I’ve never been to a masquerade ball or costume party. The closest I can remember is dressing up as Elmer Fudd to go trick-or-treating as a kid.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not. To act more confident than I feel. To be nice on the outside, disguising a judgmental attitude inside. To hide my true thoughts and feelings behind whatever mask seems most suited to the occasion.
And you, no doubt, have done the same. Most of us, from time to time, use such masks to defend ourselves against disapproval.
Does that make us frauds?
Of course, there is massive fraud of the Bernie Madoff variety: flying under regulators’ radar, lying to thousands of investors for decades, scamming them out of billions and billions of dollars. Surely we’re not in that league, and no one’s going to prison for pretending to be nice.
Nor are we in the same league as Paul’s opponents in Corinth, whom he practically characterizes as the spawn of Satan for their attempts to convince the Corinthians to follow them and their false gospel.
We’re not like that.
It’s too easy to divide up humanity into bad guys and good guys, people who really sin and those who just make understandable mistakes. But the fact is that we share a common humanity and live in the same broken world.
We simply don’t know what Paul’s opponents, the false apostles, were really thinking. Not completely. It’s easy to characterize them one-dimensionally as scheming and manipulative, as religious frauds with a strong Machiavellian streak. And that may be the case.
But what if they actually believed the gospel they were preaching, because they were just as fond of wealth and success as we are, and just as leery of suffering? What if they occasionally and knowingly put on masks now and again, in service of the higher goal of convincing others that they were right? And what if such seemingly harmless deception and rationalization became habitual?
This is, of course, pure speculation. But it should give us pause to realize that Paul’s beloved Corinthians, the people in whom he saw clear evidence of the Holy Spirit, the people whom he considered to be a valid letter of reference for his apostolic ministry, could be so easily taken in.
Obviously, the Corinthians felt some affinity for the message of the false apostles, and we, they, and even the false apostles themselves share a common humanity. It’s sobering to think that the latter may have considered themselves to be Christians, even if Paul did not.
We should never be so sure of ourselves that we become arrogant. We must ever and always come back to the cross, asking God to help us understand and humbly embody the gospel of a crucified and risen Savior.
For as Paul would insist, there is only one foundation for the church and its life: Jesus Christ. And we must all be careful how we build on that foundation (1 Cor 3:10-11).