Reading and studying Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is always an interesting exercise. In some ways, with it’s grand passage on love (Chapter 13) and its incorporation into the liturgy of our Communion (Chapter 11), it might be the most often referenced book in the life of the Church (and outside of the Church for that matter). Growing up, I probably spent more time studying this book in youth group than any other, which is ironic given how entrenched it is with cultural touchpoints that I never fully understood (and still don’t) and an ancient context that exists far removed from my own.
Which is an interesting place to start from in trying to see this text anew and allow it to breathe a fresh spirit into my own life. There are many difficult aspects to these letters, including the complicated relationship that existed between Paul and those in Corinth and its fragmented nature that appears bound between this shared concern for the Corinth Community to find strength in weakness (the Gospel of Christ) and a concern for the way they perceived him and the apostolic ministry as weak. And yet the wonderful truth of God’s witness and Christ’s work breaths through these complications, bringing wisdom to our ears and fresh insight for Christian function.
The Letters in Context- A Complicated Relationship
Paul wrote from Ephesus some time before the day of Pentecost and near the end of his 3 year ministry. The two letters were written approximately one year apart, and reflect multiple proposed visits to the community, which in the case of 2 Corinthians comes in the face of a letter he wrote to them after encountering these growing accusations against his own ministry (which included questioning his witness, his ministry, and more particularly we find questions surrounding money Paul is delivering for ministry purposes). As he writes in 2 Corinthians, “If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we (the apostles)” (2 Cor 10:7), “for I do no want to appear to be frightening you with my letters. For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” 2 Cor 10:9-10. So, “if I must, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” 2 Cor 11:30
Later he goes on to reference this weakness that they perceive more specifically, saying, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” 12:7, hearing in the Gospel of Christ that “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Acts 19-20 is a good place to gain context for this relationship and these letters, but in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4 and 7:8-16 we can find reference to the apparent passionate letter that Paul sends to them calling for repentance in regards to their resistance to him and the Gospel he preaches, suggesting that there were some that heard his words and reconciled (2 Cor 7:5-16) and those who did not (2 Cor 11:12-21).
Division, Suffering, and the Power of Christ to Unify and Heal
Thus one of the most dominant themes in the two letters is that of division (and Christ’s power to heal this division) set against the idea of suffering/weakness (as a witness to the Power of Christ). Paul opens his second letter saying that “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor 1:5), going on to express his hope that “…you will boast of us as we will boast of you” (2 Cor 1:13-14), reminding them that weakness is actually strength because of the “foolish” nature of the wisdom of Christ, an idea which he unpacks in the first letter to the Corinthians as he calls them to consider that “Already you have become rich (1 Cor 4:8).” After all, consider “the state of apostles”, who would have riches galore, but are hungry, poor, homeless (1 Cor 4:8-13).
The measure of our spiritual state is not our strength (matters of the flesh), but rather the power of the Gospel (4:19-20), which is where we find Paul pleading with them to consider both his and their “witness” in this light. After all, this is not just about me Paul insists. “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me… but to all of you (2 Cor 2:5).” After all, “Even if our Gospel is veiled” because of its foolish and upside down nature, “it is veiled only to those who are perishing (2 Cor 4:3).” Therefore, for this reason, let us heal our divide so that we can “let light shine out of darkness (2 Cor 4:6).”
A Diverse Community in a Diverse Land, Divided in Difference
We do know quite a bit about the environment in which this community existed, with Paul writing to an area that was under the rule of Rome but also free to practice the rich and diverse cultural, philosophical and religious ideas and expressions that marked the area as an intersection of these different ideas and expressions. Therefore, the letter was to a Church community that was growing in the midst of this diversity, a community that Paul sees as “divided” against one another and which he seeks to unify in Christ for the sake of this diversity.
We know a little bit less about exactly what prompted Paul to write and what some of these divisive issues were. But from his words we can gather that the division was born out of some form of a competitive spirit, that it connects to their feelings that the Gospel must find its power in visible strength, success and prosperity (set over against the diverse background in which they exists), and that both of these things together were straining their relationship with Paul, one another and the Gospel (which are all interconnected relationships in this letter with a primary concern for healing the divide for the sake of their collective witness).
Learning to Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians Well
A word before diving more intimately and specifically into the two letters. It is easy, as I did often when I was young, to get lost in the many particulars that we find in this book, and to want to turn them and read them as a pile of disconnected generalities (Laws or Rules). The danger of this is getting lost in a context that is far removed from our own, and missing the larger message that can, and I believe is meant to apply as a cultural bridge (connecting our witness with the witness of Christ across history). For this reason, one of the disciplines that can help us to read these letters well, especially as persons of faith, is to try and see the spirit behind the letter, the motivating force of Paul’s concern for elevating the Gospel above the division. This is where, I think, the letter has the chance to come truly alive, even more so than simply quoting the familiar love passage divorced from its context. There is a beauty to be found lingering underneath the words, in finding and discovering the unfolding relationship between Paul, this community and the Gospel. It helps us to connect with Paul as a real, living, breathing person, and it give us a picture of an imperfect community, one that perhaps might be able to remind us of our own.
