I Cor. 4:6Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 7For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? 8Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you! 9For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. 10We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! 11To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. 14I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. 15Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 16Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. 18Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. 20For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. 21What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?
Any among us who have recently been to Rome just missed an opportunity to experience the following spectacle: to hear the bold, brash blare of trumpets, the stirring roll of drums, the rhythmic tread of marching feet and the deep clop-clop of horses’ hooves, the fluttering of broad scarlet banners with the golden eagle emblem, to the wild cheering of the crowds as through a special gate opened only for such occasions, the Porta Triumphalis, the army of a triumphant general or emperor, returning victoriously from war, marched up the street called La Via Triumphalis with his soldiers, his captives and his loot. Where the likes of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Aurelius rode their chariots, with laurel wreaths around their heads, at the front of their victorious and surviving soldiers, cars and buses now sit in the sweltering heat of summer traffic jams. Or people sit at sidewalk cafes cooling down with a cup of gelato, on that same street now called La Via del Forii Imperiali. (Sound familiar to anyone?) Anyone who was there recently just missed such a spectacle by only 2,000 years at most.
That is the scene that Paul the Apostle had in mind when he told the Corinthian Christians,.”..God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ…We are weak…..we are dishonored!” Paul puts himself, and the other apostles, on the ancient Via Triumphalis, or today’s Via del Forii Imperiali in Rome. Except for the cars, the buses and the gelato of course. Paul and the other apostles are in the triumphal procession of a general’s victory parade. Only you’ll find them near the end of the parade, among the captured enemy soldiers, hands tied, feet chained, naked or clad in rags, marched off to the Coliseum to face wild beasts and gladiators, unarmed, to die for the entertainment of the masses. But the masses need not wait to take their seats in the Coliseum. Its perfectly permissible for them to jeer, taunt, curse and pelt the prisoners with rocks and waste from their garbage cans. Or their chamber pots. In fact, it would be taken as a show of public spirit, patriotism and good citizenship to do so. In the parade of worldly, imperial life, that, Paul says, is where God’s agents should be prepared to find themselves.
If these are brutal things to say or to contemplate, then we’ve just tasted the sting of the whip that Paul says he might bring when he visits the Corinthian churches, if they don’t take his warning and do an attitude check. When he concludes this section by asking, “What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?” don’t think of a real cowhide whip, like what cowboys might use on horses or cattle. Think of the confrontational images, words and questions that Paul has just used to shake up and wake up the Corinthian Christians from their arrogant dreams of pride, and their desire for strength, status and wealth in the world.
Since arrogance, pride, envy and lusting for power and prestige are common to the human condition, in both the church and the world, we’re never done needing a sting of the occasional reality check to confront us and to interrogate us with some pretty basic questions from time to time. So as we ponder this passage, take note of three things it contains: 1) a confrontation; 2) an interrogation: and 3) an invitation.
As for (one) the confrontation, that’s in the apostle’s image of the Triumphal Entry, the wrong end of it, that is. I felt something of a similar confrontation this week when I heard the tragic news of the ten aid workers, most of them Christians, who were killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, for the alleged crime of evangelizing. One of them, Glenn Lapp, there with Mennonite Central Committee, was known to several of our own members and attendees. They weren’t evangelizing, and they had always served notice that they wouldn’t. But to the Taliban, just being a Christian, or in league with a Christian, is tantamount to evangelizing, a crime, under Islamic law, worthy of death. And in a way, they’re right. Not the death sentence part. But the actions and the conduct of those aid workers were evangelistic, in that they represented Jesus quite faithfully, even without them uttering a single evangelistic word. And that put them at the end of the Taliban’s victory parade, as targets of dishonor and death.
Their deaths, like Paul’s words, confronted me with some pretty basic questions, like: Why am I a Christian? Is it to garner the respect and admiration of polite society? That may have worked in the 1950’s, when church growth in America was nothing short of amazing, when church membership was part and parcel of postwar middle class, upwardly mobile, loyal American respectability, along with the new suburban home, poodle skirts and bobby socks, and the big car with tail fins. It was not unusual– even legal back then– for employers to ask potential employees during job interviews if they attended church and if so, which one. Such respect gave the pastor and the priest automatic access and success. So we got invited to pray over sessions of city hall and the commissioning of new nuclear submarines.
I think that many American Christians miss those days of triumphal Civil American Religion, and long for them back. But that was an odd, unusual and temporary moment in all of global church history. And they are long gone, especially now, when increasingly, almost any statements of Christian belief and moral boundaries are confused with bigotry, or labeled as much.
It seems from Paul’s words that such respect and respectability vis a vis their society is what some among the Corinthian Christians were striving for. In polite Greek society of the time, what was religion for, anyway, but to cultivate success and social access? That led people, as Paul put it, “to boast in one [apostle] over another.” Or to consider themselves different, wealthy, strong, honored, even kings and royalty…already. Or at least to put on such airs and appearances.
