God's Incredible Faithfulness
1 Corinthians 1:4-9
One of the most popular pastimes in recent years has been taking pot shots at the institutional church—the typical parish church so familiar to most of us. The titles of a rash of books tell the story: The Trouble with the Church, The Suburban Captivity of the Churches, Enemy in the Pew?, The Empty Pulpit, God's Frozen People. Much of the analysis and resulting condemnation in these books and others is accurate and long overdue. The disillusionment of the current crop of theological students as well as of a number of parish pastors with the typical American church underscores the problem. But the attacks on the typical parish church in America are getting tiresome, for all their accuracy. Perhaps a fresh look at the early church may throw some clearer light on the situation.
To begin with, there are glowing descriptions of the early church in the Book of Acts which have prompted in part the current disillusionment. We are constantly being called back to those earliest days, immediately after Pentecost, to get a picture of what the church today really ought to be. They do sound idyllic: "They devoted themselves to the Apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."1 "And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people."2 Here is an even more precise and equally idyllic picture: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need."3
It is obviously the picture of a selfless community, where the God of love is accurately reflected in the life of the community right down to the repudiation of personal rights to property and possessions. God and the neighbor in need are all they care about. It is the literal acting out of the double commandment to love God and the neighbor.
So we read these passages with stars in our eyes and a lump in the throat and, perhaps, wish one could jump back over the centuries and experience that kind of Christian community for once. Or we contrast these idyllic pictures with the kind of Christian communities we have down at the corner of Main and Elm, and we are nauseated.
But we really sentimentalize the picture of the early church if we read these passages and not the ones that immediately follow. For the honeymoon for the early church lasted no longer than the honeymoon of a young couple very much in love. Tempers begin to flare, the delightful idiosyncrasies of the beloved begin to grate on the nerves, basic differences of opinion about politics or family finances or religious convictions have to be dealt with.
Just so in the early church. Immediately after that idyllic picture of selling lands and property to give to those in need, is the nasty story of Ananias and Sapphira who tried to pull a fast one on their brethren in the Christian commune. Peter and Paul were soon at odds over doctrine and strategy, Paul and Barnabas had a falling-out. It's not long before the idyllic vision crumbles, and you get a raft of pictures of the gutty realities of the early church which look a great deal more like the gutty and unlovely realities of the church today than like the brief idyllic honeymoon pictured in the early chapters of the Book of Acts.
Five of the seven letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation are for evidence: At Ephesus they had abandoned the love they had at first; at Pergamum there are heresies and idolatries; at Sardis, "You have a name of being alive but you are dead," at Thyatira, the woman, Jezebel, was leading them into immorality, and at Laodicea, of course, the church aroused the divine nausea: "Neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth."4
Then there is the church at Corinth, a veritable witches' brew of unlovely problems in that Christian community; cliques and factions spitting at each other, some really juicy forms of immorality and sexual perversion; but perhaps the climax is the stark contrast between the idyllic picture of !-- Generation of PM publication page 6 --> early Christians selling houses and property to give to those in need and the actualities at the Lord's Supper (of all things) at Corinth where with utter disregard for one another, some would gorge themselves and get drunk while others went hungry.
We don't do justice to the early church or to the problems of the church today unless we take into account these grubby pictures of the early Christian communities as well as the idyllic ones.
But in the face of the stomach-turning situation at Corinth, how in the world do we account for Paul's amazing prayer of thanksgiving for the church at Corinth there at the opening of the letters? One would expect him to lash out at them right at the start. But he doesn't. Listen to him; it's all but unbelievable: "I give thanks to God always for you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched because of the grace of God which was given you in him with all speech and all knowledge...so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift (Can he be serious?) as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."
Well, in view of the gutty realities at Corinth, what do you make of that? Is this just pious chatter? A softening up before he begins to lash out at them? Some commentators refuse to take it at face value. Paul must be writing with tongue in cheek or maybe he's preaching at them under the disguise of praying, a practice not uncommon today!
The clue, I suspect, is in that phrase, "God is faithful..." Paul knew that God is no sentimentalist. He wears no rose-colored glasses when God looks at the people he has called to his mission in the world down through the years. God had been faithful through century after century to the people of Israel despite their idolatries, their grumblings in the wilderness, their repeated injustice to those in need, their constant unfaithfulness. God is no sentimentalist. God knows full well the kind of material God has to work with.