The Gospel in Waiting- The Already-Not Yet Reality
Right off the bat we find Paul addressing this notion of a community found in waiting, wrestling with this already-not yet reality (1 Cor 1:7). We find this a lot as we journey through scripture, particularly as we follow Paul’s journey from East to West. It’s not surprising then that the pressure coming against Paul is forming from the East as he continues to travel West. Early communities would have expected the return of Christ in the near future. The more time that went on the more this waiting and this expectation brought with it questions and anxieties and wondering. It also brought with it growing divisions and competing forces, especially as it tried to entertain suffering realities. As we wait however, Paul suggests, spiritual gifts can attune one to the sanctifying work of Christ (1:2;1:7), spiritual gifts that describe a picture of a “community” waiting together and learning to stay faithful to the hope of the Gospel. And as we wait, we can trust that God is faithful who has called us to his witness, the one who set us from Darkness to Light, who defeated the Powers of Sin and Death.
Division: The Great Enemy of Our Spiritual Waiting
It is for this reason, to increase both their perseverance and their hope in this already-not yet reality, that Paul targets division (1 Cor 1:10) as the great enemy of the Gospel. He calls them to be unified in the same mind and same judgement (1 Cor 1:10), asking is Christ divided? No, and neither should they be, because Christ is the great unifier. And how does Christ unify? By nature of the Gospel. In the Gospel our “baptism” precedes us, and it is the Gospel that sets us into that reality (I did not come to baptize but to preach the Gospel 1:17), not according to our action or our reality, but according to the Gospel’s Proclamation.
The Cross As the Great Unifying Force- Folly, Foolishness and Wisdom
Reaching deep into the prophetic ministry that forms and informs their community (Isaiah 28:14-18), Paul then begins to speak of this Gospel in light of their questioning of its strength in the face of its seeming weakness (1 Cor 1:18-25). The word of the Cross (the Gospel) is folly (1 Cor 1:18) to those who are perishing (under the Power of Sin and Death), and Christ destroys the wisdom of the wise and the discerning (God has made wisdom folly 1 Cor 1:20). This is because in our “knowledge” (which says that God’s witness must come by our own means and circumstance) we do not know God, but what saves us (the Gospel of Christ crucified, which we preach and proclaim) is in fact a “stumbling block” to the Jews and “folly” to the Gentiles. In this way, what seems foolish (this waiting and this suffering and this weakness) turns into Power and Wisdom under Christ (1 Cor 1:18; 1:21).
God’s ways appear upside down to the wisdom of the world, and Paul reminds them that they need look no further than their own calling from the low places to know this to be true (1 Cor 1:28). The reason God called them from the low places was to show God’s saving work to the world (the power of witness), not to set them above the world (or above one another). It is to remind us that Christ saves, we don’t save ourselves. The Power of Christ’s saving work (that is the Spirit and Power of the Gospel 1 Cor 2:1) is that we do not rest in our own wisdom 1 Cor 2:5. This is the mystery imparted from the beginning (1 Cor 2:6-8) that we are living into as followers of Christ. All knowledge (of us, the world and God) comes from the spirit (1 Cor 2:10-11). This is a powerful pushback against the mantra of human exceptionalism and dependence on self, and this is what draws us into community as a growing desire to be formed according to this great mystery “together” (1 Cor 2:13).
The Mystery and Sharing in The Mind of Christ
A part of the mystery, according to Paul, is that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). This is what the unifying work of Christ has given us. This is what Paul says they do not yet understand, and it is why he can’t call them “spiritual people” (but rather infants). And yet this is crucial, as it is because they don’t get this that there is division (3:1). And division is working against their being able to understand this idea (as this mystery unfolds within community). The way to heal this division then is begin to recognize our shared reality where God is the “planter” (Paul borrows the imagery of a garden) and the “waterer”, and where He is the source of our growth. But, (and here is the unfolding mystery) in Him, having the same mind (as imitators of Christ), we are one. And in being ‘one” we are God’s fellow workers. This is where our hope is born from. Where we are God’s field and God’s building, we can trust that God (and therefore we, being of the same mind) will receive the wages for (His) labor. It is a gift God gives, and yet the mystery is that we are also participants (1 Cor 3:6).
