11. The past as prologue for the future

The Dance of the Golden Calf  from the Hortus Deliciarum. Artist: Herrad of Landsberg (1167-1185)

The Dance of the Golden Calf from the Hortus Deliciarum. Artist: Herrad of Landsberg (1167-1185)

by Rev. Tommy Williams

The apostle Paul consistently reminds the new Christian community—the Corinthians—of their ancestors. Paul roots the Christian message in stories of old.

Chapter 10 starts in that way with Paul recalling the challenges the Israelites had with idolatry. Idolatry is not a term we use much today and it remains a particularly religious term that doesn’t translate easily to other social and secular conversation. Idolatry, in short, means to substitute fake gods for the real God. The past challenges of the people remain ours too. Past is often prologue to future.

The Israelites worshipped the infamous golden calf and in other ways made “drink and play” an idol. Paul lists sex practices and food practices as idols among the Corinthians. In other words, in all things we are to give glory to God and strive for holiness in our covenants with one another – in our marriages, in our practice together of Holy Communion, even in our sharing mealtimes with one another.

The choice is stark. “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (vs. 21-22). Worship has a clear commitment. When we worship God it necessarily means we are not worshipping other people and things. When we worship money, sex, cars, our own dreams, intellect, physical gifts, other people, leaders, political parties, we are not worshipping God. Does that mean these and many other things do not have their place? Of course not. Each one has its place in life. What we are pursuing though is holy living, not just as individuals but as the body of Christ, the church. Worshipping God is at the center of our identity before every other commitment.

Paul’s test is whether habits, practices, behaviors, commitments are “beneficial.” “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (vs. 23).  God’s hopes for us are higher than what might very well be lawful. Remember, Paul’s aim is to unify the divided Corinthian church. 

What does all this mean for the unified witness of our own churches today? It seems to me we must ask about our values, behaviors, practices, and commitments – are they beneficial? Do they serve the whole body of Christ? And even more than that, are they faithful to God? Because in all things, the ultimate aim for God’s people is, as Paul essentially says in verse one of Chapter 11 – to be imitators of Christ.

Key questions for this week are:

  • Are there things, people, ideas, that we worship?

  • How is it with our worship of God?

  • And, are our common Christian practices serving our worship of God and beneficial for our common life together?