We ain't what we was

It is a great comfort to have Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth included in the Bible. It is a great comfort to the church to realize and remember that dissension and division are not signs of decline that brought to an end some golden age of Christian unity, but have been an issue since the earliest days. It is a great comfort to have Paul’s words and thoughts to remind us, generation after generation, whose we are, to whom we belong, to whom we really belong, and what that entails for our difficult life together.

How are we to be the church of God together? Let’s go back a few years. The reformation in Europe began in the first half of the 16th century with a renewed emphasis on essentials: Solus Christus – Christ reigns, and no other. Sola scriptura – Scripture as the revelation of God’s word determines what the church proclaims to be true. Sola fide – We are saved by faith alone. It was an emphasis on essentials, but the passionate effort to renew the church quickly became a bloody mess. The conflict over how to be the body of Christ in the world and how to remain faithful to the word of God turned so deadly that the English Protestant John Foxe compiled a history of Protestant martyrs, popularly known as “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” Published in 1563, the book was enormously successful and went through four editions in Foxe’s lifetime. Foxe himself fled England to Frankfurt and Basel when the Catholic Mary came to power in 1554, when he was in his late 30’s. Sixteen years later, in a Good Friday sermon delivered in London, outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he talked about the Turkish invasion of Hungary and Austria, and the fears that threat continued to stir. But having witnessed the best and the worst of the reformation efforts across Europe, he lamented,

Here (alack) cometh another mischief, as great, or greater than the other. For the Turk with his sword is not so cruel, but the bishop of Rome on the other side is more fierce and bitter against us; stirring up his bishops to burn us, his confederates to conspire our destruction, setting kings against their subjects, and subjects disloyally to rebel against their princes, and all for thy name. Such dissension and hostility Satan hath sent among us, that Turks be not more enemies to Christians, than Christians to Christians, papists to protestants; yea, protestants with protestants do not agree, but fall out for trifles.[1]

With less than a decade or so of genuine peace, Europe of the Protestant Reformation endured almost two centuries of constant warfare.[2] Two centuries of violence and destruction, and all for thy name. You’d think that with a track record like that, Protestants would have learned to speak a little less forcefully, a little less certain of our tidbits of truth, but rather with the humble confidence of disciples who follow Jesus on the way of the cross; but no, the last two hundred years have only confirmed how good we really are at falling out for trifles.

It was around the year 50, when Paul first came to Corinth and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Corinth was a bustling town with two ports, it was a commercial and religious hub with a reputation for wealth without culture. It was a city where a lot of money could be made, and the social pyramid was steep. The church in Corinth was young, and perhaps that meant it hadn’t had time to split into congregations along the lines of the city’s socio-economic contrasts and differences in education and influence. The church in Corinth was an incredibly diverse mix of people. Wealthy merchants and slaves had been brought together by the power of Christ as brothers and sisters, and they didn’t quite know what to make of it.

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.”

Thirty-eight times in this letter, significantly more than in any other of his letters, Paul uses this simple address, brothers and sisters. Thirty-eight times he affirms the common ground and the equal standing of all who are in Christ. Brothers and sisters he calls them repeatedly, so that when the letter would be read aloud in the assembly, they would perhaps remember that all of them belonged to the family of God. That they didn’t “belong” to Apollos or Cephas or Paul or any other earthly authority, but that Christ had made them his own; that they belonged to no other master, not even to themselves, but to Christ, and therefore, in a radically new way, to each other. 

Brothers and sisters he calls them, not ladies and gentlemen, or senators, slaves, merchants, and sailors, or Romans, Greeks, and Jews, but brothers and sisters. “In order to form a Christian community identity within a pluralistic pagan world, Paul repeatedly calls his readers to a ‘conversion of the imagination,’” is how Richard Hays puts it.[3] A conversion of the imagination. A complete rethinking and reordering of their inherited cultural norms and practices. A resocialization of Corinthians from all sorts of backgrounds into the new family of God. A conversion of the imagination would mean the undoing of everything that used to define their identity. Ethnic and family background, gender, status, language, income, politics, education, everything is subverted by their being one in Christ.

Dissension and division, quarrels and status anxiety are indications that this “conversion of the imagination” is still incomplete. In his letter to the Romans, Paul calls this conversion the renewing of our minds. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[4] Be transformed by looking at yourselves and each other not through all the usual lenses of who matters and who doesn’t, who knows and who doesn’t, who is wise and who isn’t, who has a voice and who hasn’t, but instead through the complete and radical undoing of all of that in the cross. Be transformed by looking at yourselves and each other in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Some in Corinth, and God knows not just there, some are easily swayed by sparkling rhetoric. Some have aspirations for wisdom. Some are impressed by knowledge. Some are awestruck by the faith and the gifts they recognize in themselves and in others. Some place importance in power and status—and all of them (and that is not the easy ‘them’ that doesn’t include us), all of them lose sight of the power of God and the wisdom of God shown through the cross.

Christ sent me, declares Paul, “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” He dissociates himself and his proclamation from clever speech and sparkling rhetoric, precisely because some Corinthians were so easily impressed by that kind of eloquence. Cultured speech, delivered in a refined fashion, was the telltale of high status and privilege, of power and wealth. Eloquent wisdom, pleasant and persuasive as it may be, would only reinforce the ways social relations were currently arranged in the city, with a lot of distance between the top and the bottom of the ladder. Paul points to the cross, to the event that demolishes all pretensions to status and standing in the world.

We live, just like generations of Christians before us, with competing affiliations and allegiances, and we must be very attentive and careful to not let something else, something less than the God of the cross occupy the governing center of our imagination and our life. Our many differences are not a problem as long as we remember that we belong to each other because Christ has made us his own; that in our baptism, God has claimed us each equally as members of God’s household, regardless of who we were. Brothers and sisters, no matter how steep the social pyramid is in the city, it is subverted by the cross so we can come together around the table of Christ, see each other face to face, hear each other out, and finally realize that love rules, that love is Lord of heaven and earth.

The conversion of our imagination for life in this new family of God. I was listening to the radio and heard that last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure. As they sifted through box after box, they pulled up a little reel-to-reel tape with a piece of masking tape on it, labeled ‘Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.’” It’s audio no one knew existed. That year – 1962 – fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since.

I listened to it on NPR’s website and I was struck by Dr. King’s closing words:

And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher, who didn’t quite have his grammar right, but uttered words of great symbolic profundity. They were uttered in the form of a prayer: Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be, we ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what we was.[5]

The old preacher didn’t quite have his grammar right, but he spoke words steeped in the power of God to liberate and reconcile. He spoke words for all of us, brothers and sisters who struggle to live more faithfully as the family of God.

Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be, we ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what we was.


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2004), p. 335.

[2] MacCulloch, p. 648.

[3] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation) (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), p. 11.

[4] Romans 12:2

[5] http://www.npr.org/2014/01/20/264226759/a-promise-unfulfilled-1962-mlk-speech-recording-is-discovered