Back in 2019 I did a series of posts on the Sermon on the Mount that I called, A Reasonable Faith. In the Sermon, Jesus laid out what the Gospel means to us, what it requires of us. If that were all we knew about Christianity, it would be enough. But we know more… not because 21 centuries have passed and we are all the smarter but because with the passage of those 21 centuries we have seen all the ways there are to mess up. Thank Heaven, over those centuries, we also have seen countless servants of Christ who have gotten it right. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews calls them: our cloud of witnesses.
Paul the Apostle is one of those witnesses; one of the most powerful because he began by thoroughly messing up his relationship with God. Think about it: A Pharisee of Pharisees, zealous for the Law of God beyond all his contemporaries, so committed to God’s plan that he was willing to dedicate his life to eliminate those of his own countrymen who dared to call Jesus of Nazareth, Lord. In his zeal to love God, he ended up fighting against God. Yet, he found forgiveness. More than that, he found his real place in God’s plan. But he never forgot where he had come from:
1 Timothy 1:15 (NIV) Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
There is no way to be saved without humility because, to be saved, it takes asking for forgiveness; and there is no way to ask for forgiveness without admitting our mistakes, our sins.
But sometimes we can get the wrong idea about what humility means. In thinking of it as the opposite of pride, we can assume it is the same as lowliness, to the point of unimportance. Yet look at what Paul says in Romans:
Romans 12:3 (NIV) For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
When we are humble, we know where we stand. We know who we are and what we are. There is no room for pretension whether it be self-aggrandizing or self-deprecating. Rather, it is living following Jesus’ dictum that we let our Yes be Yes and our No be No.
That is the way Paul lived and that is also why he was so successful as an evangelist. He was gifted with a powerful intellect, honed through his life growing up in Tarsus and in his training under Gamaliel in Jerusalem. He never shied away from that gift. It was that gift that allowed him to think through the logic of the Gospel, to examine its connection to the Law, and to put it to the test. I don’t think anyone he met could raise an objection to the Gospel that he hadn’t already raised himself and then resolved. I really believe this is why he was so effective in witnessing, not only to Jews but also to Gentiles.
And that is why his labor for the Gospel is so enduring. Since I am a Professor, I will say it this way: Jesus wrote the textbook. Paul put together the class notes, wrote the homework problems, and then gave us the answers.
Paul added nothing to the textbook… but he did his very best to try every way he could think of to help us understand it. That is why so much of Christian doctrine is derived from his letters. He gave us, on purpose, a systematic arrangement of the things that followers of Christ believe. Not to replace the textbook, but to help us think about it and remember it.
This is why his Epistles are priceless, and why I am starting this series on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Paul’s introductory remarks to the letter set the stage for the specific things he needs to address. And he starts by reminding the believers in Corinth that there is a huge difference between living in (and for) the kingdom of God and living in the world.
They really needed that reminder.
In Corinth, Paul was faced with a Church that was living right in the middle of the attractions of the world; not only those associated with the material prosperity of a thriving commerce hub but also those derived from the permissiveness of their pagan society. As Darby tells us in his introduction to the epistle, Corinth contained at least 12 temples to a variety of deities. “One of the most infamous was the temple dedicated to Aphrodite, the goddess of love, whose worshipers practiced religious prostitution… At one time 1,000 sacred (priestess) prostitutes served her temple. So widely known did the immorality of Corinth become that the Greek verb to Corinthianize came to mean to practice sexual immorality.”
If we were looking for a metaphor for the kingdom of the world, as opposed to the Kingdom of Heaven, it would be hard to find a better one than the city of Corinth itself.
The world freely offers us riches, power, and the promise that we can have our every desire fulfilled. That was the essence of the snake’s temptation of Eve in the Garden. That was the essence of the Devil’s temptation of Jesus in the wilderness… ‘you can be like God and shape the world to fit your every whim.’
Contrast that with Jesus’ Beatitudes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (both in Matthew chapters 5-7 and in Luke chapter 6). What does He offer us in this world?What does being blessed in this world look like, according to Him? Blessed, He said, are… the poor, the meek, the hungry, the weeping… the persecuted.
