First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 7

William Loader

Epiphany 7:  23 February  1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Paul asserts his foundational role in the Corinthians community. Nothing indicates that Apollos is in conflict with him, but certainly those who have become engrossed in loyalty to leaders are playing off Apollos against Paul. In the verses passed over (3:12-15) Paul develops the architectural imagery to declare that ultimately it is God who judges people's works and he is happy to leave judgement to God. He does not allow himself to be sucked into their game. Instead he develops the imagery even further by turning it to apply to them. As the people of God in that place they are the temple of God, the place where the Spirit lives and moves. Evoking the ancient horror at people who destroyed temples and sacred places Paul suggests that their behaviour is destructive for the church and adds the threat which reflects a common view: destroy a shrine and its god will destroy you.

Unity and coherence with the Christian community is of paramount importance not so much because otherwise the church gets a bad reputation or becomes dysfunctional, but because it thereby ceases to be what is meant to be: a place where God's grace moves, bringing reconciliation and truth. They have become distracted from what they were created to be and from the one who makes it possible. Where anger and hate take over, there is little room for love and generosity. There are winners and losers.

There is a clash of values and perhaps it is inspired by appreciation of the impressiveness of Apollos' ministry compared with Paul's. In the background, claims to wisdom play a role and seem to be being measured by the secular standards of the day. Apollos seems to have made a more powerful impression than Paul. In these chapters we hear a lot about impressive speech. Speech was one of the main arenas where men were supposed to show their worth. Rhetoric, learning how to impress with speech, was fundamental to male identity. Today this translates into multimedia impressiveness. Along with the skills now available to us through our much greater range of impressive and impressing tools are numerous strategies to convince and seduce. It is an industry which bombards us with advertising and myriad claims to truth.

Paul was adept at employing the skills of his day and there is no reason why we should not use the skills of ours. But Paul identifies flaws in the system where the medium becomes so much the message that the promoters end up promoting themselves and substance no longer matters. The rewards of gaining a following, of being a persuader and experiencing the power of persuasion are enormous. Such dynamism can drive ministry and energise congregations. The buzz of self-promotion and the satisfaction at increased recruitment, even in the name of Jesus, can so easily go awry. Jesus becomes the best promoter, whose sole aim was self-promotion of his self-promoting God. The promoters almost cannot help but join the game and become, themselves, self-promoters. It all coheres because the movement has its own self-promotion as the agenda. Marketing strategies become key tools of ministry. It is easy to turn it all into a form of self-indulgence from the top down, a whole hierarchy of beings wanted adulation.

Paul had already sought to torpedo this construction in 1:18-25. His words there are echoed in 3:19 where he subverts the model and suggests that not the take of adulation but the giving of compassion lies at the heart of God, and the power that really matters is the love and vulnerability which may even end on a cross. That is a very different model of fulfilment and of God and of church than the grabbing self-indulgence which turns the cross into a promotional logo.

Paul might have driven his hearers to humiliation, but, characteristically, he does not want that kind of win. Instead, he declares the opposite. He does not say: you have nothing. He says in 3:21: you have everything! His list begins with those whom the promoters played off against each other: Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter). They are all yours, he declares: embrace them. His list continues in a way that recalls what he would write in Rom 8:38-39. In this nice little piece of balanced rhetorical phrasing he is really telling them: stop grabbing! It is all there. You can relax. There is no end to grace. You don't have to establish your worth. You don't have to play the game of self-promotion. Because in the end that is also neither Christ's nor God's agenda. Embrace a different kind of wisdom and leave the fear- and inadequacy-induced strategies to win worth for yourselves, your church, your leaders, your Christ and your God behind.

One can almost hear the rest of Rom 8:38-39 echoing across the text, perhaps already in Paul's mind. For there he writes: nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. So you can let your anxiety and its busy self-preoccupation go and be free to join that love in the world.

Gospel: Epiphany 7: 23 February Matthew 5:38-48

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