More Of Paul's Ideas For Christian Congregations
Paul's advice on relating to one another within the Christian congregation moves from negatives such as 'Do not conform to the patterns of the world' and 'Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought' to positives and pro-activity. 'Love', says Paul, 'must be sincere'. This is Christian love, brotherly and sisterly love, friendship love. But what is Paul getting at here? Why does he make the point that Christian love must be sincere? Probably because in Christian congregations from the very start, not everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit and with the joy of the Lord. Not everyone was looking out for the weaker poorer members of the congregation. There was no doubt some stuffiness and distance in some towards others. Not good enough, says Paul. He asks people to work harder at loving others. It seems a contradiction but it is not. Christian love means genuine caring, involvement and commitment. A former colleague of mine when I was in Kenya, a Hungarian, had a phrase which he used to describe participating without a full heart; 'washing your face'. He meant doing just enough to give the impression that you are interested. But that is not enough for Paul and not enough for God. 'Hate what is evil, cling to what is good' Paul goes on. Then as now, it is very easy to dally with the evils of the world; they are often exciting and enticing, distracting and dangerous. Paul asks these new Christians to be disciplined in their thinking about what is going on around them. He uses the world 'cling'; it suggests a touch of desperation. People cling to one another or to things or even ideas out of fear that they will lose them. Paul saw Christian life in those terms. You have to be determined to be a good Christian or you will just fall away.
Next Paul advises members of Christian congregations to be devoted to one another and to honour one another. To us this seems a bit claustrophobic. But in Paul's time, these early Christians were living a kind of community existence, sharing their money and possessions and eating together in fellowship meals. When Christian congregations grew larger, these patterns changed, especially at Holy Communion where the full meal became the symbolic taking of bread and wine. Even so, there are Christian fellowships today where in the words of the song 'Let there be love shared among us' people are caring of one another and make a point of saying so and showing so. In the Church of Scotland we don't do a lot of affirming and hugging. You wouldn't describe our congregation life here as a 'love-in'. We're not like the world of actors and celebrities with their air kissing and extravagant greetings. That's a remnant of old God-fearing Scottish Christianity. We are not here to make little gods of one another. We are here to worship God. A prospective bride booking her wedding for next year asked me if they could spread rose petals as she came down the aisle. I said in reply 'We are not Buddhists – you can spread petals as long as you pick them up afterwards'.
Paul was as aware of flagging commitment as we are. He noticed varieties of enthusiasm among members of congregations. He says, 'Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour'. There are definitely members of this congregation who can fairly be described as 'lacking zeal'. Some of our Congregational Board and Kirk Session meetings are not well attended. In and around our church we have gifted people who don't want to be involved. We hear many excuses for not fulfilling vows of membership of Christ's Church. We could do a lot better than we are doing. How to you re-energise, re-stimulate, re-inspire someone's interest in Jesus Christ? Actually that is the Lord's work. It is the power of the Holy Spirit which does such things in a person's life. Is the Holy Spirit active in your life? Is God asking you do be doing something, anything for Him? Or perhaps something more than you are doing at present?
Paul was more than a poet as we know from 1 Corinthians 13. Here he offers a lovely little series which could be memorised. 'Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer'. You could make a nice wee song with these words. Joy and hope are great concepts. Christians must be positive no matter the circumstances. Individually and collectively, Christians must be above and victorious over doubts and fears, anxieties and troubles. We are also to be patient in times of trial and testing and faithful in prayer, not giving up when there seem to be no answers. The whole of humanity is needing to be praying this way at the present time. Maybe we thought that after the 2nd World War we'd not need another such conflagration. Now we have the Islamic State on one hand and we have Russia on the other hostile to our lives and living in Europe. And how have we used the past 70 years? Well? Have we not become less and less Christian, less godly? Has the fabric of our society not crumbled? We have no over-arching vision or cohesion or purpose. Our gods are celebrities and footballers. We have become a human race of narcissists taking selfies and posting them on the internet, obsessed with our own self-importance. Our society is in many ways decadent. As such it cannot and it will not last. Paul encouraged congregational conviviality and charity where needed. Sharing and hospitality were important in those days. There was no social security. There were no tax credits. No state pensions. Some had given up everything to become Christians and Paul wanted to see that they were not forgotten.
