First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 5

William Loader

Epiphany 5:  5 February  1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)

Paul continues his letter to the Corinthians by following the theme of competing wisdoms. He began in 1:11 confronting the madness which had crept into the Corinthians' churches, where people were making heroes of special people like Paul. He then continued in 1:18 by challenging the assumptions which underlay such divisions: typical obsessions with power and wisdom, which he links with Jewish and Greek stereotypes. Against all this Paul asserts a new kind of wisdom and a new kind of power: the foolishness and powerlessness of the cross. The life poured out there is not the sign of God's absence but of God's presence, not the sign of God's powerlessness or foolishness but the sign of what is truly powerful and wise: the life poured out in compassion.

In our passage Paul unashamedly declares that this informed the way he understood himself and his ministry. He did not try to engage in the power plays of trying to impress the Corinthians with wisdom and clever speech. He preached Christ (2:2). We learn later, especially from 2 Corinthians 10-13, that people were still writing him off because he failed to impress as much as others (see 10:1, 10).

"Mystery" (2:1) was probably a favourite word among those claiming special knowledge and wisdom. By contrast Paul uses it to describe not a wisdom he possesses and which he owns (which he has conquered!), but the cross. Paul is still dealing with the foolishness of the Corinthians who have become embroiled in power plays and are now playing out that game by pitting Peter and Apollos and Paul against each other.

Paul is being deliberately subversive of their stance. We can see him almost taking delight in highlighting his frailty and unimpressiveness (2:3-4). His power was through the Spirit (2:4). But Paul's understanding of the Spirit is different from that of the Corinthians, who see the Spirit in terms of miracle and power. For Paul the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ and brings to life again that same Christ of the cross. Paul does not see the Spirit replacing the Christ of the cross, but rather helping bring that same presence to bear because this is the way God is. That is why when Paul seeks to live in the power of the Spirit, his life takes the shape of the cross: bearing love to others even when life turns ugly - as ugly as the cross.

2:5 shows what Paul is driving at. He doesn't want the Corinthians setting their faith in human wisdom, his, Peter's or that of Apollos (2:6)! Paul is not anti-intellectual. He is not advocating life totally led by intuition and spontaneity. Paul thinks, but the wisdom which drives his thinking is not what counted for wisdom in his day (2:6). He sees that wisdom exposed on the cross for what it is: destructive of love and life. For Paul the cross thus disempowers such pretence (2:6). In 2:7 Paul returns to the buzz-word, "mystery". He declares that the "mystery" - the one which it is really worth knowing - is that God planned to send Christ and did so.

He lapses at this point into a kind of mythological language in which he sees God's initiative outwitting the powers of evil (2:7-8); they killed Christ, but God raised him from the dead. Translated into the Corinthians' setting - and they would have been able to do so easily enough - it means that what is playing itself out in the foolish divisiveness of the Corinthians is nothing less than a collision between two fundamentally opposite value systems. One value system executed Christ, rejecting love and life as offered through Christ. The Corinthians need to recognise that the same forces are at work in them. It will not be the last time that Christians espouse the very things that killed Christ - in his name! They need to decide which value system, which god, to follow. They need to decide whether to follow Christ, the Christ of compassion and the cross or the opposing value system which destroys love.

Paul returns to the Spirit, underlining that the Spirit speaks God's mind - is, in a sense, God's mind (2:9-11). The depth of God's mind, claims Paul, is revealed in the brokenness of the cross, and God has made that known to "stupid" people like himself who give up playing the games of power and knowledge and believe that God is really like Jesus and didn't cease to be so when he was on the cross. Those who "love God" receive the Scripture's promise of true wisdom (2:11-12). 2:13-16 expand this thought, underlining the contrasting approaches to wisdom and reasserting that Paul and those who share his faith live by the Spirit who brings to their awareness what God is really about, what is "the mind of Christ" (2:16).

Gospel: Epiphany 5: 5 February Matthew 5:13-20

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