“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
I have to admit—I sure am glad that I was not a citizen of Corinth in the time of Paul. Corinth was a big, bustling, wealthy city on an important trade route in Peloponnese, to the west of Athens. It was a hybrid city, one where their Greek history was being formed and re-formed according to their Roman colonization. Their language, religion, and culture were in a state of flux, as they lived in this time of religious variety—worshipping the gods and goddesses of the Greek and Roman religions; local deities; and Roman cults, which particularly revered the emperor and his family. It was a city of many nationalities and backgrounds, strategically located and visited by many, so there was no end to the new ideas and opinions shared by the many visitors to the area.
Can you imagine?! Living near a big city like that, a big, bustling, wealthy city….with many different languages, and cultures, and religions….exposed to all these different points of view….hmmm, wait, hold on….maybe you can….
And then there was the church at Corinth—there in the middle of this crazy city full of immorality and polytheism and wanton decision-making. The Corinthian people were trying to live into this new religion according to the direction of Paul, but it wasn’t easy. There were so many other demands on their time and on their attention. There were so many things pulling them this way and that. So many different views on what was “right” and what was “wrong”. So many different ways to live into their life as the church.
Can you imagine?! Living in a congregation like that, a congregation within a city full of things that could be considered immoral; full of things that you might not like or might not agree with. There, trying to do what Paul was telling you to do. Pulled in so many different ways by other demands on your time and attention….faced every day with differing viewpoints on “right and wrong”….faced with so many different wants to live into life as the church. Can you imagine?! ….Hmmmmm, wait…..hold on…..okay, well maybe you can.
You see, Paul’s words of warning in this passage are still every bit as relevant to US as they were to the people of Corinth. Sure, we don’t have the same exact challenges as the people in Corinth faced, but we have many of the same! And so, when we read *this* Paul—this Paul who sounds so worried and pleading and concerned—we have to think about the historical situation that he was facing with this church. Paul sounds different than he does in other letters—or even in other parts of this letter, does he not? The situation he was dealing with in Corinth was complex—and I think it’s important as we hear his worried concern that we realize how concerned he was for this church. He saw them as being in a precarious position—not wholly different from their contemporaries in Ephesus or Philippi—but certainly with their own unique challenges to face, in light of their position in such a big city of influence in the Roman world.
It is in Paul’s writing to this church in Corinth that we can really see his theology of law and grace. Paul is rightly upset—he doesn’t want this church that he has worked so hard to build to fall into the capricious ways of those around them. He wants them to remember that there are things that they can and must do to truly be followers of Christ. But, at the same time—and this is where the grace comes in—-he wants them to remember the unfailing love of God in Jesus. It’s a complex and confusing place to be. Paul is committed to a perspective of grace, as opposed to gracelessness. He wants to impress upon the people the importance of living faithfully, while also living in grace. As one author wrote, “Paul’s uncompromising condemnation of evildoers does not displace his love for evildoers.”
If Paul were here now….don’t you think he’d feel the same? He would be worried about Christ’s church and about all the ways we fall short of what Christ calls us to….but he would also want us to remember the merciful gift of grace that we live in perpetually. This goes back to what we were talking a bit about last week—do you remember? When we were talking about people we want to emulate and I encouraged you to think of someone who you feel is strong in their faith who you would like to “imitate”? We were talking about thinking of someone who has the good qualities that you might like to strive for, to be more like them in their faith walk. In Corinth, it was much the same. The Corinthian people were surrounded with images and statues of other gods literally everywhere, and it was really hard for them to understand what was wrong with listening to the Christian message, but also listening to their polytheistic friends too. It was all just a wish-wash of competing values and thoughts and priorities, and I’ll bet that the Corinthian people very quickly became overwhelmed! Paul understood that.
