Our epistle reading for today can feel somewhat cryptic and a surface read can leave us scratching our heads wondering exactly what it was that St Paul was trying to tell us and the Corinthians. This reading is part of a larger discussion that he is having with the Corinthians though and it helps to remember some of the rest of that discussion.
Two weeks ago, we read from this same letter how the Corinthians were dividing themselves into groups based on which apostle they followed (or maybe were baptized by). They were dividing themselves into groups and this was something St. Paul came down quite hard on. Remember how he asks them rhetorically, “was Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Of course, the answer to this all is a resounding no.
It seems like the Corinthians were approaching the faith as if it were about getting the right doctrine. They were findings small differences between the apostles and using those differences to be thing that made them better Christians. St Paul’s message to them is that there is no Christian faith other than the one based in Christ Jesus. It is a worthwhile thing for us to consider, because we can all look for and easily find differences today, in a church that suffers from ethnic divisions, when internet teachers set themselves up as sources for a more pure faith than whatever watered down version that they consider everyone else to have. We certainly live in an age where differences abound and are continually used as wedges which divide us.
In today’s reading St Paul is continuing on this same theme. He drives home the point that the apostles are united in their efforts and message and he shows the Corinthians that the path to a mature Christianity – might I say, to a full faith – is that of the cross. Immediately before where our text picks up today St Paul is chiding them because they are reigning as kings. His implication is that, while they someday will reign as kings, this reigning could take place only after they had experienced the cross, only after they had given their very lives for Christ.
St Paul than continues, “ For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” Here it’s worth noting that he sees the apostles as having a common calling and that it was a calling to the cross. He goes on using sarcasm to point out that the Corinthians were living in a way that was quite the opposite, “ We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!”
He points out that they have many instructors. Some translators use the word “teacher” or even “babysitter” here and he contrasts them with his position as their father. The idea here is that he cares about them in a way that their teachers did not. A teacher (or babysitter) cares for a child, but their concern usually ends when their involvement with the child ends. A father knows that in some way, the world is seeing them (the father) when it looks at the child.
As fathers we pain to see our children divided. We know we can manipulate them to be on one side or another or to make a particular decision, but we also know that our children need to learn to stand on their own, and we do not want to see them divided against each other.
And our passage today ends with those words that are a bit jarring, “imitate me”. In another passage later in this same letter to the Corinthians St. Paul says, “imitate me as I imitate Christ”. And in other passages, he simply says, be imitators of God. Why does he feel that he can use all of these ideas, seemingly interchangeably? I think the clue in this passage is that the context that he is calling for us to imitate him in is not his greatness, but in his pursuit of the cross. And in the same manner, to the extent that each of us learn to give up our lives for Christ, give up greatness and power, we also can say, “imitate me”.
In some way, I see a parallel with today’s Gospel reading. Here we encounter the disciples’ failure to cast out a demon which Christ then casts out. When the disciples ask him why they could not cast it out, he points to their unbelief; their lack of faith. The story then takes an unexpected turn as Christ predicts his passion and this vignette ends with the line, “And they were exceedingly sorrowful”. Why do these two stories tie together in this way? How does St. Luke see a connection between the disciples’ lack of faith and the cross? Or maybe I should read more carefully, the cross and the resurrection, because Christ clearly points to his resurrection in this passage.
I think it might have something to do with the fact that the disciples’ faith was going to grow through the cross and the resurrection. And not only because they got to witness Christ’s death and resurrection. But their faith grew as they learned to experience the cross and the resurrection for themselves. Of course, we ultimately only get to experience resurrection when we cross from this age to the age to come. However, St. Paul pointed out for us many opportunities to experience death and resurrection in our everyday lives. “To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now.”
Our readings show us that somewhere between the story of the disciples’ unbelief and St Paul’s letter the Corinthians, the apostles got hold of this. They lived in the shadow of the cross, looking both behind them, “on the night he was betrayed”, and ahead, “to your second and most glorious coming”, to Christ’s resurrection.
May we be strengthened to give our lives for Christ by the prayers of the Holy Apostles and by the prayers of the martyrs who also took hold of this truth.