I’ve found that things sometimes get awkward when I’m having a casual conversation with someone I don’t know—like, in a slow line at the grocery store—and the topic gets around to what I do for a living. When I say I’m a pastor, I get a variety of reactions. Often the conversation will kind of peter out; some people just aren’t sure what you say to a pastor. Or, sometimes the other person will proudly declare that he or she is an atheist and proceed to defend that position at length. Or, they might say, “Maybe you can answer this question,” and then ask something like “What’s the purpose of life?” or “Why is there suffering in the world?” The worst ones are when they look to me for on-the-spot pastoral care for situations that years of counseling haven’t helped.
A preacher friend of mine, who’s now retired, got kind of tired of this, so he came up with a new answer. Whenever a stranger asked what he did, instead f saying he was a pastor, he would say, “I sell fire insurance.”
We think about our faith that way sometimes, don’t we? As insurance that guarantees that we will spend eternity in a place that is flame-free? That once we have that insurance policy, we can rest easily and get on about our business? The problem is that we forget that we have some fire prevention responsibilities this side of our earthly deaths.
I pass a fire station on Crissey Rd. every day when I come to church. It has an electronic sign that displays a rotating list of fire safety rules. Keep your chimney clean. Check your smoke detector batteries. Close your bedroom doors when you’re sleeping. We may have the best fire insurance policy on the market, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the things that reduce the risk of fire.
Likewise, we know that our eternal future is secured when we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior. But, we also believe that after we have grasped this saving gift, it should show in how we live our lives. And that gets complicated. Because, although our faith does determine where we’ll spend our lives after our earthly deaths, it doesn’t insure us against exposure to the temptations of this world. We have to wrestle with how we can live faithfully, in ways that will be pleasing to God. For that, as the firefighters on Crissey Rd. know, it’s helpful to have some rules to guide us—holy laws that can serve as the rule of our lives.
In this, the Corinthians were just like us. The Corinthians, some of them anyway, thought that by professing faith in Christ, they had obtained a fire insurance policy and could go about their daily lives. But, their daily lives weren’t reflecting their faith. This is not too surprising, considering the society they were living in and the baggage they brought with them into the church.
Corinth was a Greek seaport, about forty miles southwest of Athens. It was a thriving trading center, with sailors and travelers from all over the world streaming through it. It was a wealthy city, full of upwardly mobile and ambitious people. Unfortunately, in spite of its wealth and cosmopolitan nature, Corinth had a bad reputation. It was looked down on as a place that had little in the way of real culture, and it was known for its abuse of the poor by the rich.
This financially wealthy city also had a wealth of religions. Archaeologists have found evidence of nearly two dozen religions there. All the sailors, traders, and travelers who passed through Corinth brought their gods and their religious practices with them. Roman, Greek, and Egyptian beliefs and practices all co-existed. So, the Corinthians lived in a stew of many different religions and what we would consider idolatrous religious practices, some of which they themselves, being mostly gentile, had practiced before they became Christians.
They also lived in a social system where everything depended on where you stood on the social ladder—who was above you, and who was below you. This wasn’t just a popularity thing, like who has the most friends on Facebook or how many of your tweets go viral. Your place in the pecking order determined everything about your economic and social opportunities.
You wanted to have as many people as possible below you on the ladder who owed you something. And, you wanted the most powerful people above you as your patrons, because they could open doors and give you opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have. Everything depended on what rung of the social ladder you stood on.
So here is the Corinthian church, made up of a cross-section of typical Corinthian residents. Some members may have been Jewish, but more had histories and traditions of idol worship. A few members of the church were rich and powerful. They had large homes and household staffs, so they could host the church’s gatherings and meals. And, they had enough leisure time to show up early at church dinners to eat the best food and get drunk. More members of the church were poor and powerless. They couldn’t get to church until after a long, hard day at work. They were used to serving the rich folks they depended on. Both rich and poor were all jockeying to improve their place on the ladder.
All this caused confusion and conflict for them as they adopted the Christian way of life. In a society built around a social ladder, they were having a really hard time treating each other as equals, and this was especially true when they gathered at the Communion table. They weren’t sure how to handle situations that touched on their old pagan lives, like how to handle legal disputes, and what to eat, and especially concerns around sex and marriage. They weren’t sure what was appropriate and what wasn’t.
The Corinthians’ situation was pretty similar to our own. We live surrounded by all kinds of religious beliefs, too. We have pasts that may include habits and behaviors and attitudes that don’t fit with a Christian life but are hard to give up.
The world bombards us with definitions of success and happiness that don’t line up with the values Christ calls us to. It challenges us to keep improving our status through what we own or who we know or how much we make.
Even if we don’t set out to intentionally abuse the poor, we hear (and largely ignore) the news reports about how our clothing and electronics get made overseas and even in illegal sweat shops in our own country. We drive past (and maybe close our eyes to) the migrant camps where farmworkers live while they harvest our food.
We live in a world of constantly changing values and expectations about what behavior is acceptable and what’s not. We wrestle with how to interact with the world around us, and how to live faithfully in the midst of competing values. We struggle with how to treat each other, and sometimes our differing views cause conflict among us. In so many ways, the Corinthians’ concerns weren’t so different from our own.
In a previous letter (which we don’t have but know about from references in the ones we do have), Paul had addressed their conflicts and confusion. He had given them rules to follow, but those had just raised more questions. In the letter we call 1 Corinthians, he tries to clarify how they should follow the rules he’s given them. But in the midst of these instructions, he digresses a bit. In our passage, he takes a moment to remind the Corinthians that their faith is not a once-and-done deal—that they will face the temptation to fall back into habits that are far from Christ-like.
