Like Light through a Prism: Preaching Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians in Epiphany (B)

rainbow prism shining on a hand
Photo by Noelle Rebekah on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

A five-week preaching series based on the Second Readings in Time after Epiphany (Year B) of the Revised Common Lectionary

The congregation Paul founded in Corinth appears to have been a hot mess. Among its issues were rivalries among competing groups and leaders, sexual immorality, and lawsuits, in addition to conflicting opinions about such things as marriage and celibacy, food offered to idols, and the resurrection of the dead. Even Paul’s competence as an apostle was a matter in question. Given all this, what might be revelatory about Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, especially for a season that celebrates the “epiphany”—that is, the appearance or manifestation—of Christ’s presence within and among us in the flesh?

At first glance, the Corinthian texts assigned for Year B appear simply to address an ad hoc list of issues and problems. But if we examine them more closely, we find that together they provide, from different angles, insight into the way the radical and liberating freedom we have in Christ is refracted, like light through a prism, in our everyday lives. What makes them especially poignant—indeed, contemporary—is that they do this from the standpoint of the destructive impact a misuse of freedom can have on our bodies and on our relationships with others.

Epiphany 2B: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

In 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 (Epiphany 2B), Paul deals specifically with sexual immorality, but his insights on this matter could be applied to any compulsion or fixation that we allow to dominate or “have authority” over us (6:12)—such as food, alcohol, or drugs, or even a relationship to a person or group. With repetitions of the phrase, “did you know that,” he leads his readers into an awareness of Christ’s and the Spirit’s bodily presence—that our bodies are, in fact, “members of Christ” (6:15) and “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (6:19). Alongside this experiential recognition, he juxtaposes two catchphrases that encapsulate the paradoxical freedom and responsibility we have in Christ: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (6:12). Yes, all things, as part of God’s good creation, are permitted to us in Christ (or to paraphrase Augustine, “Love God and do what you want”). But all things do not bring about what benefits everyone (and everything) in each situation (see also 1 Corinthians 12:7).

Epiphany 3B: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (Epiphany 3B), Paul invites us to imagine various situations and activities (having a spouse, crying or being happy, or acquiring possessions). Then, using the phrase “as if not,” he asks us to negate each situation or activity, paradoxically imagining ourselves not to be in it even as we are engaged in it. This exercise is about living in messianic time—that is, in the time of the Messiah (Christos, the anointed one)—a time in which every moment of our lives is, indeed, a kairos (opportune) moment (7:29).1 On the one hand, messianic time relativizes every finite condition that affects or shapes our lives. It reminds us that the “schemes”—systems and patterns that structure our world that often benefit the powerful and wealthy at the expense of others—are transient and passing away (7:31). At the same time, it brings to the fore the gravity of our calling and vocation in the Messiah. Having been liberated from either owning or being possessed by any finite condition, we are now freed to discern and embody wholeheartedly God’s good purposes in every moment (see also Romans 8:28).

Epiphany 4B: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (Epiphany 4B), Paul deals with a specific question: whether or not to eat food offered to idols. Among the Corinthians, those with a “weaker” conscience had difficulty doing so (8:7) and those with a more robust conscience did not. In response, Paul affirms what those with a robust conscience know—that idols do not exist. Yes, amidst the “gods” and “lords” around us, there is only “one God … for whom we exist” and “one Lord, Jesus Christ … through whom we exist” (8:6, see also Deuteronomy 6:4). Yet, he admonishes those who possess this superior “knowledge” not to use it in ways that would cause difficulty—or prove to be a “stumbling block”—for weaker siblings (8:9). Here his catchphrases, which center on the distinction between knowledge and love, are relevant to a range of analogous issues: “knowledge puffs up, but love always upbuilds” (8:1). In sum, love for others, especially the weakest among us, is the ultimate criterion for testing whether we are using appropriately not just knowledge, but all the gifts we have been given (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

Epiphany 5B: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

In 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (Epiphany 5B), Paul addresses the difficulty the Corinthians apparently had with his not receiving financial support from them. His response provides insight into the paradoxical freedom from all and yet commitment to all that comes with being entrusted with the gospel. Paul begins by pointing out that he does, in fact, have a right to be paid, just as any priest or public servant would have (see Deuteronomy 18:1-5). Yet, he lets go of this right because he is under a greater obligation—indeed, a “necessity” (anagkē) (9:16)—to proclaim the gospel “free of charge,” that is, without any hidden agendas or strings attached (9:18). This entails, on the one hand, being freed from anyone’s control, even the financial leverage wealthy and powerful Corinthians might want to have over him. On the other hand, it entails being bound to everyone—including both those “under the law” and those “outside” of it (as one, of course, who is under God’s law through Christ), and especially those who are weak (9:20-22a). Paul’s apostolic motto here is to become “all things to all people”—compassionately embracing as much as he can each one’s situation and perspective—precisely so that those he serves, along with him, might share together in the gospel’s blessings (9:22b-23).

Transfiguration: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

The Season of Epiphany begins and ends with events that reveal Jesus’ messianic identity as God’s beloved child: his baptism (Mark 1:4-11) and his transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9). In Mark’s Gospel, the latter event immediately follows Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah and—in view of his own anticipation of his death and resurrection—Jesus’ summons to those around to follow him in his messianic vocation by taking up “their cross” (Mark 8:27—9:1).

Analogously, Paul maintains in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (Transfiguration Sunday) that our proclamation of the gospel cannot be divorced from our being bound to serve one another through Jesus (4:5) since the two are intrinsically linked—in a multisensory fashion—by the ongoing epiphany of Christ in our lives. In opposition to the “god” of this age, who seeks to blind us with a wisdom that values only wealth and power, we have been called, in every aspect of our lives, to “see and reflect (augasai) the light of the gospel of the glory of Messiah, who is the image of God” (4:4).

And we can do so precisely because God does, indeed, “shine” in our hearts, daily creating us anew with “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” because of “the presence (prosōpō, also “face”) of Jesus Christ” in our lives (2 Corinthians 4:6). Of course, such divine “shining” only takes place within our vulnerable “mortal flesh” (4:11). We bear in our bodies our daily baptism into Jesus’ death so that Jesus’ life might be manifest or visible in those bodies (4:10). As Paul puts it, “death is at work in us, but life in you” (4:12).


  1. For a discussion of vocation and messianic time, see Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).