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We’re talking about a letter written to a group of followers of Christ who lived in a city that was a big deal. Corinth was a commercial hub, located between two ports in the southern part of Greece. We usually think of Athens when we think of major urban centres in southern Greece but the capital of the region at the time was actually Corinth. It had been destroyed by the Romans and rebuilt around 100 years before Paul arrived. Populated by freed slaves from all over the Roman Empire – Egypt, Syria, Rome itself. A lot of nouveau riche types who prized things like honour and privilege and accomplishment. The city had a Jewish population too. A cosmopolitan place. Sports were prized. Every two years the Isthmian Games were held, not as prestigious as the Olympics (kind of like the Euro Cup vs. the World Cup I suppose) but a big deal nonetheless. A town where people who could talk well were prized and well thought of. A place where benefactors liked to put their names on buildings that they benefacted. A place where a lot of different gods were worshipped and you could tell by the local temples exactly which gods were worshipped.
A place, in other words, a lot like here.
First-century Corinth. The place where Paul spent 18 months according to the book of Acts. We can actually date this based on who the governor was from 50 to 52. Paul had moved on and written this letter from Ephesus. He had established a church in Corinth which was thought really to be more a series of house churches that would have gathered together in a bigger house regularly. There might have been around 50 people altogether.
A church a lot like the one here.
We are going to spend the next several weeks looking at this letter to the people of Corinth. The difficulty with reading a letter is that it’s like hearing the only side of a conversation. We can deduce a lot of the Corinthian situation though based on what Paul writes about. At the same time, a letter can give us deep insight into the heart of the sender. There was a Greek literary critic Demetrius who said “Every one reveals his own soul in his letters. In every other form of composition it is possible to discern the writer’s character, but in none so clearly as the epistolary.” This letter gives us deep insight into Paul’s heart which belonged to his Lord. It was written for a church over 2,000 years ago yet speaks to our hearts through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit today. Let us ask for the Spirit’s help as we begin.
You know very often when we speak about our church, particularly with other churches, we like to speak about the good things (or maybe this applies more for pastors). If you look at annual reports, they will rarely speak of tensions that developed between different factions or cliques. They won’t speak of how someone was hurt by someone else. We are often presented with idealized versions of the church, which is what I’m trying to say. Imagine if the shortcomings or failings of your church were recorded in Holy Scripture! This is the situation we have here. We like to say that the Bible doesn’t try to idealize life or sugarcoat things. These were people and they were people who were very dear to Paul. He’d heard about challenges they faced in letters that they sent, and through people who came to see him in Ephesus. Throughout this letter Paul examines questions. We’ll look at quite a few of them ourselves over the coming 12 weeks. These are some of them: What makes a minister a credible and legitimate representative of God? Is the church an arena for self-promotion or for advancing one’s own particular agenda? Is Christian culture compatible with a culture that prizes the individual and individual rights and the values of self-gratification and self-fulfillment?
Big questions but they are questions of our time and questions of the church (not to mention our church). How would we even begin to answer?
Paul begins by talking about identity. It’s one of the things that our Planning Committee has been prayerfully considering. What is the identity of our church? We can make a mistake by thinking of ourselves or our church primarily in terms of what we do. What happens if we stop doing those things or start doing new things? Do we think of ourselves primarily as the church that does xyz? Not that there’s anything wrong with doing things, in fact, Jesus told his followers that whoever believes in him will do the works he has been doing, and will in fact do greater things than these. Pastor Abby talked last week about what we expect God to do in us and through us, and we must continue to ask that question. Paul here is writing of the thing that undergirds the doing. Paul begins by identifying himself. Note how he does it. He doesn’t identify himself by where he’s from or by what his training is or even by which family he belongs to. Well, actually he is kind of referring to which family he belongs to. This is where it starts. “Paul, called…” One who has been called by God and one who has answered the call. Paul had a very specific calling, and this was to be an apostle. He also has a more general calling which he shared with the people of Corinth and by extension us – his identity was as one who has heard the call of Christ (most succinctly put by Jesus simply as “Follow me”) and as one who has answered this call. Answering the call is never just about us as individuals, and even here in his opening, it’s not just about Paul. “And our brother Sosthenes,” speaking of family. We read about Sosthenes, who was the leader at the synagogue when Paul was in Corinth, in Acts 18. He had been beaten by a mob. If it’s the same person, then we see Paul not only including others in his work but also referring back to the time he spent with the people of Corinth. Paul had a relationship with them. They knew each other. This gives credence to his words. You know me. If you don’t then why would you think that anything I had to say has much credence at all? Growing together in life in Christ. Being known and knowing one another. I was on a Zoom call recently and we were saying how good it was to see and be seen after quite a while of not seeing or being seen. Knowing and being known. We’ll get back to this in a while too. For now though Paul next addresses next the collective identity of this group of followers of Christ. “The church of God, sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Set apart. “Called to be saints.” I know we talk about saints like there are levels of saints and occasionally we call people saints because they lead exemplary lives, but this goes beyond such notions of sainthoods. We believe in the communion of saints. Those called by Christ who has answered the call. The fellowship or connection of saints immediately opens up our view of who we are, bound by the Spirit to those who in every place call on the name of the Lord. The fellowship of saints connects us with something wider.
