Acts 18 follows Paul as he continues on his missionary journey.
From Thessalonica, he went to Beroea, Athens, and now arrives at Corinth. The full account of the Corinthian mission (which lasts a year and a half) is narrated in 18:1-17, but our reading is only the opening of the story.
In it Luke describes him as building a relationship with Aquila and Priscilla, who were forced out of Rome when Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from the city (v. 2). Most scholars argue the expulsion to which Luke is referring is the same one Suetonius describes as being due to the Jews’ “constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus (Christ??) and which occurred in the year 49 ce (Suetonius, Claudius 25.4). The fact that they were indeed known to the Corinthian church is confirmed in the greeting Paul passes on from them to the church in 1 Corinthians 16:9. Moreover, the emperor Nero rescinded Claudius’ edict in 54, thus explaining how Paul could offer greetings to Aquila and Priscilla in his letter to the church in Rome (Romans 16:3).
Paul’s connection with the couple is formed as much through the trade of tentmaker which Paul shares with Aquila as it is through shared faith (Acts 18:3). Luke’s note concerning this matter is a reminder that Paul’s livelihood comes from a means other than his ministry.
As with last week’s passage in the narrative lectionary, the mission in Corinth results in persecution from Jewish leadership. But for sake of homiletical contrast, the preacher might wish to use the Acts passage as background to focus on the reading from 1 Corinthians 1:10-18. In this passage the theme of conflict internal to the church, as opposed to conflict between the church and persecutors, is introduced. Internal conflicts will dominate the epistle — e.g., conflicts concerning sexual morality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), eating meat sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8), disparity in eating practices at the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians chapters 12-14), and the interpretation of the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15). While it is expressed in different ways in relation to each conflict, Paul emphasizes the unity of the church and the ethic of building up others in the community of faith. That theme is also introduced in today’s reading.
It is striking that the initial point of division Paul names in the epistle is the very thing that should bind Christians together: baptism (1 Corinthians 1:13ff). Baptism, however, is a foil for forming allegiances to different church leaders — Paul, Apollos, and Peter (1 Corinthians 1:12). But Paul will have nothing of this issue. He makes it clear that what is at stake is the very nature of the church itself when he asks, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) in a manner foreshadowing the use of the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ in chapter 12.
Indeed, next week’s reading in the narrative lectionary is 1 Corinthians 13. In this chapter, Paul presents love as the ultimate ecclesiological ethic. That reading only makes sense in light of the litany of conflicts Paul addresses between this week’s reading and chapter 13. So the preacher will do well to frame Paul’s call for unity in chapter 1 in light of conflicts yet to be named to help set up the sermon for next week as well.
Paul’s call for unity in the church is needed today as ever. The effectiveness of that call in a contemporary sermon, however, will depend on the contemporary ecclesial conflicts the preacher names. Every congregation has conflicts, some deeper than others. But naming conflicts too close to home may lead the hearers to become defensive instead of being open to Paul’s call. Preachers might choose instead to start historically, naming a litany of conflicts that have plagued the church in the past, beginning with Corinth, what books to include in the canon, when to celebrate Easter, what languages Scripture should be translated into, how many sacraments there are, the nature of the sacraments, divisions into denominations, whether organs can be used in worship, whether drums and guitars should be used in worship, whether women should be ordained, whether homosexuality is a sin, and so on. Or preachers might keep the focus on congregational level conflicts starting with small (even humorous) ones and moving to ones with more significance: whether the carpet should be red or blue; what temperature the thermostat should be set on; how much of the budget should be spent on facilities and how much on programming; what style(s) of liturgy and music should the community practice; which candidate should be called as pastor; should the boundaries of the community be expanded to include people of different races, sexual orientations, theologies; and so forth.
Whether working from past to present or from small to larger conflicts, the preacher works to get hearers to acknowledge conflicts in the church in order that they can come to acknowledge their own participation in such conflicts. Only then can they hear Paul’s call to ecclesial unity as directed toward them.
PRAYER OF THE DAYHoly Lord, within your church, your followers have often allowed their disagreements to get in the way of being faithful to your word. Remove any barriers our communities face that prevent us from sharing your word and building up your church. Amen.
HYMNS Jesus, we are gathered ELW 529, TFF 140 Goodness is stronger than evil ELW 712
CHORAL Be thou my vision, Bob Chilcott