Third Sunday after Epiphany

It may seem odd to preach Paul during Epiphany, when the Church customarily focuses on the explicit gospel narratives of the revelation of God in Christ.

Matthew 4:19
"[H]e said to them, 'Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.'" Photo by Hunter Brumels on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

January 26, 2020

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

It may seem odd to preach Paul during Epiphany, when the Church customarily focuses on the explicit gospel narratives of the revelation of God in Christ.

  • But the sequence of readings from the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians in Year A might help a congregation widen their sense of how Christ might be revealed, not only in the first century, but through the power of their life together now, the shining out of grace through a community of ordinary people called to holiness.
  • Here, in what many scholars have regarded as the thesis statement of 1 Corinthians, Paul exposes the unearthly power and wisdom revealed in the cross, as a basis for calling the church in Corinth to a cruciform ethic: life given over to the well-being of the neighbor.

Diagnosis and treatment

Many people in America today would say that divisiveness is one of the most dangerous issues in our common life, that factionalism and misguided allegiance keep us from being able to address the very serious challenges that confront us today: increasing disparity between rich and poor, climate change, global violence, competition for natural resources, migration due to war and famine.

And of course, each of these issues has its local manifestation:

  • isolation of people in homogeneous neighborhoods;
  • fear of strangers, of other races and nationalities, refugees, the homeless—or the despair of being the stranger, the refugee, or without a home;
  • addiction, mental illness, trauma;
  • a lack of individual commitment to the well-being of an entire town or city;
  • a sense of powerlessness when it comes to self-regulating the use of fossil fuels, water, food.

The logos of the cross is Paul’s attempt to diagnose and treat divisions occurring within one of his most important congregations, a church embedded in a wider social context of injustice, greed, status-seeking, violence; the use and abuse of others; and the poverty and enslavement of some as the foundation of the wealth of others.

  • Preaching this passage today asks the preacher to be a kind of time-traveler, to understand how practical, revolutionary, and important Paul’s approach was in his context, even if the preacher never speaks of these issues directly;
  • to bring the same energetic, practical wisdom to bear on the preacher’s context;
  • and to accomplish all of this without becoming manipulative in exactly the ways that Paul says would “empty the cross of Christ of its power” (1 Corinthians 1:17)

The same mind and the same purpose

Paul seeks to mend the splits in the community by counseling the Corinthians to be united in the same mindset (Anthony Thistleton’s translation of nous) and the same intention (gnome).

  • But is this appeal just Paul’s own form of coercion?
  • He interrupts himself by presenting the clear evidence of factionalism (“I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Paul!” “I belong to Cephas!”), and then picks up the mending thread again in verses 17 and 18, where it becomes clear that the mindset and intention he means are cross-shaped, self-emptying for the sake of something larger than the self.

Strange logic of the cross

The question remains, how can the cross restore people to right relationship with God and neighbor if speaking of it becomes the occasion for a leader’s self-aggrandizement or manipulation? Attending to the translation of some of the key words and phrases may be helpful here.

  • Gospel: According to most English translations, Paul says in verse 17, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel,” whereas the Greek has a simple verb, “to gospel” (euangelizomai): “Christ did not send me to baptize but to gospel.”
  • The difference between proclaiming something and simply doing it allows us to imagine gospeling as not merely speech, but action. Perhaps Paul’s most significant gospeling happened not when he was speaking at all, but in the ways he treated people when they gathered for the Lord’s supper, or in his care for his co-workers (1 Corinthians 9:6).
  • The specific actions of gospeling are spelled out in 13:4-6, where Paul speaks of all the activities that constitute love. Where patience, endurance, hope, humility, forgiveness are embodied by people in community over time, then the gospel sounds forth through them.
  • The logos of the cross: Likewise, translations of the logos of the cross as the “message about the cross” misdirect the hearer toward a preoccupation with how the cross might be explained in powerful speech.
  • The Greek term logos is a way to speak of the deepest forms of wisdom, the wisdom that underlies the making of all that is. The cross, in Paul’s view, is profoundly revelatory of the nature of God, both in God’s willingness to suffer for the benefit of the creation, and also in the power of God to bring life out of death.
  • The cross exposes God’s wisdom for all the world to see; but only those who understand the strange logic of God’s power—perfectly revealed in Christ’s weakness—know what it is they’re seeing.
  • God’s self-giving power through the cross for newness of life is known tangibly by the community in Corinth, as Gentiles are offered a path from death to life, from brokenness to wholeness, from self-serving chaos to holiness and relationship. They are, in effect, new-born through the cross.

The epiphany of the cross

We might say that Paul removes the cross from the hands of Rome, as an instrument of terror, and gives it over to the power of God to re-knit the fabric of relationship. How does a preacher speak of these things without resorting to mere words?

  • This might be a day for telling stories and presenting images so that the congregation can grasp what the lived Gospel, the lived cross, looks like, sounds like, feels like. These are the present-day “epiphanies” of Christ in our midst.
  • Where in your own community do you see people gospeling with their whole way of life? Where do you see the power of God at work among you through the strange logic of the cross?

First Corinthians 1:18 contains a clue to the hopefulness that undergirds this entire passage: “to us who are being saved.” For Paul, salvation is not a once-in-a-lifetime event but an ongoing embodied process of mending the fabric of relationships that stretch across the entire creation, a fabric that is revelatory of God’s grace and power, from end to end.