Christ as the Foundation of our Witness- The Great Unifier
Continuing to evoke Isaiah 28:14-18, Paul moves to speak of the foundation that is Christ and the Gospel (1 Cor 3:1) against this divided reality, with the great, upside down logic (of all the foolishness) being that the work that will be tested and rewarded is in fact God’s (1 Cor 3:5). Thus, if they see Paul’s witness as fallible in its weakness, this means that God’s work is fallible and weak, and their work is equally fallible and weak. This is how they are all connected. This is why Paul continually focuses his concern on their state, their thinking of their own relationship to Christ, because for as much as they are putting this pressure on Paul, being under the same witness means the question really has to do with them. The final call in 2 Corinthian says, “so (therefore), examine yourselves… or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor 13:5). Don’t you know, Paul pleads, “that you are God’s temple, and that the Spirit lives in you. Know that God won’t let anything destroy that, that you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s (the unifying work) 1 Cor 3:18-23.”
The great connective piece here, that we come to in Chapter 4 is that when people see them they should see them as servants of Christ (and therefore the supposed weakness as stewards of the mysteries of God). And that begins in our communities with one another. We don’t judge others, because our judgment will ultimately just judge ourselves (1 Cor 4:3-5), which brings them back to the interconnected nature of Paul’s plea. So practice this in your own community first. Don’t judge the works of one’s growth against another. Leave that for God and concern yourself with your life for the sake of the other. Because when they see you rather than Christ, this is the seed for division. To see Christ is to be unified.
Division as a Practical Reality- Sexual Immorality
In Chapter 5 Paul starts to get more specific about this division and unity picture, looking into the life of their community to represent this as a working example. For example, there is sexual immorality among you (1 Cor 5:1). So how do you deal with this? Set this person under the Devil (the Powers of Sin and Death) Paul says. Do this so that the spirit (which is witnessed through the life of their community as the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel which has set us under the Power of Light and Life) may reveal Christ. “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness.” 2 Cor 6:14 This is all about the ways in which they see and understand themselves in community as either under the Darkness or in the Light.
The concern here is for the collective witness. How can the witness of Christ as salvation (defeating the Powers of Sin and Death) move if the community is acting like it is under Darkness. One person affects the whole, therefore the whole community is living as if there is not light and life, living according to manners which declare (1 Cor 6:9-11) a world under Sin and Death.
All Things Are Lawful, But Not all Things Are Helpful- Building A Christ Centered Community
If we are to return to the great mystery that is God the builder and Christ the foundation, all things are lawful (that is, our actions and circumstance do not determine our salvation and our hope), but not all things build (1 Cor 6:12). And the picture of the building is actually a Holy city (a community), being built together. Sexual immorality then (which Paul returns to) is an example of something that does not build, rather it divides, one against the other. It sets one above another, and is concerned with self rather than community. Paul uses this as a launching point into a description (and metaphor) of the sexual relationship as a unifying force. In it we become one, just as we are in Christ. In it we are no longer our own but of the same mind (with God). This becomes an analogy of our marriage to the great mystery, our witness to the great unifier.
Paul continues on this road, pushing further into examples in 1 Corinthians Chapter 7 that are all about setting that which divides (and sets us under Sin and Death) into that which unifies (sets us under Life and Light), thus moving us towards a picture of an undivided witness. Pushing this conversation even further, each one, Paul says, should remain in the condition in which he was called (whether Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free). This is so that Christ’s saving work doesn’t come from anything but Christ (1 Cor 7:20) and so that in this, as we build in community, we may be free from the anxiety that says otherwise (1 Cor 7:32). This is what bears out unity against division, wisdom out of the foolishness. It is what sets into relationship to one another (and therefore to God) rather than against.
Love- The Great Building Force
Before getting to 1 Cor Chapter 13, Chapter 8 tell us that the ultimate distinctive of the foolishness of God versus the wisdom of the world is actually love. Love is what ultimately builds up (in all of the virtuous ways we read in Chapter 13), and this happens in the midst of their diversity (and in the midst of their diverse backdrop where there are there are many gods, but one unifier).
And yet, returning to the idea of the Gospel as a stumbling block (1 Cor 8:9) to those who want to do things on their own strength, this is foolishness. Therefore, give of your rights for the sake of another to show power (love) in weakness (9:3-12). Here we get some more cultural examples (regarding food, temples and idols), but the message remains universally applied across our distinctions and our diversity. Our reward, the hope that what is being built will be built, is the witness that then comes back to us (to return to Paul’s interconnected concern). For this reason Paul says, “That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the Gospel.” (1 Cor 9:18), and that by being free from all (the Gospel freedom), “I make myself a servant of all (1 Cor 9:20-23)”, thus increasing in strength as we wait in this already- not yet reality (the race imagery).
