1 CORINTHIANS 12:12-31a/LUKE 4:14-21

Pope Benedict XVI designated 2008 as the year of St Paul. This was an invitation to the faithful to read the writings of Paul, to study his teaching and to recognise and honour the part he played as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. At the time a Roman Catholic friend confided that she found St Paul the least accessible of the great saints. She said she saw Paul as a clever man but stern and forbidding, without the gentleness which characterises St Peter. Certainly when one looks on the statue of a hooded Paul outside the basilica dedicated to him in Rome, one is struck by his frighteningly severe face and posture as he stands holding a great sword across his chest, the symbol of martyrdom. My friend’s attitude to St Paul is based on a judgement of the apostle which is quite common among Christians: that the church we have today was so shaped by him that the church owes more to Paul than to Jesus. As a result the institutional church is a reactionary rather than a progressive force in the world. For many years I accepted this judgement, partly as a result of reading one of A.N. Wilson’s books, but I now accept that the reality is more nuanced.

Paul lived in the real world, a world that was hostile to much of the message he wanted to deliver. What we know about Paul, and it isn’t as much as we think, is that he was transformed by his encounter with the risen Jesus, the conversion we call it, which the church commemorates tomorrow. He became a driven man dedicated to revealing and bringing the truth about Jesus Christ to others in spite of the huge cost to himself in terms of personal suffering and sacrifice. He was almost constantly on the move from the Middle East through Asia Minor and into Europe and back again before eventually reaching the end of his Christian journey in Rome.

Such evidence as there is suggests also that Paul was an outstanding communicator, a speaker who won the attention of his audience. If we had been present in the great amphitheatre at Ephesus, for example, to hear St Paul preach and teach, I think we would have recognised how original and radical a thinker he was.

But Paul knew if the truth about Jesus was to survive and flourish, it would have to take root in the prevailing culture, and the society in which St Paul lived and worked was authoritarian, hierarchical and patriarchal and therefore Paul realised he should avoid offending too deeply the powers that be.

Some of Paul’s thinking had to be tempered by this consideration. Take the role of women, for example. As the Roman Catholic biblical scholar Jerome Murphy O’Connor has said, “Paul took it for granted that women were ministers of the church in precisely the same sense as men. He recognised their gifts as fruits of the Spirit, which he had neither the desire nor the authority to oppose.”

It’s clear from passages in some of his letters, however, that Paul had to compromise over the issue of female equality. The same was true concerning slavery.

Nevertheless in spite of making concessions to prevailing custom and Roman authority, Paul’s letters which have survived demonstrate the originality of his theology. This is clear from the passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians which we’ve just heard.

But before we look at that passage, let’s just remind ourselves of the context.

Paul reached Corinth, the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, for the first time in 51 A.D. via Philippi, Thessalonica and Athens. In those places he had experienced success and failure and had suffered a degree of psychological and physical distress. It was in a somewhat fragile state and with some trepidation that Paul entered what was a great centre of trade with a huge and diverse population that was to say the least very lively. The 1000 women of easy virtue in the temple of Venus may have had something to do with the liveliness.

We know, however, from what he writes at the beginning of the first letter that he had much success in bringing many men and women to Christ, some of whom were well-connected, rich and powerful, though the majority were probably just ordinary citizens of Corinth. During his time there, about eighteen months in all, the apostle and the Christian community seemed to flourish.

Having failed with the intellectuals at Athens, Paul took an anti-intellectual approach at Corinth and this seemed to go down well. But after his departure in 52 A.D. things began to fall apart. First of all a man called Apollos arrived in Corinth. Apollos met the needs of those Corinthians who aspired to a more intellectual theology, those who had felt rather disappointed by Paul’s approach. They came to believe that they were superior Christians, possessors of wisdom and the Spirit from God. It’s tempting to see something of a class conflict going on here, but that may be far too simplistic an explanation.

Other factions formed, too. Some, probably those of Jewish origin, wanted to retain Jewish dietary laws and other customs. Yet others remained loyal to Paul.

The apostle must have been upset and concerned when the news reached him of the problems in the church at Corinth and he responded as he always did when faced with a local difficulty he could not deal with personally: he wrote a letter.

It’s a sobering thought that we might never have had this letter had not Clement some forty years later written to the congregation at Corinth to urge them to preserve the apostle’ s letters. That story reminds us how easy it is for a community to forget what a person has done for its members!

