|The Rev. Dr.
Kristin Johnston Largen
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
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I think it is fair to say that Paulís relationship with the Christian community at Corinth was contentious. Among other things, they didnít always act with Christian love toward one another, and they certainly didnít always respect Paul and his authority the way he would have liked. Certainly, they annoyed him. Certainly, he annoyed them. And in this way, the Christian community at Corinth bears a marked resemblance to your church: the church to which you seniors will be called shortly, God willing; the church in which you Middlers will be serving as interns in a few short months; the church to which you Juniors just finished serving in your teaching parishes; and the church catholic in every time and every place.
No language better describes this contention than that of ďstiff-neckedĒ people Ė that vision of a people unwilling to turn away from their own self-absorption and smug self-satisfaction, a people unwilling to turn to each other with the kiss of peace and the hand of forgiveness, a people unwilling to turn their eyes to God and trust in Godís will. It certainly fits the Christians at Corinth, it certainly fits you and me Ė and it certainly fits Paul: only a ďstiff-neckedĒ man like Paul would have needed to be struck down and laid low by a blinding light in order to receive the good news. Talk about being needing to be hit over the head with something!
So, what are we to do, we stiff-necked people, trying to deal somehow with a church full of stiff-necked people? Well, Iím not sure that we should adopt Paul wholeheartedly as our model: after all, Paul has been brought to tears by these people, and he has let loose his sharp tongue among them more than once: he has cajoled, he has chastised, he has threatened, he has reasoned Ė and still, their relationship is contentious. And yet, we can look to Paul for some guidance here, as long as we look beyond Paul to the one at whom Paul was looking Ė and that one, of course, is Jesus. We can take heart in Jesus, because we see that Paul took heart in Jesus.
In this little section of Paulís second letter to the Corinthians, then, we do have something to learn from Paul Ė not because Paul was such a good minister, not because Paul was such a good Christian, but because Paul knew, when he was in need, where to place his hope, direct his attention and seek his strength. Paul knows the efficacy of his ministry, the health of the church, and the power of the gospel do not rest in him and his own abilities; Paul knows it is most definitely not all about him Ė itís about Christ, itís all about Christ; and that fact gives Paul consolation and courage, even in the midst of this contentious ministry context.
And this fact, then, enables Paul to have confidence in three fundamental truths of the faith. First, Paul has confidence in his call, because he knows it comes from God, and that he is inspired by the power of the Holy Spirit blowing in him. Second, Paul has confidence in the power of the gospel, which, thanks be to God, is always at work, stirring up Godís stiff-necked people in wonderful, wondrous ways. Finally, Paul has confidence in the body of Christ, which somehow, in some way, survives and thrives beyond all imagining. We all have been born into a church that existed millennia before us, and will continue to exist millennia after us, God willing. The church is resilient, it is hearty, it is durable; and the heart that beats within it is Christís heart; and it is Christís body and blood that sustain itónot Paulís, not yours, not mine. Paul knew that, and we know it, too Ė even if we sometimes forget it on occasion.
So, fellow stiff-necked people of God, as you come to Christís table today, be nourished by the food, and be encouraged by the promise. It is amazing how this shared meal loosens the neck and brings some love and peace to even the most contentious relationships. Thanks be to God. AMEN.
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