The Sunday Called Sexagesima


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or the Second Sunday before Lent 

O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do…
2 Corinthians 11:19-31
Luke 8:4-15

Corinth, the capital of the Roman Province of Achaia (Greece), on the main East/West trade route, on the isthmus between the mainland and the Morea (Peloponnese), a city of two great ports, was a byword in the First Century for loose living, crowned as it was by the Temple of Venus with its 1000 prostitutes. Everything about it was turbulent, including its Jewish community swelled by the expulsion from Rome by the Emperor Claudius (49 AD, Acts 18:2). After Rome it was the most important city that Paul visited (Athens was then a backwater university town) which explains why he spent 18 months there (Acts 18:9-11) but begs the question of why he never returned even though he spent subsequent time at Ephesus only four days sailing away. The general view is that 1 Corinthians reduced the opposition to Paul and brought about the reform he required and that 2 Corinthians, particularly the third part from which the Reading is taken, was the final blow to his Judaising opponents.

Some have made a virtue of the varied tone of this Epistle but at best the style is rhetorical and erratic, no more so than in Chapter 11. Paul attacks his opponents by saying that he is at least equal to them in ordinary matters but that for Christ he has suffered more than any of them.

Luke’s account of the parable of the sower is well fitted to Paul’s Corinth: there was plenty of pagan, stony ground where goodness and generosity were trodden under foot; there were countless novel enthusiasms which quickly sprang up and died for want of authenticity and commitment; and the thorns of greed were virulent in a market where anything could be sold and bought. The conditions Jesus describes in simple agricultural terms are familiar to us today for although Christians are not immune to the direct temptations of the devil nor from sudden and venal enthusiasms, our greatest danger lies in the thorns, the cares of the world that can so easily choke us even if we continue our regular church-going. The earth’s requirements can so easily become part of the fabric of our lives, a ‘given’ in our frame of reference. And so although we hope to escape the kind of persecution which Paul suffered, we need to examine ourselves scrupulously to see whether we have been infested and (to mix metaphors) are in danger of having the spiritual life choked out of us.

It is tempting to step back from the conflation of Paul’s sufferings with the seed that fell on good ground, to say that we will only produce good fruit if we suffer but there is a strong sense in which that is true. Paul’s Christian witness took place at a time of danger and uncertainty; for a second time he lists the dangers he has already experienced (cf First Sunday of Lent) and there is another shipwreck (on Malta) to come and, by tradition, martyrdom in Rome. Our Christian witness is, by and large, grounded in a libertarian culture although we will often quite properly regret the indifference in which Christ is held. Our suffering, then, our mission to produce good fruit depends upon the Word of God working in us so that we bear public witness to it in a diverse world which often refuses to rank one value, ethic or religion above another. There is much talk of “Mission” but the chief mission of our lives should be to bear daily witness to Christ, not leaving it to clerically organised initiatives. There is a risk that we might lose people we suppose to be our friends by defending our values and our commitment to Christ and it is a danger we often avoid out of politeness (cf Fourth after Epiphany).

Paul is so anxious to defend Christ that his outbursts are both violent and endearing; not for him the studied and urbane religiosity of the dinner party and the cathedral choir stall; he is embarrassingly, affirmatively blunt and yet he still faces attacks on his sincerity; only that can explain his explicit list of sacrifices and his insistence at the end of the passage that he is telling the truth. We can only hope that our modesty will not be tested in such extreme circumstances.

We, like the Corinthians, are exposed to endless fashions and enthusiasms which we mistake for substance. Our media could not survive without generating excitement through novelty; and enjoying the sparkling froth of our society is harmless unless we mistake it for the substance of life. If we begin to live for things instead of living with them we are in danger of idolatry. Again, it isn’t the obvious pitfalls which most often pose the danger but the endemic cynicism and self consciousness which govern public and social life.

One of the dangers which the Corinthians faced, According to both Luke and Paul, was the introduction of secular tactics into religious disputes; Paul’s opponents behaved like adversarial politicians and it is all too easy for us to follow the same course when discussing the genuinely held differences in the way we witness to Christ. The last place in which we should expect to find acrimony is the Church. The whole history of the interaction between Paul and the Corinthians and the parable of the sower are a warning to the fractious and the shallow. Our calling demands a high seriousness and an avoidance of faction and, above all, a willingness to suffer in whatever way God requires, that his Word may live in the world.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. Was Paul’s failure to re-visit Corinth an accident or the result of cowardice?
  2. Modernise the parable of the sower
  3. Write a simple paraphrase of the Epistle
  4. What are the proper limits of dissent in the Church?
  5. Write a character sketch of Paul.

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