Of Corinth on Australia Day

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-10, 1 Corinthians1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-25

Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians has always been one that has interested me – perhaps because it is so rich in practical tips for the life of congregations, and there are a number of very well-known passages in the letter. Most notably is Chapter 13 which begins “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love…” and ends “… faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” But today’s passage reflects a congregation divided into factions and arguing with each other as to which is the more important. The final verse both appeals to me and intrigues me: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18) More of that in a moment.

The modern city of Corinth stands on a site that has been inhabited for thousands of years and has a rich history stretching back into pre-history times. But the Corinth known to St Paul was not yet a hundred years old for the Romans had destroyed it in the mid-2nd century before Christ, before deciding to rebuild it as the Roman capital of Greece. St Paul would have encountered a strong Jewish population along with both native Greeks and invading Romans. Straddling a narrow isthmus Corinth had two important trading ports which made it something of a melting pot for the nations of the world. Fortunes were made and lost and a freed or escaped slave, ready to seize the opportunities the city presented, could quickly rise in social standing. Perhaps something of the jostling for position in this hotchpotch of people from many nations accounts for some of the division and competition in the church. But there is also something appealing to me as we mark Australia Day in Adelaide.

What did happen to the original inhabitants of Corinth? Wave after wave of invaders, settlers and entrepreneurs had swept through over the centuries and millennia. For many it was a place of new opportunity where a person with get up and go could make a new life, with few questions asked. Certainly there was little time for the somewhat uppity Athenians only eighty kilometres distant but a world away in other ways. Corinth was known throughout the world as a place of easy come easy go – in trade, sex and manners.

It is in this city, with its rich, if at times questionable, history and practice, that St Paul spent eighteen months evangelizing and establishing a church to which he would later write the two letters that have come down to us in the New Testament. Today’s passage is a plea for unity. A plea to stop the quarreling, the one-upmanship that threatened to tear the congregation apart. Perhaps the appeal of the letter is that it is so very contemporary – except of course, we don’t find that sort of behavior in the Cathedral, or our Diocese, or indeed in the Anglican Church across the world – do we?!

At the heart of Paul’s message is the cross of Christ – a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). It is to the heart of his message that Paul appeals – focus on the cross of Christ. That is why you are here. It doesn’t matter from whom you first heard the Gospel, or by whom you were baptized, or even which home group you attend. The multi-cultural gathering of people, with so many different cultural expectations and practices, is drawn together, and held together, by just one thing – the cross of Christ.

That’s true of us too, isn’t it? I often wonder what draws so many different people together on a Sunday morning – different ages, different educational and cultural backgrounds, speaking different languages and with different expectations and experiences of life. Truly the church is quite amazing. There is no other gathering quite like it. And at the heart of it all is this ridiculous life changing life-giving cross of Christ. “On the night before he was betrayed (the night before he died on the cross) Jesus took bread; and when he had given thanks he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take, eat. This is my body given for you….. After supper he took the cup, and again giving you thanks he gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the new covenant shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” The words are so familiar. But hear them afresh again today. Be drawn into this mystery of bread and wine which is Christ’s Body and Blood broken on the cross.

A stumbling block and foolishness yes – but to those who believe, those who are being saved, it is the power of God.

It all began, of course, much earlier when, as St Mathew reminded us in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus called two brothers to leave their nets and their boat and follow him. Later they were joined by another two brothers – also fishermen. And then others – men, women and children – from all walks of life, including the Corinthians with their arguments and infighting. And he calls you and he calls me to come to the cross. To come, not because we are worthy, or better than others, but because he calls us. And we hear the call to follow. To follow and learn, to worship and have our lives transformed. And then to go out, to live in such a way that the light of Christ – the light mentioned so many centuries before Christ by Isaiah in today’s first reading – shines forth to the world.

On this Australia Day – a day of shame, sorrow and loss; a day of freedom and new life; a day of cricket and beer drinking, of belonging and family and sport and swimming and picnics in the park – on this Australia Day the congregation of St Peter’s Cathedral gathers to eat bread and drink wine, to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, to be drawn again, as we are each week, to the cross of Christ.

And we pray, as we did earlier, and as I hope you will continue to do, the words of today’s Collect:
Bounteous God, we give thanks for this ancient and beautiful land, a land of despair and hope, a land of wealth and abundant harvests, a land of fire, drought and flood.
We pray that your Spirit may continue to move in this land and bring forgiveness, reconciliation, and an end to all injustice; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.