Reflections on I Corinthians

I CORINTHIANS

As we begin I Corinthians, we begin to see a pattern with Paul’s writing in that he foreshadows much of his letter within his greeting. In this instance, he reminds the Corinthians both of his apostleship and of their call in I Corinthians 1:1-2 “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God…to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy…” Gorman’s emphasis on the Corinthian’s failure to love and Paul’s repeated emphasis of the holiness of humility and love in the Story of Christ becomes readily apparent as we work our way through this letter. The countercultural nature of the letter is clear; Paul is serious and moves quickly into addressing some of the major issues.

“I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” (I Cor 1:10) Paul is focused on unity here; division is a massive problem and Paul is deeply concerned. He spends a long time addressing it, first through relating how he heard of it then tying it back to Christ and his own story. He tries through various means to communicate to them that the paradigm they are used to has shifted. “Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are already something, so that no human being might boast before God.” (I Cor 1:27-29)

As Gorman calls out, wisdom and power might have been elements that Corinthians were well familiar with, and shifting their understanding that what it meant in God’s Kingdom proved to be a challenge. Paul tried to demonstrate God’s preference for the other through his own story in I Corinthians 2:2-5, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive [words of] wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.” Then Paul tells them that he couldn’t talk to them as spiritual people but as people of the flesh. Gorman points to the fact that Paul reforms their view of ministers, apostle’s and the Church at this point, and points not to man but to God for boasting. Corinthians 3:9 “For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Furthermore, he reminds them of their own holiness in their relationship with God: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” (I Cor 4:16-17)

Paul goes on to address things like factionalism and incest and, as Gorman puts it, “Paul hopes that removing this man from the sphere of the Lord Jesus and remitting him to the sphere of Satan will eventually terminate his behavior so that he will finally be saved.” (Gorman, pg. 247) Paul challenges the Corinthians spirit of “toleration,” recognizing it instead as a spirit of pride in extreme libertinism. Believing they could do what they wanted sexually with their bodies, Paul quickly moves to address this and all misunderstandings of what freedom meant in I Corinthians 6:12, “’Everything is lawful for me,’ but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is lawful for me,’ but I will not let myself be dominated by anything.’” He goes on to say that the body is not for immorality but for God; remembering earlier that the Spirit is now in us. He reminds them that their bodies are members of Christ and questions how they would treat members of Christ’s body. “For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body.” (I Cor 6:20) He goes on to explain that if you are married, sex within marriage is perfectly acceptable and expected so as not to be tempted to do anything sinful.

I Corinthians 8 really comes down to, as we said in the beginning, what Gorman points out as the Corinthians unlovingness towards one another. Paul would not need to address either insufficient knowledge or practical rules if the Corinthians were able to love each other more than they loved themselves. I Corinthians 8:1 “Now in regard to meat sacrificed to idols: we realize that ‘all of us have knowledge’: knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up.” So he goes on to say that yes, while you can eat meat sacrificed to other gods because there are, in fact, no other gods, if doing so puts those who are weak in faith at risk, then a loving response is to not eat that meat in that circumstance. “But make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak… Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died.” (I Corinthians 8:8-11) Paul goes so far as to say “Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin.” (I Cor 8:13) In other words, I would rather practice cruciform love for my brother by not eating meat than risk a brothers salvation through my meat eating.

Paul proceeds with was foreshadowed in the Greeting, to establish his Apostleship, and why he refrains from the rights he has as an Apostle for which some criticize him (he refrains for the good of the Gospel and sees the financial sacrifice as a reflection of Christ’s cruciform love). “I have become all things to all, to save at least some. All this I do for the sake of the gospel, so that I too may have a share in it.” (I Cor 9:23) He warns them against being overconfident; that past Israelites had relationship and no faith because of the traps of idolatry and God was displeased and so they should always be cautious. In Corinthians 10:12-13 “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” He continues to warn against idolatry and encourage fellowship through things like the Lord’s Supper.

Paul returns again to, as Gorman points out, the Corinth slogan of “Everything is lawful.” Here he reminds them that it might be lawful but it doesn’t necessarily build up. Again, cruciform love is held up as the standard for a response to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Avoid giving offense, whether to Jews or Greeks or the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.” (I Cor 10:31-33) He ends it to imitate him as he imitates Christ.

Then Paul talks about liturgical assemblies, and the abuse of the Lord’s Supper which really just traces back to the Corinthian’s inability to love one another with compassion or cruciform love. As Gorman wrote, Paul saw it as an event of solidarity with no division or neglect and yet it had become a time of division and exclusion. Paul issues a high challenge to the Corinthians within this section, saying in I Corinthians 11:27-29, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself…For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Then he instructs them on how to properly care for one another during the Lord’s Supper.

Next Paul writes about spiritual gifts, because everyone was thinking that certain gifts were better than others. Paul emphasizes that, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also is Christ.” (I Cor 12:12) Additionally, everyone is where they are supposed to be with the gifts that are meant to have. “But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body… Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary.” (I Cor 12:18-22) Every gift is necessary and those that seem weakest are the most necessary to the body. Love, above all things, is most important, and all gifts must be practiced with love. Since it seems to be the greatest challenge for the Corinthians, Paul describes love in detail and then names some of the gifts and how worthless they are if they are done without love. After clearly emphasizing the importance of these things, he says, “Pursue love, but strive eagerly for the spiritual gifts, above all that you may prophesy…for their building up, encouragement and solace. Whoever speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but whoever prophesies builds up the church.” (I Cor 13:1-4)

Later he says “Thus, tongues are a sign not for those who believe but for unbelievers, whereas prophecy is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.” (I Cor 14:22) I find this really interesting because I can see where this is actually true; where tongues might have been something that would have pulled in someone who was a skeptic but for a believer, prophetic words then and now would have great value to their life. A non-believer on the other hand would have no use for prophecy, because there wouldn’t be any faith or action behind it.

