Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

The second chapter of 1 Corinthians contains two of Paul’s “greatest hits” verses.

Edward Ruscha. Miracle, from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Sourced from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

February 9, 2014

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

The second chapter of 1 Corinthians contains two of Paul’s “greatest hits” verses.

At the beginning of the chapter, he says, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (verse 2). At the end of the chapter, Paul declares, “We have the mind of Christ.”

Both of these verses are about what Paul and his readers see and know, and what they can imagine. In a Word & World article available here, Alexandra Brown notes Paul’s habit “wherever he mentions the cross to link it with the terminology of seeing, knowing, change of mind, transformation” (431). Paul speaks of the cross in order to speak about what can be perceived.

During an eye exam, the optometrist says to you something like, “Things are going to get very blurry for a minute.” Lenses click by and in an instant, where there had been legible letters, now there are just grey-black blobs in front of you. No force of will or act of squinting can bring the blobs into focus. You cannot see what was there a moment before. Or maybe the experience happens in reverse: things start out blurry and then, with the correct lens to look through, the whole world comes into focus.

In Paul’s experience and in his preaching, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is shorthand for the event that acts as an interpretive lens for every other encounter. “Christ crucified” is not the optometrist’s eye chart but the small piece of glass between Paul and the chart. It reveals the wisdom of this age (verse 6) as so much blur — or static, to use an auditory rather than a visual image. And it brings into focus what God has revealed through the Spirit (verse 10). In this context, “Christ crucified” is not what Paul sees but how he sees.

So Paul tells the Corinthians that when he was with them, everything he knew — from the meaning of the Jewish Scriptures to the wisdom of their best thinkers to the status of various individuals in the community — he perceived through the lens of Jesus Christ crucified. That is how he saw them then, and how he now sees them with their conflicts and questions about leaders, worship, spiritual gifts, table fellowship, the resurrection, and all the rest.

This interpretation of “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” begs two questions: (1) what does the shorthand, “Jesus Christ and him crucified” mean? and (2) what does it bring into focus?

The cross of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:17), the word of the cross (1:18) and “Christ crucified” (1:23) are all shorthand for God’s intervention into this age, to bring about a new one. The intervention involved the self-emptying and self-giving love of Christ, love that culminated in Christ’s giving his life — and not for righteous people, which Greeks and other hero worshippers could understand, but rather, for the ungodly.

This foolishness (2:14; cf. 1:18, 23-25) is the beginning of the new creation, one in which old ways of defining oneself and others (Jew/Greek, strong/weak, wise/foolish) no longer describe the real world. “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Why bring all of this up in the context of a discussion about schism in the church involving loyalties to certain leaders? (That discussion begins at 1:10 and becomes explicit again in 3:4.) The cross brings two things into focus: (1) Neither Paul nor the Corinthians have status left to defend, and (2) the mind of Christ (1:10, 2:16) that they share is a kind of imagination-in-action, patterned after the very action that has revealed God’s new creation in the first place.

Last November, an Italian prosecutor wondered out loud whether Pope Francis might be under threat from Italian crime bosses. The pope has spoken out against mob corruption and spoken honestly about collusion between elements within the church and the Mafia — and the fact that it should end. The Vatican Bank is now taking steps to get out of the money laundering business. As all this unfolded, worries about the pope’s safety made the news.

Pope Francis himself did not seem particularly worried. He is still riding around in a Ford Focus, still connecting with the people. If he were trying to protect himself from crime families, he would not have spoken out in the first place. In a world full of threats, we cannot defend ourselves and testify to the way of Jesus Christ at the same time.

Something like this is going on with Paul as he writes the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians. “What then is Paul? What is Apollos? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each” (3:5). What is the worst that can happen to Paul: that the Corinthians cease to regard him as a leader? That he loses the popularity contest? None of this matters. He and the other leaders are servants. Elsewhere, Paul will say this even more explicitly: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians, Paul urges his readers to be united in the same mind. David Fredrickson has written extensively on the Christ hymn of Philippians 2 and the “same mind” Paul exhorts there as “imagination in action.” I am indebted to a conversation with him for this “folding chairs” explanation of the mind of Christ: Imagine working with someone to move one of those large racks of folding chairs that populate church basements and school gymnasiums. It takes a theory (“I think this will work if you’re on one side and I’m on the other”).

You have to share at least elements of a vision, to be of “one mind” on the nature of the task and its execution. Even so, as vital as it is, shared imagination does not move the chairs. Action — walking, pushing, pulling, steadying — is required, too, as are mid-course communication and correction. The whole thing is common work in which people with different functions share, if only for a few moments, the same mind.

The actions of those with the mind of Christ will be characterized by self-giving love. The leaders will act as servants (3:5). The strong will refrain from exercising their freedom at the expense of the weak (cf. 1 Corinthians 8-10). Love will prove greater than prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (13:8). To have the mind of Christ is to be able to imagine the new creation and participate in it before it has come into focus for others. And as God’s Spirit calls and equips the church for that imagining and participating, the new creation actually comes into focus for the world.