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 ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the off scouring of all things. I do not write this 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. I Corinthians 4:9-16
The Epistles written by St. Paul (and others) in the New Testament were letters written to the early church, and in some cases, early church people. The purpose of these letters was to guide the development and growth of the early churches in the decades following the Resurrection. These early church communities had problems that still plague the church today. That is not because the church isn’t smart enough to solve its problems over the course of two thousand years, but because the people in the church still suffer from the same problems with each passing generation. There hasn’t been a generation of Christians that is immune from ego, lust for power, impatience, gossip, etc. You name the vice, we can find it in all centuries of the church. That’s why we still read the Epistles nearly 2,000 years after they were originally written.
Saint Paul writes to a church in Corinth that is struggling with an authentic Christianity versus a lukewarm Christianity. He challenges them (you might even say “calls them out”) to a deeper understanding of Christianity. He starts off by saying that the true Apostle is not haughty but humble, appearing as a man sentenced to death, the “least” of all people.
Being a Christian is not about being wise, as he calls the Corinthians, but about being a fool for Christ. Is it a rational thing to want to die for one’s faith? The cynics (and there are as many in St. Paul’s day as there are in modern times) would say that only a fool would die for Christ. The wise man would not. Saint Paul therefore says that the true Apostle is a “fool for Christ,” throwing away reason and convenience for a leap of faith that could include giving up one’s own life.
The true Christian is more likely to be held in “disrepute” rather than honor. For the true Christian doesn’t seek honors, but speaks with zeal and truth. And zeal and truth in today’s society will not bring one reward but scorn.
The genuine Christian looks to the eternal reward, heaven, rather than the temporal reward. Being “ill-clad and buffeted and homeless” is not a big deal if it brings one closer to salvation. That doesn’t mean give away what we have so we can become homeless, or to stop working so that we will have no choice but to be ill-clad. It means that we shouldn’t obsess over material things, being willing to give up whatever is needed to show love for God and for our neighbor.
The Christian message, in many ways, runs counter-culture to the habits of modern society. When reviled, we are supposed to bless, yet often our first recourse is to curse at someone. When persecuted, we are supposed to endure, yet often we jump right in and fight.
When we are slandered, we are supposed to try to conciliate. Yet in modern times, when slandered, we not only do not try to reconcile, we run to the nearest attorney hoping for a large settlement. The genuine Christian will probably make more enemies than friends, and be seen as the “refuse of the world.” (4:13)
The purpose of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and his words that are still addressed to our community, is not to make us feel ashamed, but to encourage us to be the best Christians we can be, the best version of who He created us to be. To bless, endure and conciliate, rather than sue, or tear someone apart. In short, we are to be imitators of not only St. Paul, but imitators of Christ, who showed us what it truly means to be humble and to serve.
You willingly were nailed to the Cross, loving Master; as mortal You were laid in a tomb, O Life-giver. By Your own death did You destroy death’s dominion, O Mighty One. For the sentries of Hades in fear of You shuddered. With Yourself You raised those who were dead from the ages, for You alone love mankind. (Second Resurrectional Kathisma of the first set, First Tone, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Invoke God’s blessings every time you want to curse someone or something. Endure whatever struggles you encounter today with grace. And go for reconciliation with enemies, rather going for indifference.
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible is copyrighted 1946, 1952, 1971, and 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and used by permission. From the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
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