Proper Self-Evaluations --- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3C (1 Corinthians 10)

1 Corinthians 10:1-13 New Revised Standard Version

10 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.


                Lent is a season of self-evaluation. It’s a bit like the testing season in school. You remember all those standardized tests we took in school. It might last an entire week. We would spend entire school days filling in the little ovals after we tried to figure out the math problems (I always did poorly at the math side of things) and reading comprehension (I was much better at that). The expectation was that when we finished our tests, the school would have a better sense of what we had learned over the course of the year (or so the experts said). Lent doesn’t require that we take standardized tests, but it does invite us to take stock of who we are as the people of God.

                The second reading designated by the Revised Common Lectionary for the Third Sunday of Lent comes from 1 Corinthians 10. The reading begins by calling to our attention our spiritual ancestors, the people whom God delivered from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of a man named Moses. According to Paul’s reading of the Exodus story, the ancestors were enveloped by a cloud and passed through the sea. Having said this, in verse 2 Paul connects the passage through the sea with baptism. That is, as they passed through the sea they were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”

                I want to suggest that we take note of the baptism reference. There is a sacramental element here, which is then coupled with the following word about eating the spiritual food and drinking spiritual drink. In Exodus that would be the manna from heaven and the water from the rock. When it comes to the water from the rock, Paul makes a typological move, suggesting this rock that the people drank from in the wilderness is Christ. Therefore, the manna is Christ’s body, while the water from the rock would be his blood. While it is not included in our lectionary reading, verses 16-7 of chapter 10 speak of what we assume is the Lord’s Supper. Thus, we have an allusion here to the Old Testament roots of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  

                These references to baptism and eucharist that we see here, and which early Christians definitely took note of, are not the primary point here. What they do is provide theological foundations for the larger concern, and that has to do with fidelity to Christ. Paul is concerned about idolatry, and so he draws on these stories from the Old Testament, including the story of the golden calf, which is referenced in this phrase that Paul draws on from Exodus: “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play to show how Israel’s unfaithfulness led to their destruction” (Exodus 32:1-6). Interestingly, in the Exodus account, no one dies because God’s mind is changed by Moses’ intervention (Exodus 32:11-14). Of course, Paul is looking to Scripture for support in his argument that their future is dependent on their faithfulness to God’s ways. Paul suggests that even as Israel suffered destruction due to their lack of fidelity, the Corinthians don’t want to suffer the same fate. Again, we need to be careful how we read these texts, both in terms of our reading of the Old Testament and how God is portrayed there and our own sense of who God is and how God relates to us.

                As we move through Lent, we hear words about testing. Paul suggests that when Israel was tested, it gave in to the tempter. Don’t be like Israel. Stand firm in the faith. While Paul doesn’t mention Jesus’ wilderness experience, it fits the conversation. The temptation Paul is addressing here is idolatry, something that the Corinthians had to deal with daily since they lived in a port city filled with temples to every god you can imagine. Paul has already dealt with the question of food offered to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. So, don’t be like the people of Israel who became idolators and suffered for their disobedience. Paul tells us that he shared all of this as an example for the Christian community in Corinth.          

                We need to be careful in how we read and interpret this passage. The references here to eating, drinking, and dancing have been read in a moralistic way, such that modern Christians should read this as a divine command against consuming alcohol (as in the temperance movement) or against dancing (we didn’t have dances at my Christian college, we had “stand up concerts” —in which we moved to the music as couples—at least that’s the way they were advertised just in case constituents came on campus). As far as eating, I’ve seen less interest in making eating a moral issue. What we need to be careful of as we read these words and consider how to interpret them, and even apply them, is that we don’t weaponize them. Eating, drinking, and dancing can be stand-ins for many other so-called sins. Thus, let us be careful that we don’t fall into the trap of moralism. Let us not fall into the trap as well of envisioning God in vindictive terms.

                There is good news in this passage, though we have to wade through a lot of material that is problematic to get there. In verse 13, Paul writes that “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” In other words, everyone faces challenges in life. It’s part of what it means to be human. The next word can easily be misused, and even weaponized. It is true that God is faithful. However, I’ve heard the next phrase used in ways I simply must reject. Paul wants them to know that God won’t let them be tested beyond their strength and that God provides a way out. I would suggest the way out is not a promise of deliverance, but a reminder that God is present in all things, including we face difficult situations in life. We should not, I would suggest, use this to tell people that whatever God sends our way God knows we can handle. I even a mainline Protestant preacher tell the congregation that when they suffer, they should welcome this because God knew they could handle it. Yes, consider yourself blessed because you suffer. All I can say is no, that is not true. We will face testing in life, but God doesn’t send it our way.

                As we ponder this text with all its difficulties, might we hear in it a call to faithfulness to the ways of God, not under the threat of hell and damnation, but in response to God’s faithfulness to be with us through thick and thin. The promise of God is embodied in the sacraments of baptism, through which we become one with Christ’s body, and through the Lord’s Supper, we receive signs of Christ’s presence with us. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:17: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body.”     


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