Paul's teaching and advice moves on to echo that of Jesus himself. Whether Paul was quoting the Lord or whether he was speaking by the same Holy Spirit we don't know but his thinking is like that in the Sermon of the Mount. 'Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse' Paul says. This reflects actual persecution in the Roman Empire of Christians at the time and it went on for 300 years. Here is the crucial distinction of Christianity from Judaism and from Islam that it was founded on non-violence. Today we can turn to this high example as our guiding light. Jesus Christ offers the world hope in his own non-violent victory over enmity. Only this can save the world. But – how does this relate to Christians in Iraq or Syria? They want to be protected by force of arms from potential genocide. Who can blame them? Should all the Christians of the middle east turn the other cheek? Many, of course, are already doing so because they are peaceful people and they are not soldiers by profession. This is the classic argument for the Just War; you fight to save the lives of others, you are prepared to kill to save the lives of others; you hope and expect that the killing will lessen the human destruction that non-violence would necessarily bring about. People want to deal with the Islamic State in the only way it will understand – by greater force of arms. As we also remember the events of the 1st World War, we can recall that there were many conscientious objectors who did not want to bear arms. Some of these were Christians, perhaps mostly from the Christian Brethren and Quakers. During this time, my maternal grandfather was a miner. Married with two children, he did not enlist. My father served with the Navy during the 2nd World War. I would not have wanted to kill anyone. But I would have been prepared to take up a non-combatant role. Some people are needed to live out the inconvenient example of obedience to Jesus Christ. And that is what Paul is saying. The example of Christians forgiving their torturers and murderers in Roman times certainly increased the growth of Christianity. As in anything else in human life, the purer and better the specimen, the stronger and more lasting the consequence.
Paul asks Christians to rejoice with those who are happy and to spend time with those who are sad. Christians are not killjoys and in bereavement we have a comforting Gospel. Christian society, Paul goes on, is classless. In the armed forces chaplains hold the same rank as the person they are speaking to be it a general or a private. The aristocracy had its land and position and power but the best were not proud or arrogant or haughty towards those who served them. Downton Abbey may be idealised, but people like Sir Alec Douglas-Hume were courteous and caring towards estate employees. Even the Queen is apparently polite and gracious to all who work in the various palaces. Many might wish to reject monarchy and aristocracy as inherently outmoded and that is, I believe, a discreetly quiet item of agenda within the independence movement.
Keeping the law of the land was also important for Paul. He was no social revolutionary, no political freedom fighter. Some say he should have been. Why did it take another 1800 years for slavery to be abolished? Would Christianity have survived it it had been a movement of armed rebellion? We know what happened to Spartacus. It has been better for the world that Christians lived within the law as non-violent people. It gives us all hope today. We need it. Paul – ever the realist advises 'If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone'. Paul knows there are always issues, problems, disagreements, confrontations. Sometimes, there are no reconciliations as people take differing views. But in the well worn phrase – we can agree to differ. We can respect one another. We can live in peace. The crowning glory of Paul's strategy for the growth of Christianity is not seeking revenge for wrong done and more positively, doing good to those who do you harm. Forgiving and not forgetting is not enough for Paul. He wants demonstrations of pro-active Christian love. 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him' – 'overcome evil with good'. It is the impossible ideal. Jesus talked the talk and walked the walk. Paul did too. If this dynamic was at the centre of our congregational life, it would attract others. It is our calling to let the light of Christ shine through us out into this world by the way we conduct ourselves towards one another and towards those who do not share our faith in Jesus Christ.