Ultimately, we belong to Christ

A Bible study on 1 Corinthians 3:18-4:5, from the Monday morning of General Synod.

Good morning, my name is Ruth Mathieson and I am from the Diocese of Adelaide. I am currently
(1) parish priest at St Bede’s, Semaphore,
(2) Archdeacon of the Sturt (western coastal strip of Adelaide metro area)
(3) sessional teacher of New Testament at St Barnabas (theological) College.
I am one of five members of General Synod who have been invited to reflect on the morning prayer reading each day, this not so much an academic study as personal reflection guided by five questions.

The first question is “What surprises me?”

What really surprises me is that the set lectionary reading for Morning Prayer, 1 Corinthians 3:18-4:5, today is such an appropriate piece of scripture for us to reflect on as we begin the business of General Synod.

We are encouraged not to be factional or judgemental.

*Paul encourages not to be so focussed on aligning ourselves with the Apollos, Paul or Peter of our times that we lose sight of the fact that we all belong to Christ.*Paul cautions us not to boast in our human leaders. We are not to be too concerned about improving our status or sense of belonging by associating with particular leaders. This is unnecessary because we belong to Christ and Christ belong to God.

*The verses from chapter 4 encourage us not to set ourselves up as judges of others or even of ourselves, because it is the Lord who judges us when he comes, bringing to light the things currently hidden in darkness and disclosing the purposes of the heart.

The Second Question is “What do I find most difficult?”

Personally, I find Paul’s critique of wisdom and judgement difficult.

*I like to think of myself as wise. Having been an ordained minister for 25 years I like to think I can offer sage advice to ordinands and those embarking on school ministry where I have spent much of my ministry.In the next month I will move to take up a new ministry role interstate, and as people, such as the clergy in my archdeaconry, thank me, I am especially touched when they thank me for my wisdom. It strokes my ego very nicely.

*When I was working as a school chaplain, Positive Psychology was introduced across the College. One of the features is identifying which of 24-character traits are your greatest strengths. These include gratitude, kindness, spirituality, hope, courage, zest, forgiveness and appreciation of beauty & excellence. I was very disappointed, when I did the online survey for a staff PD day and found my top character strength was judgement!

I have tried to own it as a kind of wisdom, and here in the Corinthian correspondence Paul warns against wisdom as well. A careful reading shows that Paul is being critical of valuing the wisdom of this age, not wisdom per se. The quotes from Job 5:13 and Ps 94:11 challenge us not use what we might call wisdom to be clever & crafty – where crafty is not knitting at synod but rather being somewhat underhand & dishonest.

*Paul upends a Cynic formulation that goes like this:
The wise are friends of the gods, friends share what they have. The gods own all things, therefore the wise have full access to all things. (NIB 10:833). Paul starts by saying that all things belong to us all, because we belong to Christ. We need neither be wise as such nor aligned with any one leader.

The third question is to consider what background might be helpful.

This could cover looks of issues, but I will focus on the background of the other two leaders mentioned by Paul, Apollos and Cephas. The names of these three leaders had already come up early in chapter 1 of this first letter to the Corinthians, verses 10-12: Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’

Having expressed concern about the disputes between the followers of different leaders from the beginning, in 3:6 he defines different roles:

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose … For we are God’s servants, working together.

In Acts 18 Apollos is described as an eloquent Alexandrian Jew, who knew the Scriptures well and debated with the Jews to show Jesus as Messiah.

Paul values the work of Apollos when he follows him at Corinth and waters the seeds Paul has planted there.

*Paul does not seem to have as positive a relationship with Cephas, in 1 Corinthians 9 he tries to claim for himself and Barnabas the privileges that Cephas and the brothers of Jesus have – or he perceives they have.

In his letter to the Galatians Paul also calls Peter Cephas and describes him as one of the “so called pillars of the church.” Galatians is also a divided community, where some are arguing that circumcision, the identity marker of Judaism, is needed to become Christians.

“What is an application of the reading for the first hearers?”

One application for the first hearers from today’s reading from Corinthians is avoid factional allegiances, by focussing on Christ and not making judgements about others prematurely.

*Elsewhere in Paul’s letter writing: Galatians 3:26-28, Paul reminds us that in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

*These binaries by which people are judged and categorised are for the first century world. When I think of what binaries of how we judge each other in the 21st century, the following come to mind: there is neither black nor white, indigenous or non-indigenous, abled and disabled, privileged and under-privileged, employed and unemployed, gay and straight, and trans and cis – or move away from binaries completely.

What is an application for us Anglicans at General Synod today?

It is to recognise that we are all one in Christ, ultimately we belong to Christ and not the group or faction that develops around any Christian leader or understanding of the role of the church. Our identity is in Christ.

*By knowing that ultimately judgement is a divine prerogative, Paul has the confidence not to be too worried about being judged by individual humans or even a human court.

*May we also speak out in truth and love remembering that ultimately God is our judge, and not fear judgement not only from with whom we disagree but also from those with whom we agree on many matters. For God will bring to light things hidden in darkness and disclose the purpose of the heart.

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