Chapters 1 through 5
Right. Fine. You know me, and if you don’t know me, you certainly know Sosthenes. (But you know me.) And if you don’t know me (you know me) you certainly know God, under whose authority I write this. Anyhow, this is for all of you at Corinth, with whom I share a mutual friend, and whose grace I am authorized to extend on your behalf. Peace, and so on.
If you won’t listen to me, you’d listen to Sosthenes; if you wouldn’t listen to Sosthenes you’d listen to our mutual friend (whose name doesn’t currently bear repeating inasmuch as we’re all familiar with His name); if you won’t listen to him at the very least I assume you’d listen to God, which brings it all back around to me again.
I think it’s great that our mutual friend has enlightened you sufficiently to prepare you for this letter. And I know how eager you must all be for this letter, which confirms and clarifies all the other things you’ve already been told. (God and the post are both faithful.)
I’ll just get started, then, shall I? The fighting! You know I was going to write to you about the fighting, yes? Distasteful. I’ll invoke the name, if I must, although you know I’d prefer not to have to. I shouldn’t have to. But then, I shouldn’t have had to write this letter in the first place – I think I can safely say we’re all in agreement there. And yet here I am, writing this letter!
Why am I writing this letter, then, given that we’re all in agreement (I assume) that you should all be of one mind, and not – you know – given over to whatever it is that you’re all doing over there in Corinth? I’ve spoken, darlings, to Chloe, and the members of her household, concerning you and all of your many contentions. It is perhaps more correct to say that Chloe (and the members of her household) have spoken to me. About how some of you (I don’t know which ones, although I can certainly make some educated guesses) claim to be partisans of myself, or of Apollos (!), or of Cephas (I will let that one pass without comment – or rather, a single comment, which is that Cephas and I had a hearty laugh over that one; you know I don’t even call him Cephas, right? He’s just Peter to me, is how close the two of us are, so any attempt to set up separate camps between us as if there were any separation there is just, it’s spurious as all hell), or of Christ (there, you’ve made me name him. Congratulations).
And I guess I just have one question about that! Which is this: Did our mutual friend divide himself when I wasn’t looking? Was I crucified? Did that happen and I just forgot? Was I the one who came down and baptized all of you, or was that entirely somebody else? Because I was laboring under the impression – which I thank the Lord for – that I had only baptized Crispus and Gaius, for exactly this reason, lest a bunch of would-be shit-stirrers start running around claiming they had my personal stamp of approval and were sanctioned to stir further shit in my name. So you can imagine my surprise!
In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I also baptized Stephanas and his household. That’s everyone, as far as I’m aware. If you require it, I’d be happy to send over a list of everyone I have and haven’t baptized, since your memories in that department appear to be shot. Maybe you can send yourselves over to me (in prison, by the way, not that it’s a big deal and I’m fine) one-by-one and I can confirm whether or not I baptized each of you in turn. We could come up with a dress code or something, if that would help you remember. It’s just so funny to me, here in jail which is where I am right now, because I was under the impression that I was sent to deliver the good news, not be the – the Baptizing Guy, or whomever. (Did we not already have a guy with a similar title? You’ll have to excuse me. My memory isn’t what it was either. Name’s on the tip of my pen. John, or somebody.)
I think – I’m not sure, but I think – our mutual friend once pledged “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring nothing to the understanding of the prudent.” It might have even been written down somewhere. If one of you could double-check on that, I’d be very grateful. Presumably there is someone literate in the whole of Corinth. Is one of you wise? Do any of you know of a scribe, or someone who has seen a scroll? If not, I’m sure I can get one sent out to you. I was under the impression that we had all been informed that the old order of things, the received wisdom, was inferior to the joyful foolishness of our mutual friend. But perhaps you’ve received some further revelations! I would love to be informed of any updates in heavenly policy. We don’t get much news here in jail. (Aside from what Chloe tells me.)
