CHRISTIANITY VERSUS CULTURE
Acts 18: 1-8; John 12: 20-33
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preached words about the Kingdom of God that had a strikingly different message than the worldly message that others were proclaiming: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; instead lay up for yourselves treasure in Heaven…. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” In every age, there is a battle for our hearts: do we think about eternal things or things that fade? Do we think about people and relationships, or about things? Do we think about others or mostly about ourselves? Today as the reading from Acts took us to ancient Corinth, and as John’s Gospel took us to Jerusalem, let us see how few new things are under the sun in terms of things that dazzle and attract us, and see how the Christian message is relevant in the 21st century as it was in the first century.
We don’t know from which direction Paul entered Corinth, but many entered from it’s prominent port of Lechaion. If one enters from that direction, even today, one comes into Corinth on the Lechaion Road. As one entered through that prominent gate to the city, one thing dominated the skyline: the Acrocorinth, a huge mountain just beyond the city, on the top of which stood a temple to honor the goddess Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who the Corinthians credited for bringing wealth to their city. Certainly when Paul wrote his chapter on love, he could not forget that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was prominently remembered in Corinth. That mountain and temple, a challenge to his Christian beliefs, would have been directly in front of Paul as he entered the city. Today we think about all that retailers, television shows, and fashion magazines do to pull and distract the young, even those of more mature years; they distract with celebrity, with beauty, and with fame. In their book on Corinth Stetson Professors Clyde Fant and Mitchell Reddish say: “Since steps led from the road … chariots and wagons were prevented from entering the forum.” [A GUIDE TO BIBLICAL SITES IN GREECE AND TURKEY.] This area, then, was a pedestrian walkway, 35 feet wide with shops on both sides, we might call them boutiques, stores that would invite and implore visitors and residents alike to stop and shop, buy their products, wear their handmade articles, or be adorned with famous Corinthian leather, silk, or cosmetics. Sound familiar? Shops on the left, shops on the right. To make Paul’s task even more daunting, at the entrance to the Lechaion Road, Paul would have passed the Temple to Apollo, a structure that stands even today. Paul, like us, would have had his work cut out for him, trying to tell a world based on many gods to put its trust in the true God. In how many ways does the church today face the many gods of people’s lives? When people put celebrities, singers, sports figures, or lovers absolutely first in their lives, disaster is sure to loom. Back now to Paul’s entrance to Corinth: straight ahead was, and still is, the BEMA, the place that was the communication center of Corinth. Without newspapers, cell phones, or Facebook, this was the place where pronouncements were made and results of trials were read. It is actually where, in Acts 18: 12, Jews made a united attack against Paul, saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” Later a fight broke out there and certainly the crowds that had gathered stayed to watch. Off to one side of the BEMA was the Fountain of Peirene (pi-REE-nee) a beautiful water source that was breathtaking then as it would be now. The city was a stunning piece of planning. To the right of the BEMA was the Agora, the marketplace of Corinth, the place where ordinary people would by their foods and necessary items. Recently built in Paul’s day would have been a large building that housed both offices and a hotel of sorts. Continuing past the buildings, there would certainly have been signs pointing toward the large ampitheatre on the hillside in the shadow of the towering mountain called the Acrocorinth. Greek trajedies and comedies would have been perfomed weekly, giving entertainment, if not instruction, to the patrons. To one side of the Agora would have been where the trades set up for construction: chiseling marble, pounding brass, heating bronze, tanning leather. Certainly when Paul wrote his famous First Corinthians 13 he had these sites and sounds around him. For example: “As sounding brass” would have been the deafening noise created at that end of town where brass was beat and polished into everything from cymbals to mirrors. “Giving my body to be burned” was by some accounts a reminder of some who sacrificed, or almost sacrificed, themselves for their faith. And when Paul talks about enough faith as to “remove mountains,” the Acrocorinth with the temple on top would certainly have been on his mind.
Now tranport ourselves back thirty years earlier to a country south and east: Israel, and it’s capital city, Jerusalem. At Passover, the crowds in Jerusalem would have been like Bike Week in Daytona: everyone afraid that the wrong thing said could stir up a fight. There in John we still find the mention of Greeks among the Jews. There again we find Christianity over against culture. Jesus was telling those gathered a gospel message that went contrary to what people thought. Even then, as now, there were plenty of people who were did everything because tradition said it was to be done a certain way. Jesus in many was lifting up an emerging Church from the firm rulings of his own Judasim. The Greeks there and in Asia Minor could, like us, be lured by sales pitches: “You deserve a break today,” “you’re worth it,” and “pay off your debts ahead of schedule” were main street mantras of their day. To that Jesus said, “Those who love their life in this world will have no future life, and those who are repulsed by life in this world will love the justice of Heaven.” Countercultural; upending philosophy. This is the work of Christ and of Christians in the first century; it is the world of Christ and of Christians in the twenty-first century as well.
Geographically and archaeologically you can visit Corinth and Jerusalem today like dozens from our church did just over a week ago. It is half way around the globe, but culturally, our world and its values have changed little; the Christian message still can change lives for those who are disenchanted, discouraged, or disheartened by the hollow promises of happiness that the media promises. “There must be something more” you ask. There is; join us this week and next in the journey to the cross and beyond. Come to know the radical message Jesus brought, that, when followed, brings us not only closer to God, but right into Kingdom living.
Jeffrey Sumner March 29, 2009