I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for sure, but when Paul visited the city of Corinth in the first century, I think he would have found a pretty cosmopolitan city for its day. The ancient city had largely been destroyed by the conquering Romans in the previous century, but it had been rebuilt as an administrative and trading centre, their provincial capital in Greece. The port brought goods and people from all over the Mediterranean. There would have been Greeks and Romans, some Jews, and likely others from different cultures. There would have been all ages of men, women and children from a variety of social and economic circumstances, government officials, business owners, soldiers, labourers, scholars and artists.
I wonder how Paul would have described them. I imagine, if someone had asked him, that he would have just said, well, they’re people. They have different ideas, different opinions. Some do well, some struggle, but they do the best they can.
I wonder, too, how many people there heard Paul talk about Jesus and teach what Jesus taught. And how many of them were inspired to create a community of followers of this Jesus and become People of the Way, as they were known then. I can’t imagine it was easy in a city like that, in an occupied state where anything that was perceived to challenge the status quo was brutally put down.
And I wonder, when Paul left Corinth, did he feel confident and hopeful for the people that had come together to share their lives in this new community.
However he felt when he left, sometime later he heard things weren’t going well at all. They weren’t embracing their diversity, they were struggling with economic and social issues that were dividing them, issues of authority and practices, issues of power and influence versus justice and equity. Common ground was hard to find, it seemed. Sharing the words and teachings of Jesus was a lot easier than putting them into practice.
So he wrote them a letter.
He had some ideas for how they might address some of the problems they were having, practical wisdom and suggestions for things they could do. And he reminded them that diversity is a great thing. From that one source of life that we know as God or the spirit, comes many gifts. Everyone has gifts, different gifts for different people, but we need them all to be a whole community. It’s like the body, he wrote. Creation is one body, the community is one body, but that common-unity is made by all of us together. We are the parts, the members, the vital organs that make up the body and every part is necessary and important to the whole. Wise words.
But then, it’s like he suddenly realized that wise words are still just words. And even following the words can be just superficial behaviour. Unless … so he wrote “I can speak with all the beauty and eloquence of an angel, but if it doesn’t come from love, it’s just noise. Whatever I do, however I do it, if there isn’t love behind it, it’s nothing.” Love is action of our very being: being patient, being kind, being generous, being humble, being true. It’s our being from the beginning and always, even beyond this life. In fact, says Paul, as important as faith and hope are, love is the most important.
In a world struggling with division, hate, hurt and oppression, begin with love. It’s your very being. Imagine how different you could make things, imagine how you could change the world. Paul could. He wrote us a letter.