Don't Live Like a Corinthian.
1 Corinthians 6:12-20;
The Second Sunday of the Triodion, called The Sunday of the Prodigal Son.
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1:05 PM 2/16/2014 — As you know, the Second Sunday of the Triodion presents to us the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son, and its message of forgiveness is an integral part of the pre-lenten season. In my preaching here, I've always encouraged you to look not so much at the wayward son after whom the parable is named, but at his older brother, as he, I believe, is the more significant of the two characters presented by our Lord in his fictional story. It's the older son, after all, who reacts the same way most of us would, becoming indignant at the fact that their father not only forgives the younger son for his lack of respect and carelessness, but rewards the irresponsible stumble-bum with perks that the ever-faithful elder son never received. Our Lord's intent, clearly, is to employ a measure of shock and awe, illustrating that God's justice does not follow the rules of fairness upon which our equitable sensibilities insist. And as we've observed every time we've looked together at this passage, the father's treatment of his elder son is not fair by anyone's standards; it's not meant to be fair, because—and this being our Lord's point—“fairness” has nothing to do with God's justice, because God's justice is tempered with God's mercy; a consoling point to the sinner, a frustration to the self-righteous. If you feel you need that message again this year, you can always go back to last year's homily, and the one before that, and the one before that, as they're all the same and we've done this many times.
But we're continuing, this Triodion season, with the Blessed Apostle Paul; and, we find that we must leave the saga of Paul and Timothy, as gripping as that has been, behind, as the Typicon transporter device beams us from Ephesus to the great cosmopolitan city of Corinth. It's a very old city, founded as early as the nineteenth century before Christ. In the days of Socrates it was known as the Doric city, filled with museums and works of art; that is until the Romans stumbled upon it and decided that it just wasn't Roman enough to suit them, so they set about to improve the décor in the only way they knew how: by burning it to the ground. A century later, around 44 BC, it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar as a military outpost, and he colonized it with Italians. Over the next one hundred years, it grew again to become the leading commercial and political center of Greece, and this is around the time that the Blessed Apostle first sets foot in it.
Now, to understand Paul's activities in Corinth, we have to understand something of what this city had become. Athens, of course, was the capitol of Greece, and it never did cease to be the intellectual and cultural center of that country, but its political influence was waning in the face of Roman expansion; so, that role began to be assumed more and more by Corinth. And while the old Doric city that Socrates would have known was probably one of the most beautiful in the world, the new Corinth was a cesspool by comparison. It had all the political and commercial influence of the old Athens, but none of the culture. It was Athens without the statues and the poetry; kind of like Washington, DC, with all the politics but none of the monuments. You've heard the expression, “A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there”? Well, Corinth wasn't even a nice place to visit. Nobody wanted to go to Corinth; you went there because it was the biggest seaport in the world; and, if you were involved in any kind of trade at all, and wanted a piece of the action, you had to be there. Its debauchery had even become part of the popular lexicon: the phrase “to live like a Corinthian” was slang for someone who lived an immoral life, and prostitutes were often referred to as “Corinthian girls.”
Now, when we last left the Blessed Apostle Paul, he was on his way into Macedonia, having left his friend Timothy behind in Ephesus as their new bishop. While on the way, he received disturbing news from Timothy about problems he was having with the Ephesians; so, the Apostle tries to help his friend out by writing to the Ephesians as well as to Timothy personally, and that's what we've been looking at up to now. While he's in Macedonia, he receives a vision begging him to cross over and evangelize the cities of Greece, and this he does. His first stop is Philippi, where he is imprisoned and miraculously set free; next he stops in Thessalonica, but is forced out by the Jews there; then he goes to Athens where he tries to preach the Gospel to the Greek Philosophers, but they just laugh him out of town. He does manage to make a few converts in these places, and he writes letters later to most of these people, and we can read them in the New Testament.
The only letter we don't have is one to the Athenians; it's possible he didn't even bother given the reception he got there; but, his encounter with them is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. Acts 16:16-18:1), where St. Luke reproduces the sermon that Paul gave in “the temple to the unknown god,” which he tries to tell them is really the God of Abraham, who became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. They don't buy it, and run him out of town. He clearly had hoped that Athens would be his crowning achievement, and it wasn't. And it's in this depressed and discouraged state that he first lays eyes on the city of Corinth; and, for reasons we've already stated, it doesn't promise to be the kind of place that's going to cheer him up much.
