Corinthians Chapters 1-3
Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians sometime around Easter. It would have been Spring time. The season of new life. The season of the Resurrection. The season when the path to becoming, becoming a new creation was paved for us. So it would follow that one of the metaphors Paul uses for this new creation in Christ is planting, sowing seeds. It is Paul who has sown the seeds of his message; it has been watered by Apollos, one of Paul’s companions. But it is God who makes things grow. Paul goes on to liken the faithful in Corinth to a farm, God’s farm.
What Paul addresses here in his writing sounds like weighty doctrinal issues of moral conduct. Corinth was a thriving and diverse metropolis in Greece. It was a port city on the Mediterranean Sea with a divergent populace of aristocrats, tradespeople, farmers and slaves. At some point in his letter Paul will address the issues facing all strata of his new community of believers. Earlier we heard him addressing the challenges of the unreasonableness of the cross from the Greek philosophers. There was also a large Jewish contingent who had migrated from Rome, and possibly Palestine. Corinth was a great cultural and religious mix. There were various challenges to religious practices, rites and rituals that Paul would also have to address. Most of the issues facing Paul’s converts arose from the mixed cultural and religious atmosphere this thriving metropolis. The believer were also surrounded by the ever attention getting conduct, the lewd and lascivious goings on in their midst.
But it is the genius of Paul to turn these issues on their head, uprooting them from their strangle hold on the newly elect, shaking them loose of their power to assail the budding faith. They are God’s farm and at the same time working right alongside God, the farm and the farmer. As co-workers with God their lives are rooted in union in Christ, where they share in the freedom of the Spirit, planted in love and tended by the Spirit that reaches into the depths of thing, even the depths of God. For Christ has become our wisdom, our virtue, our holiness and our freedom. Bound to Christ we are no longer slaves to the world, life or death, present or future.
Paul changes his metaphor to one a building whose foundation is Christ. Moral conduct then is determined by the Christ we have received, not by our status in life, rich or poor, slave or free. Freedom is to live under one sign, the sign of the cross, and one master, Christ. Our only wisdom is to know that we are God’s temple. Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was the destination, goal and center for the Jews, to say that we are God’s temple now relocates what is central, holy and our goal into the present and presence of the sacred reality that we are, our Holy of Holies the indwelling of the Spirit. It is the reminder that as God’s temple we are sacred. And this is the temple that no one can destroy. This is how we are to carry and conduct ourselves, as temples of God. (If the dating of this letter is correct it comes before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. If that is accurate then Jesus’ words about destroying and rebuilding the Temple in three days echo eerily in Paul’s words to the Corinthians.)
Paul likens us to tradesmen who are build something, building our lives of faith. Paul asks us to think about what we are building. What is the quality of our work? Will what we build, what we do, last? Can what we have built withstand the fire. The first association with the image of the fire that comes to destroy is that this is apocalyptic rhetoric. That Paul is referring to the end times and the coming of Christ. But knowing that Paul was a devout and well-read Jewish man, a well-schooled Pharisee, who knew his Hebrew Scriptures very well, I thought of another association that Paul might have had in mind here. If you recall, in the Book of Daniel, when the King sentences Daniel and his friends into the burning furnace because they would not worship false idols, remain faithful to the Lord God of Israel, they go, into the fire singing. When the guards go to see them turned to ash, the guards burn up because the flames are so hot, but the three men are still alive, singing in the fire. The earliest Christians in Corinth were in a kind of melting pot (could not resist the pun) with challenges to their faith on all sides. Perhaps our lives today are like that. Challenges within and without to living our lives in Christ, to putting on Christ, looking like God’s fool. And yet Paul by his triune metaphors suggests that if we build it he will come. If we have Christ as our firm foundation, if we plant with God and see ourselves as the sacred beings we are, what we plant and what we build will last, and we can go about our lives singing in the fire.