Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals. We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.
We all reckon to know the danger of being “rich in things and poor in soul”, as Fosdick put it. But the Corinthian congregation were probably a pretty poor, humble and downtrodden lot, and Paul’s accusation that they have become rich is more than tongue-in-cheek.
But people who are poor in things might hope to become rich in soul – and this is how the Corinthians are now seeing themselves, never guessing that they are to become a by-word in Christian history for spiritual arrogance and divisiveness. And churches like this may still be found today – convinced that they have been blessed by God, and eager to show off their spiritual gifts and shame others with their moral rectitude. Churches, that is, that pretend to be something that they really are not.
And then there are those who try to help them change course. Perhaps an apostle, or a minister, or just a faithful and honest friend, who knows that any church is as much a hospital for sinners as it is a school for saints. Someone who recognises the human weaknesses within any fellowship that church leaders can sometimes try to disguise. When we become too self-satisfied and proud of our church life, we need a “fool” like Paul to risk their reputation and show us the truth about ourselves.
We hear plenty about ministries of encouragement, but maybe there is a place for ministries of discouragement as well. Only of course, anyone responding to such a calling is going to be in for a hard time, and will expect (like Paul) to be treated like dirt. Sometimes you’d be a fool to step out of line and say the things that need to be said – but maybe it’s still possible to be a fool, for the sake of Christ.
Loving God may we be ready to speak truth to power and also to weakness. May we never expect of others more than we demand of ourselves. Keep us wise in our judgments and our actions or let us be foolish – but only for Christ’s sake.
The Rev’d John Durell, retired minister, member of Waddington Street URC, Durham
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