First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 3

William Loader

Epiphany 3:  22 January  1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Called to fellowship with Christ and one another (so 1:19), the Corinthians have been anything but one in Christ. The report from Chloe's people (1:11) must have frustrated Paul. Reconciliation with God must mean reconciliation with others. Paul lived from the logic of that gospel. It left room for disagreement and for diversity, but not for factionalism. It offends him just as much that people are identifying themselves as Paul's people. It was not that Paul resented others having a following and wanted everyone to be on his side. Rather Paul saw no place for such loyalties towards himself or anyone else because they got in the road of true faith.

In one sense it was a problem of idolatry. The Corinthians were putting certain leaders into a place that really belonged only to God. In that sense they were becoming 'cult figures'. It can be wonderfully rewarding and self delusory to receive that level of support and adulation. It is worth striving for and working for - sustaining one's value as a god. It drives some people crazy and ruins their lives and the lives of many others. It turns the gospel upside down if we have to prove ourselves to ourselves or others like this. Worse still it means we are competing in the market of affection and there it cannot be in our interests that others succeed at our expense. It develops a mean spirit and almost inevitably created division. People in professions where affections can be won and lost, especially those with a public role, are particularly susceptible to such dangers. Clergy are among its best perpetrators. It is ultimately a form of abuse.

See how clear Paul is about this! He will have none of it. He is relieved that he did not baptise many - he can't even remember his "successes"! He drives it to the point of absurdity: anyone would have thought people were baptised into Paul or one of the others! In no way will Paul usurp Christ. The same applies equally to Cephas (Peter) and to Apollos. Was there also a "Christ" party, perhaps claiming a special connection or was that just part of Paul's ploy to expose the absurdity? Paul has little interest at this point in criticising the others, although some of their differences will begin to appear as the letter goes on. Apollos seems to have attracted those taken with wisdom and rhetorical excellence. Of Peter we hear little, but Galatians tells us of the conflict which may well be playing itself out in the divisions in Corinth (2:11-14). Some of the divisions in Corinth appear less related to personalities and more to claims of superior spirituality or blatant disregard of the poor.

Having challenged the "god" status of spiritual leaders and those who made up their cults, Paul turns in 1:18 to address one of the related issues. The gospel with its centre in the cross, a public event of brokenness and failure, stands in stark contrast to the elevated leaders of the Corinthian hero worship. Perhaps the primary target here is the claim to superior wisdom. That soon becomes a theme. It is about wise ideas and clever ways of speaking at the same time. People prized rhetoric very highly. Later we learn that Paul's successes in this regard - and they are surely impressive, if we just take his letters as an example - falls far short of the success of others. Paul gives up the competition. He doesn't even try to compete. Instead he defies these towers of Babel with his assertion of the cross. It contradicts such striving. It elevates lowliness and love to the god position because according to Paul this is exactly what we find at the heart of God.

Paul's theology informs his practice. Probably those who were elevating their successes were also reflecting their own theology: that God's preoccupation is power and might and glory - to be emulated by his worshippers! Paul's model for emulation is a moment where love reaches a dramatic climax and appears lost in defeat. That, Paul will argue, is the only life and only path to resurrection. That is the only way to think of God's power. Paul is thus doing much more than growling about division; it is so easy to growl at things going wrong. Paul is bringing the Corinthians back to basic values, with the defiant symbol of the cross. Therein is wisdom and power. This then shapes Paul's thinking and his practice of ministry. It is always his starting point in approaching the many issues which have arisen in Corinth and needs always to be our home base.

Gospel: Epiphany 3:  22 January  Matthew 4:12-23

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