I Corinthians 10:1-13
Paul gets a bad rap many times for being obsessed with sexual immorality, and for passing that obsession along to later Christians. There’s a musical that never really took off called On the Twentieth Century that had a bunch of people riding a train together – one of those luxury liners from the 1920’s, and a character who found herself looking out the windows at the towns they were passing and singing a song with the refrain “I know there’s dirty doings going on.” She warns,
“In the fiery pits of Hades,
It’s too late for your laments.
Repent! Repent! Repent!
There’s a fiery pit for ladies
And a fiery pit for Gents.
Like you I once was wild.
Men shouted, ‘Oh you kid’
A life of shame I led
And dirty doings did.
Until one night I saw the light
And heard salvation’s call. …
I’m so glad I didn’t hear it
Until I’d done it all.”
That, of course, captures the popular caricature of Christian virtue and has little to do with the real thing.
There are, however, times and places where particular problems appear and sometimes even thrive, and when Paul wrote to the church in Corinth he was writing to believers in a city that had its own reputation. There’s a great PBS series called In the Footsteps of Paul that explains,
“Because of its great wealth and transitory population, Corinth had a reputation for luxury, and uninhibited pleasures. This reputation was further bolstered by the city’s association with Aphrodite – her image appeared on the city’s coinage, and Corinth had at least three temples to the goddess of love … In pre-Roman times, one temple of Aphrodite was served by temple prostitutes, and, though modern scholars debate whether ritual prostitution had ceased by the time of Paul’s arrival, there is little doubt that prostitution would have thrived.”
In other words, Paul was writing to people who lived in an ancient version of Las Vegas. Some of the people in that church were so thoroughly free-and-easy about everything that one man was even living with his father’s wife. [I Corinthians 5:1] Not even the Romans were okay with that.
Given what he was hearing, Paul told the Corinthian church not to spend too much effort worrying about the sins of outsiders when they had enough on their hands to address in-house. [5:9-11] Sexual immorality gets the headlines, but he also specifically mentions people who are greedy, who worship idols, who talk down other people, who go off on binges, and who steal. (What a great bunch of folks to see on a Sunday morning, huh?)
And yet, that was precisely the thing. Paul wasn’t writing to people who, for the most part, had been raised to see anything other than that kind of wild world around them. He reminded them of that flat out.
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” [I Corinthians 1:26]
But what matters isn’t so much where you are coming from as where you are going, and he continues:
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’” [I Corinthians 1:26-31]
People had their problems, but they had come a far way. He just wanted them to keep on going.
It’s significant that he looked back on another journey that the people of God had made together. That was the journey out of slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the Promised Land. It took forty years when it could have been done in one. As the people of Israel crossed the desert, though, there was incident after incident in which people got caught up in precisely the sorts of practices that plagued the Corinthians. When Moses was on Mt. Sinai with God too long, they thought he might have died. This God that he was teaching them to worship was obviously dangerous. So they convinced Aaron to make them an idol they could worship instead, and when Moses reappeared, it turned out that, yes, God was angry at them about that and no, it did not go well. In Corinth, people were talking trash about each other, and Paul reminded them that when the Israelites murmured about Moses’ leadership, they soon found that they had only him to bring them safely through a land filled with snakes. Things hadn’t changed much.
“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” [I Corinthians 10:12]
We are all on a long, long journey together so we need to stay on our feet. We’ve all come a long way and we all have a long way to go, and the only way to do that is to keep going.
In 2013, a man named Ben Saunders and his fellow-adventurer Tarka L’Herpinier skied from Ross Island, Antarctica to the South Pole round-trip. It was 900 miles each way. When he reached the South Pole, the half-way point on his trip, there was a research station there and they could take a break for the one and only time. They didn’t do it. Saunders told an interviewer:
“We stayed outside. We just literally took some photographs by the Pole, you know, made some phone calls. I phoned my mom, you know, did some filming and then turn around and walked off again. …We had, I guess, an official representative of the National Science Foundation came and welcomed us to the Pole and said would you like to come in and have a tour? We said, no thank you, very kind but we need to get back to the coast 900 miles away. …We hadn't sat in a chair for two months by that point. So to go inside, sit in an armchair, have a hot coffee would have been, you know, just way too distracting.”
I don’t want to push the comparison too far; Jesus does not ask his disciples – at least most of them – to travel a path so strenuous and grueling. I don’t want to hide the fact, however, that he does ask his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, and that carrying a cross is serious business. Once you are underway, the thing to do is to stay on your feet and keep going. Like the explorers, you may need to separate out appealing distractions to stay focused.
Then, and only then, does anyone fully appreciate how good it will be when the goal comes into sight.
 “Repent” from Betty Comden and Adolph Green, On the Twentieth Century (1987) Act 1, Scene 7. http://sammy.j.sammy.angelfire.com/twentiethcentury2.html
 “What Does It Take to Endure the Harshest Climate on Earth?”, TED Radio Hour, February 11, 2016.