I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul these past few weeks. Our second reading throughout the Season of Epiphany comes from I Corinthians, a letter I have found fascinating since my first undergraduate course in Paul more than thirty-five years ago. I was also engaged with Paul because of the recent screening and conversation at UW of the Film “The Polite Bribe.” I’m not sure why, but in January, I also began reading N.T. Wright’s new 2-volume work on Paul, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Let me confess right now, this is the first scholarly work of Wright’s that I’ve read. I’ve avoided him because of his reputation for being on the conservative side of Pauline scholarship, and because as Bishop of Durham, he contributed to the difficult relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Still, I had read some early reviews and thought it might be worth taking a look at. I’m glad I did. Continue reading
This week’s readings are here.
Someone asked me after service yesterday if I had ever preached on the text from I Corinthians that was read yesterday (last week’s readings). In fact, three years ago, my sermon focused on the urgency of the good news as evidenced in both the gospel and in I Corinthians 7. But my questioner wasn’t interested in that part of the sentence: “The appointed time has grown short”–he was interested in the second part of that sentence, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none…”
No, I’ve never preached on that particular text, but in fact this whole passage is strong evidence for the difficulty of applying what Paul has to say about the Christian life–ethics and morality–to the lives of twenty-first century Christians. He assumes that the parousia, Jesus’ return, is imminent. It might happen any day now. That fact changed everything for him. Earlier in chapter 7, Paul says some things that are quite difficult for us to hear, about slavery and marriage, but all of it should be read in light of the imminent second coming. Because Jesus is coming back soon, nothing else really matters, and there’s no reason to make big changes in one’s life, like getting married. Now, few of us believe that Jesus is coming back soon, so we should probably not take what Paul has to say about slavery or marriage in this passage very seriously.
On the other hand, there are certain principles that can guide one’s ethical decision-making in light of Paul. And in this week’s reading from I Corinthians 8, we see one of those principles in action. In a way, it’s helpful that he is discussing an issue that is far from our ordinary experience–eating food that’s been offered to idols.
The issue here is that it was customary for meat left over from pagan sacrifices to be used for celebratory meals, and for most people in the Hellenistic world, such meals, sponsored by wealthy patrons, might be their only regular access to meat. The question the Corinthians had asked Paul was whether, given their new faith in Jesus Christ, and the assurance that their was only one God (and thus the pagan sacrifices were of no avail and meaningless), they could continue to participate in those feasts. It had caused division, because some of those in the Corinthian community were not quite sure whether pagan gods existed and had power, and perceived participation in such meals as evil.
Paul’s answer is instructive: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It’s quite clear from reading I Corinthians that one of the central problems in this community is the issue of how far one can take the “freedom in Christ” that is gained through faith and baptism. Free from law, ie, Jewish Torah? Paul agrees. Free from laws (ie, civil or natural law)? Paul’s not so sure. And what about one’s responsibility to the community, the body of Christ? “Take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (I Cor. 8:9). So Paul concludes this discussion by saying, “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (I Cor. 8:13).
This seems pretty straightforward. One’s own actions and freedom should be tempered by concern for the tender consciences of others. Indeed, this argument is used in contemporary conflicts to argue against certain changes. It can easily become a block to the ongoing discernment of God’s will, but I think there’s some validity in paying close attention to it. What builds up the body of Christ? What undermines it? How do we go about discerning how we should live as individuals and as congregations in the twenty-first century? One clear answer to that from a Pauline, indeed a Christian perspective, is that we are not isolated moral agents, individuals who can decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. Ultimately, if we claim allegiance to Jesus Christ, such decisions must be made in light of their impact on those with whom we share Eucharistic fellowship.
There are times when the lectionary seems not to provide anything on which to preach; none of the readings have any meat, or seem to speak to the current situation. Other times, I can imagine numerous sermons, all of them quite different, emerging from the readings. Sometimes, there are profound connections among the texts. The latter was true in the Book of Common Prayer lectionary, which selected texts from the Hebrew Bible based on their connection with the Gospel.
The lessons for the Third Sunday after Epiphany in Year C offer an embarrassment of riches. Here are the texts. The text from Nehemia tells the story of Ezra reading the book of the Law to the assembled congregation in Jerusalem. It is set after the exile, and most scholars see this as evidence that the Torah (the Pentateuch) was compiled in exile in Babylon and brought back to Jerusalem after the exile ended.
The lesson from I Corinthians continues Paul’s discussion from chapter 12 of the body of Christ and that marvelous imagery of “we are all members of one body.” It’s important to note that he doesn’t assert that Jesus Christ is the head and we are the members. Rather, we are all members of the same body, none of us having priority. But he goes further. When discussing order in community, Paul asserts that it is gifts of the spirit that need to be ordered, not offices in the church. The editors leave out the end of verse 31: “but let me show you a better way.” That is Paul’s transition to chapter 13, in which he extols love as the greatest of all gifts, binding the community together across its diversity of gifts.
The gospel is Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. I know that will be the focus of my sermon, but the question is how, and if , I will be able to weave the other texts into this. We’ll see. Check back on Sunday.
These are marvelous texts for the beginning of a new year, and the (relative) beginning of a new ministry. They challenge us to think about our mission, our call, and our responsibility.