In all of Scripture, perhaps the most shocking and embarrassing metaphor is that given to Paul and his fellow missionary Apollos as the "scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" (1 Corinthians 4:13 NIV). It is not the way most of us would describe the greatest apostle and missionary of Christianity, yet what is even more disconcerting is that Paul himself gave the description. The two Greek words that Paul uses, perikatharmata and peripsema, both conjure images of filth, garbage, or muck. And when used to describe persons, the words imply the dregs of society or what we commonly refer to today as the lowlifes. So why would Paul choose to describe himself in such a degrading way?
In order to understand why, we need to learn a little about the church in Corinthian society during Paul's time. You see the Corinthian Christians were keen on soaking in all the glory and honor of the Roman Empire. They wanted to be rich, powerful, important, sophisticated and of course, respected (c.f. 1st Corinthians 4:8). Yet along comes Paul and he turns their whole world upside down. In contrast to the Corinthians, who are filled, rich, ruling, wise, powerful, honored, Paul stands much like Christ "with no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not" (Isaiah 53:2-3 NIV). Paul feels as if he is condemned to death in an arena by some wild beast, and shamefully displayed as a spectacle for the entire world. So while the Christians in Corinth enjoyed their comfortable and secure lifestyle, Paul experiences shame, hunger, thirst, poverty, homelessness, scorn, persecution, and slander (c.f.1st Corinthians 4:10-12).
Golden Crosses, Wooden Christians
For Paul this degrading, yet powerful image is not rhetorical but thoroughly real and present. Paul rejoiced in sharing in the sufferings and shame of Christ, seeing it as the reward and destiny of those who followed Christ (c.f. 1st Thessalonians 3:3; Philippians 1:29). It is admittedly difficult for us in the West who have imbibed all the pleasures that this culture has freely given us to understand or even relate to the type of costly discipleship that Paul embraced. The reality is that if we identify with anyone it must be the Corinthians themselves. We too are filled up with our own self-importance, our insular churches, and our perverse wealth. The images the cross conveys of humility, weakness and suffering are only relevant on Sunday morning. There is a dissonance between what we occasionally read in religious books surrounded by modern conveniences and the hard, ugly reality of the crucified lifestyle we're supposed to take on.
The sad truth is that we like our churches to reflect the wealth and prestige that we expect to have in our own lives. We avoid risking anything for Christ anymore and have filled our hearts with the treasures of the American Dream. But where are the ones that stay alert to these threats and are preparing the church to accept shame and not be tyrannized by wealth or tribulation?
Suffering Shepherds of the Church
It is time to return to the true understanding of the priesthood as a sacrificial victim for the sake of the believers. The aim of the priesthood is no different than Paul's: "to present everyone perfect in Christ" (Colossians 1:28-29 NIV). And in order to do this those who shepherd are called to share in the sufferings of Christ. Paul was eager, he tells the Philippians (c.f. v. 1:20) to honor Christ in his body. Paul's back flayed with whips, the daily threats and his death were a testament to the suffering he endured for Christ:
"We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:10 NIV). "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead" (Philippians 3:10-11 NIV). "Now, I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church" (Colossians 1:24 NIV).
Pain and shame, then are for Paul, the marks of true apostleship. This is a sobering thought for those called to the priesthood. It means that their life will be bound up with suffering, trials and afflictions. Paul saw himself as the scum of the world because he understood that the very fabric of his life had to be laced with the gift of suffering. In fact, Paul says in 2nd Corinthians 1:6 that the suffering of the shepherds of God are meant for the comfort and salvation of their flock. Why? Paul gives us the answer in his second letter to the Corinthians 1:9: "That was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead." To be alive in Christ means to be broken like Christ. Can those who desire the priesthood proclaim, "for Christ's sake, I will delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NIV)?
Cursed For the Sake of Others
Paul loved his flock so much he says "I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren" (Romans 9:3 NASB). Paul would rather be cursed and if possible, lose his own salvation if it meant that those he ministered to would know Christ. It doesn't get more radical and real than this. John Chrysostom in his classic On the Priesthood describes Paul's willingness to be condemned for the salvation of others this way: "If anyone can say that; if anyone has a soul capable of that prayer, he would be to blame if he evaded the priesthood. But anyone who falls short of that standard as I do, deserves hatred, not for evading but for accepting it."
Like the Corinthians, the church needs to begin to identify again with the suffering and humiliating death of Christ before we begin to savor the triumph of His resurrection. It is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God. And this is especially the lot, writes the apostle Paul, of those who desire to be servants and shepherds of the church. Tertullian once remarked that the blood of Christians is seed. It is this daily death of the shepherds of our church that will breathe life back to her.
The lesson for all of us is that the church's determined pursuit of acceptance, respectability and safety have had the opposite desired effect. It has produced lethargy, self-centeredness and weakness. In the letter to the Hebrews we read, "Jesus suffered and died outside the city gates to make his people holy by means of his own blood. So let us go out to him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace he bore. For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come" (v.13:13 NLT). Paul, the apostles, and the saints of the church denied everything and counted all things, including their lives, as loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. This is why they were ready to risk everything for the church and possess an all-consuming love for their flock. It's time we the church of the 21st century march outside our camp of security, just like the saints before us did, and risk our reputation, our money, and our comfort for the sake of the Kingdom; even if it means becoming trash in the eyes of the world.
John Kapsalis has an M.T.S from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.