Lesson 10: Many Roads Get You There

Rather than plowing directly into I Corinthians, let me speak to the discussion started in recent lessons. As Sarah assured me from the very beginning, the comments have become very significant. I think this is especially important for understanding Paul’s real gift.

If we try to apply Paul’s specific counsels to our present situation, such as his advice to first century women about handling their new- found freedom, we end up agreeing with Adlai Stevenson as cited by Carey, that  “Paul is appalling and  (Norman Vincent) Peale is appealing”. However, if we search for the general principles which he himself says guide his counsel, we find some very basic and helpful Christian guidelines. I think that is exactly what Paul is advocating. Most of the time he carefully identifies what he describes as only his personal opinion. Not everyone appreciates that.  Professional theologians are always complaining that biblical scholars are not much help, because they never come up with consistent interpretations. I think biblical scholars are simply being honest. Paul offers little or nothing as far as absolute laws go, but he does offer guidelines over which we usually pass without notice. For instance he says love:

  1. Returns good for evil.
  2. Does not insist on it own way.
  3. Builds up other people.
  4. Works for the common good.
  5. Does all decently and in order.
  6. Concentrates on the helpful and beneficial, even though all things are lawful.
  7. Takes special care for the weak.
  8. Lets all things be done for edification.

It is interesting that we seldom teach such things as Christian tenets, but they are what Paul emphasizes. It is also interesting that our discussion mentioned a number of them as we searched for guidance in our time.  Gordon certainly captures Paul’s meaning when he suggests our modern concept of “respect”. Many have abandoned “love”, because the modern age uses it so ambiguously to cover everything. “Respect” puts it back into perspective. Catherine does the same when she says we regard all people as  “beloved by God”, people with whom we share Jesus’ family table. Although Paul might say some things about women that bother and even infuriate us, he is trying for the most part to figure out what freedom for women means. He is trying to rewrite the household duties of his society that always gave men rights over women, so that they show such rights belong to both genders. Norma helped us appreciate that with the powerful historical insight that until the 18th century we did not even understand the function of the ovum. She would agree with me it has taken a long, long time getting serious about “there is no longer male or female, rich or poor, Greek or Jew.” Paul was trying to make a beginning, although from our point of view a weak one. But heavens, our progressive society refused women the vote until 1920. Gordon’s “respect’  offers a good foundation. Of course, he had better understand that as his wife runs a “women owned” business.

But I always go back to RuthP speaking of love offering discernment and her giving us that  great example when she felt God’s presence while caring for her severely ill sister. You could see  discernment as a spiritual gift rather than a guiding principle, but you have to agree it serves as foundation just like “respect”. When I was a young pastor, I used to rush to emergencies praying  God would give me the right words to speak. As I matured, I realized my job was to get there and be present with the neighbor. Sometimes the Spirit would give words and actions, and sometimes the Spirit would lead me simply to be present. I found much the same in counseling. Almost all the people who came to me for counseling were dealing with terrific problems. Absolute laws were never helpful. The situation called for working out things together.

On the other hand, I think Anne is quite right suggesting the Ten Commandments still serve as basic principles. However, as Bob pointed out, we read them differently than Old Testament Hebrews did. I have always found it helpful to see Martin Luther interpreting them from a positive New Testament perspective. For instance, “You shall not kill. What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way but help him in all his physical needs”. Whoa! You can check the rest of his interpretations in his Small Catechism.

And always we have Anne and Mike Guise reminding us of our limitations and need for a community to support our failures. And Mike Martine challenging us to go beyond our comfort zones to new ideas, even those that upset us. We err when we look only for guidelines that help us as individuals. Paul says clearly the Spirit offers different people different gifts so that a guideline has to be sharing those gifts, using them co-operatively rather than competitively. That means we have to be constantly talking to one another.

So let’s do that. Let’s continue sharing our ideas about where Christian love leads us here and now. We could work on other implications of love for our time, perhaps citing examples, personal experiences or even asking questions.

I think this is extremely important in our modern democratic society.  Tony and I participated in a conference of peace churches in which it was said over and over that modern American freedom is limited as it simply gives everyone the right to do whatever they want as long as it does not interfere with other people’s freedom. Without some guidance and responsibility this leads to chaos, something like the current financial and political situation. Let’s continue to speak about what kind of principles we Christians have to offer this situation. Carey, it is time to bring up Reinhold Niebuhr making a distinction between private and public morality. We might have to seek the implications of love for justice in public policy. Certainly we have to challenge the present calls that say we can not afford either love or justice in a modern society, but instead must advocate first strikes, torture, profit, and such. From a Jewish-Christian point of view that is returning to paganism.

This kind of discussion will set the stage for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. In many ways, his people were similar to us. Corinth was a very cosmopolitan city, a center of commerce and all the abuses that go with these. In those days people spoke of “becoming a Corinthian”, which meant becoming thoroughly immoral and materialistic. They were newly rich as the city had been destroyed in 146 BC and restored by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. He used freed slaves and poor people from the East who quickly became affluent. Its prominence was second only to Rome and Alexandria. Its present ruins include long rows of brothels. It also had many pagan temples and games second only to Olympia nearby.

Paul acknowledges the church was gifted spiritually and secularly and that it has all the problems we usually associate with this. Acts 18 reports he was there a year and an half. In the end Jews haul him before the Roman proconsul who throws out the case, because it is about sectarian words not political actions. In retaliation the Jews beat up Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue who had become a Christian. Paul might have left town, because the proconsul elected to ignore this challenge. Sothenes seems to have accompanied him, because he coauthored the letters.

Paul criticized this talented church for breaking into competing cliques. They seemed to have separated themselves according to the teachings of the leader who evangelized them. Some also thought Christian freedom allowed them to continue pagan practices.  Get ready, Paul answers questions about a man who is having sex with his father’s wife, another who is suing members of the congregations, another who visits prostitutes,  another who is buying and enjoying meat that was sacrificed in pagan temples, and others who claim real Christians have to speak in tongues. Then he offers advice about whether women should always offer sex to their husbands on demand and if they can divorce a mate who is not a Christian. Whew!

But before that we had better examine what Paul means by the Wisdom of God in chapters 1 and 2.  Again he is not easy, insisting wisdom begins with “Christ, and him crucified”.













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