Borders, Bridges, & Bodies – The Corinthian Church

Rev. Donnell T. Wyche — November 1, 2020

We are continuing in our sermon series: Borders, Bridges, and Bodies as we follow Paul and his companions through missionary journeys in the book of Acts to introduce the story of Jesus in various cross-cultural settings.

Paul’s answer to the divisive differences between human bodies and the power dynamics of culture, gender, government, and money is the bloody, disconcerting, riot-inducing reality that in the radical welcome of Jesus’ crucified and resurrected body everyone, anyone, who believes in him is set free from every sin (cf Acts 13:38-39).

At the end of Acts 17, Paul was preaching about the resurrection winning some, while others sneered.

After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, 3and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. (Acts 18:1-3)

As we make our way through Acts 18, you will notice that Luke is mixing the ordinary with the pain of the diaspora – the lack of belonging. Paul is here in Corinth repeating his Gospel announcement pattern: arriving in a new place, finding his way to the synagogue, where he argues with his fellow Jews to accept the Good News that Jesus is God’s messiah. And right here you have it, the ordinary, mixed with the pain of belonging. Luke adds that Paul was a tentmaker as were his hosts, Aquila and Priscilla. Paul is both at home and is estranged. He’s among his people, yet, he’s struggling with belonging.

4Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. 6But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” (Acts 18:4-6)

The response to his gospel announcement is the same, it’s mixed. Some hear his pronouncement that anyone, everyone who believes can be saved, then others reject this very message. Luke is also comparing this acceptance and rejection alongside the plight of the people in Corinth. Some are in Corinth because they have been exiled, they don’t have a place to belong, some are there because they are Gentiles who worship the God of Israel. This new community is forming and its being pressed in from both sides, people who are despised by Roman rule, and those who are questioning what the Spirit is doing among those in exile and among the Gentiles. The tension, Luke says, has become too much for Paul.

6But when they opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent of it. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” (Acts 18:6)

Selfishly, I get it, the work of the multiethnic church can be exhausting. Paul is, in shaking the dust from clothes, announcing judgement. He’s giving up. Paul is saying as clearly as possible, I give up. I give up. If you want to reject this message of hope, fine, “your blood is on your own head.” I tried. I give up.

7Then Paul left the synagogue and went next door to the house of Titius Justus, a worshiper of God. 8Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:7-8)

STORY: This exchange reminded me a newcomer meeting some years ago, this newcomer was here for school, a graduate program, they were going to be here for 3-5 years and they were still church shopping when we met. We scheduled a walk on campus and at the end we sat in the middle of the diag, just chatting and they asked me about my journey leading a multi-ethnic church.

I’m usually reserved in our newcomer meetings because I don’t want to scare newcomers away, but I decided to share vulnerably about how hard it had been leading the church. It was/is hard because being a multi-ethnic church, doing the work of reconciliation, trying to be a prophetic voice in our culture, can be challenging, and overwhelming, especially when those who don’t like what’s being said or done, can just get up from the table and leave.

I shared about my pain losing friends and congregants who had been a part of the church for years, who were here when Maria and I met, and later got married, when I got ordained, who were here at the birth of our kids and so on. I guess in my vulnerability, I was sharing how hard it is to be at the frontlines.

This newcomer almost rebuked me in offering this correction, “No, God has called you to lead this church, at this time, in this place.” They went on to say, “if people leave, God will send others.”

Looking back on this exchange this newcomer was speaking faith over me. They were speaking hope over me. And honestly, I was a little surprised and taken aback by their declarations, and I think it showed on my face.

This newcomer was considering our church because of my presence and the multiethnic presence of others in our the church. This reminded me of what Pastor Marissa said last week, that when we moved from Milan to Ann Arbor, we had to do hard work to make the church welcoming to those in Ann Arbor. We had to make sacrifices, we had to change how we presented the Gospel, we had to make the church welcoming for people who weren’t yet at the church.

As we concluded our time together, they remarked how important it was for them to be located in a community that was really integrated, that multi-ethnic, and that was reconciling. I needed to hear these words. I am better for having created space to hear this word.

It turns out Paul needed to hear these same words too:

9One night the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. 10For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” 11So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God. (Acts 18:9-11)

Paul is caught. He’s caught in an action that God will not participate in. God will not join Paul in his abandonment. Because the abandoned have a home in Christ, in the reconciling church of Christ. This the work of the cross, removing the dividing walls of hostility. Luke alerts us to the transformative work of the Spirit because of the resurrection. It’s easy to find like-minded and like-looking communities. But God’s Spirit is interested in transforming us so that we can create something new and develop deep roots and have true community.

But there is so much in the way. For Paul there was rejection and violence.

12While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13“This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”  11So Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God.12While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13“This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”14Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. 15But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” 16So he drove them off. 17Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.

This violence is unexplained, Paul left the synagogue and went next door, but his departure wasn’t enough. It’s unclear from Luke’s narrative who initiates this violence, Luke only notes that it was united. Pastor Marissa acknowledged a couple of weeks ago that there was already a latent resentment that was ready to manifest itself as violence. Maybe Paul tapped into insecurities, maybe he unearthed past hurts, maybe he exposed and unstated fears that some people will be replaced by this new move of God or discarded, whatever it was, it was ready to spill over at any moment.

Luke seems to be highlighting this violence as a barrier to the Gospel. He doesn’t distinguish between the violence that is state sponsored versus the violence that bubbles up because of the people’s insecurities.

I think this force on the violence can be instructive because it alerts us that there is a lot at stake and we move from being just multi-ethnic to becoming a new multicultural church there are things in the way. The ways we have come to know and understand ourselves and God may be questioned. The comfort we have in the culture of the church catering to us, may be displaced, but let me say that the goal in becoming the multicultural church is so that we all might co-exist, as equals, not as second-class citizens. So maybe Luke is alerting is there will be pain.

The pain we experience as make our way together towards a new culture, will pave the way for those the Lord will send to us who at their core are looking for what was missing in Corinth, a real sense of belonging, which like Brené Brown describes, “as believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.” Pastor Anna Hillaker, put this way, “We long for a space where we can share our most authentic selves with the world and find solace in genuine community, a community that is actively partnering with the Holy Spirit to break our predilection to violence, to harm, and to the crushing wheels of oppression.”

Let me push in…

And “you” includes all of you, not just the parts of you, I like.

At the core of our church has been an invitation for all of us to bring our whole self into the transformative story of Jesus. This vision includes us becoming a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multicultural church. This is the vision that we see in Ephesians 3 where Paul lays out God’s vision from the beginning was the reconstitution of God’s worldwide, multi-ethnic family of believers drawn together in the name of Jesus. Empower by the Gospel (Luke 4) of Jesus we want to partner with Jesus is removing as he removes barriers to God‘s vision of a worldwide multi ethnic family. Our goal as a church is to be a place where everyone is welcome, where they are loved, and where they belong.

That’s the promise of us being better together because each of us brings a richness of God’s vision, heart, voice, and perspective into this space. As God is revealed through each of us we get to see a fuller, clearer, ever-expanding picture of God and that can be transformative. Your presence in this space confronts my limited picture of God and invites me into a fuller, deeper, richer experience. Let me just say this, I don’t want to do church without you because I know that without you I will miss God at work.