21 July, 2013

Homily for Evensong - Eighth Sunday after Trinity (C) 2013

1Corinthians 4:8-13

Sar·casm [sahr-kaz-uhm] noun meaning (a) harsh or bitter derision; (b) cutting remark. 
Sarcasm is a form of irony – sometimes cruel irony – that is regarded by many as the last resort of a weak mind and yet it is very widely employed in everyday life. Sarcasm can also become a sinful habit when it is used to cause needless pain. These definitions may be so, but personally I do not think that all sarcasm is necessarily bad, but like any other tool at our disposal it can be used for good as well as ill purposes.

This evening we witnessed to one of the best examples of Biblical sarcasm in our New Testament reading. Sarcasm, really? Yes, and 1Corinthinas has a highly concentrated dose of it which probably ruffled quite a few feathers among St Paul’s hearers prompting them either to examine their Christian conduct or to abandon their enterprise altogether. But how can it be so? At the end of the day this is the same Letter that contains one of the most well-known passages of Scripture, chapter 13 with its beautiful outlining of charity, of love. So, why does Paul use sarcasm in his debate with the Corinthian church?

At the time of the letter the church in Corinth is plagued by people that use their Christian faith as a social weapon against others. These individuals think that believing in the Christian message makes them partakers of some secret divine knowledge precluded to the rest of society. Consequently they mistakenly think themselves better than others and they begin to form factions within the church. They were boastful for the wrong reasons and they developed an excess of pride in their conditions. They perhaps even thought of themselves incapable of sinning.

Pauls addresses the matter in different ways as he tries to reframe their misguided experience of discipleship through his own preaching and through his own example. Here sarcasm is neither used by the apostle as his main instrument nor with the intent of hurting gratuitously his listeners; rather is it used to cut through to their hearts and to awaken their attention by bruising their pride. In this sense, as Paul mocks the attitude of some believers who think too highly of themselves, sarcasm becomes the best tool to shake consciences and to open the way for true discipleship.

Paul’s sarcastic remarks paired with his example of discipleship reduce all the Corinthian boasting to nought. The apostle compares the self-defined status of these believers with his highly precarious conditions in the service of the Gospel. Paul puts before them his ministry and allows for the differences between him and them to become clear. The result could not be any starker than this as in v. 10 we read, We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. 
Once the sarcasm has awakened the listeners’ attention Paul delivers a fatal blow for their foolish idea of discipleship. To follow Christ, he says, means that becoming like the rubbish of the world and the dregs of all things (4:13) is a very likely possibility, whilst being hailed with respect and honour becomes a very, very improbable status for a believer.

I don’t think that Church has changed very much since the times of St Paul. We are still boastful for the wrong reasons. Some Christian brothers and sisters still display very unattractive features connected with pride. We see this even in our own congregations when individuals set up their own clicky groups and start to behave as if they were better than others. We see this within the dialogue between the Churches, as this or another denomination strives to conquer the higher moral ground. We see this when we adopt unhealthy attitudes towards society at large by thinking that loving the Lord makes us better than other people. Paul’s sarcasm is directed to us too. It invites us to put our pride behind us, to embrace the true spirit of discipleship that Paul tried to embody until we are able to say with him, When we are reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly (4:12-13).

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