Third Sunday in Lent (Year B)

Among the students I teach in my introduction to the New Testament course, no city in the Roman world holds a greater fascination than Corinth.

March 11, 2012

Second Reading
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Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Among the students I teach in my introduction to the New Testament course, no city in the Roman world holds a greater fascination than Corinth.

In many ways it represents the kind of urban existence that many of them aspire to once they can shake the prairie dust from their shoes and head for the alluring lights of Omaha or Chicago. In Paul’s day, Corinth offered the kind of cultural and economic diversity that few towns could claim. Situated as it was between two sea ports, it was a place where traditions converged, where various languages were spoken and ideas were exchanged as eagerly as money for exotic goods.

Corinth also had more than its share of corruption and vice: the disparity between rich and poor was painfully evident and, as one might expect under such circumstances, prostitution was rampant. In the first century, Corinth was where fortunes were made and where more than a few lives were sacrificed in the process. There was a form of logic at work here that was rarely questioned. And why should it be? Success speaks for itself.

It was into this mix that the Apostle Paul came from Athens, fresh from a lackluster performance at the Areopagus where, as Luke tells us (Acts 17: 32-34), his preaching harvested more sneers than souls. Upon entering Corinth Paul must have felt a bit like a wounded animal ready once again to be thrown to the dogs. As the capital of a wealthy Roman province, eloquence and skill counted for much more than faith and conviction here, and with respect to the former the Apostle was apparently lacking given his recent experience.

But as it turned out, the work of the Spirit was sufficient for the spread of the gospel in this context, and this must have taught Paul a valuable lesson. A year and a half later, as he was called away to Ephesus, Paul left behind a collection of believers that was a microcosm of the illustrious city itself. Rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, male and female, all were enjoying a single fellowship of the Spirit, despite the logic of a town that told them this was not possible. Still, Paul must have had his doubts. How could this body remain whole in the midst of a culture so bent on crucifying it?

And his doubts were well-founded. After his departure it was not long before the sensibilities of this city began to seep their way into the cracks of the church and do its insidious damage, to which Paul eventually responds with a letter, a kind of grocery list of infractions against the gospel. Christians in Corinth had begun committing immoral acts. They were suing each other and refusing to eat together at the Lord’s Supper.

Some were distinguishing themselves by virtue of their spiritual gifts. A few were claiming to be followers of Paul while others gave their allegiance to the skilled orator, Apollos. In all of this the unity of the body was being threatened and it was up to Paul to remind them of the Kingdom wisdom into which they had been baptized. He begins this task in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 and ultimately concludes in his famous chapter on love (1 Corinthians 13).

To the outsider, Paul insists, proclaiming Christ crucified is sheer folly (moria). In today’s course vernacular, we might say that this message could only appeal to a group of “morons,” a ship of fools. And in some ways this is correct. For Paul the body of Christ is a new ark, a spiritual vessel held aloft from the disturbing rationality of Corinthian chaos by an inscrutable wisdom in which strength is revealed in divine weakness, glory in the shame of the cross. 

For the Hellenes this was clearly nonsense. Since the time of Plato Greek philosophers had been wary of any certainty associated too closely with the world of change. Ultimate truth, they argued, must necessarily rise above the flux of nature. It must be immutable in its perfection. Gods did not take on human form to be crucified and resurrected. This was precisely the kind of rubbish that sent Paul packing in Athens.

Similarly, the Jews had their own stumbling block. For centuries they had sought from their prophets and in the heavens signs that the day of the Lord was imminent. By the first century this apocalyptic hope had taken a number of forms: the messiah would be a heavenly figure coming on the clouds; he would be a warrior king; the messiah would be a priest. Jesus of Nazareth was none of these. Indeed, he was a man cursed, as Moses so clearly attested (Deuteronomy 21:23). To proclaim this as hope and deliverance was not only foolish, it was blasphemy.

But dishonor in the present age is honor in the Kingdom, a reality inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Christ. It was the values of this latter age that the faithful at Corinth were being called to uphold. While conventional logic required that they consider each other according to the customs of the state — poor and rich, Gentile and Jew — the presence of Christ in their lives necessitated that they live by an entirely new ethic. It is only in this context that we can appreciate the full import of 1 Corinthians 13, the thematic chapter of this letter.

The fact that Corinth appeals to so many of my students as the kind of place they might like to live tells us that Paul’s world and experience are not that different from our own. The squabbles that marked the Corinthian church can sometimes read like the minutes of a contemporary congregational meeting. As in the past, the logic of our social and cultural context too often seeps into the body of Christ and obscures the curious wisdom by which we are called to live. Corinth continues to beguile and convince us of its truth, but Lent offers us the opportunity to discern in prayer and in community whose wisdom, and whose folly, we will ultimately claim as our own.