Sunday 16 February 2020
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
It seems like Paul is calling for unity. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow,” he says. In other words, why are you dividing yourselves into factions, some who say they’re following me and some who say they’re following Apollos? Don’t you realize that we’re both doing God’s work? There isn’t a difference. Don’t divide yourselves on our accounts. We both have the same message. We’re both saying the same thing. Don’t make a decision between me and Apollos. There’s no difference between us.
That’s what it seems like Paul is doing. It seems like he’s being generous, magnanimous. It seems like he’s saying “Can’t we all just get along?”
That’s not what he’s doing. He’s not asking everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbayah. What he’s actually doing is much more cunning.
Over the last several Sundays, we’ve been reading through the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The story of the church in Corinth is a story of division. Paul has heard reports that there are several factions developing in the congregation. Some say that they’re part of Paul’s faction. Some say that they’re part of Apollos’s faction. Some say they are part of Peter’s faction. Others say that they are the only one’s who are actually following Christ. However, the main conflict seems to be between those who are following Paul and those who are following Apollos. Paul had been in Corinth first. He had founded the Christian community. After Paul went on to start churches in other communities, a new missionary named Apollos had come to town. And he had perhaps brought different views than Paul’s. We know very little about the actual message of Apollos. What we do know is that the messages of Paul and Apollos have become part of a reason for discord in Corinth.
From what we can tell, the church in Corinth is divided largely over class and status. Those known as the strong are generally upper-class people, those who own property and have relative control over their economic lives. They are educated, trained in philosophy, and are patrons. Those known as the weak come from the lower classes of society. They are slaves, peasants, or poor laborers. In general, they are uneducated and have little control over their economic lives.
The strong have a powerful sense of their freedom in Christ. They claim to have great wisdom and spiritual gifts. Their freedom in Christ means that they don’t pay much attention to issues of purity. They don’t believe that the traditional gods exist, so they don’t worry about the appearance that they might be worshipping idols during certain political and cultural activities.
This is pretty scandalous to the weak, though. They take the traditional gods very seriously. Before they had become Christians, they had worshipped the Roman gods, and now they consider them to be demons. They are very careful not to show any appearance of worshipping these idols. This means that they can’t take part in many of the cultural and political activities of the time.
In the section of First Corinthians today, Paul sounds like he’s asking the two sides to sort out their differences and get along. He’s actually taking sides. He is appealing to the strong on their own terms, but he is taking the side of the weak.
The strong are very proud of their wisdom, their education, and their spiritual prowess. They can display their elevated status with impressive spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues. Paul begins chapter 3 by cutting them down to size. He mocks their supposed wisdom and their spiritual enlightenment. Paul tells them that they are so unspiritual that he had to treat them like babies. He couldn’t even share his true spiritual wisdom with them because their faith was so infantile. They wouldn’t have been able to process it. Paul’s wisdom would have made them sick.
The strong in Corinth no doubt think that they have progressed a long way since their beginnings in the faith when Paul was with them. But Paul insists that they have not. Paul tells them that they are still spiritual babies. Paul can’t even share his elevated spiritual wisdom with them because their delicate spiritual constitutions couldn’t handle it.
Paul goes on to tell the strong that their supposed wisdom and spiritual enlightenment are completely meaningless. They think that they are wise, but Paul is much wiser. Paul receives his wisdom directly from God. Paul gets revelations directly from the Holy Spirit. The reason that they aren’t already seeing things from Paul’s point of view is because they don’t have access to the Holy Spirit. They are so clueless that they can’t even realize that Paul has access to the greatest wisdom that there is.
Paul appears to be striking a note of conciliation when he says that he himself planted their faith and that Apollos watered it, but that it is God who made it grow. Each of us had our role. But there is an edge to Paul’s comparison of himself and Apollos. Planting and watering aren’t of equal importance. Planting the seed is more important, more meaningful. The actual content of the faith comes in the planted seed. Watering only aides in the growth of the thing has already been planted. It’s the one who plants who has control over what kind of plant is going to grow. The one watering has no control over that.
The point becomes even more clear as Paul shifts metaphors in the second half of chapter 3. He describes himself as a master builder who built the foundation of the faith of the church in Corinth. No one else can build a new foundation that is other than the foundation that Paul has built. Many other people can try to build on top of Paul’s foundation, but each one of them will be judged by the quality of their work. And Paul implies that the building that Apollos and others are doing is not sound. He says, “Whether someone builds on top of the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, grass, or hay, each one’s work will be clearly shown. The day will make it clear, because it will be revealed with fire—the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work survives, they’ll get a reward. But if anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through a fire.” Paul has built a strong foundation of stone, but anyone who tries to build on top of it with straw, well, their shoddy work will be revealed and ultimately destroyed.
It is quite remarkable how Paul can use very friendly-sounding words in a way that is designed to prove himself right against his detractors. But he isn’t just doing it for his ego. Paul isn’t just being crafty with his words because he wants to be right. He’s doing it because he’s defending the weak. Paul is doing this because he is concerned with justice.
Paul knows that the weak in Corinth are being mistreated and left behind. Just as one example, when it is time to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, something that at the time involved an entire meal, the strong come early with lots of fine food to share. The weak can only come after they have finished working, and by then all of the food is gone. The strong want the weak to stay in their place and to be happy with the scraps that are left over.
Paul isn’t calling for peace here, he’s calling for justice. It’s not that hard to have peace without justice. So long as the oppressed stay in their place, it’s easy to have peace. If the powerful are taking advantage of the powerless and there is no recourse, it’s easy to have peace. It’s much harder to have peace with justice.
I am reminded of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” While he and many others were in jail for protesting segregation in Birmingham, several high-ranking white clergymen, including two Methodist bishops, wrote a letter called “A Call for Unity” that was published in local newspapers. In it, they urged that demonstrations cease and that those seeking racial equality use other, less disruptive means to get their point across.
From his jail cell, Dr. King wrote a response that included these words: “I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection….
“You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist…. But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.”… Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
Too often those who are relatively comfortable wish for peace instead of justice. Too often we prefer a calm status quo than a noisy and disruptive movement toward the Kingdom of God. We shouldn’t be misled by Paul’s clever rhetoric. He is not calling for a thin peace; he is calling for a robust justice in which the weak are no longer abused by the strong.
We too, if we have the courage, can follow Jesus’s radical call for justice. We too can stand up for those who are being abused, for those who are being mistreated, for those who are being excluded and minimized and brushed aside. We can choose not to be content with a false unity that hides injustice, but to embrace the struggle for a justice that leads to true peace. That is the imperative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is our calling as Christians. That is the work of the Kingdom of God. Not to be happy with quiet injustice, but to work for true peace with justice. May God give us the courage to follow.