Much of what defined the Corinthian church in the first century of the Common Era was disagreement. It seemed as if disagreements and divisions ran through the church like yeast through a loaf of bread. Members were splitting into factions as groups of them followed different leaders with different theologies (1 Cor. 1:11-12).
They disagreed over the nature of their freedom in Christ. “All things are lawful,” some said (6:12), and those were the ones whose faith was degenerating into self-indulgence: sexual immorality, idolatry, drunkenness, robbery, gluttony. They also disagreed over whether Christians were required to observe kosher dietary restrictions and other laws. The list goes on.
The church was suffering for their divisions, and Paul was doing his best to help them find unity around their common center. He was writing to what Abraham Lincoln would later call “the better angels of [their] nature,” calling them to imitate him and Christ (11:1) in a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19). Not that he claimed perfection – he was well aware of his shortcomings (Rom. 7:21-23) – but he pressed on toward “the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14), and he invited the church to press on with him.
So his letter to the Corinthians is peppered with commendation and criticism. Here (1 Cor. 11:17-22) Paul criticizes their table manners. “For when the time comes to eat,” he writes, “each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (v. 21, emphasis mine). They are not gathering as the body of Christ, in unity and mutual love; they are gathering in order to serve their own interests and passions and have their own needs met.
It might be said that the Corinthian church is full of people who are “almost Christian,” to use John Wesley’s term – “whitewashed tombs” is the term Jesus used (Matt. 23:27) – having the outer form of godliness and religion but lacking its inner substance. They go through the motions, partaking of the sacraments, worshiping and praying regularly, reading the scriptures, supporting the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, and service. They are even sincere about doing those things. But they have not yet been transformed into the body of Christ. They have not yet been born from above (John 3:1-10). They are only almost Christian.
What would Paul write, I wonder, to United Methodists today? He might commend us for many things: for the great universities and hospitals we’ve established around the world; for our provision of workers and resources to help victims of natural disaster; for the way we confront and challenge the egregious distortions and misuses of the scriptures and the Christian faith by the U.S. president and attorney general to serve their own partisan interests. The list could be a long one.
And there are some things for which he would not commend us. He would not commend us when we express more loyalty to the factions that separate us than to the fellowship that unites us, especially that unites us with those with whom we disagree. Think about the ways in which our fellowship is stressed, perhaps to the breaking point, by the twin issues of whether to ordain what our Book of Discipline refers to as “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” and whether to allow our pastors to celebrate same-sex marriages in our churches.
Paul would not commend us, I think, when we serve our own interests at the expense of the health and well-being of the whole congregation and its ministries. For example, consider how people who make exceptionally large financial donations to the ministries of the church sometimes try to coerce conformity to their desires and preferences by withholding those donations for a time. That’s greed. That’s gluttony. That’s idolatry. And it’s a symptom of being “almost Christian.”
Paul does more than criticize such distortions of faith that show up as divisions in the church. He raises a vision of something higher, and he calls us to rise to that vision. A mere chapter and a half after he criticizes these bad table manners, he writes some of the best-known verses in all the Christian scriptures.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,” he writes, “but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:1-13 sel., emphasis mine).
Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrased Paul’s words. “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love . . . doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ . . . [Love] trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end” (The Message).
The Christian life, a life in Christ, does not begin when we join the church. It does not start when we recognize our need for healing or when we seek fulfillment of our spiritual hungers. The Christian life does not begin when we start to pursue any goal or start trying to take hold of any prize. Those are only the prelude.
Life in Christ begins when we have nothing left to take, when we have died to self and have been born from above. Few of us are there now. I’m not there now. I see that vision as though I’m looking through a fog. And I can only hope for that day when the weather clears and the skies brighten.
“But for right now,” Paul writes, “until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of these three is love” (1 Cor 13:13 The Message).