Even for St. Paul, it is simply part of the human experience that something which can seem to start off so well, so simply, can get so mixed up and complicated. Paul had made great progress in his early preaching. He must have been a compelling preacher, an attractive figure. The problem was there were other compelling figures around who were also making great progress in their work of conversion. St. Peter was one. And a third disciple, a man named Apollos, was another. And as these three, and others, travelled about calling people to the Gospel, the new the new converts were beginning to pay their loyalty not so much to Christ as they were to the one who had converted them.
And so, in his letter to the people of Corinth, Paul condemns that fractioning of the Church. He tells them that they have lost sight of the original value taught to them from the beginning, the Lordship of Christ, and him alone. Paul begs people to settle their differences, regain, re-purify their original vision, and get back to basics, simply enough, the love of Christians for Christ and for one another.
He calls them to quick reform, to purge away all of the added issues, all of the concerns that may seem to be important but in fact are just so much baggage that weighs them down in their pursuit of the truth.
And a bit later in the same letter Paul reminds the people of the constant need for a careful, reflective vigilance in all of this. Values have a way of becoming lost in the shuffle. Vision has a way of becoming clouded again and again. And that simply means that those who would pursue the truth must be ready and willing to start over, to re-purify, re-simplify, again and again, as often as is needed.
So many times in scripture the call to reform seems to be presented as something that would be done once and for all and, once done, it would never be undone. The people of the early Church expected the coming of the kingdom, which Christ promises in the Gospel, as something that would happen very soon in their own lifetime. It just didn’t occur to them that one of the central virtues in their reform would simply be patience.
Well, over 2000 years later, we have a different perspective. That final fullness is not yet here. The kingdom has grown, certainly, but it far from complete. Patience and persistence are most definitely reform virtues.
There will always be a tension in the life of a believer between the picture drawn by Christ of what should be, and our own experience of what is. A tension between Christ’s clear and simple vision of the kingdom and our own confused tension will be for us a constant call to reform, to simplify, to purify.