Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

After a heady exposition of how true, Godly wisdom is given by the Spirit of God, Paul returns to directly address the Corinthians’ divisions–and the assessments of themselves and their leaders upon which those divisions are based.

February 13, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

After a heady exposition of how true, Godly wisdom is given by the Spirit of God, Paul returns to directly address the Corinthians’ divisions–and the assessments of themselves and their leaders upon which those divisions are based.

For people who considered themselves wise, Paul has some hard words about true wisdom.

Not a Spiritual People
In 2:6 Paul indicated that there was more wisdom from God to be had beyond merely the word of the cross. Such wisdom is spoken “among the mature.” The implication there that the Corinthians might not qualify as “mature” is explicitly stated here, “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as to infants in Christ” (3:1).

Here is another verse whose full significance we might skip by if we’re not paying close attention. First, Paul’s very description of them as immature, and therefore not capable of receiving the wisdom of God, flies in the face of their own self-assessment as wise people.

More than this, however, Paul’s assessment undermines their self-understanding as a “Spiritual” people. These Christians take tremendous pride in their Spiritual gifts, as we see in 1 Corinthians 12-14. But those gifts themselves are not being used in keeping with the gospel. Thus, paradoxically, the very use of Spiritual gifts by the Corinthians calls their spirituality into question.

Later on, Paul will speak of being a Spiritual person as a function of participating in the life of the resurrected Christ (15:44-49). To be “in Christ” is, by definition, to be a (Holy) Spiritual person.

Thus, when Paul says that he could not speak to the Corinthians as to mature, Spiritual people (3:1) he is not only telling them to grow up, he is also undercutting their mis-placed self assessment as being particularly mature, particularly wise, particularly spiritual–super Christians!

If Paul did not give them the full wisdom of which he was capable, it is their own lack of maturity that dictated it (3:2-4). And once again we find that the Corinthians occupy the same ground upon which we too easily find ourselves standing. We come up with infinite ways to measure spiritual maturity. But Paul brings the Corinthians, and us, back to the simple measure of our life together. “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh?” (3:3).

Paul has argued that at the heart of our Christian identity is our oneness in Christ. It might be worth exploring if we have been willing to hold ourselves and our leaders up to this standard of maturity. Are we demanding an end to jealousy and quarreling?

Acknowledging Each Other’s Labors
In a series of images, Paul proceeds to put his and Apollos’ ministries in proper perspective. Different leaders in the church should not be seen as rallying points for competing parties, but as co-workers performing complimentary tasks for the achievement of a common goal.

In 1:21 Paul had contrasted God’s wisdom with the world’s by saying that God saves by means of the belief that comes when people hear the word of the cross. Now, he urges the Corinthians to see that both he and Apollos are servants through whom the Corinthians have come to such believe (3:5).

Notice how Paul has undermined their efforts to flock to one leader over another. Although worldly wisdom and God’s wisdom are antithetical concepts, he places both himself and his purported competitor Apollos on the side of God’s wisdom and the gospel. Rather than villainize Apollos, Paul insists that the only way to rightly interpret the work of God in Corinth is to see that both men have been working together, under God, to build the church.

Paul uses two metaphors to help the Corinthians imagine his and Apollos’ complimentary ministries. First, in an agricultural metaphor, he depicts himself as the one who scattered the seed and Apollos as the one who cared for it by watering it. But any growth is only from God–which means that God is the only person in that whole interchange who is worthy of allegiance (3:6-7). The imagery shows why all the Corinthians should be allied together under God.

If Paul and Apollos are one, united in their work for and with God (3:8-9), where does that leave the Corinthians? They are the field over which the leaders are working (3:9), or the building they are helping construct (3:9-12). The Corinthians are dependent on both workers, and should not be allying themselves with one against the other.

The Cross, Our Canon
The first few chapters of 1 Corinthians lay down a number of challenges for the contemporary church. Are we willing to see our own division and quarreling as the fruit of immature spirits rather than of righteous indignation? Are we willing to use the economy of the cross as our measure of the world rather than measuring the people of cross by the economy of the world?

And, even more challenging: when we or our people are pitched against another person and his or her followers, are we willing to step back and re-tell the story so that everyone can look at the other as “sister,” acknowledge that the other is “brother,” and see the work that each is engaged in as an indispensable aspect of the work of the Kingdom of God?

Perhaps the most formidable call of 1 Corinthians is not simply to recognize that our own divisions are not God’s best for God’s people, but to take up its insistence that we make the gospel message of the one, crucified Christ our own canon for measuring the church. Are we, in fact, a cross-shaped people?