1 Corinthians 4:6-19; Job; Deuteronomy 8:7-9; Phil. 2:5-11.
Sixteen-year-old Bram Bowman stands in formation along with other inmates in the courtyard of a dystopian labor camp. Dirty, damaged, and near despair, he, with the others, is being inspected by the pampered governor and his wife. The governor comments unempathetically, “Well, this is depressing!” But we viewers applaud the young man in his ugly environment. We know that Bram is brave and principled, in contrast to the shiny artificial conformity of the couple who has dropped into the scene by limousine. Like his admirable parents, Bram is learning to resist the evil structures which have their tentacles everywhere in his world.
Even today, in the jaded culture of America, a television series like Colony can rely on human instinct and long-established tradition to sway audience sympathies towards those who appear to be weak, but are strong in unseen ways. Northrop Frye, my renowned English prof in Toronto, used to remark that all the art, music, and narrative of the contemporary world has been marked indelibly by the story of the Bible. In this case, he is surely right: the luminous presence of the Man on the cross has forever grasped the imaginations of those who have followed, whispering to them that things are not always as they seem.
In our epistle reading for this tenth Sunday after Pentecost, St. Paul sees fit to remind the Corinthians of this. He has been writing about the schism caused by proud party-spirit, and has shamed them by asking, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” The theme, then, is their pride, in contrast to his apostolic humility. He then goes on to paint a word picture:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Cor. 4:9-14)
The scene that Paul evokes is not unlike the unseemly spectacle of Bram Bowman in the camp. The apostles are pictured as coming last in a procession, as if they are the human booty gained in a battle, and gazed upon in curious disgust by the crowds, as they acclaim their conquering warriors. But the spectators here are not simply human citizens of a single city—they include the entire world, even the spiritual world, before whom the apostles are displayed. St. Paul’s use of rhetoric is obvious: contrasts, repetition of phrase, and irony mark his tone. Finally, after imprinting this unseemly spectacle before our eyes, he makes his appeal:
I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Cor 4:15-16)
In his commentary on the verses, St. John Chrysostom remarks, “Paul said these things in order to provoke the Corinthians to consider that they should zealously seek to emulate the apostles in their dangers and their indignities, not in their honors and glories. For it is the former, not the latter, that the gospel requires” (Homily 13.1). Why does the gospel require us to emulate indignity? Because, of course, the apostles are patterning their lives on the crucified One, the One who “made himself of no reputation, but humbled himself to death, even death on the cross” (Phil 2:5-11), as we are reminded in our celebration of the Dormition this week.
Some (especially those of a Protestant background) might be disturbed at the way that Paul makes his appeal, placing himself in the role of their father. Surely such an implicit claim is in itself arrogant, working against the very humility that Jesus modelled? What about the command, “Call no man father”—something I was asked this very week by a dear friend who is considering Orthodoxy? Here we encounter a puzzle when we go to the Bible as a whole: if taken as an absolute, this command is contradicted elsewhere in holy writ, and not only in the text we are reading, where it would seem that St. Paul was ignorant of Jesus’ prohibition. Further, in both Galatians 1:14 and Hebrews 1:1, the note-worthies of the past are referred to as “our fathers,” a habit that Jesus himself also maintains throughout the gospels. One might counter that, for the most part, these are references to actual physical ancestors, “fathers” in the extended sense. But it would seem that the New Testament does not restrict the meaning of “father” in this way: there are several places where “father” is used also of spiritual ancestors in the faith. The most obvious here would be the application of “father” to Abraham regarding the Gentiles, who have no physical connection with him. Besides the case of Abraham, we find the title used with respect by the deacon Stephen (Acts 7:2), by the apostle Paul (Acts 22:1) in addressing living Jewish leaders, and also in the letter of John (1 Jn 2:13-14) in addressing Christian leaders. It would seem, then, that Jesus’ words were not taken literally by his followers, who continued to refer to their biological and spiritual leaders in this familial way. Instead, his teaching “call no man father” was taken as a way of establishing the utter uniqueness of God as Father, a perspective more fully explained by the apostle in Ephesians: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every fatherhood (or family under a father) in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:14-15). To recognize God as the Father, the only source of all things, is much more powerful a stance than simply to formally refrain from referring to others in this way! Christianity, it would seem, has both an iconoclastic and an iconic impulse, which at first blush would seem to contradict each other: God is the only absolute Father; yet, because of His image imprinted on His creatures, we rightly see a reflected radiance and call others “father,” to His glory.
