“I planted, Apollos watered”

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”, wrote Paul to the congregation he had established in Corinth. Who was this Apollos? According to a few scriptural and early historical sources, he appears to have played a role in the early churches of Ephesus and Corinth alongside Paul. Yet, as a Hellenized Jew born in Alexandria, Egypt, to the “real” Judaism practicing Jews of the Empire, particularly those in Jerusalem and Judea – likely, an outsider, despite his blood. On the other hand, in other parts of the Mediterranean coast, where it was the Greek culture and language that unified such ethnically diverse areas that together comprised the Roman Empire, he fit right in. Interestingly, by the end of the 1st century, in the early church, people who had no ethnic Jewish connection had already outnumbered those who converted from Judaism; even though it is true that the “Jesus movement” was firmly rooted in the apocalyptic Judaism that he represented as a rabbi. At any rate, it appears that both Apollos and Paul were able to impress these diverse, but culturally Greek communities. 

How? In Apollos’ case, the book of Acts describes him as “an eloquent man competent in the Scriptures” and  “fervent in spirit” — that is, an excellent and convincing orator, who delivered strong content in confident style. These skills appealed to his audiences that valued rhetorical accomplishment. Additionally, having come from Alexandria, it is likely that he preached in the allegorical style of Philo, which might have also been interesting to them as it harmonized Stoicism, familiar to them, with the Jewish scriptures, which might have been novel. This philosophical approach has, in fact, continued to shape the teachings about Jesus over the next few centuries. As for Apollos, thus equipped with knowledge and talent, around the year 52-4, he traveled from Alexandria to Ephesus – to the north and a little westward across the Mediterranean. There, he asserted that Christ was the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews, whose death, paradoxically, had implications on bringing victory over evil to all.

However, there was a “slight” problem. At that time, according to Acts, he had been “acquainted only with the baptism of John”; likely, meaning that his understanding of baptism as a sacrament was immature, and perhaps, focused on repentance vs. the Holy Spirit. We notice this because after Apollos had already left Ephesus, Paul came there again, and asked some people, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”, prompting him to clarify “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism”, reflecting perhaps the limitations of teachings received from Apollos. But, luckily, before Apollos had left the town, he did spend time with Aquila and Priscilla, a couple who had come to Ephesus with Paul on his earlier visit, who filled in his gaps. 

Then, armed with a fuller theology and letter of recommendation, Apollos crossed the Aegean sea, traveled west to Achaia, and into Corinth (where the main part of Greece is joined by a narrow neck to the large peninsula that hangs off its south). There, he “watered” where Paul had “sown”. With his gifts, he must have attracted a following; and eventually, Paul learned that admiration grew into divisiveness. Apparently, against Apollos’ own wishes, a faction in Corinth claimed him as their spiritual mentor to the exclusion of Paul. Paul is critical of their attitude, and writes that as Christ is not divided, neither should they be. Was he concerned about authority or unity? Likely, both, for it was a question of authority, it concerned one of a higher level than that of any human. 

Have even the earliest theologians disagreed about what was “the truth”? Absolutely. Did Jesus revise the teachings of Judaism? Of course; just look at today’s gospel. Were there differences in the apostles’ personalities and rhetorical styles? Certainly. And all the little communities that comprised the church at the dawn of her existence were, also, simply human — as we are. Can we blame them for being fraught with emotional disagreements, so early on? To Paul, their division mainly signaled spiritual immaturity. As for Apollos, caught in the middle, there is no indication that he endorsed such an overestimation of himself. The 4th century historian Jerome even states that his dissatisfaction with the division at Corinth made him retire to Crete. But Paul considered him a colleague and friend, and some scholars think that not only he eventually returned to Ephesus, but may have even majorly contributed to the Epistle to the Hebrews.

Sometimes, we, too, hear ideas different from our own; be it at church, in the media, business, education, or personal relationships. The way our brain works is that when we hear something that doesn’t sit well, we might zero in, close our minds to the rest of the discourse, and miss information that could, in fact, be constructive. Likewise, we might go along with an idea simply because the speaker’s style is entertaining and confident, but miss out on the message given gently, or worse, in a boring way; or if illustrations are foreign, or the tone is off-putting. Yet, I think it’s important to be discerning about both the delivery and content we encounter. Let us learn to notice what causes us to be drawn to some, and resist others. May we also listen patiently to each other, and pay attention to issues that lie deeper than presentation style: thoughts and feelings, and the context that gives rise to both. Sometimes, yes, we might be called to inform each other, like when Priscilla and Aquila helped Apollos. But most of the time, it will achieve more to listen, stay open and patient, and speak humbly and respectfully. In doing so, let us water with kindness what the Holy Spirit plants and enables to grow in others. Amen.

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