This contrast between the kingdom of the world and the Kingdom of Heaven, runs throughout Jesus’ teachings. And He told us it constitutes the ultimate either-or decision for all mankind. We all get to choose which kingdom we live in. But we can only choose one or the other. We can only be citizens of one kingdom. And whichever we choose, we are then automatically enemies of the other. As He said, you cannot worship both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24).
This contrast is the foundation on which Paul builds this letter. Faced with avowed Christians who were nevertheless indulging in the ways of the world, Paul sets out first to remind them that the two kingdoms are completely different and incompatible. And he begins subtly, by addressing the attitudes of the heart fostered by those kingdoms.
Everything you have, you owe to Christ
According to the world, I can be whatever I want to be. That sounds good, even encouraging, until you realize the logical conclusion toward which the world is leading you. What is the world’s ultimate definition of personal success? What the world idolizes (almost treats as gods), are people who have attained to the pinnacle of power and riches. Especially if they are so-called self-made people. (As the serpent told Eve, we can be our own gods.)
Thus, Paul’s Introduction to the letter begins by pointing out that everything we have, we have because God has given it to us.
As Paul introduces himself, he doesn’t just call himself an apostle. He says: 1 Corinthians 1:1 Paul, called apostle of Jesus Christ, by God’s will… He is an apostle, not because he chose the job, or merited it in any way, but because he was called = appointed to that job by Jesus Christ; and that, according to God’s will.
In the same way, the Corinthians are saints (that is set apart for the Kingdom), not because they are special but because Jesus sanctified them: 1 Corinthians 1:2 … to [those] sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints, with all that in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours… And notice that they received that sanctification (which includes appointment to the responsibility of saints) like everybody else in the world that has called on Jesus to be their Savior.
Even as Paul proceeds to praise them for the fruit that their Christian lives are bearing, he emphasizes each time that the origin of that fruit lies not in any power or merit of their own but in Jesus. (I have underlined each instance below.)
1 Corinthians 1:4-9 I thank my God always about you, in respect of the grace of God given to you in Christ Jesus; that in everything ye have been enriched in him, in all word [of doctrine], and all knowledge, (according as the testimony of the Christ has been confirmed in you,) so that ye come short in no gift, awaiting the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall also confirm you to [the] end, unimpeachable in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God [is] faithful, by whom ye have been called into [the] fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
Why is remembering this so important for them and for us?
Because just as the two kingdoms are mutually exclusive, so is our relationship with Jesus: There can be only One Lord. The rest of us are servants. Only by living as servants can we accomplish the mission for which He has called us… just like Jesus could only accomplish the mission that the Father gave Him by submitting Himself completely to the Father’s will. John 6:38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
There really is no such thing as a “self-made” man, not even in the world. (See the article, Psychology and Mythology of the self-made man) And certainly there is no such thing in the Church.
If I have a spirit of humility, I know where I stand… First, in relationship to God; second, in relationship to my brothers and sisters.
Thus, the second topic Paul addresses in his introduction is also one that challenges our spirit of humility. We are all familiar with it in the world. But it is so prevalent, that we barely notice it. Its most innocuous manifestation is when people praise you for being unique.
The trap of dissimilarity
Being unique is not, in of itself, a bad thing. In fact, it is a reflection of the infinite creativity of the Maker of the Universe. We are all different from each other. But why? What is the purpose of our uniqueness, in God’s plan?
Our uniqueness as individuals is there so that each one of us can contribute our own part to God’s Plan. Just like every thread in a tapestry contributes its own color, pattern and texture, to create the beauty of the overall design, we were made to complement each other.
But, like everything else made for the Kingdom of God, this too has been co-opted and corrupted by the kingdom of the world. The focus in the world is not on how our differences make us complementary to each other but rather how they define us.
In the world, instead of uniting, uniqueness ends up being about dividing.