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, written in the late spring or early summer of 54 A.D., is wide-ranging in its scope and profound in its teaching. In Chapter 12 of the letter Paul explores the theme of unity and diversity, at first addressing gifts, as we heard last week, and then in today’s reading the people who practise them. He employs the metaphor of the body, but he uses it subversively, not in the way it was commonly used by Greek writers and orators to explain why there was a need for a social and political hierarchy. Instead Paul urges the Corinthians to embrace the genuine diversity of people within the community and to support them in all their variety. Paul is concerned for the weak as well as for the strong, asking the weak to take a full and equal part within the community and encouraging the strong to include the weak in everything they do.

Even more surprisingly Paul does not call for merely equal respect and honour for weaker members; instead he stresses that greater honour should be accorded to those who are inferior members of the community. Paul’s teaching is underpinned by his firm conviction that it is through their baptism by the one Spirit that God has conferred equal value on them whether “Jews and Greeks”, “slaves and free”. In his letter to the Galatians Paul would add “male and female” to the list.

Here is proof that for Paul, race, class and gender were of no significance in establishing any hierarchy within the church. As the end of today’s passage indicates, Paul does not deny that there is a hierarchy of gifts and giftedness, but he believes that in a Christian community the value of these gifts does not depend on their spectacular nature but on how much the people who possess them contribute towards building up the church.

And there is something even more remarkable to come. Paul uses the metaphor to argue the point that the Church in Corinth is “the body of Christ”, not any old body, Christ’s body.

We are so used to the phrase “the body of Christ” that we struggle to imagine how startled those who first heard it would have been. One can almost hear them questioning whether Paul has become unhinged when he claims the body of Christ is still to be seen, only now apparent in every Christian community. It was after all only a couple of decades since the crucifixion of Jesus, and there were many who would have seen the real body of Jesus either before his death or after his resurrection.

The phrase would make those who first heard it sit up straight and think deeply about what they were doing. If the church at Corinth, or for that matter the church of St Francis High Heaton, is the body of Christ, how precious that makes the community. How important that makes its unity.

Now the church at Corinth in the 1st century A.D. differs in many ways from the church of St Francis High Heaton in 2010. But the two Christian communities have some things in common, not least that both are struggling to define themselves in the search for maturity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

As to gifts, I suspect that like the Corinthians we value some gifts more than others. In fact, to what extent are we even aware of the gifts of every member of this congregation? Are we more inclined to notice the more assertive members of the community at the expense of the more diffident? Do we value most the flashier gifts and undervalue the less noticeable? Do we value equally those with spiritual gifts and those who do things? Do we encourage and nurture the quieter, more studious members of the congregation as much as those who prefer the anti-intellectual approach favoured by Paul at Corinth? Do we regard as oddballs those with unusual gifts and cling to those we believe possess the more respectable gifts? In our worship of God and for the good of others do we always employ our gifts sacrificially and resist the temptation to withhold them when we sense a lack of appreciation from others?

If we have doubts as to how we can in honesty respond to these questions, then shouldn’t we be following the advice St Paul gave to the Corinthians and be working harder to build up the body of Christ in this place?

And then there’s the matter of unity, that in the body of Christ all the members must work together in harmony. What Paul did was to urge the congregation to resolve their differences themselves because that would be an opportunity to demonstrate the power of God’s grace to non-believers. Paul knew that unless it is missionary, constantly reaching out to others, the church will be untrue to itself, but of course there is no point in reaching out to others if we are at war with ourselves.

Within a few weeks this congregation will know the identity of its new leader. I hope whoever he or she is will be welcomed into a community where the gifts of all members are recognised and valued equally and where there are no factions making the body of Christ in this place dysfunctional. Not only is that important for the ministry of the one chosen to be our priest, it is also vital for the wider community here in High Heaton who rarely or never come to church. If it becomes obvious to them that God’s grace is at work in this place, then who knows what we may be able to achieve as we reach out to them?

St Paul worked in a society where it was necessary to tone down his radical vision of how the church should grow in order to ensure that his central message about Jesus Christ would be heard and accepted. We need make no such compromises. Secular society, at least in the part of the world we live in, has caught up with Paul’s vision of equality regardless of race, class and gender. The central message to be proclaimed remains the same. The issue now is how far the church can accommodate itself to a society whose thinking may have gone beyond Paul’s vision.

Let’s not forget, however, that in his own day Paul’s ability to think outside the box won him a reputation for being a fanatic and a deviant and as such he was often treated as a social outcast. But if today he visited the church he did so much to establish, would he be judged or treated any differently? I wonder how far St Paul would be really welcome at the Vatican. More importantly, how far would he be welcome here?