Lamentations 3:22-26; Psalm 137:1-4; I Corinthians 1:1-18
Lamentations is a collection of mournful poems grieving the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by invading foreign armies. However, in this third poem, the imagery moves on to hope for God’s justice and mercy to restore the people.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
The 137th Psalm appears to have been written after the city of Jerusalem had been attacked and the people carried off into exile in Babylon a thousand miles away. The people were captives and lived as refugees in a foreign land; they long for their homeland and the lives they once knew. Throughout the Old Testament, we hear people connecting God’s presence with the land where they lived. The Psalm speaks of how the people feel tormented by their Babylonian captors and struggle to feel God’s presence in a strange land.
By the rivers of Babylon– there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If you read the book of Acts, you hear how the disciples at first were focused on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem and around Palestine. But in time the Gospel moved beyond what was mainly a church made up of Jewish people and out to the Gentile world. Paul traveled far and wide, starting churches in areas far from Jerusalem, on what is often called the three missionary journeys, into what is today Turkey and Greece.
Paul had been educated as a scholar in Jewish law; he did not put that part of himself away even as he preached the Gospel. On the study leave trip to Greece, we heard about how when Paul arrived in a new area, he would go first to a synagogue. If there was none, or if the Jews rejected his preaching and teaching, which often happened, Paul reached out to non-Jews and spent time with the Gentile population. Paul’s letters, the Epistles we have, were written as encouragement and sometimes show great affection for the Christians in the early churches he started. Often the letters addressed conflicts, and sometimes the conflicts are evident to us readers even all these centuries later. Today’s passage is from the opening of first of two letters to the church in Corinth.
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind– just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you-so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
The last time I heard this Scripture passage read aloud, I was standing in the ancient city of Corinth, one of the cities where Paul had worked and preached and brought people to belief in Jesus Christ. We shared communion amongst the ruins and in the middle of the archaeological dig that is today the ancient city of Corinth, surrounded by houses and shops and places of worship, (Greek Orthodox Churches), that make up present-day Corinth. It is estimated that Paul visited Corinth sometime around the year 51 or 52 – almost 2000 years before our visit! If you experience anything in Greece, it is the incredible sense of history. You are but one spot in the passage of lives that have been in that place.
As we gathered for worship, we listened to this passage being read out loud from Paul to the Christians in Corinth. Then we celebrated communion there, sitting on rocks that had been buildings in the ancient city of Corinth.
There were three clergy on the trip: myself plus two Anglican or Church of England pastors. The clergyperson leading our trip is originally from Brooklyn, New York, although he has spent his adult life in Manchester, England. His wife is also an Anglican priest, and she is originally from Holland. My friend Mary from Battle Creek, Michigan was part of the group. Otherwise the remaining members of our pilgrimage of twenty-one travelers were all British.
Gisela, the wife of the tour leader, led the communion service that day in ancient Corinth. It was the third time we had celebrated the Lord’s Supper together. The first time had also been outside, sitting on a small amphitheater created in contemporary time. It was beside a small rushing stream and an outside sanctuary marks the spot where it is believed that Paul had baptized Lydia, the first person baptized in Europe as the church moved that direction.
The other time we celebrated communion was a Sunday morning, two weeks ago, near the ancient city of Delphi. Bill, the tour’s leader, had asked me if I would like to take the communion service that morning. I blended the liturgy, using some of our Presbyterian liturgy, and some liturgy from prayer book of the Church of England. I found it was a beautiful thing to be leading communion with a group of British Anglicans on a pilgrimage through Greece! I told the people that the next time I led communion would be in my own church and we would be celebrating the unity of the church in World Communion.
After that service two Sundays ago, one of the women on the group told me she had grown up in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) and the liturgy felt familiar and comforting to her. Some told me different prayers and liturgy gave the sacrament new life. Others told me how meaningful it was to have their Anglican tradition melded with the Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition.
But back to Corinth: it was a beautiful morning. The sun was in the sky but not so high as to yet be hot. Under the shade of a few trees and with the backdrop of a stone archway from some ancient building, we shared in worship, knowing Paul had lived and preached in this city. We heard these words of greetings from Paul to the Christians in Corinth and his encouragement to them.
Paul was always a bit intimidating to me. He lived such an amazing life. He traveled and started churches in so many places, sharing the Gospel despite the cost to his personal safety. In seminary I found I could not relate to this giant in the faith. Then, of course, there was also the small matter of the passages where Paul spoke against women having a leadership role in the church! That put me off spending much time learning about Paul. I took one seminary class on Paul and called it good enough.
But when I learned about this trip walking in the footsteps of Paul. I knew if I was ever going to give Paul a fair shake, now was the time. So off I went to Greece and here I was on that Tuesday morning feeling moved by worshipping God just as Paul had, sharing in communion with people from other parts of the world, just as Paul had done, seeking to be a follower of Jesus Christ through the living of my life, just like Paul so long, long ago.
I learned an incredible amount on that trip to Greece. I am so thankful for the opportunity it presented. I will forever read the words to the church in Corinth and other letters Paul wrote through different eyes.
That morning in Corinth we were not the only group gathered for worship. We moved into our shady spot after another group of Christian travelers had vacated the spot. As we settled in and Gisela and Bill set up for communion, I watched yet another group gathered in worship, their clergy even wearing white vestments, listening as they sang and prayed and shared in communion. As we sang a hymn towards the end of our own service, I happened to glance over and realized they were watching and listening to our group sing.
After both services had ended, someone from our group went to talk to them. He learned they were a group of Christians from Poland, following in Paul’s footsteps much the same as us. Later, as we continued exploring the ancient city, I overheard prayers from a group of Korean Americans also on pilgrimage.
Paul, in his opening words to the church in Corinth, quickly moves beyond identifying himself as author of the letter. He tells us he has been called by God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus (an apostle meaning one who had seen Jesus). He says it is through God that we also are all called to serve Jesus Christ.
Paul quickly gets to the point of the letter: he urges the Christians in Corinth to put aside the conflicts that had arisen among them. He mentions a woman in the congregation, Chloe, (so much for my thinking Paul would not have listened to a woman!) Chloe had been communicating with Paul about concerns in the Corinth church. What is the purpose of being a follower of Christ if there are quarrels happening within the group? Paul points out the obvious: that the church should be united around the same purpose – to serve the risen Christ.
On this World Communion day as we gather at the Lord’s Table, we celebrate the unity we have as Christians. The word we use for this sacrament, Communion, itself suggests it is something we do together with others. We never take communion alone!
I have no doubt that Paul would be displeased with all with the divisions existing within the Christian church. On the trip to Greece, we had a fantastic guide who traveled with us, a Greek Orthodox woman. However, it was noticeable that whenever it came time for worship and communion, she would leave us. There are still walls between Orthodox and Roman Catholic and Protestant and non-denominational Christians. How sad such walls still divide!
But at the point in the church’s history when Paul was writing his letter, the church was still one. Paul is actually talking about divisions within one congregation of people. Anyone who has been around just about any church will no doubt know of quarrels and divisions that happen within a congregation. Paul’s words to us are – get over it! It is so basic it hardly needs to be said, but we are humans and problems exist anywhere, even within churches. Paul implores us – move beyond the divisions. We are all God’s children. We have all been baptized in the name of Christ Jesus. We all worship the same God and serve the same Savior.
So on this World Communion day, we come to the table knowing we are one in Christ. We come with all our human tendencies and foibles, knowing we do not always live as one, but seeking nevertheless, to live as Christ called us. In the words of the Apostle Paul: I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!