I think he would understand what we’re faced with, too. We still live in a world of powerful images—much like the Corinthians did—things that inspire us or trouble us or call us to see the world we live in in a particular light. We are *still* enthralled by the “many gods and many lords” present in the marketplace. Granted, the forms of idolatry have changed, but the church is still just as challenged to live faithfully as it was in ancient Rome. If we are left alone to our own devices (and there is an unintended pun therein, living as we do in an age of digital distraction), we are going to be hard-pressed to withstand the siren song of all the things that might call us away from a life in Christ. Many, many, many things are in competition with the Gospel.
We are still the church of the Wilderness. I think that is why it is so important that we recognize the power of communal spiritual worship. “The same Spirit of God that sustained the people of God in the wilderness period is the Spirit that sustains the church.” From the wilderness of the ancient Israelites to the wilderness of the Corinthian experience to the wilderness of our very own lives here in 2019, our wandering is redemptive when we allow the guidance of the Gospel in to renew us again and again.
There are so many things vying for our attention. Temptations that could easily pull us off course. In Greek, the word temptation comes from the word, “Peirasmos”, which means to be “deceived or persuaded”. I realize that in our modern-day, we probably do not have to worry about the church falling into the trap of worshipping Demeter, or Dionysus, or Hera, or Hades, or Athena. But we do still have to worry about the church, and those in the church, of falling into the trap of becoming focused on the very things that those gods and goddesses represented. Paul assures the church at Corinth, as well as the church today, that we love and worship a merciful God of endless reconciliation….but repeatedly giving in to temptation that pulls our focus off God needlessly creates a distance between us, one that God is always working to shorten, not lengthen. The grace and mercy of God leaves an invisible imprint upon believers. It is permanent and strong. Like the nails of the Cross, that grace and mercy are what holds everything together. In this chaotic world of temptation and distraction, it is the grace and mercy of Jesus that builds everything back up when we have torn it down in our frenzy to grasp for something we believe in.
What are the Pauline warnings that you have received along your journey through Lent? In your personal reflection, is it becoming more clear to see who or what you are consistently giving in to? Do you see anything that you are unconsciously replacing God with? What are you attaching to over and over again? Is it an idol? Or the Gospel?
This passage at first look seems so hopeless and overwhelming. It is a side of Paul that we do see rather frequently, but that always jars us with its urgency and pleading. He is really worried about the people of Corinth, because in light of all of the things they are surrounded by—many of them licentious and and immoral and dangerous, but actually, many of which are the very same average distractions we find ourselves surrounded with today—he doesn’t want them to wander off the path of truth.
I think that’s what makes these nails so important. The nails of the Cross. Because like the other symbols we’ve taken along on this journey, from the thorns to the wood to the nails, and onward to the wine, the linen, and the stone—they are calling us back again and again to the Gospel, even when the diversions of life might make us forget. Because honestly, in the busy-ness of our morning commute to work, we are probably more focused on the duties of the day ahead, rather than thinking about Jesus’ time in the Wilderness. When it’s time to shuttle children to activities and get dinner prepared, we are probably more focused on the details of those important daily tasks, rather than thinking about Calvary. When we have phone calls to make or trips to plan or home repairs to attend to, we are probably more focused on keeping all of those things running smoothly, rather than thinking about the path we are symbolically trudging to Good Friday….That’s why we have the nails here before us this week. So that we can both remember the pain of Jesus passion, but also the redeeming way in which God transforms that passion through grace?
Your nails are there in your spiritual backpack—there beneath the thorns and beside the wood. And you can choose how you will use them. You have the choice to use them to create a grand statue to any number of idols that distract your time; or they can be holding together a humble space of worship and reflection within your heart. It is up to us to decide. But it’s important that we don’t forget the strength and permanence that they represent. What are your nails going to hold together? What are your nails going to build this week? What are the things of strength and permanence in your life? Are they building up an idol? Or are they building you up in Christ?
We cannot escape Corinth—its gifts and its mistakes are ours to inherit. But we can listen to the words of Paul when we feel that pull away from the Cross and into the crowd…. “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Your nails are in your pocket. The choice is yours. Use them to build something humble and glorious….something that would make Paul proud.