the encouragement of Christ. Paul knew them both. Preaching in the province of Asia with some companions, “We were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired of life.” But with the sufferings came an overflowing encouragement, which inevitably accompanies the sufferings of Christ. “We do not trust in ourselves but in God who raises from the dead.” ( 2 Corinthians 1, 5-11)
Can we see in Paul’s way the right way, the first way, to look at our church and our world today? We’re tempted to quickly stand in judgment, to analyze, to condemn, even to throw up our hands and lose hope in the world around us. Do we need to remember the sufferings of Christ, a mystery that falls on 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.
“In your wrath, remember compassion.”