For today we have what has been called reading other people’s letters. The beginning of today’s Epistle, 1 Corinthians 1:1-19, and most of the letters, begin with a fairly standard form. I am reminded of being taught how to write home when I was a small child in boarding school. “Dear (insert name here), How are you? I am fine.” It serves a purpose and sometimes can be revealing. But it is in the body of these letters that we usually find why the letter is being written. Verse 11 jumped out. “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” While it is nice that he gives a woman credit as leader, or snitch, this bothers me. Which of us has led such a perfect life that we have never been gossiped about, accused, perhaps falsely? So what was the complaint? People are aligning with parties. Who had baptized me? Whose homilies or pastoral style do I prefer? Paul? Apollos? Peter/Cephas? And do I not belong to them by bonds of love and gratitude? No, Paul insists. We all belong to Christ. Well, yes, this is true, but even the Rule of Benedict suggests that the abbot stands in place of Christ, showing forth love and discipline. The perfect mentor. And in the real world we do, and perhaps at sometimes in our lives should, regard a parent, teacher, priest, or mentor with such love and respect. But ultimately it is God to whom we owe that bond. To be blunt, God made us, and God owns us. It is pure grace that we have the choice of making mistakes and learning and turning again toward our God. So there are growing factions in the community in the city of Colossae. There still are today in any city big enough for several Episcopal churches. It is pretty clear that styles differ, and that people are drawn to the place where they are comfortable. And this is clearer amongst different denominations. Sometimes we forget that we all are Christ’s.
But which Christ? The Jesus who provoked the Temple by displaying his disgust that sacrificial animals and purified coin had become a big business in the Temple forecourt. Kicking over tables! How far would he have gotten in his synagogue or in any of our parishes? The Jesus who observed with love and pity the widow paying her tithe with a few coins or the tax collector who prayed for mercy for he was so great a sinner? The Jesus in John who is always looking up, and sometimes seeming to miss the simple needs around him? The Jesus throughout who reached out to Gentile as well as Jew? And what did Apollos or any of the others do to fall into the wrath of Chloe, who was trying her best to be righteous, as if any of us really know what that means? In the next reading for tomorrow Paul warns against the wise, but I suspect he is pointing to the various Greek philosophies which influenced the early church. Gnosticism. The Stoics. We are still in this muddle. Probably more so today.
For example, I was once part of a discussion where Bishop William White came up. That he was Rector of St Peter’s for 57 years appalled the participants. How could he keep fresh ideas? Interesting liturgy? I suggested that he was loyal, and served as first presiding bishop, and had trained many curates in his time, but the group opinion prevailed. Novelty and change were paramount. That certainly drives the congregations of today to parish shop. And for vicars and rectors to allow tedium to drive them from position to position and early retirement. We are not a stable society. People don’t get married, a job, a church, and stay put until they are buried. And Paul’s church was all new, and judging from the fascinating number or heresies which emerged in the next three centuries or so, they, too, had a little problem with stability. And I wonder what it was about those men and women named causing all that trouble that attracted different groups of people, and what was so bad about that?
Lent is a good time to look inward. Which Jesus do we follow? What do we need to believe? How do we need to pray? To take up our cross? When Paul says, “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 (Cor 1:16),” we might be close to the answer. Nowhere do we deny the Sacraments of Baptism by water and the Spirit, or the Eucharist. But our relationship with Christ and with his Father by adoption hinges on Jesus’ execution. As much as we focus on social justice and on the community as the Body, it is the broken bleeding body of Jesus that puts a stamp on our redemption, not only collectively, but for each of us individually. This is a love affair between each of us and our Beloved. One forged in pain. And as much as we can point to Jesus gathering a circle around himself, and the tribal nature of Judaism and of the early church, it is up to each of us to reach for, pray for, the mercy of God to open us to a passion beyond words or philosophy that transforms each of us who are bound to it in faith. When many of us are given that grace, and we gather and pray, then Church happens. Not the other way around, although growing up or formed in such a community can open the individual to that Presence. In the troublesome community Chloe brought to Paul’s attention, perhaps the way those individuals were wrestling and struggling with that endless war between rule bound laws and the deeper gift of passion for the Christ was to turn to different leaders, different ways of approaching that which cannot be fully explained. And in those fractured bits each one found a way to see that light. Or as Paul feared, maybe it was just power and ego which split the community. We can only tell from our time and place, no longer theirs. I know I have prayed with communities that raised their voices and arms in exaltation, those with super high church liturgy and huge choirs, those with experimental and eclectic liturgy and music, and those small ones with parlor sized organs and hymns and prayer book liturgies. Maybe that is our version of Apollos and Peter and whomever else, but all praying to and in Christ Jesus.
Now is the time for prayer and fasting. For adding prayers to our daily practice, Psalm 51 and a penitential litany come to mind. We may joke about what to give up for Lent, chocolate or coffee for example, but this is a serious time. Or as in today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:1-13) let the Spirit drive us out into the wilderness to wrestle with Satan, as it did with the newly baptized Jesus, until God can bring us to a purity of spirit, one that has known suffering and love, and can rise again with our God.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.