4th Sunday before Lent
Proper 2: Deuteronomy 30.15-end or Ecclesiasticus 15.15-end
1 Corinthians 3.1-9
WOULD you put your head in a noose? No. Would you go head-to-head with Christopher Hitchens in a debate about Christianity? See above.
There is something scary about the militant form of new atheism as we now encounter it. Somehow, the odds seem stacked against us as Christians. So, for example, when Tony Blair met Christopher Hitchens in Toronto last November, he knew that 57 per cent of the audience had already declared their conviction that religion was not a force for good in the world, while only 22 per cent believed it was. The rest were undecided.
Tickets for the 2700 seats in the Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto sold out immediately. Few, if any, of those present seem to have been swayed by the arguments one way or another. It makes one wonder what the 57 per cent who disapproved of Christianity might have expected for their money. Were they looking for faith — an excuse to be persuaded into belief in God — or was the possibility of discrediting a high-profile Christian in public an important affirmation that life without religion is richer than life with it?
Of course, the problem with such big events is that the arguments tend to be overlooked in favour of the statistics and personalities involved. Research before the debate suggested that out of 18,192 people questioned in 23 countries, 52 per cent agreed that “religious beliefs promote intolerance, exacerbate ethnic divisions, and impede social progress in developing and developed nations alike.”
Furthermore, when questioned at the end of the debate, Paul Adams, a BBC reporter in Toronto, said that the people he spoke to “weren’t necessarily opposed to Mr Blair’s argument, but they found Mr Hitchens the more persuasive speaker”. Such is the power of personalities shaped by the media in the 21st century.
In today’s second reading, Paul addresses the arena of a similar debate taking place in first-century Corinth. It is a debate within the Christian community, but it is fuelled by a similar cult of personality, that of Apollos in contrast with Paul himself.
Although Paul seems to regard Apollos as a friend and colleague (Titus 3.13), the figure of Peter also features as a possible source of divided loyalty (1 Corinthians 3.22).
Paul’s summing up of the local situation is simple and challenging: “For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3.9 KJV).
The strength of the metaphor lies in its emphasis on collaboration: “we are labourers together.” Paul does not imply that we are God’s equals. He is very clear on this point, reiterating it with the observation that it is God who sustains our work, who “gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3.6,7).
Paul does, however, draw our attention to human agency. In the planting and watering that form the husbandry of the resources God has given for our flourishing, we find a way to be our best selves. In New Testament language, this best self is “the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13). By using the language of human co-operation with God, Paul asserts our human dignity and God’s gift to us of free will as its foundation.
Coming back to the debate between Mr Blair and Mr Hitchens, there are some important observations to be made. The first is that we should not allow media hype to persuade us that Christian faith is rendered invalid by a straw poll in 21st-century Toronto. Nor should we use similar means to justify our claims as Christians. The truth about God is more serious than this.
Second, full marks to Mr Blair for standing up for his Christian faith. This does not make him a saint or a paragon of virtue. His faults are well rehearsed by his detractors, perhaps with just cause. But it is none the less impressive to witness a lay Christian speaking in public for the faith that is in him.
Third, we should not demonise Mr Hitchens, but attend to the challenges he presents. If he thinks that the Kingdom of heaven is “a celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea”, it could be because we have permitted him to do so, offering little evidence of the commitment to justice, freedom, and peace which is at the heart of Christian social teaching.
Can we deny that, in the name of Christianity, “nice people . . . do unkind things, and . . . intelligent people say stupid things”? I suspect not; but the charge forces us to speak and act more circumspectly. It also requires Mr Hitchens to define his terms. What constitutes being nice, unkind, intelligent, and stupid? Nice is not a virtue to which Christians have ever laid claim, though foolishness is within our battery of personal qualities — as any lover, Christian or otherwise, would know.
The God whom we worship is big enough to envelope the challenges that we present with our humour, irony, and stringent eloquence. And, anyway, collaboration is Christianity’s natural milieu: we have space for Mr Hitchens in our engagement with the 21st century.
So our last word on this debate goes to Jesus, who told us that it would happen. To us all, he says: “Do not be afraid.”
Deuteronomy 30: 15 to end
15 See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. 16 For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, 18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.