A third letter to the Corinthians? No, this is not the plot of Dan Brown’s latest thriller. Instead, it is a real document that has been widely known and read for nearly 2,000 years.
Unlike First and Second Corinthians, this letter is not attributed to the Apostle Paul, but is most likely the work of a man known as Clement of Rome. Unlike Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church, virtually everyone — even Clement, himself — agrees this letter probably doesn’t belong in the same category as divinely inspired Scripture. But if we dismiss it solely on this basis, we run the risk of missing out on one of the great lessons of church history.
Clement opens his letter recounting the Corinthian Church’s past faithfulness before things quickly take a negative turn. Apparently, in Clement’s estimation, something had changed. This once faithful church is now characterized by “Emulation and envy, strife and sedition, persecution and disorder, war and captivity.” Not exactly a list of character traits to be proud of.
This is where things get interesting, however. Clement’s list of indictments against the Corinthian church in the early second century is an almost exact replication of the charges Paul had brought against them in First Corinthians half a century earlier. At this point, we all nod knowingly at the sobering truth confronting the Corinthian church in this letter — the old ways die hard. They had been doing so well, it seemed like they had made so much progress, and here come the same old struggles and vices rearing their ugly heads again after all this time.
I remember when my oldest daughter started sixth grade. Middle school is tough, and I remember one night that she asked me when it started getting easier. When do I become less self-conscious? When do people start learning to treat each other with compassion and respect? The only thing I could tell her was that if I ever reached that age, I’d let her know.
Life is rarely a steady uphill climb. Sure, there are plenty of moments of growth, but there are also times when we regress in ways we never imagined we would. There are triumphs of victorious faith, but there are also moments when we feel crushed under the weight of doubt and regret. Sometimes, like those in the Corinthian church, we’re left wondering if all the effort we’ve put in over the years was really just a magnificent waste of time. Will things ever get better? Will we ever finally experience the abundant life Jesus promised us in John’s Gospel?
Even the “Blessed Apostle Paul” — that’s what Clement calls him — felt like this at times.
“[I’m still] not doing the good I want to do,” Paul writes in his letter to the Romans. “But the evil I do not want — this is what I find myself doing.” If you are nodding along in agreement with me as you read this, I think that’s a good sign.
One of my most vivid memories from the year I worked in the school systems as a teacher assistant took place during a review session the day before the big state test. I noticed one of the fifth-graders sitting alone in the back of the room crying. I asked her if she was OK, and she said she was terrified that she was going to fail the test. I was surprised to hear this. She was a smart girl — always did her homework and got good grades. I never imagined someone like her would be this worried about failing.
She sniffed away a tear and looked up at me as a smile slowly spread across my face. “I’m not worried,” I said, taking a step back and waiting for her response.
She didn’t say anything, but the confused look on her face said it all. “The fact that you’re worried about the test tells me you’ve probably been working hard and doing your best all year, haven’t you?” She nodded slowly.
“I’m not worried about you — you’ve put in the work. You’ll be fine,” I said, as I pointed to a group of boys on the other side of the room who were laughing and goofing off when they should have been studying. “Now those guys over there, the ones that aren’t concerned at all. Those are the students I’m worried about.”
This is Clement’s message for us. If you’re concerned about the fact that you’ve not made the progress in your life that your younger self would have expected, that’s a good sign. It’s a sign that you still care; you still want to do better. It means that you desire to live a life that is pleasing to God even if you don’t feel like you’ve been very successful so far. But if that’s you, be encouraged because, as my friend, Marshall Jolly once said, “even the desire to be pleasing to God is, in itself, pleasing to God.”