To bring this home, Paul gives them an example—the story of the Israelites, the spiritual ancestors of the Corinthians and of us. God had freed the Israelites from slavery. They had all the benefits of Moses’ leadership in the wilderness. God was with them, leading them and providing for them. Christ was with them, even though he had not yet been revealed. They had all they needed to remain faithful. But they didn’t. They worshipped idols, and their worship included idolatrous sex. They whined and complained about Moses and even about God and what God had done. Their faithlessness was revealed by their actions, and it resulted in their destruction.
My daughter once had a softball coach who had a favorite expression that he’d use when someone made an error. He’d yell across the field, “Go to school on that!” That would have been a good one for Paul to use with the Corinthians. The Israelites acted unfaithfully, and it led to their downfall. “Go to school on that, Corinthians!” Paul might have said.
The faith that the Corinthians claimed didn’t shield them from the temptations of the world around them, any more than the Israelites’ status as God’s chosen people insured them against falling into idolatrous, faithless living. Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians not to get too self-satisfied; even when they think they are in good shape, they need to be alert to the hazardous conditions that can make them fall. Paul reminds the Corinthians of the rules they need to follow, which will guide them into living faithful lives.
Like the Corinthians, we need guidance on how to live Christ-like lives in a secular world. Fortunately, like the Corinthians, we too can read the rules in Scripture. We can go to school on the examples of all those who have gone before us. We can learn from the teachings of the Church through the ages—what we call the Tradition of the Church. But we may also be like the Corinthians in our struggle to figure out which rules apply and how in our lives now, in the world as we know it today.
As John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer affirms, God has given us holy laws as the rule of our lives. But the Bible is full of rules. Are we to follow them all? And, if not, how do we choose from among them? Should a man stop shaving because Leviticus says he should not “round off the hair on his temples or mar the edges of his beard”? Should we throw out any clothes made of two different materials, like Leviticus says, or can we just throw out the ones made of linen and wool woven together, like Deuteronomy says? Should we strictly follow the Bible’s tough-love parenting rule: that all the men of Whitehouse should get together to stone to death any son who is rebellious or stubborn? Just as the Corinthians were struggling to figure out how to live according to the rules they’d been given, we can find it hard to sort out which rules we should live by and how.
Some people say that none of the Old Testament rules apply since Christ came, but that’s not what Jesus said. It’s not what we claim as United Methodists, either, although John Wesley did say that Christians are bound only to “obedience of the commandments which are called moral,” and not ones related to ceremonies, rituals, and civil matters.
Some people say we should read the Bible literally and take the rules we find there at face value, but then we need to figure out which version of the Bible we should take literally. In fact, we would need to decide which ancient parchments and scrolls to take literally, since there are variations in the texts there, too. And then, if we solve that problem, we have to choose between books and verses of the Bible that contradict each other. There’s just no easy answer when we go looking for rules to follow.
The author A. J. Jacobs spent a year trying to follow every rule in the Bible, which he wrote about in his book called The Year of Living Biblically. Jewish tradition says that there are 613 commandments in the first five books of the Old Testament alone. But Jacobs did his own inventory, and he included all of the Old and New Testaments. He read the Bible straight through, and made a list of every rule, guideline, suggestion, and piece of advice he found. He came up with 72 printed pages of rules—more than 700 of them, all of which he tried to follow as literally as possible, with the help of a whole bunch of religious advisors from across the theological spectrum.
At the end of the year, Jacobs came to a conclusion. It’s not possible to follow all the rules in the Bible. He realized that we all take a cafeteria approach to choosing which Biblical rules to follow. In fact, we have to. The key, he said, is in knowing which ones to choose.
One of his advisors, a rabbi named Andy, told him to use the prophets as his guide, like Micah who told his people not to worry about all the mandated animal sacrifices and instead to simply “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Jacobs concluded that, from the enormous menu of Biblical rules, we should pick the ones that are nurturing and healthy, such as loving one’s neighbor. To paraphrase John Wesley, we should use God’s laws, which are all “holy, just, and good.”
It may be that some of the rules we read in our Bible are not God’s laws but human interpretations of God’s law and will. We affirm that God’s laws are holy, just, and good, so maybe that is the litmus test we can use to decide which rules are the ones we should follow.
God’s laws always lead us towards a closer relationship with God through Christ. God’s laws always help us to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. The rules that lead us into a deeper relationship with God through Christ, the rules that guide us towards creating a more just world, the rules that help us extend the goodness of God to others: these are the ones that should guide our words, thoughts, and actions. They are the ones we can accept as our yoke—the ones which can help us order our lives according to God’s direction and intention for us and the world.
Many of the laws in Scripture did just that, for particular people in a particular place at a particular time in history, but they don’t help us do that now. Those are human laws, or a human interpretation of God’s law. God’s laws apply across the human spectrum, in every place and in every time. If a rule guides us into living lives that are holy, just, and good, then it is probably one of God’s holy laws which we should strive to follow.
This can be a daunting task, but Paul offers some reassuring words that apply to us as much as they did to the Corinthian church. He reminds us that, as we struggle to live faithfully, we are in good company. Even though the details may change, we struggle with the same questions and challenges that God’s people have always faced. We seesaw between living faithfully and falling away. We bring the expectations of the world and our experiences past and present into church with us. We have questions. We face temptations. But we are not alone when we face them. God is faithful, and God is with us every step of the way. God gives us the means to endure through every test. And God gives us the strength we need as we strive to live according to God’s holy laws. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young