It’s lucky for all of you out in Corinth, I think, that not many of the wise, not many of the mighty, not many of the noble have been called by our mutual friend to advance our cause. (I hope you know better than to take offense to that.) It is in fact rather fortunate for all of us that our mutual friend has not selected the right-thinking, the naturally intuitive, the discerning to his side, instead choosing to demonstrate the efficacy of his treatments through – well. Perhaps the contentions ought not to come as a surprise or a disappointment. Perhaps it is merely confirmation that Corinth is as good a place to start as any. (I will continue to hear from Chloe, so there’s no good hoping that maybe these things won’t get back to me.) Thank you, if nothing else, for the reminder that my hope can never rest in you for your own sakes.
And I am not, by the way, making any claims about my own excellence of speech, or superiority of my own wisdom. That was the error you fell into when trying to set me up for a job I never applied for! When has Paul ever appeared to you without weakness, without fear, without trembling? When have I ever committed flashiness among you? Tell me, and I will atone. If I thought I had committed swaggery or swankery on my visits, I would not have come in the first place. I thought we all shared one mind on this. If we don’t, please tell me, and I will not write you again.
Maybe my mistake has been in talking to all of you as adults! Perhaps that was confusing. Forgive me. Imagine these words milk, and not solid food; I will give you nothing to chew on, nothing to digest, and then perhaps we will not misunderstand one another again. These words of envy, strife, and divisions among you (words that I have received from Chloe and from others, words I trust) must be the result of some miscommunication, and I can only hold myself responsible for such distressing behavior. I can scarcely fault you for it, can I? (Let me know if you think I should. At least for those among you who consider yourself Paulines; I apparently do not hold any authority over those who hold with Apollos!)
May I ask you a question? Who do you think Paul is? Who do you think Apollos is? Do you consider us to be representatives of separate interests? Do you consider us rival managers? I certainly don’t. Apollos certainly doesn’t. What I plant, Apollos waters, and God gives the increase. That’s called teamwork, my beloved Corinthians; it’s not a sign that we have been contracted out to competing employers. My planting and Apollos’ watering are part of the same labor. Do not grab the plant and say, “This leaf belongs to Paul, that bud is the work of Apollos’ hands.” (You are the plant, my dearest cherubs; do not rend yourself apart in your rush to assign credit.)
If the credit bothers you that much – wait in God’s and our mutual friend’s own good time. The day and the fire will reveal the source and the foundation materials of every work completed, if you feel so bold upon meeting the Master as to ask for the blueprint and a postmortem to satisfy your own curiosity and need for individual praise. If you wish to be bold, be bold. Much luck to you.
This is such a long letter to be writing from jail! I don’t love writing such long letters. Do you love reading them? Perhaps in the future we can all figure out a way to shorten them. Perhaps if you were to become less wise, that might help somehow. Can you think of a way in which all our lives would be improved if you were less wise? Kindly let me know if anything presents itself. In the meantime, I’d be very much obliged if you would desist from boasting in your partiality to me, or to Apollos, or to my dear friend Cephas, or anyone else. Bear in mind, rather, our mutual friend, and desist from attempting to form group rivalries. Isn’t there enough to do already?
If you’re worried I’m trying to make you feel shame: Don’t. This is a warning, not a judgment. You might have ten thousand instructors, but who takes your interests as his own? I see none but myself who would take the time to offer you such detailed instruction. If I’m mistaken, please correct me. If anyone else is seeking to stand as father to you through our mutual friend, do let me know; I do not seek to establish competition. If you are seeking someone to imitate (not follow, but imitate), allow me to offer myself as an example.
I am sending Timothy to you as a reminder. Do not mistake this for anything other than further assistance. Do not impute to me motives I have not announced. I do not wish to hear from Chloe (nor anyone else) that in six months’ time you are calling yourself Timothites and going to war over it.
Some of you do not believe I will be with you soon. Some of you think I will remain in prison indefinitely. (Short-sighted.) If our mutual friend wills it, nothing will prevent my coming, and I will learn not of the talk of those of you who believe I will not come, but of their power. The king we serve depends not on talk but on power. Let us see what power dwells among you!
The choice is yours, of course. When you see me next, do let me know if you would prefer a spirit of correction or a spirit of gentleness. I can provide either in abundance. I defer to you, as always.
More to come. Yours ever,