1 Corinthians 12:1-3, 11-13
First and foremost, I want to stress that these two texts are unrelated to one another. They were written for different people in a different time. The Malachi text is a prophetic message to the Israelites after the exile when they were allowed to worship together in their homeland again. The letter to the Corinthians is addressing a diverse congregation established as a church of Jesus Christ with prominent members and members of a lower social class. Malachi’s text is before the Messiah, while Paul’s letter is after Christ has died, resurrected, and has been ascended into heaven for quite some time. But both passages are challenging the audience, pushing them to grow, and making them uncomfortable all so that all who hear might be transformed into a more just and loving community that glorifies God. This is why I have put them in conversation with one another, to examine the similarities and differences between Malachi’s and Paul’s calling for transformation. We are inviting a prophet and an apostle to sit down together and discuss what is required of their audience to honor God. Imagine if you will, these two meeting together to discuss the problems they are facing and how they might address their communities. They are crossing space and time to speak to each other face to face, as friends and colleagues.
In this conversation Malachi might take a seat across a table from Paul and stare down into his coffee deep in thought. Paul would wait patiently as Malachi gathered his thoughts, knowing how hard it is to speak difficult truths. After taking a deep breath, Malachi would begin by telling Paul about the mess that he and his people are in now that they are no longer exiled. They are dealing with the trauma of homelessness and displacement, while struggling to find their identity as God’s people. Just as they have suffered, their worship to God has suffered. Their grain offerings and burnt offerings are not the best that they have to offer, and now God is sending a messenger to set them straight. At this moment Malachi might pause and rub his temples. He’s frustrated and exhausted. He has compassion for his people, and he’s dealing with his own trauma! This is such a heavy load to bear. So, Paul might reach out and give Malachi an encouraging pat on the hand. Malachi would continue on, saying that the day of the Lord is coming! This is good news because that means God is coming to restore the people of Israel. But God’s presence is overwhelming. If God is coming to be among them who can truly stand before the awesome, terrible, encompassing presence of God? If God is going to transform God’s people, then that means they’re going to be judged and changed before being made good. Such a powerful transformation will not be comfortable. In fact, it will likely be painful.
Malachi would then sit back in his chair and shake his head. Paul would nod vigorously and agree. Paul knows what it’s like for God to speak from the heavens and transform him completely. He’s well aware of what God’s judgement, although it leads to goodness, really means. So, Paul might take a quick sip of his coffee, and begins telling of the letter he has to send to the church in Corinth. You see, Malachi, this city has so much promise and potential for spreading the good news of Jesus. Corinth was diverse in culture, ethnicity, and in economic trade. Most of the congregation were Gentiles, which meant the message of Jesus was truly reaching the hearts and minds of new people. This church could really reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom! But diversity meant that not everyone had the same social standing and economic income. There were prominent members of means and comfort, while there were also people who were just getting by. Paul had emphasized that all people were important to God and had gifts to offer, but the people who had fewer worldly possessions were being treated as less essential to the church. They were being excluded from all the meals and celebrations of the church because they couldn’t afford to bring food to share. Their spiritual gifts weren’t being used to bless the church. Paul might take a moment to pause to put his head in his hands. Malachi would stand up, squeeze Paul’s shoulder and pour him some fresh coffee. Paul would take a sip of his coffee and tell Malachi that if Christians act without love, then it’s all just noise. If the church has faith but doesn’t have love, then it’s all nothing.
At this point the two men might take a moment to sit in silence and share a knowing look. This look communicates their desire to honor God, their compassion for their communities, and their frustration with how hard it is to be a leader. Paul would then stand up to stretch his legs and lean against the window. Malachi would stare out the window too, reclining in his seat. He would then tell Paul that as exciting as it is that the day of the Lord is coming, it will be a day of refining fire and fuller’s soap. It will be a day of purification. Being cleansed means checking into habits, being self-reflective of flaws, admitting that there is room for growth and change, and really tearing away all the darkness that’s bound to one’s soul. Are the people of Israel really ready to sacrifice parts of themselves for the sake of the transformation that God brings? Malachi, himself a prophet, may even have doubts about the pain of transformation and the sacrifice that it takes. Malachi would take a break to stretch and take a sip of his coffee. He would then stand up and grab some cheese and crackers from the kitchen counter and set them on the table.
Paul might sit down and finish his cup of coffee. Then he and Malachi would grab some crackers and cheese and munch on them quietly for a while. Paul then would say that people can do mighty acts of faith, they can give away their possessions and even sacrifice their bodies for the sake of Jesus Christ, but if all of these great faith acts are done without any love then there is nothing to gain from it. The church falls apart without love and the church of Corinth is truly struggling to show love to one another! Honestly, the way that they treat people who are rich and have a high social standing as more important than anyone else is childish. Paul would then stand up suddenly, very frustrated, knocking over Malachi’s coffee. How could these people act like children, reason like children, and speak like children? It’s time for them to set aside their childish ways! The future of the church is at stake! Paul would then see the mess he made and grab some napkins to help clean up. Malachi wouldn’t be angry. Instead he would agree that all people are made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. God calls all to share what they have with one another, instead of making powerful people even more powerful and impoverished people even more oppressed.
And then as the two are mopping up the spilled coffee, it would click. They would look up each other and nod, coming to an understanding. Both had different people in different circumstances that they would be addressing, but there was an inescapable similarity that both of these messages contained. God’s judgement is never separate from God’s mercy. There is always a way to repent and turn back to God. Malachi was talking to all the Israelites so that their nation would be restored as a whole. Paul was emphasizing the need of unity within the congregation in Corinth so that people in all social classes would be treated with love, honor, and dignity. In both of these scenarios the people of Israel and the church of Corinth needed to be redeemed as a community. Their faith in God was inseparable from their responsibility to love and serve the people around them. Malachi says that this would make the offering of Jerusalem pleasing to God, just like in the days of old. Paul would agree and say that while it’s hard for the church to understand this because they see through a mirror dimly, they would soon fully know that the greatest out of faith, hope, and love is, in fact, love.
Then two men would be feeling a little more light-hearted, ready to speak to their communities about the hard truths, and the good news that come from God. After they cleaned up the kitchen, the two would share a hand shake and a pat on the back and go their separate ways to do God’s work. Malachi would go to prophesy to Israel, telling them that God’s judgment is coming, and it’s not going to feel good; but if they are willing to withstand transformation then God will restore them. Paul would go to write his letter to Corinth, telling them that they must love each other fully with their whole hearts or else it undercuts all the good and faithful work that they do as a church. And both are going to tell their communities that they have to work together, serving one another. It’s not just about a personal relationship between an individual and the Creator of the universe; a relationship with God is inseparable from relationships with others. Now as we come back to our time, out place, and our congregation we have been fortunate enough to overhear this conversation between a prophet and an apostle. Since we have had an inside look and picked the brains of our ancestors, let us learn from the mistakes of the faith communities past, and move forward into a loving, refined future.