Where do you get your sense of personal security? What defines who you are? What gives you a secure sense of identity? For most of us, it will involve a range of factors—our occupation (often important for men), relationships (often important for women), our achievements, perhaps our appearance. For much of the time, we can happily get on with life without worrying about this, but there are key moments which test our security in our identity:
- The years when we are forming our understanding of ourselves. I remember the intense competition, as a teenager in an all-boys’ school, for kudos and being in the ‘in’ group—and the freedom that came from discovering I was accepted as I was, first by Christians and then by God.
- Key opportunities, especially those we miss, test our resilience. A number of years ago my failure to be appointed to a job—for which until the last minute I was the only candidate—tested my sense of security in who I was.
- When others enjoy success, whether we can celebrate their successes can test our own security.
- The challenge of change always reveals how secure we are. Just suggest to a church that they remove their precious pews and see what response you get!
The first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth offers some key insights. Corinth was a similar size to present-day Nottingham. Like our city, it had its traditional industries—not mining and lace but pottery and art. It was a centre of culture, and, being at the intersection of trade routes, it was also a centre for entrepreneurial activity. This was a place someone could get rich quick! Paul knew such wealthy and influential individuals:
- Gaius, whom Paul baptised (1.14) was a host of the congregation (Rom 16.23) and so must have been wealthy enough to have a large property.
- Another of Paul’s early converts was Crispus, the former ruler of the synagogue (Acts 18.8).
- Paul’ co-author of the letter was Sosthenes (1.1), who succeeded Crispus as a rule of the synagogue and was beaten by the Jews when Gallio dismissed the case against Paul (Acts 18.17).
- Erastus (Rom 16.23) was city ‘treasurer’ or ‘supervisor of building works’, and possibly the same Erastus who was Aedile and left his inscription in the pavement he paid for in front of the city’s theatre.
So this was a city where people could find security in their achievements, and where they often found their identity through following visiting speakers who impressed large crowds with their rhetoric. What an opportunity for anyone with a message to share! And yet Paul rejects this approach (1.17). Relying on rhetoric would rob the cross of its power, because all these ways of finding security relied on gathering things for oneself—wealth, reputation, being with the right crowd—and this approach was infecting the congregation at Corinth. By constrast, the security God wants us to have, says Paul, relies on receiving the free, gracious gift God bestows on us.
Paul’s vision is that they will ‘all agree’ (1.10)—not in the sense that they will all parrot the same words, or all be the same as one another. He is very clear later in the letter (ch 12) that there must be diversity within the body. No, this means (in Tom Wright’s words) all ‘being on the same side’, kicking the ball the same way—all too often, the church is playing against itself, instead of playing together, and scoring a good many own goals!
He also appeals that there should be no ‘dissensions’ and that they should be ‘united’ (1.10). The language he is using here is of the tearing and the mending of something physical, and it is the same language we find in Mark 1.19 and Matt 4.21 of the disciples mending their nets. Jesus, like Paul, is in effect saying, ‘Let me mend the nets of your lives, and you can then catch other people up in my purposes.’ Unless they are mended, the Christians in Corinth will be of no use in drawing others to know God’s love. The divisions they are experiencing are not primarily about doctrine, but about preferences and loyalties; they are finding their security in belonging to one group or another.
And as long as we are finding our security in the ways we like doing things, the groups we belong to, or the conferences we attend, we too are like torn nets in need of repair. Here, as elsewhere, Paul mentions the cross in close relation to unity and division (1.13); Jesus’ death effected reconciliation, turning us from enemies to friends, not just with God, but with one another.
The security God gives us by his grace has been explored in the preceding verses. Instead of seeking security in wealth, we have been ‘enriched’ by God in Christ (1.5). Instead of seeking security in rhetorical skills—ours or others’—we have ‘all speech and knowledge’ in him. Instead of being jealous of the abilities of others, or proud of our own, we have been given free gifts by his Spirit (1.7). Instead of being anxious about the future and what it might bring, we wait patiently for the one who sustains us (1.8). Instead of wrestling with past guilt, we have security in his declaration that we are forgiven. And in place of the wounds from the betrayal of others, we have the love of the one who is faithful (1.9) poured into our hearts (Rom 5.5).
Paul’s invitation is less to unity, but rather to security in the love of God. When we are secure in him, then unity follows. And this really is a matter of life and death; those who trust in other, temporary things will ‘perish’ (1.18) as these things fade. But our security is found in trusting the one who carries us into eternity.
(This is a summary of the sermon preached today at St Mary’s, Radcliffe on Trent.)