Do you know the phrase “jumping the shark”? It comes from a Happy Days episode where Fonzie, riding water skis, jumps a lake enclosed shark. It’s widely panned as worst Happy Days episode ever. Since then, the expression, “jumping the shark” has become synonymous with a TV show (or commercial venture) going too far and asking viewers to accept the implausible. It’s usually indicative of “the end.” The show is trying to avoid being canceled, they try a stunt, and it backfires. I am being honest. It’s not that Paul makes me uncomfortable. I feel he’s “jumped the shark.” *
1 Corinthians 10 sounds like Paul is making stuff up. I know there are parts of the Bible that are officially made up. It’s OK to say it. The lightning isn’t going to strike us this morning. Remember the last time it happened, I was at home watching TV on a Friday night. It was July 7th, 2017. I never forget some dates.
I don’t believe in a literal man, a woman, a tree, and a snake. I do think our earliest ancestors wondered how they came to be. I envisage they thought long and hard about how God came into their lives and that of their ancestors. They had heard this Genesis story about a “man,” whose name in Hebrew means “earth” and a woman. She is his partner, friend, and lover. It really is a beautiful story. People should not be alone. Whether they live on an island in paradise or in the inner city, we were made to be in community with one and another.
God realizes from the first moments of creation that relationships are essential. If you don’t believe me, remember what Freddie Mercury said, “Everybody needs somebody to love.” I know that’s true because I see it every day of my life. Do I need to know that there were two people in a garden between the Tigris and Euphrates River to affirm this belief? No, I do not. It makes sense to me beyond the story our ancestors told when looking for explanations millennia ago. I get it. I see God’s love expressed between two people I’ll never know, but they bind me together to everyone in this room. It’s like every ancestry DNA commercial! In the case of the Bible, the story doesn’t have to be factually accurate to be true. Our ancestors may have made up an explanation but in that attempt to tell a story was not an effort to mislead or confuse anyone. Instead, they confirmed the essential attributes of God we’ve already witnessed in our lives. In other words, truth confirms the truth.
Do you remember when you were kids and would go to visit your grandparents or older relatives? They would tell you stories about their youth and maybe even the childhood of your parents. These are the stories Paul is saying to the Corinthians. While he’s phrasing them in “ancient Israelite” terms, they are related through Paul’s memories as if he experienced them first hand. These are Paul’s recollections. Paul talking about going through the wilderness with Moses would be like your granddaddy telling you about standing with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and the OK Corral. He might tell it well, but he sure wasn’t there. Paul’s perspective on the Exodus isn’t the same as the foundation myths which define Israelite society. “They drank from the spiritual rock that followed them,” Paul says. OK grandpa, tell us more. “The rock was Christ.” That’s fine, I guess. Here’s the thing, the Old Testament says nothing about a rock that followed the Israelites in the wilderness. It’s not there. It’s certainly not Jesus. That’s like your parents telling you they walked uphill, both ways, in yearly blizzards, to school, on Ocracoke. It’s not true. So why invent something to make a useless point about Jesus? I ask this question because people still do the same thing today. They create things about Jesus as if the reality of the resurrection isn’t good enough. Can’t Jesus stand on his own two feet?
That’s not a rhetorical question. Of course, Jesus is his own person. The only thing preventing Jesus from representing himself is us. We put words in his mouth. We make up stuff. Somewhere along the way we’ve decided that it’ be cool if Jesus grew a 3-day old scruff, donned a leather jacket, and jumped a mechanical shark. No, it wouldn’t. Let Jesus speak and watch what happens. That’s the purpose of Lent; to let the Jesus chips fall where they may.
Paul appears to be talking about idolatry. One might assume that the Corinthians were known as idol worshippers. Who knows? It was probably no more or less than any large city in Roman Asia Minor. Idols were everywhere in the ancient world. To talk about an idol free city in the 1st century would be to propose an Ocracoke without beer or Ocracoke without Beer and fish imagery, or better yet Ocracoke without beer, fish imagery, and Pirate themed anything. It’s not going to happen.
Nevertheless, he chose to address an incident Jesus never referred to. Paul is saying: Jesus never talked about this and I’m going to die on this sword, alienate people, and keep jumping sharks. Is this the way to follow Jesus? I ask because people still do this today. Are we following Jesus or Paul?
In verse 8, he tells the Corinthians that 23,000 people fell in a single day after engaging in sexual immorality. That’s a made up number. Because I’ve heard people make up numbers to scare people into acting right. I do it myself. I’m a parent. You know 100 % of everyone who goes out on a date with a boy gets pregnant, herpes, or blindness. I wouldn’t do it. I might have said stuff like that.
We don’t have to make up numbers (who was saved, who was sinning and sent to Hell) to scare people into following Jesus. No one comes to heaven via fear, pushing, anger, or resentment. The only number you need is 1. That’s you. You are the one who matters most. You are loved, worthwhile, and valuable to Jesus and the world in which you reside.
Paul concludes the passage under the heading of “testing.” Maybe it’s not been about idolatry. Are the idols a test? That’s a good guess. In one way or another, we are all being tested. I can buy that. Life tests us. I don’t believe God tests. This is not a game of “God giving us more or less than we can handle.” Instead, it’s about the journey. Some days are violent and other days are designed for cruise control. Here’s Paul last word on God and the “test”: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out so that you be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
I don’t I buy it. We’ve all been tested beyond our strength. The first half of the verse is pie in the sky thinking that doesn’t do anyone any good. God is with us on those days, but it would be a lie to admit that aren’t times we’ve gone beyond our strength. God is not a puppet master controlling the test, severity, or outcome of our tests. These tests happen with our without God in our lives. However, here’s what I do like; the reminder that endurance and a way out are part of the bargain. God is with us on those days in which we are beaten. Those words point me back to Jesus. In Lent, everything, in one way or another, should keep directing us toward Jesus. Jesus, standing on his own, speaking for himself, and ready to meet us where we are, at our point of greatest need.
Richard Lowell Bryant
*It should be noted that PG Wodhouse did have Bertie’s cousin Angela jump a shark on the French Riviera in 1922’s Right Ho, Jeeves.