Temple of God: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 23 February 2014

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 23 February 2014 (7th Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A)

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18  • Psalm 119:33-40  • 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23  • Matthew 5:38-48

This will be another Sunday where I preach not only the verses listed but those in the gap as well.  I honestly don’t know what thought processes lie behind the omission of 1 Corinthians 10:12-15, but they seem perfectly good Bible verses, so I shall preach them as well as their neighbors.

The epistles of Paul (and I use that phrase to designate those texts that give some folks hangups as well as the texts that don’t give as many folks hangups about authorship) always give me occasion to reflect on the twin convictions, both of which lay claim on me, that Scriptures are God-breathed and that Biblical texts emerge in forms that make sense in terms of human history.  I always try to read 1 Corinthians as a genuinely divine gift, God’s help for the faithful in troubling times, be that moment the first century or the twenty-first.  I try as well to think hard about the literary forms that Paul deploys in any given passage.

This week’s reading provides not one but three strong images, and I get the sense that Paul, likely dictating to an amanuensis of some sort, is throwing every image that occurs to him into this epistle, hoping that one of his punches will land and set forth for the faithful in Corinth the gravity of their divisions and factions.

Paul’s image of the temple would not be a strange one to the Jews in Corinth or to the Greeks; after all, religious architecture is one of the high marks of civilization in the Roman period.  So when Paul describes a foundation for a newly-built Temple, it’s likely that most of the folks hearing the letter read have heard of or even seen the process of a temple’s being built.  Paul presents a rhetorical paradox in this first image, asserting both that he lays the foundation and that the only foundation that he can lay is the one already-laid.  The vision of the temple-in-construction takes on apocalyptic tones as well as Paul warns those who build on that foundation that fire is coming, that those who build with straw (this is where it’s hard not to think of this as a Three Little Pigs reference) will see their work destroyed when that fire heats up, and that said builders will suffer genuine loss.  But to close with another paradox, Paul says that some builders will only ever be saved through such fire.  Although it’s not within the scope of this week’s reading, that sense of temporary perdition as an unlikely avenue of salvation comes up again in the Corinthian correspondence, which makes me think that such hard teachings might have been among the tools for which Paul reached fairly often.  (It also makes me think of Dante’s Purgatorio, but lots of things make me think of Dante.)

When Paul springs the metaphorical trap, even though I’ve taught 1 Corinthians a few times and read it a half-dozen, I’m still impressed.  “You [a plural pronoun] are the temple of God.”  What he sets up as a body of proclamation and doctrine at first becomes the embodied community in one fell swoop.  And the rhetorical flourish is not merely for show: the divisions and factions in Corinth, which remain the central question even amid the sex and death and Eucharistic rolls, are destroying that Temple, and God will not put up with the destruction of the sacred.  Once more the divine and the artistic mingle: there’s no denying, even for one convinced of the inspiration of the text, especially for one convinced of the inspiration of the text, that the layered menace of the threat to this temple captures the imagination and renders those hearing the letter both tragic audience and tragic protagonist.  Paul inherits the Platonic notion that the soul is no simple unity but the site of battle, and the terror of soul-battles, of persons and of churches, is a tragic proportion: the more bloody the victory, the more horrifying the loss.  Those who would destroy such a temple are themselves obliterated, and the divine wrath that would avenge the destroyed will fall on the same head, that of the destroyer.  Perhaps I shuffle towards blasphemy as I write this, but I am thankful that part of the New Testament seems to have been written for those who know some Athenian drama.

As Paul continues towards the end of this week’s reading (though he’s not remotely done with the epistle), he pulls on the sociology of temple-life, the divisions between the priests’ courts and the public courts, and dispenses with those divisions out of hand: for those claimed by Christ, all things are yours.  Good things come from Cephas and Apollos and Paul, and all of those things, because they’re all of the one body of Christ, all belong to all the faithful.  Once again the unity of the Body of Christ has profound social implications, casting as foolishness any notion that being a pillar on  one side of the Temple makes any sense at all without also being the counterpart of a pillar in another part.  Because all of those pillars are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s anointed, to imagine the parts as anything but contributing to a whole is nonsense, and the Corinthian factions cannot be anything but tragically stupid in that larger view.

Now I’m not going to pretend that 1 Corinthians presents a blueprint for getting Stone-Campbell people back in church with John-Wesley people in 2014, much less for reconciling Catholic with Protestant or conservative with liberal.  I will maintain, though, that Paul’s progression of images compels us to name our sins of faction, to realize that any account of our divisions that starts and ends with a seemingly benign notion of consumer choice is ultimately a lie.  What we do once we spot the lie still lies before us; this week’s reading, it seems to me, is one of those necessary steps towards whatever healing comes next.

May our eyes always be on that city, unseen but heard of, where we’re all of one temple and always together for the glory of Christ.

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