Summary: Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed ...
The words of Paul to the Corinthians, 1st letter, 12th chapter - the 12th of 16 in fact!
This is the first time we’ve looked at Paul’s correspondence to the Corinthians for a good while, and you might find it odd that we do so today by jumping such a long way in to such a long letter! I frankly find it odd that Paul wrote such long letters!
I don’t know about you, but when I write a letter to somebody, it’s rarely more than half a page long, and I’m talking about email. I imagine that when you are writing on papyrus or (more likely) on clay tablets, that you’d try to keep your letters even shorter. This didn’t seem to be an issue for St Paul.
I imagine the guy who has to sign for the letter at Corinth. Someone from the postal service rocks up and says, ‘I’ve got a letter for you from a … Saint Paul’. The guy at the church says, ‘yeah, this is the place. Is that it under your arm?’ The guys says, ‘yeah, but there’s another 12 tablets of it in the chariot! Can you give me a hand?’
Evidently Paul felt he had a lot to say to the Corinthians, and why wouldn’t he, for Corinth was a rather unique sort of place.
Once one of the richest ports and largest cities in all of Greece, and leader of the Achaian league, Corinth resisted the Roman takeover until in 146 BC consul Lucius Mumius levelled the entire city. After completely destroying the city, Mumius ordered the execution of every surviving adult male in Corinth and then sold all the women and children into slavery. So ended the Corinthian rebellion.
The city then remained uninhabited for 102 years, until Julius Caesar decided to repopulate it with Italian, Greek, Syrian, Egyptian and Judean freed slaves.
This means that by the time St Paul reached Corinth, it was a young city - only around 100 years old. One thinks of the parallel with Israel, where few families there have been resident there for more than a generation or so, and where many people are no doubt conscious of the fact that they are living on land that not long ago belonged to another family and perhaps in a house that they did not build.
In the case of Israel of course, many of the previous owners of those houses are still around, and are wearing the keys to their houses around their necks, still hoping to return. In the case of Corinth, the residents of Paul’s time need not to have had any such concerns. The original residents were never going to be seen again.
The other thing that was remarkable about Corinth was the temple of Aphrodite. Apparently the cult of Aphrodite had grown so strong in Corinth by St Paul’s time that the temple owned more than 1000 slaves - both men and women - used as temple prostitutes.
The women of the temple, in particular, had such a reputation in the ancient world that the sailors had a saying: “not for every man, the trip to Corinth!” This meant that, religiously speaking, the church had some pretty stiff competition.
I don’t know whether the church in Corinth every developed a marketing strategy, outlining the many advantages to being a member of the church of Corinth, but it would have been a tough task. On the one hand, you had 1000 beautiful women were waiting for you at Aphrodite‘s temple. On the other, the church was offering ... some terrific morning teas!
Maybe they did have people like our Fay making her amazing apple slice, and that might have tempted a few across, but for the most part I envisage that it would have been pretty tough going to convince the boys that the real place to be on the weekend was not the temple but the church!
In the light of this, I do think that the fact that there was a church at Corinth at all is a marvellous testimony to the power of God. For indeed, Paul had founded a thriving church at Corinth! Even so, it was evidently made up of some pretty extreme sorts of characters, as we would expect, and the church was evidently not without its problems - again, no surprises.
I think that this is the background against which we need to understand Paul’s assertion that, “no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.“
Evidently not everybody in the fellowship at Corinth was Mother Theresa, and the question, ‘are you sure that guy’s has the Spirit of God?’, may well have been asked pretty regularly.
I remember when I was working at the church in Kings Cross (which is about as close to Corinth as Sydney gets), there were some pretty odd people who would turn up to worship there. I still remember one character - a young, mentally disabled, male prostitute, who was kneeling at the communion rail with us, and showing a great deal of enthusiasm as he anticipated getting his hands on the cup.