Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sixth Sunday of Epiphany

1 Corinthians 3
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.

It feels like we’ve been on this academic adventure together for some time now.

You will recall the paper called “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll.” It was going to be Indiana Jones meets Wonder Woman in an exotic location until I put my foot in it and said “I guess the audience for this paper is pretty small.” Some time later another paper, this time read aloud for the sake of timing—45 minutes—not a minute more or a minute less. I awoke to Carmen shouting “are you asleep?” which is the sort of thing you can’t deny when you’re out cold (and allegedly snoring).

Perhaps as part of my penance, I can share some excellent and thoroughly engaging research that Carmen has been doing in the area of wetnurses, part of her ongoing look at foreigners in the community at Qumran that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. It seems that wetnurses were very common in the Roman world, mostly slaves (but sometimes servants) who freed up mothers to run the household rather than trouble themselves with nursing their babies.

The community at Qumran was no exception, and one of the documents shares a rule that wetnurses must refrain from lifting the baby on the Sabbath. Aside from being awkward, the rule hints at the possibility that this slave woman was also a Jewish convert—why else would she follow Sabbath rules? On one hand this makes sense—the milk of a gentile slave would be impure—but it opens other questions like the nature of her conversion and her standing in the community.

And since I’m now at the outer limit of understanding these questions, I will move instead to Jochebed (Yok-a-bed). Who is Jochebed, aside from the answer to the most difficult Bible trivia question ever? Jochebed is the mother of Moses, herself a wetnurse, but in the most unlikely of circumstances.

You remember the story: evil Pharaoh has made an evil decree concerning male Hebrew babies, and Jochebed decides to hide her baby until she can hide him no longer. She creates a basket of reeds, adds a little pitch, and casts the baby adrift on the Nile. She casts the baby adrift, but she cleverly does so in the vicinity of Pharaoh's daughter, just then bathing in the river. When the princess finds the baby she immediately resolves to keep it—but she needs a wetnurse. Through a little clever subterfuge the baby is handed off to Jochebed, allowing her to (secretly) nurse her own son.

So far we see that our first wetnurse is likely a convert, upholding the need for purity. But in our second example—Jochebed—we see that there seems to be some transmission of identity, even wisdom, as the Hebrew slave passes on something that Moses will discover in time—that he is a member of God’s chosen people. I’ll have to stop there, since I’m busy giving way the gist of Carmen’s next book. But I think you can see why purity, wisdom and identity are wrapped up in mother’s milk. And this takes us full circle to our reading:

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.

It seems self-evident that St. Paul would make a lousy wetnurse, but he does a fine job at employing the milk metaphor to describe the scope of his work. Mother’s milk is foundational, the place you begin, long before you can have the solid food of a mature believer.

So milk, in this case, seems to lead to conversion, and the matter that you transmit in the first stage of becoming a Christ-follower. It’s easy to digest, and it seems to have the most impact. Lives are transformed through this first step, even as we anticipate the maturity that will follow. Still, it was just the beginning.

Just the beginning because Paul goes on to the heart of the matter: you’re little more than babes because you’re now fighting. One belongs to Paul, you say, while another belongs to Apollo. And both, of course, are wrong. All belong to God, the author of growth, and the source of solid food that makes that growth possible. They have mistaken the messenger for the message. You can’t follow Paul or Apollo—when the Way belongs to God in Jesus.

But I think there is still more here, and for this we need Tom Long. In the time before these Corinthians became Christ-followers, there were very likely followers of Plato. And not just Plato, but the entire western philosophical tradition that said we are souls trapped in bodies. Bodies were nice for a time, even idealized, but eventually became less than ideal until they were no more. At this stage, according to Plato and others, the soul was free from its bodily prison and free to return to light or truth or whatever you described as the best Greek future.

But when these same Corinthians found Christ, they entered a new worldview without pure souls and corrupt bodies, but dust instead. And into that dust, God breathed life. As Tom Long says, God didn’t “snatch some immortal soul out of the air, sticking it into a body, and force it to work in the garden.”* Rather, God takes the substance of earth and breathes into it the breath of life. We’re not just bodies and souls, we’re embodied, a body with breath that Long says forms “an inseparable unity,” made in the image of God.

And this unity is without end. It begins in the silence of the womb, knit together, being both fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139.13-14). And it extends to the end, as our mortal bodies must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15.53), that is the resurrection of the body. Tom Long: “This is not about deathless souls shedding bodies—this is about embodied mortals being given new and glorified bodies by the grace and power of God.” (p. 26)

And all of this begins with milk, not solid food, but milk. We tend to read Paul and agree that we solid food eaters are better than the scrappy Corinthians who were busy fighting over apostolic baseball cards. We hear the message of planting and watering and growing and we give thanks that we’re at the end of this spiritual spectrum, without stopping to consider the implied message in Paul: we all begin with milk.

We all begin with milk when someone cared enough to introduce us to Jesus Christ. We all begin with milk with someone describes his ethical system, where the last are first and the least of all are the greatest of all. We all begin with milk when someone tells us that we never walk alone—we walk together with Christ as followers of his way. We all begin with milk when someone reminds us that our sins are forgiven. And we all begin with milk when we learn that Jesus died to make us whole, reconciled to God at the same moment that death was no more.

After breath, it is milk that continues the unity of embodiment. Like Jochebed, transmitting the essence of God’s covenant while nursing, Paul and Apollo have shared the heart of the faith—the essential first step—before the solid food of faith can be digested. Yet even as mere infants in Christ, we remember that Jesus said that unless you change and become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom. And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, and gave them the milk of human and heavenly kindness.

May God bless you whatever your spiritual diet, wherever you find yourself on the way, and however you express thanks, Amen.

*Long, Accompany Them With Singing, p. 24.


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