While this kind of social striving is normal, it is devastating to the church. We’re called to be God’s showpiece to the world of the coming class-free jubilee kingdom, in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first, no one will have too much and no one too little. The Corinthian arrogance and lust for honor and respectability led some of them to play fast and loose with Christian doctrine and with Christian ethics. Its why some of them taught that there was no physical resurrection, neither for Jesus nor for us, as we saw in Chapter 15. Because that would be scandalous in polite Greek society. Its why some people were porking out at their communion services/love feasts while the poor members just looked on, to leave hungrier than when they came, as we saw in Chapter 11. Because it was not chic in polite Greek society to share food and tables with slaves and the poor.
Before Paul could set them straight on matters of Christian belief and behavior, he had to confront this arrogance and social striving. “You can boast all you like in your apostle versus someone else’s,” he’s saying, “but notice where we apostles are in life’s parade: the very place you fear most, at the end of society’s Triumphal procession, not the head. So we work with our hands; we go hungry and thirsty, in ragged clothes; considered the scum of the earth and the refuse of the world; we are persecuted but we endure it, cursed, but we bless; a spectacle to heaven and earth.”
Confrontational words these are, with all the subtlety of a cracking whip. But notice the questions they imply (and this is my second point, the interrogation part): Questions like, Just why did we become Christians in the first place? Whose approval and acceptance count most to us? Whose honor and esteem were we seeking when we were baptized? That of the world, so that we might march at the head of society’s parade? What did we expect as a result of our confession of faith in the Crucified Jesus, some sort of victory parade?
Actually, our victory parade is coming. We can count on it. And even on being at the head of it, with the victor’s crown, or laurel wreath. For as Paul told the Roman Christians, “We are more than conquerors, through him who loved us.” That the Corinthians wanted to be at the front of the Victory Parade was not all bad. They just had their timing wrong. And the wrong sponsors. And with this I come to the third part of this message, the invitation.
Paul does invite us all to a victory parade, a triumphal procession, for Jesus, for himself and for us, when he says, in verse 8, “Already you are kings, and that without us. How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!” Because there will come a day when we and the apostles and all of Christ’s followers will be crowned and revealed for the royalty we really and already are. Christ himself is heaven’s king, come as a servant, to share our humble human condition. The good news today is that Christ conquered not people but sin and death, so as to lift us up, exalt us and make of us a nation of priests and kings like himself. When he returns, that will be his triumphant parade. And ours as well. You are invited to the head of that parade.
But Christ’s example also shows there are no shortcuts to the head of the parade. He was willing to put in his time at the end of the procession, dragging a cross among the jeering, taunting crowds. So were the apostles. So were the ten aid workers killed in Afghanistan.
And so must we. Will we accept the invitation in this passage to join Christ and the apostles there as well, at the end of the procession, as the potential target of the world’s contempt and dishonor?
As hard and difficult as that sounds, the end of the line turns out actually to be a place of great freedom. Remove from our calculation the desire and the cost of public approval and it will be easier to do what Jesus would do. Such as when Shane Claiborne, the speaker at last month’s youth conference, and his friends camped out with homeless families who found shelter in an abandoned cathedral in Philadelphia. They did so in order to stand in solidarity with the homeless, and to help focus resources from the wider community on them. Society expects little else, and hardly even notices when poor people and people of color end up on the streets. But when college-educated young adults from middle class homes get evicted with them, people of their class, family and background are more likely to see human beings among the people and families huddling over ventilation grates on cold winter nights. For this act of solidarity with people at the end of life’s parade, City Hall and the Archdiocese made threatening moves to arrest and evict them all. So did the Fire Marshall, who claimed that the cathedral was a fire trap. His coming inspection would prove that, he said. But Claiborne and his friends stayed, effectively taking their place at the end of society’s parade.
But they weren’t alone. Friends joined them there. The night before the Fire Marshall came, fire fighters showed up to install smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and other equipment, free of charge, so that the abandoned sanctuary would pass inspection for human habitation. And it did, much to everyone’s surprise, joy and relief.
So the end of the parade turned out to be not such a bad place, after all. In fact, it became a place of partying, with lots of friends. The fact that most of them were homeless and poor didn’t detract from anyone’s joy. In fact, the end of the parade was where God showed up with riches and resources, in the form of friends and free smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
By contrast, the front of the parade, where the conquering general rides alone, is a lonely, solitary place. He had his chariot to himself, although some accounts say that he was accompanied by a slave who held an umbrella over him, to shade him from the hot sun. This slave was also said to whisper repeatedly in the conqueror’s ear, “Remember that you are mortal.” All the more proof that sometimes being at the head of the parade is over-rated.
Unless its Jesus’ victory parade, where we will be immortal. Will we join him there, by declaring and maintaining our loyalty and love for him, even though it might mean marching in the back with him, among the prisoners, the poor and the despised? Will we free ourselves of the need to be respected by the world, and stand with Christ whenever the world heaps contempt on him, and all he stands for? If so, then we can count on his promise, that “Whoever confesses me before men will I confess before my Father.” When that day comes, at that moment, he will be at the head of the parade. So will those who stood with him. And who walked with him, at the end of the procession.