It reminds us of our calling and invites us into a sort of conversion of the imagination. This life in Christ together is supposed to look like something. Ethically it’s supposed to look like something. We’ll look into this as the weeks go on. Formationally it is to look like something. Paul is concerned with community formation. Are we being formed together into the very image of Christ? We’re not here just for the sake of community as an end unto itself. Community is good but we do not worship community. Our identity is as a people called. We’re familiar with the phrase being “called out.” We get this kind of language, we hear people talk about calling each other out on things, “I’m calling you out on that.” Holding each other accountable. We will look at this in coming weeks. Recognizing our identity as a people called out is recognizing that we are part of something larger than ourselves as individuals and larger than ourselves as individual churches. A raising of the horizon of our imagination. Seeing beyond what’s around us and beyond what’s immediately apparent to the work of Christ in history. The renewal of all things which has begun and which will be fully known when he returns.
Looking around us very specifically and being thankful. Sadly a lot of our talk about church can be framed in the form of complaints. Too much work too few people. Same people doing all the work all the time. Complaining about what we don’t have that we feel we need. Do we take the time to let people know we are thankful to God for them, thankful to God for the gifts of the Spirit that we see displayed in them? We’re talking about the foundations of the church and foundational practices of the church and Paul shows right away here that a foundational practice is giving thanks to God for the faith community in which God has placed us. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus…” Look at what this giving of thanks is based on – “for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind – just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you – so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…” Paul is giving thanks to God for the spiritual gifts which God has given the church at Corinth and how they are being used, and he is letting them know how thankful he is. The word he uses here is charism, the root for our word charisma but these charisms are not based on personal charm or intelligence or anything else that might cause us to boast but rather are given by God. “What do you have that you did not receive” Paul will write later, and we’ll be looking at spiritual gifts in weeks to come too. I thank God for them. I thank God for the gifts of the words of wisdom and knowledge, the working of miracles, prophecy. The gifts of helping and administration.
As he begins his letter, Paul is inviting us to lift our heads, to look beyond our current circumstances whether they might lead us to pride in how well we are doing or despair in how well we aren’t doing, and remember that we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. To remember that the grace that is ours is a gift, that the gifts of grace we have been given are gifts and to be thankful always for one another in them. Remember your ground. Paul writes the names “Christ Jesus” or “Lord Jesus Christ” or “God” or “God our Father” 9 times in these 9 verses. Remember your ground.
Finally, keep the long view in mind. We’re caught up in something much larger than ourselves or the issues and squabbles that might beset a church like this one or any one. “… as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the day for which we wait. As we wait know that we will receive strength upon strength, that “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That day when we will hear a voice saying “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…”
Paul wants these followers of Christ to keep everything in perspective. To see everything through the lens of Christ. We are caught up in a drama that is all-encompassing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the reality of a Christian community in this way, it is “… not an ideal which we must realize: it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”
May this be something friends that excites us. May it be our prayer that God fires our imaginations in this reality. We are a people who participate. What is the thing we in which we participate? The fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. The koinonia of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. The sharing. The participation. The fellowship. The fellowship and sharing and participation that has existed between God the Father and the Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit from before the foundation of the world. This is our calling. We live into it together in fellowship with one another. Foundational truths upon which we are invited to base our lives no matter what the season, no matter what the circumstance. God grant that we may be growing in knowledge of them and reflection of them in the weeks and months to come.