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1 Corinthians 10:1-13

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

What is your family story? What are the repeated, well worn stories that people know and recite even if they weren’t actually there? We often have memories like this in our families. There are a few family stories I can tell exactly as it happened even though it happened before I was born. Now consider, what is your congregation’s story? What stories continue to shape your congregation even if the people in the stories are no longer present?

Paul begins chapter 10 by telling family stories. Though most of his readers were Gentile Christians, Paul wants them to know the stories of the Israelites are their stories too. One cursory reading of our 1 Corinthians text and you will quickly see the rich possibilities and imagery present in the text. Baptism and communion imagery form the links between old and new. Paul describes the special place Israel enjoyed as the covenant people of God using sacramental language to help the Corinthians see the connections between the Israelites as themselves.

The chapter opens with Paul declaring the Corinthians are a part of God’s past story, and throughout it Paul makes it clear they are a part of God’s present and future. The Corinthians’ story is caught up with the ancient Israelites even though they might be Gentile Christians. The Israelites are “our ancestors” not “my ancestors.” This pericope ends admonishing the Corinthians in their present situation “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” (vs 12), and reminds them of their future. They are people “On whom the ends of the ages have come” (vs 11). The plural use of “ages” is important here. It is not that “it’s the end of the world as we know it” as R.E.M. might say. The “old age and the new converge.”[1]

Many of the people in our pews would benefit from Paul’s inclusive family vision. Often our spiritual lineage stops at the person who introduced us to the faith or perhaps it includes one or two generations of family members who lived faithfully. Paul wants the Corinthians to know they are adopted into the family of God and so the stories of Israel’s past are their stories too. In fact, “they were written down to instruct us” (vs 11). Though no sermon is long enough to unpack all the of the Old Testament references in this passage (or I hope not!), giving attention to the stories would be fruitful. Our biblical memories often remain fuzzy and unclear. This leads us to a modern Marcionism, or at least a practical Marcionism. We ignore Old Testament texts and difficult passages preferring to stay in the comfortable confines of well-loved New Testament passages (and perhaps missing the Old Testament references and allusions while we do). A woman in one of my congregations told me this was her practice though she did not know the term “Marcionism.” She had not learned, or perhaps accepted, that she was folded into the whole story of God so that the story of the Israelites was her story too.

Though our pericope ends at verse 13, verse 14 provides an excellent summary for us: “Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.” Participating in baptism and the Lord’s supper had puffed up the Corinthians. They thought themselves immune to the idol worshipping practices surrounding meat and meals eaten. In chapter 8, Paul admonishes them to look to the weaker brother or sister out of love rather than flaunting their freedom. In chapter 9, Paul says that he has done this too. And in case the Corinthians are feeling a little proud at this moment that they are, in fact, the stronger ones in the faith, Paul tells them to watch out or else they might fall as some of the Israelites did.

Some in our congregations (especially those who do not embrace the family connection to the Old Testament) might hear judgment and threats more than hope or promise. Many have been unofficially trained to associate judgments and threats with the Old Testament. Passages like this might serve as a confirmation bias for them. We must be aware of this tension in our preaching. As always, our job is to proclaim the bad news in order that good news might be proclaimed louder. I sat across the table from a young woman suffering from the pain and consequences of someone else’s sin, and through her tears she asked, “will God ever say ‘this is enough’?” When faced with the immediacy of sin’s consequences, it is easy to hear Paul’s words as helpful and hopeful: watch out! No testing has overtaken you! In these moments, we understand the pain caused when someone gives their allegiance to anyone or anything other than Christ. What is harder to see is the way we might be worshipping idols while proclaiming freedom from them. In The God Plot, Tim Green says an idol is anything used to try to manipulate or control God. Perhaps this definition might help us identify the idols in our own congregations and our own lives so that we might be able to stand.

Richard Hays says, when the old age and the new converge, “to stand in the place of testing.”[2] But we are not doomed to follow the path of “some of them” who fell. Even now we have hope. “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (vs 13). May our family stories give us instruction, hope, and courage to endure.

[1] Hays, Richard. “On Hearing Bad News.” Christian Century, Vol. 107, Issue 7. 2/26/92. P 218.

[2] Ibid.