Our Sacred Story this week comes from 1 Cor 1:10-17. Read the full story here.
I can picture this scene as one that’s familiar to any movie about a high schooler that’s new to town, and is assigned a “tour guide” to help them find their way through the social spheres of their new home. As they say in Mean Girls, “You’ve got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, jv jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks, desperate wannabes, burnouts, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst. Beware of the plastics.” In this ancient Roman city of Corinth, Chloe, one of the women who are leading the early church, shares a similar account. The church there has divided itself up like the rest of society – not just into clubs and cliques, but into a hierarchy of who’s who.
These early Christians didn’t come up with this idea on their own; it is how their world was ordered. Ancient Rome is organized as a system of patronage – in which everyone has someone who is above them, someone they “belong “ to, and your worth is determined by how powerful that person is. The game is to become powerful by association. So if you were to walk through an ancient Roman high school cafeteria, from the top of the heap to the bottom you’d have – Caesar (who is a God in this culture), the Imperial family, senators, equestrians (which are basically knights), aristocrats, merchants/soldiers/artisans, manual laborers, freed slaves, slaves.
The people of God took the system of power and privilege they knew in the world and perpetuated it in the church. Their sense of self was defined by who they were connected to, whose table they sat at, and where they stood in relation to others in this social pyramid. I don’t feel like I can cast judgment on them or blame them; it’s what we as humans are prone to do.
I wonder how we might draw our own hierarchy pyramid in the USA today? Who would be at the top? Who fits in where? Maybe it would go: The president, Celebrities, those with titles or positions (such as chairman of the board, doctor), then maybe business owners and property owners/people with retirement plans, children, the old/the sick/the differently abled (those who aren’t able to produce like we think they should), and then those without property or ID (who are far more likely to be people of color), prisoners. Who would be at the bottom? In what ways do we buy into it? How does that affect your soul? In what ways do we do the same thing in our communities of faith?
I think breaking out of that system may have been particularly difficult for Corinthians. You see, Corinth was the largest city in its region, and the 5th largest in the empire. It was a port city, a vibrant metropolis, a whole community that is driven by keeping or improving its place in the empire. Perhaps ancient Corinth is a place not so different than Houston. And as a major city, they are steeped in the rhetoric and privileges of it all. And so it’s probably harder for them to shake loose of that worldview, to shake loose the ways of social pyramids and even spiritual one-upmanship. It’s probably why Paul and the Corinthians write sooooo many letters back and forth. There was at least one letter before “first Corinthians”, and several more after. Because this isn’t a one-and-done discussion. Living into who God has called them to be is not an overnight thing.
We often forget who we truly are beyond the hype or the stigma placed on us by anything other than God. We forget that we are baptized, claimed by God, not into a country club of friends, but into the body of Christ. Remembering that we belong only to God and nothing else, in the face of constant stimulation that makes other claims about how we achieve belonging, is a lifelong endeavor. Paul’s work is to remind the Corinthians that they are more than their status, and the way their status is used to create divisions. Our work as church, is to do the same.
It’s not that God doesn’t see us as unique and different, or wants us to erase those differences. But who God created us to be, where we happen to be born, and the social world we find ourselves shouldn’t be weaponized against each other to create a hierarchy of love or divine favor. God has something different in mind for how we relate to one another and to the world. The good news of the Gospel is that no one has an “in” with God over and above anyone else or is any closer or any farther from God than anyone else. No one denomination is more beloved by God than others.
Your worth doesn’t come from who you know. You do not belong to the system, to society’s expectations for you, you are not even owned by the expectations you place upon yourself. You belong to God.
You do not belong to God because of your status, or your citizenship or immigration status, or what you or don’t achieve, or how many followers, likes, or views you get on social media, or how well your family does or doesn't function. You belong to God because that is who you are, who you were born to be.
Paul’s message, his hope, is that Christians would embody an alternative way of life, to practice it and bring it into being through the church. That the Gospel would not only be told with our words, but with the way we organize and live together. In the way we not only talk about, but mobilize and advocate for justice that reflects God’s hope for a new world order. That we would communicate with our whole selves that there’s another way, that there is a bigger truth than the half-truths of the empire.
Obviously, this idea, this promise isn’t one we can just switch a flip in our minds and believe, it takes time and experience; it takes the Holy Spirit working on us, in us. But one we have a taste of it, a glimpse, we want to be a part of the day when this promise is known in full. Once we hear what is possible….it changes everything. It fills our hearts with a longing to build systems that reflect the promises we proclaim. A system where God is not only at the top – but in the middle, at the bottom, pervasive throughout every stitch of society. A system where….actually….that social pyramid with a top and bottom are flattened and extended into a wide divine embrace. A system without patriarchy or supremacy or nationalism. A system that doesn’t feel like a system, but a holy kingdom, a kindom. For God has sent you to proclaim, and to BE, good news for each other, for the city where you live, and for the whole world. Amen.