Paul was having a hard time with his friends in Corinth. Apparently, they felt like they had this “following Jesus thing” down pat; and so, they were enthusiastically applauding themselves for their wisdom, their gifts, and their excellent choice in teachers. As far as they were concerned, God’s kingdom had arrived (or was well on the way)! And they were pretty good examples of what it was supposed to look like!
But in today’s New Testament reading (1 Corinthians 4:8-21), Paul takes their notions of a disciple’s life and turns them upside down:
Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment. (1 Cor. 4:8-13)
It’s not exactly the kind of life that most of us aspire to, is it? Condemnation, foolishness, weakness, dishonor, hardship — at least in the eyes of the world. And yet, for Paul at least, this is what it meant to walk in the way of “Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). And so, he makes a rather bold request: “Therefore, I urge you to imitate me.” (4:16)
“Imitation,” they say, “is the sincerest form of flattery.” Paul sought to imitate Jesus. And to the extent that Jesus was his model, he offered himself as an example for others to emulate.
Who are our role models? Do they encourage us to imitate the way of suffering love that Jesus both taught and exemplified? And are we setting an example for others that points them to the upside-down way of Jesus?