by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
From all accounts Corinth of the first century CE was a city that enjoyed notable mercantile prosperity. It was located on a major east-west trade route. Business people from all over the world passed through on a regular basis and often arranged to stay on for pleasure. Greeks and Italians lived side by side, joined by Asians who had set up shop. Multicultural in ethnicity and cosmopolitan in spirit and thought, Corinthians boasted in their openness, their mental prowess, their ampleness of wisdom. Of course, visitors knew of its underbelly—the clubs, the brothels, the winks from authorities and the willing collusion of local religions. But all of that somehow came together under the common cause of commercial success.
For some reason, probably not a prompt from a bishop or field education office, the apostle Paul sensed a call to go there. There, in Corinth, the Gospel found fertile ground. Hand in hand with Apollos and others Paul established a congregation. But, while away, the natives grew restless and began to yearn for a leader who—well, if you really want to know—a leader who was better dressed than Paul, someone who had a more gripping style of preaching, more pleasing voice and likeable demeanor.
Their yearning grew rampant. Congregants wanted worship that was more contemporary, innovative, less boring—look what they are doing down the street, for heaven’s sake. It’s much more joyful and spontaneous. And for those who enjoyed the finer things of life, could you, Paul, pay attention to the portions and quality of food and drink at our gatherings? We are tired of being hungry. Not said, of course, was any mention of the culture and class wars that were brewing beneath the surface.
To this distant situation Paul found it necessary to respond. In part he sought to name the demons loose there in Corinth (Shall I come to you with gentleness or a stick? he wrote.) In part, especially in the opening chapters which we have been hearing for the past Sundays, Paul felt compelled to defend his ministry, no, THE ministry. With this week’s selection, his entire defense is distilled to just a few verses. That these verses are heard in assembly this week suggests that from the distant past Paul is appealing not only to today’s congregants but to today’s leaders, the professionals, those who follow in his footsteps. So, listen up!
Here, now, he stands in our midst:
This is how one should think of us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.
That’s it. We could stop here, but there are some nuances that make these words zing, turning them into timely proclamation for us.
First, the word Paul uses for “servant” in this text is not the usual doulos but rather hypeeretas. It is a word that originates to designate the rank of an ancient seaman. One model of the galley, the workhorse ship of maritime commerce, was called a trireme, a large ship that had three levels of oarsmen. The one who rowed at the lowest level was referred to as hypeeretas, stationed in the innermost part of the ship where bilge water sloshed around, where the rats made their home, where the air was most fetid. Think of us this way.
Second, a steward is one who is a manager, an agent of the estate owner, or one who portions out the food for all the other employees, or who looks after the comfort of the passengers. What’s most important to know about a steward is that whatever she manages or gives away, it all belongs to the owner. The steward’s task is to carry out the designs and purposes of the owner. Think of us this way.
Third, what the steward manages is God’s mysteries—God’s secrets—that plan which is hidden, coming off to many as blatant poppycock. The fact that Paul chose this word at all is surprising since it was a word that was used at his time to denote the secret rites of the mystery religions, information that got one power, control, and prestige.
God’s mystery, however, resides in Jesus Christ and his cross—the apostle makes that clear elsewhere. Worship professors can’t help but point out that in the Latin vulgate translation this word mysterion is translated as sacramentum—implying that congregants should think of us as managers of the sacraments. And why not? The hidden plan of God in the cross is signed, it is manifested, offered right there in the meal of the hungry poor and in the washing of the unclean.
For the past several weeks, strolling to and from my cozy office on the third floor I couldn’t help but notice prospective interns interviewing with potential supervisors. How nicely polished you all looked, hair neatly coiffed, real shoes, dresses, suits, collars. I mused on whether there were similar dress-ups going on with seekers of MIC sites. Then there was the day of senior pictures, and my own dim vision attempting to identify who was inhabiting the clerical collars.
Years of experience increase my suspicion that there is a kind of fiction emanating from all these first meetings and contacts. It makes me wonder how much we all get caught up in fictional resumes. Candidly, the curriculum sometimes encourages them. We urge you as students to be the best preachers possible, we want you to be able to adapt liturgical ordo to situation in a lively fashion, we want you to be wise in all things, we want you to have good bed-side skills, to manage a budget, to be a good player in the synod, and we have, moreover, all kinds of ways of measuring that: psychological exams, Form D’s, Visions and Expectations. EXPECTATIONS!—you have your own, or perhaps, better: you imagine what the expectations are, from Bishop, from supervisor, from MIC pastor, from the church, from the congregation, from spouse, from your own idea of what success is in ministry. So you strive to show you best face.
To all of that Paul writes, and he is writing to us: THIS is the way you should think yourselves: Low rack rowers and managers of a hidden cross-shaped cosmos that is breaking into this world.
The seeming simplicity of such an identity is easily marred by our fictional resumes. They are fictional because so often what we imagine ourselves to be is far from true, and they are fictional because such resumes don’t count. That we are tempted to believe the fiction is a sign of distrust on our part and puts into question the trustworthiness sought in stewards.
In the midst of this rained-on parade the apostle wants us to hear a word purposely not hidden. Right up there at the beginning of his letter, he assures the Corinthian congregation that God is pistos—God is faithful, God is trustworthy, this way before he begins to defend his ministry. Only several chapters later does he write of stewards needing to be pistos—faithful, trustworthy. God, Paul reminds us, is trustworthy first.
In the midst of fictional resumes and all kinds of maneuverings on our part, God has been and is at work within the hidden power of the cross. What God has begun in you and me—shaping us into stewards mysteriously, sacramentally, God will continue, and is continuing.
Eight weeks of Epiphany lead us to believe that life is a lot of light, a revel of Hallelujahs over God in our midst. But God is trustworthy. Lent comes, whether we want it or not, and with it a chance to hear once again how we are nourished in our baptisms, once again drawn into the paschal mystery, there to meet God in Christ who overcame and is overcoming the fictions of this world.
Silence now is a sign of the Lent to come. Silence now is already the trustworthiness of God beginning its work. Using the prayer in the folder for today or your own reflection, name your fictions and relish the mystery of God working itself out in you. Lent is about to begin.
I Corinthians 4:1-5