We can be so certain we’re right. We can believe and insist on all sorts of things, if there are a few people around encouraging us. There are groups of people that sincerely believe the Earth is actually flat. How did it come to the Flat Earth society being a thing in 2018? The patent evidence of science is swept away by willful ignorance, and for what purpose? To not be wrong, to be sure of being right?...
The Pharisees were certain they were right. People had built lives, reputations and a power base on an increasingly legalistic, narrow and difficult to follow interpretation of God’s law with layer upon layer of added detail confounding the underlying truth. Jesus was too great a disruption for the Pharisees – they couldn’t see past their own expectations and desires for God.
Nathaniel, however, was ready to be surprised. When his friend Philip said he’d found the one foretold by Moses and the prophets, Nathaniel sensibly was cautious. He didn’t just take Philip’s word for it – he questioned whether it was possible for this Man to have come from Nazareth – perhaps light heartedly, perhaps sincerely. He knew the scriptures, he questioned, but he didn’t dismiss Philip. Instead, he accepted the invitation to “come and see”, and Jesus didn’t disappoint. Nathaniel could have rejected Jesus because he wasn’t what he was expecting, but he didn’t. If we’re truly to be open to God, then we need to be waiting to hear him, and to be open to the unexpected. It will be consistent with Scripture, but it may not be a perfect fit for our interpretations to date, and like Nathaniel we need to be ready for that.
There were a lot of people in Corinth that were sure they were right, and they often disagreed with each other. Corinth was an important administrative in the Roman Empire, and a nexus of trade routes. We tend to think of the Corinthians as being a church like today, but really, this was the church in development. Gentiles outnumbered Jews, and the people were developing their theology in the midst of multiple cults for multiple idols and a steady stream of competing ideas that came in with the trade ships. As a result, the Corinthian community were used to new cultural influences. This community was enthusiastically open to the Gospel as shared by Paul. When Paul left, the community was also open to the competing ideas of those around them. Alternative leaders rose, took a kernel of Gospel truth as Paul had proclaimed, and distorted it. Sub-groups with competing ideas formed and split. To address this, Paul gave the Corinthians filters to use as they set out to determine God’s path.
We know from Nathaniel that God’s voice will be consistent with scripture, but may not be exactly what we’re expecting. Paul gives us three more filters in his rebuttal of the Corinthian distortions. The first is that God’s Word is to our benefit. If you sever the Gospel message of freedom from its context, you allow for a range of behaviours that harm individuals, those around them, divide communities, and lead us away from God. Paul tells us to test what we believe and what we’re told against whether it is beneficial for us. It’s a good test still.
The second filter Paul gives us is that God’s Word doesn’t lead to us being dominated. Behaviours that take our time from God, that clutter our minds and hearts, that control us, tether us, or make us obsess – these are not behaviours that God wants for us. God’s truth does not lead to our domination, it sets us free.
Paul reminds us that our bodies are members of Christ – together we’re his body. This is our third filter. If we insist on behaviours that dominate, oppress, discourage, or harm others, then we are not speaking the truth. Because we are all free to follow Jesus’s path to God, a path he has cleared for us by sweeping aside legalism and human expectations and corruptions.
Today, we have parallel advantages and disadvantages to those faced by the early Corinthian believers. Instead of ideas and cultures flowing in through trade routes, we are living through an Information Revolution - the best of news, science, theology, art, and philosophy is at our fingertips, on our screens, and appearing in our social media newsfeeds. We are easily able to share our ideas and truths to an ever-increasing audience as well. But this easy communication has a flip side. The rise of the Internet means that anyone can put up convincing looking sites, that lack substance and truth. Unkind, harmful, and polarizing views find an audience and encouragement, and benefit from the endorsement of more people than they could have found before.
There’s clearly a lot of untruth in the world right now. What has God to say about it? Can we hear God’s Word still? We need to filter the noise, including our own voices, so that instead of a bluster, we have a refined stream of truth. Think about it like wind and flame. If we don’t shelter a newly lit flame from a blustering wind, coming from all directions, it blows out. If we direct a steady, filtered, targeted stream of air, from our lips, it grows. Once the flames have lit the logs, if we fan it with a good whack of targeted air, it takes off, and catches other kindling about that is ready to burn. The truth is a current that is beneficial, that doesn’t dominate, that is scripturally sound, and that builds the Body of Christ. Anything else that is added is a distraction. It’s the bluster that blows out the flame, instead of fanning it.
by Ann Edwards, for Epiphany 2, Sunday 14 January 2018
Jo Inkpin, Penny Jones, Peter Jeffery, Ann Edwards, Elizabeth McConnell