Paul’s intention, as far as we understand it, was to get to Corinth. Athens was important but Corinth was the second city to Rome, a thriving, multi-cultural, wealthy trading city standing between the Roman and Greek worlds. It was large and beautiful and there was a synagogue there and so sufficient numbers of Jews for Paul to engage with.
We set out from Athens and began the journey which would take us across the Corinth canal to the site of the ancient city. But on the way we stopped at Eleusis. Dr Mark Vernon had made a special request that we divert from the normal pilgrim route to take in this very special place.
It was the centre of initiation and mystery in the Greek world and when we were there we thought about how the term ‘mystery’ has resonances with the Christian understanding of God and the sacraments. Comparison was also drawn between the days of the rites and preparations that the participants in what went on there went through (and we don’t know much about that) and the structure of the Christian Holy Week.
It was a fascinating place and especially as we anticipated arriving in Corinth. We were to celebrate the Eucharist there and one of the readings we heard in that place was from Paul’s First Letter.
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11.23-26)
It was incredible to be in the remains of the place where Paul had lived for a year and a half, to where he sent two significant letters from which we draw so much teaching about the life of the church, the Eucharist, Christian ethics, our understanding of resurrection, etc, etc, etc. I just love to imagine how they reacted when they first read words that to us are so familiar.
What is also so important to remember is that in this place Paul confronted the real church, fractious, argumentative, challenging, all those things that we know about the church only too well. They were Christians trying to live the life to which we are called with all the temptations and delights that a cosmopolitan city can provide. In his Second Letter Paul writes
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4.7)
All over Greece we have seen the remains of clay jars, glued back together but showing the cracks, the signs of their fragility. With Paul’s words to this early Christian community we should not be surprised when we display the same fragility, in our local church, in our Communion, between the denominations. So we prayed for Christian unity in Corinth but knowing that as God took clay and out of it made a man into whom he breathed life, so the clay jars of which Paul speaks will always have this fragile nature. We should be more careful with each other, as if we were handling a precious artefact in an archaeological museum, rather than with the brutality and lack of charity that so often characterises the way we Christians treat one another. Our behaviour is so often little less than scandalous and our lack of charity towards one another an affront to the God who out of love created us and called us into his church.
Standing alongside the remains of the Temple of Apollo at the heart of the remains of this city, we heard read to us 1 Corinthians 13. It was a moving final moment of the journey, we had arrived at the goal of our journey but the true goal must be in living out that life of love, that life of charity that Paul commended to the people of Corinth and commends to us.
God of love,
may we love one another
as you love us;
may we care for one another
as you care for us;
may we truly be your people
for you truly are our God.