The rhetoric of the cross (1 Cor 1; Advent 3A)

This coming Sunday, the third Sunday in Epiphany, the lectionary offers focus on the themes of illumination and revelation which are to the fore during this season. The Psalmist writes of his seeking the face of the Lord; “your face, Lord, do I seek; do not hide your face from me” (Ps 27:8–9). It is a prayer that may well serve as the theme prayer for the season of Epiphany.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of the Lord “making glorious” the land of Israel, for “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Isa 9:2). That same prophetic oracle is then quoted in the excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 4:15–16), as the commencement of the ministry of Jesus is seen to be “what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” (Matt 4:14). The light shining in the darkness is indeed the Epiphany motif.

In the Epistle that is being read during these weeks in Epiphany, 1 Corinthians, there is no specific reference to illumination or revelation, as per the theme of the season. Sosthenes has joined with Paul to write quite specifically to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2); the letter certainly indicates a good awareness of the situation in Corinth.

However, Sosthenes and Paul then add to that specific address, indicating that they write also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2), wishing them grace and peace (1:3). It is a letter sent with all good intentions to encourage and support the believers in Corinth; but the addition of this wider scope of believers “in every place” broadens the intended audience. We are explicitly invited into that wider audience through this additional phrase.

The apostle Paul is known as a letter writer; there are 13 letters attributed to him in the New Testament—although it is likely that almost half of them were written by students of Paul after his lifetime, drawing on his authority to give force to what they write. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

Paul collaborated in the writing of many of his letters—of the seven agreed authentic letters, only two are written by Paul alone. The others are written in association with Timothy (2 Cor, Phil, 1 Thess and Phlm), Silvanus (1 Thess), and Sosthenes (1 Cor). It is this latter letter that the creators of the lectionary, in their wisdom, have offered us during the season of Epiphany. We read the opening chapters in sequence through these weeks.

Sosthenes and Paul tell the Corinthians that they write to “give thanks” (1:4) and also to “appeal to you” (1:10); and later, to “admonish you as my beloved children” (4:14). The constructive approach that they bring is made clear in the opening prayer of thanksgiving (1:4–9).

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In the passage we hear this Sunday (1 Cor 1:10–18), there is an unequivocal statement about what undergirds the constructive intention that Sosthenes and Paul bring as they write. It is “the cross of Christ” (1:18) that shapes the discussion and directions that Paul will present to the believers in Corinth in the ensuing 16 chapters. (This letter is longer than all other Pauline letters, except for Romans—also 16 chapters in length.)

Given the reference to an earlier letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9), there may already have been discussion of the cross of Christ—either in that letter, or in a presumed response from the Corinthians, or in personal discussions and sermons during the period that Paul and others were in Corinth. Acts 18 indicates that Paul was there for 18 months, along with Aquila and Priscilla, Silas and Timothy, as well Titus Justus, a godfearer and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue (archisynagogos), and also Sosthenes, also identified as a leader of the synagogue (archisynagogos) who was seized and beaten in the presence of Gallio, the proconsul (Acts 18:17).

Acts reports that Paul left Corinth in company with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18), moving to Ephesus, in which city the letter to Corinth was written (1 Cor 16:8). There is no further mention of Sosthenes, although the co-authorship of 1 Corinthians might suggest that Sosthenes also left his home town of Corinth—at least for a time, to escape the persecution he had experienced there.

Sosthenes, like Crispus, would have been high-status in the Jewish community in Corinth. Sosthenes and Paul indicate that they have received other high-status visitors from Corinth, travelling to Ephesus: Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17), as well as “the people from Chloe” (1:11)—were they, perhaps, slaves from the household in which Chloe was patron? Female patrons, of course, were known at the time—witness Phoebe (Rom 16:1–2), and see the excellent overview of Marg Mowczko at https://margmowczko.com/new-testament-women-church-leaders/

So Paul and Sosthenes were well-informed as they write this letter to the Corinthians. There are problems aplenty in Corinth. In the few verses set for this coming Sunday, they write about division and the quarrels that have resulted. They plead for agreement and unity. They remind the Corinthians about baptism. In subsequent chapters, they will range over a long list of matters, often introducing them with the formulaic “now concerning …” (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). That formula may suggest they are responding to specific information brought by their visitors.

So, in verse 18, the last verse of the selection offered for this Sunday, Sosthenes and Paul sound out the key theme of this letter, which is about the cross of Christ: “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The verses immediately following develop this motif of the paradox inherent in the cross with rhetorical finesse. (See next week’s blog.)

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“The cross” is a theme that was sounded by Paul in his preaching and his writing. He had written to the Galatians, “may I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). He had written to the Philippians, urging them to “have the same mind” as Christ Jesus, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), and warning them that those who opposed Paul’s preaching were “enemies of the cross” (Phil 3:18).

He would later inform the Corinthians that he models his own ministry on that of Christ; “he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God; for we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4)—just as he had told the Galatians that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:19–20).

He would also later exhort the believers in Rome to see their baptism as the means by which they were linked with Jesus in his death and resurrection, instructing them that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:3–6). In the central theological argumentation of this important letter, Paul places the cross as the means by which the good news is known: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

He would remind them that “Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9), and he deals with the conflict in Rome between weak and strong by proposing that the quarrelling parties follow the pattern established by Christ, who “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (Rom 15:3). The cross informed his instructions to the Romans for their daily living.

The same process is employed in the earlier letter to the Corinthians. The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. All of this is worked out in the first two chapters of the letter, in passages that we will hear in the coming two weeks (1 Cor 1:18–31; 2:1–12).

There, Paul will remind the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), and that the paradoxical wisdom that is at the heart of the story of Jesus, “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

Perhaps the cross is the way par excellence for the Lord God to communicate, illuminate, reveal? Perhaps Epiphany revelation is strongest through this crucifixion?

Stay tuned for further discussion in coming weeks … … …

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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