Our Shared Witness Across History- Unified in Christ
For Paul’s audience, he brings it back to the foundational story of Exodus as a way of demonstrating that this same Gospel unites them with the story of God’s grand witness in the pages of history. The same spiritual food, the same building blocks, the same baptism were present with them (at the Exodus) in the same God (Christ). That is what we demonstrate as we see the witness move from Paul to them and to one another, and therefore to the world. It is in this kind of participation (in the Blood and Body of Christ’s sacrifice) where the unifying force of this work, God’s work in our lives and our world, can be revealed (1 Cor 10:16,17).
For this reasons, Paul draws back, yes, “all things are lawful, not all things are helpful and build up”. Therefore, “do all to the glory of God (the glory that comes through healing the divide).” (1 Cor 10:3) This is the point of all the particular examples he has given, and which he continues on with in chapter 11, speaking of the relationship between men and women, and tackling the huge topic of their (liturgical) practice of this communion (11:17-21) with God and and one another. The Power they have in Christ is not bearing out in their community because they are practicing Communion together with distinction, thus eating while others go hungry. This is not the communion that Christ called us towards in establishing the “new covenant” through the cup (the Cross) (1 Cor 11:25). This is antithetical to the Gospel they claim for themselves. This is precisely why the Cross presents Christ as the judge, because to judge ourselves against one another leads to this kind of division and this kind of witness. Christ is the great unifier, and it is by living in the way of the Cross that Christ and His Spirit (who work for the common good) is raised up, making us aware of the strength of the collective witness within our diversity (1 Cor 12:1-7). One body unified.
The Collective Witness In Our Diversity- Spiritual Gifts
Speaking to this diversity as “spiritual gifts”, Paul writes that “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there be no division in the body but that the members may have the same care for one another.” (1 Cor 13:21-25). Therefore, “earnestly desire the higher gifts (Prophecy, which builds up the body rather than the self) and the way of love, the most excellent way”, because this is the way that God builds and it is the nature of our foundation, which has already been laid before us and being built for us. In this way, Paul says, “be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature (1 Cor 14:20).” “Let all things be done for building up (1 Cor 14:26)”, for this is the Gospel (Chapter 15). This is the Gospel that Paul received and gives to them (1 Cor 15:3-5).
Christ, The Firstfruits and Completion of God’s Work
The great power of this Gospel, the same Gospel that can speak resurrection life into their already- not yet midst (1 Cor 15:12) comes because of the work of Christ. He is the “firstfruits” of our witness. If we doubt the work of Paul or God or ourselves, look to Christ, as He is the one who, when the great building project has come to fruition (the New Heavens and the New Earth), will be making all alive in Christ (In Adam all die, in Christ all live, both those who have died in the waiting and those who have not fallen asleep). And we can hold to this grand hope because Death will be the last and final thing to be brought into subjection under his feet, unifying all in life and light (1 Cor 15:28). This is the hope and the joy that we have, not that we are seen as strong, but that in our weakness Christ is redeeming all of Creation. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor 4:7)
It is this great hope that we trust in as participants in God’s work, and this work is realized against the reality of the Cross, the reflection of our own reality under the Powers of Sin and Death. “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” (1 Cor 15:36). “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Cor 4:11) For “since we have the same spirit of faith… we also believe, and so we also speak (of resurrection hope)” ( 2 Cor 4:13) and thus “we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:16).” “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God.” 2 Cor 5:1 “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened (so that we can be further clothed with the heavenly dwelling). 2 Cor 5:4 “He who has prepared us is God… so we are always of good courage 2 Cor 5:5-6
This is the great mystery, and what leads to the great resurrection passage of 1 Cor 15:36-39. The mystery is that “we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed (1 Cor 15:54).” The mystery is that Death is sin, the power of sin is the law… but Christ is strength and Power, the great unifier, the one who heals the divide (1 Cor 15:56). From now on then, “we regard no one according to the flesh 2 Cor 5:16.” “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” 2 Cor 5:17. We are ambassadors for Christ in the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19-20), because “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 5:2
This is the way that God is building us as spiritual houses, into a spiritual community meant to bear witness to the New Heavens and the New Earth in its diversity. Know that “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” 2 Cor 9:6 as God builds us up towards this end, and that we can know this because “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way.” 2 Cor 9:10. Therefore, don’t live as though you need to show yourselves as above one another or above the ways of the world in order to have the Power and Strength of Christ. Live in weakness so that your witness may be made great in Christ. Live as a servant of all, using your unique spiritual gifts to the benefit of all. The great unifier, the great call to unity, the healing of division, all of this is set under the foolishness of the Gospel, the mystery of the upside down nature of grace and the sanctified life, revealed through Christ on the Cross, and made visible in us, the community of God’s sons and daughters forever more, from first to last, beginning and end.