First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 6

William Loader

Epiphany 6:  12 February  1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Paul is aware that the gospel he preaches is on a collision course with values which many still hold in Corinth. Outstanding people (usually men), according to these values, were men who could make an impression by being convincing speakers, demonstrating sophisticated wisdom and knowledge, and, above all, powerful and brave. These were Roman ideals and seemed good to most. To be ambitious was to want to be like that. For such people powerful impressive leaders were to be admired. The mould could be made to fit Jesus and also God. Then faith is about seeing in Jesus the impressive hero, a kind of Jewish Hercules, and seeing God as embodying all the things you most admire and (secretly) would like for yourself:: to be all powerful and have everyone glorifying you, what we might recognise as a projection of infantile fantasy.

From Paul's writings we see that he knew how to employ rhetoric cleverly - that was a standard of education. But he was not as impressive as others. He also seemed to value the wrong things. Making a crucified Jewish Messiah the centre of faith flew in the face of what good people in the wider community saw as ideal. It was very subversive and seen, probably, by most as ridiculous. In chapter 1 Paul brings these conflicts to the surface. Perhaps they used the resurrection to cancel out the cross, as though it was just a courageous episode on the way to glory, like a feat of Hercules. For Paul Jesus' resurrection  and exaltation does not cancel out the meaning of the cross; it highlights it as the way Jesus was and the way God is. God's power is in weakness and apparent foolishness.

Paul confronts these would-be wise Corinthians Christians with the executed Christ, who shows that God is not to be seen as the projection of male fantasy about power and control, but as the compassionate one who confronts human foolishness and invites relationship for change. In our passage we see that these dominant values which Paul confronts have coloured also the way they saw leadership. People become like their "God", and inevitably reflect the values their "God" embodies. So it is not surprising to find a preoccupation with leaders and who is the best of them. Paul does not pull his punches. He declares such concerns infantile. Such people are far from being able to appreciate adult fare (3:2-3). The obverse to such adulation of leadership is that it assumes leaders seek adulation. Indeed, all too often they do. The phenomenon of people seeking to compensate for their low self-worth and establish their value by winning admirers by fair means or foul is constantly with us. It is not at all foreign to ministry, where people's self is so exposed week after week.

We cannot conclude that Apollos had such ambitions, but it is clear that many of his converts (and perhaps some of Paul's) had fallen into the "admire-me/admire-him" trap. We have lost the literal meaning of "minister" as servant or slave. The Greek word, diakonos, easily lost into technicality, also means slave. Paul uses it here. So who were they, Apollos and Paul? We are slaves, says Paul (3:5)! The focus is not, servility, but service. They were engaged in actions of love and support at different stages of growth. That was their reward (5:8). To find the paradox that I will find life fulfilling and meaningful when I let it go in loving and join God's goodness in the world is one of the secrets of ministry. It means I can stop the pious self-deception that there is nothing in it for me and acknowledge that it is possible to make a decision where my interests, others' interests, and God's interests are not in conflict but are one. I then love my neighbour as I love myself and do it all as participation in the divine love which makes it all possible. Precisely that is what Paul goes on to speak of: when he writes of "the grace of God given to me" in 3:10.

Gospel: Epiphany 6: 12 February Matthew 5:21-37

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