First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 7

William Loader

Epiphany 7: 22 February  2 Corinthians 1:18-22

Paul uses the language of conversion to affirm something positive and decisive. It talks about being established, anointed, sealed, and given a guarantee. The language has a legal ring to it. It is something definite. Paul is affirming the foundation of Christian faith. God was definite and clear-cut in Christ. God gave us a solid base by incorporating us into Christ. Elsewhere he can speak of being baptised into Christ. He also speaks of Christ's body. It is as if he is speaking of the sphere of Christ's influence and being. We are definitely included in this.

The language of anointing (chrisas) uses the same root which gives us the designation, 'Christ', which means 'Anointed'. We become one with the Anointed One, with Christ, but we are also anointed. While oil was used in baths and parlours to enhance attractiveness and in contexts of sickness as a means of conveying healing, the background to its use here is something more directly task related. People are anointed for tasks: priests to serve, prophets to speak out, kings to rule. Luke portrays Jesus as explaining why he was anointed: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news and live it out in action which will be good news for the poor (Luke 4:16-20). Christians are 'christed' or anointed for the same task.

Associated with the anointing is sealing, a legal term, which enhanced the certainty of a document or someone authorised to act on another's behalf. That is also the case here. Then finally Paul describes the Spirit, which had been in view all along, as the arrabon, like an advance instalment of something fuller which is to come. The life of the Spirit is to create in us and our world the patterns and realities which we look forward to as the goal of all creation. The Spirit is about renewing creation, new creation, new birth. In other contexts the language of conversion includes becoming a new person, being born afresh, becoming a son or daughter of God.

All of this is rich in symbolism. Paul is almost certainly using language which the Corinthians would recognise as belonging to the traditions of the church. It is fairly elaborate. That belonged to the rhetoric of the day. It can verge on being a little overloaded or flowery, but it is clear that Paul means every word of it. He is not indulging in pious elaborations. In fact, when we look more closely, we see that he is engaged with a very personal concern. Notice that in the very next verse Paul makes claims to defend himself (in 23). The same was happening just before our passage (in 15-17). Once again Paul has his back to the wall and responds by going back to the heart of the gospel.

We can trace something of the dispute which engages him. Some Corinthians are complaining that Paul failed to stick to his plans and visit them a second time after travelling north (15-17). Instead he had changed his mind. This laid him open to the charge that he could not possibly be a divinely guided apostle, like the others. We saw in previous weeks from 1 Corinthians that they had complained that he did not keep the guidelines of Jesus about getting support from locals, but worked instead. It was probably similar people who now seized on this new failing. Paul can't be very spiritually minded if one moment he says, yes, and the next he says, no.

Instead of defending himself directly Paul simply reasserts that he lives from a gospel where there is certainty: God is certain and clear in the gospel in offering love and acceptance and incorporating us into Christ. One could say that Paul's response does not really answer the objection. At one level this is true, although he starts by recalling the certainty with which he and Timothy proclaimed the gospel in Corinth in the first place. At another he simply shifts ground to what is certain. What is not said is something like this: I don't see a problem in changing my plans, because I am seeking to live from the heart of the gospel and what it promises. In doing so I have only one set of rules and that is to be faithful to the God who loves and cares and I will make decisions, including changing plans if need be, in order to allow God to work through me. The only status Paul is concerned about is staying in a good relation to God through Christ and living it out. He is prepared to sacrifice the image of consistency, the status gained by being impressive, the 'super-apostle' persona (see what he says in 11:5!). In fact he sees such values as a contradiction of the gospel.

Paul is very good at helping us keep in contact with what really matters. You can see how important it is to hear what he is saying in 18-22 in the context of his struggle, if it is not to sound like just another embellishment of religious tradition. For Paul it is vital and he uses its images to say something about where he is coming from and invites the Corinthians to do the same (notice the 'us' language beside the 'you' language).

Gospel: Epiphany 7: 22 February Mark 2:1-12

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