A few years after Jesus’s death, a man named Jewish man named Saul was travelling around the Roman Empire trying to stamp out the Jewish Christians. At this time most of Jesus followers were Jews who saw Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Messiah who would save the people from oppression and, specifically, from the Roman Empire. The Jewish Christians were trying to reform Judaism and Saul—along with others—was trying to maintain the Jewish faith as it was. The early Christians were afraid of Saul. They had all heard the stories of this man who was trying to capture or kill all the Christians.
As Saul was travelling, there was a moment when he saw a bright light. He fell to the ground and a voice said, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul was blinded and the people travelling with him took him into the city of Damascus. A disciple named Ananias came to him after three days and healed his eyesight. This experience was one that changed Saul’s life.
Saul became the missionary we now know as Paul and spent the rest of his life travelling around the Mediterranean. He started many churches and as Christianity split from Judaism he was an advocate for the non-Jewish Christians. One of Paul’s strengths was his vision of communities of faith where people were welcome regardless of their differences.
Paul started the church in the Greek city of Corith. Because Paul was a Jewish Christian he would go into the Jewish Synagogue to try and convince the Jews who were worshiping there that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. Some people were convinced and joined the Jesus movement. Some were not convinced.
After a time, Paul left Corinth and continued travelling—still setting up churches. While he was travelling Paul would write letters back to places he had already been. Corinthians is one of the letters that he wrote to the church in Corinth. He writes to the church there and tells them to get along. Some of the Christians in Corinth were claiming to follow Paul. Some claimed to follow Apollos or Peter. Paul points out that it isn’t about the individual leaders but about how those leaders help people recognize the Risen Christ and in experiencing the Risen Christ they experience God in their lives.
And Paul should know. Part of what made Paul’s ministry so powerful was that he spent the first part if his life trying to get rid of the Jesus followers. It wasn’t that he just didn’t like them. He tried to kill them. He was filled with hatred and violence towards followers of Jesus. Why should the Christians accept him as one of them? Why should he become someone that others looked to as a great leader? Why should he become someone recognized as wise? By our standards Paul should always have remained as an outsider in the faith. How can you trust someone who was out to kill your group of people?
And yet, there was something about Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ on the way to Damascus that changed his life. He had a mystical experience which opened him to God and then he went and learned from other Christians and from people who actually knew Jesus when he was alive.
We don’t have the benefit of being able to learn from people who actually knew Jesus. What we have are imperfect stories and letters recorded in scripture. What we have are the stories of many generations of faithful people seeking to follow Jesus in their lives. What we have are the stories of our own lives. All of these stories help us to recognize God in our own lives and the lives of people around us.
Paul has an unlikely missionary and yet the world was changed because of his ministry. Paul was imperfect. He didn’t get the first part of his life right but his life was more than his mistakes and more than it could have been on his own. We come to our own faith as we are in any given moment. We come with all the mistakes and imperfections of our lives but we trust that God can transform our lives and work through us. We come with all of who we are.
Part of what was happening in the Corinthian church was that people were wanting to create a unified group. They wanted a group of people who looked the same, acted the same and believed the same. But that wasn’t the reality of Christ’s body then. It isn’t the reality of Christ’s body now.
The Christians in the early church were squabbling over who followed the correct leader. They were squabbling over whether you could be Christian without being Jewish. They were squabbling over correct doctrine and practice. As people of faith, we continue to squabble over doctrine and faith. We continue to squabble about who is welcome and who is not. The details of who we are or how we come to the faith are ours and they are unique to us. Paul shouldn’t have been welcomed. He shouldn’t have led the early Christians because of his background—because of what he was before his experience of Jesus. In his letter he was reminding the church that we will always have difference among us and that God can work through imperfect (and all of us are imperfect) people. What holds us together in spite of our imperfections and our difference is the centrally of the Risen Christ in our lives.