Feast of St. Bartholomew, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

We have become a spectacle to the world” (1 Cor. 4:9).

Our reading this evening invites us into the world of the first followers of Jesus; the world of St. Bartholomew (whose festival we celebrate today) and of the other apostles as well. The invitation comes through two words used by St. Paul in our reading: in our translation, the words “exhibited” and the word “spectacle.” Here’s the text: For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to mortals” (1 Cor. 4:9).

So, to understand what St. Paul is talking about, you have to imagine the world of first century entertainment; the frankly brutal world of Roman amusement. It’s from this world that our two words are drawn. In the cities of the empire, a “spectacle” or “show” was held in the arena, with various acts of competition, some of them blood sports. At the end of the show, “last of all” as it says in our reading, condemned criminals were brought into the theater in order to engage in combat to the death.

In the ancient world, the games held in the arena were the closest thing to corporate worship for the people of the time. It’s amazing how things change and how they stay the same. People went to the temples of the gods on their own, more or less, to make an offering or to seek an answer from an oracle. People came together, however, for sporting events, the competitive games that had a fatal, final, act.

These games, provided by rich benefactors (like the “benefactors” mentioned by Jesus in our Gospel), were even termed “liturgy” in the Greek-speaking cities of the eastern empire, “work for the people” or “public service” as it’s translated. It’s this term “liturgy” that was taken over by the church to describe its own communal gathering and offering. So, we can make a contrast here, between the “liturgy” of the ancient world, epitomized in the blood sport of the arena; and the counter-liturgy of the church, culminating in the Eucharist. Christ given for us, even to death, commemorated here in the un-bloody sacrifice of the church.

The two words “exhibit” and “spectacle” identify Jesus’ first followers with the criminals “sentenced to death,” as Paul says in the reading; those who perished in the final act. Of course, it quickly became the case that Christians were included among the criminals, those who were condemned to death by the authorities and who perished in popular entertainment. But at this point, the comparison is still a metaphor: St. Paul is reminding Christians in Corinth that their place is at the end of the show, in the dangerous and degraded spot saved for criminals. They are followers of Jesus himself, who was willing to suffer, to be humbled and to be despised, going finally “even to death on a cross” as it says in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phil. 2:8).

 This is a bracing message, I hope, for those being confirmed today; a reminder of the nature of Christian discipleship. After all, that’s how St. Paul got started on this subject, by reminding Christians in Corinth of some things he felt they had forgotten. Paul introduces this with a third word right at the beginning of the passage, actually left out in some lectionary books, but almost as important as the first two, and that is the humble word “for,” in the sense of “on this account,” or “consequently.” “For I think,” he says: referring back to upsetting news he’s heard from Corinth that the disciples already have everything they want; news that they are boasting of how much they’ve been given. It’s on that account that he gives them the solemn reminder that whatever they have, they have received from God (1 Cor. 4:7).

St. Paul reminds them that they were meant to follow Jesus, rather than be self-satisfied; to take upon themselves his servant ministry, as we’re reminded in our gospel: “I am among you as one who serves” (Lk. 22: 27). They are to be fools for Christ’s sake, to be held in disrepute. “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (1 Cor. 4:12-13).

That’s the kind of exhibit we’re meant to be; that’s the kind of spectacle we’re invited to be a part of. Christians know the wisdom of the Master, that as St. Paul says elsewhere, “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). “’My grace is sufficient for you,’ for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). That truth comes from Jesus himself, who showed forth his power on the cross.

When we are weak, then we are strong. This is the principle that constitutes the church. There is power in deprivation. The church right now, in this time of pandemic, is showing forth its weakness, in relative deprivation and isolation; but this very same weakness is the wisdom and power of God. Look at us, after all: what a spectacle we’ve become! Who can tell these things? But know this: God has called you, those being confirmed this evening and all of us together, to show forth this truth of strength in weakness. God will be faithful as we take our stand, at one with the apostles like St. Paul and St. Bartholomew, and one with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee