Let’s End at the Very Beginning

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

We have reached the apex of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians.  Everything that has preceded this chapter has led up to Paul’s sustained meditation about the Resurrection.  In the first section of the letter, Paul encouraged unity within the Christian community by downgrading the significance of human teachers.  In the next section, Paul argued that the Christian community as a whole has a responsibility to discipline those members of the Church who have fallen into sin.  He followed this with reflections about worship, arguing that the Corinthians had been engaging in schismatic behavior and needed to come together as a body.  Every section of Paul’s argument, in other words, has addressed some theological misunderstanding that exists in the Corinthian community.  All of these misunderstandings, however, have been mere shadows of a fundamental theological error that has pervaded the Corinthian community: a denial of the Resurrection.  As far as Paul is concerned, the Corinthians’ failure to live as one body is a symptom of the fact that they have ignored the central and unitive mystery of the Christian faith.

Paul begins his discussion of the Resurrection with a re-proclamation of the gospel.  Though most translations begin this passage with something to the effect of “I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you,” the Greek is closer to “I make known to you, brothers and sisters, the gospel with which I evangelized you.”  Though the difference is subtle, Paul’s specific language makes a very important point: rather than “reminding” the Corinthians of the gospel (i.e., assuming that they remembered it), Paul is “making it known,” as if for the very first time.  Paul is literally re-proclaiming the gospel; the Corinthian error had been so great that it was as though they had forgotten the gospel completely.  The apostle proceeds to assure the Corinthians that it is through this gospel that they are being saved, but only as long as “they hold firmly to the message” that Paul had originally proclaimed.  This introduction concludes with a theme that is present throughout the chapter, a poignant speculation that the Corinthians may have come to believe in vain.

Having introduced his project of re-proclamation, Paul proceeds to re-proclaim, noting that he handed on to the Corinthians what he had also received (note how this recalls the motif of handing on and receiving that we see in 4:7 and 11:23).  Paul then recounts a proto-creed of sorts, a summary of God’s redeeming act in Jesus Christ: Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, was buried, and raised again on the third day in accordance to the scriptures.  We might notice that this creedal statement says nothing about Jesus’ teaching or ministry.  Though this may seem odd at first, we might notice that the Nicene Creed, which we recite nearly every Sunday, also says nothing about Jesus’ teaching or ministry.  For Paul and for us as Christians, it is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that are of ultimate importance and that are central to our life together.  Paul continues by recalling that the risen Christ appeared first to Cephas and the twelve, followed by more than five hundred brothers, followed by James “and then to all the apostles.”  Only then did the Lord appear to Paul.  Though most translations render the word Paul uses to describe himself as “untimely born,” it’s really closer to “miscarriage” or “abortion.”  This harsher language seems more appropriate, because Paul is clearly not proud of the role he played in persecuting the Church.  Indeed, he regards himself to be “least” of the apostles because of this persecution.  Nevertheless, God’s grace transformed him and made him an apostle, and God’s grace was not “in vain.”  Rather, Paul became the hardest working man in show business, but only through God’s grace.  Paul alludes to his conversion in order to highlight the fact that God has the power to transform the world; even the Pharisee who persecuted the Church of God has been made a herald of the gospel through God’s power.  In other words, God can do things that are beyond our comprehension as human beings.  Paul uses himself as a profound example of his gospel proclamation and as a reminder of what the Corinthians believed when they first heard the gospel.

“What we call the beginning is often the end.  And to make an end is to make a beginning.  The end is where we start from.” — T.S. Eliot

When I was growing up, my favorite movie was The Sound of Music.  Every day after preschool, I would arrive at home, sit on the rug in front of the television, and call out, “Part Two Mommy!  Part Two!”  My sainted mother would pull down the battered VHS from the shelf, slide the tape into the VCR, and I would spend a contented hour and a half watching Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer running from Nazis, receiving help from nuns, and climbing over the Alps to Switzerland.  For whatever reason, I did not enjoy the first half of the movie nearly as much.  As a preschooler, I was exhausted by Maria’s laborious efforts to teach the Von Trapp children how to sing and found the “will they or won’t they?” nature of Maria and Captain Von Trapp’s relationship to be somewhat tiresome (I was, apparently, well acquainted with the nuances of film criticism at that young age).  Moreover, nearly all of the songs that are introduced in the first half of the movie are reprised in the second half.  Even the silly song that Maria makes up to teach the children to sing (“Do-Re-Mi”) is performed by the family Von Trapp at the festival toward the end of the movie.  The songs ofThe Sound of Musiconly reach their consummation when the family has realized what their circumstances require them to do, namely to stay together as they escape from the tyranny of Nazi Germany.

I don’t mean to draw a direct connection between Rodgers and Hammerstein and Saint Paul, but it is striking to me that Paul saves the subject he is most worried and passionate about for the end of his letter to the Corinthians.  We might expect him to begin with his discussion of the Resurrection: “This is what is wrong with your theology, and this is how it’s impacting your life as a community.”  But Paul is a much cleverer rhetorician than that.  Even as he has enjoined the Corinthians to avoid schism in the community, we have been left with a nagging thought: how are all of these people from different backgrounds going to move beyond their divisions?  What is the source of their unity?  Furthermore, as Paul has encouraged the Corinthians to proclaim Christ’s death (cf. 1:23), we might be left wondering whether there is hope in this gospel that centers on the Lord’s death.  Knowing that these questions have festered throughout letter, Paul finally provides an answer: it is the Resurrection that holds us and will continue to hold us together.  It is the Resurrection that gives us hope.  T.S. Eliot’s reflection on beginnings and endings summarizes Paul’s strategy well; in order truly to understand who we are as a community, we must locate the source of our common life in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As we continue to prepare for Holy Week, let us not forget that while Christ’s death is central to our life as a community, the Resurrection is what gives that death its transcendent and eternal meaning.

On the Road again…

1 Corinthians 14:20-40

In the previous passage, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to make use of their minds when they are overcome by the Spirit.  He continues this line of argument when he exhorts the Corinthians not to be children in their thinking.  Members of the community should be “infants in evil,” but pragmatically oriented adults in their thinking and approach to the world.  Paul begins to wonder whether speaking in tongues is productive for nonbelievers; his quotation of Isaiah 28:11-12 seems to indicate that “strange tongues” are not likely to change anyone’s heart.  Though he argues that glossolalia is sign for unbelievers (probably because it manifests the power of God in the world), Paul also makes it very clear that glossolalia has the potential to alienate outsiders.  If an unbeliever walks into the Christian assembly when everyone is speaking in tongues, they are likely to think that everyone is simply insane.  On the other hand, even though Paul regards prophecy to be a sign primarily for believers, he suggests that even unbelievers and outsiders will benefit if the entire community prophesies.  An unbeliever may have the secrets of his or her heart revealed and will realize that God is truly present in the community. 

Having explained how glossolalia has the potential to cause problems in the Christian assembly, Paul offers a solution: a liturgical ordering of the worshipping community.  When the Corinthians gather for worship, each member of the community will have something to contribute, whether a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Paul immediately reminds the Corinthians that everything done within the context of worship should edify the community.  If there are people who are prepared to speak in tongues, the apostle suggests that only two or three should offer tongues and there should certainly be someone available to interpret.  If no one with that gift is available, then those who speak in tongues should be silent in church and speak only to God.  Those who prophesy may do so, but their prophecy should be “weighed” and considered by the worshipping community.  Paul insists that these prophecies should occur in good order to maximize their edifying potential.  If anyone claims that they have been overcome by a prophetic spirit, Paul warns that this may be a misrepresentation.  As far as he is concerned, the prophet controls the prophetic spirit, because God is a God of peace, not disorder.

The next portion of this passage is admittedly problematic.  First Corinthians 14:34-35 has historically been used to exclude women from leadership roles in the Church.  Several commentators, however, suggest that this could be an interpolation that was inserted long after Paul wrote the letter.  This theory is supported by the fact that several manuscripts place these verses at different places in the letter, indicating that they were added wherever an editor thought they would make the most sense.  The text of these verses also includes language that is inconsistent with Paul’s style; Paul tends not to enjoin his congregations to do things “as the law says.”  Moreover, these verses do not seem to fit within the scope of Paul’s argument in chapter 14: they don’t mention spiritual gifts at all.  Finally, these verses are inconsistent with 11:2-16; while that passage isn’t particularly charitable to women in the community, it certainly implies that women are permitted to speak in church and have a role in worship.

Paul concludes this passage by bluntly exercising his apostolic authority: he suggests that anyone who claims to have spiritual powers must recognize the fact that Paul is speaking commands from the Lord.  Furthermore, anyone who doesn’t acknowledge Paul’s authority should not be recognized in the worshipping community.  Paul ends this passage with an exhortation that summarizes the entire chapter: be eager to prophesy and do not forbid glossolalia, but ensure that worship is done “decently and in order” so that it may build up the Body of Christ.

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door.  You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Before I had an ecumenical awakening in college, I was a fairly obnoxious Episcopalian.  I was convinced that my denomination had it all figured out; we knew how to worship as God himself intended.  I was particularly impressed with our calendar; I thought that the division of the year into liturgical seasons that had their own colors and hymnody was absolutely brilliant.  Everything had its place; everything was done decently and in order.  You can imagine my shock and dismay, then, when I heard from my uncle, who is a Methodist minister, that his congregation typically sang Christmas carols on the third Sunday of Advent!  After saying something to the effect of, “have you no shame?” I asked my uncle why he had chosen to ignore the season and bring liturgical ruin down upon his parish; did they also sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” on Good Friday?  My uncle responded in that patient tone that uncles reserve for their self-righteous and recalcitrant nephews: “It’s really not a big problem.  Besides, people like Christmas carols.”

And of course, he was right.  While I had objections to singing Christmas carols during Advent, the people of my uncle’s congregation clearly did not.  In fact, singing Christmas carols on Advent III probably built up and edified the community.  In the Church (particularly in the Episcopal Church) we often get caught in a mode where things must be done a certain way.  When we hear Paul’s injunction to do things “decently and in order,” we might be tempted to assume that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things in the Church.  Paul’s injunction, however, is framed within the context of building up the community.  Order, in other words, is not imposed for its own sake, but for the benefit of the community at large.  Christ is meant to be at the center of our life together; we keep Christ as the goal ahead of us as a community.  Frodo and his companions traveled a road together, and this is what the Church is meant to be for each of us.  The ordering of our common life is a road, a pathway to follow as we strive to make Christ the center of our lives.  It is not ultimately about the road upon which we walk, but the goal we have in mind and our companions on the way.  As we prepare to walk the Way of the Cross next week, I hope that we can think less about how effectively we are “doing Holy Week” and more about our brothers and sisters who are on the road with us and our Lord who beckons us at the end of the road.

Use your Head!

1 Corinthians 14:1-19

After meditating on the great and eternal gift of love, Paul downshifts and encourages the Corinthians to “pursue love,” but also to “strive for the spiritual gifts,” especially prophecy.  At first blush, this seems to be an odd turn in Paul’s argument; we might have thought that he would continue to talk about the complete gifts of faith, hope, and love, rather than the partial spiritual gifts that had divided the Corinthian community.  Paul’s objective, however, is to place these charismata in a new context, so that they will bring unity instead of division to the Christian community.  The apostle specifically distinguishes between prophecy and speaking in tongues, which was one of the spiritual gifts that was most valued by the Corinthian community.  Paul argues that since the person who speaks in tongues is speaking directly to God, no one in the community can understand that person.  The person who prophesies, however, speaks to other people for their edification, encouragement, and consolation.  In other words, the one who speaks in tongues benefits himself, while the one who prophesies benefits the entire community.  Thus, the one who prophesies is “greater” than the one who speaks in tongues, unless there is someone available to interpret, so that the tongue might build up the community.

Paul observes that a tongue can only be useful to the community if it can be made intelligible and contains some revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching.  Paul is not claiming that speaking in tongues is necessarily a bad thing.  He is, however, suggesting that the Corinthians had given undue weight to this gift of glossolalia; those who possessed the gift would be overcome by the Spirit and interrupt the assembly entirely for their own benefit.  Paul likens this to striking random notes on a musical instrument or sounding an indistinct call on a bugle; these instruments are not serving the purpose for which they were created when they are used to make unintelligible and indistinct sounds.  In the same way, those who have been given the gift of glossolalia are not using their gift correctly when the community cannot understand them.  Paul summarizes this point well when he suggests that sounds must have meaning, especially within the context of worship.  He then asserts that he does not intend to tear down the spiritual gifts of the Corinthians, but to make them as useful and edifying as possible: “since you are eager for spiritual gifts [like glossolalia], strive to excel in them for building up the church.”

Paul suggests that those who speak in tongues should pray for the power to interpret, because when one prays exclusively in the Spirit, one’s “mind is unproductive.”  He calls the Corinthians to pray with the Spirit, but also with the mind; if they fail to do this, no one except the person praying in tongues will have any idea what he or she is praying about.  Paul notes that those who speak in tongues may pray adequately for their needs, but fail to build up the community if they do not interpret those tongues.  In a somewhat snarky conclusion, Paul thanks God that he speaks in tongues more than everyone in the Corinthian community, because he can model the importance of praying intelligibly with one’s mind.  Overall, the point that Paul makes in this passage is that spiritual gifts in the Christian assembly are intended for the greater good, rather than for self-edification.

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology.  It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.  It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism.” — Dorothy Sayers

If you have been following the whole arc of Paul’s argument throughout this letter, the conclusion of this passage may be a little surprising.  Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul has made it very clear that knowledge is not as important to the Christian community as the Corinthians might imagine.  Indeed, he implies that knowledge must be cleaned out from the community (8:1), just as leaven is cleaned out in preparation for the Passover (5:7).  Nevertheless, Paul concludes this passage by encouraging the Corinthians to use their minds when they are praying in the Christian assembly.  It might seem that Paul is being inconsistent, but it is important to note the the apostle’s reasoning.  Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to use their minds so that their spiritual gifts might build up the church.  In the same way, Paul downgrades the significance of the Corinthians’ knowledge in order to foster church unity and tear down the walls that divide the community.  In other words, Paul’s primary concern is cohesion within the Church, and his objective as an apostle is to encourage everyone in the community to work toward that goal.  In this passage, Paul posits that Church unity can only be acheived when those endowed with gifts of the Spirit use their intellects to make those gifts useful to the community.

In the Curate’s Study on Monday nights at Heavenly Rest, we have been focusing on the work of Christian apologists.  Apologetics is a branch of theology that involves making a reasoned case for the truth of Christianity, one that does not rely entirely on revelation.  Early in the course, one participant mentioned that there are some churches who wouldn’t approve of the project of apologetics; these denominations might assume that it is more important to be a “heart Christian” than a “head Christian.”  My response was that God was calling us to be “whole body Christians,” but this snarky response doesn’t necessarily answer the concern of these other denominations.  I think Paul, however, does respond to these concerns.  He notes that an individual spiritual experience does nothing to build up the community.  It may be authentic and important for that individual, but this experience cannot be translated to others in the community.  In the same way, an emotional experience of faith can be vitally important, but it is something that is completely individual.  No one else can have the same experience of the Divine that I have; it is, by definition, my experience.  On the other hand, we can use reason and our intellects to connect with people, both within the Church and outside of it.  Dorothy Sayers puts this very clearly: we cannot expect people to believe the plausibility of Christianity if we do not believe that “it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.”  Anglicanism has always asserted that reason is a critically important component of our faith, and this has never been more important than it is in our world today.  The world is increasingly ignorant of the tenets of Christianity; part of what we are called to do as Christians is preach the gospel, not as something that makes me feel good, but as something that makes sense of the world where we live.

What’s Love got to do with it?

The Feast of the Annunciation (transferred)

1 Corinthians 12:27—13:13

After explaining the body analogy in the previous passage, Paul makes it clear that this is not just a metaphor; the Corinthians are the body of Christ and should behave accordingly.  He then lists the various roles that God has appointed within the church community: apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.  Paul lists these roles in sequence rather than order of importance.  His assumption is that apostles must come first to establish the community, followed by prophets who discern the Spirit moving through the body, followed by teachers who help to build up the Church.  No role is qualitatively more important than another within the Church.  It is significant, however, that Paul places “various kinds of tongues” at the end of his list.  As it will become clear in just a few chapters, the Corinthians who could speak in tongues believed that their charisma was evidence of the fact that they were much more spiritual and valuable than their brothers and sisters.  By placing glossolalia at the end of this list, Paul implies that speaking in tongues is not nearly as important as the Corinthians imagine it to be.  Paul goes on to ask several rhetorical questions: Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  The appropriate grammatical answer to all of these questions is “No, of course not!”  Paul is stressing the point that he has made throughout chapter 12: there are a variety of spiritual gifts in the Christian community.  If there weren’t, the community could not function.  After listing all of these charismata, Paul encourages the Corinthians to strive for gifts that are greater than these, which he will explain in the very next chapter.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is one of the most familiar and oft-quoted passages of Scripture.  Some scholars raise questions about whether it was written for this letter, or even if it is original to Paul.  Even if it was written for another occasion, however, these 13 verses are extraordinarily pertinent to the argument that Paul has been making throughout the letter.  He has already made hints about the importance of love in the Christian community, including the reminder that “love builds up” in 8:1.  In other words, it seemed inevitable that Paul was going to meditate on love at some point in his argument.  Moreover, this passage places love in opposition to several of the specific issues that have been plaguing the Corinthian community.  Even if this passage was not composed for this letter, therefore, it has unquestionably been folded into Paul’s overall argument.

From the outset of this passage, Paul sets love (agape) in opposition to the spiritual gifts that the Corinthians valued so highly, including “tongues” (13:1), “prophetic powers” (13:2), “knowledge” (13:2), and “faith” (13:2).  Paul even suggests that dispossession, his own willingness to give up his freedom for the sake of the community (the reason for his boast in 9:15), is worthless if it is done without love.  After observing that all spiritual gifts pale in comparison to the gift of love, Paul extols the virtues of love: it is patient and kind; it is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  Furthermore, love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.  In other words, love transcends the vagaries of human disagreement that have been plaguing the Corinthians.  Their disputes about trivial matters can hardly be compared with the enormously powerful gift of love.

In many ways, the next verse is a hinge point for the entire letter.  While prophecies, tongues, and knowledge (all of those things that the Corinthians valued above all else) will come to an end, love never ends.  Paul observes that all of our spiritual gifts are partial, but that these will cease to exist “when the complete comes” (this can also be read “when the end comes”).  In a few chapters, Paul will attempt to explain what the this looks like, but in the meantime, he implies that all of our manifestations of spiritual maturity are mere glimpses of the “complete.”  While the Corinthians may have valued their spiritual gifts above all else, Paul makes it very clear that these are childish playthings when compared with what they will encounter “face to face.”  Right now, we see in a mirror dimly (Corinth was a center of glass manufacturing; Paul may be nodding to that with this metaphor) and we know only in part, but we will know fully and be fully known when the complete comes.  When the partial ends, the only three gifts that will remain are faith, hope, and love; the greatest of these is love.

“Love is most nearly itself when here and now cease to matter.” —  T.S. Eliot

When we were planning our wedding, my wife and I asked a friend if she’d be willing to read one of the lessons.  Her response was, “I’d love to, but I don’t want to read that one from 1 Corinthians!”  When I questioned her about this position, she said that she felt like “everybody” chose 1 Corinthians 13 and that it was somewhat “overplayed.”  There is certainly some truth to my friend’s sentiment.  Paul’s meditation on love shows up almost every time a wedding is depicted on television or in the movies.  People who have never read the bible or been to church can rattle off verses from this famous passage without breaking a sweat.  It’s no wonder that many of my friend from seminary, including me, chose not to include this passage at their weddings.  Our culture treats this chapter from 1 Corinthians as a thumbnail sketch of the love between two people, but this interpretation completely misses the point.  The ubiquity of this passage has drained it of its power.

And this passage is indeed powerful.  When it is placed in broader context of Paul’s entire letter, it becomes clear that Paul is talking about a love that is much deeper than the love that exists between a married couple or friends or family.  The love that Paul describes is the love that has been from the foundation of the world and will continue even when this world comes to an end.  Though human relationships exist within this love, this love is beyond human relationships.  This love is even beyond time, because this love is eternal; it is the love that is within the very life of God.  T.S. Eliot alludes to this eternal love when he notes that love is most truly itself when time ceases to matter.  All that we experience in this life will come to an end, but love, the eternal expression of God’s own being, will continue even as this world comes to an end.  The next time you hear this passage at a wedding, think about the enormously powerful statement that this passage makes: the love that exists among people is a participation in the very life of God.  This is why love is a greater gift than any knowledge or spiritual charisma.  While we can only glimpse the life of God through our spiritual gifts, we can actually participate in the life of God through love, and that will never be overplayed.

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12:20-33

This is one of the more perplexing passages in John’s gospel (though that can probably said about most of John’s gospel).  It begins with a convoluted setup: some Greeks come to Philip saying that they wish to see Jesus, Philip tells Andrew, and then the two disciples go tell Jesus together.  After this circuitous opening, Jesus doesn’t ask what they want or tell the disciples to bring these Greeks to him, but launches into a seemingly irrelevant discourse about the culmination of his mission on earth: “Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  We might imagine Philip and Andrew looking at each other, thinking “We didn’t ask for the monologue Jesus, we just wanted to know if you were up for some visitors.”  Yet Jesus’ response is not a non sequitur; it is, unequivocally, an answer to the Greeks who wish to see him.  Jesus makes it clear that those who wish to “see” him must behold him in his glory, and Jesus is glorified through his suffering and death.  He makes this clear a few verses later when he says, “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”  Jesus’ life, in other words, has lead to his death; this is how it was meant to be from the beginning.  The Greeks who asked to see Jesus did not understand what they were asking; they did not realize that in order to experience Jesus in this life, we must experience the glorified Jesus in his death.

We are often loath to experience Jesus in terms of his glory.  We appreciate Jesus for his teachings and his care for those in need, and we leave the questions of his death on the back burner.  One of the popular ways to make a political point on Facebook and in other social media is to remind people of everything that Jesus did to buck the establishment and herald God’s reign in his earthly ministry.  Rarely, however, do these mention Jesus’ death, which was the reason for Jesus’ earthly ministry in the first place.  We probably choose not to mention the death of Jesus because it is uncomfortable; we don’t like to think about death, and we particularly do not like to think about the death of our Lord.  And yet, the death of Jesus and all that it entails remains the central mystery of our faith.  It isn’t something that we can skip or ignore in the journey of our faith.  As we prepare to enter Holy Week in just a few days, I hope that we can linger on the death of Jesus.  I hope that we can get to a place where we can experience God’s glory through the death of his Son.  I hope that we can truly see Jesus.

A Theology of Lawn Care

1 Corinthians 12:12-26

Paul now introduces an image that he has been alluding to throughout the letter: the Church as Christ’s body.  He uses this analogy to illustrate the point that he made in the previous passage, namely that everyone possesses spiritual gifts because there is one Spirit.  Through this same Spirit, Paul argues that every member of the Church was baptized into one body, regardless of ethnic origin (Jews or Greeks) or socioeconomic status (slaves or free).  In other words, diversity and difference give life to the Church of God, even as they cause division within the world.  Paul makes this clear as he continues the illustration.  A foot, for instance, cannot say, “because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body;” it is a part of the body regardless.  In the same way, an ear cannot say “because I am an eye, I do not belong to the body.”  Indeed, Paul asks, where would the hearing be if the entire body were an eye?  Where would the sense of smell be if the entire body were an ear?  There are two suppositions one can draw from this analogy.  One is the conclusion that Paul articulates: every part of the body, every member of the Church has a critically important role to play; no part of the Church can function without every member.  This goes both ways.  The logical extension of Paul’s initial conclusion is that membership in the body of Christ is not a sometime proposition.  A foot cannot decide that it does not want to be a foot anymore; it exists for the sake of the body.  In the same way, those who have been baptized into Christ are members of Christ regardless of mood or preference.

Paul goes on to explain that no part of the body can say to the other “I have no need of you,” because every part of the body is necessary for wholeness and health.  In verse 22, Paul begins a somewhat perplexing discussion about how the “weaker” and “less honorable” members of the body are indispensable and clothed with greater honor, whereas the “more respectable” members do not need this special attention.  One can assume that he is referring to the idol meat discussion, where the “strong” were encouraged to give up their rights for the sake of the “weak.”  Whatever his point, the overall thrust of the argument indicates that the distinction between “weak” and “strong” members of the body is irrelevant.  Indeed, Paul notes that God has arranged the body so that there might not be dissension within the body, but so that members might care for one another.  So if one member suffers, the whole body suffers; if one member rejoices, the whole body rejoices.  Paul’s primary purpose is to encourage the Corinthians to purge division and schism from the church community, not by removing those who hold unpopular positions, but by realizing that they cannot exist without each other.

“The most precious thing to a human soul is every other human soul.” — George MacDonald

My wife and I have spent the last two days doing yardwork.  We have been turning beds, planting herbs and flowers, and, most importantly, mowing the lawn, which had achieved savannah-length over the past several weeks.  One of the things that I have noticed is that I do not have the same attitude toward lawn care as other Texans.  While most of my neighbors are very careful to ensure that their lawns consist of only one species of carefully weeded and manicured grass, my philosophy is much more casual; as far as I’m concerned, it is a lawn when it is short and green.  And so, our lawn consists of a dozen or so varieties of grass that most homeowners would consider weeds.  On one hand, I can certainly understand that perspective.   Mowing our lawn is always an adventure; I never know how long it’s going to take or how effective it’s going to be because I have no idea how our lawnmower will deal with each species of grass.  Some are thick and lustrous, having retained every drop of water that has fallen on them since the last time I mowed, while other stiff and brittle varieties are pulverized by the whirling blades of our mower.  When I finally finish, however, I am always struck that our lawn, for all of it’s niggling biodiversity, looks like a lawn.  It may not have the manicured perfection of a putting green, but it has the inviting appearance of a place that is perfect for backyard cookouts and whiffle-ball games.  In spite, or perhaps because of it’s vegetative diversity, our lawn looks and feels like a lawn.

This is, admittedly, an imperfect analogy, especially since I don’t want to suggest that those who devote more effort to lawn care somehow have unchristian lawns.  I think, however, that our backyard is a good illustration of Paul’s point in this passage.  In the Church, we can often get stuck in a mode where diversity, especially ideological diversity, is a bad thing; it is simply easier when people share the same political or theological perspective.  We may be tempted to encourage those who have differing views to find another community, one whose perspective is more in line with their own.  And yet, when we remove unpopular viewpoints from the church community, we leave a gaping hole in our proverbial lawn.  We fail to appreciate that the variety of perspectives, while occasionally frustrating, can be an enormous gift to the Church.  Several interpreters have regarded this passage as evidence that Paul considers schism to be theologically impossible.  While I am not entirely sure this is true (if you’d like to hear more, give me a call), I think that the strength of this assertion is just right.  Our unity in Christ is far more important than our differences of opinion and worldview.  We must remember that the Church is not another social club, where everyone gets along so long as conversation doesn’t get too heated; the Church is the Body of Christ.  No one member of the Church can legitimately decide that another member is irrelevant.  The Church is not an organization of people whose loyalty to each other can be dissolved by a two-thirds majority.  We have been bound by a connection far deeper and more lasting.

Spiritual Variety

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

As Paul continues with his reflections on worship, he begins addressing yet another issue that has divided members of the Corinthian church.  Paul begins this section by saying that he doesn’t want the brothers and sisters in the community to be “ignorant” about “spiritual things.”  Though the NRSV translates these as “uninformed” and “spiritual gifts,” the more literal translation of the Greek is preferable.  Since the Corinthians believed that they were enormously intelligent and knowledgeable, they would have bristled at being labeled “ignorant,” which is precisely the reaction that Paul wants as he starts this phase of his argument.  The more literal and more ambiguous “spiritual things” is also preferable; though Paul focuses on gifts of the Spirit in this passage (e.g., speaking in tongues, or glossolalia), he is primarily focused on demonstrating the Corinthians’ ignorance of everything that the Holy Spirit does within the Church.  Indeed, he illustrates this ubiquity of the Spirit and its power with a hyperbolic rhetorical example.  Paul claims that no one who speaks by the Spirit of God will ever say, “Let Jesus be cursed!”  We should not imagine that there were Corinthian Christians running around making the unchristian proclamation that Jesus should be cursed; rather, Paul is making the point that the Spirit animates all speech and action within the Church, and that unchristian proclamations do not come from those who are animated by the Holy Spirit.  Thus, it is only the Spirit that enables Christians to make the fundamental and essential confession of the Church, that Jesus is Lord.

We might wonder how the Corinthians were demonstrating their “ignorance” of the Spirit.  Though we only have Paul’s reaction to the Corinthian situation, we can make a fairly reasonable guess about the problem that existed in the community.  Apparently, there were members of the church who had been endowed with spectacular charismata, or spiritual gifts.  There were people who could speak in tongues, who could prophesy, who could perform acts of healing, and then there were people in the community whose gifts were much less obvious.  Naturally, the Corinthians who had been endowed with these charismata assumed that these extraordinary gifts were evidence of the fact that they were more spiritual than their brothers and sisters in Christ.  This didn’t necessarily mean that they were better than their fellow Christians, just that they had received a larger measure of the Spirit.  Once again, the Corinthians were dividing the community between the “haves” (those who had knowledge, time to devote to Eucharistic fellowship, and the Spirit) and the “have-nots.”  Unsurprisingly, Paul believes that this schismatic behavior is problematic, but his response is striking.  In the discussions of idol meat and the Eucharist, Paul encourages the “haves” to give up what they had; the “strong” are encouraged to abstain from eating meat and the wealthier Corinthians are enjoined to wait for the other members of the community when they gather for the Lord’s supper.  In this case, however, Paul tells those who “have” that they do not have a monopoly on the Spirit.  Indeed everyone within the Church has been endowed with the Spirit and is in no uncertain terms “spiritual.”  Paul famously explains this by observing that “there are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit.”  He goes on to observe that a manifestation of the Spirit is given to each member of the community for the common good.  After listing a wide variety of spiritual gifts, Paul notes that all of them “are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (emphasis added).  In other words, Paul is saying this to the Corinthians who imagine themselves to be spiritual: “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!”  God is ultimately the one who gives and activates spiritual gifts, and anyone who regards the possession of a charisma as an affirmation of his worthiness or spiritual maturity has missed the point.  The spectacular nature of one’s spiritual gift has nothing to do with the one who has that gift and everything to do with the Spirit of God.  There is one Spirit, and everyone in the Church has been given spiritual gifts: everyone is of equal value before God.

“We had the experience but missed the meaning.  And approach to the meaning restores the experience in a different form.” — T.S. Eliot

One thing that I’ve always found striking about certain branches of American evangelical Christianity is the fact that speaking in tongues is considered a sign of one’s conversion and membership in the Christian community.  One simply has to watch televangelists like Pat Robertson to see that glossolalia is often regarded as a sign of one’s fitness to be a leader in the church community.  These churches, in other words, attach an implicit value to speaking in tongues; it becomes a symbol of one’s spiritual nature.  I’m often left wondering how members of these Pentecostal denominations interpret the passage from 1 Corinthians that we read today (I welcome insights any of you may have).  Though the apparent contradiction between Paul’s teaching and the Church’s practice is most obvious among these charismatic denominations, the disconnect exists in every church community.  We tend to be overawed by those talents that are spectacular and public; we’ll marvel at well-crafted sermons, inspired choral performances, or dazzling organ voluntaries.  We begin to say things like “this person is truly endowed with the Spirit!”  We forget, however, that everyone who is a member of the Christian community has been endowed with the Spirit.  As. T.S. Eliot might have observed, we experience worship but miss the underlying reality that the Spirit animates everything that we do.  Everyone who participates in the life of the Church has been given a spiritual gift and it is only when we come to this realization that we are truly able to worship as God intends.  The Spirit dwells in the midst of us, and each of us has been given the privilege to tap into the Spirit’s reality.  When you participate in worship, when you participate in the life of the Church, remember that you are bringing as much to the experience as everyone else gathered there, for we all have a share of the same Spirit.

An Eliot Interlude

For the past two days, we have been immersed in the life and poetry of T.S. Eliot at the Church of the Heavenly Rest.  I am pleased to say that I have gone from knowing next to nothing about T.S. Eliot to realizing how much I have yet to learn about this endlessly fascinating poet.  Because we have been swimming in such deep poetic and philosophic waters, I have decided to take a day off from our journey through 1 Corinthians and reflect for a moment about the experience at Heavenly Rest over these past few days.

Our guide through the life and work of T.S. Eliot was Dr. Ronald Schuhard, a native of Abilene and the Goodrich C. White Professor of English at Emory University.  Throughout his lectures, Dr. Schuhard stressed that Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927 was not as sudden as everyone imagined it to be.  Though Eliot was regarded as “the hero of the skeptics” after the publication of The Wasteland, Dr. Schuhard points out that the poet struggled with the questions of faith in much of his early work.  He also observes that Eliot could not abide the humanist narrative, that original sin was a fiction and that humanity was perfectible without the benefit of a savior.  Indeed, one of the few things Eliot seemed sure of in his early work was the depravity of human beings.  Much of Eliot’s early work, in other words, reveals a troubled and rankled spiritual intellect, one drawn ever closer to the moment when its owner surrendered his will to the Divine.

In spite of the fact that Eliot was gradually drifting toward the Christian faith, the moment of conversion was critically important.  Though his intellect had moved him incrementally closer to “the ecstasy of assent,” the moment when Eliot became a believer is of critical importance.  Dr. Schuhard referred to the “chasm” that existed between Eliot’s previous life as a skeptical and nominal Unitarian and as a believing Anglo-Catholic.  This chasm was fixed, and couldn’t be easily traversed.  The only way for Eliot to cross this chasm was to surrender his will, the “essential faculty of his selfhood” (as Dr. Schuhard put it) into the Divine.  No amount of reason or orientation of his intellect would help him to cross this chasm of conversion; Eliot knew that true belief, true faith had less to do with agreeing with the truth of Christianity, and more to do with turning over the entirety of his will to God.

We all need to remember the substance of true faith.  As many rational arguments as we may make for Christianity (and this is certainly a worthy endeavor), becoming a disciple is ultimately about orienting our will to God’s will.  Being a Christian, in other words, is about putting our trust in God.  It is appropriate that “trust,” “faith,” and “belief” are all used to translate the same Greek word (pistis) in the New Testament.  Our faith is as much about believing what God has done through Jesus Christ as it is about trusting in God’s faithfulness.  We live in a culture where we are encouraged to “look out for number one” and do our best to foresee every possible contingency.  We live in collective fear of giving up our will, the “essential faculty of our selfhood, and rightfully so.  Part of what Eliot’s conversion teaches us, however, is that faith is ultimately about letting go of our will and trusting in God.

Hunger isn’t a Game

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

We are beginning to approach the climax of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians.  Throughout the letter, Paul has gradually narrowed his focus; he began with a discussion of the Corinthians’ general behavior in society, followed by a discussion of how they are meant to interact with other members of the Church.  Now, he is focusing on the attitudes of the Christian assembly during worship.  Specifically, this passage addresses issues surrounding the Eucharist.  Paul clearly states that he is chastising the Corinthians for their abuses of the Lord’s supper.  These abuses are so severe that the Corinthians’ participation in worship has been working to their detriment, which is precisely the opposite of the desired effect.  Paul summarizes these abuses by observing that there are divisions (schisms) within the community when it comes together for worship.  The nature of these schisms is explained in verse 21: “when the time comes to eat [the Lord’s supper], each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”  We need to unpack this in order to understand the severity of the problem.

The Corinthian error was associated with a “privatization” of the Lord’s supper, which is difficult for modern Christians to imagine.  We are used to partaking of the Eucharist in the context of a highly ritualized liturgy, so when we hear that the Corinthians “privatized” the Eucharist, we get stuck; we might imagine someone gorging himself on communion wafers.  In the first century Church, however, the Lord’s supper would not have been celebrated in a designated “church building,” but in the house of a wealthier member of the community who could accommodate a large number of people.  The Eucharist was also not limited to a piece of bread and a sip of wine, but was somewhat akin to a potluck supper; people would bring their own food, and the richer members of the community would partake of correspondingly richer fare.  Moreover, the Corinthians of a higher socioeconomic status would have arrived to the house early, having more control over their time, and would have sat in the main dining room of the house.  The poorer members of the community, probably unable to devote their entire days to fellowship, would have arrived late and been obligated to sit or stand in the outer rooms or courtyard of the house.  We might think of the wealthier Corinthian Christians as similar to first class passengers on an airplane; while they fly on the same vessel as those in coach, they receive better food and service.  This schism along economic lines was of ultimate importance to Paul; he asks the (richer) Corinthians whether they are intentionally showing contempt to God by humiliating those who have less.  Paul suggests that the Lord’s supper is supposed to transcend the economic and social barriers that exist between people in the world.

After explaining the issues surrounding the Corinthian celebration of the Eucharist, Paul recounts the institution of the Lord’s supper that took place on the night before Jesus was handed over to suffering and death.  Though there are some interesting differences between Paul’s institution narrative and those found in the gospels, the critically important part of this section is verse 26: “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  Remember that the Lord’s death is central to Paul’s thesis in 1 Corinthians: the cross represents the foolishness and weakness of God, which are wiser than human wisdom and stronger than human strength.  The Lord’s supper is fundamentally a proclamation of what God has done in Jesus Christ, and how God’s ultimate action transcends all of our wisdom and power as human beings.

Paul then warns that those who participate in the Eucharist “unworthily” will be liable to be condemned.  Indeed, he suggests that those who eat without “discerning the body” will eat and drink judgment to themselves.  Indeed, Paul suggests that this is why some members of the Corinthian community have died.  Now, it’s important to note that “discerning the body” has nothing to do with the debates about transubstantiation or real presence.  Rather, given Paul’s discussion in the next chapter, it seems that he is promising judgment against those who do not perceive the community as the body of Christ.  Paul is concerned that those who participate in the Lord’s supper must understand themselves to be a part of a community.  He goes on to explain that the best way to do this is to “wait for one another.”  The Lord’s supper is not about satisfying one’s hunger, but celebrating the reality of a community that has been redeemed through God’s action in Jesus Christ.

“If there is hunger anywhere in the world, then our celebration of the Eucharist is somehow complete everywhere in the world.” — Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

The Exhortation in the Rite I Eucharistic Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer (much of which is derived from this passage) reminds us that the “danger is great” when we approach the Lord’s table to receive the sacrament.  Given Paul’s interpretation of the death of several Corinthian Christians as judgment for their unworthy reception of the Eucharistic elements, it would seem that we have good reason to fear going to church.  Yet it was not the partaking of an inferior Lord’s supper, but the Corinthians’ inadequate proclamation of the Lord’s death that brought on judgment.  And if we are to understand the proclamation of Christ’s death as the defining factor in our faith, then an inadequate proclamation of the Lord’s death has dire consequences indeed.  It is therefore absolutely necessary that we discern the Body of Christ, the community of God’s people around the world, every time we gather for the Eucharist.  While this may seem to be an easy thing to do, a mere matter of shifting our perceptions, we would do well to remember the words of Fr. Arrupe quoted above.  Though he is not one of the “Inklings” we have been dealing with throughout Lent, Fr. Arrupe’s words echo Paul’s exhortation to wait for one another when we come together around the Lord’s table.  Not only should we wait for those we expect, but also for those who have yet to be invited.  In other words, this passage highlights our Christian responsibility to not only feed the hungry, but also to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind.  If we are to truly follow Paul’s exhortation to discern the Body of Christ and proclaim his death when we come to the Eucharistic feast, then we must commit to extravagantly providing for the least, the last, and the lost.

Tear Down this Wall?

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

This passage is notoriously difficult to interpret, particularly in light of our contemporary views about women and their roles in the Christian assembly.  Many interpreters simply ignore this passage; it is not even included in the Daily Office lectionary.  There is some evidence to suggest that 11:3-16 is an interpolation, i.e., Paul may not have authored this passage; an editor may have inserted it so that the letter could be applied to a different situation.  On one level, this hypothesis makes sense: this passage does not fit well into the sweep of Paul’s argument.  Throughout chapter 10, Paul discussed “eating and drinking” at length, using the Lord’s Supper as an example in several cases.  The logical “next step” in Paul’s argument would be his discussion of the Lord’s Supper itself, which begins in 11:17.  In other words, the protracted discussion about a woman’s role in worship feels somewhat out of place.  Also, Paul does not use “headship” language very frequently (i.e., Christ is the head of the man, God is the head of Christ), and its use in this chapter seems contrary to the point that he makes in chapter 12: we are all part of Christ’s body.  The argument of this passage, in other words, does not fit neatly into the broader argument that Paul makes throughout 1 Corinthians.

Even though its authenticity may be doubtful, it is important for us to deal with this passage, since it is part of the Scriptural canon.  This passage is less about female subordination and more about upholding the appropriateness of gender distinctions.  Evidently, one of the cultural assumptions in the early Church was that women would cover their heads during worship.  Though this is a fundamentally patriarchal assumption, notice that the author of this passage endorses the right and ability of women to prophesy and pray during worship; they should, however, do so with their heads covered.  Paul likens a woman removing her head covering in worship to a woman shaving her head; he regards this as something that, in this cultural context, will bring shame upon the woman and her community.  The next few verses articulate a very patriarchal order to creation: 1) man is the reflection of God, but woman is the reflection of man, 2) man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman was created for the sake of man (both of these reference Genesis 2:20-24). Though these references appear to denigrate the status of women, this passage also emphasizes the interdependence of men and women.  In spite of its assumption that woman was created for the sake of a man (11:9), this passage is careful to stress that “woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman” (11:11).  The next verse recalls Paul’s argument at the end of chapter 3: “just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God.”  Ultimately, it is God who is the giver and source of all things, and not everyone who comes from God is supposed to be identical.  Though the Christ event has made it so that the distinctions that historically divided humanity (Jew/Greek, male/female) no longer matter, the death of Jesus Christ has not erased these boundaries completely.  There are still differences between men and women, and it is appropriate to acknowledge these differences.  Diversity of gender, ethnicity, and spiritual gifts (more on that in a few days), in other words, is not a bad thing within the Christian community.

“When God draws lines, they are pure lines, without breadth and consequently invisible to mortal eyes, not walls of separation such as many Christians are fond of constructing.” — George MacDonald

This is, undoubtedly, one of the more difficult passages for modern readers of 1 Corinthians.  It makes some fairly uncomfortable assumptions about women and the role that they should play in the Christian community.  This passage, however, highlights an important point that Paul has made throughout the letter and will elaborate on in the next chapter.  If everyone comes from and belongs to God, as Paul affirms at the end of chapter 3, then it stands to reason that everyone should behave identically.  One might imagine that everyone who “belongs to Christ” should worship and dress similarly, hold the same theological opinions, and be endowed with the same spiritual gifts.  This passage demonstrates that this position is ludicrous.  Christ did not come to make us all the same, but to bring us into unity with God an one another while maintaining our distinctiveness.  We saw this in chapter 8, where Paul castigates the “strong” for expecting the “weak” to have the same understanding of Christian freedom.  We saw this in our passage for the day, where the Corinthians are chided for trying to erase the natural distinctions between men and women.  And we will see this when we discuss the next chapter of the letter, where Paul notes that there are a variety of spiritual gifts.  Though this passage contains some views on the role and appearance of women that are inconsistent with our 21st-century worldview, the overall point is that the distinctions between men and women are not destructive, but should be celebrated.

In the Church, we often get caught up in our differences.  We identify ourselves as conservative or liberal, free church or liturgical, fundamentalist or form-critical, Anglo-Catholic or Evangelical, and a whole host of other polarities.  Occasionally, in our effort to emphasize our unity, we downplay the differences between us as if they don’t matter.  We try to find common ground, but this invariably devolves into seeking the least common denominator.  We sacrifice substantive difference for a kind of bland and bloodless uniformity, and our community suffers accordingly.  George MacDonald, however, reminds us that it is not our differences that cause strife in the community, but the walls that we erect.  We are meant to tear down these walls, not so that we can all become the same, but so that we can learn from our differences and experience each other in a profound and meaningful way.  Embracing diversity in the Church is about acknowledging  the reality of our differences and simultaneously concentrating on the centrality of Christ in our life together.