Now, it's obvious why our Apostolic reading is taken from First Corinthians, as it deals with some rather mundane matters that pertain to Lent and mortification: he writes about the true nature of fasting with that famous line about the body being made for food and food for the body. Msgr. Knox's translation is, of course, a lot clearer: “Food is meant for our animal nature, and our animal nature claims its food; true enough, but then, God will bring both one and the other to an end” (1 Cor. 6:13). He goes on to apply the same reasoning to sexual immorality, reminding us that what we do with our bodies matters; and, I like to speculate that he's having these thoughts partly as a reaction to his experience in Athens, where the philosophers were all Platonists, who viewed man as a soul imprisoned in a body, and it was the soul that made you who you were. St. Thomas Aquinas would later see this passage by Paul as the Scriptural verification for the anthropology of Aristotle, as the Apostle clearly explains to the Corinthians that they are every bit their bodies as they are their souls, and what one does with the body, particularly in the sexual arena, does pertain to our eternal salvation. In other words, there's no such thing as “it's just sex”—“it's just sex” can send you to hell if you're not careful.
All of this is suitable meditation for the Triodion. But what I want to put before you today is something a lot simpler: when Paul enters Corinth, with all of its debauchery and corruption and immorality, he has little reason to suppose that he will have any more success than he had anywhere else along the way;—in Philippi, in Thessalonica, in Beroea (which was another place he was chased out of), and particularly in Athens—and yet, by time he leaves there in the summer or fall of the year 52, it is the largest, most flourishing, and most active of all the Churches he established, even to the point of sending out missionaries of its own to spread the Gospel throughout cities all over Greece. We can't estimate how many Christians Paul left behind in Corinth, but we do know that they were from every nationality on the map, and some of them he mentions by name: Tertius was a Roman; Erastus was a Greek; Crispus was Jew. Most of them were from the lower classes, but there were some wealthy merchants as well; and, all of them, so Paul himself testifies, were fervent, eager, and richly blessed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
I remember having a conversation with a younger priest who was discouraged about what he perceived to be his failure to reach the souls of the people of his parish, and I had a hard time getting through to him because it's the kind of lesson you learn only after years of experience, which he didn't have: you leave a parish behind after being replaced by someone else, thinking that you've been a failure, only to learn years later that the seeds of Grace you planted there have borne fruit; you just weren't there to see it. And it's just as true for all of you: you may think that you've failed to reach your child who can't stay out of trouble, or that relative who won't talk to you, or the friend or neighbor that you crossed the wrong way, or anyone that you've tried to bring back to some semblance of Christian living. You may not see the change take place, but that doesn't mean what you tried to do was worthless. It takes us back to what we learned three weeks ago from Our Holy Father Dorotheos of Gaza, who merely echoed what St. Paul tried so desperately to tell Timothy: that everything I do that's good is really being done by Christ. It's just a matter of how docile an instrument we are willing to be in his hands.
One of the frustrations we face in our quest to follow our Lord is the sense that we all have at times, that we're not making any progress. We suffer the same struggles over and over again, we confess the same sins time and again, and we think that nothing we can do will change it. But we are not the ones to judge that. No effort we make to reproduce the Gospel, either in ourselves or in others, is ever wasted. Every effort, every struggle, brings Grace. We're not exactly objective when viewing ourselves, so we don't see it. In this sense, we could say that St. Paul needed to heed the advice he had given to Timothy: to stop looking into himself and instead trust our Lord to do the work.
As the Triodion continues, and we creep ever closer to the Great Fast and everything that entails, we might find it advantageous to add an item to our examination of conscience: after listing all the sins we need to address, we might consider to what extent we're willing to let God handle them for us. Remember, as we just read, the Prodigal Son had a whole speech rehearsed for his father about how it was all his fault, but his father never let him finish the speech because he had already forgiven him.
I'll leave you, then, with a thought by Our Holy Father Ignatius of Antioch which perfectly condenses our Apostolic reading today. Reflecting on St. Paul's experiences, he said:
The Lord overlooks nothing. Even secrets are open to Him. Let us then do everything as if He were dwelling in us. Thus we shall be His temples, and He will be within us as our God—as He actually is (On the Letter to the Ephesians).