Whereas we are always falling into the habit of sentimentalizing the past. As Americans, we do it all the time. As the National Commission on Causes and Prevention of Violence reports:
"...Americans have been given to a kind of historical amnesia that masks much of their turbulent past. Probably all nations share this tendency to sweeten memories of their past through collective repression, but Americans have probably magnified the process of selective recollection owing to our historic vision of ourselves as a latter day chosen people, a new Jerusalem."5
So we Americans think of ourselves as the perennial good guys, conveniently forgetting the horrors of the Civil War, the bloody draft riots of 1863, or "what we did to whole nations of Indians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, or what we have been doing to black children in ghetto schools the past fifty years."6
And what we do quite naturally as Americans we also do as Christians. Yet, as Howard Moody has written: "Part of the liberating aspect of our faith is that it allows us to face our pasts as nations and as persons, to accept them and make them teach us about the present... The love of one's people, like the love of one's self, comes only after we have faced ourselves as we really are, known the misery and grandeur, the perversity and the potential, the sickness and health of our true condition."7
The incredible faithfulness of God can be understood only in the light of an utterly unsentimental view of the history of the people of God. God has the likes of us to work with. And that's all. That's all God's ever had, but God intends to make something out of this kind of raw material. God will not compromise our freedom to reject, rebel against, or distort God's will of love. So God takes God's chances. But as for God's promises, the ultimate fulfillment of Gos's will, god is incredibly faithful.
And so we take heart—despite the tongue lashing given the church at Corinth, or the bewailings and bemoanings with respect to the churches you and I know today.
This is not to say that there will be no changes in what we've got, no radical changes in the structures of the churches we know. I suspect God couldn't care less about what kind of structures we have; God is not faithful to structures, heaven knows. So maybe we'll grow out of the habit of starting churches in suburbs on the basis of building, budgets and numbers. So maybe we'll give up the nonsense of having half a dozen small, struggling churches within a couple of miles of each other in rural areas, each one trying to maintain its own minister and duplicating all its organizations and programs. I suspect (and hope) that five or ten years from now we may not be able to recognize a lot of the churches we have known so well as they alter their strategies and structures to meet a rapidly changing world.
For God doesn't give a hoot about structures—the outward forms of the church with which we become so enamored. Whether we end up with residence-based parishes, experimental industrial missions, small cell groups meeting in homes, and underground church—God couldn't care less so long as God's Word is proclaimed and communicated in a community that struggles—no matter how unsuccessfully—to be faithful to His mission.
As John Hick has written: "The church (meaning by it all the Christian bodies considered together) is in a quite precise sense a necessary evil—and to that extent a good. It is an evil because the corruption of the best is the worst, and the church is the human corruption of the Kingdom of God which came on earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is because the church ought to be startlingly better that in being mediocre it is bad. But good or bad, the church was inevitable; for Jesus' message is one that draws people together."8
Today, Christians in the world will gather together about the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Altar, that one single act which declares most emphatically what the church really is: a group of people gathered about its Lord to hear a word of judgment and of hope and to be refreshed in its struggle to be faithful to God's mission in the world. It is a celebration of God's incredible faithfulness.
So it can look back to the honeymoon of the early church and the idyllic pictures in the early chapters of the Book of Acts which judge its faithlessness, mediocrity and self-centeredness and at the same time call it to a vision of what the church might be. But it can also look back to the shoddy realities of churches like those at Laodicea and Corinth and adopt a healthy skepticism with respect to any utopian dreams for the church today. So we do not lose heart. God is faithful; God's promises are sure. And in confidence in those promises for the future of the church and of the world, we can get on about the business to which we have been called by this incredibly faithful God.
Edmund Steimle Protestant Hour-Lutheran Series
1. Acts 2:42. 2. Acts 2:44-46. 3. Acts 4:32, 34-5. !-- Generation of PM publication page 7 -->4. Rev 2-3. 5. Quoted by Howard Moody in Christianity and Crisis, July 7, 1969, p. 186. 6. Howard Moody, "A Case of Historical Amnesia," Christianity and Crisis, July 7, 1969, p. 187. 7. Ibid. 8. John Hick, Christianity at the Centre (SCM Press, 1968), p. 76.