Lastly, if we look at the resurrection, Paul was unsure if the Corinthians really believed in the resurrection. This is understandable; for Paul it was the crux of his faith in Christ and in fact when we look at the disciples, it was the changing point for all their behavior. But Paul sees the Corinthians still behaving as pagans. We’re really getting to the point of Paul’s entire letter. If they truly did believe, they would be living as if they believed. This is why Paul warns them in I Corinthians 15:2 “Through it you were also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” He explains the ins and out of bodily resurrection and why it is important (namely, there is no reason for faith or hope or love without it) and that because of it we are called to those things and to live a life like Christ. He wraps up the resurrection section by stating in I Corinthians 15:56-58 “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Then he wraps up with some final exhortations and greetings. When Paul writes, “Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong. Your every act should be love.” (I Cor 16:13-14) it can feel like a call to action! Gorman writes that Paul ends with a common early Christian prayer for the Parousia which I also think is beautiful, “Our Lord, come” or Maranatha in Aramaic (pg. 283)

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Everyday, We Choose to be Christians

I haven’t finished “processing” the Holocaust yet, not that one ever can. It is something I studied for a very long time and used, when I was an atheist, for proof of both God’s non-existence or callousness and the evil of Christians. Yet as I dive further into this challenging issue I have begun to gain a deeper and deeper understanding of why Jesus said he brought good news to the poor.  It is because it was not perceived as good news to the rest of the people and if we repent and believe, our faith calls for our actions to speak for us. Unfortunately, there are Christians that don’t hear this call to action and don’t see this perspective of Jesus and they are often the most vocal and visible on television and comment sections online.

Jesus did not tell us, first and foremost, to condemn. To lecture. To tell people that they shouldn’t have abortions but if they want to take care of that kid they should have, then they should go to college to get a degree so they can get a job whose pay  will maybe lift them out of poverty after they pay the loans off in ten years (or much more offensive bits of condemnation masked as wisdom). In fact, Jesus tells us to do this:

Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Love in the Hebrew context is not making a heart shape with your hands at someone; it isn’t only words or gestures. Love is action. Jesus is telling people that loving your neighbor is as important as loving God and it is loving them in a physical, actionable way. It is sometimes sacrifice of time or resources. Jesus makes it even more clear that He means this in this next verse:

Matthew 25:34-40 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

Two important things to note here.  One, Jesus put himself in, and suffers with, those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers (foreigners), naked, sick, and IMPRISONED. He didn’t mention the rich, or even the comfortable. Jesus speaks of people who are condemned, who are insulted, who are blamed for their condition by society in Jesus’ time and  today.  Two, those are the people God sides with, and there are sides. This is because God cannot abide injustice. God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit to right these wrongs, to fix the injustice of the world, to comfort the sick. Christians are called to do God’s work, to bring God’s Kingdom from heaven to earth, and when we ignore that call and continue to support the mechanisms of oppression in our systems, businesses and government, we are part of the problem.

Here is hard news for many “first world” people. Each day, we choose to be liberators or oppressors. We choose whether or not we follow Christ’s teachings. Personally, I never realized how much I was a part of a system of oppression. That doesn’t free me from responsibility though. Sticking my head in the sand, turning the news off, or ignoring the sadness in my heart doesn’t stop the suffering in the world; personally I think the only thing it does is breaks God’s heart because that’s how the Trinity speaks to us. Through our heart, soul and mind.

I think God is reaching out, that the Holy Spirit is calling to us to have compassion, to do the Lord’s work, to bring the Kingdom through charity, empowerment and justice. When I look at the Bible, this is how I see God operate. Generally, it is through relationships with people, not God acting alone. We act with God and when we don’t, we deny our Creator. Choosing to be ignorant to the suffering of God in humanity seems to be an unacceptable option, personally, so I continue to work at improving this.

This is not to say that our actions earn us anything. It doesn’t; but it does speak to our relationship with God and suffering humanity, with whom Jesus says He is with. It makes clear who our King really is, who we really believe is our Savior, and where we really believe the Kingdom lies. How we spend our money, where we choose to live, what companies we support (fair trade, ethics, etc.), the way we spend our time and treat people. These things matter deeply.

Let us not forget these very important points:

  1. Jesus had the humblest of births
  2. Jesus in adulthood travelled and was therefore fundamentally homeless; Jesus often relied on the charity and goodwill of others and was also in solidarity with both the foreigner and the poor in his living condition. He gave similar conditions to his disciples at times.
  3. Jesus kept company with those considered to be outsiders of his faith, people that others would look down on he looked at with love and compassion.
  4. Jesus suffered and died the brutal, violent death of a criminal (prisoner).
  5. Jesus was resurrected, a promise of hope to all people who feel the solidarity of Jesus Christ in their suffering.

It seems like these are sometimes glossed over, or that Jesus did all that just as a side note.  You don’t dedicate 30+ years, coming into the world and leaving it in the most humble of ways, without good reason. Not Christ. The Prosperity gospels tell you that if you do the right thing God blesses you with wealth and health which conversely means that if you’re poor and sick, God thinks that’s what you deserve. I just don’t see that God as the good God I know.  If you look at Jesus, His blessings are all for people in a place of suffering and oppression. His freedom is not a freedom for you to become more rich, but for you to find freedom in salvation so that you can bring more freedom to others.

Just a few thoughts. Still trying to process it all.