Epiphany 3A. 26 January 2014.
The Very Revd Alexander D. MacPhail
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Last Sunday I spoke in some detail about the background of the letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Today I want to extend some of that, and speak to today’s lesson.
Last Sunday I gave a little geography—the city of Corinth is on an isthmus between the Peloponnesus and mainland Greece. It was what we might call a “boom town” because so many goods and people moved through Corinth on their way between the ports of Lachaion and Cenchreae. Corinth was very active in trade, and famous for prostitution, and sports.
Paul likely found a small Jewish community there after his missionary ventures in Philippi and Thessalonica, and stayed at the house of Aquila and Priscilla, who were early Christian converts and also tentmakers, just like Paul. Tent making would have been a fairly well paying and honest labor. These are the days before hotels. If people travelled they may need a tent, and during the Isthmian Games, which were a lesser version of the Olympics, tents would be needed for athletes and visitors alike.
The Church at Corinth was not very big, but it was very cosmopolitan—these are urban people, accustomed to seeing many people from many backgrounds, and observing many beliefs.
Corinth is not in the Holy Land. It’s in Greece, so since the Jewish culture is not a dominant force, there is great freedom for Paul to preach without fear of religious rejection from some established leaders.
When you and I read these letters now, we read them through our own lens, but there are aspects of culture that might help us read Paul.[*] Paul writes with a very deep sense of connection to the Corinthian Church and very much as a father to a child. It may seem condescending, paternalistic and even arrogant to us now, but Paul’s role is that of a pater familias. Paul is the head of this household, and culturally it is understood that he can speak with authority. As their founding pastor, he has the understood right to suggest that they emulate him, just as a child might emulate a parent.
Also in the air is the value of honor and the fear of shame. I won’t say that this is completely foreign to our culture now, however we live in a much more socially flexible culture. For instance, for those of you who did not grow up in the Shenandoah Valley, you know that you could move here and start fresh. I remember a few years ago a parishioner said to me, “Join and church and join and gym, you’ll have friends in a couple weeks no matter where you go.” But in Paul’s time, your family name was respected or not. You might be able to move slightly up, but never to the top. And you could certainly always slide down.
I think we see this happen today most dramatically in political and popular celebrity, but it’s different. A person can emerge from obscurity to become a powerful political or popular celebrity, but they can fall very, very quickly. Depending on the circumstances, a person may come back with time, depending on the severity of the crime or indiscretion.
But society was even more vertical and much less flexible. Everything was concerned with gaining honor and avoiding shame. Those who were considered lower were expected to show honor to those who were considered higher. Places of honor were important. Who gets to speak, and when, was important. And there was dishonor in anyone breaching the unwritten rules. Think Downton Abbey.
In America, it’s very different. I won’t say that we don’t have our classes and unwritten rules, because we do, and they are constantly being negotiated, but we are far less concerned about those things now. And ironically, it seems shameful to notice the differences, or to speak about them. If you were watching Downton Abbey, someone asks—I don’t remember the exact wording—“What should I say to her?” –indicating someone not considered part of their social class. And the answer came back, “Anything one human being might say to another human being.” To which was said, “But none of those are appropriate subjects for conversation.” Well, there you have the first century.
Along with that, everyone had a lord. Everyone had someone who was over them, who might be able to say that they were owned by them. Not just slaves, although this was most obviously true of slaves; but everyone had someone to whom they were indebted, and wanted to please. When Jesus said, “No one can serve two lords,” he is speaking very subversively. One wanted as many patrons, or lords, as possible, because that meant security. Someone needs or wants me.
So a client did his best to cultivate his relationship to the patron, and the patron took pains to insure that the proper honor was given to them. It seems so shallow now, but… Well… I don’t know about you, but when I go to a restaurant or a store, I expect to be called “sir.” And if someone is too casual with me in that situation, I may silently take offense. I would certainly never say anything about it, but…do you know what I’m saying here? Several months ago, I purchased something and the cashier said, “Good evening, honey.” And despite the casualness of those words, her tone was that of respect, and I was oddly charmed by it.
But really the patron/client relationship was just as nuanced as social position, so there aren’t many modern day similarities that really get at it, yet it was a very important part of the lesson we read today. Last week, we read Paul’s effusive introduction, and today he tackles their divisions head on.
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
In a society where the patron/client relationship and social position was so important, it mattered who one belonged to in the faith. Chloe and her friends are concerned that the more egalitarian nature of the Christian faith is being lost to the secular system. And Paul says this is about Jesus. It’s not about me, or Apollos, or Cephas. We don’t own you; Christ owns you.
You may recall in our liturgy of the Holy Baptism, immediately after the Opening Acclamation, the priest or bishop has this exchange with the People,
There is one Body, and one Spirit.
One hope in God’s call to us.
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.
One God and Father of All.
This is how our liturgy affirms that no matter who is officiating the baptism, everyone’s baptism is the same and equal, just as there is one God.
Then Paul writes some words that seem like he’s just thinking out loud. I don’t know about you, but whenever I read over them I smile a bit. He writes:
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)
You see?! It’s like, “Yeah, I baptized Crispus and Gaius, but most of you were…well, and then there’s the household of Stephanas…but then, who knows…but that’s not the point…!”
He doesn’t want to minimize the importance of baptism, or his own role as their spiritual father, but he wants them back on the important stuff, and that’s the cross of Christ. He writes:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
This is how Paul begins to try to draw them together from their divisions, by pulling them back to the narrative that brought them to Christianity to begin with. It isn’t just a brilliant tactic, it is the only tactic—because you and I know that what brings us together is what keeps us together. And I don’t say that to underestimate the powerful relationships we develop, but they can only go but so far in the church.
One of the great sadnesses I occasionally still feel is that all the newcomers at my last church left when I left. Thankfully, they didn’t leave the Faith of Christ, but they did leave that particular parish. In the Church it has to be more than just friendship.
I heard a priest friend of mine say that he felt like his was “a congregation of broken toys.” Those where his words. He said, “I’m one of them myself. We’re all nice people and everything. We just don’t happen to fit in with anyone else, so this is our church.”
Can I just take a moment to say that I rather like that. They’re a small church, and ironically, they’re in a big city! Rather like the Corinthians. But unlike the Corinthian Christians, they’re not fighting about who baptized them. I have heard that they have their little ups and downs like any church, but that sense of shared vulnerability—I think that’s a beautiful thing.
I’m not saying that a church should become a club, but maybe we’re on to something when we construe the church as a people with shared vulnerability. After all, that really is the story of the Cross. Jesus who was invulnerable, “for us, and for our salvation,” became vulnerable and died. Paul writes, “Foolishness to [some], but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
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[*] The New Interpreter’s Bible, p.782ff.