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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

I Corinthians 8-16

We conclude the First Letter to the Corinthians this week by working our way finally to the two great climaxes I mentioned last week: the hymn to love in chapter 13 and the ode to the resurrection of all in chapter 15. But as in any good journey, getting there is half the fun! Recall that in the first half Paul has taken on controversies in this congregation over factions, sexual immorality, lawsuits, and marriage (good? or bad? in light of the impending end of the world). The first issue allowed Paul to establish his larger theme: the community should not be dividing itself into factions based on who baptized them or who taught them the faith (remember hearing Apollos mentioned in Acts 18 and 19?), for we are all one in Christ. It's important to note here that, as we saw repeatedly in Romans, this unity with each other in Christ is not earned by any process of our own, but rather recognized through faith. The freedom brought about by our belonging to Christ – freedom from having to earn God's love through keeping commandments that are both beyond our ultimate ability and do not bring about salvation, freedom given us by God's grace in the resurrection – this freedom, says Hans Conzelmann (20th-century New Testament scholar) in his commentary on this letter, is "for the renewal of conduct." And Conzelmann continues, "the Christian factor does not lie in a new moral conceptualism, but in the relating of morals to faith." How we treat ourselves and each other, for Paul, comes from our unity with and in Christ – and one response to the freedom such unity brings is to look outside our own needs to focus on the needs of others.

Which brings us to the problem of meat. Chapters 8-10 wobble through a discussion about the propriety of eating meat that was previously sacrificed to the gods of other temples – to idols, in other words. These cults are understood by sophisticated Christians to be worshipping gods that are not real, not God – so meat sacrificed to them has no actual religious connotation. But, Paul says, other Christians do not yet grasp this perspective – so don't eat such meat in front of them and cause them to question their faith, think of them and their need of support rather than yourself and your enjoyment of freedom. This practical matter leads Paul into a discourse on the diversity of the members of the congregation, as diverse and necessary to each other as the parts of the human body, further clarifying our unity in Christ – which unity, he outlines in chapter 13, is based on love. This is not our love, it is God's love, the cosmic love that unites all things, in which our love participates and from which our love derives. The poetry here bears a closer look; we've all heard this too many times, yet it is not really as familiar as we think. And the result of this focus on the wonder of God's love finally leads Paul to the extraordinary exhortation on the resurrection in chapter 15: our understanding of God's love comes from the life, death and resurrection of Christ, in whom we too will live, and die, and rise again. This progression of points about the working of faith, from concrete issues in our daily lives to the most sweeping claims about God and life, is truly a joy to follow.

You'll note that I've skipped over chapter 11, the odd discussion about what is and is not appropriate on the heads of men and women. Scholars are truly at a loss to explain both what this discussion is doing here (why is Paul talking about this? what led him to this? is it a later addition by someone else?) and what Paul is really trying to say, since he appears to contradict himself. Whatever is actually going on, I say don't worry about it – maybe Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Almost Cut My Hair" is the last word on this for those of us of a certain age…!