When I was in high school, I was in the Army ROTC program and a member of the drill team. We participated in competitions, gave the 21-gun-salute on Memorial Day, and got to march in local parades. It was tiring marching in the sun for miles. We had to step in synchrony, eyes straight ahead, faces impassive; we couldn’t wave to the crowds (“Hi, Mom!”). But it was glorious to be part of the spectacle nonetheless.
I suppose my attitude would have been different if I had to be the guy at the end of the line, cleaning up after the horses.
In the previous post, we saw how Paul had begun reasserting his apostolic authority over a fractious Corinthian church, sarcastically puncturing their overblown pride, accusing them of arrogance, pointing them back to the graciousness of the God who was the source of their gifts in the first place.
Having heard Apollos’ eloquence compared to Paul, some had belittled the latter’s apostleship. Aspiring to be more like Apollos, believing too much in their own giftedness, they had even become arrogant enough to imagine themselves to be Paul’s spiritual superior.
All of this meant that they had a distorted view of apostleship itself. Paul pointedly corrects them, again resorting to a bit of loving ridicule:
I suppose that God has shown that we apostles are at the end of the line. We are like prisoners sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle in the world, both to angels and to humans. We are fools for Christ, but you are wise through Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, but we are dishonored! Up to this very moment we are hungry, thirsty, wearing rags, abused, and homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are insulted, we respond with a blessing; when we are harassed, we put up with it; when our reputation is attacked, we are encouraging. We have become the scum of the earth, the waste that runs off everything, up to the present time. (1 Cor 4:9-13, CEB)
The image is one of a military parade. The conquering army returns in victory, basking in the adulation of the crowds. But at the end of the procession are the prisoners, shackled, shuffling, destined to die as a public spectacle in the arena: a startling image, and most certainly not the one to which the Corinthians aspired.
In this life, the fate of the apostles is to suffer for the gospel: at times, they go without food or drink, wearing shabby and tattered clothes; they are beaten with fists (the literal meaning of “abused”); they live the homeless, itinerant life of missionaries. All in all, in the eyes of the world, they are disgusting and disposable, filth to be washed down the shower drain.
Hey, Paul says, want some of that?
Frankly, it’s not what I signed up for either. It’s not great material for the usual come-to-Jesus sermon.
So is Paul describing the fate of all Christians? More on that in the next post.