It is about separating… us-versus-them, rich-versus-poor, blue collar worker-versus-white collar management, Republican-versus-Democrat, religious-versus-secular, my race-versus-your race, my country-versus-your country… and so forth.
The Corinthian Christians had fallen into that trap:
1 Corinthians 1:10-15 Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all say the same thing, and that there be not among you divisions; but that ye be perfectly united in the same mind and in the same opinion.
For it has been shewn to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of [the house of] Chloe, that there are strifes among you. But I speak of this, that each of you says, *I* am of Paul, and *I* of Apollos, and *I* of Cephas, and *I* of Christ.
Is the Christ divided? has Paul been crucified for you? or have ye been baptised unto the name of Paul? I thank God that I have baptised none of you, unless Crispus and Gaius, that no one may say that I have baptised unto my own name.
This sectarianism is dangerous because it often devolves into adversarial posturing. Instead of working together to solve a problem, we end up debating what the right way to do it is. My way or your way? (And, by the way, I have all the Bible verses I need to prove I am right and you are wrong.) Many a Church has been split by this tug-of-war.
But it is worse than that… defining who we are in terms of our differences is the biggest stumbling block to our ability to fulfill the second great commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The marvelous thing about this second commandment is that it leaves undefined the (mandatory) object of our love: the neighbor. And that makes the neighbor the anonymous everybody. In doing so, the commandment abolishes the trap of preferential love. As Kierkegaard says in Works of Love:
It is Christian love that discovers and knows that the neighbor exists and, what is the same thing, that everyone is the neighbor. If it were not a duty to love, the concept “neighbor” would not exist either; but only when one loves the neighbor, only then is the selfishness in preferential love rooted out and the equality of the eternal preserved.
Preferential love is based on loving the few that I find worthy of my love, and therefore excluding others. It is all about MY friends, My family, MY house, MY people, My country, MY kind, MY race, MY beloved… When we say it that way it becomes clear that preferential love is nothing else than self-love. And it is precisely for the abolishment of that kind of self(ish)-love that the second commandment has been given to us. According to that commandment:
Before we can know how to love ourselves rightly, we must learn to love our neighbor.
This difference between selfish-love and selfless-love is at the heart of what distinguishes which kingdom we have chosen to live in. The ultimate love is measured entirely differently in each kingdom. Preferential love serves only one purpose, to satisfy me; and therefore, it excludes. Therefore, preferential love’s most passionate boundlessness in excluding means to love only one single person (the beloved, whom all poet’s praise). But the love of God is the love of self-denial. Its boundlessness in giving itself means not to exclude a single one (SK).
Jesus said it this way in the Sermon:
Matthew 5:46-47 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
This issue is up-front in Paul’s mind because it lies at the core of what the Church is meant to be. So Jesus taught, so Jesus prayed:
John 13:3-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 17:20-21 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
We are meant to be united, as one. So that we can Love as one and save as many as we can. Dissimilarity and preference are the weapons the kingdom of the world uses to divide us and defeat us… in order to render powerless the love of God. The second great commandment is our bulwark against those weapons.
I cannot Love you more because you agree with me. I cannot love you less because you disagree with me. I just have to love you… because you are my neighbor.
I cannot say it any better than Kierkegaard:
The neighbor is every person, since on the basis of dissimilarity he is not your neighbor, nor on the basis of similarity to you in your dissimilarity from other people. He is your neighbor on the basis of equality with you before God, but unconditionally every person has this equality and has it unconditionally. (Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love; Kierkegaard’s Writings, XVI, Volume 16 (p. 60). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)
Humility calls us to stand before God as servants… together
The Love of Christ is Agape love, sacrificial love: selfless by definition. And if it is selfless, then all my worth lies, not in my power, not in my gifts, not in my standing, but in the fact that Jesus loved me first, unconditionally. Free of the trappings of self-importance, it becomes much easier to be a servant.
Likewise, it is only by standing on selfless love that I can rid myself of the deceptiveness of preferential love. Everyone around me is an equal candidate for receiving my love and kindness. And every Christian around me is an equal partner, worthy to be helped in the work for which we all have been called.