Epiphany 8: 27 February 1 Corinthians 4:1-5
It was normal then as it is now for people to deal with conflict by calling other people names and demeaning them. Just how much could Paul; take? It is clear from this letter and even more from 2 Corinthians that Paul had enemies who were dismissive of his value and knew how to make up stories which insinuated that he was corrupt. Why else would Paul be collecting money in his churches? Surely a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus should have an overwhelmingly powerful presence. There shouldn't be weakness, let alone disability. Paul might see value in having what was apparently some kind of disadvantage, but to some it just proved that he was not up to being a real leader.
Back to the wall, Paul seems able to respond in their interests and not just his own. He doesn't seem to need to fight for himself and his status. Where he defends it, as in Galatians, it is clearly in the interests of others and the gospel, not just himself. He has the strength and security to address the issues. In nearly all his letters he is doing just that: addressing issues that lie at the heart of Christian identity. In all of them we find traces of a fairly constant barrage of criticism. It swirled around from his failure to impress in the way that a man of the empire should to his approach to scripture which was allegedly unbelieving and offensive to true faith.
In this short passage he speaks of "us" because as 4:6 explains, he is speaking of himself and Apollos, with whom they apparently compare him unfavourably. Instead of mounting an ego-based case for why his ministry is just as outstanding as anyone else's and should warrant admiration, he urges the Corinthians to see him and Apollos as simply people doing their job, like slaves in a household and religious personnel serving the shrine of a mystery cult. He subordinates his worth to what matters to him: living as God wants and doing what God wants.
This is not a case of grin-and-bear-it self-humiliation where you grimace in pride at giving up what matters so much to you; because what matters so much for Paul and gives his life its meaning is to be engaged in ministry, to spend his life generously. There was nothing phoney about this. It was his choice and he believed it served his own self-interest best. It was only in a rather superficial sense a sacrifice, because he has not given up what he wants to do; on the contrary, he is doing it. This has integrity and frees Paul not to be overly worried about how they think he measures up by their standards. He does not share such standards, so there's no need to fight. His ego, his self-worth, is based elsewhere: in the belief that opening oneself to God's love for oneself and others is the best way for everyone's ego needs to be met.
Just as this divine love holds all these interest together, so it holds all to account. What matters is remaining open and connected. Integrity counts. God knows. God can judge. There is no need to fear the courts of human condemnation. Nothing suggests that Paul is oblivious to criticism or cannot change his mind or plans. The mind that is not depending on others' approbation and fearing others' sentencing is free to weigh criticism and not engage in ego-defence or attack. It just happened to be that when he did change his plans - as did on whether to visit Corinth - they "had" him for that, too, because people guided by the Spirit should allegedly never admit to mistakes or make them. Paul probably would have infuriated them when he wrote that he was not aware of anything being wrong in what he was doing. Someone hadn't told Paul about the later Christian humility which banned such honesty and taught people to retreat from bold truth into lying abasement.
Ultimately it is Paul's belief in the nature of God that frees him for ministry and keeps him from these power games. Believing that God is both judge and carer go together. Being loved by someone who does not lie to make you feel comfortable but sees you just as you and loves you is life-transforming. Then the light that shines is something warm and liberating. The more astute and discerning the judgement when part of love and positive support, the greater the release from all that threatens our integrity and embroils us in self-demeaning power struggles.
Gospel: Epiphany 8: 27 February Matthew 6:24-34
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