For St. Paul is calling us to emulate him, only because he emulates Christ. It may be difficult for the Corinthians (and us!) to properly picture the utter humility of the God-Man, but we can see it reflected in the lowliness of those around us who try, in their own ways, to take up their cross.
Some have thought that the emphasis upon humility and lowliness is a new chapter in the Bible, and that the OT, by contrast, pictures the godly man as blessed by God, both outwardly and within. Though it is the case that the Romans and Greeks, by and large, valued outward success, certainly the plight of Job in the OT reminds us that the Hebrew Scriptures also acknowledged the complexity of our human situation, and what this means in terms of true greatness. *One has only to consider the plight of Job. There, the most pious man imaginable is assaulted by various trials. Though Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph (at his highest point), David, and Solomon possessed riches, we should remember that Abraham also was a sojourner, Joseph was a slave, and David was the least impressive of his brothers. Certainly there are passages in the OT that suggest that outward abundance is linked with faithfulness to God:
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing. (Deuteronomy 8:7-9)
But there are also plenty of words in the OT prophets about the rich being self-satisfied, wealthy because of extortion, and not faithful to God. The picture in the Old Testament is complicated, it would seem, because God both immediately rewards His people in obvious ways for their obedience, and hints to them that outward strength and riches are not always what they seem. It is the same when we train our children, giving them rewards for good behavior, but working towards the goal that they will do good things, as they mature, even when this is costly for them. One of the ways that God continues to form us after His image is to put before our eyes poignant pictures of our older siblings (our “fathers” and “mothers” in Christ) who exhibit exemplary humility. And, as implied by St. Paul in this letter, surely we should be ashamed, and encouraged to do better, when we see how such people are maligned by those outside the Church, looked upon as the “scum of the earth,” if in contrast, “all speak well” of us. Woe to us if that is the case, said Jesus! What is different between their witness, and ours, that those who do not have the mind of Christ, approve of us? What is different between our lives and theirs, if Satan and his minions leave us alone, for we are only ineffectual pawns on a board, unworthy of their attention? But if a pawn gets it into his or her head to risk getting to the other side, seeking to be crowned as Queen—well, then, watch the Enemy do everything in his power to impede our progress!
Of course, this does not mean we are to value poverty, degradation, and infamy for their own sake, as though our faith hated anything of material or temporal value. Our faith is not world-denying, and God knows that we need food, clothing, love, meaningful work, and so on. I am blessed to be in a happy marriage of 45 years, delightedly surprised with my 19 grandchildren, happy for my piano, thrilled when my students respond well to my classes, and constantly amused by my cavapoo Angus, whose prefers expensive freeze-dried food to kibble! But these things, both great and small in my life, cannot be its substance: and I need to be generous with the many things I have, as with my time and affections. For we worship One who trampled down death by death, and so we should never be surprised if hardship comes our way—God will use it for glory, of that we can be sure. And for this reason, Christians have a different response from others when sorrow strikes. St. John Chrysostom put it this way:
“Paul is saying that the main point is not that he and his fellow apostles are suffering, for that is common to all. What is unique about them is that they are suffering without despair or anger. On the contrary, they are full of rejoicing, and they prove it by returning good for the evil they receive.” Homily 13.2
We have, then, a balancing act put before us by St. Paul this week. He surely is not calling us to call evil good, or to be ungrateful for times when we and our family are strong, held in honor, healthy, and blessed. After all, we look forward to new heavens and earth, when there is no more weeping. But, he forcibly reminds us, this good has come through God’s embrace of our suffering, and continues to advance as His children also accept hardship. As was later said by a father in the faith, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” And that burden is not only to be borne by our leaders, but by all of us. Holy Mary tells us what she told the servants at Cana, “Do whatever Jesus tells you.” And St Paul enjoins us, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.” We don’t need to look for places where we can be out of step with the spirit of this age. If we seek the mind of Christ, our lack of conformity will be apparent to all: as we speak out for the disenfranchised and the unborn, as we stand for truthful justice and freedom, as we refuse to engage in scorn even of those who act in despicable ways, as we remain faithful to our spouses in difficult circumstances, as we teach our children about sexuality in ways that do not conform to the status quo, as we put worship before other demands. We are to be followers, wherever Christ goes, with his train of apostles—even if that leads us to places we would rather not be.